Conversation continues on mass, Higgs field, and science amidst the other liberal arts…

Gavin asks:

“Janet, I got the answer to what you want to do, but I’m still unsure whether learning some science has anything to do with it. Why are you asking about mass and energy and the Higgs Boson? Is this really what you need to know?”

Janet replies:

Here’s why, Gavin. (Why I’m asking about mass, energy, and the Higgs field.) It must seem like I have had a scatter-gun set of questions over the course of this blog, but they actually are guided by my own script and my own “strategy.”

So I do have a strategy, and I have worked on various pieces of it for years, like the Greeks, medievals, and 17th century pieces, but it’s a very broad and expansive project, and not a narrowly focused endeavor such as our academia most readily approves. But some people HAVE to be generalists, popularizers, and sythesizers, too. Or try to be!

Others have already done so much of the thought work. But I specifically want to try to “put it in terms” that Americans can understand and “relate to,” as they say, and not speak merely to specialists in one field or another….)

So I’m interested in mass, energy, and the Higgs field in relation to common assumptions about “objects,” and here’s why. The Anglo-American tradition of philosophy, called “analytic” of course, started out by trying to be a “scientific” philosophy with a mathematico-logical approach, around the turn of the 20th century (Frege, Russell, early Wittgenstein). Their foundationalist efforts are rightly termed “objectivist,” and it’s that set of assumptions concerned with the nature of “objects” vis-a-vis reality is what I’m always thinking about, because it constitutes a lot of what prevents scientists and humanists from talking to each other.

Their effort to ground science (as they understood it) and to ground mathematics (as they understood it) in symbolic logic relied on an explicitly stated assumption: that, as Russell said, “the universe consists of a plurality of objects, standing in external relations to one another.” By “external relations” they meant that the object wouldn’t be any different, no matter what set of relations it was put into. They weren’t having any of this “mutually self-constituted” or “dialectical” relationship stuff that was being looked into on the Continent (Hegelian dialectic, phenomenology, and soon Saussurean sign-systems and hermeneutics).

Then Russell et alia sought to show the logical conditions in which a verbal statement could be said to have properly captured the strictly “external” relationships between “objects.” A set of such “external” relationships was what Russell called a “fact.” Reality, in this tradition, is the natural world, viewed as being strictly a matter of “objects” and “facts.” It’s really ironic that Russell and Whitehead were writing Principia Mathematica right when Einstein was working out the theories that led to mass-energy and time-space equivalence as deeply interrelated phenomena…. Don’t even ask where “Hamlet” would stand in this view of “reality.” Something like “Shakespeare wrote Hamlet” captures a “fact”; it states the external relation between two objects, documentedly empirically existing objects….

On the other hand, the Continent approached the nature of scientific method very differently,after Saussure and other thinkers sunk in. And therefore, Anglo-American analytic philosophy and Continental thinkers have had the same problems speaking to each other that we see here in the U.S. and Great Britain, between the hard scientists and the cultural theorists, in the Alan Sokal hoax affair or in the responses to Dawkins’ polemic against religion. Empiricists against cultural theorists.

But the Continental philosophers were assuming a different universe: they were trying to firgure out how to look into deeply interrelated and internally connected and constituted states of affairs, which must be “known” dialectically, through a back-and-forth process of inquiry that probably never gets finished. Much more like what I described in my posts on Plato’s Ion. (Russellian thinkers tend to expect a finished edifice of scientific truth; a complete description of the natural world. It’s built into their view of the universe, as you can see.)

But on the Continent they certainly did not deny the reality of the natural world or science’s genuine interaction with it — but they are often misunderstood here in the U.S. because, I believe, of our touchingly Russellian assumptions. As soon as we hear anyone talking as though reality includes much more than hard concrete objects, or whenever anyone is exploring the interactions of theory-building in one area with the operative linguistic and cultural constructions in the same society, then we tend to assume they are denying the hard sciences and MUST therefore be relativists and social constructionists. (And sometimes over here, this is exactly the case.)

So my searching for fresh vocabulary in order to develop a description of, let’s say, “the episteme” and its pursuit of the formal script, that can apply to all the disciplines, has got to be able to describe what scientists do, in a way they can approve of, but that goes beyond naive “objectivism,” which equates “truth” with empirical “objects” and obvious, non-mediated “relationships” between empirical objects. (Where does this leave what Plato and Aristotle saw as the biggest component, the theoretical formalizations and the structures they build for understanding.)

I’m very interested in how 17th century physicists saw their own methods, and even then, I don’t think the Russell approach comes anywhere near to describing how they developed their physics or the nature of what it was they are trying to know about. Galileo and Newton, for instance, were dealing with a continuous sequence of action that unfolded over time and they were looking for proportionalities and trying to name or conceptualize various elements in the entire picture, as they rehearsed the experiments over and over again (here, for the motion of falling). And of course they looked for whatever measurable elements or quantities might be involved — quantities of matter, force, momentum, velocity, and so forth.

In the process, it’s notable how certain quantities could be “solved for” — they didn’t need to be always directly measurable in every case. So right from the start, you could quantify “mass” without knowing exactly what mass “is.” It is relationally defined, structurally defined, like so many things in the humanities and social sciences. But at first mass seemed to be so fundamental and empirically self-evident, in its relationship to “weight.” Its mode of existence seemed so obvious. It was equal to “quantity of matter” (density) times volume. And “Eureka!” We knew how to measure volume indirectly, from classical Greece. So we could always arrive at a numerical sum for density through weight and volume.

Nowadays, we know that weight is only a relative concept — it manifests itself in relation to a gravitational field and it depends upon the strength of the field. Similarly, gravity and its effects (bending space) are relational quantities defined by the equations they work in. Now, while weight varies, the mass of an object does not vary; it does not increase as it speed up, Gavin clarifies, but its energy does. So it is even more clear now that it is defined formally or relationally, as the particular variable that it is in the equations? Is that right? Do you see why this would be helpful to me? I want people to be able to take “formal” things seriously whether or not they are made of matter or are, perhaps, obvious relationships between two material objects that remain unchanged by those relationships. Energy seems important here, because as energy, it is not mass, but is convertible into mass. (??)

And there are “particles” that do not have mass. Clearly, then, neither mass nor lack of it determines what “exists,” or defines absolutely what an object “is.” This doesn’t make massless things less real of course. But it makes it easier to see the kind of “scientism” upon which Russell built his logic and that still defines what “really exists” for most Americans.

This brings us to the Higgs field. I was familiar with electro-magnetic fields (I mistakenly called these “energy fields”) and how the waves of which they usually seem to be composed can manifest themselves as particles. Some particles have mass (electrons) and some don’t (photons). But the Higgs field really interested me because it exists everywhere even in the vacuum of deep space where there is no matter by definition. If mass is the measure of an object’s resistance to change of velocity (its inertia), then the Higgs field is hypothesized as being what particles interact with, that determines their mass, I guess. A “3 quarks daily” piece described it as like a field of snow, and some particles have to wade through it, while others seem to have snowshoes or even skis….

I’m interested in fields just like I’m interested in mass and mass-less-ness, in that there are “things” in physics that are relationally and mathematically hypothesized and defined without needing to be an empirical “object” in the old naive sense. What is the mode of existence of a Higgs field or a massless particle (or of any particle)? We don’t know and we don’t need to know, because they have FORMAL reality, based on the way physics operates experimentally and mathematically in knowing about its own kind of thing.

I’m not trying to show that physics deals with non-existent or fictional “things” but rather that the structure of the physical world is not well represented by thinking of it as material “objects” standing in external relations to one another. Actually, the Russell effort in mathematical logic failed and is now abandoned, but I think most Americans think of “reality” the same way that Russell did, because they have no other convenient way to think of it.

The science bloggers who are most ferocious rely on Russellian vocabulary all the time. I remember a young woman who wrote in to express how disturbed she was when she attended a lecture by a major physicist and he spent the time assessing whether it could be said that quarks “really exist.” He concluded that, on the whole, science was justified in saying that they do exist. She was very disturbed by this, because she was used to saying that science deals only with things that really exist as empirical objects.

She was naive, of course, because physics is always methodologically un-certain of the exact relationship between its current models and whatever the “reality” might be. But wouldn’t it be good to have a GE program in the liberal arts that could fill her in without discrediting science, or demeaning the non-scientific disciplines? If I recall correctly, in one of our earliest exchanges, Gavin suggested that science is objective and general, as opposed to the more idiosyncratic and subjective areas of life and I said we needed a clearer description, because many other areas of life show general regularities and can be studied formally without being sciences.

In my own fields, we deal with “formal principles” all the time, just as though they “exist” out there in their own right, even though they are better regarded as our current attempts to model certain cultural “norms” that we try to observe. These are principles, idealized as norms, which humans statistically seem to “obey,” but their exact mode of existence is problematic, since whatever they are, they are internalized by human subjects from the shared semiotic codes of the culture, and we can’t even decide on the ontological status of mental concepts! Let alone the norms governing a mental concept for an entire language community….

Americans have trouble with this work with formal relationships and systems because they sort of want us to point them to the empirical “object” that is a formal sign system. Or they want a relationship in a sign system to be something separate from the signs it is relating to one another. But everything in a sign system is relative to everything else, mutually self-constituting.

Or they want any formal principle or relationship to be a strictly deterministic law. If it is merely probablistic, or “for the most part,” then they think it isn’t a real thing. It can’t be scientific or rigorous unless it is an “object” or a deterministic “law” relation objects to one another. But we are observing the behaviors and building our models or scripts for the system of mental/perceptual associations that we designate a sign system, whether it is a language or a code of etiquette or a kinship system or any other rule-governed practice. And we Americans would be very happy if language were simply a set of “words” standing in purely referential relationships to external objects. We don’t like it getting more complex than this, but basically it was the highly mediated and complex multi-leveled structure of language that defeated the project of Russell’s “scientific” rationalism.

In Continental thought, however, it turns out that when we say “puppy,” the meaning of the word is constituted by a much deeper web of associations that we’ve learned in addition to the simple word-refers-to-object “fact” that we can end up taking for granted once we’ve learned the language on all its levels of functioning. There is a much deeper and more complicated mental and perceptual structure involved than simply in just using the word “puppy” as though it were a verbal object standing in a relationship to a concrete empirical object.

But I can use the Greek notion of episteme for this linguistic situation quite beautifully, because it takes for granted the idea that formal entities “exist,” such as the kind of thing called “puppy,” and that the kind of thing is itself composed out of formal relationships that make it what it is. Just think. The KINDs of things for which we have nouns don’t “exist” in the world in the same way as an actual puppy does, but for human beings it does exist, and most people would say that the KINDs of thing humans notice and name do correspond with something in the real world, even though only humans explicitly think and name of a discrete object as also being a formal member of a class of things. (Family pets learn their own names along with the names of the human family members, but they wouldn’t recognize category names such as “humans” and “dogs” and “cats,” would they? This formal element is what makes human language and thought possible. What the Greeks thought of as “Form”-al.)

This recognition and use of “formal” entities (like numbers, for another fascinating example) was the focus of Greek philosophy and their vision of the liberal arts. So they offer us a very efficient and interesting new (old) way to think about all the disciplines — that we are all seeking to find the scripts for different phenomena by rehearsing them and formalizing the underlying structures — but people run aground right away here, because they protest that science deals with real things, but you are talking about “formal” structures of language and cultural codes and they must be less real things or fictions because they don’t empirically exist, do they? Or if we claim they do exist, then are we claiming that science is “just a social code” too?

Well, we work from observation to theory and from theory to observation just as physics does, so that we have a deep context of theoretical work just as physics does, when it moves toward naming smaller and smaller constituent components of the physical world, for instance.

A difference is that we have to work together more “intuitively” than the scientists — not more intuitively than physicists do when they are developing hypotheses to test (because this is very intuitive and creative and a real “art”) but more intuitively in that we have to discuss and test our theories against much less isolatable phenomena and in less quantifiably measurable and direct ways, to make our progress.

Remember though, that we are dealing with historical and cultural human phenomena, and the fact that our formalizations are part of our time and place and in conversation with them is a large part of their value. It might not matter to physics when Planck’s constant was discovered or who discovered it, for its consequences would remain to be developed, but part of the purpose of our disciplines is that we do the best we can to be always relating our findings to the problems of our own times and to the meaning of our personal lives, and this is appropriate to the nature of our disciplines and what we are studying.

But like the physicists, as we are carried from external observations to underlying formal relationships and theoretical construct, we havegood reason to believe in the existence of what we are studying, based on a whole history of evolving theory, the way psyschologists believe in “repression” for instance, and in “working through,” because they see that mechanism operating over and over again in therapeutic and other situations, and yet the script for it and how it works is always evolving.

So you see it is very important for me that physics has such a large theoretical and formal component and deals with kinds of quantities which to some degree define each other, and not simply with “material objects.” It’s important, that is, if we are to develop a description that can make sense to all of us and that can be shared by hard scientists and cultural theorists alike, as well as musicians and so forth, so that they can understand and respect each other’s efforts to know.


14 Responses to “Conversation continues on mass, Higgs field, and science amidst the other liberal arts…”

  1. Gavin Says:

    It seems to me that we are going rather far afield making electrons and the Higgs field part of this discussion. Consider the following three statements.

    Electrons exist.
    Hamlet exists.
    John McCain exists.

    The first statement involves something that is very far from most people’s experience. Talking about it can get you into issues of fields, space-time, anti-commuting numbers, etc. It is a real mess. But everything you want to address seems to be contained in a comparison of the last two statements. Are both statements true? Does “exists” mean the same thing in both statements? It seems that we need to understand these statements before we move to electrons. Maybe you already do understand this relationship, in which case you could just get me up to speed and we can move on to electrons.

  2. Janet Says:

    Gavin, These are certainly the right questions. I sat down and started writing on “Hamlet exists” and “John McCain exists” and six hours later I had written about 20 pages that belong in a book for other theorists.

    There’s a sense in which the entire history of Western philosophy (including literary theory) is about the question of what it means to ask: “What is X?” To ask “what a thing is” is just another way to ask about its mode of existence. Socrates started it with What is Justice? What is the Good?

    When we ask in what manner the character Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play “exists” and in what manner John McCain (he’s the man!) “exists” we are deep, deep into philosophy and theory. Maybe I have to communicate with other theorists on all this, before I can explain it in a simpler fashion to those outside the field. (It would probably take you the same “15 years” to get up to speed on sign theory — the “mode of being of the sign” or in what manner signs or names “exist” in relation to the way the things-named exist… — as you said it would take me to get up to speed in quantum mechanics.)

    And no doubt you and other physicists have a facility for QM and I have a facility for ontological/epistemological questions, or we wouldn’t have been drawn into these respective fields.

    Still, the QM discussions we’ve had here have helped me enormously. Observing, from the things you physicists and biologists say, the way you approsch and do your theorizing has been enlightening and encouraging to me. Mostly, it’s gotten me really deeply into my writing off-line!

    I can say this much. Electrons are more like the other two “objects” than you probably think. Regarded as “constructs” developed by members of a given community (the QM disciplinary community, the literary community, and the English-speaking citizenry of the US, respectively), all three “names” evoke a distinct identity with a distinct history, recognizable to the public at large, an identity that can evolve over time and be re-interpreted in new ways in the future.

    And considered as “names,” all three names refer not to a physical object at one point in time, but to a formal identity within a structure of relationships, relationships which confer the identity or precisely define that identity — but not in a final way, but always provisionally with a view to future formal clarification or rethinking.

    The “electron” is an ideal construct or entity, defined mathematically and relationally to other similarly defined elements. You aren’t referring to one particular electron but to a kind of phenomenon, or a class, or category. That the name has this precise theoretical definition of being a formal class of things is what enables you to refer to a particular electron in a given case. “The first electron that was aimed at ….”

    Hamlet, in contrast, is a name referring, it might seem, to a particular object or entity: the character in Shakespeare’s play. But we have to know what a “character” and a “play” are — their formal or ideal definition — even though the terms, like the term electron, are evolving, have a history, and are open to future re-interpretation. And there are actually many “Hamlets,” all characters in a story set in Denmark, of which Shakespeare’s is one particular instance. Shakespeare is also a fascinating name, and there is even controversy about “who Shakespeare really was,” but basically we answer the question “What is Shakespeare” by knowing and studying the plays he wrote — not so much by knowing about him as an actual person in other respects. We could have identified the wrong guy as the author of those plays and that author, whoever it was, would still be “Shakespeare” in the most important sense.

    Now John McCain might seem like the easiest object to identify, because his name refers to an actual living person whose existence is very well documented and experientially verified. By scientific standards, he is the “object” that can be said to exist most definitively, using scientific reductionism to demonstrate his physical bodily existence. Clearly, though, his identity, built upon his physical existence and his actual acts and words, is conveyed to us through the same kinds of formal structures of relationships as the other two. POW and U.S. Senator, for instance, are formally defined kinds of things that help us to classify him.

    What I would suggest is that all “names” are given their identity not on the surface, so to speak, but through underlying idealized structures of relationships. And that looking deeper at the formal constitution of a phenomenon is very notably the kind of thing that scientists do in order to develop their theories of physical states.

    What we tend to miss in North American conversation is that the idealized formal categories — such as the ones that give their identity to “electron” or “mass” or “energy” or “literary character” or POW” are for us every bit as “real” as the particular instances of these categories are real. We couldn’t know the empirical physical world without having these formal structures, of which language is the first system of interpretation and dientification that each of us learns.

    All names are categories based on experience and observation and they are categories that are being tested constantly and revised and debated. The names arise and evolve within theoretical contexts, and as we learn more we develop new names and new theoretical definitions. This work is carried out by whatever communities are concerned with “knowing” them, starting with the common world of everyday language and becoming more rigorously theorized as we move into the disciplines.

    If we are genuinely coming to know more about something real, we will find that we are learning about it formally, because it is to a large degree a formal kind of thing and is known about in relation to other formal kinds of things.

    It won’t do to continue to employ one single binary opposition: physical “reality” versus “other.” This is because we are creatures who live and perceive things in time. And so we are interested in observing things that don’t occur all at once, like a rock sitting there, but occur temporally, in temporal sequences or processes. (Electron, Hamlet, and John McCain are all “things” that emerge over time and have different attributes at different times and yet have good reason to be regarded as unified wholes.)

    And as soon as we are describing a process, or a thing that unfolds in time, then the description “physical” becomes tricky and inadequate. The electron, for instance, is not a physical object like a rock. It is “physically” measurable on certain occasions but its “existence” is described and defined with formulas that trace something happening over time and differently manifesting at different times. Likewise, for a different kind of example, we use the names “summer” and “winter” to describe a whole constellation of physically measurable stuff unfolding in time in a regular sequence and alternation, but do these phenomena “exist physically”? Not the way a rock does. These are names of formal categories that summarize a lot of data. If we weren’t there to summarize it, would these categories “exist”? And for whom? Dogs don’t think “Gee this summer is hot. A lot hotter than last year.” Or “I wonder if I am going to die.” These are formal categories and formal patterns that humans observe and construct on the basis of their observations of regularities.

    These “things” are all based on physical data but until we observe and select and combine certain features of the physical world and put all that into a theoretically structured context under “names” like the names of the seasons, do they “exist physically”? This is what I’m getting at when I say science doesn’t deal directly with empirical objects. We do THAT in daily life. Science looks deeper, and deals with formalized, idealized, mathematical entities that are based on observed reality. But Hamlet is also precisely that. An ideal or formal entity that summarizes a lot of observed, empirical reality for us; a lot of formal insight into human growth and behavior is isolated and conveyed to us through this character in this play.

    Just because different cultures divide the seasons up into different units doesn’t mean that “seasons” are merely socially constructed, in the sense that these cultures aren’t really interacting with the physical world! It doesn’t mean they don’t have definitive physical measurable attributes of the natural world to distinguish the seasons they observe. But this peculiar mixture of formal theory with physically observable characteristics is seen in every “name” of anything that exists. The knowing becomes rigorous or scientific (becomes an ike) when you have a disciplinary community devoted to thinking the theory through formally and on a deeper level than is done in common daily life.

    So I think the social constructionists are way off base if they deny the real interaction with a real physical world or imply that sciences are arbitrary constructions. There is always a significant degree of observation behind everything we name, and there is always a testing of the name against the physical attributes, but the names refer to structures that unfold in time and are not apparent at any one time or place. We have to idealize and name these idealizations and be open to rethinking them constantly and realize that we don’t have the final interpretation.

    With something like “Hamlet,” the physical observation comes in on many levels of a very complex interpretive process. We have to hear or see the words and we have to use language as a formal system to construct or understand the speeches from the words, and we have to bring our formal knowledge of history and human behavior and Greek drama and whatever else might help to define precisely some aspect of this character in literary-theoretical and literary-critical terms — which is a more rigorous or scientific version of doing what is commonly done by members of our society when they enjoy the play.

    I think that it is very important to stop thinking even of a particular physical object as a simple thing. They are themselves constellations of properties and aspects that can be formally studied in relation to different theoretical approaches or sciences. They have histories. We are always dealing with a deeper, more formal or ideal, structure that we look for in order to “explain” the given appearances more precisely. Predictive power is another attribute that belongs to all of these formalizations. “If it is a puppy, it WILL say Bow-Wow.” “If it is Summer, the weather will be generally warmer than in winter.”

    As we learn our language, we are conditioned and trained in the formal theoretical constructs that our language uses to enable us to interact with the world and communicate with one another about it. We test the formal names against observed empirical reality. A puppy says bow-wow. But what is a bow-wow? What is “generally warmer.” These are formal relational categories we are learning as as we are making our daily empirically-based inquiries, inquiries that are always also formalized and relational inquiries. That is, we can have a very cold summer and still “know” it is summer. How? Because these “names” (all names) derive their identity from being formally defined in relation to other formally defined elements in a system. They are not simple quantities. A “day” (24 hours) of 105-degree “heat” are quantities that can be measured. They so NOT make a “summer.” And a summer cannot be itself an empirical object. You can’t set your coffee cup on it. But there is plenty of empiricial data to support the “existence” of summer and winter as belonging to the natural world, once you allow the formal component (the emergence in the data of some definable regularity or coherence over time, the kind of thing that REQUIRES being taken note of it by comparing data and organizing it formally) to be part of “reality.”

    For the Greeks, those formal structures were more real than the instances of them, because the theoretical concepts were more enduring and more theoretically powerful than mere actual events and objects by themselves. They emphasized the ideal as the real; we moderns have emphasized the “actual” as the real, even though the actual is fleeting and changeable compared to the elegant formalities behind it. Modern semiotics, I believe, bring the empirical and the formal together and shows us the two components intertwined in all the terms we use, in all of our verbal and mathematical descriptions, in daily life and in disciplinary work.

    But the world isn’t made of all one universal kind of formality. There are all kinds of formal structures observable in our world and there are structures that are based on other structures, and each needs it own kind of definition. Scientific reductionism is wonderful. It is a kind of focusing in on, say, how bodies move in space, to arrive at laws of motion and physical theory that applies universally to everything regardless of the kind of thing it is. But thus it is looking at one kind of thing.

    The Greeks wanted the arts and sciences to inquire into the various modes of existence of various kinds of things. We have let that vision fade away, it seems to me, by making a basic cut between “physical” things and “other” things. To me, everything we want to know about is rooted in the physical world and our observation and experience of it, but for us to experience and observe and interact is to formalize particular things into kinds of things. The formal existence of kinds-of-things is fundamental to our knowing particular things and anything at all. It gives us a context within which to identify and specify. We never see one without the other. They define each other, as we develop the structure of theoretical relations that identifies them.

  3. Gavin Says:

    I think I got all that. How is Hamlet “rooted in the physical world”?

  4. Janet Says:

    On a number of formal levels, Hamlet is “rooted in the physical world.”

    We couldn’t experience the play as it exists, in its own way of existing, without the words physically printed on the page or the speeches physically enacted on the stage.

    So language is the first of our internalized formal or idealized theoretical systems that we employ to recognize in those physical marks or in those physically heard sounds the structures of meaning they contain linguistically.

    Then, consider those meanings. We can’t ever forget that each of us entered the world of language as children through all that emperical, experiential learning we did with naming and testing the names against things in the world until our theories of what the names referred to (those ideal classes or kinds of things) approached the sophistication equivalent to all the other members of our speech community. Language is rooted in the physical world, as a system for representing to one another the things in the world and our interactions with them. Or better, the KINDS of things and the KINDS of interactions we have with them, for these formal classes are what are in the storehouse of language.

    Then in given physical situations we pull them out and apply them to specific instances of a given puppy and a given bow-wow. (What’s really mind-blowing is that we also learned the formal kinds of things stored in language by encountering others using those formal words particularly, in given specific physical situations.)

    Then, at last, with our repertory of formal names and concepts, we encounter Hamlet the character, through many experiential readings of the play or by viewing many performances, from which we derive the associations and patterns and meanings that add up to that character for us. Our Hamlet as a formal name for all of that might be somewhat different in some respects from anyone else’s Hamlet, but Hamlet’s mode of existence is primarily in the shared, inter-subjective reality of what Hamlet represents that is possessed by all the members of our speech community who have come to know Hamlet as “something” knowable that goes by that name. The name stands for a whole process of emperical learning and a whole set of complex theories about what names represent and all of that formal learning happened in the physical world and is about the physical world, which includes us and our representations of the world.

    Finally, then, we experience Hamlet as a character and the entire trajectory of his story and the fate that we come to “see” in his story by comparing and contrasting it with what we have observed in the world and learned about the world. Aristotle says that a tragedy follows the pattern of a great or large-hearted, noble person who falls from the heights of fortune to the depths of misfortune. But this doesn’t happen accidentally. This kind of plot or story-line as a whole tells us something about real life — the tragic hero must have a flaw that brings about his fall. He must not be a criminal, or we would not pity him (identify and care about him) but he must not be a mere victim of external events (or his fate would be pathetic but not tragedy).

    So when we watch the character Hamlet struggling with his terrible fate of thinking his uncle has murdered his father and taken his mother for himself but not wanting to do anything wrong and to become as blood-thirsty and possessive as he thinks his uncle is, we see a tragic pattern or a tragic truth about real life. And so then, in other situations, we might say “This is tragic,” and we are naming something about real human life that we have come to recognize and know according to its own formal identity, composed of its own formal relationships that obtain between a set of interconnected elements (human greatness, human flawedness, for example) as this pattern re-enacts itself, a pattern unfolding over time.

    To me, fundamentally, this is “ike,” and it is very like the theorizing Galileo and Newton did to deduce a set of concepts or elements (inertia, gravitational force, mass, acceleration) from many experiential situations in which they watched the balls behaving and took measurements and observed idealized proportionalities that could be named and described and used to predict how all similar objects WOULD move — if nothing incidental happened to intervene and spoil the pattern so it couldn’t be observed (the isolated situation of “the experiment”).

    Aristotle called what the artist does “poiesis,” or “MAKING a formal structure” with its own set of idealized or formal relationships, in the medium of language, a structure that correlates with or imitates or represents the structure that is thought to be operating in the empirical world. In this sense a play, which is itself also called a poiesis, is not something as it has perhaps actually happened, but is instead a representation of what WOULD happen, if the irrelevant was excluded, a representation then of the deeper formal laws or potentialities that would be unfolding in this kind of situation.

    I think this brings a literary fictive structure very close to a scientific formula and the theory that supports it or employs it, except that science uses the numerical languages of mathematics and geometry as well as the language of verbal expression to make its representations of what is happening on the formal or idealized level, apart from the stuff that gets in the way of our seeing the principles at work, such as air resistance when we drop a feather versus a rock. The good artist, to isolate and examine the relevant elements (like mass or acceleration), excludes the irrelevant stuff, the coincidental or incidental or contingent stuff, to show the pure trajectory of the underlying relationships (in so far as the artist has come to understands them). But you can’t talk about Shakespeare without talking about what he learned from Sophocles any more than talking about Newton without what he learned from Galileo. There’s an ongoing disciplinary conversation and tradition of learning going on in both cases.

    So, how is Hamlet “rooted in the empricial (physical) world”? Insofar as we ourselves are empirical beings and want to learn about the deeper patterns in our lives and the lives of others we see around us. Artistic representation is not arbitrary or isolated dreaming or wishing; it is a way of knowing more about the formal principles that keep repeating over and over again, as opposed to the merely accidental and coincidental parts of our lives. Good fiction isn’t a “fairy tale” about “things that don’t exist.” It is a deliberate moving to a more formal level of considering empirical life, and does so by constructing a representative model of what “most often” happens or what WOULD happen, if the pattern were unobscured by mere incidental or irrelevant actual happenings that cause us to miss the pattern of what is being studied. (Needless to say, the genre of fantasy can represent real patterns just as well as “realistic” genres, as in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, for instance, that tells us what we miss and long for.)

    Aristotle said the historian is confined to making a narrative representing what actually happened in one given period or time or life, including all its contingencies and accidents. But the literary artist can isolate out the deep stuff from the trivial in a given area of human life, and trace out the deeper unfolding laws or relationships of what’s happening every day. The artist therefore would exclude from the narrative or drama many perfectly actual and everyday things and choose instead, in extreme cases, something that is impossible and has never happened, if it helped to show the inward consistency of the pattern the artist was trying to show. So Medea stews her own children and feeds them to their father in her jealous hatred and then flies away like a witch. You don’t have to think those things happened or would happen to see how the artist is fulfilling or completing the terrible trajectory of tragic jealousy — a very real thing in empirical life — which is being so powerfully represented.

    This “formal” reality is fascinating to me. I think we miss it, today, because common sense reduces words, names, or concepts to referring to a particular object rather than to a kind of object — a formal construct within a formal system. But in mathematical sciences we can never forget this. The formulas and theories represent what WOULD happen and not simply what does happen in one given instance. The notorious difficulty science has with getting its experiments to come out right, and the way theory outstrips experimental evidence (as with Einstein’s general relativity or the Higgs field) are to me wonderful indicators of the deep and dynamic formality of scientific ikes or ways of knowing.

    The artist has the same trouble getting the story or the painting to come out right, and struggles and struggles with the recalcitrant materials. But if the artist fudges the evidence or cuts corners or is in any way dishonest in terms of the disciplinary tradition and its standards then it’s not good art.

    The niftiest thing of all is when the artist is so well rooted and gifted that the artist accomplishes a paradigm shift that reinterprets the tradition, as Einstein did — or as I think perhaps Shusaku Endo may have done in his great novel Silence! Such a paradigm shift may seem “incommensurate” with the previous tradition’s paradigm, but it never is, on the deepest level. It is built on the preceding paradigm and on the disciplinary standards of the tradition, as Einstein’s work was built on Newtonian mechanics, and as, perhaps, Endo’s insight into what a sacrifice done for love (a crucifixion) is really like is built on the long theory and tradition of Christian martyrdom….

  5. Invitation: to discuss Shusaku Endo’s “Silence” « Deep Grace of Theory Says:

    […] Invitation: to discuss Shusaku Endo’s “Silence” As the month of October is slipping by us, remember that you’re invited to read (or reread) the great novel Silence, written by one of Japan’s finest novelists, Shusaku Endo. In November, we’ll see if we can get some discussion of this novel going. The conversations we’ve had here about physics and poststructuralism have had the perverse effect of helping direct me more deeply into my off-line theoretical writing, so I have had less time for blogging. But I’d love to talk over this provocative novel that Hi brought up with the varied readers we have here. [For some thoughts on science and literature, wherein I end up comparing Endo and Einstein, see my comment here.] […]

  6. Gavin Says:

    Thank you for describing Hamlet’s physical roots in reductionist language that I can understand.

    Jonh McCain and Hamlet enjoy very different sorts of existence. How can I concisely describe the difference without insulting people who study Hamlet? Describing him as a “fairy tale” that “doesn’t exist” is not going to be well received. How can I do better while still being clear that Hamlet is not a person in the same way that John McCain is?

  7. Gavin Says:

    I am going to attempt to answer my own question. Tell me if I’m way off base.

    Janet gives about three types of existence to Hamlet. (I’m not trying to be as complete or precise as Janet, but I need to summarize.)

    1) Paper and ink words or spoken words (this requires language to be meaningful)
    2) A cognitive model (the Hamlet in our brains)
    3) Real features of our world (eg. the tragic trajectory) that Hamlet personifies

    John McCain shares the first two types of existence, but since he is not an artistic creation, he isn’t a very good metaphor for anything. However, he is a physical person, which gives him a type of existence that Hamlet doesn’t have.

    We haven’t thrown science in for a while, so let me use a physics analogy for a moment. Consider the difference between a sound wave and a light wave. Light waves can travel through empty space, while sound waves can only travel through matter. Does this mean that sound waves are less real than light waves? No. It just means that the existence of sound is contingent on the presence of matter. Light’s existence is not contingent on matter, since it can exist in empty space. (Of course the space isn’t empty once you add the light, but we that does not invalidate this argument. You can add light to a vacuum without adding anything else first. You must add matter before you can add sound.)

    What about Hamlet and John? They are both real, but they are contingent on separate things. For example, John can exist (briefly) in a vacuum. Toss him into space, and there he is. However, you can’t toss Hamlet into space; you have to toss something else in first, like a book that has Hamlet written in it, a person who knows about Hamlet, or a social group that displays the traits that Hamlet represents. Hamlet’s existence is contingent on humans and their artifacts. John isn’t.

    Now you might argue that John is not the matter hes is made of, but the personality encoded in that matter. So his existence is contingent on matter, chemistry, and physiology. That is fine with me. It is still the case that John’s existence is not contingent on other people. If every other human died and every human artifact was destroyed, John would still be here, but Hamlet would not. John is, however, contingent on chemistry. If chemistry ceased to exist, then John and Hamlet would have a common fate.

    Hamlet is just as real as John, and both are worthy of study. In fact, Hamlet is more real that John in one way — Hamlet represents something about humanity, but John is too entangled with the trivialities and accidents of his physical existence to represent anything (though his political machine, and those of his opponents, will try to make it otherwise.) Both exist in a variety of ways, each way contingent on different things.

    Have I got it? Am I talking about existence in a way that upholds the vision of a liberal arts education and embraces other ways of knowing? Or am I still stuck thinking like a scientist? Obviously my understanding of the nature of Hamlet, and even of John McCain, is very simplistic and must sound amateurish. But when you read my comparison of Hamlet and John do you feel like I’m open enough to have a discussion about existence, or am I still shutting out too much?

    Can we talk about God?

  8. Janet Says:


    Great Job! I never thought you were stuck in your thinking, and I have been thinking hard about your request for ways to talk about distinguishing John McCain and Hamlet, because this is at the heart of what I would like to do in my own work. Your comment that JM is not a “fairy tale” just shows again how we lack familiar workable ways of talking about all the meaning-structure that lies between something “imaginary” and something referring to an empirical phenomenon. (It all goes back to Descarte and his two kinds of substance, matter and thought. This dichotomy is way too stark.)

    I want to suggest first that we all remember that both John McCain and Hamlet are first of all FOR US “names,” and it is as names that they have their built-in formal interpretive structures in place. To a Martian, JM might be just a living breathing human animal but for the members of his speech community he has all kinds of built-in meaning structures. Even if we’d never heard of him, we’d know he was a man, not a woman, and of Celtic extraction on his father’s side, not Polish or Hispanic or Iranian. And that is knowing A LOT more than his physical existence!

    So I would add one thing to your summation, Gavin, by saying that John McCain does inherently represent things beyond “the trivialities and accidents of his physical existence” — good way of saying it. Notice that most of us don’t know much about those. Instead, we know his party affiliation and his political history and “stories about him,” such as how Bush smeared him in the 2000 primary and that he has stood up on the issue of torture and appears to have a lot more personal integrity than most candidates, unfortunately, appear to have.

    But I guess that I would suggest John McCain is as much of an interpretive riddle as any other human being or any character in literature. Whether it is his wife or children or associates or the public, we are all trying heuristically to identify his key characteristics based on recurring patterns of behavior, just as if he were an electron…. But because he is a human being, it is so much more difficult to isolate characteristics and because of human dignity, not so easy to subject him to repeatable experimentation!!! This is where literary artists have an advantage. They can subject their characters to testing and they can set up situations to test certain behaviors.

    Gavin, I really want to clarify that I never was trying to preach to YOU and the other scientists commenting here. You all show the benefits of the liberal arts education already, as far as I am concerned. It’s the closed-minded bloggers I ran into who worried me, as well as my Fundamentalist co-religionists. There’s so much closed-minded factionalism — I heard the historian Barbara Tuchman thinks we are entering another world-wide dark age of fanaticism and upheaval. That’s what I worry about.

    I’m trying to think WITH you about how to explain to the new generation that they don’t have a good basis for choosing one authoritative way of knowing and crusading against all the others. The Greek theory of the ikes stood up against the original dark ages and drew young people from tribal life into the monasteries to study the arts and preserve the knowledge from the past. I wish we had a similarly dynamic gen ed vision in our universities today….

    So I never thought you were “stuck thinking like a scientist,” at least not in a perjorative sense. I think we both want to broaden our horizons but we both already have a respect for other ways of knowing.

    So let me keep thinking about the John McCain/Hamlet question, and your summation.

    And yes, about God. One thing I think we can see already is that whether God “exists” or not, “God” is a powerful and significant “name” in human history, and in our own Western tradition and in our own current society. A lot of great thinking and profound art has been done under this “name,” or in the “name” of this “name.” And we have the additional problem that to say “God exists” suggests a kind of existence unlike any other existence. It certainly is not physical existence, or purely mental existence either. The theologians say it is the existence from which everything takes its various kinds of existences and yet those existences are only “like” God’s but in no way equivalent to it….

    I think that is why many cultural theorists who are NOT explicitly Christian or theistic are speaking up against Richard Dawkins and others who are thinking way too reductively on the subject. It’s especially unfair to equate Christianity with all of its terrible sins and evils and thence to conclude that it is purely bad, when science and most other human phenomena have terrible sins to their scorecards too.

    Hi has spoken persuasively about the “softness” of Eastern religions compared to our ferocious “hard edged” Indo-European traditions. But at the same time, those soft religions have not prevented Eastern cultures from engaging in ferociousness just like Western cultures, either. And we have our “softer” versions, too.

    I just want to point out that in the Judeo-Christian scriptural tradition, there is a constant critique of the hard edged tendencies of religious behavior and of the failures of those who supposedly “know” God.
    The emphasis of Yahweh on social justice and compassion at every point in biblicial history is really extraordinary. And Jesus was dying for the sins of his own “chosen” people as much as for the nations beyond Israel.

    Jewish monotheism reflected the god of a fierce nomadic tribal people but it also introduced some extraordinary ideas about divine goodness and justice into the history of world religions. I think all religions are worthy of respect and add something to the human inquiry into that compelling subject named “God.” Eventually you have to pick a tradition and work within its disciplines to make further progress.

    But that is thinking about “God” in terms of these deep meaning-structures and traditions that go under that name. I admit I can make what are flatteringly called sophisticated philosophical arguments on this subject, because I’ve studied both the Greek and the Hebraic-Christian traditions all my life and found them theologically and philosophically compelling. For me, saying that “God” names the condition of possibility for all that exists and for all human knowing makes sense and is part of my worship.

    BUT at the same time, I have a sad admission to make. In one way I am not so different from the Fundamentalists and biblical literalists after all. I have taught these folks all my life, at a Christian college, after all, and was one for a while myself when I was young, so I understand them pretty well. And I have to say that there is a core of personal experience to faith, and that personal experience and our collective practices of worship create the love we feel, and the awe, and when it comes to that, I recognize their God as my God. And when any tradition is worshipping God as the Creator of the heavens and the earth, such as Islam or certain Native American religions, I recognize again the same God as I worship.

    In other words, I’m sure it would be much easier for scientists like Gavin or Hi if my relation to God were purely philosophical, theological, and let’s say, cultural. But unfortunately, I have to admit there is this personal core, and that for me God is a name like John McCain and Hamlet, in that God is a Person for me. But more than any person fictive or empirical, God inherently exceeds my images of him! And God is critical of my current state of knowing and my complacency.

    There is so much Otherness in God. So much mystery. It’s the most exciting and challenging personal relationship I’ve ever experienced, I’d have to say. It’s demanding, of far more than I can give. It calls everything into question all the time. For me it is God who represents the insistence upon a universal honesty and openness, the way that science represents this for Hi.

    I could walk away from God at any time, except that intellectual honesty prevents me. But I struggle constantly to understand what it is that I am knowing when I love and worship God and especially when I look at nature or see human goodness and sacrifice and loyalty, and I know that God is essentially there in those realities. Whenever anyone, in any tradition or discipline, struggles to be honest and disciplined and not to shirk the truth, then my God is there. This is what the scriptures tell me.

    So when these kids come into the science classrooms in high school and they are primed with all this suspicion of evolution and all these literalistic commitments, remember that they may also have a great deal of love invested both in the God they’ve been taught and in the goodness of the people who have taught them. This is not a “thin” or merely intellectual issue for them and the classroom teacher’s challenge is to broaden their horizons without attacking their identity and their emotional and spiritual investments. If only these teachers could be open to the religious impulse itself, and explain that science by definition studies NATURAL CAUSES, I think they could disarm so much unnecessary conflict.

    Frankly, where these kids are sincere (some of them are thoughtless bigots who don’t care about truth, as there are some like this in every other segment of society), an argument proving the earth is not 6000 years old is as ineffective as proving there IS a God from the beauty of nature is ineffective to a non-theist.

    Teach the beauty and distinctiveness of the scientific method, without taking a stand on religious faith. Teach some of the devout Christians who have pioneered in science, such as Teilhard de Chardin, the Catholic paleontologist and evolutionists. Just expose them to the beauty of thought in its scientific form without claiming too much for it, and in the process you will be suggesting the possibilities of a freer, less literalistic integration for them in their own lives?

    But to do this, as educators, we have to have a clean concise vision of how the scientific method differs from other excellent methods that are also appropriate for knowing in their own spheres. And for that, the last three centuries in the West won’t help us, because science became the one absolute way of knowing anything that could really be called “truth” or “knowledge.” And that in turn engendered a “scientistic” version of Christianity called Fundamentalism.

    Instead of SCIENCE VERSUS FAITH, or natural versus supernatural, or empirical versus fictional, we need a PLURALISM. A range or spectrum of kinds of things or ways of existing, and their corresponding ways of knowing. And I think teaching the formal nature of language is fundamental to doing this for students and ourselves. Unfortunately, we’ve been stuck in the US with a model of language as being an axiom-driven universal computer into which we plug the variables of our own specific language. So we can’t focus on the heuristic learning that we undergo in categorizing things with names during language learning.

    So let’s keep thinking about the vocabulary and the vision that would work for a plurality of disciplinary methods of which science is one because it deals with one kind of reality — the natural world, viewed strictly in naturalistic terms.

    I’ve gone on waaay too long for today, though there’s a whole other thing in Gavin’s latest email that I want to talk about, too. For another day. (Now I went out on a limb talking about God, so be gentle.)

    And Endo’s Silence deals with these same issues about God. (Gavin, have you thought about reading the novel?)

    I feel like I went off on long explanations instead of dealing with Gavin’s email in its own terms. I’ll do better another day.

  9. Gavin Says:

    Did the part about contingent existence make any sense?

  10. Janet Says:

    Yes. I’ve been thinking a lot about that. About your comparison or your metaphor. The way John McCain is contingent upon a body and Hamlet isn’t — and then that being compared to the way some waves need a medium and others don’t….
    Okay now, I know I won’t say this right, but can you see why I was (ineptly) pondering about matter (or mass) and energy? The sound waves moving through the air or the energy waves moving through the water seem like examples of a kind of combined matter-and-energy phenomenon, whereas the light wave in a vacuum is like just the pure energy side of it, by itself…. the pure formal part — but it isn’t non-physical in some mystical sense…. I don’t mean that.

    And it was YOU who then got off talking about John McCain’s personality as opposed to his physical body, thus bringing in the mind-body thing… or the question of the “soul” in a sense. I don’t want to bifurcate the universe into physical and non-physical. I want all those levels of reality including John’s inward mental world and personality to be part of the real world. And yet there’s this weird “difference” in the natural world between mass and energy, or in the human experience between the body and the personality….
    It’s interesting that Aristotle’s Greek words for what makes any kind of thing into that kind of thing are two words: energeia (being at work, or working-in, from which we get “energy”) and dynamis (potentiality, or an underlying substrate capable of responding to energy, from which we get “dynamite”). Sometimes translated as matter and form….
    The older Western view of physis or “nature” and of the mental part of animals and humans (anima or soul or mind) was of an existing energy inside of the things themselves shaping them into what they were. Not some ghostly separate thing that is “super-natural.”
    Anyway, I want to keep thinking about your comparison. And trying to understand better the way in which a massless particle that is also a wave is a “physical” thing. Would you call the quantum wave a physical thing? How do you relate the probability wave to the physical manifestation of the particle on the screen? I feel so clumsy trying to use your vocabulary…so be patient.
    But you see, this is fundamental to linguistics. The speech sounds or phonemes could be described as a probability range. They are never performed the same way twice. But there are certain underlying distinctive features in the raw sound that identify the phoneme to us and that identifies the world. The significant difference between “Pat” and “bat” is simply that the first sound-segment of the word is unvoiced in the first case and voiced in the second case. And when we “hear” the sound, we disregard a lot of the sound as merely “noise” and pick up only one these few features. But when we hear the voicing, we don’t hear a “b.” No, we “hear” the word bat as opposed to Pat.
    This means we are interacting with a genuine external physical, empirical structure-of-sound, but we ourselves have assimilated within our consciousness a complicated interpretive structure or theoretical system that enables us to isolate what matters in the sound-structure and interpret it not on its own level (speech sounds) but on a higher level (the level of the words or morphemes). This is Saussure, and once you’ve studied this, you’ll never again confuse the social construction of meaning-codes with something that denies that humans are interacting with an external world.
    It’s just that the external world offers so much information that we are always organizing it for various purposes by selecting certain features to attend to and combining them in certain ways to come up with an interpretation. We can show we have good reason to think we are cutting our part of nature at the joints, without being able to say that we are taking everything into account or that another theoretical construction might not make progress…

    Coming back to your summation, Gavin,, I can’t entirely let you say John McCain is contingent on a body and Hamlet isn’t, though I know what you mean. Hamlet will still exist in John McCain’s mind, after all, as long as he exists in sound mind, just as Hamlet always has in other minds. When our last living human, JM, dies, only then does Hamlet cease to exist….

    Gavin, you asked: “when you read my comparison of Hamlet and John do you feel like I’m open enough to have a discussion about existence, or am I still shutting out too much?”

    I feel like you are very open, but also that you are still shutting too much out. Only not “shutting out” so much as being “deprived” of a fuller knowing. Not because you want to close it out, but because of the poverty of vocabulary and theory for dealing with meaning-structures in our English-speaking world, where Anglo-American logic tends to speak of a world of physical things that “exist” and then our language, as though the two spheres are easily kept distinct and there is nothing “in-between” the physical and the mental.

    So think about this. Gombrich was a great art historian who pointed out that artists may “represent” things in the world in their art — Cave paintings, medieval art, Renaissance idealized realism and perspective, Impressionism, Chinese pen and ink drawings, and so forth. But Gombrich talked about the way the artistic representation of the physical thing was mediated by a stylistic tradition in each case. So you see a neolithic cave painting of a bull and then you see a bull depicted in each of these other styles and periods, and you realize that while each artwork does refer to a bull as a thing in the world, the bulk of what you are seeing and appreciating has to do with the medium and the style and the idiom that are making that bull the bull you are seeing there, which is a neolithic bull or a Da Vinci bull or a Tang Dynasty bull. Do you see how much bulk and substance the artistic work itself has, mediating between the viewer and the bull-in-the-world?

    Well, that is the case with language, only in spades. Language is this thick dense multilayered medium made out of all these previously assimilated theory-structures that interact with one another FOR YOU as you see or think about or refer to any particular bull, living or dead, actual or fictional (the Cougar Gold store at WSU has that “happy bull” on its wall — oh yes, Ferdinand….). You are always observing THROUGH this thick dense medium of the language, just as you observe particles through the thinck dense medium of theory and apparatus and history that is your disciplinary medium. Only for us, the language is the medium that’s invisible to us. We think it’s just us and the “world.”

    So while the existence of John McCain is contingent as you say on his having been a physically existing body, we aren’t really interested in that trivial basic datum because we really don’t want to know, fundamentally, whether John McCain “exists” in that physical sense. We can take it for granted. What we want is something so much more compelling to us: We want to interpret him, to know him, to inquire into his being. And so does John McCain himself. Knowing “who he is” is of fundamental importance to human beings. And if every other living person disappeared, John McCain would be radically changed in all those respects. If everyone had been wiped out when he was five, he wouldn’t have language or politics or marriage or family or language and he wouldn’t have much of a personal identity at all. Would he be “John McCain”?

    Now for the natural sciences, the “existence” of physical bodies is of tremendous importance. You can’t simply take them for granted. But when Galileo studied those rolling balls and pendulums, he isolated things like distance and time and mass and force and velocity and acceleration, which aren’t really things in the world or bodies or objects per se. He wanted to know about motion! That fascinates me! This formal analysis of the various elements that might become variables in general equations for motion. The concept of inertia. Of gravity.

    I don’t know what we call these things or how we describe them. You say they just are what they are, and that’s okay with me, in one sense. I don’t need for mass to be more than this element in the equations. But I do want to describe formally how the science is happening there, in terms of the KINDS of THINGS that physics studies and how it studies them. See? I’m a theorist of the various ways that humans come to know about the various kinds of things. And language is the way of knowing I’ve thought about the most, and how we are all little scientists when we are learning language as toddlers, followed by my studying other formal systems of interpretation like philosophies and literary art and visual art….

    Here’s another complicating factor. It isn’t just that language as a whole mediates between us and the world. There’s also the way that our assumption of language-roles — so that we speak as teachers or parents or professionals or politicians, with specially marked kinds of language performance — feeds back into our evolving identities. This is why Shakespeare can make a fictional character have an indelible identity, because we hear Hamlet assuming the language-roles and the speech functions that we do or see others doing every day. This really scares my students in theory. Are we just actors then, wearing various masks, they ask?

    We like to think of ourselves as these spontaneous unique selves, doing exactly what WE feel like, when we are multi-layered and shaped in interaction with others and always behaving according to probabilistic codes and conventions, all the time. These codes shape and determine our behaviors, but not absolutely. Just with varying degrees of determinacy. So what is the mode of existence of any one of these codes? Or what is the mode of existence of the “free market,” which is another probabilistic mechanism composed of billions of discrete human behaviors that conform to certain operative principles….

    So you see why I can’t help being tantalized by the enigma of quantum indeterminacy, because you folks are dealing with a kind of statistical determinism (probabilistic phenomena) in a very exact and precise area of study. (Sorry, but I have some new questions about wave-particle duality…. but for later, later, later….)

  11. Janet Says:

    Gavin, can you say more about what it is that you want to be in a position to discuss, in a conversation about existence?

  12. Maria Kirby Says:

    I’m very fascinated about your discussion of existence. I have been pondering for a while certain phenomena that I have observed and was wondering if you might give me your perspective. While at church, I’ve been exposed to the reality of healing prayer. It seems that a physical change occurs because of the thoughts and more commonly the words of another. The reality that one person visualizes in their mind and expresses through their words, echoes in the reality of another person’s body.

    I’ve read “Flatland” and I’ve read about string theory (not that I have a great understanding about it). I’ve also read that a mathematician has found a connection in equations that imply that gravity may be acting from a different plane from which other forces such as the electro-magnetic force is operating in. So it makes me wonder if the reality of Greek “forms” might be a reality similar to matter in another plane, but operates in a more oblique manner in this three-dimensional reality that our physical bodies occupy.

    I’ve wondered if all matter doesn’t also exist in a spiritual plane. The physical phenomena that suggests this to me is the fact that gardens have a healing affect on persons. And persons emotional attitude (excluding proper care of plants) has an affect on the plants, e.g. Plants grow better with Beethoven over heavy metal.

    So I wonder if many of the principles we define in the three dimensional world of objects don’t also have correlaries in the world of ideas or “forms”. An example of this for me is when I think of free will and God’s Sovereignty, I think about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. There’s a inherent mystery to where what we control leaves off and God’s control takes over, similar to trying to define both position and velocity simultaneously. Who is in control has a lot to do with the questions we’re asking, how we’re looking at the situation.

    I hope this isn’t too far off your topic. I’ve been wanting to ask these kinds of questions for a long time. I just haven’t found the right people.

  13. Janet Says:

    Thank you so much for joining in here, Maria! Welcome to the discussion.

    Now Gavin, be patient here with all of us, and don’t take yield to the temptation to take these questionings that non-physicists have as simply some kind of New Age occultism, okay? Continue to be your tolerant and patient self, okay? (If you don’t, I will have to remind you that YOU lean toward infinite universes (gasp!) as the best interpretation of wave collapse — and that sounds extremely “New Agey” to most people, even though it is strictly mathematical, right?

    Maria, I am better as responding when I’ve had time to ponder, so I’ll get back to you later on, except to say that many very good minds (including scientific ones) have seen quantum indeterminacy as opening up a universe that is much more open to freedom and spontaneity than was thought in Newtonian times. And eventually, when we know more about QM, I think it may shed some brand new light on very old metaphysical questions. (BTW, I was just wondering this morning some questions along the lines of what you are saying.) So I will get back to you. Instead, I am now going to ask Gavin some questions that have come to the forefront for me lately.

    (But let me recommend to theists the epilogue to C. S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image, in which he talks about nature in a way that shows he had been talking with the physicists at Cambridge and Oxford about Copenhagen QM (quantum mechanics) and the way that many processes in nature seem to depend on resources lying elsewhere. It is so strange to me that many scientists are very comfortable talking about all of this stuff — just as long as no one uses the words “God” or “spiritual,” because these words have very unwelcome connotations (and I’m not sure theists aren’t responsible for many of these bad connotations). Be sure to look, too, at what Richard Dawkins said in an interview discussed in my earlier post, “Bravo for 3 Quarks Daily…”)

    In the meantime, let me ask Gavin these questions that have finally crystalized for me, questions that may in the long run be related to Maria’s ponderings.


    1) My son took a GE course in astronomy/cosmology at Penn last spring and came home for the summer and repeated to me something I’ve heard before about quantum indeterminacy. I want to know if you agree. He said that if you throw a ball at a solid wall a billion billion times, one time it might not bounce back, but continue right on through the wall. I understand why this is said (I think) but it is up-to-date in your view?

    2) Here’s another question, one that has been driving me crazy. If you shot a rifle that was not accurately lined up or had looseness in its design where it shouldn’t, isn’t it the case that you would end up with a haphazard spray of bullet holes around the center of the target, and they would be randomly distributed and you couldn’t say where each bullet would be except roughly within a certain tolerance?

    Now why is it that the collapse of the wave function is so worrisome to theorists, given that the particles are bound to appear within the range of the wave function and you can even specify the probability of where any given particle might appear on the screen. Setting aside the wave/particle duality itself (if we can), why is it so problematic that we can’t say where each particle itself will land, in a strict deterministic fashion? Aren’t there many things in nature that operate this way? When water is splashing along in a stream, it doesn’t splash exactly the same way twice, but it is certainly determined within certain limits. (?)

    In the humanities and social sciences, we talk about norms applying “with a certain degree of determinacy.” In other words, the manifestation is always within a certain range, but the degree to which the normative outcome applies may be very loose or somewhat loose or may apply with very little indeterminacy, but it does not have to strictly every time to be a true normative pattern. Does there really have to be a deterministic mechanism underlying everything in science? If so, what about the water splashing…. (Or Brownian motion? It is random, isn’t it? “Random” within a certain shaping description.)

    3) Finally, I remember that you said that Roger Penrose was waaay off in suggesting that a new theory of quantum gravity may eventually provide an underlying mechanism for the wave/particle enigma. (And he connects this with the quantum nature of consciousness, too, which Maria has heard of since it is in the psyche of our culture right now.)

    So what is the exact nature of your disapproval, here? Is it the gravity part of the theory that you object to, or is it the very idea that physics will discover an underlying mechanism that is currently unknown, for wave collapse? That you are convinced in sticking with the current maths?

    It seems to me that the course of scientific progress indicates that an anomaly like wave/particle collapse will eventually be resolved by a new and deeper underlying theory as in the case of anomalies like black body radiation and the Michelson-Morley experiments. Yet it seems that you like the current maths enough to invest in the “other” explanation: that the current anomaly is explained by the particle being in every possible location but in different universes. But doesn’t this mean that “we” are in all those different universes too, but each of “us” doesn’t know the others exist? That SOUNDS, at least, pretty far out. I don’t say this to provoke you, Gavin, because I understand how compelling the mathematics are said to be. But what of the “metaphysical” implications. Don’t those give you pause? And why are you so opposed to a more “traditional” way out: that a new theory will provide a new explanation or deterministic explanation?

    4) Oh, sorry, one more question. I’ve been reading a philosopher of science James Cushing who describes the de Broglie/Bohm theory of quantum collapse, which Bohm developed after the acceptance of the Copenhagen approach. Cushing says this is a deterministic theory, and that it explains the phenomena as well as Copenhagen, and it is merely historical contingency that the Copenhagen hit the scene first and became orthodoxy. Do you have any thoughts on this? I would expect that physicists would opt for a deterministic theory if it really held water for them, even if another theory got there first….?

    Sorry to load all of this questions onto poor Gavin. Any other physicists or others out there who care to comment on any of these questions? Or innumerate humanists and/or theists?

  14. Gavin Says:


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