Ralph D, particle physics, and BS

Guy Yasko guyy at aqu.bekkoame.or.jp
Sat Jun 17 17:29:47 MDT 1995

In message <9506160807.AA29418 at hagar.ph.utexas.edu>  writes:

>However, reading _words_
> written about physics is almost useless. For example, I've seen a lot of
> mention of wave-particle duality even on this list, but nobody seems to
> appreciate that the point is that the classically obvious or natural ideas
> of wave and particle simply do not correspond to reality when it is looked
> at at a deeper level. It's not that the electron is sometimes a wave and
> sometimes a particle -- it's that the electron is something else entirely,
> which can be described and understood to an incredible degree
> mathematically, but not in words and not in terms of naive concepts.

I'm afraid I don't quite understand the distinction between words and
mathematics.  Are not both systems of representations?  And if you do claim a
special place for mathematics, you must first establish it, which is a fairly
tricky business.  Do you claim that mathematics as a mode of representation
happily matches external reality?  But what about mathematics makes this
match possible? Or would you attack the problem from the side of ontology?

> Remember, when I say agreement with
> experiment, I'm talking about hundreds of millions of data points
> corresponding to thousands of different elementary partile reactions --
> roughly as well tested as the sun rising in the east.. [...]
>     If you think the above was too pedestrian and doesn't address your
> objections, then make some SPECIFIC statements about particle theory.

I really don't feel the need to become a particle physicist to make the followin
objection: all this works as a legitimation of  particle physics only if the
question of the  validity of the representational system called particle physics
and the question of its development as a structure of human knowledge and
practice remain separate.  However, Kuhn (whom you don't like but haven't
refuted) demonstrated that this quid juris - quid facti separation can never be
maintained consistently.   If we consider that the knowledge generated within
science remains tied to the practices and representations of science -- for
example, you yourself claim that particle physics cannot be expressed in a
language other than its specialized mathematical vocabulary --  science at once
loses its claim to universality.

I'm not saying that you can't do science or particle physics after Kuhn or
Marcuse or Foucault, only that you need to establish the connection between it
as a system of representations and the particles out there.   I haven't read
Baskhar, but from what I've heard of him on this list, it seems he is trying to
do just this.  Because they have attempted to establish a connection between
their discourse to the physical world, some of the fuzziest of the human
sciences (some schools of psycho-analysis, marxism) are more scientific than
the traditional scientific disciplines.  Having legitimated themselves by means
of a rigid positivism,  many scientific disciplines can now maintain that
legitimacy only by ignoring the questions that Kuhn and post-modern skeptics
asked.  You are certainly free to dismiss the whole issue out of hand, but even
if it does temporarily defend the autonomy of what you do, in the long run,
such evasiveness only results in the further isolation of science.

By the way, because post-modernism is only one way of  answering the
question of how symbolic representation connects to the world (and a sophistic
one at that), one shouldn't confuse the question itself with postmodernism.

Question of politics and cats

As a social act, the practice of physics, cannot help but be political.   Indeed
that you even have an opinion about heterotic string theory reflects a certain
political reality, and your fulminations on the matter will tend to reproduce
and extend the constellation of political practices we know as particle physics.
At the very least, your research means that you do not do something else.
Now I wouldn't argue that your opinions on these matters are reducable to
politics, but all the same, we cannot drive politics out of science.

I will also point out that whether you like it or not, actually existing science
organised along essentially industrial lines and is intimately bound to the
state and capital.  As a result, the very ability to retreat behind a curtain of
scientific minutiae depends on a vast complex of political, material, and
institutional factors -- not the least of which is the social division of labour
all of which separate you and me.  Again, the separation and its reproduction,
are not accidents, but highly political.  This applies to all of us, of course,
not just scientists.  Indeed, my ability to ask these questions has itself resul
from similar processes and forces.  Today, we all must accept this to some
degree or die; that is the price of living under capitalism.

The political and social dimensions of science also mean that cats are not
scientific observors.   This is merely an empirical statement, not a
pronouncement on feline capablities.  It is certainly possible to put a cat in t
position of a positivist observor, but if we assume that this will have the same
meaning for the cat as it does a scientist or that it doesn't matter what the ca
thinks, we have already arrived at anthropocentrism.  Since cats and humans
do live together, there are areas of intersection and communication in our
experiences, but I would argue that science is not one of them.

under feline eyes,


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