Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The nature of laws of nature, and why we care

Courtesy of Peter Gratton's blog, a link to the Scientific American report (rife with fascinating links to papers and presentations) on a conference concerning the laws of nature and the nature of laws. As author George Musser reports, philosophy and physics have been having something of a rapprochement after drifting away from each other since the heady days of the early 20th century, back when relativity and quantum mechanics were just starting to tear things up. After that there came a period where the two camps sort of soured on each other--not definitively, not wholly, and not always meanly; it wasn't always as bad as Sokal and his so-called Affaire might lead one to guess, but there was a sense of folk talking past each other. One account of why this was so might hinge on correlationism. Though this goes back to Kant, in most genealogies, the diagnosis of chronic, acute, aggravated correlationism really starts to become relevant in the middle to late 20th century, with ascendancy of a sort of mix of existentialism / ordinary language / pragmatism. (I'm writing extremely broadly here, and mainly talking about America.) Under these assumptions, science more or less is left alone to do its own thing, and while humanities departments get more and more jealous and eventually start to appropriate "techniques" or imitate systematicity and, in bad cases, wish they could "get results" like a new vaccine or satellite, they don't really talk to the lab guys, and the geniuses become images on our imagination. To be sure, some philosophers continued to ask about physics and do real work there, and eventually physicists themselves began to ask whether, as Musser puts it, "their search for a unified theory is stalling for a failure to think through philosophical questions." Of course if Meillassoux, the inventor of the term "correlationism," is right, the question this particular conference asked--"what is a law of nature, anyway?", is Musser's gloss--may have no answer, or rather, may be answered with nothing beyond "a contingency." For Meillassoux, the laws of nature could indeed change, because there is no necessity for them to be as they are; the only necessity is contingency: things are as they are only because things must be some way. Thus there are indeed laws of nature, but they could change, in a trillion years or later today, because there is no law of laws of nature, so to speak. This is something of a let-down. For all the righteous frustration over merely "thinking the correlation" and not the things-themselves, the critique of correlationism may turn out to offer not much more basis for conversation than correlationism did. We will need to do better. (Some sense of what "better" is, for me, is in this report of Steven Shaviro's on reading Isabelle Stenger's Cosmopolitics, volume one of which, I learn from Graham Harman, is now out in English translation.) We'll need a way to do justice to the fact that we want to know this stuff; to the astonishing thrill that we can know it--almost, almost, can't we?--; to the still-thrilling bafflement when we realize we don't know after all; and to the wonder and terror, pride and humility, in the face of a universe whose non-attitude toward us makes us feel both at home and castaway. Mosser writes, about the conference, "Where else could I have heard a derivation of the theory of quantum mechanics, an argument against polytheism, and a trick for giving directions to a place you don't know, all in the span of a couple of hours?" (A succinct summary of metaleptics.) And where else but the universe would you have quantum physics, polytheism, and the need to ask for directions? (Is that a trick question?)

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