Physics in modern culture: more thoughts on the String Theory debate

https://newhumanist.org.uk/articles/5168/why-physics-isnt-dead

It seems that every mathematician or physicist out there, whether they are working in string theory or not, has an opinion about the subject of string theory. My review of the debate currently surrounding string theory has revealed that there is an ongoing heated debate in the physics community that is revolving around a philosophical debate, that is being characterized as a debate between empiricism vs. rationalism. I will make the case here that regardless of what is actually true about this famous “Theory of Everything”, this debate has not made things more clear, but actually shrouded everything in a kind of conceptual haze that distracts from the details of the actual debate (of which I am NOT an expert).

Here is what I can say as a non-expert that I find fascinating:

The Large Hadron Collider, the famous particle accelerator, has continued to turn up nada for a proof of super-symmetry, one of the necessary predictions of string theory, and continued to make observations consistent with the Standard Model. This is fascinating because on its face value, theoretically, the Standard Model does have weaknesses, recognized weaknesses, most famously that it isn’t compatible with general relativity. String theory emerged not as a makeshift candidate for how to address these problems, but in trying to work out the problems of their own accord. So what does that mean? It means that in all the headlines you read about how “string theory may finally be killed!” it actually hasn’t definitively been killed or not killed. There has been no evidence found against it. Strangely enough, string theory has weaknesses as well, like preferring a cosmological constant that is negative or 0 (we know that the cosmological constant is in fact positive).

So it seems like we have an answer- that the Standard Model is incomplete, but string theory won’t do the job. The strangeness of this is that we really don’t have any other alternatives. Great scientists doing work in theoretical physics have looked at string theory and marveled at its elegance and how it gets rid of certain problems with quantum field theory. So it seems like everywhere we turn, we find more contradictions.

What strikes me as odd in this whole debate is that pop scientists and professional mathematicians who aren’t string theorists love to hate on string theory because of lack of evidence, but there is never any questioning of the methodology of the experiments. It seems to me that there is more room for human error in an experiment as complex as the LHC.

Let’s take a closer look at the Large Hadron Collider, which has famously announced the existence of the “God Particle”, or the Higgs Boson/field that gives particles mass.

The Large Hadron Collider, the largest single machine in the world, and therefore ever built, sits on the France-Switzerland border. Data from the LHC is analyzed by 170 computing centers in 42 countries, according to Wikipedia. Now, I’m not a math scientist [laughs], but that seems like a lot of room for potential error. At any given time, the beam pipe of the LHC needs to be almost a complete vacuum, with only the amount of hydrogen that can fit in a grain of sand allowed. With a total operating budget of $1 billion per year, and a construction cost of around $7.5 billion, the LHC has been more the object of marvel than of scientific scrutiny in the popular press.

Famously, public concern over the safety of the LHC, whether it could produce a black hole, etc. was met with scoffs and simple dismissals. Of course, it can be reasonably assumed that after years of operation, the real dangers of the LHC are not on the order of a “doomsday weapon” like in the Dan Brown novel Angels and Demons, but it is fascinating to me how it seems like the single largest machine ever constructed by mankind seems to be escaping scrutiny. The best demonstration of this I can find is how the LHC is described by “Rational Wiki”, the kind of site that is frequented by Sam Harris lovers and “sciencephiles”. The description of the LHC on Rational Wiki is “the LHC is a kick-ass piece of scientific designed to replicate conditions immediately after the Big Bang…” etc. Now, it seems to me that the term kick-ass is not very rational or logical, it seems pretty emotional to me. But of course, the defenders of Rationality will always be right by definition!

There is absolutely no doubt that this subject is fascinating, but there are of course two questions that come out of this debate:

  1. Are the questions we ask worth $1 billion a year? The answer is probably yes, considering if you compare the cost to America’s skyrocketing military budget, it seems trivial in comparison. Still, gone are the days where we can verify physical theories with simple telescope observations, expect the costs to only grow for particle accelerators.
  2. What are the potential technological benefits that could accrue from this device that essentially just runs experiments? Computers have not even reached the point where they are utilizing all the quantum phenomena we know about. Is verifying string theory or quantum gravity even necessary? Of course, these kind of questions are blasphemy for the scientific establishment, but that is exactly the kind of questions currently being asked by the directors of the LHC, who after not finding any evidence of super-symmetry this year, expect to move their focus to other areas that are admittedly less “sexy”.

Proponents of the LHC will invariably point to the achievement of discovering the celebrated Higgs boson. What I want to avoid is this kind of unthinking mindset, “oooh, muons! quarks! oh my!” as well as the simple dismissal of science. Oftentimes criticisms of scientific work as simply demonized as anti-Science. In short, there needs to be the kind of Latourian anthropological analysis of particle physics that currently goes on in other fields. I probably won’t be the one to do it, as it would require such a highly specialized knowledge of the field, and I am currently pursuing other projects. But I encourage others to!

What would a science studies analysis of the LHC yield? What would the “discoveries” be? Hopefully it would simply offer a realistic portrayal of what’s going on at the LHC on a daily basis.

Here’s a ray of hope that the people at CERN are concerned about practical applications of the LHC: applying the particle accelerator to developing radiation cancer treatments for people in developing countries:

https://home.cern/about/updates/2017/11/combatting-cancer-challenging-environments

This particularly hits home for me, because my father was a radiation oncologist who worked on developing treatments for prostate cancer. My father was a research scientist with an avid interest in physics (he was a physics major) – so I am no stranger to the wonders of science and what it can do for real people. In a severe twist of irony, my father passed away of cancer, and it wasn’t able to be treated with chemotherapy. Perhaps we need to do far more in the way of preventative treatment and larger policy changes, not just finding treatments for the worst case scenario. That’s not to say I’m devaluing the work my father did- he actually contracted a case of esophageal cancer that is far harder to treat.

In short, there always needs to be theoretical work done, and I recognize that. But perhaps with more humanists working in the field, more practical applications could be developed, burgeoning costs could be contained, and maybe even theoretical debates could be seen in a new light.

But my last and probably most crucial point is this: governments find no shortage of cash to throw at the largest scientific device ever created by man. Maybe they could throw some of that money at the refugee crisis, or eliminating poverty?

What we need now more than ever is a “string theory” of humanity- of how the economy, the environment, and society form an integral whole, and our arbitrary designations of where one ends and the other begins are only, well arbitrary. If string theory is meant to show the subtle interconnections between all aspects of physical reality, then maybe we should take the poetry of this elegant theory and apply it to social reality. Can we, for instance, demonstrate the relationship between human psychology and the environment, as Gregory Bateson has done in the Steps to an Ecology of the Mind? Could we not go further, and connect the philosophy of science with a political ecology? Anthropology continues to be the field that describes these interactions as all emanating from underlying dynamics within the social field, which have been revealed to be patterned, not meaningless and random. Kinship structures, political organization, ideology, cosmology, belief, values, norms- how do these function within, say, the search for a God particle? The answer we will get is pretty straightforward, as my adviser George Mentore has suggested, the cosmology that is operating here is the search for origins, the metaphor of discovery that is at the bottom of Western understandings of the self and the cosmos. Is this metaphor inhibiting “real” discovery? Is it helping? Are there different metaphorical patterns at work? An ethnographic study would reveal this in detail

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Unintelligibility, paradox, and emotion- Deleuze and conceptions of the unconscious in anthropology

This essay is going to be very haphazard and schizophrenic, cover multiple topics at once, because of the distance between what I am reading at the moment. However I will try to spin them all together into a whole, a partial whole. So- it is fashionable nowadays in anthropological literature to criticize the overuse of “Continental buzzwords” and loanwords like biopolitics and deterritorialization. Again- context! If a concept fits, use it! Sure sometimes it is overused at the expense of coming up with new theories or thinking for oneself. But I see a certain trends happening in anthropology- a trend toward totalizing, conceiving the world system as a whole, and the postmodern trend toward incommensurability, cultural relativism, and reflexivity. Zizek likes to critically oppose these two poles- one the one hand is the continuation of the Enlightenment project, of conceiving history and social movements in a dialectical way, and on the other is the Foucaultian-Deleuzian project of history as a discontinuous set of events, each contained in their own cultural world. The only thing that seems to give any sort of continuity to it all is ideology, the continual flux of ideologies and practices that come with it. I believe there are insights in both of these theories.

“Postmodern” anthropology, particularly anthropology that looks at such hot topics such as violence, continues to be a hodgepodge of various theories that are, in describing various topics, very insightful, but depending on the geographical/historical area of study, still widely variant. There are certain trendy topics- a renewed interest in the topic of the Body, and with it all the biopolitics. I am thinking of a current reader, called Violence in War and Peace: An Anthology, edited by anthropologists Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Philippe Bourgois. The selections are not just anthropological canon, but contain excerpts from biographies, accounts of the Holocaust, Foucault and Sartre essays, an ethnography of Cambodia after the genocide, and Michael Taussig’s interpretation of Walter Benjamin. That is- anthropology and critical theory have made an interesting marriage, as applied critical theory. I find that as an anthropologist, even though my desire to contribute “new data” remains salient, there is a consistent lack of secondary or tertiary interpretation in anthropology. The closest we get is the theoretical “ontological turn”, which is another way of saying we have to think about philosophy and create philosophical anthropology. But the practice of philosophical anthropology, the interpretation and critical examination of ethnography, seems to be secondary still to the “holy canon”.

If anthropology is going to continue to make essays like “Why Do you Kill?: The Cambodian Genocide and the Dark Side of Face and Honor” using anthropological “thick description” to gain insight on deep questions about violence, there needs to be deep theoretical engagement with prior theories. Take theories of violence for example. Inclusion of Stanley Milgram’s obedience study is not enough. We have to take obedience as a sociological phenomenon, and the dynamics of obedience or hierarchy, and essentially make a model. Renato Rosaldo does a good job of doing this in Grief and the Headhunter’s Rage. There was one previous model of ritual, which he contrasts with his own model. I say- go further. Make diagrams, draw maps. How are these models of ritual as microcosmic deep culture and ritual as a busy intersection contrasting? If Rosaldo already has an article on this, then I apologize in advance, but what I’m saying is- MORE THEORY! How do these models of ritual play out in terms of models of human nature- i.e the psyche itself?

Once again, we are back in the trenches of the paradoxical unconscious, all at once possibly the realm of archetypes, dreams, drives, cognitive structures, desiring machines, languages, you name it! If one thing Lacan said is right, it is that the unconscious the biggest discovery of the 20th century, it upends the idea of the enlightened self-conscious entity at the center of the universe, or even at the center of the self. Processes as large as history flow through the individual to the point where the individual is no longer “himself”. This is why, if we are to rehabilitate “psychological anthropology” in the sense of a refocusing on cultural subjectivity, with new ways of thinking about identity, belonging, etc. we must continue to reference those theories of the past about concepts of the Self, what I have been calling Cartographies of Subjectivity. Each culture has one- a map of the soul. It is this deep map of the soul in relation to the world that has the capacity to produce emotions, and they are as informed by experience and everyday events as they are by processes of enculturation. In fact, they often serve to reinforce each other. This in other words is the process by which Ideology reproduces itself. How does the practice of headhunting in the Phillipines reproduce itself? How about the practice of renouncing worldly life in Tibet? We need to begin to think about the unconscious again, it is more important than ever in an age of subliminal advertisement, digital marketing, when capitalism has become the very fabric and texture of reality. How are revolutionary subjects produced? The subject as hunter? As wife, or how about as religious member? I think that the most important concept to remember and continue to say over and over again is Becoming. In a ritual, in a rite of passage, there is fundamentally a transformation, a passion, a becoming, one that has a spiritual pull that is hard to resist, because it is fundamentally communal. This is how one can become ready to kill, ready to serve the nation.

Now we shouldn’t reduce this to a sort of Durkheimian interpretation of ritual as a cultural glue, because its not like the ritual is a kind of “hoax” perpetrated by the elders to ensure order. This is what Nietzsche essentially thought- that religion was a way for hucksters and tricksters to profit off communal religious feeling. Certainly some of that goes on, but it happens much more deeply, at the level of understanding who one is in relation to other people. That is given to you very early. If one has grown up in the environment in which taking another’s life in ritual revenge is compensation for a loved one’s loss, that is simply one’s way of looking at the world- in other words, the spirit of the jaguar actually visits them, they feel it. This is the power of perception over the human mind. And this is what we as moderners have to be burdened with- the knowledge that these mystical experiences, which are quite normal for the “savage”, if experienced, are at best contrived. Castenada could get himself to believe that spirit of the Yaqui had actually visited him until he made a certain leap of faith.

If postmodern anthropology seems too “spacey” to neo-Marxists and neo-materialists, it is because they simply have never had a near-death experience, and don’t realize the way in which for much of the world what matters is not what is right here before us, but the beyond. This pull of the spiritual is a strong temptation, just as the pull of a Communist utopia is a strong spiritual ideal for many people. A transformed world- isn’t that what many people are looking for?

This line of thinking, of criticizing desire for revolution as millenarian, has some legitimate critiques by Marxist thinkers, but my point isn’t to discount the relevancy of material/historical analysis in anthropological thinking- its only to emphasize again that the convictions of an anthropologist, of any writer or philosopher, are fundamentally human or spiritual convictions. The desire to stop violence, to understand or prevent violence, systemic or otherwise, to people and our earth, is a sentiment current anthropology shares as a humanistic discipline. If anthropology is going to take its role seriously as an intellectual enterprise, not an enterprise in remaking the world, it should provide the applied anthropologists of the world with such a deep appreciation for culture as to evince a becoming in the subject. In my case, I desire in the reader a becoming-revolutionary, a becoming-minoritarian, as any good Deleuzian would have it.

At the end of the day, what I’m talking about is the intellectual’s choice of subject matter or area of study- there needs to be not just intellectual commitment, but human commitment. At the end of the day, real people become affected by anthropology, as the writings of Darrell Posey, Michael Taussig, or anyone would explain quite clearly. There is often a certain bond with the host community or family that is very deep. This is not necessary however. I think that the real goal of anthropologist should be to try to shift the culture at home. To hold up a mirror to ourselves and ask- is this all there really is?

The specter of Marx in anthropology

Anthropology, as a humanistic enterprise, has always had (except for periods of extreme empiricism/biologism and certain isolated schools) a humanitarian mission since its real inception by Franz Boas. With the rise (and maybe fall) of postmodernism in anthropology, which has been always in the context of how to get cultural relativism and the depiction of other cultures right, the question has become not how to depict other cultures, but how to not get it wrong, and see within ourselves as writers of culture possible sources of bias. However, given the enormous influence of political economy, globalization studies, etc. anthropology has still to ask the question- what about Marx?

Anthropology COULD normatively assign Marx the category of another social theorist of the 19th century, and integrate his theories as just one more theory to study along with Weber and Durkheim. Or, it could (and I believe it already has, based on my experience in anthropology) take Marx seriously. I believe the answer why it should is not only an empirical question that someone like David Harvey or David Graeber could answer with judicious use of anthropological data and explanation of the rise of the neoliberal economic order and why it has influenced every local culture. There are a myriad books on this subject, from Graeber’s Debt: A 5000 year History to Wallerstein’s Introduction to World Systems Analysis- the right anthropologist’s have already done a good job of doing this. They have already analyzed colonialism from the right historical perspective, looked at it from the perspective of the colonized with postcolonialism, applied critical analysis. But what I don’t think they have had done a good job of doing is taking philosophy seriously, or justifying their project on a level of fundamentals, ethics, etc.

At first glance, this statement should appear nonsensical, because why wouldn’t anthropology try to accurately describe the postcolonial neoliberal reality of the 21st century? Haven’t they done enough by appealing to notions of human rights, etc?

The political problems of the 1950s and 1960s still haunts anthropology. During the Cold War and the Red Scare, many anthropologists worked for the government to understand the Communist threat, and many of afraid of being accused of having Marxist leanings. But while good critiques have already been made of the sort of public anthropology that sells their soul to corporations, works with the military in Iraq to understand local culture in order to further American foreign policy objectives, anthropologists remain reticent to unabashedly in writing critique capitalism. Now, I say this knowing that some anthropologists (like Graeber) remain professed and “out” anarchists, and many anthropologist’s writings are geared toward working against the established order of things.

But why Marx? Because anthropology still has a commitment at the end of the day, to Fanon’s wretched of the earth”. We remain committed to those who lack the voice to speak for themselves, the powerless. And this commitment, which does not exclude the First World as much as the Third World may be its focus, is fundamentally, and this cannot be denied- a spiritual commitment. This is what Marx himself failed to grasp. Why should he care? Why have compassion at all? Why not embrace the individualism of the modern age?

A “rationalist” or “pragmatic” reason may be that one could easily be oneself in the lumpen, in rags, and that as capitalism ravages our planet, we are beginning to personally feel the heat in our middle class dens (literally). But it is something that we have to own up to- that a commitment to the powerless among us is a fundamentally social commitment, a commitment to what philosopher Slavoj Zizek likes to refer to as the commons- our common social and ecological substance. This is why we cannot pretend that at least in this more deep sense (maybe not in the sense of previous incarnations of the idea in political movements of the 20th century) that the study of society and sociality must be socialist in orientation. To ignore the insights of Marx in history, in the fundamental difference between the haves and have nots, the dynamics between labor and capital, is to be blind to the immensity of human suffering on this planet that is structural, and caused by our economic system working for the few, not the many

Short reflection on current trends in popular ideology: Jordan Petersen v. Sam Harris

In terms of popular intellectuals, I see Sam Harris as the archetype of the view to be rejected, for a number of reasons. His background, coming from cognitive science, is essentially a positivist “scientism”, and his views on how beliefs are constructed flow from this paradigm. Harris essentially views the phenomenon of belief in terms of chemical reactions (a reductionist point of view)- when a person believes something, it sends out a positive response from the brain, a dopamine reaction, that creates a kind of feedback loop. In short, it feels good to believe something, even if it isn’t true, especially if that belief makes one feel like one has a life after death, etc. What is the problem with this belief? It is just a modern neuroscientific version of an atheist argument. The problem is Harris abstracts it as a model for all belief, which is where he goes wrong. Harris does not include more complex psychological processes that go with the creation of belief on levels more complex than the neurological- he does not include the familial, the cultural, or the metaphysical (I will explain what I mean by metaphysical or existential). Belief, say in what a human being is relative to the universe, is fundamentally patterned by social group, or culture. Harris knows this, but his model of how culture influences belief is limited/not fleshed out. In short, Harris believes he is writing from a privileged lens, the scientific lens, which is not hampered by superstition or any sort of belief system, even though he has an ideological agenda. That ideological agenda goes as follows- religion, any sort of belief in God or the afterlife, is a BAD belief, it is detrimental to humanity. This is despite the fact that many societies have been fundamentally organized by religious beliefs. Many of these deficits in Harris’ argument are now being pointed out by Dr. Jordan Petersen, a professor of psychology, who includes in his perspective anthropological perspectives, as well as Jungian theory on how humans are driven to find meaning in the world through myth. The inclusion of Jung is a big step in improving the popular conception of religion, which is being heavily influenced by the New Atheists like Dawkins, who idolize science and scientific belief as a new worldview that should overturn religion (an essentially 19th century way of thinking, rationalist in character).

Peterson starts by deconstructing the model of humans as being essentially irrational until the Enlightenment, and then through science became rational people. However, I find his approach to be lacking rhetorically. Peterson starts (in an interview) by referencing the fact that religion is not always the motivator of conflict. A good start. However, his evidence is that chimps also go to war. I find this to be a shoddy use of evidence, given that the close cousin of the chimp, the bonobo, is essentially docile. The book War, Peace, and Human Nature by Douglas Fry is an essential reference on this topic, however Petersen probably is unaware of this book, given that its in the modern anthropological canon. Petersen relies on writers such as Jung, who try to move away from the positivist doxa, but more prescient deconstructions of scientism exist now, in the works of Thomas Kuhn, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Slavoj Zizek, not to mention most of the anthropological canon (Evans-Pritchard, Malinowski, Levi-Strauss, etc.) Much more has been written on the structure of the human mind by these theorists. Petersen’s book is called Maps of Meaning– I would find an even more enlightening book (perhaps one I will eventually write) be Maps of the Mind (or Cartographies of Subjectivity, in academic speak). Petersen’s book explores how humans make sense of the world, through religion, etc. What I would explore is how each of these different ideologies (or great thinkers) conceives of the human itself- how does Jung think of the mind? Freud? Then go back to Christian conception of the subject (the soul), contrast it with the modern conception of the subject- in short, a complete version of what Foucault attempted to do (Foucault was limited in his archaeology of the subject to the Western world, but still got pretty far with his work the History of Sexuality). I would try to include more cross-cultural sources- an encyclopedia of how humans think of themselves.

What I’m trying to get at, in a matter of speaking, is that trying to form a way of thinking, a model, about how we think, from a purely scientific perspective, is essentially reductive and limited- it leads back to one source- the baseline of atomic reactions- while a more holistic way of thinking is unending in scope. Its also much more interesting. Sam Harris never fails to be reductive in this way, whenever he tackles some phenomenon related to belief or religion- take Islam and fundamentalism for example- he always reaches the wrong conclusion for this essential reason. He can never include any other reason for why people believe the way they do in his frame of reference. We must always remember the essential wisdom of Buddhist metaphysics- the web of causes and conditions is so complex and multifaceted, it can only truly be comprehended by an omniscient being. Sam Harris always follows the reductionist pattern when talking about Islam because of this- “they hate us because they hate us”.

All human beings have these kind of cosmologies or “maps of meaning”, even if they aren’t religious. We have to because we are, in Heideggerian terms, Dasein or “beings thrown into the world”. Everyone knows the story- we search for the reason why we are here, look up into the stars and wonder why things are the way they are. This fundamental existential level is only conceived through language, which is taught at an early age, and thus all belief is conditioned by culture. It is good to see a real intellectual (Peterson) introduce these concepts to a wider audience and receive a level of respect, and try to drown out the chorus of New Atheist science-worshippers.