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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.

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“Rehearsal”: Writing the scripts for nature and faith?

Gavin says:

I may not have been quite clear. I think your goals are great, I’m trying to understand the strategy and I want you to understand how the strategy is going to look to scientists who are fending off well coordinated and well funded attacks on their credibility. When you make a comment like:

“And, okay, I’m sorry, but if energy is massless and if it fills “empty” space, in what sense then are we still saying that the science of physics is an empirical science?” [in “Thanks, Great Impetus for my work”]

We are going to flip out. I don’t think this is what you intend, but I’m saying that you start sounding a lot like a global warming denier or an advocate of intelligent design when you question the foundations of our field based on . . . I don’t even know what it is based on because I have no idea what that sentence is talking about!

Janet replies:

Oh, what a relief. I need people to tell me when I say things like that. This blog has helped me be much more sensitive to responses from the science side, but I still take these shortcuts and get in trouble. I need to make one long structured argument where I can make all the qualifications I need to make as I go along. (I work on this longer argument all the time.)

I’ve been thinking hard about this particular impasse you and I have hit. One thing is that a liberal art is supposed to be liberating. Learning a plurality of them is supposed to be personally, intellectually, and civic-ly liberating. So we can work for a good society and strive for good lives, as well as pushing back the frontiers of knowledge within our fields.

When I said that about “empirical” I was thinking of the science bloggers with their unthinking descriptions of what it is they think they are doing as scientists, when it should be uppermost in their minds, perhaps, how complicated and wonderfully unexpected it all has become. I was also thinking of Hume and my life-long battle with those philosophers who say that the only things we can know to be real are direct sensory impressions, when science is always working with theoretical constructs and the way those constructs as a whole point forward. Like the standard theory guiding you toward the HIggs boson when we don’t empirically know it exists at this point. That is such a good paradigm for scientific progress, isn’t it?

My concern with the science blogs — just those really ferocious ones — is that those kids aren’t liberated. They are in a lot of pain and they are afraid. They are really angry and out for blood. They remind me of some of the fundamentalist kids I’ve worked with over the years within Christianity.

I woke up this morning with the word REHEARSAL in my mind. Re-hearsal. I wonder if this metaphor or model might be made to help? Like every other discipline, perhaps, science is trying to write the script for how the natural world works. But instead of having the script in advance and rehearsing it for the final performance, you are working on developing the script piece by piece as you go along. Galileo and Newton worked on a script for physical motion and how objects move by rehearsing over and over again with pendulums and rolling balls and formulating the principles that they worked up a script to fit the phenomena. Their work was gorgeous and superb and solid, but of course when we got other parts of the script going and looked at larger sections of it, you had to revise the interpretations of the pieces and move to a deeper and more inclusive subtext. And now scientists realize that they will most probably always be doing that because the reality for which they are writing the script is so complex and studying parts of it are perhaps impossible and so on.

What makes the hard sciences different from other disciplines, and from the way jazz musicians develop the script of jazz improvisation or literary theorists write the scripts for how the textual motions of Hamlet correspond to large and deeper cultural subtexts, or how parents read and talk and try to piece together the best script they can for parenting their kids, is the nature of the phenomena they are dealing with, which can be studied through their methodology based on experimental verification of hypothesis (provisional scripts) — or rather experimental “falsification,” since the experiments can basically only disprove, but not prove, the hypothesis. This is so wonderful and so fundamentally creative and ingenuous, that it is sad to see it being talked about by some of its own defenders as though it was a matter of proving facts and then building them one and top of another.

Is this better?

The problem with biblical literalism is very much the same. If the scriptures might be a set of texts reflecting encounters with God and offering profound reflections and insights on subjects such as human sin and error and pride and the power of love, then those who respect these texts must be constantly engaged in finding their scripts and the deeper subtexts that might relate the scripts. The meanings aren’t sitting there on the surface ready to be gobbled up, any more than nature’s script is sitting on the surface self-evidently there for all to see.

We Christians have to get together in our various traditions and work on it by trial and error and learn from the history of our traditions and our developing scripts for these texts, and their deeper trajectories. We have to hold fast to our deepest insights and experiences over the centuries, and yet constantly seize the subtexts afresh. We have paradigm change with underlying continuitity just as science does, and we are even more concerned about interpretation because we have to live our lives by our best current interpretations, even though we know they are not absolute. These texts all point beyond themselves in a way that the script for the natural world was not designed to do. Science develops its script by looking at the natural world in purely naturalistic terms.

I’m an Episcopalian, and right now in New Orleans the American Episcopla Church is at loggerheads with parts of the world-wide Anglican communion, especially the African churches, over how to read the text of the Christian tradition and scriptures. They have a different script than most of us do. And we are trying to model how to remain humble and thoughtful and be ready to make respectful compromises and still move forward with what we in all conscience think the script ultimately has been pointing toward all along, an inclusive vision.

But we don’t claim to have a proven certainty that we can force upon others, or that our script has a lock on the truth. I totally understand why many scientists might question why we keep going with such a search for knowledge here, where the texts and their scripts are so much less readily determined than in the sciences. (I do think we are doing validity testing all the time, every hour of every day, but it isn’t the nice controlled experiments of science!) Lets just say that the nature of this knowledge, the experience of this relationship, however limited and uncertain, is for us worth the quest.

The Anglican tradition has always been the church of the via media — the “middle way” — and the one that has tried to refuse to go to one extreme or the other, but keeps on negotiating a thoughtful position in the midst of all the controversies, keeping in conversation with the Orthodox and with Catholicism and Protestantism and holding the radical middle, so to speak.

But I’m getting away from the central script here, which is the nature of the liberal arts and of human ways of knowing in general. Does this “script” metaphor seem helpful? For those who read the Wily Socrates posts on Plato’s Ion, the “scripts” here are the ikes, the epistemes, and there are many of them and they each formulate the elegant formalities of their own kind of thing. This is how medieval theologians worked on scripture and on their doctrinal fields, by the way. The creeds were scripts for where we were going and what we were trying to experience and understand, individually and collectively, not propositional statements to which we could “agree.” The truths of the creeds were what we were on a pilgrimage to try to understand, not propositions to be agreed to blindly for their own sake.

Augustine said that the one enduring subtext of all the scriptural texts was “to enhance the reign of charity,” and that every interpretation must be guided by that principle. The script is a script of love, in other words. In the natural world, the script science has been developing through its superb and ingenuous rehearsals has perhaps been guided by the principle of elegant formal causation, which may or may not amount to strict deterministic causation in various situations, but is always mathematical and elegant.

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More guest posts…. The meaning of “randomness” in science

Faculty at my university have gotten into a lively discussion about the scientific notion of “randomness,” as in random mutation (as the first step in natural selection), set off by some criticisms of Michael Behe’s Edge of Evolution (Behe is in the Intelligent Design movement). As Christians, they are (like me, of course) in the strange position of personally believing in “an intelligent designer,” so to speak, but — except for two that I know of (out of 140 faculty members) — of supporting Darwinism and opposing the teaching of Intelligent Design in biology classrooms.

So I’m going to post (with permission) several of our facnet emails, partly to take Hi off the hot seat, and partly because these guest posts may bring new questions, from a theistic standpoint this time around, into our eclectic conversation.

First, here is Richard from our school of religion. Followed by one of our biochemists, named Ben. And finally, a contribution by Stamatis, a Greek Orthodox Christian, a physicist who has taught Western science to Buddhist monks in India several times, at the Dalai Lama’s invitation.

Rick says: At the risk of grinding my own axe, and perhaps of dulling everybody else’s, I would like to ask for an explanation of “explanation.” That is, does any given scientific hypothesis have “explanatory power” because, and only to the extent that, it is capable of “saving the phenomena,” i.e., of furnishing a plausible account of the material and efficient causes of what we can observe in nature? And would such a hypothesis ipso facto furnish “evidence for God”? And does “evidence for God” mean “evidence for God’s existence,” or “evidence of God’s purposes”?

All of which is to say that I am not convinced—but maybe nobody is claiming—that a scientific hypothesis which had great “explanatory power” with respect to the “how” of certain natural phenomena would thereby satisfy the religious question of “why” those phenomena are as they are. And lacking that, I am not convinced that such a hypothesis would serve the purpose of giving warrant either for the belief that God exists or, if God does exist, for the belief that divine providence in some way directs the course of natural and human history as a whole and of our individual lives.

Let me put this with embarrassing concreteness. I happen to know something about “random mutations.” My eldest daughter is the victim of one—a particular mutation to the gene which controls skeletal development in vertebrates, and a mutation which occurs, at least among humans, in about one in every two million births. (I don’t know the frequency of occurrence in other vertebrates, although I’m sure it is exceedingly rare— and probably always fatal. The people who are researching this condition have reported no naturally occurring instances of the condition in other species, and are busy trying to create a “mouse model” of the disease in order to develop treatments and a cure.) Now, suppose a baby is born with the condition and properly diagnosed. The parents will quite naturally ask their doctor, “Why did this happen?” Would the doctor be said to have given them an answer to that question if she gave a thorough explanation of how “random mutations” occur in nature, and of how nature “selects” (or God decrees) certain mutations for incorporation into the genomes of various species, and of how this particular mutation is likely to effect the life of this particular child? I doubt it. Such information would have no “explanatory power” whatsoever with respect to the existential and religious question of how the parents are to make sense of what, for them, is not a biological curiosity but also a human tragedy.

This is by no means to deny the importance of having answers to the questions of why mutations occur, or how they are “selected for” or “selected against,” or how they shape the life of the individual organisms in which they occur. It is only to say that for the parents of a child with a genetic disease, finding God in the midst of their tragedy is something more, and something different, from having an explanation, however powerful, of the etiology of the mutation.

Ben writes:

I’m really enjoying the fascinating back-and-forth here, and since I’m the person who teaches Biochemistry I suppose I should take this chance to do a little in-box-filling of my own.

First of all, Rick’s post is about the most poignant reminder possible of the limits to our conversation, and the meaning of the word “explanation.” If we’re talking about truly satisfying explanation, then some type of revelation has to be involved. There’s no such thing as fully satisfying explanation from the natural world. If I want to make a drug that might help Sarah, I’m going to want the best possible physical mechanism for how that mutation causes her disease. I’ll want an explanation for how it works now, and maybe if I understand some parts of how that mechanism came to be, I’ll be able to make a better drug. This is only possible because of the God-given rationality and consistency of the natural world, so even this mechanism would be a gift of grace. I pray that grace and insight will be given in this area, and I know there are scientists working on that as I type. I think a prayer for wisdom for them would be fitting.
If Michael Behe’s theory would help me understand Sarah’s disease, and if that understanding could help me make a drug that could heal in whatever small or large way, I would latch onto that theory no matter if every other scientist in the world disagreed with me. I’m already biased into thinking there is a Creator, after all, so why not find his hand in the gaps of protein assembly? I would love to be able to do that. I’ve tried to adopt Behe’s theories and get them to work. But I can’t. They don’t work at the level of helping me design experiments. They don’t help at a level of helping me teach biochemistry, or explain disease mechanisms.
Part of this comes from the very nature of Behe’s argument, that it really is a “God of the gaps” argument writ small. If he’s right, then perhaps there is no useful knowledge to be gained from studying the intricacies of protein assembly because it is all designed directly by something supernatural.
I just don’t think Behe’s right because I, as a potentially sympathetic biochemist, cannot get his ideas to work well enough to even design an experiment to go after them. And only a handful of other scientists have even joined him in the possibility, none with anything concrete enough to be called a research program. Nothing I can build on, at least. I do have an idea for an experiment — but one that would directly prove that one of Behe’s foundational claims is wrong. (I was thinking about the irony of trying to get funding from the Discovery Institute for an experiment that, if it worked, would prove Intelligent Design wrong.) This hypothesis is not directly done because I have other experiments to do and, you know, a few classes to teach and other demands on my time and resources — but I have not given up on the idea yet!
There are lots of details in this that I’m just glossing over for a general audience, but the bottom line is that as a scientist with a professional interest in Behe’s ideas, I simply cannot build anything on his assumptions. It always falls down before I can even come up with a decent research plan, because it’s based on what we cannot know rather than what we can.
This post is already long enough, so I’ll leave with one more very summarized thought: I just read about a group of scientists that made a million random proteins in the test tube. The only design given to these proteins is that they were guaranteed to be “good” proteins: well-folded, globular, not clumping together or doing annoying things that would get in the way of the experiment. Other than that, you had a set of proteins that the only constraint is that they could just sit around and be proteins. That’s kind of boring in itself, but they took this set and tested it to see if any of these proteins, which were entirely undesigned and random with respect to function, would be able to act as enzymes. And they did find many that actually had “accidental” enzymatic activity: some could cleave esters, some were peroxidases, ande offhand I forget what else.
I wish I knew the Latin word for randomness (where’s Owen when you need him); I would describe this activity as being “ex [randomness]” (i.e. “out from randomness”). It’s really an amazing result, that points out to me how much can arise from randomness. That doesn’t mean they’re meaningless, far from it. It’s just the understanding of the mechanism for how life works on the smallest level can work with a large dollop of randomness thrown in, even running things in a way.
I’m sure I’m leaving lots out, because there have been lots of fascinating points on all sides I’ve been itching to reply to, but hopefully this is a start for the “biochemist’s perspective.”

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Finally, Stamatis says: As a community of Christian scholars, we have a responsibility to practice radical reconciliation between faith and science in our churches, our children’s schools, and our lives. For me, that reconciliation involves finding evidence for God (in Miller’s words) “in what science does understand” as opposed to what science does not yet understand.

As a faculty member involved in the preparation of science teachers, I was particularly impressed with the clarity of Miller’s response to a question, which I reproduce below.

ActionBioscience.org: In some regions of the U.S., educators are being encouraged, sometimes forced, by their institution to teach “alternative” ideas to evolution. What is your response to this development?

Miller: Disappointment. If the ideas being offered were genuinely scientific alternatives, if they were ideas that had significant support within the scientific community or substantial experimental evidence, it might be interesting to include them in the science classroom.

Unfortunately, the ”alternatives” actually being offered are not scientific at all. The insertion of an idea such as young-earth creationism, which requires a rejection of astronomy, physics, and chemistry as well as biology, into the scientific curriculum makes about as much sense as teaching witchcraft in medical school. The other alternative often proposed, so-called “intelligent” design, doesn’t even rise to the level of being a scientific hypothesis. It has no explanatory power and approaches scientific problems by nothing more than an appeal to the “designer.” Since such appeals are not testable, they don’t amount to science and can only mislead students as to the nature of science and scientific evidence.

[see the review of M. Behe’s Edge of Evolution by K. R. Miller in Nature 447, 1055-1056 (28 June 2007) | doi:10.1038/4471055a; Published online 27 June 2007. Miller is an eminent biochemist who teaches at Brown University and is an observant Christian. He offers from a scientist’s perspective another reading on “random.” See also http://www.actionbioscience.org/evolution/miller.html, which discusses his Finding Darwin’s God.]

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What does “exist” mean? God, ether, Hamlet, and Endo’s Silence

I have wrung permission from the modest gentleman Hi to post his long comment (in reply to mine about God)  as a “guest post,” partly because it got buried in my spam filter for two weeks but mostly because it raises so honestly the most genuinely difficult issues this weblog was established to address.  I don’t know all the answers to Hi’s acute questions, but I do know that I’ve worked on these same questions most of my life. I also know that everybody in the world should read the book Hi mentions, Shusaku Endo’s Silence. (Go do that and then come back here to discuss it?) So here is Hi, a molecular biologist who has alerted us to lots of issues in the history of physics and to Reading Lolita in Tehran among other things

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Hi writes: I have been having trouble posting my comment for the last several days. I try again, although it may be better if it doesn’t appear.

I see a parallel between god and ether. Ether was an idea that used to be firmly believed. But the simplest idea of ether was not compatible with Michelson-Morley experiment nor Maxwell’s equations. Something had to give. A seemingly nice solution would be to tinker the concept of ether, namely by introducing Lorentz transformation. Now they had ether that was compatible with the experiment. That was until Einstein pointed out that the modified version of ether was no longer meaningful.

So, on one hand there was the old version of ether that would have been meaningful had it been compatible with the experiments. On the other there was the new version of ether that was compatible with the experiments, but was reduced to be meaningless. It was not possible to be both compatible with the experiments and meaningful.

In many situations, there is a trade-off. In the uncertain principle, if you want to know the precise position, you sacrifice the information about the momentum. Likewise, it seems to me, that if you make your concept of god more compatible with science, you loose the “godness” of the god, the very appeal that you want to believe in god. Gods that frequently and actively intervene with human lives, answering the prayers and causing miracles along the way, are difficult to reconcile with science. You can’t have it both ways.

It seems to me that many scientists who are believers keep a delicate balance to make their gods as compatible with science as possible but still meaningful enough for them. For example, read what Rob Knop of Galactic Interaction blog wrote about his faith. But it is difficult keep all the attributes of god that are traditionally believed in religions this way. Einstein can be considered to be an extreme example. (Although I don’t think it appropriate to consider him among the believers any more when he himself explicitly said he was not religious.) When the concept of god is made as pure and neutral as Einstein did, I have little problem. (And I believe Dawkins said so, too.) I would have preferred if he had not use the word “god” as it is contaminated with all the other images associated with it. But Einstein made clear what his god was not. He did not believe “in a God who concerns himself with the fates and the actions of human beings.” If this is close to traditional Judeo-Christian concept of god, why was Spinoza a controversial figure? Are you willing to go this far?

I have also encountered a graduate student in biology who was a creationist. It is strange how her biology and creationism can coexist in her head. I also met a Jewish student who had no trouble believing in the god that gives a special favor to his people. It doesn’t seem like he understood what that would mean to the Indians and the Chinese and the Japanese who worked with him. I think these are examples of compartmentalizations of thoughts. These are opposite of what I think is great about science. Newton’s breakthrough came out when he realized that the same laws can describe the motions of the stars and the motion of a falling apple. (Not to mention that the same laws apply today as well as yesterday.) Likewise, a great advance in chemistry was made when it was shown that organic substances can be synthesized without the help of any “vital force”. At the chemical level, there is no difference between the living and non-living. There is nothing that is privileged. The earth is no longer the center of the universe. It is true that we have all these different disciplines, such as physics, chemistry, biology, etc. And I said chemistry is not merely applied physics, and biology is not merely applied chemistry. (And I would add that knowledge of acoustics won’t make you a better musician.) So, there is specialization. But that doesn’t mean that these different fields are independent to each other. Chemistry certainly binds what biologically possible. However excellent baseball pitcher you are, you cannot break the laws of physics. (And who says physics is superior to baseball?)

So, where do you fit? It seems to me that you want to have it both ways. And you seem to think you can have it both ways by defining the god as flexible as possible and making sophisticated philosophical arguments.

Statements like “God exists.” or “God is real.” are only meaningful if we agree on what we mean by “god,” “exist” or “real.” In what sense is “Hamlet” real? In a sense that “Hamlet” the man lived the life exactly like the way depicted in the story, or in a sense that the STORY of Hamlet exists in the minds of us who read the story? Likewise, it seems to me that it is the STORY of the god that really exists and not the entity you call god. We can make god exist depending on the meaning of the word “exist,” but that may also allow existence of unicorns and dragons. And what do we mean by “god”? Are you willing to limit the god the way Einstein defined it? Why do you care to call it “god” anyway? Isn’t is because the word “god” carries with it a flavor of traditional god that you are attached to?

(This reminds me of a character in a novel by the Japanese Christian writer Shusaku Endo. The character, a young Japanese priest suggests using the world “onion” instead of “god”. In the story, he is considered heretic. In real life, some of Endo’s harshest critics were fellow Christians. Being an atheist, of course my view is different from that of Endo. But I feel a sympathy for Endo who struggled with his faith in a country where Christians are minorities and who had to ask tough questions about his faith.)

What about emergence? I have a mixed feeling about the word emergence. On one hand, I genuinely believe it is a useful concept and that there are phenomena that can be rightly described as emergent. (And the examples were discussed.) So, I’m in no way going to join the people who want to purge the word. (See the link below.) But on the other hand, it is true that emergence is often used to conveniently categorize anything mystical and magical and not well-understood. And I suspect that’s the way you are using the word emergent. But I really don’t understand your use of the word emergent, except to think that it is different from the way I use it.

But let me try to make some connection. Here is a quote form the following discussion about emergence.
http://www.overcomingbias.com/2007/08/the-futility-of.html

“Supposedly, in the early nineties when the Russians were trying to transition to a capitalist economy, a delegation from the economic ministry went to visit England, to see how a properly market-based economy would work. The British took them on a tour, among other things, of an open-air fresh foods market. The Russians were shown around the market, and were appropriately impressed. Afterwards, one of the senior delegation members approached one of his escorts: “So, who sets the price for rice in this market?“ The escort was puzzled a bit, and responded, “No one sets the price. It’s set on the market.“ And the Russian responded, “Yes, yes, I know, of course that’s the official line. But who really sets the price of rice?“”

Perhaps you could call the “invisible hand” that makes the market function as the “god” of the market. But what would you achieve by doing so? Would you achieve any deeper understanding of how the market works? Would you worship the god of the market? In fact it would be quite misleading to anthropomorphize the system that functions without a single central player giving the orders.

I don’t question that you are genuinely fascinated by science. But it seems to me that you are often cherry-picking the science and the scientists that conform to your world view and in some cases interpreting the science in such a way to conform to your world view. (Weren’t some of the earliest posts by David and Gavin objections to your interpretation of relativity?) I think that if there is something we can learn from the history of science, it is that the nature doesn’t care what human being thinks. Quantum mechanics and relativity are certainly examples. When the physicists found the their old world view was wrong, they didn’t commit intellectual suicides. They embraced the new reality and that made the science richer. I find it liberating that the nature doesn’t care what human thinks, because it means that the nature doesn’t favor anyone. This is the reason that I don’t feel disadvantaged to do science as a non-Westerner, even though the modern science originated in the West. (There was a time when Japanese scientists were considered to lack originality and all they could do is to imitate. And lack of philosophy was attributed to it. But I think it was mostly proven wrong, I’m happy to say.) We can all appreciate the beauty of nature. But why do I have to give the credit to the god, and Christian god in particular?           (written by Hi)

jlb — Remember the etiquette on this weblog.  Saucy is okay.  Respectful is required. Bigoted is not okay, either against science or against religion.  I will use delete, though I have scarcely ever had to do so.  Besides below, a couple of earlier responses to Hi are here and here (by the poet).

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Thanks! Great Impetus for My Work, & One More Question for Physics

[If you’re interest in Michael Polanyi, who was a world-class physical chemist and an Anglican philosopher of science who in about 1955 wrote Personal Knowledge, a paean of praise to the beauty and precision of science and at the same time a systematic deconstruction of old-style scientific “objectivism,” inspiring Kuhn but much better (if you ask me), go to per caritatem and check out a number of lucid Polanyi posts there — and here.]

I have a new motto for this post, from the Cartalk guys, who claimed to be (supposedly) quoting Albert Einstein! “Once you can convert all the matter in the universe into something that is nothing, the rest is easy….” The mass-energy questions asked below convert into matter-field questions, and these ain’t little questions!

This weblog and the lively conversations we’ve had here over the past few months have propelled me into some intense productivity on my own work. Thanks!

I’ve been working on several scholarly essays concerning Plato’s Ion and Aristotle’s Poetics, and once these are scheduled for publication, I’ll start resuming my posts here on Plato’s Ion. (This just gives you some more time to absorb the ideas on literary theory in the Ion posts — and in the good stuff under “Pages.” Of course I’ll welcome comments on what’s already here, in the meantime.)

Then there’s everything I’ve learned from the physicists — and from the molecular biologist! — who’ve engaged so generously with me here: on quantum mechanics (for 60 fact-packed pages!), on Plato, on the paradigm shift from Newton to Einstein, on the soul, on method in science, on “ink-and-paper vs Hamlet,” and on “gnomes with shovels“!

I’ll have a posting for you soon on the Higgs Boson, detailing what you’ve taught me and how I want to use it in a book for general readership about the science/cultural studies divide. It will also be about how we might find our way through this dreadful “social construction of reality” impasse, an impasse I believe arises strictly within the context of our own Anglo-American intellectual tradition — and because of its particular and distinctive precoccupations.

Our habitual framework of assumptions leads us into misunderstandings when we are assimilating thought that evolved on the Continent, concerning what is being claimed (our word) about “reality” and what “exists.” (The denial of “an external world” emerges during the assimilation into our context, I take it, and does not occur in the original Continental contexts, so when Sokal and Brimont attacked some prominent French thinkers, they were the wrong targets if “social constructionism” was the enemy.)

But right now, until my Higgs Boson post appears, I’d like to address another question to those in the sciences, a question which arises for me when I am contemplating the standard theory, and especially the Higgs field, and remembering what Gavin and David said about the “medium,” as it were, through which electro-magnetic and other quantum waves propagate (i.e. “the universe,” they seemed to say).

Now, it seems that finding the Higgs boson would help to clarify what “mass” is. I get that. But what in the world, then, is “energy”?

In other words, is it the case that the question of what energy “is” has been clarified already for the physics community?

Like, for instance, is it true that even where we have those “vacuums” out in “deep space,” nonetheless all of it is thought to be “filled” with the Higgs energy field? And, I gather, with all of the other quantum energy “waves,” which in a sense seem to diffuse away into infinity? (This is why wave-particle duality is observed even when the wave is split and sent over large distances before being recombined and measured, and why entanglement phenomena manifest even when the pair of particles are separated by very large distances?)

And all of this leads me to the whole question of “being without any mass,” like photons. What does “massless” mean? How can a photon be massless and yet manifest as a particle? How can a massless particle make a “ping” on a screen? (Or is that just what happens with electrons and other particles with mass?)

Energy, I’m assuming (right?), is by definition without mass, since energy converts into mass, and vice versa. E = Mc^2.

And, okay, I’m sorry, but if energy is massless and if it fills “empty” space, in what sense then are we still saying that the science of physics is an empirical science? A science that deals strictly with “physical reality”? How can energy be taken to be a physical and empirical thing, if it has no mass and takes up no space in any material sense? (At least until it is converted into a particle with mass….) Yes, I know that you have plenty of evidence that energy exists, but how is it a material thing? And if it is, then how are we defining material or physical reality these days? (Not the way it’s done on some of the science blogs….)

Okay, I’ve done some research and I see mass vs energy comes down to the difference between fermions and bosons? So deep space is filled with a boson wave field?

Thanks for any insights and any good links you can give me on this — which I realize to be the sort of question that only a humanist, most likely, would ask…. (Maybe this kind of consideration is the reason that it seems more physicists today self-identify as “Platonists” or as “positivists,” than as “realists”?) P. S. Found a fascinating piece on mass-energy equivalence in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy — see the section on Philosophical Interpretations.

And don’t suppose, my gentle readers, that I’ve forgotten about the “soul,” either, or about the issues involving theism vis-a-vis science. I’m just getting everything “set up” here, to tackle these inquiries you’ve made, with some degree of precision….

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“Let’s Play Soccer!” — On reading Plato’s Ion

A reader asks these questions on Wily Socrates # 7:

and here is my totally naive and (perhaps) irritating question for the teacher. does socrates kick the poets out of the republic *seriously* or is he being the devil’s advocate? i have a friend (okay, my husband) who used to bring up socrates on the poets all-the-time until i threw a fit and said never to say it again (i *am* after all, the poet!)

i also wondered about the passage late in #7: “Plato’s Scocrates there affords us a fine technical analysis of the non-expository or ‘mimetic’ use of language. In fact, it is this analysis …that will provide the technical apparatus Aristotle will use in his own treatise to validate calling poetic ‘making’ a high mode of thought, one that is ‘philosophical’ in its own right.” So, teacher, does Aristotle get away with calling poetry “philosophical,” given Socrates’ philosophical refusal of poetry? If you respond to this post, I think this is the one point where I can most use more light.

And if your response is, “Can you push that question a little farther?” I think this is where I would go. I don’t know a lot about soccer (for instance), but when there’s a gorgeous play, I know that it’s gorgeous, despite my ignorance. And doesn’t it seem that we can know so little about — about anything — but a brilliant poem on the topic will elucidate the topic, in addition to being a great poem. One gets a sense, listening to a great teacher (similarly) of authenticity.

i’m feeling a little inadequate to make further comments, though one thought i’ve had has been on a soccer essay i recently read –on mastery–and the theory that it takes 10 years to master a complex or higher skill, such as soccer. hmm, the soccer ike?

Thanks so much! Yes, I agree, the soccer ike!

And one who is a master of that ike has a “power of knowing” how to “do a certain work (ergon)”! This is how I believe that truth is best defined, by the way: being changed in this way by the reality of something, into one with a degree of “power to know it” and that also means “power to do it.” And being compelled to keep trying to know to better.

But what we now realize, at our amazing moment in the history, is that as human beings engaged in any discipline, we never grasp the whole of the subject-matter, nor do we manage to grasp it from what we can know to be the ultimately “right” analysis, that will never be extended and reinterpreted in the future. (Whether it’s soccer or quantum mechanics or poststructuralism.) You just keep working your way deeper into the discipline — with practice and formalizations and the dialectic between them and coaching and discussion and practical application and constant testing on the field and so on….

So the question you raise about “what Plato really thinks on the poets” (and the question of “does Aristotle get away with his defense of poietike”) is what my entire reading-through of Ion is for!! I am doing all of this, just to put us in a position to analyze the questions you’re curious about, with some degree of cogency and rigor!

And I happen to think these are about the most fascinating questions in the world. They bear on everything, from science to cultural studies to religion.

So are you asking me, like the scientists asked me, why I “don’t just say it”? I can’t just say it, because the “answer” to your question is precisely something that cannot be “said.” It is a structure of ambiguity and impasse that has to be entered into and done and experienced. So I’m trying to offer an apprenticeship, so to speak, so that I can eventually invest you with a power of knowing and a way of doing a certain kind of work (the work that is “poststructuralism” as I read it) and that work has an amazing amount in common with classical Greek insights into the arts and sciences, and into the structure and nature of human coming-to-know.”

It’s as though someone were asked to “just say” how to ride a bicycle (Polanyi’s analogy), when first you have to be given a bicycle (a new system of vocabulary and concepts, a new or different sense of what a person is and what knowing is, a new “power of knowing”) and then maybe I can run along beside you while you try it out until you get the hang of it yourself!

Then, on the question of “the poets,” and the relation of the fictive to the Real, you will be able to “dwell” in the space that Plato opens, that he opens in order to situate this problem, and you will be able to understand more and more deeply why it has never been put to rest for Western thought and culture. (And why Aristotle’s thought-work on this is so powerful and suggestive). And how both science and cultural studies employ heuristic “fictions,” so to speak, in genuine engagements with reality in order to formalize it better. And why this is an open-ended process but not for that reason a matter of “anything goes” or self indulgent “relativism.” (And above all, not “subjective”!)

So please, hang in there! And I can’t be hurried. My readers have to do the work on Ion and the Greek vocabulary first — and please ask all the questions you folks want! And I’ll try to make it clear that when I discuss the Greek vocabulary, other scholars would agree with what I’m saying, but the way I put it all together is my own, though based on a number of Greco-European ways of thinking (rather than on Anglo-American logic and analysis, which begins with the standard isolation of “word,” “idea,” and the “object referred to,” to which “syntactical” – “factual” correspondence was superadded, in the Russell, Carnap, Quine tradition).

Aren’t there words, ideas, and objects, you ask? Yes, when language gets done with us, we have the kinds of minds that can point to and employ all three kinds of entities. In other words, we have been endowed by our language with a basic and communal “power of knowing.” But how did these “results” come into being so they can be used for human thought and perception? What kind of engagements with reality and formalizing processes result in constituting these entities for us to use? How do those beings who have “the language ike” engage in coming to know various kinds of “external” reality? And if language itself offer us several different ikes of language use, what indemic, chronic conundrums and aporias are bound to result?

The dialogue Ion is going to turn out to “be” dialectic, rhetoric, and poetic. (It does all three.) By “doing” all of these, it’s going to be “about” all these questions and the conflicting “powers of knowing.” Believe me, this stuff is endlessly fascinating, and especially once we finally have our formal working apparatus in place and possess the power to do its certain kind of work.

But that means our minds will have been given a new ike for thought. And it’s a peculiar and brilliant ike, because it works “in the space between” and in the intersection of other ikes! (And this is one reason that every text is constituted by a force that also nevitably deconstructs it, although Derrida doesn’t come at it in quite this way….)

On the last part of the comment, which was: I don’t know a lot about soccer (for instance), but when there’s a gorgeous play, I know that it’s gorgeous, despite my ignorance. And doesn’t it seem that we can know so little about — about anything — but a brilliant poem on the topic will elucidate the topic, in addition to being a great poem. One gets a sense, listening to a great teacher (similarly) of authenticity.

Yes, thanks for the compliment! And this is precisely why I insisted on bring Plato’s Ion into this web conversation between science and faith and theory.

It is a “poem” that does “elucidates the topic” and that we can sense is “a gorgeous play” — or a series of gorgeous plays to entice us into thought — and it is by perhaps the greatest teacher of Western history. Even though it is relatively “slight” in the canon of his dialogues, nonetheless as a poem it has that utter “authenticity” you mention. (P.S. I never would have known that this was a compliment for me if you hadn’t told me so in person! So thanks again.)

So, everybody, keep doing your drills in dribbling, passing, and shots on goal, okay?

With Love, from the Theorist

[P.S. Possibly tiresome theoretical aside from jlb: So the Cartesian or Lockean idea of “truth” as “a correct idea” that exactly corresponds to “the simple physical facts” just isn’t very helpful, or it is “helpful” in certain limited cases but deals with a subsidiary instance to what truth-seeking is about…. Yes, scientific formulas and theories do engage with the physical realities and “correspond” to them to the best of our abilities so far! But not in the manner of a simple idea or a universal formula, standing in exact and completed 1-to-1 correspondence with a simple factual state of affairs. It’s so much more complex and dynamic than that and our knowing of it is so much less “nailed down” than that. And yet we can be fairly confident about what we’re doing.

Both the evolution of our hypotheses and formulai, and the physical states themselves, in the case of quantum mechanics and so forth (as the working scientists who’ve talked with and instructed me here have made so very evident) are bigger and more dynamic and more mysterious (and we know we have to be more creative and open to the future) than what was commonly understood to be the case, back in the days of the older scientistic outlook…. (Okay, that’s another weblog conversation, and Michael Polanyi puts it best.)

It’s just so weird, though, that science and scientific rationalism — especially the Brits — sought a “thing-language” with a mechanistic algorithmic reasoning, to ground empirical truth solidly, and yet now we realize that scientists aren’t doing that at all and they know it’s not what they do. See QM discussions here. Same with the mathematicicians. I guess this is why I’m so obsessed right now with Bertrand Russell…. Why did he WANT to do this?)]

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Wily Socrates # 7 — The End (the telos) Is in Sight

Well, my friends – humanists, scientists, poets, theorists, and thinkers of every variety and persuasion! – it is now time to look at the next segment of Plato’s Ion, and we will take it up with Socrates’ second long speech about the “magnet” simile. We’re going to see a big difference this time, in Ion’s reception of the idea of “divine inspiration” (rather than a mental acuity) as the power that fuels the poets’“art.” Why do you think he reacts so differently this time?

Socrates Do you know that the spectator is the last of the rings which, as I am saying, receive the power of the original magnet from one another? The rhapsode like yourself and the actor are intermediate links, and the poet himself is the first of them. Through all these God sways the souls of men in any direction he pleases, causing each link to communicate the power to the next. Thus there is a vast chain of dancers and masters and undermasters of choruses, who are suspended, as if from the stone, at the side of the rings which hang down from the Muse. And every poet has some Muse from whom he is suspended, and by whom he is said to be possessed, which is nearly the same thing; for he is taken hold of. And from these first rings, which are the poets, depend others, some deriving their inspiration from Orpheus, others from Musaeus; but the greater number are possessed and held by Homer. Of whom, Ion, you are one, and are possessed by Homer; and when anyone repeats the words of another poet you go to sleep, and know not what to say; but when anyone recites a strain of Homer you wake up in a minute and your soul leaps within you, and you have plenty to say; for not by art (techne) or knowledge (episteme) about Homer do you say what you say, but by divine inspiration and by possession, just as the Korybantian revelers too have a quick perception of that strain only which is appropriated to the god by whom they are possessed, and have plenty of dances and words for that, but take no heed of any other. And you, Ion, when the name of Homer is mentioned have plenty to say, and have nothing to say of others. You ask, “Why is this?” The answer is that your skill in the praise of Homer comes not from art but from divine inspiration.

Ion That is good, Socrates; and yet I doubt whether you will ever persuade me that I praise Homer only when I am mad and possessed; and if you could hear me speak of him I am sure you would never think this to be the case.

Socrates I should like very much to hear you, but not until you have answered a question which I have to ask….

For myself, I can’t help but wonder whether Ion’s change of heart – you remember that last time he said “your words, Socrates, touch my soul, and I am persuaded that in these works the good poets, under divine inspiration, interpret for us the voice of the gods” – does not come about from the sudden realization that he himself is in danger of being deprived of the ike he so happily plumes himself on possessing. (In addition, Socrates has dropped the rhetorical brilliance and has emphasized the ludicrousness of the metaphor, and the haplessness of the lower “danglers,” this time around.) Let’s continue, though, because Socrates is now going to bring his theory of the formal ike to a powerful consummation.

Socrates I should like very much to hear you, but not until you have answered a question which I have to ask. On what part of Homer do you speak well? – not surely about every part?

Ion There can be no part, Socrates, about which I do not speak well: of that I can assure you. [Note that Ion, however ineffectually, is trying to assert a poetic “wholeness” on every part of which he is equipped to speak well.]

Ion There is no part, Socrates, about which I do not speak well: of that I can assure you.

Socrates Surely not about things in Homer of which you have no knowledge? [Literally, “not on those things, which Homer says, about which you are not knowing?”]

Ion And what is there in Homer of which I have no knowledge?

Socrates Why, does not Homer speak in many passages about arts (technes)? For example, about driving; if I can only remember the lines I will repeat them.

Ion I remember, and will repeat them.

Socrates Tell me then, what Nestor says to Antilochus, his son, where he bids him be careful of the turn at the horse race in honor of Patroclus.

Ion “Bend gently,” he says, “in the polished chariot to the left of them, and urge the horse on the right hand with whip and voice; and slacken the rein. And when you are at the goal, let the left horse draw near, so that the nave of the well-wrought wheel may appear to graze the extremity; but have a care not to touch the stone.”

Socrates Enough. [This “enough” from Socrates is my favorite line in the entire dialogue. So ends Ion’s one and only chance to perform as a rhapsode!] Now, Ion, will the charioteer or the physician be the better judge of the propriety of these lines?

Ion The charioteer, clearly,

Socrates And will the reason be that this is his art or will there be any other reason?

Ion No, that will be the reason.

Socrates And every art is appointed by God to have knowledge of a certain work [ergon]; for that which we know by the art of the pilot we shall not succeed in knowing also by the art of medicine?

Ion Certainly not.

Socrates And this is true of all the arts – that which we know with one art we shall not know with the other…?

Here is the climax of the theory of the ike: “and every art is appointed by God to have knowledge of a certain work,” for that which we know (how to do) by one art we will not know (how(to do) by another. Here is a different translator, spelling out the elliptical Greek here, by writing that to every art “is apportioned a power of knowing” that is peculiar to itself. So we are talking about the way in which we know a genuine ike because it confers a power for doing – “a certain ergon” – upon the one who possesses it.

This is where I think we can really see that to translate the Greek “episteme” fundamentally as “knowledge” is very misleading, given our modern connotation of knowledge as consisting of discrete and concrete little pieces of “fact” (sort of like what we memorize for the SATs). An episteme or a techne – any Greek ike – is fundamentally a skill, or a power to act. It confers the ability to do a certain kind of work with arête or formal excellence. And whatever that work may be – piloting a boat, driving a chariot, practicing medicine, or doing geometry – it is a power of knowing. It is a mode of human thought, or “a way of knowing.” And it comes into play and is visible to our eyes, whenever the activities associated with a formal kind of thing are called upon.

[Theoretical aside from jlb: This is why I think the saddest thing, and one of the most alienating aspects, of education in the modern centuries has the narrowing of human thought to ratiocination. This is a powerfully elitist move, and it has disenfranchised most human beings from the life of thought. They still practice their ways of knowing, of course; they simply get no credit for doing so. See Ruth Remen’s Kitchen Table Wisdom. I would go so far as to say that the steadily building resentment of the non-elite has done much to produce the cultural phenomenon of the “red states” versus the “blue.”]

Now it would seem, wouldn’t it, that we have just seen Ion perform his “art” with our very own eyes? He has fluently recited from memory a few lines from the Iliad – in an abruptly truncated performance, as we have noticed. But he is given no opportunity to display the rest of his “power of knowing,” if indeed he has such power.

Socrates steps right in and shows Ion how he ought to “interpret” the lines he has just performed – from the point of view of dialectical (“philosophical” or “rational”) inquiry into the arts and sciences. Socrates want Ion to identify the subject-matter in question in the lines, and then to name the kind of expert who would know “the propriety” of these lines best. Does anyone else besides me think this is really, really, entertaining and funny?

To prepon, the question of propriety, fittingness, or the appropriate, belonged to ike of course, along with orthtotike, because for the Greeks it was a question intrinsic to knowing how to do any kind of action well. (See how much Greek you’ve learned? And with acquisition of any language comes the “power of knowing,” the power of thinking, that is conferred by that language.)

Never forget that for the classical Greek mind, the meaning of logos or ratio (ratio is the Latin translation of logos and gives us “rationality”) was always — first of all — formal elegance, proportionality, and balance between parts, before it became the term used “technically,” in connection with the new philosophical way of life, the practice of the newly rigorous kinds of purposeful thinking and speaking maintained in the disciplines.

Ion will acquiesce without a qualm in these reductive “disciplinary” or “philosophical” interpretations of each successive poetic passage, in our next segment. Entirely gone will be Ion’s brief flicker of a notion of some kind of a poetic wholeness, of which he is master, so that he can claim in this respect to speak equally well on all passages of a Homeric poem.

[Theoretical aside from jlb: If philosophy is a way of using language more rigorously and more according to the logos — or “logically,” then is poetry inherently anti-philosophical? Is rigorous dialectical thinking limited to the transparent or expository or “pointing” way of using of language? This is the origin of the age-old quarrel between poetry and philosophy that still bedevils our academy in the current wars between cultural studies and the hard sciences. Does language secure itself and its truth in the concrete empirical things to which it points, or does it create and construct its own fictional “worlds”? This is quite a contretemps. And Plato placed it at the very heart of the Western philosophical project. And he did so — in this dialogue! So do you think that literary theory is not crucial to Western thought?]

So, we must ask, who here has a power of knowing-how-to-do the “work” of rhapsodike? Not Ion. Socrates, on the other hand, will take over from here on out, in performing the passages of Homer from memory, and these passages will grow longer and longer and longer as the dialogue draws near its end. Socrates will even take over Ion’s own part in the conversation, performing both Ion’s role and his own in front of Ion, who becomes the audience at Socrates’ performances.

Who, then, understands what he is doing, here? Who wins the ironical contest of rhapsodes, which is the dialogue called Ion?

And yet, Socrates’ practice of Homeric “interpretation” is very strange indeed. He simply, flat-footedly, interprets each epic passage as though it were an expository description of some subject-matter always belonging to some other art, and serving no telos within the narrative beyond that. This is a reductionism of the most extreme kind. It denies to the poet the power of using language in a manner different from that of the new dialectician – in spite of the fact that every Greek on the Street knew perfectly well that poietike is a “productive art,” and that what the poiet (“maker”) makes is precisely a poiema, an elegant “made-thing,” which is also called a poiei-sis, or the making that results from an active and purposeful process of making that kind of thing. (Click here for more on these Greek words.)

But Ion never resists Socrates’ imposition of his own distinctly strange practice of “rhapsodike” upon its own practitioner. The argumentation of the dialogue is over. The rest of it will be composed of Socrates’ increasingly extreme and quite hilarious high jinx as he takes over the role of rhapsode from Ion, reciting from memory passages of Homer that grow increasingly lengthy, and then discoursing about the subject matters of each passage and pointing to the ikes that would rightfully “speak well” of them. It’s almost, in a way, a near parody of the new project of the liberal arts and sciences that Plato is contemplating.  This will lead us into the funniest denoument in all of the Socratic dialogues, and then Ion will go (innocently?) on his way. (But the laughter of the gods may be ringing in our ears….)

And yet, based simply on the Greek words themselves if nothing else, it is perfectly apparent, isn’t it, that a poet possesses the power of knowing how to do a certain work, and that the poet’s ergon is the making of poems, and that this is done out of language. Furthermore, this is precisely what Plato’s greatest student Aristotle will say about the art of poetry in his famous treatise, the Poetics. Aristotle will also say that poietike is not to be judged by the standards of politike (the ike directed toward the public good), because the art of poetry is a different art and therefore it has a different telos. This is an application of Socrates’ theory of the ike to poietike at last! (And poietike will have a different orthotike, and a different to prepon or fittingness. Nonetheless, Aristotle argues that an excellent poiesis can serve an important, formative, civic function,  as we’ve seen, by exercising, purging, and restoring balance in the emotional life of citizens.)

So we have a very strange sight going on before us here in Ion. It’s a compellingly important aporia. A “sticking point” or “impasse” – the kind of “wonder”-producing stumbling block or contradiction or anomaly that Aristotle says in the Metaphysics is the place where philosophy always truly begins. (Think of those few small anomalies in the later 19th century, in black body radiation and in electro-magnetism, that no one suspected would give rise, through wonder-ing, to the philosophical brilliance of Einstein’s dialectical reconstruction of the Newtonian physical universe. “It seemed to me” that the thoery of electro-magnetism “ought to be symmetrical,” he explained! You see how this is the very same Western thought, however we try to get away from it….)

So we see before us Socrates practicing the new lucidity (it belongs to Plato surely) of the philosophical way of life, theorized as a pursuit of formal knowing through the ikes, with a view toward the good (practice of) life and the civic good of the polis. Socrates has set forth an account (a logos) of all the formal features that might identify a genuine ike, as opposed to mere sham and pretense, according to a certain trajectory of thought, and it has much to commend it. He has done all of this in language, and it is a strikingly new kind of rational or proportionate or reasonable employment of language. It is a careful talking–back-and-forth that works its way deeper into the formal structure of that which is to be known. It is dialectic. It is the new language of thought and inquiry that will be practiced from now on in the West, all through Roman and medieval Christian philosophy and theology and by among the Renaissance Christian humanists as well.

 

But there is a problem here. Surely Socrates has a “power of knowing,” conferred on him by the art of dialectical analysis, but he has chosen to enact and put-to-work his dialectical art in relation to the distinctly odd case of poietike. Is there an art of poetry? Is poetry a mode of thought that equips one with a lucid understanding of a formal kind of thing and confers the power of knowing how to do well all the actions associated with it? Granted, Ion cannot make poems, but can he interpret them, and can he explicate the poet’s activities of making, according to the Form-al nature of the epic?

Apparently not. Ion never brings up anything like this. But then, he is never allowed to, either. Socrates insists on challenging and then routing poetry out of the arena of thought, by treating it as though it uses language in exactly the same expository or diegetical manner in which other disciplines use language.

But those other disciplines are not concerned with kinds of things that are made out of language. They use language instrumentally, to discuss and formalize and communicate the results of their disciplinary thinking and knowing. There are precisely two arts that do not use language in the standard dialectical manner: rhetoric and poetry. And Plato notoriously has problems with both of them. (It is commonly thought that Plato resented any rival to the dialectic he pursued so earnestly, and that he thought that non-dialectical language was false or pseudo-language, that it could never be “true.” This is of course how the British scientific rationalists read Plato, and why Nietzsche at times furiously  reviled what Socrates and Plato had come to represent.)

However, in the Republic, every other argument against poetry in Ion is developed further, except this one. This one, which adroitly sidesteps the whole issue of the poem as  one whole kind of thing, and instead reduces language to its ostensible or “pointing” function – this argument or approach is altogether dropped. Instead, Plato’s Socrates there affords us a fine technical analysis of the non-expository or “mimetic” use of language. In fact, it is this analysis (Rep 3) that will provide the technical apparatus Aristotle will use in his own treatise to validate calling poetic “making” a high mode of thought, one that is “philosophical” in its own right.

So what is going on here? Well might you ask!

Right now, it seems to me, we are reading Ion on its own ostensible or “pointing” level, as though its words are transparent and refer us directly to the things they are talking about; as though this dialogue is itself a piece of extended dialectical “talking about.” And it is.

But language can also be something that is fashioned into building blocks and then into a built-thing, and this seems to be forgotten in the Ionian dialectic. (Whited out, erased.)

There is also a lot of playing around going on here with the art of rhetoric,  and this will be seen best in the next segment of Ion, which I like to call “the contest of rhapsodes.” (It’s an entirely one-sided contest, after which Socrates will also assume the role of the judge of rhapsodes, at the very end of the dialogue.) In fact, at the end of our next segment, Ion will make his one solitary stab-in-the-dark of a theoretical assertion about the art of poetry, and it will actually concern the art of rhetoric, not poetry at all. But heck, that’s close enough, especially for Ion! Rhetoric, after all, is essential to the poet in practicing the poet’s own art. If, that is, poetry has its own art….

So next time, we’ll look at the rhetorical structuring that is going on in the language of the Ion – and that becomes especially manifest in the next segment – in addition to the Ion’s ostensible dialectical argumentation. And so we’ll finish up everything next time, except for the amusing conclusion.

Then we will have acheived our telos, we will have had our story told, the story that is Ion, and the fun can really begin! Then I can explain poststructuralism, when we can begin to look at the Ion as itself an elegant structure of poietike. And that’s where the Platonic fireworks will really begin, where we will be in a position to see the always-already of “deconstruction,” if you will, and where the question of “what Plato means” and the depth of Plato’s analysis of the problem of truth, can really emerge for our dialectical engagement.