Well, I’ve done it now. I actually volunteered on a science blog to “explain” Derrida! (I’m sure they aren’t as excited about this as I am.) I brazenly pointed out that it isn’t so easy a thing to do as it is for Dawkins and Dennett to explain (so brilliantly) their neo-Darwinian biology and all its new tools of thought. Why? Because D & D use the same language for thinking that the general public in England and North America does: the exact same kind of rationalist-empiricist systems of exploratory assumptions that have belonged to the British and American educational system and the English language itself for the past couple of centuries.
Poststructuralism requires learning different languages for thought, from the ground up. Think of it as a non-Euclidean geometry, okay? Think of it as a bold, thought-experimental, “over-simplified idealism,” such as Dennett lauds in science, okay? (My own explanatory schema is over-simplified, that is; not the originals.) The point is, theorizing in every field has its own techniques and its own evidences. It took me decades to become fluent in the languages of structuralism and phenomenology that underpin poststructuralist theory. So how in the world can I explain this foreign “language” in clear and simple terms? That’s just not how we learn languages! But this system of thought yeilds brilliant results in dealing with all kinds of human meaning-systems.
Well, I try to explain what’s behind “deconstruction” in the very best ways I can think of, but I realize that I am asking an awful lot of my readers. For one thing, that they genuinely care about the idea of a liberal arts education! And by the way, science is fundamentally a rigorous way of knowing about the physical structure of the natural world. But it is also a human meaning-system. A lot of “reality” is very complex, in just this way. That’s why different aspects of reality are fruitfully explored by different disciplinary methods yeilding very different formalizations. Okay now, the Derrida stuff is contained in Section 4 under Pages on the right. I’m just going to send you over there. (If #4 intrigues, read Section 3 too.) If nobody goes over there and reads and comments, I guess I’ll have to flood my front page with it. Remember, please, that I am giving a very simplified version of a enormously sophisticated way of analyzing language. It is not the common linguistic approach taken in our own Chomskian U.S. (Have you read that amazing New Yorker article on Chomsky and the Amazonian tribe yet?)
By the way, polite and thoughtful conversation (however saucy!) such as you’ll see over at Rob Knop’s above-referenced science blog is welcome. Anything like “the Jerry Springer Show on science blogs” that I lamented about in an earlier post will be graciously deleted. (Wonderfully, I’ve never gotten anything of that kind here.)
44 thoughts on “How I Explain Derrida… or quit bagging on poststructuralism”
Janet, first off: Thanks from a scientist in your attempt to explain this stuff. I took a quick look at some of your sessions in the sidebar. I can see that if I’m to understand what you’re on about, this is going to be very slow going.
I think half the problem here is terminology. Your field, for example, uses the word “theory” without any qualification as to what it’s a theory of. Scientists don’t do that, so it’s is quite an alien concept.
So… let me try a simple example (that I’ve brought up in scienceblogs discussions before) and see if I’m on the right track.
Morality is not scientific. There is no double-blind controlled test that you could perform to determine whether or not murder is wrong. And it’s not something that you could determine a priori by Pascal-like “pure reason”.
But on the other hand, it’s not obviously a mere preference, either, though I’ve heard both Christian fundamentalists and hyper-atheists (i.e. those who resemble a bad cartoon characture of Dawkins) claim this.
[Aside: Dawkins is on the record as saying that any question that isn’t scientific isn’t interesting. Either he didn’t quite mean that or he didn’t think it through. I’m also a musician, and the study of music is fascinating, even though it’s not scientific, though there is an element of science to it; psychology and acoustics play a part, but in the end, it’s about aesthetics.]
So there has to be some way to think about morality. Whatever it is, it’s not pure logic, and it’s not science. And this is why you say “theorizing in every field has its own techniques and its own evidences”.
Is it correct to say that when you say “theory” without qualification, you’re actually talking about the meta-study of theories, be it a scientific theory, music theory, moral philosophy or whatever?
If so, why is this all based around “literary theory”? That, to me, implies theorising about literature. That seems interesting enough if it’s what you’re into, but it doesn’t quite sit right.
As I said, I think the problem is terminology. Maybe what we need to start with is a glossary/dictionary for scientists who are trying to understand what you’re saying.
Thanks once again. I appreciate the effort, even if I don’t quite get it yet.
One more thing, while I think about it.
Mathematicians have already been through this. Once upon a time, mathematicians were, for lack of a better term, “objectivists”. Maths was the study of something “out there”.
I won’t generalise to all mathematicians (some fields of maths are more amenable to objectivism than others), but at least those working on the foundations, or theoretical computer scientists, have had to face the fact that there’s another way to “do maths”, and that’s to be a “formalist”. What is true is precisely what you can prove.
We know, for example, that the continuum hypothesis is neither provable nor disprovable. It is completely independent of our theory of sets, despite being an unambigious question.
The point here is that formalism is, in a very real sense, a different way of obtaining information than hard scientists use.
Dear Pseudonym, thanks! These are really perceptive and useful comments for me. (I can see where I need to be clearer about words I use.) I’ll leave your second post about objectivists vs formalists for later, but here are some quick thoughts on your first post.
“So there has to be some way to think about morality. Whatever it is, it’s not pure logic, and it’s not science. And this is why you say “theorizing in every field has its own techniques and its own evidences”
Yes, that’s right, and it’s very telling you mention it’s “not pure logic, or science.” In the U.S. we tend to think if it’s not logic or science then it’s merely arbitrary or subjective. (BTW, in analytic philosophy, even logic has had to move waay away from its attempted objectivism in the direction of pure formalisms, similar to what you say about mathematicians…) But in the Greco-European tradition (from the Greeks on down) ethics would of course be seen as a kind of “science” in its own right, and so would music (the practice of it and not just acoustics, say) and rhetoric, and theology, and any other of the “arts and sciences.”
We forget that it is not just in scientific fields that we have disciplinary communities at work with highly developed critical standards and evidential arguments. Every other way of knowing is blotted out. rendered invisible somehow. So in many minds, it’s either science, or it’s arbitrary whimsical subjectivism, on a par with imagining unicorns or lepricauns, as I hear over and over again.
Pseudonym says: “Is it correct to say that when you say “theory” without qualification, you’re actually talking about the meta-study of theories, be it a scientific theory, music theory, moral philosophy or whatever?”
If so, why is this all based around “literary theory”?
Oh what a great point to make! When I say theory yes, it IS a meta-study of theory I’m talking about, for sure. But basically it is semiotic theory, applying to all the fields that work with human meaning-systems. It is the theory of the structure and functioning of meaning-systems, and of the conditioning of human perception by these systems. It’s theory addressed not to knowing about physical states, as in science, but to knowing about materials that possess the “objectivity of inter-subjectivity,” if you see what I mean. Our materials aren’t the “objective” materials of hard science, but they surely aren’t “subjective” or impressionistic, BY ANY MEANS! They are communal codes that are used by and shape all the members of any human community.
Suassure said that the archetypal “semiotic science” is linguistics (and his work in linguistics has deeply shaped Continental theory and philosophy). But the more we think about theory, in our various cultural fields, the more we realize that the real science-of-particular-interest is the one Plato identified — poetics, or literary theory. Because “the literary fiction” turns out to be THE paradigmatic formalism. Does that make any sense? And it is so exciting to study it! We’ve just been through an incredible period of literary-theoretical pioneering thought.
Finally, I have a confession to make. Semiotic theory is such a highly formalized way of thinking that I tend to think of scientific methodologies in their own right, as formal systems or as theories-in-general, and your second post shows me all the issues that need clarification, in doing that. I’ll ponder on it. So, does this help at all?
Janet, yes, that helps a lot, thanks.
One point you bring up:
“But the more we think about theory, in our various cultural fields, the more we realize that the real science-of-particular-interest is the one Plato identified — poetics, or literary theory. Because “the literary fiction” turns out to be THE paradigmatic formalism. Does that make any sense?”
I understand the assertion, but I can’t say that it really makes any sense. :-) Not yet, anyway.
It’s not obvious to me how a study of literary fiction has any connection whatsoever to the meta-study of rigorous reasoning, except in the sense that the academic study of literature obviously has its own methodology and rigour.
Well, Pseudonym, thank you for the vote of confidence, giving literary studies its own methodology(ies) and rigour!
The connection of “the literary fiction” to rigorous reasoning?
Think about this. Both analytical logic and mathematics (as you point out) have become highly formalistic fields, as opposed to “objectivist” (for lack of a better term). I think you mean they don’t worry about whether their formalisms are “true” in relationship to some state of affairs “out there.” They just go with a selected set of axioms and see what happens. Sometimes, as Roger Penrose points out, they are surprised that some formal universe they explore does have a direct utility for studying something in the physical world. Wow! But they press on, anyways.
Well, long ago Aristotle theorized that the literary fiction (a tragic drama) is built by the poet because of the poet’s “thinking the Possible.” This he said made poetics (lit theory) MORE PHILOSOPHICAL THAN HISTORY. More philosophical means closer to the really real, to truth. Why? Because the historian must record the Actual, including much accidental and contingent stuff, while a poet can take a set of givens and move towards the Possible, “what WOULD happen,” leaving out all the distracting stuff. (It’s like a physical experiment in this respect, isn’t it?Selecting and isolating in order to test in a crucible).
Btw, we know that the artist HAS gotten to the really real when the culture takes the play to its heart and will not let it die — Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, King Lear, Death of a Salesman — they are all about the same deep truth that we Westerners recognize: that’s me; that’s us. (I’m not excluding non-westerners, as Hi has asked me abut. I’m respectfully waiting for them to tell us if they seem themselves also captured in these Western fictional formalisms, rather than assuming this is “universal.” In our fields, “universal” didn’t work out; wasn’t rigorous enough.)
Anyway, this kind of formal truth has little to do with merely Factual accuracy and verisimilitude. It isn’t about the Actual, but something deeper and more formalizable : the Possible. In a sense, on a meta-theory level, all the fields seek deep reality through formalizing the Possible and checking it out. That’s what happens when Sergent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band comes out, or Picasso’s Guernica, or Relativity and QM, and the ones who really know their stuff say, “Yes!” That’s the Pure Possible, as we never saw it before, and now we know it to BE.” It’s not the final word, but it’s pushing the envelope in just the best and most exactly right way based on what we already have done…. Physics isn’t really about any actual experiments in this sense, is it, but about the deep formal laws?
What I wonder about sometimes is what do your ordinary scientists think those formal laws ARE? Some think they are Platonic realities in an eternal immutable world of mathematical universes (or of Possibility?) What do the others think? On the science blogs people are always talking about facts and objectively real, but what is this stuff? Is it the empirical real, the physical object at one point and time? (Hume) How ephemeral is that? Do physical things “mean” anything scientifically without the laws and maths that “explain” them? So what are those formal relationships that they have spelled out in numbers and formulas? Scientists don’t need to ask these questions, but philosophers do, and then too often simply get jeered at….?
I love the story about the story about how the world was told that Einstein’s theory had been “experimentally proved” (around 1921?) when in fact the experimental test of the bending of light rays were not conclusive. The physicists just “knew” Einstein was right. And they were right! (Well, a lot of well-trained people sat in Lacan’s seminars and they “knew” he was on to something and we are still studying him. Sokal comes along and excerpts a few sentences and portrays him as denying science’s objectivity, when he was concerned, if anything, about the oppposite, the very fact of the objectivity of science itself. But he wasn’t doing science; he was doing linguistically formalized psychoanalysis. I know I’ll get in trouble for mentioning Lacan. Wait til I talk about Irigaray!)
Thanks for this, I think I see what you’re getting at.
Of course, all areas of human endeavour have methodology and rigour. I don’t think that even Richard Dawkins would ever be caught claiming that all other Oxford faculties apart from science and engineering aren’t really academic. He might not personally find them interesting, of course, but I should point out that he’s married to an actor and he looked at poetry in at least one of his books.
`I think you mean they don’t worry about whether their formalisms are “true” in relationship to some state of affairs “out there.”’
That’s partly it. It’s also true that recent developments, like the independence of the Continuum Hypothesis, really indicate that when you get to the edges of mathematics, there might not really be any “out there”. What is true is what you can prove, and vice versa.
`Well, long ago Aristotle theorized that the literary fiction (a tragic drama) is built by the poet because of the poet’s “thinking the Possible.” This he said made poetics (lit theory) MORE PHILOSOPHICAL THAN HISTORY. More philosophical means closer to the really real, to truth.’
Interesting. It’s similar to something that I’ve been saying for a while, that art brings things into focus.
A good portrait, for example, will not attempt to portray everything about the person being depicted, but will attempt to show something about them (e.g. show the private person rather than the public figure).
In this case, though, the point of the art is to act as a filter and a magnifier. Filter out the irrelevant aspects and magnify the important ones.
I think that’s true of all of the examples you gave. It’s certainly true of Guernica (which tries to bring aspects of one event into focus) and arguably true of the fictional examples, too (trying to bring aspects of human nature out). It’s probably more obvious in the case of science fiction, which most scientists understand.
Expressionistic art is another topic, of course.
`What I wonder about sometimes is what do your ordinary scientists think those formal laws ARE?’
I suspect it depends on the scientists. And yes, I don’t think that enough scientists learn about philosophy of science. But in any case, it depends on what the law is.
The laws of logic, like modus ponens, are pretty much inviolable. You can extend this to anything based on logic and pure maths, like probability theory and information theory. (Though, of course, there’s more than one probability/information theory; quantum theory being the obvious nonclassical example. Still, pure logic is enough to show that any “reasonable” probability theory must be one of a certain number of forms.)
Laws like this have to be. As Phil Wadler pointed out, the word “universal” doesn’t do them justice. We can imagine a universe where the speed of light is different, but we can’t imagine a universe where modus ponens doesn’t hold, or where 1+1 doesn’t equal 2.
Some physical laws, like conservation of energy, tend to be seen in a similar light, although they’re more “universal”, as in part of our universe. Conservation of energy, for example, is a direct mathematical consequence of time translation symmetry. If it doesn’t matter when you perform some experiment, you get conservation of energy.
Others are seen as more like models approximating a physical reality. We know that there’s no such thing as a perfect black body radiator, but the COBE FIRAS experiment showed that the universe as a whole is close enough to it that we really can’t tell the difference.
Anyway, thanks once again. I’ll keep reading and see how far I get.
It’s been a while. I had meant to respond to your post addressing me, but I found it easier to join ongoing discussions.
“I brazenly pointed out that it isn’t so easy a thing to do as it is for Dawkins and Dennett to explain (so brilliantly) their neo-Darwinian biology and all its new tools of thought. Why? Because D & D use the same language for thinking that the general public in England and North America does: the exact same kind of rationalist-empiricist systems of exploratory assumptions that have belonged to the British and American educational system and the English language itself for the past couple of centuries.”
“Poststructuralism requires learning different languages for thought, from the ground up. Think of it as a non-Euclidean geometry, okay? Think of it as a bold, thought-experimental, “over-simplified idealism,” such as Dennett lauds in science, okay? (My own explanatory schema is over-simplified, that is; not the originals.) The point is, theorizing in every field has its own techniques and its own evidences. It took me decades to become fluent in the languages of structuralism and phenomenology that underpin poststructuralist theory.”
While I am not going to reject them outright, I have to say I am a little skeptical about these statements. Regarding the first statement, I am neither British nor North American, but that didn’t prevent me from understanding what Dawkins is saying. (I haven’t read Dennett.) Regarding the second statement, if even Americans have trouble understanding postmodernism, what hope can I have in understanding postmodernism as an Asian? Is it even useful for Americans or Asians to understand postmodernism when we didn’t experience what French experienced? While it is true that you need training in any field, I wonder at what point immersion turns into brain washing. (I apologize if it sounds too strong, but it is a real concern.)
The story you mentioned about the confirmation of relativity is about the observation by Arthur Eddington in 1919. Eddington seemed to be a brilliant and charismatic scientist. But he also proposed a theory that “explained” why the inverse of the fine structure constant should be exactly 136 (close to the value known at the time) but, when later measurement showed that it was closer to 137, quickly modified his theory and claimed that it should be exactly 137. He was also strongly against a theory by the brilliant Indian physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who would later win a Nobel prize.
HI: Obviously I’m not Janet, but I think I know the answer to one of your questions.
`Regarding the first statement, I am neither British nor North American, but that didn’t prevent me from understanding what Dawkins is saying. (I haven’t read Dennett.) Regarding the second statement, if even Americans have trouble understanding postmodernism, what hope can I have in understanding postmodernism as an Asian?’
I think that’s not quite what she’s saying.
I don’t know where in Asia you’re from, but I’ll pick a place at random to illustrate my point.
Music that was written, say, 200 years ago, sounded fresh and new at the time. In Europe, for example, the music of Beethoven was considered as unusual as the music of Penderecki sounds today.
But to understand modern classical music, like Penderecki, you have to understand what came before it, because in the arts, just like in any field, innovation happens on the fringes of what we already have.
Personally, I don’t have an appreciation for different styles of Chinese opera (e.g. Bejing Opera and Henan Opera). But some Westeners do. But because they don’t have the cultural immersion, it takes work. And perhaps more importantly, it takes an acknowledgement that they start off not knowing what’s going on.
I think that what Janet is saying is that most North Americans don’t even know that they’re not entirely sure what’s going on when it comes to modern literary theory. You and I might actually have a better chance of understanding it that many tenured academics in the field, because we know that we don’t understand it.
How wonderfully Socratic! Socrates, of course, always claimed that Apollo, God of truth, had said that Socrates was the wisest man in Greece ONLY because while other people didn’t know much but seemed to think they DID, Socrates didn’t know anything, but knew that he didn’t!
I would go farther and say that scientists don’t know that they don’t know what’s going on when it comes to the absence of history and philosophy of science. Many scientists do, of course. I have a post on this strangeness of what’s taken for granted, coming along.
I had a comment for Hi along the lines that by getting a Western-style education, which generally means learning English in addition, Hi or anyone else from whatever background has gotten the years of training that they need to understand and take for granted the British-American assumptions about scientific reasoning. It’s like learning a language. In time it becomes second nature…
We don’t know (cannot know) if non-Westerners would “do physics differently,” or if women “would do physics differently,” because by the time they have gotten a phD in physics they’ve already become card-carrying members of the physics guild and take that way of doing things for granted.
I think it’s not the current system so much (physics will get better and better but it’s wonderful now) as whether the system is honest and open and self-critical, that is really at issue for what I’m delving into. Hi admired Western science for those attributes and so do I. So I am trying to counter the closed-mindedness and lack of self-criticism or liberal breadth that some scientists unfortunately cling to, when they turn to countering defensive religious fundamentalism with defensive scientiifc fundamentalism. I also want to keep insisting that theory and religious faith also earn their keep by being honest and open and self-critical. (They give me tools for self-critique and shifts of awareness that no other fields have offered me.)
We don’t know (cannot know) if non-Westerners would “do physics differently,” or if women “would do physics differently,”
Actually, we already know this. Ironically it’s the Mayans of the Western hemisphere who adopted a unique method for understanding cosmic cycles (opposed to the Egyptians/Greek systems of the Eastern hemisphere). Despite the difference in calendars, both systems required rigorously objective observations of the known universe. Both systems recorded the positions of stars and planets on a daily basis and mapped out the cyclical patterns of orbits. Thus both societies reached essentially the same conclusions using the Scientific Method.
Where theses societies diverge, and where Science and Philosophy/Religion diverge, is in their chosen explanations for the observed reality. Neither the Eastern nor Western ancients could hold a purely rational view, as both interjected subjective religious ideas about the influence of Gods.
To Pseudonym and Janet,
I understand your point, but what I tried to say was something slightly different. Janet makes a big deal about the difference between the British/Anglo-American and the continental European. But to me, they both belong to the West and whatever difference there is between them is small compared to the difference between them and my cultural tradition. So, (1) it sounds like a lame excuse to say that their difference is such a big obstacle and (2) while it is true that I have appreciation of Western culture because of my education, that doesn’t place me closer to Anglo-American than French. In other words, it doesn’t make sense to first claim that the difference between the Anglo-American and the French is so huge and then turn around and say that I am like the Anglo-American.
I would also like to point out that we made an active choice to study science with the Western origin because it made sense for us and it was useful for us. There is no question that we got Westernized, but still it is not so much that we appreciate science only because we got Westernized.
I guess I’m bothered because I sense that you see a big difference between the British/Anglo-American and French because those are all there are to you. It is also slightly insulting to imply that I understand Dawkins because of Western-style education. It is true that the modern science has Western origin, but the West doesn’t have monopoly over science any more. Now we are active participants and contributors to science and not passive students.
I’m also not sure if it is correct to say Dawkins’ writing is based on British-American assumption any more than to say physics of Pierre-Gills de Gennes is based on French assumption. It is true that both Newton and Darwin are British and the country that produced them has had a large influence on modern science. But I think French or Japanese could have written something similar to Dawkins (though I have to credit him for being an eloquent writer).
I don’t mean it to be even slightly insulting, Hi. I’ve been thinking hard about your points. I don’t mean that you had to be a passive learner of science to speak Dawkins’ language. I’m saying that the language of science and the language of Dawkins’ analytic philosophy and “logic” are very similar and anyone trained in one will feel at home in the other? Is that okay? I don’t mean science is done only in the West.
I feel as though anyone who takes the years necessary to earn an advanced degree in a field will be able to follow it a lot better than those who don’t. I love science but as far as doing it — that’s a joke. I never could. Maybe I don’t have the best kind of mind for that. (Though I loved math and wish I’d gone on in it.)
So if Americans would get doctoral degrees in structuralism or phenomenology, then of course I wouldn’t have so much trouble explaining the beauty of my discipline of literary theory. Does that make sense?
But in France many thinkers have been doing work in those disciplines for decades! And it took decades of development for structuralism to evolve into poststructuralism. (Similar to Newtonian mechanics evolving into relativity.)
But over here, poststructuralism just “arrived” — without any preparation. We don’t even have the kind of linguistics it’s based on, over here. We have a linguistics that’s much more like science in its methods.
People reject it because of this lack of preparation.
It would be like going back to Newton’s time and talking about quantum mechanics. You can’t leap over steps like that, can you?
So why not just talk to specialists of my own kind? Because I believe in liberal education and that it is important to talk between the fields. And because there is so much rancor and hostility between them
I get frustrated because non-scientists will credit QM as rigorous whether they understand it or not, even though it is amazingly puzzling and unresolved as to its meaning as far as reality goes, even for specialists. But no one here in North America will credit Lacan or Derrida, unless they are specialists in those fields themselves. No one thinks they need to learn anything to try to understand them, before they simply say they’re silly or stupid or dishonest and that they think science is socially constructed. (Not!)
I want to defend and explain. But it is such a huge task. And what makes it hardest is that people assume that the way they think is just the most natural and obvious and universal way to think.
I don’t know why Western science seems so natural and useful to you, Hi, (and to other Japanese, I think you are saying?). Certainly the Japanese have been brilliant mathematicians and physicists! A system developed in one place can be at home in another and grow to surpass the acheivements it had in its original setting.
As for French science, hmmm. Certainly French philosophy of science has been quite different from Anglo-American, but I don’t know enough about that.
One more analogy. If any of us learn how to solve certain kinds of problems in certain kinds of ways, don’t you think we might unconsciously focus on those kinds of problems and even apply the same ways of dealing with them to other kinds of problems without realizing it? I taught students brought together from all the different disciplines and it was striking how differently each kind of academic major saw things. Over the years I got so I could anticipate what the biologists would bring up and how the philosophy students would act and how very special the artists were in bringing something of their own to the group discussions….
I think of Indian scientists like Bose, Raman, and Chandrasekhar. They must have had British-style education, but it is still amazing that they did important works when quantum mechanics and relativity were still new in Europe. (Chandrasekar would study at Cambridge, but he did an important work on a ship on his way to England.) I also think of Japanese scientists like Yukawa and Tomonaga who did their most important works during or shortly after the war when they had little contacts to the West. It seems postmodernism is yet to have its Chandrasekhar or Yukawa. (In a time when there are many influential writers with Asian backgrounds.)
Relativity was once considered so difficult that it was joked that only three persons in the world understood it. Arthur Eddington, when asked to comment about it, asked back, “Who’s the third?” (You see, I’m not a fan of Eddington.) But I remember Feynman writing this is such a nonsense. When Einstein first came up with the theory, he surely was the only one who understood it. But once it was published and read, there sure were many physicists who understood it.
When we study something, we learn to think in certain way. But sometimes it is helpful to bring this perspective to another discipline. Think about the characters involved in the molecular biology revolution. Many of them were amateurs. Erwin Chargaff, an old-fashioned biochemist, described Watson and Crick as “they impressed me by their extreme ignorance” and “practicing biology without a license.” (French had Jacob and Monod. Interesting quotes from Monod: “The first scientific postulate is the objectivity of nature: nature does not have any intention or goal.” “A scientist who believes in god suffers from schizophrenia.”) Or think about the career of Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, who passed away recently. He switched his fields from superconductivity to liquid crystal to polymer and every time he entered a new field, he brought in something new.
It has sometimes been noted that Nagarjuna, the 2nd century Buddhist philosopher, might be considered an original deconstructionist (a good book on this is Robert Magliola’s Derrida on the Mend). Asian work in this vein can be found in the Kyoto School (starting with Nishida Kitaro), Japanese philosophers who studied Husserl and Heidegger, but then reworked it from their own (mostly Zen) perspective. So one could look on “postmodernism” as Western philosophy finally coming to grips with issues long known in the East (though in doing so, one is grossly over-simplifying).
For Pseudonym, this is probably unfair to ask anyone, off the cuff, but ever since you were talking about modus ponens, I keep thinking, isn’t that the sort of causal relationship that Hume totally denied we could know about or posit. So how do the scientists who are positivists get to keep it in science, I wonder….
(Modus ponens, if I understand it correctly, is the principle in logic that “If a then b” — if this is established — can be taken to imply “a therefore b.” It’s called, naturally enough, the “law of causation.” Hume thought you could never have an exhaustive enough set of examples for If a then b to conclude a causal relationship, and also, that such carry-overs from the state of things in one instant of time to the next state of things in the next moment was too metaphysical and non-empirical to be claimed as any kind of knowledge. Isn’t there also a logical error described as concluding that if a then be means a because of b? Oh yeah, post hoc, propter hoc. “After which, because of which.” This is a fallacy….)
Well, I’ve studied a lot of logic, but I have no clue what Hume said. :-)
Modus ponens states that if “A implies B” is true, and “A” is true, then “B” is true. This doesn’t imply a causal relationship. “A implies B” could be true, for example, because B is a tautology.
In a more modern notation, things are a bit more explicit. I don’t really have the facilities to show you the sequent calculus diagram here (lucky you!), but one modern form states something like this:
If Γ_1 |- A→B
and Γ_2 |- A
then &Gamma_1;,Γ_2 |- B
The Γs are assumptions, and the |- symbol is pronounced “entails”. So what it’s saying is that if some set of assumptions entails that “A implies B” is true, and some other set of assumptions entails that “A” is true, then the combined assumptions entail that “B” is true.
Erm. HTML error. That should read:
If Γ_1 |- A→B
and Γ_2 |- A
then Γ_1,Γ_2 |- B
I have to stress here that mathematics says nothing about causal relationships.
That last point really catches my attention, Pseudonym. There’s no causality in mathematics? So the “implies” is by means of implication and entailment, which never includes causality?
Hmmm./ So are you suggesting that analytic logic doesn’t deal with causality? Isn’t modus ponens a logical relationship. I’m confused!
Give another example beside entialment of what “implies” might mean?
Perhaps I said that incorrectly. Let me try to explore this for a moment.
One important distinctions that mathematicians have to make is between a theory and its models. (Note: I might be a bit biassed here in that I tend to deal a lot with the foundations of maths. Blurring the line between theory and model is convenient for many working mathematicians!)
Let’s take a simple example: The finite group of order 2. The theory of this group is fairly straightforward. It’s an abstract object with two elements which satisfy certain operations.
But it has many models. Taking a piece of paper and rotating it through 180 degrees is one model. Reflecting an image in a mirror. Complex conjugation is yet another. Any time that you have two different operations 1 and a where 1 means “do nothing” and a is some operation such that a followed by a is equivalent to 1, then you have this group. But all of these models are not the group; the group is abstract.
To a mathematician, A implies B if every model in which A is true also has B true. For example, in any model of the above group, any two operations b and c commute (doing b followed by c is the same as doing c followed by b). The axioms of the group entail commutativity.
I think the problem here is that linguists use words like “implication” and “entailment” to mean something that’s related, but not exactly the same. That makes sense to me. Mathematics is formal in a way that natural language is not.
Without knowing what Hume actually said (I believe you, though!), I can see how causal relationships might be important in language where the concept simply doesn’t come up in maths, requiring different notions of “implication” and “entailment”.
One more thing. For mathematicians, Gödel’s theorem has a very interesting corollary.
There are statements in formal systems that are true, despite not being provable. What constitutes an “interesting” statement about maths is, I have no doubt you’ll agree, based in human perception. But what is “true” isn’t.
This suggests that there are some interesting mathematical statements that are true purely by accident. There’s no reason why they need to be true (and if you tried to prove them, you’d fail), they just happen to be true.
So far, nobody has discovered an unprovable true statement that’s “interesting” for any purpose other than discovering the limits of mathematics. The statement itself wouldn’t be useful as a theorem, but discovering the barrier is. But it may happen some day. And that’ll be a fun day for people in your position. :-)
If I may jump in here –
In mathematics, implication, A |- B, simply means that one cannot have A without also having B (and, if B is absent, so is A). This is a logical statment, and does not require causality. It can include causality; if A always causes B then A |- B would be true, but one cannot conclude from A |- B that there is any type of causality
For instance, if Koalas _only_ eat eucalyptus leaves, then the presence of Koalas in the wild would imply the presence of eucalyptus trees in the wild, although one would not say that koalas cause eucalyptus trees.
Of course, in mathematics we generally are talking about things for which causality is not a real question. Proving a theorem is an example of a mathematical implication (A is a plane map |- A can be colored with four colors), but one would not normally say (although I suppose one could say) that being an plane map causes it to be colorable with four colors, the qualities just happen to provably “hang together” as joint features.
Okay you guys, so is this how it happens that mathematical formulas can express what we generally take to be causal processes in physics, for example? The causation isn’t in the mathematics but in our interpretation of the math?
Take Newton’s inverse square law for gravity (which I can’t produce off the top of my head!). The formula always seemed to me to be descriptive of an observed state of affairs (or the data from observing that state of affaris), but in such a way that it left untouched what “gravity” might “be” (in ordinary human terms) except insofar as it is identified as being that particular element in that formula. But we do talk about gravitation as though it were a law of causality, don’t we? Is the formula as a formula descriptive, or does it assert causality? Does this make any sense?
And Pseudonym, I want to mull on your Godelian corrollary about interesting statements that are only accidentally true — you meant “accidentally” or incidentally true because they cannot be confirmed from within the axiomatic system, right? (By the way, I’d say that makes them interesting, right there!!!)
Implication can be used to model correlation. In fact, null hypothesis tests work on this general idea. “A implies B” is the same as “not B implies not A”; a null hypothesis test tries to determine the probability that A is true under the assumption (the null hypothesis) that B is false. If the probability is small enough, you can (statistcally) assume B.
But I’d say that any causation is in the physics (i.e. the model, the interpretation) and not the mathematics. But you could consider that as the word of a mathematician denying any responsibility for anything that happens in the physical world. :-)
People a lot smarter than I (Eugene Wigner, to name but one; I’d be shocked if you haven’t read that article, so if you haven’t, do it now) have asked the question as to why mathematics models the physical world so well. And I don’t have a good answer for you.
“And Pseudonym, I want to mull on your Godelian corrollary about interesting statements that are only accidentally true — you meant “accidentally” or incidentally true because they cannot be confirmed from within the axiomatic system, right?”
Not just that. Gödel’s statement isn’t “accidentally” true; it’s deliberately constructed to break the system. That’s no accident.
Here’s an example. For many years, some mathematicians believed that Fermat’s Last Theorem might be one of these statements that are true but unprovable. FLT, of course, states that a certain family of Diophantine equations has no solutions.
The thing is, there are probably lots and lots of families of Diophantine equations that have no solutions. Probably most of them, in fact. But there are an infinite number of such “families”, so it’s not surprising that not all of them haven’t been examined yet; usually people only look if they have a reason to.
FLT, of course, looks interesting, partly because it’s especially simple in its statement and partly because it has a lovely bit of folklore behind it.
And, of course, it was only proven in a round-about way, as a consequence of a much more powerful theorem which has very little to do directly with elementary number theory. So FLT may not be true for any elementary number theoretic reason.
(By the way, I’d say that makes them interesting, right there!!!)
Absolutely! My point is that all statements like that which have been found so far, are only interesting because the indicate a limitation of the formal system; the would-be theorems are usually not useful in the same way that Pythagoras’ theorem or the fundamental theorem of Galois theory are useful.
Eugene Wigner is always so elegant! Thanks for the link to this great essay.
I once asked my dear colleague in physics (after whom the Crichton Ambiguity is named!) something like the question Wigner’s student bruoght to him. How do we know we’re selecting the right things to look for? Maybe we could select different things and they’d gotogether into an equally nice theory… Especially when you smash particles and things — maybe we’re just getting erratic pieces and putting them together in an erratic way…
He looked at me reflectively for a moment, and then he said: “Remember Plank’s constant?”
“We’re cutting nature at the joints,” he said.
“Oh!” I said.
I know he was borrowing a famous quote from someone, but it was quite apt for that moment.
This is what we have to formalize: how each field knows it’s cutting at the joints…and not merely arbitraily.
Right, that makes so much sense. And we’ve barely started!
Pseudonym, what would we do without you?!
“I know he was borrowing a famous quote from someone, …”
I think it’s originally a reference to Plato, in Phaedrus: “SOCRATES: The second principle is that of division into species according to the natural formation, where the joint is, not breaking any part as a bad carver [others use “butcher”] might.” Although when and where it took the current phrasing of “carving [or curtting”] nature at it’s joints” I don’t know.
There is a similar Zen story of a master butcher who never had to sharpen his knife because he always cut the carcass at the points where its nature would have it cut.
I think part of the evidence that we are “carving nature at the joints” with our physical theories is that the various “features” we use, for instance mass, tend to pop up everywhere. If mass just showed up in the formulas for gravity, one might wonder about it, but it tends to pop up in alls sorts of places in all sorts of our theories and formulas. Look at the units in Planck’s constant: m2 * kg / s : the kg is mass. E = mc2, the m is mass. This appearance of our “features” throughout a wide range our theories across a wide range of phenomona is understood as indicating that rather than being ad hoc formulations, we are getting to something more fundamental about nature.
Janet, I applaud you for taking on modal logic, science, Derrida, and the kitchen sink in one post. You have much more tolerance, patience, and (apparently) sweat gland than I do… or maybe you don’t sweat. Regardless, if I may be slightly controversial – as if I need permission – I think some of your commentators here have demonstrated a great truth, that the points of departure for the disciplines and, in this case, subdisciplines/genres (analytic vs. continental, etc..) might have reached a point where the vocabulary has evolved so radically that any hope for convergence again seems dubious. Especially, in my opinion, considering the deep structures of learning a discipline and the logic entailed by that discipline. Considered from a theological perspective, the logic operating in, say, eugenics is so radically different than an orthodox articulation of Christianity, that we’re not simply talking about problems of conclusions, but also flaws in the very structures of operation. In the words of a current theologian, “Something like conversion is needed.”
Absolutely. Thanks so much for your comment, DWM! I’m a little surprised that you don’t see this as the very purpose of my Ion posts, for instance. I’m convinced that analytical logic can’t get there from here. “There” being: a view that respects the genuine and rigorous engagement of science with reality while also respecting the engagement of other disciplined ways of knowing with reality. (Our scientistic Anglo-American analytic philosophy has failed, and its only alternatives, given its starting points, are pragmatism and constructivism, both of which swing the pendulum away from the reality of “reality.”)
But rather than just try to shove the Continental paradigm down people’s throats, which clearly isn’t working in our culture at large, I’m trying to start over, with a new set of neutral but liberating ideas about the episteme, or how humans experience coming to know. From there, maybe we could get to a conversation and a meeting of minds. Anyway, right now in my own work off-line, I’m trying to spell out the presuppositions of scientistic rationalism very clearly and to make some persuasive contrasts with richer paradigms for our day and our problems. So back to you with that, in a while. Meantime, does this make any sense?
And I’m not sure that eugenics as a way of knowing is itself a problem. It’s the way that the scientific disciplines have been cut loose to develop “methodically step by step” as though by inevitable necessity — without acknowledgement that all the human epistemes are subject to the needs and concerns of the polis and of ethics and for theists of spiritual commitments, this is the problem. But this latter problem of the absolute autonomy of the sciences ALSO is implicit in scientific rationalism as it developed in the English-speaking world.
Continental thinkers, on the other hand, were able to mount a reconsideration and a powerful challenge to scientism and to purely technical instrumental thinking, without denying that the sciences are indeed genuinely engaged with physical reality. We need these insights so badly. The scientists on this weblog have proven they aren’t bound any longer by old-style scientistic rationalism; they fully understand the limitative nature of their finding and the creativity and dialectic of their communal inquiries and the impact of culture on those pursuits. I am “patient” because I love science (not to mention scientists!) so dearly and see that they are more than ready for a more adequate description of what they do and how the human mind comes to know in rigorous fashion. Enter Plato & Aristotle?!
Janet, you say: “And I’m not sure that eugenics as a way of knowing is itself a problem”
I’m not sure where Plato goes with the idea of a thing’s “end”, but in terms of Aristotle and his understanding of a nature, when brought to bear against the goals and aims of something like eugenics, the outcome is troubling for me. That is, something like eugenics presupposes that the uses we determine for something like an embryo are as valid or more valid, if the scientist hold to anything like quality to begin with, than the natural end or ends of the embryo. Maybe this is what you’re calling scientific rationalism, but it seems to me to be something more like scientific progress gone boink – thanks Bill Watterson. The difference between this and what i’d call scientific rationalism is modern eugenic’s giant leap from a closed universe of fixed laws to the actual engineering and modification of nature.
maybe I’m moving from episteme to ethos here.
Or from biological episteme and ethical episteme to polit-ike, the good of the polis, which is where Plato and Aristotle bring everything back to in a certain sense (and a strong sense).
Thanks, Dan. Let me clarify that I wasn’t thinking of eugenics as an ideological program or movement when I said that; I was assuming you were referring to some sort of a scientific specialization from the way you mentioned it. So I’m confused. Scientists study genes and want to alleviate disease and have programs in this area. That’s what I meant by saying it isn’t a problem as an episteme. Are you saying we actually have a scientific field now that is called eugenics itself, in the sense of engineering better life-forms (beyond disease prevention)? I just assumed that was impossible. Am I being naive again, as I was about social constructionism really denying an external world (which turns out to be the case in some cases).
Of course I support the strong use of ethics and political will to deliberate on and control the applications of science in these new areas, including cloning. I will be shocked if there actually is a scientific field or program called eugenics in the sense you mean. Or in any sense, I guess.
I don’t think it’s a given that the ends of eugenics is simply the alleviation of disease. Maybe I’m a bit too influence in this regard by cultural phenom like Robocop, Xmen, and Bladerunner, and the recent The Island. The (maybe not-so-simple) fact is that with cloning, and DNA manipulation doesn’t logically lead ONLY to disease prevention, but also genetic engineering and later to fusion between organic life and artifice. On a smaller and supposedly more inocuous scale, consider seedless grapes and the modern cow. These are genetically engineered organisms whose ends have nothing to do with curing diseases, and according to some make little teleological sense- 4.8 lbs of grain to produce 1 lb of beef. The distance between genetic modification and engineering to fusion between the organic and the artificial is not as far as we think, and might not bear the kind of utopian “fruit” that lobbyists and certain scientists claim it will (I’m thinking of a recent “Speaking of Faith” I heard with the head of the Human Genome Project. This is from the HGP webiste benefits page:
Agriculture, Livestock Breeding, and Bioprocessing
* Disease-, insect-, and drought-resistant crops
* Healthier, more productive, disease-resistant farm animals
* More nutritious produce
* Edible vaccines incorporated into food products
* New environmental cleanup uses for plants like tobacco
Notice the 2nd-5th benefits and how helpful they sound. How comfortable are you with “more productive” farm animals, and how long till they’re advertising more productive humans? What is your idea of more “nutritious” produce? Mine includes the untouched kind of produce. What is a “Biopesticide”, and can we keep that away from my food. “Edible vaccine”???!!!! Ok, i’m cool with the last one :) Hope you’re seeing my perspective now.
Thanks, Dan. I basically agree with you about being nervous about these things. I’m just not sure the “villain” of this piece is science. As usual, I want to defend science and also defend other areas of thought, such as ethical and political thinking and action, which is where the burden here lies, it seems to me.
So, I’m not sure we are clear yet with each other. It’s not that I’m not concerned about “eugenics” as a general social problem that’s growing more and more urgent. It’s just that I think you spoke a litttle bit loosely and negatively about science, as though science itself was pursuing “eugenics” as an actual program or course of study. As always, I’m trying to defend science AND postmodern thought at the same time.
Scientists push science forward on every front, but they expect the civic sector and political will to set limits and decide when something goes too far. Obviously this gets dicey. But I don’t see science as a set of disciplines inherently pushing “eugenics” as its own a social or commercial program.
Is it up to science itself, for instance, to refuse to develop theory that makes the atom bomb possible, along with everything else that theory did? We can argue about whether scietnists should have worked on making the bomb, but that wasn’t a scientific project so much as a military program in time of war. So again, I think we need more political/ethical vitality, not less of science making things possible — unless we forbid them to go further, but then we are going to opose stem cell research and so forth.
Scientists have to struggle with the dilemma of the abhoring the uses to which their discoveries are put, all the time. Should science, as an episteme, police itself? What do you think, Dan? Should they get together as professors and professionals and decide, we aren’t accepting research money or pursuing this area or that area any longer? What do you scientists out there think?
Janet, I don’t know about your split between the study/discipline and the person behind the study. Are scientists not responsible for ethical norms? Aren’t decisions of the affirmative as much part of “policing” as those of the negative? For instance, choosing to use monkeys as subjects of experiments is as much an ethical decision as that of not using the monkeys. Science is a human construct and as such requires the ethical. Further, science is a pursuit of knowledge, and makes decisions all the time about how to treat knowledge: as an object to manipulate, or as a something with which to develop a relationship. With relationship comes obligation. Parker J. Palmer makes this point and actually quotes Oppenheimer after the Manhattan project culmination as admitting that “Today the physicists have sinned” – Oppenheimer actually went on to become an activist against nuclear technology and regretted his part in developing the technology behind atomic energy.
Further, saying scientists are not responsible for ethical considerations in their research and the trends in their field makes about as much sense to me as saying they’re not responsible to know their history. Of course they are. As such, scientists engage eachothers’ ideas regularly (journals, conferences, etc…) and reflect on their progress from one generation to the other, just like any other academic discipline. The notion that the same thing shouldn’t happen with ethical considerations seems scary to me.
Lastly, that eugenics is only a micro-concern in science, or that there is not something in eugenics shared in common with Science: whether eugenics is “an actual program or course of study” I think the fact that the Human Genome project has received an incredible sum of government support, comparable to space flight, does more than suggest that its a trend in scientific research. I’d like to hear your reasons for why you think it’s not a course of study.
I suggest that within modern science there’s a logic of progress that spurs projects like the Human Genome P. on without considering its ends or the natural end of the genome, as well as government initiatives like vaccinations that may seem helpful and certainly not harmful at the onset, but leads to the systematic injection of mercury into babies for decades. Something is going on in the logic there than is more insidious than just that scientists hadn’t discovered the effects of mercury. I’m not saying the scientists themselves are insidious or evil or meanspirited, but that the deep structures of scientific progress naturally leads to conclusions and implementations in the world, that will later be retracted because of their catastrophic results (nuclear energy, anthrax, the connection between vaccinations and neural poisoning, etc..). Palmer suggests this is because of the very spirit of scientific progress and its “relationship” to truth.
So would you equate the Human Genome project with eugenics? I never would have, and so that’s part of the disconnect here. I never thought of it that way, even though it COULD be used for eugenic purposes and does increase the likelihood of it. But it is so much a project of pushing back the frontiers of what we know. Would you not have wanted us to have a complete human genome!!?? Just because it COULD be used for eugenics? As a society we could decide something like that. But to ask scientists to do so seems wrong to me, like a sacrifice we wouldn’t ask of art or literature.
I agree that there is a sense of scientific progress (that it should stop for nothing) that comes from the Enlgihtenment and that needs to be questioned, but I have a hard time thinking scientists as scientists themselves should be the ones responsible for that doing that on their own. Who of us doesn’t want the envelopes to be pushed in our own beloved disciplines — whether it’s art or music or film or literature or even in spirituality. We resent the political realm imposing standards on us, even when we don’t agree with what an artist or writer does. Scientists are protective of science in the same way.
The polis — the citizenry — is responsible for public and societal ethics and for restrictions of how the various epistemes are applied. But to restrict theoretical inquiry is very unwelcome to me. I guess my main point is Aristotle’s, the standard of rightness or excellence for one discipline is not the same as for any other episteme — and the standards of politike can’t be imposed as a disciplinary standard. Tragic poetry, to be specific, can’t be judged by a political standard, as to its excellence, Aristotle said, responding to Plato who wanted to banish the poets for POLITICAL reasons. Imposing political judgments on science (and on art and faith and so on when they transgress the public good) HAS to be done, but the burden has to be on the citizenry, I believe, to do so.
I love it when people within the discipline do take the lead in the public arena, as Einstein and others against nuclear weapons for instance did, as you point out.
But going to the moon was thrilling. The human genome was amazing. Picasso and Harry Potter and the Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro were high water marks of excellence in their own ways. And it would have been better to use all those resources to feed the poor and fight AIDS.
We can’t blame science for our own lack of ethical will or blame scientists as a group for loving what they do. Do you know how excited people in science were about the Human Genome? How their faces would light up? And what about this Large Hadron Collider now?
“So would you equate the Human Genome project with eugenics”: No, but some of their goals are inline with Eugenics.
I think we agree about the polis being responsible for ethics. I’m just trying to stress that Scientists are also members of the polis, not outside of it in some way, and are therefore part of that mass that’s responsible for the goals, aims, and ends of science.
You asked what scientists think. Well, this scientist tried repeatedly to post a comment to the other thread but it was not working. It seems something is wrong with this system, as you said that it also happened to you.
Let’s see if I can at least post this comment.
OK, I can post now.
It is very frustrating to read what Daniel wrote. He is not just speaking “a little” loosely. There is so much confusion and mischaracterization there. (I can’t tell how much is misunderstanding and how much is intentional.) It is too much work to dissect and correct, especially with a handicap of being a non-native speaker of English.
I certainly don’t want to be labeled as Dr. Frankenstein and I don’t think the research I do is in a controversial territory. So, perhaps I could just say I don’t do that and leave it as that. But it seems that Daniel’s definition of “eugenics” is so wide that even things like Human Genome Project is included. (I use genome databases. Am I sinned?) Moreover, I sense his hostility to scientists as a whole, as if we are some kind of a monolithic group with an evil conspiracy. I have to object to that.
I think Janet said much of what I want to say. But I’m not sure if Daniel really got it, especially when he gives the Oppenheimer quote AFTER what Janet had already written. When Oppenheimer said that “the physicists have sinned”, isn’t it natural to assume that the sin was to create the bomb that can kill many people? Do you think that the knowledge of physics by itself is a sin? Do you think that the desire to kill underly the motivation to study nuclear physics?
And there is confusion about the science and the public health policy. Scientists don’t decide the policy about vaccination. Of course it’s not that scientists don’t give any inputs to policies. But it’s not as if we have some kind of conspiracy. And talking about vaccination, why don’t you think about what it did to smallpox and polio?
There are a lot of difficult issues about the relationship between the scientists and the general public concerning the scientific- and science related- policies. For example, the question of why the Human Genome Project should be funded. I personally think that A) it deserved to be funded due to purely intellectual reasons and B) there will be a lot of unexpected benefits (not the advertised benefits), not unlike what the discovery of electron and quantum mechanics did to electronics. But the general public often wants more direct benefits. It is ironic that Daniel is objecting to an attempt of PR to appeal the general public. (And I’m not a fan of such PR efforts.) But ultimately how this knowledge is going to be used is decided both by the scientists and the general public.
But in order to decide how to use the knowledge, we have to talk honestly. I do have some worries about some ethically controversial and application oriented research. But that is nothing compared to the dishonesty and hypocrisy of many of anti-science people, especially religiously-motivated anti-science people.
I will try to post my thoughts god on the other thread. But it’s late and I’m tired to do it tonight.
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