Saturday, January 10, 2009

Eat up all your logic, Johnny

For many years, I have been annoyed by writers who thought they could refute a philosopher's views by pointing to passage A in his writings, then to passage B, and then claiming "this is a contradiction". End of argument.

I thought: so A is incompatible with B, so what? Is the world a syllogism? Is a syllogism a syllogism? I began to suspect that Uncle Hegel was at the root of all this. Having now listened in on his lectures, I am fairly certain: not Uncle himself so much as the Marx and Engels engeance.

Thank God for quantum physics, I say, even if most of us don't know more than squat about it. At least it cast the logic-lenders into outer darkness. These are the people who want to maneuver you into a dependency on some supposedly unavoidable way of thinking - Kantian ethics, essentialisms of all kinds, including scientific ones about "the subjective/objective world", some one system of thinking which is supposed to do service in every context.

"Eat up all your logic, Johnny, you know it's good for you - and if you don't, you're not going to get any dessert".

Quantum physics is not illogical, nor has it made the "really real" world illogical. The weakest objection to it was that it was "counter-intuitive". But what does this mean? Pre-Heisenberg and Co., most philosophers / scientists et al. have argued, implicitly or explicitly, that their preferred views were merely an elaboration of the way we think, the way the world is - i.e. they were intuitive and natural when viewed in the right light, the one shed by their proponents. They were simply teasing out, into a system, the way we think, the way things are. There's no way for systematic thinking to be counter-intuitive, right? Whatever intuitions are, they're right, right?

The successes of quantum physics in making scientific predictions about the behavior of the scientific world, and then demonstrating the correctness of those predictions, show that even intuitions must bow to recalibration, even basic restructuring - over time. There were real dog-fights about this among physicists, for decades. "Intuitive", "natural", "impossible" - what loaded terms these be!

One conclusion I draw from this is that it's just not on to be rigid or rancorous about being right. It's not scientific, it's not even polite. Is a certain reserve inimical to knowledge? What is truth? said jesting Pilate. And would not stay for an answer. I used to think he just was going to grab his dessert before Jesus could start nagging. In fact, both of them showed reserve: Pilate was remarkably patient, while Jesus was ... well ... coy. This is neatly glossed by Ray Davis in Three Reputations.

And no, this is not an attempt on my part to get Lacan, Jung, "creationists" et al. a free ride on the bus by sneaking them in the back door. Although it's not very polite, I would at most consider letting them hang on outside at the rear of the bus, keeping an eye out the while to make sure they didn't steal the license plates. On these topics, I highly recommend a book I just finished, by the French physician and biologist Henri Atlan - À tort et à raison: Intercritique de la science et du mythe. To my astonishment and alarm, I found that there are writers in the "Kabbalist traditions" who have had some very reconsideration-provoking things to say. Atlan sez: stay cool, Grumbleby, nobody's going to take your dessert away. They're just showing that it doesn't have to be low-cal pecan pie.


Ray Davis said...

"Has anyone ever wondered why he ran off like that?"

Well, Francis Bacon's the only fellow who says he did -- the gospel in question makes it at least as likely that he waited a bit first -- and Bacon did imagine some reasons. See, if your patience can hold out that long, this bloviation larded with quotes.

Atlan's work seems very enticing, based on what little's available in translation. Oh, I would I had bestowed that time in the tongues that I have in fencing, dancing and bear-baiting!

Stuart Clayton said...

Thanks, Ray. Even had I reread On Truth before posting, I wouldn't have been able to make my point as clearly as I now can with your link. I've built it into my paragraph. Hope you don't mind.

I've started reading the rest of your 20030509 page. What wonderful stuff! The Tyndale bible! More on that later, I feel sure. Particularly because of

It's true that a few poststructuralists have provided me with pleasure and insight, but dozens (at least!) of other writers and thinkers have provided me with more pleasure and insight. ...

A pity that so many of your links there have vanished interim. For instance, almost all of those in "Three Reputations", and the very first on on the page, "this chart".

Ray Davis said...

Oh man, I gotta get that chart back! Thanks for the alert, Stuart.