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Thursday, September 10, 2009


Thoughts After Reading The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene, A Brief History of Time by Stephen W. Hawking and The Future of Spacetime edited by Alan Lightman, with essays by Stephen W. Hawking, Kip Thorne, Igor Novikov, Timothy Ferris and Richard Price

Reading books like this, popularizations of theoretical physics, I feel like I am reading a rather bizarre, abstract mythology, a metaphysical tale with no connection to the concrete world. And apparently this isn't just my ignorance. As Stephen Hawking put it: "I take the positivist viewpoint that physical theory is just a mathematical model and that it is meaningless to ask whether it conforms to reality." (emphases added)

But even in its most abstract form, theoretical physics has very concrete effects on the material world. Without even looking at the technological applications that have already come out of physics where the theory is made concrete enough, one need only consider the technology needed to achieve this level of concreteness. First of all, most of the theoretical work, "observations" and "experiments" in advanced physics take place on computers. This is not surprising in light of Hawkings statement above. But beyond the computer, comparing equations to observations requires technological devices capable of observation on the quantum level, on the one hand, and on the intergalactic level, on the other.

For quantum observations, physicists require particle accelerators and colliders that cover vast areas. In 1999, in The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene was placing his hope in the construction of a gigantic particle accelerator in the Alps to test superstring theory. This monstrosity now exists. It is called the Large Hadron Collider. It lies in a tunnel with a 27 kilometer (17 mile) circumference, dug into the Alps along the French/Swiss border. It is scheduled to begin operation in November 2009.

On the other end, Kip Thorne, in his essay "Spacetime Warps and the Quantum World: Speculations About the Future", in The Future of Spacetime (2003), describes Laser Interferometer technologies for for measuring gravitational waves. At the time he wrote, three of these machines already existed on earth, and one was scheduled to be launched into space in 2010. In describing these technologies, Kip Thorne gives no thought either to their social dimensions (costs that are then not available for other purposes, the role of the military in all such endeavors, the specialization such technologies require, etc.) or their environmental consequences. In fact, Thorne, with the nonchalant arrogance of one who know his real power as scientists in a technocratic society, simply assumes that, of course, these gargantuan technological structures should exist and will exist, because scientific enquiry demands it. He informs us that LIGO (the earth-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) is likely to exhibit quantum behavior on the macroscopic level, bringing the uncertainty principle, according to which it is impossible to know both a particle's location and its velocity at the same time, onto the human scale. (It is currently believed to operate only on the atomic and sub-atomic levels to any significant degree). But he is confident that new "quantum non-demolition technology" will be able to prevent the "fuzzballs" (areas of quantum uncertainty) from expanding. It is difficult to comprehend precisely what all this might mean on a practical level, but knowing the nonchalance that physicists have shown far too often with regard to the possible consequences of the technological outgrowths of their activities, it is hard for me not ot feel a bit apprehensive.

After all, we have already seen some of the consequences of the practical applications of theoretical physics. Nuclear weapons in all their forms (atom bombs, hydrogen bombs, neutron bombs, and the "conventional" offshoot, the depleted uranium bombs that have contaminated parts of the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.) are the most blatant examples, but Three Mile Island and Chernobyl show that the so-called "peaceful atom" can be just as devastating. But perhaps the ecological devastation of Central Asia and the Great Basin of the American southwest, Caused by military nuclear testing, most clearly illustrates what the practical application of modern physics has to offer us.

While Kip Thorne, Stephen Hawking and their scientific compatriots sit in their ivory towers making wagers about naked singularities, exotic matter and wormholes, they are also, at least indirectly, working for the state's military apparatus. Science does not exist in some pure state free of any social context. It always acts in the service of the existing ruling order, depending on the good will of that order while providing it with the technology it requires to maintain control. Except that sometimes this technology itself gets out of control, resulting in disaster. Or more accurately, at this point , the global technological system is beyond any control, and a series of disaster after disaster isinevitable; it's just a question of when and where the next one will strike.

I have called this essay "A Rather Bizarre Mythology". Although this was specifically in reference to theoretical physics, I would argue that modern science (science as it has been practiced since the time of Francis Bacon) acts as the mythology of the present social order. This description does not reflect on whether specific theories of science are literally true or not, but rather on the social function of science. A mythology is the interwoven fabric of stories by which a particular social order explains reality in such a way as to justify and maintain the roles and relationships that create that social order. The dominant mythology of a given society defines truth for those who make up that society. Surpassed mythologies get defined as superstitions. Heresies may take the form of alternative mythologies or of the rejection of all mythologies.

If we look at western society, we can see that as the Roman Empire aged, pagan mythology and the cult of the empire ceased to be able to provide sufficient social cohesion. They were replaced by christianity. But christianity also ultimately proved unable to keep the empire together. It did, however, create a network of power throughout a fragmented Europe that was able to both exploit the fragmentation to increase its own wealth and to provide a tenuous unity in Europe. As cities began to grow and feudal fiefdoms coalesced into states, trade routes came to dominate as the network for unifying Europe--one that promoted a flow of wealth rather than its accumulation into a single institution. In the late Middle Ages, reform movements within the church and heresies (including millenarian movements of revolt) began to proliferate alongside increasing explorations of alchemy and similar proto-sciences. This culminated in the Renaissance and the Reformation. The intellectual ferment of the former opened the door to the birth of modern science, while the latter shattered the unity of the christian mythology. The nascent capitalist social system needed to move toward a systematic technological development in order to maintain itself, and science as theorized by Francis Bacon provided a conceptual framework that could make this possible.

In its early days, modern science still had to try to justify itself in the eyes of the fading, but still dominant, christian authorities, but this role was eventually reversed. The thoroughness of this reversal is evident in the attempts present-day christians make to use an often deformed sort of scientific evidence to support the alleged truth of their beliefs--whether it takes the form of trying to dig up historical evidence to support the reality of the gospel myth or the development of the "intelligent design" hypothesis. As badly as these christians may use science, they still now feel obliged to justify themselves on its terms rather than vice versa, and that is strong evidence that science is the dominant mythology of the present social order.

In light of this, it is particularly important to develop an analysis of the nature of science as a social tool. Inevitably, such an analysis calls into question the objective nature of science and demands that every one of the claims put forth in the name of science has to be examined in terms of how it serves the ruling order. But this has to be done with care in order to avoid over-simplifying (as in those critiques of Darwinism that base themselves on the ridiculous misuse of his perspective by the so-called social Darwinists). In addition, the social and environmental costs of specific scientific projects have to be exposed. If projects like the Large Hadron Collider and the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory seem like extravagant wastes of money from a certain perspective, obviously the institutions involved in funding them recognize how quickly abstract theoretical physics can turn into concrete technologies for maintaining and increasing institutional power. What seems like harmless speculation about the underlying structure of the universe becomes atom bombs or Chernobyls. Herein lies the real social cost, beyond any waste of money for extravagant laboratories and experimental tools.

There can be little doubt that intelligent observation and experimentation guided by critical thinking are useful and necessary for creating our lives in the freest and most enjoyable way in this world. But this has never been the whole definition of science. Otherwise, it would have remained a mere tool. Rather, for modern science, there is an underlying assumption that is to be the basis for observation, experimentation and critical thinking: the idea that reality operates in a framework of universal, essentially rational natural laws. It is this faith that has allowed science to become the dominant mythology of this social order. But those of us who seek the destruction of the present social order need to use our capacity for critical thinking to shatter this mythological framework as well. Once science as a myth is shattered, its unity destroyed, perhaps there will be pieces we will find useful or enjoyable to play with. And perhaps those metaphysical endeavors that disguise themselves as science under the names of quantum physics, relativity physics, superstring theory, etc. can give a few people pleasure as what they are--metaphysical speculations--which have no need for expensive and environmentally damaging technological structures to test their hypotheses and will not lead to the creation of devastating bombs and disasters. But for now the point is to shatter the myth.

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