synthetic zero

May 23rd, 2010

There’s a long history of realism vs anti-realism in philosophy (both in the West and in the East), but recently there’s been an upsurge of interest in “Speculative Realism“, which is the latest pendulum swing back towards realism. As I’ve written before (also: here), I have sympathy with the idea that we can, in some sense, talk about reality, but I nevertheless take grave issue with much of what currently comes under the rubric of SR, particularly what’s now being called “object-oriented” philosophy. My old friend Liz Losh recently wrote an epic series of posts about the recent conference about the opening of the Richard Rorty Archive last week, and in her last post on the subject she talked about Michael Bérubé’s remarks regarding the nature of scientific truths in his closing talk, which Bérubé summarized here:

This time I merely claimed that human deliberations about Neptune and quarks and the cosmic microwave background radiation involve intersubjective agreement, but it’s intersubjective agreement about the not-human.  That doesn’t make it any more “foundational” than human deliberations about justice or beauty, but it does mean that when Neptune and quarks and the cosmic microwave background radiation are disclosed to us, we have to understand them precisely as entities which beforehand already were.  Just like Heidegger says in section 44 of Being and Time:

Newton’s laws, the principle of contradiction, any truth whatever—these are true only so long as Dasein is.  Before there was any Dasein, there was no truth; nor will there be any after Dasein is no more. . . .  To say that before Newton his laws were neither true nor false, cannot signify that before him there were no such entities as have been uncovered and pointed out by those laws.  Through Newton the laws became true; and with them, entities became accessible in themselves to Dasein.  Once entities have been uncovered, they show themselves precisely as entities which beforehand already were.

I have been mulling over that passage for 25 years now, and that’s part of what my Rorty Story is about.  But first, let me make clear to Dave and everyone of like-Dave mind that in talking about these entities-which-beforehand-already-were I am not (as I said at the conference) indulging in any Stupid Realist Tricks.  First, I am not suggesting that physics is not a language, that it gives us direct unmediated access to the way the natural world would describe itself if it could; on the contrary, I keep harping on the cosmic microwave background radiation because (a) it’s really important, being physical evidence of the Big Bang, and (b) its discovery involved a Latourian network of scientists, wherein one guy realized that the inadvertent finding made by other guys just might be related to this other guy’s unpublished paper.  (Details.) Second, I imply no teleology, no sense that discoveries in physics are moving us somewhere progressively and incrementally, and that someday we’ll finally get it right once and for all; on the contrary, I strongly suspect it’s quantum turtles all the way down, in all the extant universes.  And last, I am not suggesting that the kind of knowledge we obtain from physics is a template for all other kinds of human knowledge, that it affords us a model of the way we could deliberate about justice or beauty if we just tried hard enough; on the contrary, I’m saying that it’s a highly specialized and ungeneralizable kind of knowledge that involves intricate interpretive protocols for understanding stuff that isn’t Dasein and doesn’t have Dasein’s interpretive protocols.

So Bérubé here makes a decent attempt to qualify his remarks regarding these “entities which beforehand already were”, but I have to say I think he doesn’t go far enough. In fact, I think Heidegger’s original statement, which he quotes, has some serious problems: I want to propose a different sense of reference which I think in some sense attempts to bridge the gap between realism and anti-realism.

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May 20th, 2010

I am in general opposed to Conservatives, and prior to the British election I was, as an American fascinated with Westminster parliamentary governments for some reason, rooting for the Liberal Democrats to win enough support together with Labour to be able to form a coalition. I have to say, however, despite my reflexive dislike for conservative politics, I’ve been surprised and impressed with Cameron’s political moves so far. Unlike Labour and most other Conservatives he seems to really have realized that he fundamentally did not win the last election and had no choice but to depend on the Lib Dems for his government to have a chance at working, and realized he had to go all in or be defeated. This is something I did not expect from him. In the calculus of the aftermath of the election I was arguing that the Tories lost: all Conservative MPs plus all their natural allies together added up to a minority. They absolutely needed the Lib Dems and any move on the Tories’ part to do something unacceptable to the Lib Dems would have resulted in the fall of government, which could well have happened rather quickly, particularly after the budget cuts had sunk in, giving Cameron the chance to be Prime Minister just long enough to lose control of Parliament again.

But instead he recognized, unlike most, that he had lost, and realized he needed to move decisively to bring the Lib Dems on board. And it appears he’s not only done this but he actually seems to relish, for the most part, where coalition policy has ended up. In his first interview on the BBC he spoke with apparent enthusiasm about the fact that the coalition wanted to lower taxes on the poor and raise them on the wealthy, despite the fact that this was in contradiction to his own party’s platform — something the interviewer picked up on, suggesting that the alliance with the Lib Dems was allowing Cameron to pull his party to where he had wanted it to go all along. Perhaps it’s all an act and it will fall apart soon, or perhaps the backbenchers will scuttle the coalition before too long, but so far it’s been interesting and surprising to watch this.

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May 11th, 2010

I was right that the Lib Dems would see a deal with Labour as far better than a deal with the Tories, and that events would conspire to move things in that direction. However, I was wrong that I thought Labour would be smart enough to accept such a deal to form a long-term center-left coalition politics. It seems obvious that a real Lib Dem-Labour deal would have resulted in a long-term realignment of politics and policies in favor of the center-left, and it would have changed the face of British politics — with proportional representation, the office of the Prime Minister would have alternated between Labour and the Liberal Democrats far into the future, and would certainly have resulted in locking the Tories out for a long time. But instead, Labour decides they’d rather stick to the first past the post system so they have a chance of taking full power again when the political pendulum swings back.

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May 9th, 2010

Posted by a participant (Zen Arado) in the Ways of Knowing Kira workshop discussion of a Zen koan:

One day Mara, the Evil One, was traveling through the villages of India with his attendants. he saw a man doing walking meditation whose face was lit up on wonder. The man had just discovered something on the ground in front of him. Mara’s attendant asked what that was and Mara replied, “A piece of truth.”

“Doesn’t this bother you when someone finds a piece of truth, O Evil One?” his attendant asked.

“No,” Mara replied. “Right after this, they usually make a belief out of it.”

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May 7th, 2010

I find both Canadian and UK politics quite fascinating; was up late watching the election returns. A Lib-Lab coalition would require the participation of the nationalist parties. Con-LD coalition looks impossible as any true move towards proportional representation would mean the decisive end of Tory government for decades, and I can’t see how the LD could accept a coalition without PR. Labour looks really stupid now having resisted PR in the past, as it would have guaranteed a center-left coalition government as far as the eye can see.

Or should I say centre-left…

My prediction: Lib-Lab + nationalist party coalition + PR referendum as the least impossible of all improbable outcomes. With or without Brown.

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