Old News on the Science Wars

September 24, 2007 at 11:56 pm | Posted in arguments, opinion, philosophical, science, social | 3 Comments

Meant to post this two weeks ago, but got myself into a massive time sink after reading this article online: “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” by Alan Sokal. No hurry though, this is apparently old news for most people who care about the matter — the paper was published in 1996 in a well-known cultural studies journal called Social Text. Among other juicy pseudo-intellectual non-sequitors (of the sort I routinely peppered my high school english papers with), I quote the following from the article:

It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical “reality”, no less than social “reality”, is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific “knowledge”, far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it;

Yes, you’ve heard it before, the “science as culture” argument. But before that even has time to sink in, things rapidly take a weird turn:

In mathematical terms, Derrida’s observation relates to the invariance of the Einstein field equation G_{\mu\nu}=8\pi G T_{\mu\nu} under nonlinear space-time diffeomorphisms (self-mappings of the space-time manifold which are infinitely differentiable but not necessarily analytic). The key point is that this invariance group “acts transitively”: this means that any space-time point, if it exists at all, can be transformed into any other. In this way the infinite-dimensional invariance group erodes the distinction between observer and observed; the π of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point that can no longer be defined by geometry alone.

If you’re wondering what Derrida could possibly have said that would suggest the inconstance of π and G, you need not worry — it’s all a big joke. The article was a deliberately meaningless hoax, and the author was a physicist with a point to make, which he (rather diplomatically) explains as an attempt to answer the question:

Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies — whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross — publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions?

In other words, “Does Social Text publish bull shit?” Obviously, in this case, the answer was yes. Continue Reading Old News on the Science Wars…


I’m going to learn german.

April 1, 2007 at 8:48 pm | Posted in books, music, philosophical, rambling, silly nonsense, wistful musing | Leave a comment

Just kidding! Well, it might happen at some point in the unforeseeable future. To be honest, I never got past being mono-lingual. Telling people I’m fluent in Mandarin and French gives a nice warm fuzzy feeling and all, but speaking the two languages occasionally really is not like knowing them. If anything, there is a stage in language acquisition after the initial joy of picking up the alphabet and counting to ten and naming vegetables where formulating any sort of sentence is a dreadful experience. It’s just when that rote procedure of swapping words for concepts begins to become more — a new sort of consciousness, both culturally and probably linguistically as those networks of language synapses starts to coalesce and take on higher-order structures in your brain. That last statement was a metaphor, because I know nothing about the neurobiology of language acquisition or really of anything. See, bullshit like that would have been very hard to formulate convincingly in French. Or god forbid, Mandarin — who knows if the Chinese even admit the existence of metaphors.

I love that. The intractability of language. The fact that no translation is perfect, that it is hopeless to convey a concept (not really; “cultural-historical monument” is more like it) like “Liebestod” (love-death, a Wagner aria with massively Nietzschean connotations) or “C’est la vie” (well you understand that, but imagine if you tried to say it in English) through anything but an understanding of the entire culture that gave rise to it.

The challenge is almost like a sort of sensory-intellectual overload — I try to speak something, approach it with a half-assed English thought-concept that gets squeezed through a translation in my brain and comes out disfigured. I sense something lost in the translation but don’t know how or what. Or, I think in the foreign language, but can’t get the right answers — like there is an itch in the middle of my brain I can’t reach to scratch.

I don’t have any answers. Hopefully some day I will have a chance to be immersed in the language and culture of my interests, but now I’m going to keep being puzzled, as is the pathological wont of one whose extracurricular interests don’t lend themselves to any sort of practical purpose whatsoever. To continue this allusion-filled elitist musing inspired by the manner of, but inferior to, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, the next paragraph will be a rapid-fire series of references to cultural works that I don’t understand and never will, and which you won’t either. Stay tuned for next time, when I will give a nihilist’s interpretation of The Wasteland, along with select verses by Billy Collins.

Here goes. This bit of underwhelming, overenthusiastic rambling was brought to you by Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, along with Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy and the movie from the last post. I’ll probably be studying (and not understanding) some Schopenhauer next and thinking about stringing together words and capitalizing them to make myself sound more intellectual, not to mention listening to some SongsOnTheDeathOfChildren. Rest assured though, I’ll be avoiding such gems of dubious literary/moral merit as Mein Kampf, as well as stuff that might make my brain explode all over my desk, including long essays mentioning the word “Oedipus” that aren’t written by a playwright or in Greek.

Not THAT again

January 31, 2007 at 9:34 pm | Posted in philosophical, rambling, school, science, wistful musing | 5 Comments

The dreaded words of “emergent phenomena” were uttered today in class. Yes, I know that I (and kleinschmidt, sort of) have been beating the subject to death for the past couple of months. Alas, since it’s the first day of the semester I was still awake enough to notice when the professor (i.e. biology-rockstar/Discovery channel host) Rob Lue went on to mumble about multimodular tensegrity in cells.

You don’t really need to know what that is — except that tensegrity = tension + integrity (ludicrous, but I kid you not) — and I doubt I can really convey the feeling of understanding I got at that moment, which I’ve lost anyway after a spirit-crushing session of physical and organic chemistry in the afternoon. What I thought interesting was a question Lue posed at the beginning of class: can understanding the details of how all individual cellular components work allow us to derive an understanding of the whole of the cell’s function?

The example used was an actin monomer, a relatively small protein molecule that binds to itself in long chains to provide structure inside cells. The changes in size and number of the actin chains, or polymers, leads to all sorts of interesting behavior and is actually the basis for how cells move. At the turn of the 20th century, had we known the exact structure of an actin monomer (which we now do) and the physical rules by which it abides, many scientists would have assumed that that was enough information to characterize, indeed predict, the behavior of the entire skeleton of actin filaments in the cell. In fact, as modern biology has found, it is excruciatingly difficult to predict such behavior from first principles, precisely because of the way that it “emerges” from the complex, multi-leveled interactions of many small components.

Analogous examples abound in physics, chemistry, and the social sciences. Continue Reading Not THAT again…

Ghosts in the Machine

January 5, 2007 at 2:03 am | Posted in movies, philosophical, rambling | 3 Comments

318092611_1d121e201c.jpgSaw I, Robot today. I’ve already read the generally negative reviews, but what the hell, films like these could be entertaining sometimes. Besides, it ended up jogging my thoughts (nothing else to think about while watching it) on a few themes in my posts lately, not the least of which may involve mind-body dualism, bioethics, and weapons development.

As a brief aside, I’ve been feeling very self-conscious about my own writing, after having the dogma of conciseness beaten into me by the Economist Style Guide. Whatever semantic bullshit that journalists manage to trim out of their own writing probably ends up in a prose Hell where Hollywood writers of dubious credentials troll around for ways to pad their scripts to feature-length. True to 99% of its genre, I, Robot manages this with a profound disregard for an engineer’s mindset and dialogs of hellish, redundant word-shit. There’s nothing interesting here that hasn’t been covered more profoundly and entertainingly in other movies or books. Revisit Minority Report, A.I. (as uneven the latter film is), or read Asimov’s short stories for a good dose of self-reflection — start with “The Last Question”. For some extra charming Willy S., watch the Pursuit of HappinessHappyness or listen to him rap.

For more metaphysical nonsense, go to Wikipedia and read about Gilbert Ryle’s refutation of Descartian dualism. What does that mean? I’m not really sure, but it seems someone other than me is having trouble buying the idea of separating souls from bodies.

But for the real question: does my computer have feelings? I’d say so, but like Will Smith in I, Robot, the Dell 600m’s dramatic range is limited to rebellious paranoia and fits of jittery anger.

Metaphysics, etc.

January 2, 2007 at 11:20 pm | Posted in nytimes, philosophical | 1 Comment

My friend Dave posed a question on his blog a while back, to the effect of “Can non-physical things exist, and how?” Far from being exhausted by philosophers over the years, the topic has inspired some interesting and modern ideas. A recent article in the NYTimes on free will mentions one such idea that I’ve been trying to get my mind around for a long time. It’s called emergent phenomena, or emergence, and provides a sort of explanation for the metaphysical conundrums that give scientific positivists a lot of grief.

Simply put, emergence is the idea that things we consider “abstract” can often be produced through the combination of many simpler, less abstract building blocks. The complexity of the combination is what then gives the phenomenon its non-physical nature. For example, neural synapses combine in the billions to produce not only the functions of a biological brain, but an arguably metaphysical construct–the mind. In a less dramatic (and more tenable) way, billions of simple on-and-off transistors combine to form a computer, and the possible metaphysical manifestations of software. The survival instincts of individual creatures combine to produce an ecosystem, and those of investors, a stock market. As the article explains, hopelessly complicated systems such as

brains and stock markets, or the idea of democracy, grow naturally in accordance with the laws of physics. But once they are here, they play by new rules, and can even act on their constituents, as when an artist envisions a teapot and then sculpts it — a concept sometimes known as “downward causation.” A knowledge of quarks is no help in predicting hurricanes — it’s physics all the way down. But does the same apply to the stock market or to the brain? Are the rules elusive just because we can’t solve the equations or because something fundamentally new happens when we increase numbers and levels of complexity? (NYTimes)

The last question there is the “deepest” question, Continue Reading Metaphysics, etc….

You want WHAT in Asia?

December 21, 2006 at 5:50 pm | Posted in arguments, international, news, nytimes, philosophical | 1 Comment

The Christian Democratic Party and the Vatican are up in arms again in Italy, after poet Piergiorgio Welby passed away by means of a rather creative interpretation of Italian right-to-die legislation. The NYTimes reports, “a doctor sedated him and removed the respirator that had kept him alive for the last nine years.” Sound familiar? Dr. Kevorkian and his throngs of supporters have more or less given up on the issue in the United States, after the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1997 to side with state courts in banning the practice of doctor-assisted suicide, or euthanasia. More precisely, the supreme court decision refused to allow federal appellate courts to impose a constitutional or statutory right to euthanasia, perhaps correctly deducing that this decision should not, if only for the time being, be made by a federal judiciary. It’s not news that Europe is somewhat more progressive on this issue than the U.S., but now, maybe they’re not as progressive as one might think. As the NYtimes (mentioned above) explains,

Direct forms of euthanasia, such as doctor-assisted suicide, are illegal in Italy and are only permitted in Belgium, Holland and Switzerland. But Italian law allows patients, other than those with psychiatric problems and infectious diseases, to decline treatment they do not want.

The ambiguity of that last condition is what Welby wished to challenge legally, and now it seems that he has failed. The religious right are the most vocal in the wake of Welby’s death, revitalizing the argument elsewhere in Europe. As a matter of principle, doctor-assisted suicide finds supporters among moral philosophers and medical associations in the U.S. The “Philosophers’ Brief” (NYTimes Book Review), filed in the 1997 U.S. Supreme court ruling by a group of six ethicists (including 20th-century giants such as Rawls and Nozick) considers the right to die a constitutionally protected decision invoking “fundamental religious or philosophical convictions about life’s value for oneself.” More recently, a study of European medical practices in the British weekly The Lancet admits that euthanasia is emerging as a medically sound option:

there is increasing recognition that extension of life might not always be an appropriate goal of medicine and other goals have to guide medical decision-making at the end of life, such as improvement of quality of life of patients and their families by prevention and relief of suffering. (Online link to Van der Heide et. al., “End-of-life decision-making in six European countries: Descriptive Study,” The Lancet.)

The social activist group Not Dead Yet was one of many other groups in 1997 to submit briefs opposing assisted suicide, citing two basic arguments Continue Reading You want WHAT in Asia?…

Drugs, Bombs, and Tools

December 19, 2006 at 10:47 pm | Posted in arguments, philosophical | 1 Comment

Asked my roommate P during lunch if he’d do weapons research as a scientist. After he replied, I explained that I find weapons research immoral and not justified as a scientific pursuit. Flash forward to three hours later, having lost a planned afternoon of video games, fun, and napping to a massive, all-consuming debate on the nature of tools and scientific responsibility. The problem is more or less that P rejects my argument that weapons are inherently harmful, and therefore not a valid pursuit for morally conscious scientists. What P maintains is that weapons are fundamentally no different than any other type of tool, having no intrinsic moral value. Instead, claims P, the only way one can judge the worth of a scientific discovery is by the intention attached to it, which only depends on what it ends up being used for. If the scientist designs a weapon, for example, an atom bomb, with the intention that it will be used to end a war before more people are killed, then the net outcome of his research, as far as he is concerned, is positive.

I have to say that I don’t buy this argument. What about the long-term consequences of the discovery? Can anyone look at the state of the post-atom bomb world and say unequivocally that overall, it has changed for the better? Through a little of libertarian zealotry, sheer stubbornness, and a LOT of classic Portuguese charm, P made the following tenable claims:

  1. No tool is ever “inherently” harmful. The fact that we call certain things weapons and not others is an arbitrary distinction imposed on what is simply a continuum of different functional characteristics. It is even more meaningless to classify tools as “right” or “wrong” because even a tool generally considered to be “harmful” may be used for, and indeed may have even been designed for, doing a lot of good.
  2. Deliberately ending human life is justifiable if the outcome is known to save even more human lives beyond a reasonable measure of doubt. As per point (1), consider the use of the atom bomb in ending WWII when Japan promised complete and bitter bloodshed before admitting defeat. Also, when an innocent civilian shoots an aggressor in self-defense. (Yes, we’ve had arguments about gun control, too.)
  3. People have a fundamental right to life, and thus to protect themselves, and weapons are morally justified as a deterrent to immoral conduct by others. A scientist should, and indeed, must, produce weapons for the precise reason that his safety and that of his society are threatened by other people’s and societies’ pursuit of the same goal.

Here are my replies: Continue Reading Drugs, Bombs, and Tools…

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