Saturday, June 14, 2014

replay: the trouble with thought experiments

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. I have always found this a rather uncomfortable anachronism. But what I’d like to consider is how, exactly, the thought experiment is 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. I don’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 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 my favorite philosophers (who has gained this coveted status by being interested in what is going on outside of his head and studying it – a rare thing), 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 them for exposition and put-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.” 
Note: Since I began this number in Victorian prose, let me end it the same way. Here is Macaulay’s great 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"    

Friday, June 13, 2014

Iraq: more fruits from the criminal American occupation

By any real standard of international conduct, the American invasion of Iraq was a crime, which the occupation compounded a thousand fold – or should I say 450,000 thousand fold, as that is the latest concensus figure as to how many people died in the post-invasion violence? It is one of the signs of the cretinous influence of the same journalistic clique that got us into the war that the newspapers, when writing about the war, still use “around 100,000 dead” as their standard cliché. Casualties are tedious, but I am sure that an article about 9.11 that understated the number of the dead by about 5 times (dozens of people were killed at the WTC) would receive condemnation from the chorus of the defenders of our grievances.  It would be the height of fifth column lefty anti-Americanism, and probably anti-semitic too! No such problems cross the mind when underplaying the Iraqi massacre.
It looks like Maliki’s government is crumbling, and we are going into another stage of the disaster. In this one, too, the US’s heavy hand has played a role. Instead of condemning the totalitarianism in Saudi Arabia for arming and encouraging the rebels in Syria – and in the process exuding its own Islamicists – the US has colluded at it. The Americans did this before in the 1980s, when the CIA and the Reagan administration generously designed a global jihadist network. Great times! This time, the Obama administration – which seeminly can’t shake off Bush’s shadow – is getting its blowback early.
Where, however, will we – we Americans, looking around in our boredom for some rip and rotten piece of instant history to amuse us  – get our information about ISIS, the Kurdish forces, the no doubt looming Shi’ite militia response? Unfortunately, the villains in the press the last time – the Dexter FIlkinses, the Jeff Goldbergs, all the previous unindicted co-conspirators with the White House – are still their, still seiving the flow of data, still conveying whispers from the Pentagon, the Weekly Standard keyboard warriors, and all the rest of it. Having learned nothing, they have nothing in their heads to impede the grave nonsense that they will perpetrate in the weeklies and the op ed pages.
My one consolation is that they write for a dying industry. The liberal media was no myth – media was born out of partisanship, not science or the law, not truthseeking that takes place in the lab or the courtroom,  and it flourished through its fidelity to its audience. But establishment media has long forgotten its strappy beginnings and rubs elbows with all other establishments – and in so doing has lost its readership and viewership. Nobody grieves that the Washington Post is a charity operation at present, and will no doubt be dumped by Bezos when the time comes.
Partisanship means developing to an acute degree one’s capacity to criticize, to investigate one’s enemies, to expose, to muckrake. But the establishment media of the Bush era was an overpaid, overstuffed lot of “insiders” and they  jumped onto the Iraq bandwagon gratefully, wagging their tails, basking in the proximity to the “rebel in chief”, as he was named by one of the sycophants. It is this group that still wails when the US misses a chance for a war, or at least a good stiff bombing campaign. Unfortunately, the mindset is bipartisan – as bipartisan as the mindset that takes “partisan” to be a dirty word.  
Iraq could never be won, so it could never be lost. The question really is: who is responsible for a policy spreading death and destruction on a 450,000 casualty scale in the Middle East. The answer is the Americans. I am sure the discussion in the next couple of weeks will be about how Americans can add more bodies to their tally.

This is sad beyond bearing. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

the negative labyrinth

We know the labyrinth, with its enclosing folds, at the claustrophobic center of which resides the secret for which the structure was built. But the negative labyrinth is, perhaps, De Quincey’s invention. You find suggestions of that image all over his work, but most concentratedly in Suspira de Profundis, when he explains his idea of the brain as a palimpsest. The idea is introduced in a very odd and distaff way – De Quincey tells us that his explanation of the palimpsest is aimed at his women readers, who have not taken Greek – or if they have taken it, will politely hold mum, in order not to embarrass their men. This entirely unnecessary gesture is followed by a long discussion of the palimpsest as a metaphor for memory, where traces are erased to receive other traces, and then erased again. Yeet each level can be recovered given the right chemical solution (which, in De Quincey’s case, will definely involve opoids). Although on first glance a palimpsest is not a labyrinthian product, De Quincey’s use of it as a memory model makes it one – a negative labyrinth. Unfoldings here lead to other unfoldings, erasures to other erasures, down and down. It is a vertiginous descent without any inherent limit. The prose generates a host of images, among which the most striking is the phoenix
“Even the fable of the Phoenix, that secular bird who propagated his solitary existence, and his solitary births, along the line of the centuries, through eternal realys of  funeral mists, is but a type of what we have done with Palimpsests. We have backed upon each pheonex in  the long regressus, and forced him to expose his ancestral phoenix, sleeping in the ashes below his own ashes.”
The negative labyrinth, perhaps, marks a turn in the romantic figure of the labyrinth that leads to modernism. It must have fascinated Baudelaire, De Quincey’s translator (although the Suspira was never published as a whole in De Quincey’s lifetime, so it is possible Baudelaire was unaware of it). We use our escape into the world to go back, link by link, through the chain from which we’ve been freed, to find another chain at its end, that chain also broken – and so on.  We are reminded, here, that addictus was the Roman word for creditor. I would draw out this thought at length, but I feel like instead, I’ll simply juxtapose it to a citation from William Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman antiquities and let the devil take the words from my tongue:  
“A curious passage of Gellius (xx.1) gives us the ancient mode of legal procedure in the case of debt, as fixed by the Twelve tables. If the debtor admitted the debt, or had been condemned in the amount of the debt by a judex, he had thirty days allowed him for payment. At the expiration of this time, he was liable to the Manus Injectio and ultimately to be assigned over to the creditor (addictus) by the sentence of the praetor. The creditor was required to keep him for sixty days in chains, during which time he publicly exposed the debtor on three nundinea, and proclaimed the amount of his debt. In no person release the prisoner by paying the debt, the creditor might sell him as a slave or put him to death."

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

    When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a...