“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, July 16, 2004

But I will never believe that all natural Knowledge was shut up in Aristotle's Brain, or that the Heathen only invaded Nature, and found out her Strength. We know that Time and not Reason, Experience and not Art both taught the Causes of such Effects, as that Sowerness doth Co[...]gulate Milk; but ask the Reason why and how it does it, and Vulgar Philosophy cannot satisfie you; nor in many Things of the like Nature, as why Grass is green rather than red. Man hardly discerns the Things on Earth; his Time is but short to learn, and begins no sooner to learn than to dye: Whose Memory has but a borrowed Knowledge; understanding nothing truly, and is ignorant of the Essence of his own Soul; which Aristotle could never define, but by effects, which all Men know as well as he. – Sir Walter Raleigh
The prestige of the  experiment
In 1877, John Tyndall gave an address in Belfast that was emblematic of the high and confident positivism of the time. In one passage, he violates one of the canons of Victorian gentility – the Oxford variety – by aligning himself with the gloriously vulgar tradition, going back to Francis Bacon, of using Aristotle, conceived of as the father of  a lot of a priori nonsense, as an all purpose punching bag:  
“…in Aristotle, as in Goethe, it was not, I believe, misdirection, but sheer natural incapacity which lay at the root of his mistakes. As a physicist, Aristotle displayed what we should consider some of the worst attributes of a modern physical investigator: indistinctness of ideas, confusion of mind, and a confident use of language, which led to the delusive notion that he had really mastered his subject, while he had as yet failed to grasp even the elements of it. He put words in the place of things, subject in the place of object. He preached Induction without practising it, inverting the true order of inquiry by passing from the general to the particular, instead of from the particular to the general. He made of the universe a closed sphere, in the centre of which he fixed the earth, proving from general principles, to his own satisfaction and to that of the world for near 2,000 years, that no other universe was possible. His notions of motion were entirely unphysical. It was natural or unnatural, better or worse, calm or violentóno real mechanical conception regarding it lying at the bottom of his mind. He affirmed that a vacuum could not exist, and proved that if it did exist motion in it would be impossible. He determined a priori how many species of animals must exist, and shows on general principles why animals must have such and such parts. When an eminent contemporary philosopher, who is far removed from errors of this kind, remembers these abuses of the a priori method, he will be able to make allowance for the jealousy of physicists as to the acceptance of so-called a priori truths. Aristotle's errors of detail, as shown by Eucken and Lange, were grave and numerous. He affirmed that only in man we had the beating of the heart, that the left side of the body was colder than the right, that men have more teeth than women, and that there is an empty space at the back of every man's head.
There is one essential quality in physical conceptions which was entirely wanting in those of Aristotle and his followers. I wish it could be expressed by a word untainted by its associations; it signifies a capability of being placed as a coherent picture before the mind. The Germans express the act of picturing by the word vorstellen, and the picture they call a Vorstellung. We have no word in English which comes nearer to our requirements than Imagination, and, taken with its proper limitations, the word answers very well; but, as just intimated, it is tainted by its associations, and therefore objectionable to some minds.”

Tyndall’s groping attempt to put his chemical stained fingers around a term to distinguish a distinct, yet under-conceptualized  mental act  – and can’t one feel him almost painfully balance just on the edge of the unknown word, like Watson trying to follow one of Holmes’ points – eerily points to the need that was met ten years later, when just the thing emerged under the pen of a German physicist, Ernst Mach. The Gedanken-experiment was born.

Ever since, it has been retrospectively accorded to other times and conceptual schemes, as I’ve tried to point to in previous posts. I’ve also tried to point to the problem in taking the thought experiment seriously as an experiment.

We don’t kid ourselves that our objections will squelch the word. We don’t want to. The relation between the thought experiment and the experiment is like the relation between the red breasted American thrush and the English robin: they look enough alike that English settlers in the New World called the thrush a robin. Lexically, only a pedant would object to that – taxonomically, it is a disaster. 

A common defense of thought experiments, among philosophers, is that thought experiments are a common element of science. In fact,  we have read claims that in certain scientific discourses, they have an essential function. LI doesn’t doubt it. However, the move from saying that that class of things that we call “thought experiments” play a role in science to saying that they are indeed a type of experiment is not dependent on a clear view of experiments, but on the prestige of science, which is considered to be ultimately experimental. In other words, we are eye to eye with a vicious circle. Prestige, here, underwrites this logical leap. What it tells us is two things: we are dealing, first of all, with myth; and secondly, we are dealing with myth in terms of a the archaic system of legitimation that consists in referring to authority, rather than rationality.

Our protest against the prestige of thought experiments in philosophy stems from our sense of what experiment meant in the first place. Tyndall’s cool evaluation of Aristotle might not be textually correct re the man himself, but it is certainly correct about the spirit of Aristotelianism. The introduction of the experimental method in Europe in the seventeenth century was about one thing: the art of discovery. The point was to get outside of your head. That the world outside could be discovered was a tremendously exciting and hazardous thing.

The mania for thought experiments cruelly inverts this moment. Reflection, instead of being forced to confront the obdurant outlines of some irrepressible piece of exteriority, contents itself with the soft and pleasing task of creating bad fictions in the image of its desires. The movement from Bacon, whose death as a ‘martyr to experimentation’ is well described by Macaulay – see our little note – to  the spectacle of a Chalmers, doing “consciousness science’ by means of infantile fantasies of zombies, is a painful indicator that civilization ain’t what it used to be.

In  a conference on thought experiments that was published in the 1992 PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, Ian Hacking, one of LI’s favorite philosophers, commented on the papers presented that defended the validity of the thought experiment. He conceded the force of many of the arguments for thought experiments, but his emphasis was on the fact that he felt, in the presence of the thought experiment, unmoved. That is, he felt that the experiment was not explicative. Experiments, in Hacking’s account, have a life – thought experiments exist frozen in their pictorial essence. Referring to Thomas Kuhn’s essay on thought experiments, Hacking points to the character of good thought experiments:
“… thought experiments are rather fixed, largely immutable. That is yet another respect that thye are like mathematical  proofs, but good proofs have proof ideas that can be used over and over in new contexts – which is not, in general the case with thought experiments. They have just one tension to expose. Of course there are false starts, and the exposition gets neater over time. And here the prescience of Kuhn’s paper comes to the fore. The reason that people wrestle with thought experiments, use thme for exposition and pu-down argument, is that they can reveal tensions between one vision of the world and another. They can dislodge a person from a certain way of describing the worlds. They can replace one picture by another. That is their job, their once and future job.”
This is all we really feel like saying about thought experiments. Campers, come home! We’ll talk about something less elevated in our next post. Promise.
Note: Macaulay’s description of Bacon’s death:
It had occurred to him that snow might be used with advantage for the purpose of preventing animal substances from putrefying. On a very cold day, early in the spring of the year 1626, he alighted from his coach near Highgate, in order to try the experiment. He went into a cottage, bought a fowl, and with his own hands stuffed it with snow. While thus engaged he felt a sudden chill, and was soon so much indisposed that it was impossible for him to return to Gray's Inn. The Earl of Arundel, with whom he was well acquainted, had a house at Highgate. To that house Bacon was carried. The Earl was absent; but the servants who were in charge of the place showed great respect and attention to the illustrious guest. Here, after an illness of about a week, he expired early on the morning of Easter-day, 1626. His mind appears to have retained its strength and liveliness to the end. He did not forget the fowl which had caused his death. In the last letter that he ever wrote, with fingers which, as he said, could not steadily hold a pen, he did not omit to mention that the experiment of the snow had succeeded "excellently well"   

Wednesday, July 14, 2004


In his comments to my little note on thought experiments, Paul made two challenges. The second of those challenges is not, I think, a real problem. Paul asks whether my criteria for an experiment – that there be a performative stage in it – wouldn’t be fulfilled in going through a syllogism, thus collapsing the distinction between experiment and logic. There are two things to say here. One is that performance in and of itself isn’t sufficient to make an experiment, even though I maintain that it is necessary condition on any experiment. The second is that the material performance of the experiment must be such that it is somehow connected to the design of the experiment. That connection is what the risk in the experiment is all about. So, to use the example of the experiments made on humans in light deprived environments, the performance of the experiment put at risk a hypothesis about the length of human’s circadian rhythm. This is quite different from positing that all men are mortal, and Socrates is a man, or that all dogs are born of bitches, and Lassie is a dog, etc., etc. The inscription of such sentences is not in itself a performance that puts at risk the logical connection between variables and functions one wishes to demonstrate.

It is always possible to transform a thought experiment into some sort of performance. I could easily make a cartoon, for instance, out of Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment. But the making of a cartoon does not fulfill the performative function of the experiment, which is “about” a man matching Chinese symbols with English symbols.

Paul’s first objection seems similar, but it is, I think, a more potent balestra. He asks whether something like proofs in Euclid’s geometry aren’t performative in just the way I’m maintaining. Whether consciously or unconsciously, Paul is echoing a comment of Lakatos, as cited in this excellent overview of thought-experiments by Michael Stoeltzner at the University of Pittsburg’s Philosophy of Science site.

“Interestingly, Mach held that the purest thought experiments occur in mathematics which, on his account, was economically ordered experience. A similar connection was introduced into modern philosophy of mathematics by Imre Lakatos who contraposed the informal mathematical thought experiment to the formal Euclidean proof. “Thought-experiment (deiknymi) was the most ancient pattern of mathematical proofs.” (1976, p. 9 fn.1) The terminological parallel, to be sure, was drawn by Lakatos because the cited book of Árpád Szabó interprets deiknymi as “to make the truth or falsity of a mathematical statement visible in some way;” (1978, p. 189) with the progress of Greek mathematics deiknymi developed into the technical term for formal proof.”

Why does this differ from the syllogism example? I think the Euclidean proof, viewed in this way, could well be the ancestor of the computer simulation. Computer simulations have an uneasy relationship with the experimental tradition. However, I accept the fact that simulations can produce valid results, can be designed, like experiments, and can have a performative term that encodes risk as in experiments. I accept, in other words, that simulations can be a sub-species of experiment. However, my instinct is that the demonstration is not a computer simulation, because the analogy between design, performance, and result is imperfect.

When I say that the performative term is an encounter with risk, I am merely saying, in my own peculiar way, something that is a commonplace of teaching experimental design. If you look at courses in universities where e.d. is taught, you will notice that it is taught in terms of statistics. This was the great 19th century synthesis. While the popular image is still of the one experiment that proves this or that, the laboratory truth is that the results of iterated experiments vary to some extent, and that experiments themselves are usually grouped together by varying certain elements in the e.d. In other words, instead of a singular phenomenon, the experiment is usually part of a collection of experiments, over which one sums using orthodox statistical methods. I have been trying to avoid highlighting observation, the usual key phrase in talking about experiment, because observation tends to obscure both the performative term of the experiment and the risk inherent to that term – its encoding of such form as would make it statistically available. While computer simulations can be analyzed from this perspective, it is hard to see how Euclidian proofs fit this schema.

To return to the estimable Stoeltzner, he cites some considerable philosophic meandering around this very point by those who make the strong case for thought-experiments as experiments:

“… where are thought experiments located on the scale between theory and experiment? On Norton’s account, they are closer to theory, or at least to the argumentative analysis of an experiment, and they can accommodate rather general philosophical principles into a scientific argument. Andrew D. Irvine holds that “the parallel between physical experiments and thought experiments is a strong one.” (1991, p. 150) All assumptions of a thought experiment must be supported by independently confirmed observations and it typically has repercussions on a certain background theory. On Irvine’s account, the fact that “many thought experiments are meant to precede real experiments in which the original thought experiment’s premises are actually instantiated” (Ibid., p. 151) and the fact that some elements of a thought experiment are assumed to be true, proves that it typically contains some but not only counterfactual elements. Ronald Laymon proposes to render benign the counterfactual character of thought experiments involving frictionless surfaces and the like by treating them as “ideal limits of real experimentation.” (1991, p. 167)”

LI’s case against the thought experiment as experiment depends, in part, on showing that thought experiments aren’t very much like experiments. But we are not experts in experimentation. We’ve pointed to obvious problems that would occur to anyone. We are, however, sensitive to status cues in texts, and we are going to turn, in our next post on this topic, to the prestige of the experiment. Our hypothesis is that the pullulation of thought experiments in philosophy has less to do with the epistemological advantages of experimentation and more to do with the prestige accrued by the image of the experiment – what Barthes would call the myth of the experiment.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004


LI urges our readers to go to James Meek’s article about Siberia and Russia in the LRB, here: He takes down, with exemplary disdain, a Brookings Institute study by two residents, Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy, of Russia’s climate problem – which problem being the results of two centuries of Russian empire building that has left a considerable portion of the population in a part of the world where temperatures shift from the merely nippy, on the odd June day, to the deeper pockets of the frost-bite zone. Stalin’s mad and cruel relocating of significant masses of Russians to Siberia, in order to hack out the natural wealth of the region, has left Russia as a country that resembles an efficiency apartment connected to an industrial sized freezer.

This, at least, is an observation that binds him to the people in the book he is reviewing. But he is unbound from the book by retaining a humanity that escapes the untrammeled and witless rationality of people in think tanks. We like, for instance, these two grafs:

Hill and Gaddy's conclusion - that the coldest and most remote parts of Russia, as currently developed, are a constraint on the country's prosperity and happiness - is correct. Some of their insights are useful. Yet their tone is condescending, their methodology flawed and their central recommendation to the Russian government smacks of the same callous social engineering that made Siberia such a mess in the first place.

'The government should place a priority on relocating Siberia's youth,' Hill and Gaddy declare. 'While it may seem harsh, the challenge of maintaining the stranded elderly population of Siberia is something of a finite proposition.' Well, it does seem harsh. To subsidise the young to flee Siberia, leaving their parents and grandparents behind to die off in the land of ice and snow? When Hill and Gaddy know perfectly well that the Russian bureaucracy is not yet capable of exercising a proper duty of care to the weakest members of society, and that the elderly are often dependent on their families for support? What if there had been a team from the Brookings Institution on board the Titanic? 'Young, able-bodied males and females first! The rest of you finite propositions, carry on dancing.'

We also were cheered by the scoring off the Yanks that occurs in the last graf. Hmm, we wonder if his conclusions could be transposed to other, um, recend foreign policy disasters?

“Not the least of the attractions of The Siberian Curse is that it shows how little US academia has learned from its clumsy interventions in Russian economic policy in the early 1990s, when a flood of America-knows-best advisers introduced unscrupulous Russians to the Pandora's box of shareholder capitalism without taking any real interest in the checks and balances - trade unions, subsidies, lobby groups, public transport, welfare - which enable the 'free' market to work without complete brutality, even in the US.”

Sunday, July 11, 2004

“During one of my visits with Iranian war victims last summer, one veteran -- plastic tubes pumping oxygen into his body through his nostrils -- asked me why there was no international outrage when Iraq used chemical weapons. "Why did the world look the other way?" he asked imploringly. The United States and the international community should urge the Iraqi governing council to "look the other away" no more. All victims of Saddam's foreign wars should be included in the indictment, not just those who happen to be allies of the United States.

All over the world, too many people think of Washington's human rights approach as selective, based on national interest, not moral imperative. Here's an opportunity to prove the naysayers wrong and do what is morally right -- as quaint a notion as that may be in international affairs. Now is the moment when Washington could step forward and urge the Iraqi governing council to include Iran's victims in the criminal docket in Hussein's trial.” – Afshin Molavi Washington Post

LI’s post, July 1: “In the typical hamhanded fashion of the CPA, Hussein is being charged with the crime of invading Kuwait, but not Iran, thereby sending the message that if you are going to wage a war of disastrous aggression and kill 500,000 people, be sure to buy your arms from approved Western dealers.”