Carlo Parcelli

"Science smiling into its beard,
first full-dress encounter with evil"

"[H]ighmindedness is the mark of every professional ideology. Hunters for instance would never dream of calling themselves butchers of the woods; they prefer to call themselves the real friends of animals and Nature, just as business men uphold the principle of fair profit, and the god that thieves also take for their own is the business men's god, that distinguished promoter of international concord, Mercury. So not much importance need be attached to the way an activity is mirrored in the consciousness of those who practice it."(from Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, chapter 72)

     Robert Musil, in his monumental novel about pre-Anschluss Vienna entitled The Man Without Qualities, addresses often and profoundly social and epistemological questions arising from applications of science and technology acceleratingly evident in pre-World War I Europe. Chapter 72 contains some of the most succinct expressions of Musil's concerns. The first paragraph of the chapter which is sardonically entitled Science Smiling Into Its Beard, Or First Full-Dress Encounter With Evil reads thus:

     A few words must now be said about a smile, a masculine smile at that, with a beard attached to it, whereby the general activity of smiling in one's sleeve was transposed into the masculine one of smiling into one's beard. It was the smiling men of science and learning who had accepted Diotoma's invitation and were listening to the celebrated men of the arts. Although they smiled, it must on no account be believed that they did so ironically. On the contrary, it was their way of expressing homage and incompetence, a matter that has already been mentioned. But one must not let oneself be deceived by that either. It was true enough where their conscious mind was concerned; yet in their sub-conscious-to make use of this customary word-or, to put it more exactly, in the sum total of their being, they were people in whom a propensity to Evil crackled like the fire under a cauldron.

     I was reminded of this passage in Musil's work when I encountered Steven Weinberg's piece, Sokal's Hoax, in the August 8 New York Review. In his first paragraph, Weinberg strikes the very tone, smile included, that Musil alludes to:

     Like many other scientists, I was amused when I heard about the prank played by NYU mathematical physicist Alan Sokal, who late in 1994 submitted a sham article to the culture studies journal Social Text.

     A couple of friends of mine brought me a copy of Weinberg's article cautioning me that it would "get my hackles up." Actually, it did nothing of the sort. Even though Weinberg points up the pitfalls of applying interpretation to mathematically defined phenomena by ridiculing aspects of the writings of culture theorists, his piece contained eight caveats concerning the limits of science which dovetail quite nicely with my own concerns. In fact, I was startled to find Weinberg making a number of the same points which I made in a book review of Higher Superstition by Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt published in a recent issue of Science As Culture. It would be delusional of me to think that a scientific eminence like Steven Weinberg would read anything I wrote much less consider cautionary any insights that I might provide. I therefore must conclude that Weinberg's caveats that strip the power from his own piece and form the foundation of mine have a certain pan-cultural quality that transcends educational, economic and doctrinal castes. Following are the eight alarms that Weinberg and I would like to sound:

     1) Weinberg dissociates his argument from technological applications. He states:

     Those who seek extrascientific messages in what they think they understand about modern physics are digging dry wells, In my view, with two large exceptions, the results of research into physics (as opposed, say, to psychology) have no legitimate implications for culture or politics or philosophy. (I am not talking here about the technological applications of physics, which of course do have a huge effect on our culture,...) (my italics)

     I assume that one would exclude science's "extrascientific messages" in which scientists, CEO's and journalists proselytize for the inherently and ineluctably progressive nature of science or the justification of "pure" scientific research on the grounds that often unpredictable yet beneficial technologies accrue as 'spinoffs'. In short, how do "purely scientific discoveries" achieve ahistorical status; in other words how do phenomena, universalized, quantified or otherwise shed their historicity?

     2) The second part of Weinberg's quote above contains caveat number two:

     ...or about [physic's] use as metaphor, but about the direct logical implications of purely scientific discoveries themselves.)

     But science writing itself because of the mathematization and quantification of phenomena resorts to metaphor to communicate only contingently the "purely scientific." This is not to fault all science writing but when language as opposed to mathematical expression is used to describe physical phenomena then the limited tools of language including metaphor impose their conditions on expression and communication. Weinberg's phrase, "logical implications", is an attempt to fuse the ineluctable element perceived in science e.g. its discrete logic with the historical and hermeneutical change that it is often required to undergo leading to the pliable and breachable skin of "implications."

     Though I have no beard to smile through, I was amused (and not surprised) to read in Higher Superstition that the authors held the philosophical movement, Logical Positivism, in high regard specifically the work of A.J. Ayer. Although this form of positivism's connection to physics is based primarily on personal temperament one understands Gross' and Levitt's affection for it because it, like mathematical equations in their ideal state, is simple and tidy---actually anal. In this manner, the Vienna Circle even mistook Wittgenstein's anality for their own. But more than that, Gross and Levitt are attracted to Logical Positivism's comprehensibility. It is akin to poetasters who sing the praises of A.E. Houseman, Robert Service, Edgar Lee Masters and Robert Frost while finding Charles Olson, Ezra Pound, David Jones or even T.S. Eliot gratuitously difficult. Often it is difficult for scientists more than other people to see their personal limitations expressed in seemingly objective choices and connections because as Musil puts it::

     ...[A]fter all [science] dominates us, not even an illiterate being safe from it, because he learns to live together with countless things that are born of science)

     The world more and more conforms to the conditions of science so we tend to forget that the world itself is not scientific.

     3) Which leads to caveat three. Weinberg admits that science is inherently hegemonic. If we are to accept "purely scientific discoveries" as "objective" and "unbiased" then the implication is that they are also benign in the sense that they are not "discovered" with any agenda in mind. You can see how difficult it is to separate the notion of an aparticular scientific moment from its intention. According to Weinberg and others in the scientific community no generalization can be made about the intention of science nor will members of the scientific community suffer any criticism of sciences special relationship with 'reality.' There is indeed a paternalistic if not a posture of false omniscience behind such insistence upon immunity from criticism that is hard to reconcile with the alleged compelling nature of the argument for "a one-to-one correspondence" between scientific explanation and objective reality and its continuing failure by force of argument to compel conformity rather than contrary interpretation.

     4) Weinberg's fourth caveat is related to the first three. He writes:

     The other, more important exception to my statement is the profound cultural effect of the discovery, going back to Newton, that nature is strictly governed by impersonal mathematical laws. Of course, it still remains for us to get the laws right, and to understand their range of validity; but as far as culture and philosophy are concerned the difference between Newton's and Einstein's theories of gravitation or between classical and quantum mechanics is immaterial.

     Then comes Weinberg's caveat:

     There is a good deal of confusion about this, because quantum mechanics can seem eerie if described in ordinary language.

     First note, in the first part of the quoted material above that physical theory is provided with ineluctable 'position' because it is expressed through laws and yet outfitted with the 'momentum' of time by the very mutability of these laws as scientists wiggle "to get the laws right." It simply remains for scientists to declare that science is cumulative and that in the "effort to get laws right" they will not broach any fundamental change. In short, five hundred years is apparently enough time to assert the immutability of scientific laws. Science has expanded our conceptions of time to something approximating the Hindus or Mayans. But our idea of the eternal does not rest with our actual experience of time but in our ability to abstract it.

     When Weinberg says that "there is a good deal of confusion" as regards quantum theory and western standards of perception and expression, he is minimizing a problem that has engaged physicists, historians of science and philosophers of science since the inception of quantum. Weinberg himself is confined to ordinary language when he endeavors to communicate the tenets of quantum theory to people with a limited or non-existent mathematical background. Weinberg's popular books rely on standard methods of language expression including metaphor to communicate their points. In the realm of language, where quantum finds no adequate expression, the differences "between classical and quantum mechanics "is" not "immaterial." If language is inherently deceptive or insufficient for the task why does Weinberg write books or articles for that matter. The paradox reminds me of a chapter in a book by physicist Frijtof Capra called The Tao of Physics. The chapter is called Beyond Language yet is comprised of several thousand words.

     Certainly given the success of his books which popularize various physical phenomena, Weinberg is not recommending that we adopt Wittgenstein's famous tenet at the end of his Tractatus, "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence[?]" If so we can happily and gratefully look forward to no more popularizations of the natural world from Weinberg or his colleagues.

     Here allow me to provide a counterpoint to Weinberg's 'pragmatic' position. Physicist and mathematician T. Bergstein in his book Quantum Physics and Ordinary Language came to this conclusion about the "eeriness" of the phenomena and its expression by expanding the "implications" of the physical term 'complementarity':

     Through the selection of words and sentences it is possible for the mind to accentuate or weaken the complementary elements of communication in innumerable ways. The wide variety of different forms of knowledge embedded in language cannot ever be comprised by scientific description because the accentuation is necessarily fixed on the subject-object partition. An adequate description of human existence must be sought in the ordinary uses of language, in the humanistic sciences, and in poetry - not in natural science.

     Poetry! We could start with Wallace Steven's poem The Pure Good Of Theory which would go far in pointing out to Weinberg many of the contradictions in his thought. Stevens writes:

. . . If we propose
a large-sculptured, platonic person, free from time,
And imagine for him the speech he cannot speak,
A form, then, protected from the battering, may
Mature: A capable being may replace
Dark horse and walker walking rapidly.
Felicity, ah! Time is the hooded enemy,
The inimical music, the enchantered space
in which the enchanted preludes have their place.
Unlike Weinberg (who could be that "large-sculptured, platonic person"), Stevens honestly addresses epistemological conundrums as they manifest themselves in the process of writing and possesses considerable philosophical tools with which to do so.

     From the "humanistic sciences", I would propose Edmund Husserl, specifically his book, The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: Husserl writes:

     Where is that huge piece of method subjected to critique and clarification [-that method] that leads from the intuitively given surrounding world to the idealization of mathematics and to the interpretation of these idealizations as objective being? Einstein's revolutionary innovations concern the formulae through which the idealized and naively objectified physis is dealt with. But how formula in general, how mathematical objectification in general, receive meaning on the foundation of life and intuitively given surrounding world-of this we learn nothing; and thus Einstein does not reform the space and time in which our vital life runs its course.

     Weinberg might agree with Husserl above regarding the separation of "mathematical objectification" from cultural considerations. But Husserl demonstrates that the interchange between the mathematization of phenomena and the phenomena themselves occurs on a much more fundamental level and yet, in spite of this, only effects the cultural and societal shape of human existence and not its "vital life." People like Weinberg tend to confuse the hegemony of technology and retrograde considerations of its scientific origins with more fundamental changes, when in reality that hegemony is no more than a cultural condition amplified by its present historical currency.

     Bergstein's "complementary elements" sound perilously like metaphor where a few elements are drawn together to illuminate the whole which is revealed as the template for metaphor's techne. The inability to describe scientifically e.g. mathematically "the wide variety of different forms of knowledge" e.g. experience presages the failures of the Strong Artificial Intelligence project. (the way A.I. advocates like Daniel Dennett have a propensity to set up artificial antagonists, straw adversaries, who are little more than 'thought experiments', whose counterpoints come from Dennett's own mind, which he then proceeds to defeat in argument though often he even fails to accomplish that.-

     And lastly Bergstein says that "the illumination of human existence" should be left not to Weinberg, Sokal, Gross and Levitt but to those that they despise-philosophers, social theorists and even poets. Perhaps Bergstein had seen the smiling beard of Musil's "first full-dress encounter with evil" and decided that others with more altruistic impulses should be entrusted with interpreting paradoxes that scientists have heaped up and then largely ignored in favor of those discoveries which yield marketable technological results.

     5) Caveat number five (which relates to caveat number four) comprised a major part of my review in Science as Culture. Weinberg's formulation reads thus:

     I have to admit that physicists share responsibility for the widespread confusion about such matters. Sokal quotes some dreadful examples of Werner Heisenberg's philosophical wanderings...

     Weinberg goes on to make this statement:

     (Heisenberg was one the great physicists of the twentieth century, but he could not always be counted on to think carefully, as is shown by his technical mistakes in the German nuclear weapons program.)

     But how does it follow that Heisenberg was a poor philosopher because he was a poor experimenter? It would seem that Heisenberg who was a supreme theoretician would likewise make for an imaginative and meticulous philosopher. Heisenberg's discussions with various philosophers, especially Neo-Kantians, rested on a reading and understanding of continental philosophy that is extremely rare among current American physicists. How can Weinberg or Sokal who seem to have no background in philosophy and have contributed far less to theoretical physics judge Heisenberg's powers in these areas especially when they insist on expertise from people in other fields?

     Weinberg goes on to criticize Louis de Broglie in the same vein. This is a bit ironic to this reader because in Higher Superstition, a book that Weinberg praises, its authors Gross and Levitt hold up de Broglie as a sensible extrapolater of physical concepts into philosophical discourse. The overall subjectivity of the matter renders Weinberg's argument without merit. The hubris that comparative mediocrities like Weinberg and Sokal show toward other physicists and scientists who disagree or whose statements are disagreeable to their position but who demonstrate a superior knowledge and understanding in areas such as philosophy points to extrascientific intent and motive. Weinberg claims he is able to precipitate cultural conditions from the fundamental scientific understanding of phenomena. But again context wins out and Weinberg's caveats in the form of discrete categories blend in ways he seems not to have intended.

     Weinberg creates his own paradox. His commonsense form of pseudophilosophical discourse relies heavily on his own pedestrian cultural and epistemological assumptions. He disagrees with Gross and Levitt on the merits of the philosophical arguments of Louis de Broglie precisely because arguments about physical phenomena couched in language, philosophical or otherwise , are wide open to interpretation. If Weinberg were to train for e.g. read with attention texts that would allow him to approach a desired set of discretions, he would run the risk as many of his colleagues have of challenging his own core assumptions.

     Recently, I picked up Wolfgang Pauli's The Influence of Archetypal Ideas On the Scientific Theories of Kepler which explains Kepler's discoveries both in their historical perspective and with a Jungian tinge. We must assume that Weinberg et al would reject and ridicule Wolfgang Pauli as they do Heisenberg, Prigogine and de Broglie and the thousands of other scientists and mathematicians that have endeavored to use language based tools to explicate physical phenomena and its implications. What scientist or mathematician who is more than a technician has not speculated in this manner including John von Neumann who, though as reactionary as the creator makes us, came through the constraints of logical discourse, to a faux Buddhist interpretation concerning the problems surrounding conceptual expression and quantum complementarity.

     Actually a more illuminating piece concerning this dimension of alleged scientific culpability appeared in the Book World section of the Washington Post for August, 11. Robert L. Park, a professor of physics at the University of Maryland, reviewed John Horgan's recent book, The End of Science. At the end of the review, in which Horgan caricatures Weinberg as "a tough minded rationalist", Park writes this:

     But Horgan ends with the fuzzy, feel-good silliness of Frank Tipler, who concluded in the Physics of Immortality that at a distant point in time we will be resurrected as computers. It is naive ironic science gone mad.

     I pointedly criticized Tipler's book in an earlier PostMortem concerning the Mary Lefkowitz flap as well as in my review in Science as Culture. Tipler's book is indeed an intellectual cowpie but it is not the exception in science writing.

     Park concludes his review with this revelation: By the time the shuttle got me to my rental car, I realized that ending with Tipler was a metaphor. This, Horgan is warning us, is where science is headed. Everyone will be free to choose the theory that suits them. Without empiricism to keep the score, one ironic science is as good as another. Science has manned the battlements against the postmodern heresy that there is no objective truth, only to discover postmodernism inside the wall.

     This statement would make Frank Tipler jump out of his skin. Postmodernists would find its naivete amusing possibly responding with a volley of laughs and guffaws through their own beards. Park is asking for the impossible. He wants the logic of mathematical science to again reflect the rational that finds its expression in everyday experience. Park wants quantum to yield to everyday language and not to the inexorable mathematical logic of Frank Tipler's computer extrapolated equations which far from demonstrating theoretical relativism are actually a working paper for those doing research in Strong Artificial Intelligence, fifth generation computers and the like. (The second half of the book is a veritable catechism of the current canon of mathematical physics.)

     Empiricism 'keeps score' at present only through its technological application. And if you recall, Weinberg in his review said his argument rejected the "technological applications of physics, which of course do have a huge effect on our culture".

     6) Caveat 6. Weinberg admits that he cannot prove the existence of objective reality. Frankly, I don't know why he brings it up. Sokal and Gross and Levitt also do but, even though John von Neumann and certain Buddhist sects have struggled with the question of objective reality, it has never been an issue with the philosophers and social theorists that Weinberg et al attack. If they would read Wittgenstein's Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics they would understand why they misunderstand deconstructionists and social theorists. But anyway as regards "objective realty" Weinberg writes:

     ...[T]he languages in which we describe rocks or in which we state physical laws are certainly created socially, so I am making an implicit assumption...that our statements about the laws of physics are in one-to-one correspondence with aspects of objective reality. To put it another way, if we ever discover intelligent creatures on some distant planet and translate their scientific works, we will find that we and they have discovered the same laws.

     'We' and 'they' have not even discovered the same laws here on earth. Many of the 'they', which comprise the majority of humanity, were coerced and brutalized into accepting our laws. Ask 'them.' Many now embrace the technological fruits of western scientific legalism; but few outside of those who have themselves become scientists understand or accept the philosophical catechism of 'objective reality' that has formed around the empirical method. Many people in sciences core culture reject the materialist implications of science. These indeed are cultural questions which cannot be wholly attributed to ignorance of the empirical sciences. If Weinberg's adolescent fantasy were to come to pass, no doubt "intelligent creatures on some distant planet" will 'discover' our 'objective reality' at the point of whatever state of the art sword human science has forged for their powerful handlers.

     But in these matters Weinberg insists on demonstrating his chauvinism and bigotry. He writes:

     Sarah Franklin...challenges an argument of Richard Dawkins that in relying on the working of airplanes we show our acceptance of the working of the laws of nature, remarking that some airlines show prayer films during takeoff to invoke the aid of Allah to remain safely airborne. Does Franklin think that Dawkin's argument does not apply to her? If so would she be willing to give up the use of the laws of physics in designing aircraft, and rely on prayers instead?

     First, no Weinberg, Dawkins argument does not apply to Franklin when you take into account the likelihood that Franklin is not Muslim. Secondly, does Weinberg plan to get to the afterlife in an airplane or is an airplane, as Muslims and many of the rest of us percieve, a potential undesirable means to that end?

     And translation is not a scientifically objective activity any more than relating our perceptions is. As Pauli, Hansen, Husserl, Adorno and Feyerabend (among many other physicists, philosophers etc.) have pointed out it is the mathematization of the process that has provided the "one-to-one correspondence" that by Weinberg's own admission require his "implicit assumption." (Read comment on Dennett above) Weinberg's argument is circular but that doesn't mean it is wrong. It simply means given the meager abilities of Weinberg to argue his case, he can speak of nothing that would help us know for certain whether he is right or wrong. But is the inability to effectively bring closure to the problem he addresses due to Weinberg's lack of philosophical acumen; or are the epistemological tools at his disposal fundamentally inadequate for the task?

     7) In caveat 7, Weinberg admits that he cannot understand the out-of-context quotes attributed to Jacques Derrida in Sokal's piece. Indeed, Derrida, like many other writers, can be difficult to understand out of context. The truth is that Sokal, Weinberg, Levitt and Gross do not have the interest or the temperament to read many of the writers, like Derrida, that they criticize. So their comments do not demonstrate any understanding of Derrida.

     When I'm asked about the deconstructionists for example, I point out that I read them for the most part only where they regard matters of science and technology. When pressed about their conclusions, I can only say that they form an epistemological continuity with the Frankfurt School, so-called existentialists such as Heidegger and Gadamer, phenomenologists like Husserl, philosophers of science such as Paul Feyerabend and Russell Hansen and virtually all of the great European physicists and mathematicians of the last one hundred years. I am not claiming any theoretical or philosophical consensus among such a large and diverse group. But they do perceive similar epistemological problems and paradoxes and consider it important to address them as well as acknowledge their implications.

     To a lesser extent the American scientific community has participated in this discourse. But America did not grow up with philosophical speculation going hand in hand with scientific and technological discovery and "kept score" empirically through science's technological contributions to the consumer culture, the U.S.'s ability to wage total war and capital formation. "Objective reality " is confirmed in the hegemony of capital and its universality is reinforced by the global marketing of its fruits.

     8) Caveat eight runs through Weinberg's piece only by implication. It is evident that he hasn't given much thought to the subjects he addresses in Sokal's Hoax. One hesitates to call Weinberg's performance in the New York Review sophomoric largely because it appeared in a mainstream U.S. newspaper which by their very editorial nature reduce everything to the sophomoric. But Weinberg's grasp of philosophical notions often is not as profound as the layman who is neither physicist, philosopher or social theorist. This points up a paradox that runs throughout the approach to scientific phenomena that would confine it to either its purely empirico-mathematical forms or, on the opposite end, flog a highly reductive and pseudo-poetic series of metaphors where scientists play unwitting aestheticians for a book market hungry for popular and comprehensible similes about quantum science and the like. In either case rigorous philosophical considerations of physical phenomena would have no place and, as evidenced by Weinberg, illicit no comprehensive consideration by the scientific community as it is now generally constituted.

     This contradiction alone would account for the poverty of Weinberg's arguments and the numerous caveats he attaches to those arguments as he senses that there are viable and sustainable questions and counterarguments that might be raised yet realizes he does not possess the critical tools to consider them. In this sense Sokal's Hoax seems to have been a useful exercise for Weinberg in that, in a crude way, it may have forced him to doubt and question some of the implications of the "implicit assumption[s]" that, formerly, he uncritically proselytized. Musil, a disciple/c of Ernst Mach who was trained in mathematics and the sciences and who was a believer in the empirical method, described the scientific mindset this way:

     The point is, before intellectual man discovered his delight in facts, the only people who had such a delight were warriors, hunters and merchants, that is to say, the people whose nature it was to be cunning and violent. In the struggle for existence there are no philosophical sentimentalities, but only the wish to kill off one's opponent by the shortest and most practical method. There everyone is a positivist. Nor would it be a virtue, in commerce, to let oneself be taken in instead of putting one's trust in solid facts, profit being in the last resort a psychological vanquishing of one's opponent, arising out of the particular circumstances. However, if one investigates what qualities it is that lead to discoveries, what one finds is freedom from traditional scruples and inhibitions, courage, as much initiative as destructive spirit, the exclusion of moral considerations, patient bargaining for the smallest advantage, dogged endurance on the way to the goal, if necessary, and a veneration for measure and number amounting to the most acute mistrust of all uncertainty; in other words, one sees nothing but the old hunter's, soldier's and merchant's vices, simply transposed into intellectual terms and re-interpreted as virtues. And though by this means they are raised above the urge for personal and comparatively vulgar advantage, yet the element of primal Evil, as it might be called, is something they do not lose even in undergoing this transformation. It is apparently indestructible and eternal, or at least as eternal as everything humanly sublime, since it consists in nothing less, nothing other, than the pleasure of tripping that sublimity up and watching it fall flat on its face. Who does not know the malicious temptation-when contemplating a beautiful glazed vase, all voluptuous curves- that lies in the thought that one could smash it to smithereens with a single blow of one's stick? Intensified into the heroically bitter realization that one cannot rely on anything in life except what is clinched and riveted, it is a basic emotion enclosed within the soberness of science, and even if, for reasons of respect, one does not want to call it the Devil, the fact remains that it brings with it a faint whiff of brimstone.(Chapter 72)

     "To kill off one's opponent by the shortest and most practical method[!]" Is Musil picking up early whiffs of systems analysis, think tanks, how to kill people at 3 cents a head, chemical warfare, thermonuclear weapons etc.? And the phrase "most acute mistrust of all uncertainty" refers only to the psychological propensities of Vienna's men of science, and most assuredly does not foreshadow Werner Heisenberg's, Die Unbestimmtheitsrelation or 'indeterminacy principle' that now, as Weinberg's sloppy usage demonstrates, has a history of being mistranslated as 'the uncertainty principle.' Perhaps the only things that are ineluctable are those smiles.