Lyotard, Science, and Kurt Godel

In a passage in the Postmodern Condition on the way science legitimates itself, in the sense of obtaining the addressee’s assent, I came across this:

The following question is more pertinent to legitimation : By what
criteria does the logician define the properties required of an axiomatic?
Is there a model for scientific languages? If so , is there just one ?
Is it verifiable ? The properties generally required of the syntax of
a formal system are consistency (for example , a system inconsistent
with respect to negation would admit both a proposition and its
opposite), syntactic completeness (the system would lose its consistency
if an axiom were added to it), decidability (there must be an
effective procedure for deciding whether a given proposition belongs
to the system or not), and the independence of the axioms in relation
to one another. Now Godel has effectively established the
existence in the arithmetic system of a proposition that is neither
demonstrable nor refutable within that system ; this entails that the
arithmetic system fails to satisfy the condition of completeness. 
Since it is possible to generalize this situation , it must be accepted
that all formal systems have internal limitations. This applies to
logic: the metalanguage it uses to describe an artificial (axiomatic)
language is “natural ” or “everyday ” language ; that language is universal, since all other languages can be translated into it, but it is not
consistent with respect to negation – it allows the formation of paradoxes”

It seems I’ve been beaten to the punchline by Lyotard in assessing how Godel’s incompleteness theorem could apply to philosophy. I generally agree with Lyotard, but think I can offer something here. I think we have to clarify what Lyotard and Godel mean in order to avoid mistakes in interpretation, namely to correct the interpretation of Lyotard that all interpretations are equal and its all just “language games and metanarratives”. The term postmodernism in the title doesn’t help at all in this regard…but lets start with Godel.

If one were to apply the analogy (and Lyotard is here playing a bit of a language game himself) directly from Godel’s incompleteness theorem, one has to recognize that any formal system of logic, or at least the formal system of the rules of arithmetic logic, are incomplete by the fact in every formal arithmetic system that attempts to find the “basic axioms”, there can be found an axiom which agrees with the other axioms, i.e it isn’t refutable, but it can’t be derived from the foundational axioms. Therefore, there are missing rules. In fact, there might be an infinite number of basic arithmetic rules. Examples of these axioms are propositions like a=a, a+b=b+a, etc.

This should NOT be confused with the idea that all metalanguages or systems are fundamentally INCONSISTENT. Merely incomplete- as Lyotard says, this means that a set of axioms can prove or entail a certain number of other conclusions, but each theory has a “scope” or set of limits. This is so basic a proposition as to merit being common sense. For instance, general relativity is an accepted theory, it is viewed as legitimate science, certain calculations can be done on the basis of general relativity, but it has certain limitations at certain energy levels, special physical situations, etc. In fact, science often progresses by questioning the limitations of an existing theory and then creating a new theory that explains those previously unexplained phenomena.

So my grade- does Lyotard pass? Exceptionally well. He does a good job of translating Godel’s theory into basic language. But I’d give him a B, because we can derive more from Godel- Godel’s incompleteness theorem tells us even more about systems of knowledge. Moreover, Lyotard switches registers with regards to going into the realm of logic itself- do you notice? “All other languages can be translated into it, but it is not consistent with respect to negation”. To me this doesn’t necessarily follow from Godel. Even going with him that Godel’s theorem can be abstracted to all logical systems, incompleteness is NOT inconsistency!!! This may be some of the source of giving Lyotard a bad rap as a relativist.

It is true that science has to use the language of common sense, of discourse itself, to legitimate itself. Using the analogy of Godel can also be profitable. But a precise reading of what Godel’s incompleteness theorem actually is requires scientific literacy, requires (to make things even more complicated) not only an in depth knowledge of a concept, but also the intellectual tools to understand it. How’s that for an epistemological whopper!

Lyotard gets things 3/4 right, but opens himself up to the critique of pure relativism, instead of stating outright what he really is- a social constructivist. And one has to be an idiot to not be a social constructivist, because of course science is made by man. The question is whether the Knowledge (capital K) man has is fallible. And….it depends on the circumstance! And of course its incomplete!

Of course scientific research in this regard plays the political game, and it forms the kind of pursuits and questions they are after. But the “paradox” is that the science produced in the meantime as a result is not untrue- atomic physics is all too real. It would be better if we take what we need from Lyotard et. al. as social theorists, productive concepts like postmodern informational society, and use them to enter into a dialogue on what exactly is going on now. Zizek uses the critique that postmodern digital society concept actually can obscure the dynamics of capitalism- yes but maybe only the appropriation of this idea, not within the confines of Lyotard, where he is definitely employing Marxian analysis of social phenomena. Take this passage from the same chapter on the “Pragmatics of Science”:

“—-what happened at the end of the eighteenth century , with the first
industrial revolution , is that the reciprocal of this equation was discovered: no technology without wealth , but no wealth without technology. A technical apparatus requires an investment; but since it optimizes the efficiency of the task to which it is applied, it also optimizes the surplus-value derived from this improved performance.
All th at is needed is for the surplus-value to be realized , in other
words, for the product of the task performed to be sold . And the system
can be sealed in the following way : a portion of the sale is
recycled into a research fund dedicated to further performance
improvement. It is at this precise moment that science becomes a
force of production , in other words, a moment in the circulation of

It was more the desire for wealth than the desire for knowledge
that initially forced upon technology the imperative of performance
improvement and product realization. The “organic” connection
between technology and profit preceded its union with science.
Techn ology became important to contemporary knowledge only
through the mediation of a generalized spirit of performativity. Even
today, progress in knowledge is not totally subordinated to technological investment.” 

The obvious employment of terms like surplus-value means that Lyotard is faithful to the Marxist cause of identifying science as a force of production, as Marx elaborates on in the German Ideology. Lyotard takes this history of science and abstracts it to the development of technology and capitalism itself. He demonstrates that science was not always synonymous with technological advancement- today those two are intimately connected, due to the development of research institutions, which he goes into. Lyotard’s critique here seems to be that while there are some “pure research institutions”, the goal is not knowledge as such, but technological advancement for profit.

Of course, one could apply this critique to the field of medical research in pharmaceuticals, for example, with great effect, and that would have to be done in detail and in the concrete. Some anthropologists have done things to that effect, looking at the Monsanto Corporation and how research on safety is rushed in order to put out a product in as quick a time as possible, specifically for fertilizers, pesticides, etc. I.e things that are necessary for the survival of the human species at the moment. But what does this level of abstraction miss?

It misses the fact that in the politics of Science in the abstract, there are many fields, many different social interactions. Yes there is one principle axiomatic that has corrupted this field, that has been correctly identified by Lyotard, and that is the axiom of Capital, of gaining power and notoriety, but often what comes out of this is not only the commodification of knowledge, as Lyotard has so presciently realized is happening, but also the creation of new real powerful technologies. This is why I believe that instead of postmodern informational society, media society, even society of the spectacle, or bureaucratic society of controlled consumption (as Jameson has identified as parallels for Lyotard’s concepts), what is the society of today? It is the digital society of control. This is the immanent, concrete way we should talk about the world, because you know, in your heart, that these mechanisms of control operate. They will find you if you don’t pay your credit card bill- believe me, they will find you. The knowledge of how that credit card operates is well known, well defined, almost perfect. There is a margin of error, things that can be exploited, but in objective, solid (or should I say fluid) reality. So is there such a thing as “objective reality”? Again, I want to make this perfectly clear- it depends on your definition!! If your definition of objective reality is something separate from human consciousness, something inherently stable, then no. If it means that reality simply exists, then yes. Of course there is reality! And as we are beginning to show in quantum physics, that reality is no different than virtual reality. It’s one big show, and the advertisers know just how to manipulate it.

Have a happy Christmas season, and remember, Never Work, fuck Trump, and don’t buy beyond necessity.

P.S: Do I even need to mention how horrible Trump’s tax plan is? The bank robbery has begun


Nietzschean eternal return, Deleuzian immanence, cosmology and metaphysics

Recently, I have noticed certain parallels between the philosophies of Gilles Deleuze and Friedrich Nietzsche and the findings of modern cosmology. First I will talk about the relation between Nietzsche and modern cosmology, then I will bring in Deleuze

In a talk about the physical reasons for time’s unidirectionality, called Why is Time a One-Way Street, by theoretical physicist Leonard Susskind, I was instantly astonished that the idea of eternal recurrence is now being seriously considered by cosmologists. It was only a matter of time, however the reason for the resurgence in this idea of recurrence is due precisely due to the theoretical impossibility or the discovered lack of reliability of theories that treat the universe as a “one-shot” universe. Meaning, that cosmologies (theories of the development of the universe) which hypothesize that the universe has a beginning, middle, and end, or a Big Bang beginning and a Big Crunch ending, are being tossed out the window. In favor of what?

Well, due to complex reasons relating to probabilities of life occurring in a universe, cosmologists consider a cosmological theory that allows eternal recurrence to be a hallmark of a failure. Eternal recurrence in this context would be this: while the second of law of thermodynamics requires the universe to be constantly losing order in a system (entropy of a system most of the time tends to increase), quantum randomness entails that given a infinitely large amount of time, thermal death of a system will actually reverse and things will actually grow spontaneously ordered again. So, in other words, while we do see things gradually tending toward disorder, given unique facts about our universe, including the fact that it is expanding (positive cosmological constant) the possibility of eternal recurrence cannot be ruled out.

Why do physicists view eternal recurrence as such a big problem? Perhaps I didn’t follow along as well as I should have, but the idea that if eternal recurrence of the universe is true, in a kind of relative sense of the term (not things repeating back on themselves automatically, as Nietzsche seems to imply) then the universe would look different then it does now seems funny to me. Susskind offered the explanation that this would imply that the universe would have only one mind, called a Boltzmann brain. Here is a link to a definition of the Boltzmann brain:

My theory is that the theory of the Boltzmann brain itself is flawed, not our understanding of cosmology or the anthropic principle. It seems that we have made the right observations. Coming to conclusions about why there isn’t only one consciousness in the universe is pretty clear- evolution just doesn’t work that way, for a brain like ours to develop takes reproductive life, and therefore many lifeforms. The article mentions that multiple universes resolves the Boltzmann brain paradox. I offer this formulation of a resolution to the Boltzmann brain paradox.

The ideas of eternal recurrence, or the observed low-entropy universe as a fluctuation in a high-entropy meta-universe, and the idea of the multiverse, or the Big Bang occurring from random quantum fluctuations as a bubble forming in a meta-universe, as already hypothesized by other physicists. [Some cosmologists disagree about this, I should add, due to technical physical reasons, and still believe in a multiverse, but I’m arguing more on a broad philosophical level]. But the anthropic principle holds true- the only reason we can observe the universe at all is because we are here by chance alone. The universe as we know it, ordered, seemingly there on purpose, is the result of eternal recurrence, or the fact that there are infinite possibilities that could have occurred and we are the one that worked. The vast majority of other possible universes, whether real or imaginary, were simply voids, empty space.

From this cosmological perspective, the idea of transcendence itself seems absolutely silly. David Hume’s critique of the cosmological argument rears it head again, and one realizes based on the sheer scale and physical properties of our universe that the idea of infinite regression is not a remote possibility, but so overwhelmingly obvious as to be almost apparent.

This is where the Deleuzian idea of immanence comes in. One should not posit a transcendental dimension or component to anything whatsoever- this is where New Agers obviously stray when it comes to their interpretation of quantum mechanics. Rather than see the more obvious metaphysical implications of quantum physics when it comes to fundamental randomness or chance, New Agers would rather reassert consciousness as a transcendental plane, rather than a plane immanent to the world, a simple Being-in-the-world. Consciousness is not a mystery- and neither is thinking. What is a mystery continues to be the eternal Whole, the One-All, the plane of immanence itself.

In short, when one hears that cosmologists are reconsidering the idea of a multiverse, or that there are ten dimensions of space, don’t start foaming at the mouth looking for a window to heaven. It is only an expansion of the idea of the vastness of the universe in space and time. What is out there is mostly nothing, and vast tracts of unreachable stars. But maybe, just maybe, we will experience that quantum randomness for ourselves, that highly improbable moment…who knows what we will find?

To me, I take comfort in the fact that we are no longer at the center of the universe. That’s a lot of pressure. I’d rather be a product of infinite play of chance then the creation of an omnipotent deity. Maybe there are rules in this universe that we have not discovered yet- a kind of ontological freedom that we are only now beginning to grasp. Perhaps humanity can make of itself whatever it wants. And on a final note, I don’t think this idea, this kind of cosmic dreaming, is an attempt to rediscover the transcendent, if it is interpreted in the right way. All it means is that we are free as human beings to choose our own destinies- in fact, as Sartre said, terrifyingly free.

But enough about us. What is astonishing to me is the idea that things will, given enough time, repeat. The whole world, from start to finish, the whole history of mankind, in a different corner of the universe. This is a distinct ontological possibility. I’m glad that we are cut off from ever seeing worlds like this, these kind of parallel universes. If there is one thing mankind has learned about the universe, its that it is more inhospitable and terrifying (from a human perspective) than we could have ever imagined. The vast voids of nothing, dancing infinitely in their impersonal swirls of gas and light. It is also ironic that we essentially owe our existence to immense furnaces, points of high entropy.

Is there a satisfying conclusion to this picture of the universe? No, if only to marvel at the sheer immensity and weirdness of the infinite

Why Tibet matters

Great lecture by one of the premier Tibetan historians, Tsering Shakya, on conceptions of Tibet by the Tibetans themselves and by China. Tsering is one of the foremost Tibetan intellectuals who give detailed reasons for why Tibet is an internal colony of China and challenges the “Marxist” orthodoxy on Tibetan issues

A friendly deconstruction of Bruno Latour

In this post, I will attempt to have an extended dialogue with Latour on his terms (for my original thoughts on Pandora’s Hope by Bruno Latour, see my previous post on this subject for an introduction to the topic). I will attempt to line by line, paragraph by paragraph, engage with Latour’s text and try to extricate some meaning out of it. I really do believe this is an excellent book- groundbreaking even. It is essentially an apology for science studies, the study of science philosophically and anthropologically. Nonetheless, I will try to add to it, as an “interlocutor”.

For now, I will limit myself to Chapter 1 of the book. Latour refers throughout the chapter to the reader as a friend, and as a friend, I cannot help but engage with the subject matter as an outside observer who knows how texts are put together. This is what I mean by deconstruction. However, as Latour points out, deconstruction is often satisfied at taking apart the pieces and not forming any kind of conclusion- I will attempt to deconstruct and then reconstruct Latour’s discourse, to engage with the actual ideas put forth by him, but I will attempt to salvage the concept of deconstruction in the process.

The book starts out, as I said before, with a psychologist asking Latour “do you believe in reality?” Latour goes on to say that:

The psychologist’s suspicion struck me as deeply unfair, since he did not seem to understand that in this guerrilla war that being conducted in the no-man’s land between the “two cultures”, we were the ones being attacked by militants, activists, sociologists, philosophers, and technophobes of all hues, precisely because of our interest in the inner workings of scientific facts. Who loves the sciences, I asked myself, more than this tiny scientific tribe that has learned to open up facts, machines, and theories with all their roots, blood vessels, networks, rhizomes, and tendrils?…Then I realized that I was wrong.” (3)

Latour portrays himself as a lover of science, not its “deconstructer”, in the sense offered by postmodernism and Derrida. He will turn to this question later. However, he goes on to say that he acknowledges this is not how science itself sees him, and science studies, that science views it as an attack on its legitimacy. Here Latour acknowledges struggling openly with this question of the “science wars”. First, he tries attempting to find a “genealogy” of the epistemological perspective of science. He starts with Descartes, and here I agree with him, when he says that the concept of an “outside” reality separate from us started principally with Descartes.

“Descartes was asking for absolute certainty from a brain-in-a-vat, a certainty that was not needed when the brain (or mind) was firmly attached to its body and the body thoroughly involved in its normal ecology…Absolute certainty is the sort of neurotic fantasy that only a surgically removed mind would look for after it had lost everything else…For Descartes the only route by which his mind-in-a-vat could reestablish some reasonably sure connection with the outside world was through God. My friend the psychologist was thus right to phrase his query using the same formula I had learned in Sunday school: “Do you believe in reality?”- “Credo in unum deum”, or rather “Credo in unum realitam”

In this passage, Latour points to the fact that the Cartesian cogito is a disembodied mind, that Cartesian dualism has been an error that has divorced the mind from the body and thereby formed the basis of the rationalist error which Nietzsche sought to correct, by remembering that the human being is also a flesh and blood body that feels pain. “I think therefore I am”- the cry of the navel-gazing philosopher. So far so good. I wish there was a kind of summarizing statement, despite the fact that he quotes Lyotard, that science in its current form contains a metanarrative about reality, the Cartesian metaphysical inheritance and baggage. Maybe he’s trying to convey this to a more popular audience, but he doesn’t have to. The book actually becomes very technical.

Here’s where I start to take issue with Latour’s philosophical narrative. Latour goes through the admittedly “slapdash” history of Western philosophy by saying that the conception of the mind got slowly more disconnected from reality, essentially implying that Western philosophy was committed the error of solipsism. Not quite, but Latour is doing two jobs at once. First, he dismisses the epistemology of empiricism and the tabula rasa by saying that in this conception of the world “they were still dealing with a mind looking through the gaze at a lost outside world”. Latour basically claims that the principle of the cogito still acts in empiricism, subtly, even though empiricism first and foremost a critique of Cartesian rationalism. I fault him for not going further into this, even though I think he has a point about this part. Latour starts going off the rails when he talks about Kant.

This philosophy was thought, strangely enough, to be the deepest of all, because it had at once managed to abandon the quest for absolute certainty and to retain it under the banner of “universal a prioris”, a clever sleight of hand that hid the lost path even deeper in the thickets. Kant had invented a form of constructivism in which the mind-in-a-vat built everything by itself but not entirely without constraints: what it learned from itself had to be universal and could be elicited only by some experimental contact with a reality out there.

Before we get into Latour’s interpretation of Kant, what is this “lost path” of which he speaks? Naive realism. No joke! Here is his conclusion:

“Through a series of counter-Copernican revolutions, Kant’s nightmarish fantasy slowly lost its pervasive dominance over the philosophy of science. There was again a clear sense in which we could say words have reference to the world and that science grasps the things themselves. Naivete was back at last, a naivete appropriate for those who had never understood how the world could be “outside” in the first place.”

Now, before we get into this, I’ll give a brief synopsis of what Latour calls the “fear of mob rule” and its effect on scientific reasoning. This is the best part of the chapter by far. It offers a sociological and genealogical explanation of why the psychologist asked the question. He traces its deep roots back to Plato’s Gorgias and how Socrates’ argument with Callicles, which took the form of a debate on whether Might makes Right, was already in an aristocratic frame in which Might was a moral might of the ruler, not the mob of common people that had only “brute strength”.

Here is Latour’s summary of it:

As I said, two fears lay behind my friend’s strange question. The first one, the fear of a mind-in-a-vat losing its connection to a world outside, has a shorter history than the second, which stems from this truism: if reason does not rule, then mere force will take over”  (10)

In essence, Latour is saying that scientists want to guard against the postmodernist idea what is true is only what the mob deems true at a given moment, and thus more input by non-scientists into the field is seen as an attack on scientific objectivity. This statement, taken by itself, is pure genius. The two fears are essentially correct. My problem is what goes around them. The fear of the mob is also most associated with an essentially Hobbesian politics, where the human subject is essentially something to be controlled.  No mention of Hobbes in the book. This can be forgiven in my mind, but his defense of naive realism and dismissal of Kant cannot.

But first let me get to Latour’s conclusion:

Science studies, as I see it, has made two related discoveries that were very slow in coming because of the power of the settlement [between epistemology, morality, politics, and psychology] that I have now exposed- as well as for a few other reasons I will explain later. This joint discovery is that neither the object nor the social has the inhuman character that Socrates’ and Callicles’ melodramatic show required…When we say that science is social, the word social for us does not bear the stigma of the ‘human debris'”. 

Again, this is brilliant. The chief insight is the connection between fear of mob rule and scientific construction of facts.  Latour attempts to reconnect reality, by way of a simple diagram, by saying that nature, society, mind, etc were never separate. My problem is namely the epistemology he defends at the end of all this, the epistemology I claim is not his real one.

Latour invokes the poetics of a world in which the objects shape people and people shape objects, the scientist is shaped by his experiments as much as he shapes his experiment. What absolutely puzzles me is that despite Latour’s focus in later chapters on scientific method and on the precise way that scientific data is categorized, systematized, etc. Latour chooses to defend a naive realism. I chock this up to the fact that Latour is associated with object oriented ontology. As I have stated in other posts, OOO talks about the interaction between objects in the real world. Latour chooses to see the construction of scientific facts as a result of interaction between objects, social actors, etc. Latour defends interdisciplinary studies in this way, in which more connections is good. I have no problem with this. My problem is his obvious disdain for Derridean deconstruction, which I believe accounts for his disdain of Kant.

For one, Latour has his philosophical history incorrect. Latour should find a worthy ally in Kant in science studies, with a few tweaks. By taking Kant’s transcendental a priori categories through which the mind views reality, and substituting leaned cognitive interpretive mechanisms, Latour could see Kant in his proper context as properly revolutionary, instead of a relic of a bygone era. Latour does not recognize how his entire project, indeed his entire philosophical existence, depends on Kant’s innovation, on Kant’s simple recognition that the reality is experienced through the mind, and that space and time are categories by which we experience reality, not natural categories inherent to reality itself. Latour, despite this, seems to defend a Newtonian view of the world proper to Descartes, who he rightfully despises. Latour has abandoned his philosophical predecessors as simply those who confused and constructed virtual “prison cells” of thought, who kept us from viewing reality as it always was, just simple connection, simple embeddedness. Latour thus, in a very strange way, implies that we should analyze things and interactions between people “through the lens of our everyday experience of reality”, believing our eyes, etc. As if this is not what the scientists do that he is supposed to critically examine! Latour does not go as far as to defend “common sense”, since he believes this common sense in our culture has been hijacked by fear of mob rule and the Cartesian cogito, but he commits another sin which is not as easily recovered from- ultimately believing in his perceptions. In that sense, his critique of empiricism is also strange, because he seems to be one, just like the philosophers he intends to criticize.

In short, Latour, in the introduction to his book on the critical study of science, of how science actually is practiced, ends up being an apology to his critics. Latour ends up making the absurd statement that “we in science studies may have finally found a way to free the sciences from politics”- unless I’m missing some deep point, the idea that science can be ultimately extricated from political and social forces, or even redeemed of these forces, made cognizant of them so that that “bias” can be eliminated, is absurd!!

In my naivete, I had assumed before reading that Latour was a Foucauldian. Now I realize he must find Foucault abhorrent (he states this explicitly in a later chapter), rather than acknowledging that he owes a great debt to Foucault, without whom he might not exist. Maybe the simple expression “Power/Knowledge” is an oversimplification- the idea that they are inextricably interlinked, especially in the realm of what was previously considered “objective” hard science, is now unquestionable. His purposeful distancing of himself from his French forebears is bizarre.

Latour consciously positions himself as a Researcher, as a defender of Research, and an anti-postmodernist, in order to rid himself of the stench of the humanist that he is. He positions himself as completely in between the sciences and the humanities, rather than simply a social scientist, an anthropologist. Latour is at his best doing what anthropologists do- simple and clear thick description. Normally, anthropologists start out their books without complex philosophical interludes, explaining their research methods. Not for the hybrid philosopher-anthropologist! Latour is so obviously and culturally French that its impossible that he is aware of it. This is why Latour’s critique of postmodernism’s obsession with reflexivity, of questioning one’s own interpretation, seems suspicious.

In conclusion, Latour’s project itself is interesting and worthwhile. I am less than impressed with the philosophical history, despite his pedigree. There seems to be a veritable obsession in his work with theory, and despite this, I see that he has taken sides in a philosophical battlefield and revealed certain prejudices. The section in the first chapter about what science studies offer the sciences and the humanities is very telling, but can essentially be boiled down to a call for more collaboration. The idea that philosophical revelations will unfold or that the sciences will once and for all overcome mortal human weaknesses I find not only funny, but something that undermines what Latour is trying to do. I believe Latour could approach this whole project with a deeper degree of humility.

Latour will undoubtedly see my critique (if I he ever sees a lowly grad student’s musings on this subject) as the ramblings of die-hard humanist, deconstructivist relativist. Far from it! I simply believe that Latour needs to retake Anthropological Theory. Through my anthropological training, I cannot help but see any text, including Latour’s, as the product of culture, or more precisely, as the limited product of a human mind, necessarily unfinished and driven toward a particular audience. His book, including the chapter “The Invention of the Science Wars”, is meant to allay the fears of the scientists he studies- “do not worry, we are your allies!”. Latour does discuss how politics intertwines with science of course, through funding, institutions, etc. But must he realize that science is never neutral, that there are ideological enemies, that the science wars are already raging among the scientists themselves! Of course he must, he knows this subject better than anyone else. But Latour basically suffers from a principle misconception of what deconstruction is, which Derrida criticized so often its almost impossible Latour himself didn’t hear it in grad school. As an interpreter of Derrida says:

“Deconstruction is not synonymous with “destruction”, however. It is in fact much closer to the original meaning of the word ‘analysis’ itself, which etymologically means “to undo” — a virtual synonym for “to de-construct.” … If anything is destroyed in a deconstructive reading, it is not the text, but the claim to unequivocal domination of one mode of signifying over another. A deconstructive reading is a reading which analyses the specificity of a text’s critical difference from itself.”

Latour’s critical difference from itself, the construction of a kind of master discourse about Science, without the necessary degree of reflexivity, is what makes his work, in my mind, at least in this first chapter, insufficiently anthropological. In other words, the interpretive mechanisms through which Latour analyzes a given scientific practice are largely unstated, and the inner workings of his thought process and how he comes to a conclusion (reflexivity) is apparent in this text.

“Latour has a well-referenced bibliography, that’s how he came to his conclusion! His thought process is apparent throughout the book!” Latour’s dismissal of the concept that Western philosophy has relied on a metaphysics of presence over absence reveals his lack of awareness of how exactly the construction of an “outside world”, his principle question, is even accomplished. The metaphysics of presence, logocentrism- all of these could be Latour’s tools and conceptual weapons. Instead, he chooses to ally himself with naive realism, and leave the blueprints of his narrative of philosophical history sketch to the imagination. That is what I mean

Any questions?


Preliminary thoughts on Bruno Latour’s Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies

More and more when I delve into the subject of the interpretation of science this question keeps popping up: What is Reality? Does Reality exist? Moreover, does Objective Reality exist? Are those two terms different?

Now often, I jump the gun, I have barely scraped the introduction of Latour’s Pandora’s Hope and already I know what he is going to say (probably because I read the back of the book). I’m also simultaneously watching a talk by string theorist Leonard Susskind and reading the opening chapters of a book currently being written by quantum physicist Ron Garret. But I need to get my thoughts out on paper before I lose them, or they change given new information. Here goes:

Latour was inspired to write his book when a psychologist asked him “Do you believe in reality?” The intention behind the question is obvious- are you some kind of postmodernist that doesn’t believe in reality at all, undermining all of science? Latour answered of course he does (followed up by asking what’s your point) and he was offended because he thought scientists should understand that those doing science studies were trying to make the sciences even more objective. Then Latour realized the political dimensions of saying that scientists are fallible human creatures, etc…If I am stretching or misrepresenting what Latour thinks, I apologize, but I’m previously acquainted with his views in We have Never Been Modern.

Latour asks on the back cover- why did the idea of an independent reality free of human interaction emerge in the first place?

Here’s my answer to that, as yet uninfluenced by what Latour has said:

The idea of reality as independent of human interference is essentially a Western construct, necessary for the very existence of science in the first place. It was basically a postulate used to try investigating reality itself, to the point where reality and objective reality are synonymous.

However, now scientists have to deal with “observer bias” and all sorts of phenomena in which human interference changes the parameters of what’s being observed. It’s no secret that everything is connected- it’s intuitive! This doesn’t imply anything strange or mystical at all, its very simple. Step in a river, and its a different river than it would have been if you had not stepped in it (maybe not by much, but it is different). This principle goes for social sciences like psychology and anthropology as well as the hard sciences such as physics.

Therefore, quantum physicists, through various phenomenon that have to take into account the physical effects of observation, and the various laws that come out of that like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, were the first to abandon this notion of objective reality, or reality independent of human “observation” (I clear up some of the New Age misinterpretations of this in another post). What I’m getting at is that some scientists may be turned off to the notion of denying that there is such a thing as objective reality because our terms have been conflated. We are essentially talking at cross purposes. The other reason may be that like Latour says, it threatens their very reason for existence.

To me this is not rocket science at all. This is because from a young age I have learned the all the terms of Buddhist metaphysics, namely, dependent arising, interdependence, cause and conditions, the lack of inherent existence of any phenomenon, etc. This last one, the lack of inherent existence of any phenomenon (shunyata), or the lack of independent existence of any phenomenon, is what the lack of something called “objective reality” I think really means. No need to invoke general relativity at all. Its perfectly clear to anyone given enough thought, and every single student of Buddhism has had to be led through this “insight” meditation. Through a certain traditional “thought experiment” the student comes to realize that because no object is independent of any other, the designation of that object as an object as such is relative. This is the literal term that is used! In Buddhist metaphysics, there is absolute reality (in which there is no things as such) and relative reality, in which there are things that exist relative to other things and relative to our minds.

Maybe its because I have been sort of inculcated in Buddhist ways of thinking, namely the Middle Way school of thinking common to Tibetan Buddhism, that I find these debates about whether there is reality outside of human interaction generally very boring.

And this comes back to my original “critique” of Latour. My critique of Latour and company wasn’t that I disagreed with them- I do agree with them! It’s that the way they come up with their conclusions is basically reinventing the wheel. I contend that the only reason we were able to get outside this Western philosophical frame of reference (starting with Nietzsche, Heidegger, etc) is exposure to the non-West. It’s well known that Schopenhauer was one of the first to study Buddhism in Europe seriously based on new translations, and Schopenhauer was one of Nietzsche’s primary influences, etc.

What I am saying is this- if Latour came to his conclusions independently using science studies and his own “genealogy of thought”, then I give him all the credit in the world. A quick look through his index reveals references to Foucault, Leroi-Gourhan, Lyotard, etc. All people who have influenced me- but all I’m saying is that Latour is still using in what me and fellow philosophy blogger Landzek at Constructive Undoing are attempting to call the “scholar’s paradigm”, which is basically a reliance on Authors and Authorities with a capital A (something Foucault and Derrida, incidentally enough, wrote a lot about).

So what does Buddhist philosophy have to say about independent objective reality directly? Buddhist philosophy, before talking about reality in general, usually approaches the topic of emptiness of inherent existence by way of talking about selflessness, or the lack of an inherent self or “I”. The primary Buddhist philosophical text (as opposed to a strictly religious text or sutra) that relates to this concept is the 7th century philosopher Nagarjuna’s Treatise on the Middle Way. In the Eighteenth Chapter of that treatise, Nagarjuna states that:

“If the aggregates were the self, it would be produced and disintegrate. If it were different from the aggregates, it would lack the aggregates’ characteristics”. 

This is a formulation of emptiness in terms of selflessness. In the commentary it explains that this verse means that because there is one self, because the self is made up of many aggregates, then it cannot be identical to its parts. Similarly, if it something completely different than the parts, then it would lack the characteristics of the parts. Seeing that humans lack an inherent identity is much easier to show then an object’s lack of inherent existence, however.

Nagarjuna goes on to say that:

“Whatever arises relying on something else, is from the outset not that. Nor is it other than that. Thus it is neither non-existent nor permanent.”

This is a statement about causality. A cause is neither completely identical to nor completely different than its effect, because the cause transforms into the effect. In the words of the commentary on the text, “dependently arising nominally imputed phenomena  are neither inherently one with nor inherently different from their causes and conditions or parts and their mode of existence is between the two extremes in that they are neither totally non-existent nor do they have any reified existence”.

This great tradition of the Middle Way (Madhyamika) school of philosophy founded by Nagarjuna was studied for at least 4 years by every monk in many great monasteries of Tibet. Maybe you will say that I am appealing to another kind of authority in asserting that Buddhist philosophy has something to say about this problem of objective reality. My biases aside, I can tell you that these fundamental truths are not dependent (funny enough) on any religion, they are truths about reality itself. But Buddhism has and will continue to have more to say on this subject precisely because it has been the topic of intellectual for well nigh two millennia. The idea that they were just all sitting around chanting in monasteries for two thousand years is a false one based on lack of exposure to the tradition. Many other  Eastern schools of thought have other things to say about this, namely Zen, Taoism, etc. It’s the lack of a single reference to Eastern philosophy in something like Latour that really bugs me, and it just furthers our Western mythology of scientific objectivity that Latour is trying, whether he likes it or not, to undermine.

Despite all I’ve said, I’m sure that I will thoroughly enjoy Latour’s book. To be accepted, Latour generally has to go through certain conventions and hoops, and I perfectly understand that. His project of science studies is something different than a rethinking of traditional Western ontology through Buddhist categories. My hope is that one day the name Nagarjuna will be cited like Hegel in an academic bibliography. Then maybe one day my job as an anthropologist has been accomplished.


More stuff on string theory- great lecture


If you want to know what’s actually going on in some awesome new area of physics, don’t watch a ******** Ted Talk. Watch an actual lecture. Here, Leonard Susskind, world-renowned theoretical physicist and professor at Stanford University, presents some of the theoretical and experimental origins of string theory (yes there is experimental data which gives some credence to string theory- I was blown away too!). Let the particle physicists be the experts on particle physics- now was that so hard?

I haven’t watched the whole lecture yet (it’s a whopping 1 hour and 45 minutes) but I can tell you that this isn’t some bogus idea coming out of the mind of some amateur- to think that it ever was is pretty ridiculous. Whether its true or not is a different story. But it certainly would explain certain patterns found in the data.

P.S: I’ve had a rethinking on the value of Bruno Latour and his whole project on the anthropology of science. I think I was too quick to judge his contribution- he’s probably famous for a reason. I just checked out one of his books called Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. I know Latour also wrote a book on early experiments in quantum physics. I wonder what he would have to say about string theory. We’ll see what I think at the end. More posts to come, stay tuned!

String theory and the problem of scientific revolutions

The article I’ll be talking about today is this one by Ethan Siegel called “Why String Theory is not a Scientific Theory”. Here’s the link:



Long story short: the astrophysicist/author in the above article needs to read some Thomas Kuhn and his book the Structure of Scientific Revolutions. What do I mean by this?

A Ph.D in astrophysics does not give one instant credibility to talk about a theory that is essentially about the subatomic world. Pardon my layman’s knowledge, but isn’t the study of the macro-scales of the cosmos different than studying the microscopic? Dealing with quantum physics all day and the mathematics of quantum physics is categorically different than studying stars.

With the immense proliferation of stuff claiming to be knowledge out there now, self-proclaimed experts, even Ph.D’s who then claim to know about every other subject are rampant. This goes in my mind for something even as close as astrophysics and quantum physics. I have no doubt that the author of the article here has a vastly superior knowledge of physics. That being said, his dive into philosophy, indeed ANY physicist’s dive into philosophy about how science is done, how revolutions in science occur, are fraught with problems.

First I’ll quote an article on the same subject by Tom Hartsfield that basically gives the same argument as Siegel, but uses the language of philosophy to justify its claim:

“String theorists met jointly with academic philosophers at a conference last month to talk about what we require of a theory for it to be held as correct. Do we need to test it experimentally? Or, are the qualities of beauty, consistency, mathematical interest, and greater funding proof enough?

It is a debate on which of two philosophies science ought to follow: empiricism or rationalism. The choice, to this physicist, is stingingly clear.

Science has been for its entire history fantastically successful precisely because it requires experimental tests to verify and confirm its claims. That criterion can be defined simply: empiricism. Ideas are not true simply because of their logic or conceptual beauty but because they are observed by human senses — or the extension thereof by cameras, telescopes, spectroscopes, thermometers, and so forth — and verified. Empiricism is not necessarily the best system of philosophy for all endeavors. Moral human beings accept many ideas and laws that are not learned from observation but instead found within (or without) and supported by the heart.

A different type of philosophical system describes the new guidelines that string theorists lust for: rationalism.

Rationalism derives truth via the process of deductive logic. Rationalism is the system of the mathematician. Theorems are logically correct because they can be built logically from a dictionary of axioms followed by deductions.

This conference greatly interests me, because apparently no Kuhnians were there. I’ll explain what I mean later. It is interesting that Hartsfield frames the debate around string theory as a debate between rationalism and empiricism.

So some background. String theory is a theory which purports to reconcile quantum mechanics with general relativity into a unified theory. It is a complex set of mathematical axioms which describe elementary particles as consisting of vibrating open or closed strings. String theory also predicts the existence of multiple new dimensions in space, because for the math to work, it requires these extra dimensions.

So essentially the argument from Siegel is basically that because string theory has predictions that are not testable by current instruments, it is not justifiably called a scientific theory.

Now I’m on my guard for pseudo-science as well, and its interesting how Siegel uses Ted-talks to back up the claim that string theory is essentially just a branch of mathematics. I’m also willing to say that string theory should just be called the superstrings hypothesis or something- now we are getting technical about what a theory is.

However his and Hartsfield’s essential argument about how science proceeds has been debunked a long time ago. Science does not proceed in a calm fashion of simply waiting for the better theory to come along and plug the holes of the first theory. Thomas Kuhn argued that there is a necessarily cultural, and therefore conceptual dimension, to science. They always use Kepler’s theory as an example in this narrative as well.

So the idea is that science can only proceed through observation, but its funny how Hartsfield and Siegel use Einstein as an example. Siegel’s justification is that Einstein’s theory could be tested and verified- however Siegel admits that string theory can also be verified, but its not possible with our current technology. My answer to that is- so what? It still makes predictions doesn’t it? But his caricature of how science actually proceeds is laughable. The idea that Einstein did no mathematical “pure reasoning” is absolutely absurd. Everyone knows Einstein was first and foremost a mathematician, and some of the proofs of general relativity could only be tested very recently.

Hartsfield strawmans rationalism as only caring about the beauty of an idea, instead of its internal consistency. If a mathematical theory is internally consistent, that actually means something and pushes mathematics forward. I have heard mathematicians talk about how even if string theory isn’t correct, its still pushing the envelope of theoretical mathematics (and the mathematics of how objects act in 6-10 dimensions) forward. So the idea that there are no concepts or ideas involved in science, that it is pure observation, has always been one of the guiding myths of science- in fact its one thing that gives science, or rather physics, its legitimacy.

The point the author was trying to make about Kepler and Newton is that it doesn’t matter how simple or beautiful a theory is, if it doesn’t correspond to reality its not true. This is so self-evident that it makes me laugh. But the idea that string theory is inherently non-falsifiable may actually be true- but again, one of the biggest quandaries in philosophy is that if something is non-falsifiable, that doesn’t make it untrue. It may mean, as the author claims, that its a weak theory, but to me the author doesn’t engage with any of the theory surrounding string theory.

What’s my point? Ideas matter. If we can extrapolate from current models, models that are empirical, like quantum theory, then maybe we can make predictions about certain things. In this sense, I’m not arguing for rationalism against empiricism (whatever that means)- I’m arguing for arguing the merits of a scientific theory on the basis of science alone. What’s funny is that the author, in claiming to do that, is actually doing the exact opposite in my mind.

Does this mean I’m a proponent of string theory? I can safely say I don’t have the theoretical physics background to make a claim one way or another. All I can say is that based on the fact that string theory isn’t provable by current instruments (by a longshot- it would take energy 1 trillion times our largest particle accelerators to prove string theory definitively correct, which might be pretty dangerous) perhaps theoretical physics (emphasis on theoretical) has hit a threshold where people are realizing that the line between philosophical speculation and mathematics, the line between science and philosophy, cosmology and cosmogony, has started to blur. I’m willing to give proponents of string theory the claim that they are doing actual work, trying to work within the mathematics of the Standard Model of Particle physics for example, but it is interesting that the territory that was once occupied solely by philosophy is now being usurped by science, and science is at a loss to prove its claims. The territory of the “big questions”- what is the universe made of? When did it begin? We have more answers to these questions for sure! But even more questions. The only big question is, as I have stated in my other posts about physics- have physicists hit a theoretical dead end? String theory, as well as some other TOE’s (theories of everything), represent in my mind not only science’s highest hopes for a complete totalizing knowledge about the world, but also its possible epistemological limits.

For an epistemological pragmatist, the question becomes- can we just practically assume the universe is made of strings? Will that make everything else work? And furthermore- if it is, what are the consequences of that theory, for my life?

To me, string theory does have one piece of elegance that I really like as a theory about the world and matter- it theorizes that all particles are not just strings, but vibrating string-like patterns of energy. This already agrees with modern physics (E=mc^2 anyone?) If one thing is for sure, physics has proved that stable self-contained concepts like matter and energy are not only convertible, but actually one in the same thing. Any theory about the world must take into account this basically inviolable philosophical law- that the universe is one inseparable whole, what some philosophers might call the One-All, in that the multiplicity is contained within the fundamental unity. The problem for the physicist then is explaining this multiplicity



Jazz- the art of cool


Some people think jazz music is about showing off, or about music that is all about the intellect. I couldn’t disagree more. Its all about soul. The emotion that is carried through jazz, from Ella Fitzgerald to Wynton Marsalis, is about diving into the depths of the human soul and seeing what kind of melodies and harmonies lie there. Its really about revealing the colors and possibilities that are out there in music. And its also about one thing that is uniquely American- the art of being cool.

What is cool? Maybe Jack Kerouac said it best in one of his poems:

“The world you see is just a movie in your mind.
Rocks dont see it.
Bless and sit down.
Forgive and forget.
Practice kindness all day to everybody
and you will realize you’re already
in heaven now.
That’s the story.
That’s the message.
Nobody understands it,
nobody listens, they’re
all running around like chickens with heads cut
off. I will try to teach it but it will
be in vain, s’why I’ll
end up in a shack
praying and being
cool and singing
by my woodstove
making pancakes.”

I don’t think my generation makes good music because they come from a place of fundamental anxiety. Metal music is about anxiety- anger, at its root. A lot of modern music comes from weird places in my mind. Jazz soothes people and calms people because it does come from that place in us that doesn’t try to force negative emotions onto people.


A collection of aphorisms

I am going to do this post in Nietzschean aphorisms because, I feel like it. They are all connected, but cover a wide range of topics.

  1.  All paradoxes about the infinite are not really paradoxes- all seemingly illogical conclusions that come from infinities and the mathematics of infinite series only seem that way, but actually there is a deeper intuition at play. The infinite must contain all within itself and yet be able to add more- that is the definition after all of infinite. Correspondingly, all mathematics about infinities is not fascinating, just simply boring.
  2.  This is what Nietzsche meant by the fact that “mystical explanations are thought to be deep, the truth is they are not even shallow.” However this aphorism itself will be misunderstood by those who think that Nietzsche only thought that religion tricked the foolish. Nietzsche elsewhere in his corpus praised the surface of things, the shallowness, as opposed to pretensions of being “deep”. Therefore, paradoxically, Nietzsche’s statement is a praise of mysticism, or rather, a recognition that those who have “mystical insight” only have relative insight to the “herd”.
  3. One could misinterpret Nietzsche’s above-mentioned aphorism as pretentious, as a claim to immediate understanding of all metaphysical insights. But rather, Nietzsche understood that mystical understandings of the world precisely work from taking what is everyday ordinary experience and making it uncommon. We all have experienced those moments (which may be profoundly uncomfortable) where suddenly we see something we thought we knew very well and suddenly it seems frightening or strange.
  4. Human beings only learn through experience. The constant sensory flux of information, combined with the overwhelming amount of stuff that is in the world and the fact that the world is always changing, means we only learn through repetition. (Oh there’s that thing again- what was it called? Cow!)
  5. This is what Tantric Buddhism or Zen means by the fact that ordinary mind is the basis for everything, or rather, why the ordinary itself is brought out as something to be exalted. Because behind what we view everyday, if we alter our perception, are entire worlds. Like in the scene at the beginning of Blue Velvet by David Lynch, where a dead man is laying on the ground, and they gradually begin to zoom into his ear, and one begins to see the bugs crawling on the grass. Behind our normal human way of viewing the world, there are things that are normally beyond our perception.
  6. Much of the unseen world has been conquered by humanity, through microscopes, telescopes, infrared detectors, or simply exploring places that were ignored, forgotten, or previously uncharted in our own world, like the bottom of the ocean. Most of the world is now aware of things that are invisible- how incredible is that! Things like viruses, bacteria, etc. Therefore, one day, humanity will not only be aware of levels below that of the microbiological (the protein, DNA), but one day organic chemistry will also become ubiquitous, even though it is generally still specialized knowledge.
  7. Most of the world is aware of the atom, probably because of the advances in nuclear physics that led to nuclear reactors and the atomic bomb. But the quantum world is so new of a discovery, that humanity hasn’t had time to situate it into its understanding of the world. With discoveries of phenomena like the Planck length, we have seemingly hit the bottom of the barrel. History should show us that there is no bottom of the barrel. The human can transcend the human, but not through merging with technology. Humanity will simply no longer apply to what we have become.
  8. Through all of the change that humanity has undergone, we are still mortal beings of flesh and blood for whom death is no abstract concept, but an ever-pressing reality. Science will not save us from this. But perhaps now the difference is this- in days gone by humanity accepted the infinite, made peace with it. Now it stands as a dark chasm that is both threatening and a challenge waiting to be explored. The question now is- will we, or have we, already reached those limits? Is knowledge of humanity’s theoretical limitations a prerequisite for a full understanding of what it means to be human?
  9. Heidegger undertook a project of full ontological understanding of Being, through the lens of understanding humanity, or Dasein. One was necessary for the other. Dasein is fundamentally, for Heidegger, a being towards death. If this is Dasein’s fundamental nature, can other aspects of Dasein be changed? Our lifespan? The way we act in the world? The way we relate to each other as a species?
  10. I think of Star Trek every time I want to understand what humans could be someday. The Vulcans are just a picture of what we could become, a society wholly based on logic, with an understanding of who they are in the cosmos. As knowledge continues to build over time, could we not, in some sci-fi future, approximate the Vulcans? Couldn’t all of humanity be given, from the time of birth, the tools to go through the world and all knowledge from prior generations, like the Vulcans do in their Science Academy? In my mind, what humanity has yet to achieve is a kind of worldwide planetary society.
  11. A worldwide planetary society would not be homogeneous, or tell everyone what to do. But it would instead allow the entire world to thrive, and create an end to things like hunger through automatic restitution of lost crops due to natural disasters, etc. It would require basically a UN that we pay taxes to, and is fully functional with no dominance of one nation (cough cough the United States). Only then could humanity look back collectively on our dark past and basically say- what the hell happened?
  12. Zizek is right when we say we need to go further and not admire local organization. We need new international solutions to our problems- international laws with real teeth, levels above the state level that can coordinate things with a degree of actual consistency. As it is, our fledgling attempt at world order has failed- it did not stop Rwanda, it did not Bosnia, or Darfur. And it certainly won’t stop Syria, because we have yet to let go of the doctrine of national sovereignty

Dzogchen- the path of pure joy

“The actual essence, pristine rigpa [awareness],
cannot be improved upon, so virtue is profitless,
and it cannot be impaired, so vice is harmless;
in its absence of karma there is no ripening of pleasure or pain;
in its absence of judgment, no preference for samsara or nirvana; ·
in its absence of articulation, it has no dimension;
in its absence of past and future, rebirth is an empty notion:
who is there to transmigrate? and how to wander?
what is karma and how can it mature?
Contemplate the reality that is like the clear sky!”

-Longchen Rabjam, Treasury of Natural Liberation

Dzogchen is the tradition in Tibetan Buddhism considered the highest path, the culmination of all paths, and yet it is also the path of non-doing, of spontaneous, natural enlightenment or freedom. Consequently, it carries profound implications, which is why this is the school that is spreading now that it has become popular rather than a secret teaching revealed only to the initiated.

Of course, there is a danger this path can be denigrated by New Agers and profiteers, but that is always the danger when trying to spread truth.

Dzogchen’s message is one of complete and natural purity- you are already, in your own nature, like a Buddha, like an awakened. All we have to do is wake up and realize it!

There is no karma, and therefore no sin, in this ultimate view, no innate stain on our most fundamental nature. It is Buddhism without the rebirth and karma- and yet it is authentic Buddhism!

I think the message of Dzogchen and the great master Kunkhyen Longchenpa can help heal the world- and many already agree. Many associate Buddhism with the first Noble Truth- “all life is suffering”. But I think its good that Buddha is being associated in the West with the essential qualities of a Buddha- tranquility and happiness, and of course, and more importantly, compassion and wisdom.

Throughout the work of Longchenpa, you can also find though a profound joy that comes from a real understanding of how life and reality really are. A realization that all things must pass, but if nothing really exists, then why worry about it!