Ralph D, particle physics, and BS

Juan Inigo jinigo at inscri.org.ar
Tue Jun 20 00:43:48 MDT 1995

Rahul Mahajan writes:

>Not to offend Juan, but I think a sure test
>for brain damage would be: if you can understand his posts, you've got it
>(or you've got postmodernism, which of course is brain damage suborned by
>reactionary capitalism).

Yet another thinker that mistakes ad hominem arguments for rationality, as
soon as the form that science has today and its consequently association
with philosophy is not accepted as a "natural" form but put into question
as an historical form inherent in capitalism, and therefore, as a form of
alienated consciousness. Rahul's post makes me wonder: in which of his
categories does he place himself? Has he got brain damage or does he not
understand my posts? Maybe it is the former, but in that case he would have
hardly tried to show himself ingenious about it. Then, Rahul must be
telling us he classifies himself in the latter category. That is, Rahul is
condemning a reasoning he openly admits he does not understand. A funny
starting point for a self-declared "serious" scientist, isn't it? (And a
fine example of a self-defeating faux pas, but I will leave this aspect to
Chris Budford's specialty)

But nobody can assume Rahul is just another dilettante. No, as a practicing
physicist he is convinced that

>...you simply cannot learn
>enough physics to talk seriously about it unless you really learn it --
>i.e., do all that math.

Now the question is: what present-day social necessity needs to be
personified by a scientist who believes that the physics he declares to
master is a serious matter but that, at the same time, believes that
"not-understanding" can pass off as a serious argument when it comes to the
forms that science takes as a concrete form of the alienation of human
potencies as capital's potencies?

Rahul's posts tell us a lot about this necessity. At the beginning, Rahul
is positive that

>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.
>For example, quantum electrodynamics allows you to
>calculate the magnetic moment of the electron to 10 or 11 decimal places
>(significant figures) --

Obviously, nobody can expect a substantive scientific answer from naive
concepts. But no words needed to really explain what the electron is? Only
mathematical formulae? Rahul can be telling us one of the following two: a)
that present-day physics is unable to account for the qualitative
determinations of the real form it represents as the electron beyond the
relations of measure it constructs concerning it; b) that the real form in
question lacks any qualitative determination that deserves to fall inside
scientific scope other than the quantitative manifestations of that
quality. Whichever the case, Rahul is just uncritically presenting as a
natural condition of scientific cognition what I have critically presented
as a clear manifestation of the limitations scientific cognition suffers
under its current form:

"Under its present form, science can know the measure of almost all natural
phenomena, no matter how big or small. But it only knows to give as the
cause of phenomena the very form in which phenomena manifest themselves.
... Today, the point has been reached where science appears to account for
the cause of phenomena just by representing as such the relations of
measure phenomena present. Any question about causality that attempts to go
beyond this appearance is immediately declared a "metaphysical" question,
and consequently, of an unscientific nature, that must be confined in a
philosophical nebula."

When I posted this, Ralph Dumain exploded with his usual "irae hominis probi":

>Where did you get this notion?  Can you back it up?
>Again, I don't know what support you have for such a blanket
>assertion.  Practicing scientists no doubt vary among themselves
>as to the philosophical position they take on their work.  Not all
>would subscribe to the phenomenalist position you ascribe to them.
>Some are old-fashioned enough to think they are in the business of
>searching for real causes and real truth.  I've met a few.  You
>are describing a prejudice of empiricist philosophers.

Now that he comes to know the facts directly from the horse's mouth (not to
offend Rahul, nor horses), he timidly expresses his surprise:

>...would like to know if you think
>mathematical formalism + empirical confirmation = the sum total of
>science.  Do these theories make any sense or are they epicycles
>all over again?

Only an "amateur" (a nasty treated "amateur," as he enjoys calling himself
now, after showing himself so assertive about the "vast concern over
objective reality" and many other things more, as to call people that
questioned his assertions "insolent assholes") concerning the method of
scientific cognition could ignore what the true content of present-day
physics is about.

Now Rahul steps back to openly contradict himself: where no words were
needed to completely understand the electron, suddenly he must resort to a
lot of words just to admit that there must be some causality beyond the
quantitative appearances reflected by the models that represent reality
through the relations of measure of its concrete forms, and that, at best,
this science can only account for that real causality by resorting to, you
can bet, "naive concepts":

>That answer will pass in a pedestrian analysis of the situation, even with
>regard to the larger question of mathematical formulation and empirical
>confirmation being all of science -- you have to add the requirement that
>you can make new predictions that are borne out without tinkering with the
>theory you have. However, if in our guts we thought of physics (I can't
>really speak for the attitudes of other scientists) was basically fitting
>curves to the data and then postulating relationships that would be
>consonant with at least some future data, I think most of us wouldn't do it
>-- except for financial reasons, of course. Deep, deep down, almost below
>the level of rational introspection, most physicists are Platonists --
>those equations really mean something, dammit. It's quite possible to view
>the fundamental first principles (like the standard model) as the "true"
>reality and the universe as simply an epiphenomenon of them. Obviously, if
>you look at it logically, there's not much to be said for such ideas. We
>realize that, but still the feeling that we _understand_ things persists.
>Statements like "the earth moves around the sun in an ellipse because of
>the inverse-square law of gravitation" are the common coin of physics,
>although if you relentlessly dissect them it's a bit hard to ascribe
>meaning to them. One can easily demonstrate the implication mathematically,
>but it doesn't get at the question "Why don't you just say the earth moves,
>etc. and add in all the other statements, such as Venus moves, etc., ,
>instead of saying there's something called gravitation, the strength of
>which varies inversely with the square of the distance." Of course, there
>are the practical answers such as I gave above, i.e., it leads to so many
>new predictions, etc., but it still leaves us very iffy on the basic
>question of what it means to say this is the law of gravitation.
>Nevertheless, it's clear to me that there are strong reasons other than
>naivete and habit to make such statements. Sorry to be so roundabout, but I
>guess I'd have to say, to sum up, that I definitely do not believe that
>mathematical formalism, agreement with current experimental data, and
>predictive power are all that is necessary for a physical theory. Take the
>Dow Jones average as a function of time, fit it to a curve, and extrapolate
>it into the future -- you've got all the above elements, but what you've
>done is garbage, not science. This is apart from the fact that your
>extrapolation is almost sure to be wrong -- even if it turns out that
>you've predicted the future perfectly, at best you've provided an empirical
>law that can be used by someone who comes after to do real science.
>I would venture to guess that the question of understanding in scientific
>theories has not been adequately addressed to date -- how do we advance
>from naive Platonism, given the assumption that the feeling about such
>matters that physicists and other scientists have is not totally absurd?

According to Rahul, all the determinations involved in the current
situation of the science he describes come down to "in our guts we thought
of physics", "Deep, deep down, almost below the level of rational
introspection, most physicists are (naive) Platonists -- those equations
really mean something, dammit". "the feeling that we _understand_ things
persists", "there are the practical answers", "it still leaves us very iffy
on the basic question of what it means to say this is the law of
gravitation", "I would venture to guess", "the feeling about such matters
that physicists and other scientists have is not totally absurd", etc..

Where have all the determinations of science as a concrete form of the
capitalist regulation of human life gone in Rahul's lamentation formed by a
litany of abstractions? (or are they just "naive concepts", Rahul?)

Is it brain damage? Is it the other face of Rahul's serious-physicists-only
pedantic stupidity? Maybe, but this is not the point. The point is that,
obviously, alienation is one of those real things that stand beyond the
reach of the type of science he practices and, therefore, beyond the reach
of his consciousness, while his consciousness falls quite inside the reach
of alienation.

Now it is clear that Rahul condemned my posts although he didn't understand
their most basic points. Even on the risk of damaging his brain, Rahul
should make the scientific effort needed to understand my:

"Is science condemned forever, either because it must have by nature the
form of a representation or because the nature of its object, to this
limited scope? Or is it that the alienation of human potencies as potencies
of the materialized general social relation in present-day society, i.e.,
the alienation of human potencies as capital's potencies, needs to take
concrete form in a scientific cognition that stops in appearances and,
therefore, that can only interpret reality? Not in vain, to produce
relative surplus-value capital needs to submit all production and
consumption to science but, at the same time, it needs to preserve the
appearances that are inherent in the fetishist general social relation."

But understanding this involves, of course, the effort needed to face the
cognition of social forms in a serious (just to use Rahul's abstract term)
way. And, hopping he will face this task as soon as possible, Rahul must
not forget that the cognition of social forms involves a much greater
complexity than that of the natural forms, since social forms are the
specific historical forms that a specific natural form, and therefore,
matter itself, takes to regulate its own process of existence.

If Rahul faces this task, he may well come to discover that the clue to his

>...I would like to see someone tell me how my political
>beliefs will affect my understanding of heterotic string theory.

precisely resides in his acceptance of "heterotic string theory" as the
ultimate scientific cognition that is needed to face the conscious
transformation of the simplest forms of matter, while at the same time he
declares that "I definitely do not believe that mathematical formalism,
agreement with current experimental data, and predictive power are all that
is necessary for a physical theory." This is a doubly uncritical
acceptance: Rahul accepts both contradictory points of view without feeling
any urgency to face as a scientist how his self-incoherence necessarily
emerges from the form itself that science currently takes today as a
_representation_ of reality. But to discover _representation_ as an
historical form and not as the "natural" form of science, one must start by
following the real determinations of one's own consciousness, until
discovering it as the concrete form of alienated consciousness (therefore
the negation of free consciousness) that, as such, has become determined as
the negation of the negation of free consciousness. And this discovery will
remain beyond the reach of Rahul consciousness as long as he goes on
falling to the appearance that his own alienated consciousness is an
abstractly free consciousness, which is inherent in his political
self-definition as being

>... somewhere on the spectrum between anarchist socialism and Leninism

By the way, before Rahul's posts, I was going to propose a discussion about
"gravitation" as a concrete example of how the physics that belongs in the
scientific representation of reality can only give as the cause of
phenomena the very forms that phenomena take by representing them through
the relations of measure of their concrete forms. Now, after Rahul's
self-declared bankruptcy concerning the scope of such a physics beyond its
obvious capacity for measuring (where he openly accepts the substance of my
critique and presents gravity as a concrete example) the discussion might
seem redundant. Nevertheless, if anyone in the list still finds it
productive (I am positive it is), it would be interesting if she/he could
present a definition of gravity and its cause, that she/he considers
unquestionable according to the conceptions of present-day physics theory,
to open the discussion.

Juan Inigo
jinigo at inscri.org.ar

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