Maybe the universe doesn’t exist

It is not clear to me that the universe exists. I’m not saying, of course, that there aren’t a lot of things in existence – my dog, this laptop, Saturn’s rings, and so on. And with any actual list of existent things, we can talk about the collection of those things, and give that collection any name we please. But when we try to talk about the collection of all things, it’s not obvious that we know what we are talking about, or even that such a collection exists. It certainly seems like the words make sense – “the collection of all things that have ever existed, or will ever exist” – but there is at least the possibility that these words, when strung together, don’t really refer to anything. Maybe such a collection is impossible.

We can talk about the collection of all shoes that have ever existed or will ever exist, or the collection of uncles, or the collection of neckties. We can also talk about collections of collections, being the clever creatures we are: the collection of collections that have four or less items, or the collection of collections which each contain at least one thing touched by Abraham Lincoln. But (employing here Bertie Russell’s old trick) what about the collection of all collections? Does that make sense? If it does, then it also seems we should be able to distinguish two smaller collections within it: the collection of collections which include themselves (the great list of all lists, which should include itself), and the collection of collections which do not include themselves (the great list of all things that are not lists, for example). But this second collection of collections turns out to be impossible: for if it were to exist, it would have to list itself if it didn’t list itself. So maybe this idea of a collection of all collections is only a string of words that initially seems to make sense, but on further reflection really doesn’t.

I might have lost you there with the collection of collections business, but the point is that the trick of grouping stuff together in our minds can lead us astray on occasion. And the universe may be just such an occasion. As Immanuel Kant would remind us, have we ever actually seen the universe? Or have we only seen parts of it? Can we even imagine experiencing the entire universe? If we can’t, then Kant is pretty sure it is not the sort of thing we can have any knowledge about. It is a hollow idea we form, and once we form it, we can prove anything we like about it – that it is finite, that it is infinite, that it had a beginning in time, that it didn’t, and so on.

If there isn’t a universe, I guess there would only be a pluraverse: a many-ness of many things. This accords with experience, as there sure seem to be many things. Notice how adopting such a natural view takes the drama out of the whole “multiverse” idea, or the claim that there are other possible universes. Well; if the universe doesn’t exist, then it doesn’t make much sense to wonder about the existence of other “universes,” does it?

What should we then say about the collection of things or events that haven’t been experienced, or (for all we know) will never be experienced? But again, are we sure that this collection makes sense? I can make great big lists of things that have been experienced, and of things that (so far as I know) have not been experienced, thus:

Experienced things Not-experienced things
John Lee Hooker performances

water freezing

walking on the moon

birthday parties

long meetings


mountains transforming into mice


talking giraffes

coins flipping “heads” 700 times in a row

hammers turning into strawberry jam


But I am not sure that these partial lists can be summed up into two fully-inclusive groups, the collection of all experienced things and the collection of all not-experienced things. Again, it may be that while surely there are experienced and not-experienced things, there don’t exist full collections of such things. Not because there is there is some problem in the “summing up” process, but because the words we throw out into the world, like a lasso, trying to catch a wild variety of beasts – those words unravel, like strands in a rope that just won’t cohere. The “(etc.)” at the end of my lists may be hiding an impossibility.

Because my mind (like most, I suspect) is so prone to make large groups and say things about them, I find it hard to describe what it’s like to think metaphysically in a pluraverse. It almost seems to me that in order to do it, one has to stop thinking metaphysically. (Once again, Kant said it first.) We can talk about what we experience, or specific things we don’t experience, and group them together only when we can formulate a simple and coherent procedure for determining whether a given things belongs in the group or does not. When the procedure includes checking uncountably-many things you can never experience, or could never possibly list, then that the procedure is no longer simple and coherent, and there’s a decent chance you are talking nonsense.

Posted in Metaphysical musings, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Robots, faux urbanity, and public spaces

My son had a robotics competition in Layton, which is a sprawling mass of houses and big box stores perched at the south end of Hill Air Force base. Nearby is a new shopping and living community which I’d always wanted to check out, so I took some time to do it.


(charming shop)

“Station Park” – as at least the shopping segment of the community is called – marks a big improvement over the standard-issue outdoor shopping mall. It was deliberately fashioned to resemble a shopping district in a city – so there are short streets, with corners and traffic, and nonuniform, multi-storey buildings that look like they had had some purpose before becoming shops and restaurants. It was, in short, a faux urban space. You can walk around and pretty much pretend you are exploring some city neighborhood, without the feeling of foretold doom that haunts every strip mall. Only the ubiquitous piped-in music spoils the illusion. The shortened lines of sight helped provide a cozy sort of urban vibe.



(charming faux town square)

In addition to the expected outposts of Gap, Forever 21, and Victoria’s Secret, there are some local shops, an Italian cafe, a cineplex, and a martini bar. In the middle is a public fountain and a playground structure – all frozen over now, though probably most cheery in the summer, for those who like that sort of thing.



Cozy outdoor fireplace

I know the whole thing is contrived, but I have to say, it works. For those of us who like cities, this is a nice fake: a sort of a Disneyland Main Street with a contemporary twist. There is some variety in the shops, from Apple to Build-A-Bear. In an archipelago of shops breaking off from the village, one can find more restaurants, shops, and Starbucks (of course) – but also a medical center and a grocery store. Not too far off from that are apartment complexes, houses, and condos. There’s also a train station for the “Frontrunner,” which provides commuter service to Ogden and Salt Lake City.  So, it’s basically meant to be a place where people are meant to live – a shockingly revolutionary idea in urban design.


Camo crocs

There also is a Cabela’s. If you ever have guests from another country, you really should take them to Cabela’s, for it will blow the minds of even those who harbor the most cartoon-like images of America. They can shop for shotguns, crossbows, ice-fishing houses, canoes, dehydrators for jerky, and camo everything, with a huge display in the center of majestic dead animals of the fictional wild. There must be equivalents in other countries, but I have not heard of them. One imagines a huge store in Devonshire celebrating the glory days of the empire, where you can buy jodhpurs and riding crops, or one outside of Berlin offering spiky helmets and potato masher grenades. It is outrageous, and fun, if your sensibilities permit.

Surrounding the little community is a typical barren space of the west: a huge flat plan running toward dramatic mountains, a vast open space ruled by antelope and F-16s from Hill Air Force base.

I traveled thence to the public library in Salt Lake City, which is one of the coolest public libraries in the U.S., with loads of glass, angles, open space, and light. I couldn’t help but notice, however, that it seemed to have been taken over by homeless people with very bad coughs. I have great sympathy for the plight of the homeless – and I am happy that at least some nice public spaces are available for them – and, were I homeless, that’s where I would be – but I couldn’t help thinking, quite uncharitably, “Wow! These bums have lucked out in SLC to have such a grand building at their disposal, with comfy chairs and extensive holdings of literature.” Take your foreign guests here, too, so they can get the full view of America’s sweep: from artificial villages on the barren frontiers selling martinis and three-pound handguns, to palatial libraries unintentionally giving shelter to homeless sick people. “Land of contradictions” does not even begin to cover it.

After all this I managed to catch some of the robotics competition, too, though my skimpy WordPress plan won’t allow me to upload my video of it. (You can see the general sort of thing in the video below.) Basically, the objective (as in war) is to throw more shit at your opponent than they can throw at you. To my mind, it is a very fun sort of event, with appropriately balanced elements of cleverness and competitiveness. The first, shorter part of each round is the robots following their programs; the second part, a bit more exciting, is when the robots are controlled remotely by humans.

Posted in This & that in the life of CH | Leave a comment

Living in the light of necessity

[excerpt from To View from Eternity]

six-enneadsThe neoplatonists urge us to see our troubled lives from the view of eternity. The world issues from the metaphysical character of the One, which means that the order of the planets and the balance of our seasons all result from an inviolable order, just as geometrical propositions are consequences of fixed axioms. For a short while, our bodies emerge from nature and are occupied with the pursuit of this or that, and the fear of that or this. From our perspectives, we see the things we desire as good and the things we fear as bad, but of course the One itself does not care about what we desire or fear. Our conflicts and squabbles are as predictable and senseless as battles among spiders or army ants. But unlike insects, we are capable at least sometimes of lifting our attention from our own perspective to a more philosophical one, from which we are able to see everything this paragraph is describing. We can place ourselves above our physical demands and see things from an untroubled intellect’s perspective. In this, we experience a unique species of joy: we experience relief, first of all, from whatever has been troubling us, but we also experience a positive joy from seeing how things must be, and from seeing the harmonious whole from which our lives derive. So long as we are able to stay true to this vision, we cease to be passive victims of our passions and circumstances, and we align our souls with the unchanging principles of the One.

The Stoics were another sect of philosophers, also inspired by Plato, who counseled humans to distance themselves emotionally from the particular fortunes of their own lives. Unlike the neoplatonists, their focus was more on practical therapy than on metaphysical pronouncements. One of the great stoic teachers was Epictetus (55 – 135 c.e.), whose life certainly knew misfortune. He was born a slave, and was crippled in one of his legs – perhaps as a result of his master breaking it. He eventually gained his freedom and set up his own school of philosophy, but then was forced to flee when the Emperor Domitian banished all philosophers from Rome. He wrote a little handbook, the Encheiridion, and taught his students that the key to living well is not to desire anything other than what life dishes out: “Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.” Every good thing in life should be seen simply as a loan from the universe at large:

Never say about anything, “I have lost it,” but instead, “I have given it back.” Did your child die? It was given back. Did your wife die? She was given back. “My hand was taken.” So this too was given back. “But the person who took it was bad!” How does the way the giver asked for it back concern you? As long as he gives it, take care of something that is not your own, just as travelers treat an inn.

No person, thing, or event is really ours – only our attitudes belong to us. To the extent that we invest ourselves in things outside of us, we will be victims of bad luck and misfortune. The person who builds up the discipline to rule over his or her attitudes will be able to face every turn with equanimity. The trick is to learn to see our lives as nothing more than accidental quirks of fate or chance, and so not to expect anything from them. The universe is large and complicated, and our lives are trivial and inevitable consequences of forces far beyond our control. Learn to live with that fact, and you will at least not be disappointed in whatever happens.

Epictetus’s philosophy proved to be exactly what Marcus Aurelius needed as he tried to negotiate his way through life. Without necessarily seeking the office, he found himself named Emperor of Rome in 161 c.e. This brought him every opportunity to fill his life with all manner of pleasurable extravagances, but chose instead to follow the precepts of Stoicism and live a life of simplicity, duty, and philosophical reflection. His Meditations consist in advice he continually gave himself to remember his place in the view of eternity:

The length of human life is but a speck, its substance is in flux, and its perceptions are dull. The whole body decays, the soul is a whirl, fortune is hard to see, and fame is meaningless. In a word, everything belonging to the body is a stream, and the soul is dream and vapor. Life is struggle, a stranger’s journey, and all fame is oblivion. What then can help us on our way? One thing only: the teachings of wisdom. This means keeping our hearts free from attack and unharmed, unmoved by pains and pleasures, acting always with purpose and never falsely or hypocritically, and not allowing other people’s actions to rule our own. It means accepting whatever happens, since all that happens comes from the same place as we do. And finally, it means facing death with a satisfied mind, since death is only returning to the universe what belonged to it in the first place. There’s nothing to fear when things naturally change into other things, so what is there to fear? Such change is only natural, and no natural change can be evil.

Stoic philosophy might be seen as applied neoplatonism. In it we find no studied reflections on the metaphysical nature of the One, or on the geometrical way in which all things flow from it. Stoics embrace the basic premise that life is beyond our control, and they recommend a practice of disciplining our thoughts and emotions so that we ourselves – our innermost characters – will never be scarred by even the most vicious twists of fate. It is just the sort of philosophical practice that would appeal to a soldier-emperor like Marcus Aurelius.

Both neoplatonism and stoicism subjugate human lives to reason. In stoicism, the subjugation is local: my reason masters my emotions, my fears and hopes, and ideally silences them. In neoplatonism, reason’s subjugation is cosmic: the universe itself is seen as proceeding from an eternal reason, and any emotion that does not cohere with this vision is set aside as (at best) a dim distortion of the underlying, deeper truth. Both philosophies share Plato’s disdain for the body and senses; both of them esteem the timeless over the timely. They both aspire to pull back to a frame of reference so wide that every spot of personal trouble becomes lost in a larger vision of forces and balances.

But here we might regret what is being lost. Plotinus, Hypatia, and Epictetus escape life’s troubles by escaping life itself, it seems. Grief, joy, rapture, and loss exist at the core of human experience, and a philosophy which seeks to diminish them can do so only by draining our lives of what makes them profoundly human. Moreover, we might ask whether such a cold and disciplined view of human fate satisfies the original yearning that raised the question why there is something rather than nothing. Perhaps, logically, it is the most satisfactory conclusion: what is, must be, and the human lot is to come to terms with that hard fact. But for better and worse, humans are not merely logical beings. We also harbor passions which drive us toward not only foolish endeavors but also transcendent poems, songs, and prayers. Perhaps our view of eternity must also reflect this side of our nature.

Posted in Meanings of life / death / social & moral stuff, Stacks of Books | 3 Comments

Needed: a handbook for e-life


There probably is room in today’s ideosphere for a handbook for living a balanced life in our ephemeral e-world. If course, for a great many humans (the majority? I think so, but I’m not sure) there really is no e-world, or it is a minor distraction from the non-e-world, or just “the real world,” as we used to call it: the world of material obstacles, daylight, parking spaces, water buckets, and so on. But for the other group – the group reading this, most likely – our primary reality is the one appearing on glowing screens and over little speakers. It is through these portals that we find the things to care about, to laugh over, or to occupy our attention. The aforementioned “real world” is, for us, a minor distraction from it. But life in the e-world is a different sort of project, and there may be some need to reflect on how to do it well.

Old philosophical habits suggest that one might distinguish two areas of problems in e-life: metaphysical (or epistemological) problems, and moral problems. The metaphysical problems have to do with what’s real and what’s true. And here, as in the real world, one can sort out appearances from reality. The person who takes everything on the internet at face value is of course mired in illusion, every bit as much as the prisoner’s trapped in Plato’s cave. We receive photoshopped images and videos, alleged polls and feints toward demographic studies, rampant misrepresentations of science and history, and artifacts of pure artifice. If we click along fast enough, we might not notice the overall incoherence or implausibility of the so-called world we are surveying. And if we communicate only with our fellow prisoners in the cave, musing over various images and lies, we will feel firmly convinced that we are engaged with some sort of reality. And indeed we are, in a weak way, since images and shadows are after all something. But it is about as content-free as information can possibly be.

The interesting problem – in Plato’s day as in our own – is how to find the reality in the midst of so many appearances. In Plato’s analogy, you simply break the chains and walk out of the cave into the daylight. But exactly how that metaphor is supposed to be cashed out is not at all obvious. We could of course shut down our internet and walk out the front door – but that dodges the question, since what we are looking for is advice for living in an e-world. A natural next move is to insist that we look frequently toward authoritative sources, and fact-check our impressions against them. And that is good advice – provided that we have authoritative sources to trust. The recent (and no doubt ephemeral) brouhaha over “fake news,” and the denial by public figures of the existence of “facts,” suggests that there is at least some distrust of authority, and there is some good reason for this.  Every news source has to keep an ear out for clicks, and every news source funnels their content toward the loudest aggregate of clicking noises. What these means is that every source of content tries to engage our attention – and, obviously, what engages our attention may not be what we ought to be paying attention to. So authority gets us only so far.

So – in parallel with the philosophers of the early modern period – we might try to construct within ourselves some sort of method or set of principles to use as we go clicking about our universe. It is here that the need for some sort of handbook becomes starkly apparent. It would help to have some sort of epistemological oracle within us – what Descartes called “the light of nature.” But we don’t. All we can do is sort through our knapsack of Things We Have Learned Through Experience, and hope to find some general principles that might offer helpful guidance here or there. So, for example, we might consider:

  1. Big, dramatic changes are very rare, and when they are happening, they are typically seen only later by historians. So any internet sensations sounding alarms over the end of humanity, or promising new worlds, are probably illusory.
  1. People, on the whole, do things for compelling reasons. So when it seems that someone or some group has done something only to be evil, or out of sheer lunacy- then, in all likelihood, something important is being left out of the story.
  1. Generally, the world does not obey our wishes. So when you come across some news event that satisfies your wishes, it probably isn’t true – or, at least, there is something about it you should worry about. (This is another articulation of the Party-Pooper principle, which says you generally shouldn’t believe what you want to believe.)

And so on. Of course, these rules are not exceptionless: they are only guidelines for steering away from the improbable. And there are certainly more guidelines to consider. This is why a handbook would be so handy.

The other set of problems in e-life are moral ones. The unique conditions of e-life, which make it so different from “real life,” make it so that many of the people we e-encounter are people we will never meet face-to-face. We may “friend” them, or “un-friend” them, without ever having breathed the same air. But we still might feel as if we have come to know them, on the basis of what they have typed or posted, while knowing at the same time that how we present ourselves online is not always (ahem) a faithful representation of who we really are. Now if we took a moment to think this through, we would realize that we don’t know these people very well at all – and this realization might temper our reactions to them. We might be a little less likely to hate their very guts, or to love them to pieces, since after all we don’t really know them very well. We might adopt an attitude of polite and generally well-mannered distance – as, in my experience, people typically do when having to interact with strangers (in the “real world”).

It is comical to imagine real-world interactions mirroring e-world interactions.

YOU (at a store, looking at an item): Hey, I like this.

PERSON NEXT TO YOU: What an idiot.

YOU: Excuse me? At least I’m not fat.

PERSON: I’m actually not fat, and anyway, that’s not relevant to the point I was making.

YOU: Oh, you were making a point? Lol.

PERSON: If you’re not going to be constructive, go to some other store, like

YOU: Your attitude is exactly how Hitler got started.

I think such interactions are extremely rare in the real world. People usually, if they interact at all, make some small talk or laugh politely over a small joke. But the above “dialogue” – or sling-fest – is not really all that rare in e-life (especially if you read comment threads, as you should not). Maybe it is because the e-world is insulated from punches in the nose.

One approach that might be considered – in e-life and beyond – is to consider how your response might make a conversation more interesting and constructive. This does not simply mean nodding, smiling, and imploring your partner to have a nice day. It means forestalling a controversy that is about to erupt by lifting it to the realm of actual discussion. So, for example, when you can see that a conversation is about to become a “Yes it is!” and “No it isn’t!” melee over climate change, one might wonder what’s at stake for the other person. “Before we get into it, why do you feel so strongly about this? What’s at stake for you in this?” (Do not add: “Did your parents beat you?”) If there is any good will at all in your partner, the interchange may become a conversation between two people rather than between two cardboard cut-outs of people. I know: probably not. But if there’s a chance to make it happen, we should try; and if not, get out of there, for no good can come of it. You’ll only be feeding your aggravation.

Posted in Meanings of life / death / social & moral stuff | 2 Comments

The flux of it all

[An excerpt from Reality: a primer]

river-1Heraclitus was one of the earliest known philosophers. He lived in what we now recognize as western Turkey, in the late 6th century BCE. We know hardly anything about him, and his philosophy is conveyed to us in fragments quoted by other people. The single most famous indirect quote we have is supplied by Plato: “Heraclitus says somewhere that ‘everything gives way and nothing stands fast,’ and, likening the things that are to the flowing of a river, he says that ‘you cannot step into the same river twice’.”

You cannot step into the same river twice. For, after you have stepped into it once, all the water moves on and is replaced by new water. It’s a new river.

For this reason, Heraclitus is known as a metaphysician of flux: nothing ever stays the same, and everything is always in the middle of changing into something else. There is certainly something to this. Waters flow, plants grow, the earth shifts; the planets revolve and rotate, tides ebb and flow, minds change; people are born, people die, relationships blossom and fade, civilizations crumble, new states are established. There is truth in this even at the smallest, most individual level: the sounds I hear are constantly changing, my eyeballs swivel to take in new sights, my thoughts jump from one idea to the next. Indeed, it seems the only permanent truth is this, that nothing is permanent.

It seems that Heraclitus himself delighted in this paradox of changeless change. Another indirect quote suggests that the change he saw everywhere led somehow to a kind of constancy: “They do not understand how, through variance with itself, it agrees with itself. It is a backwards-turning attunement like that of the bow and lyre.” (How could they not understand this?!) His thought seems to be that, just as a bow remains stable and unchanging while the taut bowstring is in tension with the wooden bow, the constant tension among changing appearances also brings about a kind of constancy or stability. And it surely is true that, as often as we see change, we also recognize changelessness – in granite mountains, in unyielding bronze, in the stubborn face of a clock as we wait for the end of a boring meeting. Heraclitus may be claiming that such seemingly changeless things are in fact in fluctuating tensions among opposing forces. He also is said to have written that “the road up and the road down are one and the same” – so even a lonesome road is struggling to be two things at once.

Many of Heraclitus’s near-contemporaries took turns asserting one element or another to be the ultimate one – Thales had water, Anaximenes had air – and Heraclitus laid claim to fire. This makes sense: fire is, above all, an inconstant, flickering thing. Today, of course, we might posit energy rather than fire, but the idea is the same. We posit a fundamental entity whose nature is to move, to change, to flicker, and we see stable objects as emerging somehow from the ceaseless riot.

One of my favorite books is in Oxford’s “Very Short Introduction” series. It’s entitled A Very Short Introduction to Nothing. The author, Frank Close, is a physicist, and in this little book he doggedly pursues the question of whether it is ever possible to have a bit of nothing. It seems not; spacetime is constantly bubbling with fields, particles, and even mere possibilities. The metaphysical picture we have of the basis of reality is something far beyond the dreams of the ancients:

In the 3,000 years since the philosophers of ancient Greece first contemplated the mystery of creation, the emergence of something from nothing, the scientific method has revealed truths that they could not have imagined. The quantum void, infinitely deep and filled with particles, which can take on different forms, and the possibility of quantum fluctuation lay outside their philosophy. They were unaware that positive energy within matter can be counterbalanced by the negative sink of the all-pervading gravitational field such that the total energy of the universe is potentially nothing; when combined with quantum uncertainty, this allows the possibility that everything is indeed some quantum fluctuation living on borrowed time. Everything may thus be a quantum fluctuation out of nothing.

Close is surely right that the ancients could not have imagined this. (To be fair, who can?) But Heraclitus captured something of the “counterbalanced by the negative sink” idea when he claimed (supposedly) that the universe is “an ever-living fire being kindled in measures and being extinguished in measures.” Both metaphysicians would agree that the universe is an ongoing fluctuating that sums to zero.

So what?

Good question. Does it make any difference if we think of reality as deeply impermanent, in a continuous flux – so long as, at some level, we end up with what appears to be a world of enduring, stable-ish objects?

Continue reading

Posted in Historical episodes, Metaphysical musings | 3 Comments

Getting the facts straight

[Reading Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity, Zone Books, 2007.]


We might think that knowers have striven always for objectivity, for a vision of the world unblemished by the viewer’s own biases and prejudices. But Daston and Galison argue that it is a concept that was constructed in the recent past – mainly in the 19th century. Before that, scientists worked with artists to try to display nature not as it is actually found, but as it ought to look. They present this argument by examining a range of representative atlases and scientific picture books, and observing how what these books were trying to do came to center eventually on what we have come to think of as objectivity: a presentation of the facts, with no judgments attached.

Through most of the 18th and 19th centuries, the etchings, engravings, and woodcuts in books of natural history presented nature in its ideal form: this is what a seagull or a walrus or an Eskimo should look like, even if each one you meet in the wild will depart from the exemplar in some small way or other. The naturalist and the artists had to work together – “seeing with four eyes,” as the authors call it – to come to some agreed presentation that harbored both factual and aesthetic ideals. The naturalist employed his great experience and insight to coach the artist into the right direction, and the artist divined what the naturalist had in mind and cast it into a form that would exhibit the “truth in nature.” Basically, this meant depictions of nature festooned with Platonic artsy-fartsiness:


The helmet jellyfish, as depicted in Ernst Haekel’s Artforms of Nature (1904)


“[O]nly lax naturalists permitted their artists to draw exactly what they saw. Seeing was an act as much of integrative memory and discernment as of immediate perception; an image was as much an emblem of a whole class of objects as a portrait of any one of them. Seeing – and, above all, drawing – was simultaneously an act of aesthetic appreciation, selection, and accentuation. These images were made to serve the ideal of truth – and often beauty along with truth – and not that of objectivity, which did not yet exist” (104)

Over the course of the 19th century, naturalists found ways to gradually edit themselves out of the act of observation, culminating eventually in photography, which (allegedly) depicted nature as it really is, unfiltered by any human mind:

“Depicting individual objects “objectively” required a specific, procedural use of image technologies – some as old as the lithograph or camera lucida, others as freshly late-nineteenth century as photomicrography. These protocols aimed to let the specimen appear without that distortion characteristic of the observer’s personal tastes, commitments, or ambitions.” (121)

The focus on procedures and machines tells us something about the late 19th-century ideal of a scientist: a person harboring no personal ambition, no distortions of will or passion, but content to be a lens through which the light of nature will shine. One might go so far as to see modern objectivity as what happens when industrialization hits the laboratories: “The true savant was a ‘genius of observation’ whose directed and critical exercise of attention could extract truth-to-nature from numerous impressions, as the smelter extracts pure metal from ore” (203). The construction of objectivity was the effort to replace the idiosyncracies of insight with reliable and impersonal bureaucracy (or, roughly, the distance between Rousseau and Kant): “If the makers of the objective image had had a slogan, it might have been: Where genius and art once were, there self-restraint and procedure will be” (314).

Objectivity is a long work, and seemingly less objective than one would expect. As Martin Kusch points out in a review (Isis, 2009), Daston and Galison base their story on a comparatively small number of the picture books and atlases that were produced over the time – representative ones (?), perhaps, but this means they’re back to the seeing-with-four-eyes model they described. (Suitable, for a co-authored work, I suppose.) Many of their pages are devoted to reflections on what all this has to do with the modern self, and philosophical accounts of objectivity – all of which sort of plays the role of the ornamental embellishments in pre-objective works of natural history. But what sets the work apart, and makes it particularly valuable, is its dedication to seeing “objectivity in shirtsleeves” – the actual practice and working relationships of the scientists and artists trying to find the best way to convey what they see in nature. This is where ideals meet the constraints of practice – how an ideal we cherish gets brought into the working world, through laboratories and printing presses and scientists and artists.

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The Problem of Disenchantment

[Reading Egil Asprem, The Problem of Disenchantment: Scientific Naturalism and Esoteric Discourse, 1900-1939. Brill, 2014.]

blake_godEgil Asprem’s fascinating and learned work is centered around seeing disenchantment – or the growing propensity to see nature as empty of magical and divine influence – as a persistent problem to which scientists and philosophers responded in various ways over the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As scientific methods and practices came to be centered around quantitative measurement and objectivity, anyone who wanted enchantment in their world picture had to find a way either to measure it or to insulate it against reductive theories: “the processes of rationalisation have created the conditions for the problem of disenchantment to emerge” (6). Aprem’s long study finds the problem finding expression in three different ways: in new ways to integrate a divine being in nature (new natural theologies), in laboratory treatments of supernatural and parapsychological phenomena, and in theories of knowledge which allow room for esoteric elements.

Disenchantment itself was promoted by a segment of Victorian society whose members had vested interests in seeing the nature they knew so well, and dominated so thoroughly, as a realm that was not itself prejudiced toward Christendom or hidden from public view: the natural world is a level playing field which can be known equally well by any and all; and it just so happens that through their own efforts the Victorians themselves have come to know it best of all. Small but influential groups such as the “X-Club” sought to direct educational and financial resources into a vision of a thoroughly natural and disenchanted world. The end result was an apparently scientific and objective justification for the values and practices of those who knew nature best (even if the broadcast version of science did not always fit happily with what scientists were actually finding) – what Asprem calls “the ideological settlement of Victorian scientific naturalism” (86). This settlement provides the conditions challenged by the new discoveries of the 20th century.

As Sir Arthur Eddington wrote, “Religion first became possible for a reasonable scientific man about the year 1927” (quoted on p. 94). By that year, physicists had pretty much buried the naturalistic spirit of 19th-century science by proposing the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, which seemed anything but natural: specifically, it seemed no longer possible to adopt the simplistic view that scientific theories describe an objective, mind-independent reality. At this point, Asprem revisits a thesis put forward in 1971 by historian Paul Forman, that quantum mechanics in fact emerged from “a certain Zeitgeist in Germany following the experience of defeat in WWI, characterised by a wish to escape the terror of history and the pressure of determinism” (129). With good reason, Asprem concludes that the Zeitgeist doesn’t explain everything, but it did lend shape and character to the ways quantum mechanics came to be discussed in society at large, both early on and through the rest of the century. Think of The Dancing Wu Li Masters, The Tao of Physics, and so on: what were these works if not ways to re-enchant the world and ward off the specter of determinism?

Quantum mechanics was one of five natural theologies that emerged in the early 20th century, according to Asprem. The others include an “ether” metaphysics (all-pervasive spirit stuff), psychic enchantment (from Mesmerism to brain waves), theologies of emergence (more soul stuff, arising out of matter), and modern alchemy (especially radioactive decay and theosophic chemistry). What’s most captivating in Asprem’s discussion is his willingness to let the re-enchanters have their full say: whereas many defenders of “modern science” (whatever that is) are quick to shut down esoteric heretics as quacks, cranks, and weirdos, Asprem gives them voice, placing them in their contexts alongside the Darwinists, the Einsteinians, the Planckians, and so on. After all, everyone is after the same thing: a responsible account of nature that takes due measure of everything there is to explain. They differ over what phenomena they feel obliged to take seriously.

And this brings us to the laboratories. Scientists won’t take phenomena seriously until they have appeared under laboratory conditions, and thus did psychic and paranormal labs spring up at various universities throughout the 20th century (to say nothing of the secret experiments of the CIA and NSA – “men who stare at goats” – and of their communist counterparts). The earliest attempts involved bringing debunkers like Harry Houdini to seances, and the later attempts used all manner of technology and double-blind experiments to try to determine whether ESP can tell us what’s going on in the next room. Often fancy universities (like Stanford, Harvard, and Clark) were compelled to establish parapsychological labs at the behest of their quirky donors. John E. Coover at Stanford spent the years 1912-17 trying as hard as he could to satisfy Thomas W. Stanford’s desire to see some objective evidence of telepathy – to no avail. After “10,000 experiments with 100 subjects attempting to guess playing cards telepathically,” Coover stolidly concluded that “statistical treatments of the data fail to reveal any cause beyond chance” (359). Privately, Coover did not seem so cool about it: “I should have been better satisfied with an opportunity to put part of my time upon research the material of which is not so meagre and elusive, not so offensive in the nostrils of my fellow psychologists, and more directly applicable to problems in psychology, education, or psychotherapy” (360). He went on to found the California Psychical Research Society, whose main task was to expose psychic mediums as charlatans.

But if humans want to find the world to be an enchanted place, they will find a way – “statistical treatments” be damned. Asprem’s concluding chapters carefully convey the various strategies open to the person who finds naturalistic epistemologies too restrictive. The move, basically, is to insist that naturalism leaves something out. It may be that through natural means we will find no magic, or no transcendent truths; but perhaps natural means are not the only ones, and there is space for enlightenment or revelation (“esoteric gnosis”). Or it may be that scientific inquiry will convey the facts to us; but it falls upon us to interpret those facts, to draw significance from them, and in this way to find what nature itself cannot express (“esoteric hermeneutics” – and this, by the way, is how humanists seek to re-enchant the world). Or it may be that the fullest expression of science as a whole – a truly Grand Theory of Everything – will require us to draw upon sources of eternal and ancient wisdom, which will finally unite the scientist with the mystic (“soteriological gnosis”). And we shall then come to know, finally, the answer:

In the final moment of soteriological gnosis there is, at last, the promise of a genuinely surprising experience. The broader significance of that experience would, however, have been revealed long before in textbooks, leaflets, and lectures: the experience will show him the way to absolute freedom. Deeply personal questions will now be answered: who am I, and what is my place in the grander scheme of things? The final answer silences the final question. Thus freedom, too, attained through gnosis, dissolves the final mystery: it means, essentially, to learn of one’s pre-ordained destiny, and pledge to follow it thenceforth with eyes wide open (533).

(If you felt a little tug there at the end, then know that you have not been fully disenchanted.)

Asprem’s book is wildly successful in demonstrating his main thesis: that “views about the limits of reason, science, and knowledge in Western intellectual culture since the Enlightenment have been much more diverse, full of internal contrasts and conflicts, than is commonly recognized by narratives of a progressive and irreversible disenchantment of the world” (13-4). His book is – well, enchanting.

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