Chapter 1: The Five Great Problems in Theoretical Physics
Despite my utmost veneration for physicists and the few there are who engage in the noble sea...moreChapter 1: The Five Great Problems in Theoretical Physics
Despite my utmost veneration for physicists and the few there are who engage in the noble search for the divine, there is a concern I have about their methodological approach to “reality” that has prevented good sleep these past few months. The concern is nothing new. In fact, it is the same concern that divided Einstein from Bohr, Schrödinger from Heisenberg. It is the relationship between the theory of general relativity and quantum mechanics. As we know, the relationship is exhaustively precarious since both require us to break definitively from Newtonian physics. Both theories are incomplete and have defects that lead us to believe there is a deeper one beyond them—a meta-theory of some sort. But let’s break this down a little.
When we look out in nature we observe that everything is interconnected. Everything is unified. Because of this, physicists tell us that there cannot jolly well be then two theories which evidently cover large bodies of phenomena yet have nothing to do with each other. There must be a final theory which unifies all of nature, both big (gravitation and cosmology) and small (atomic realm) together. The approach that physicists have taken for the last thirty years to reconcile the issue has been the same approach that Kant tried to implacably refute and warn against when prefiguring the fall of the modern scientific world during the eighteenth century—one that physicists today have stubbornly clung to despite Kant’s formidable “Critique of Pure Reason.”
The problem is this: physicists have always tried to provide a theory of how reality would be in our absence. Reality, they tell us, must exist independently of us and therefore science cannot involve descriptions of what we choose to observe or not observe. There is reality and there is perception, and both are mutually exclusive yet the latter needs to conform itself to the former. Science, then, according to the realist tradition which modern physicists tenaciously cling to, must accurately describe how the world really is without our actions and observations of what we might think it is. Question: Have we observed anything in this approach so far that makes our brows furrow? If not, we would all do well to take a philosophy 101 course.
My concern deals with the epistemology of this approach: how is it possible to gain scientific knowledge—i.e. true, justified belief—of reality independent of our perceptions when scientific knowledge has always been predicated upon sensory data? Sure, I admit we can speculate and assume how the world would be in our absence, but what justification do we have that assures us that things act in definite ways and only in these ways independent of us observing them? Some here might accuse me of inferring that causation, for instance, is simply a matter of mental necessity, not objective. And I will respond by arguing that I fall neither into David Hume’s trap (causation is based entirely on mental necessity) nor Ayn Rand’s trap (causation is based entirely on objective necessity). I will temporarily conclude that causation gains its meaning through the coalescence of people’s minds interacting with objects in the exterior world. For how else could it be?
What’s troubling about the classical physicist approach to science is that it seems to negate the crux of what makes scientific knowledge possible: human consciousness. Even Lee Smolin, author of “The Trouble with Physics” and strong advocate of the realist position, claims that “the terms by which science describes reality cannot involve in any essential way what we choose to measure or not measure.” In other words, according to Smolin and the rest of his regime, there must be a theory that allows us to step outside of our biological make-up so to speak and see reality as it would be without filtering it through the confines of our anthropomorphic lenses. If reality is to be known directly as the-thing-in-itself, human consciousness must be denied. This sounds strikingly similar to what Rand once said of Kant, though she greatly misperceived what he was actually up to:
“Man is blind, because he has eyes—deaf, because he has ears—deluded, because he has a mind—and the things he perceives do not exist, because he perceives them.”
To be fair, of course, physicists are nowhere near the skepticism of say, Hume, but they are in a precarious position when they tell us that reality has an identity and that we can know that identity independent of how we perceive it. Now quantum physicists, to the contrary, yes have their fair share of problems to deal with, but they do not worry about how reality would be in our absence. They embrace a new way of doing science. Their approach creates a division that posits there being a system to be observed and us on the other side doing the observing. It is a pluralist system that allows for infinitely many perspectives, depending of course on who is doing the observing. As the uncertainty principle tells us, we cannot measure a particle’s position and momentum at the same time. This means that bundles of electrons can be anywhere until they are observed—inferring that our observations in some way determine the nature of reality.
The pluralist system seems so much more compelling and inviting to scientists of different views and backgrounds. Even much more compelling than concocting a single theory that unifies everything, as if nature’s secret could be revealed in some rote, plug-in formula. Now on the one hand, I agree with physicists that quantum mechanics and the theory of general relativity must be unified, and that quantum theory cannot be solved in isolation but in joint-relationship to physics. But on the other hand I disagree that there should and is one single theory out there to settle the whole matter. Even physicists know that the electromagnetic field, for instance, obeys laws that differ from the postulated realm of dark matter and thus are able to coexist side by side. How, then, can physicists be ok with two theories coexisting side by side yet simultaneously decry pluralism and opt for the single unifying theory? Why must there be a single law to explain nature at all? Why not recast the myth into one that accounts for infinitely many descriptions of the nature of reality—one that is complete and consistent?
Of course, I am being facetious. Quantum theorists have been at it for the last thirty or so years. It’s just that their findings look far better on paper than they do in experiment. And fortunately for all of us, all fundamental discoveries must be established by experiment and explained by theory. Again, it seems difficult to deny our need to return to philosophy and rethink these deep matters concerning space, time, objects and perception.
Physicists were born to unify two things which previously understood were different, incompatible. The truth of this is so ostensibly recognizable throughout antiquity that to doubt such would be considered absurd. Whether we’re talking about old theories’ (Aristotelian/Ptolemaic) confrontation with newer theories (Copernican Revolution), we can understand the cost of choosing the wrong unification theory. For instance, choosing the old theory here brought us into confrontation with our understanding with motion. That is, if the earth is the center of the universe then it must be in a constant state of rest while the heavens are eternally moving (changing). This did not make sense to us (nor Copernicus). The earth, like every other celestial body, was deemed as a planet. And all planets move. So how could it be that the earth, so too, wasn’t moving? Was it just because we couldn’t feel it? No. That would be too easy.
A revision needed to be made even before technology permitted our full understanding of where we were going; one that could not be determined by experiment for lack of technological advances but one that nevertheless needed to be hypothesized in order to violate Aristotle’s law that everything not on a celestial circle must come to rest. For how else could we make sense of our planet if it wasn’t like the “moving others,” but uniquely gifted as God’s center prize of stagnation? No, we needed a new theory that divorced from centuries of superstition, despite what qualms the Inquisition had and would torture us for. And thanks to Galileo’s codification of Newton’s first law of motion, we got one. The Law of Inertia: a body of matter remains in a constant state of rest unless it is disturbed by forces. Although we might not feel the earth moving, it simply means that we are all observers moving at varying speeds and cannot tell when we are at rest or not. Motion, thus, must be explained through a principle of relativity—that the distinction between motion and being is meaningful only relative to the observer.
Let us ponder upon these implications for a moment. These powerful strategies to unite centuries of off-kilter theories into rational, understandable terms means that the apparent differences in them at first glance is in fact due to the difference in perspectives of observers. What we once thought was absolute and fixed is more malleable and relative. When discoveries like Newton’s law of inertia or Einstein’s theory of relativity are in full swank—established by experiment and explained by theory—what you have is not only scientific creativity at its brink, but also a radical paradigm shift in human consciousness. So proposals from two very different backgrounds—what we would say is today’s general relativity/quantum mechanics debate—requires a lot of explaining. But let me now extract the most significant point I’ve been building to.
The need to explain how things that are seemingly different but really the same takes enormous efforts to break down those barriers of what we once thought was fixed and absolute. This in turn comes from our insatiable desire to grasp the order extant in the universe, extant both in heaven and on earth. We’ve struggled so long with the one and the many, being and change, that we don’t know which things to preserve versus which things to let go of and progress past. In a phrase, we don’t know yet how to live and how to die. But science has always been able to make remarkable progress because heroes like Copernicus, Kepler, Newton and Kant made radical predictions of the universe before those predictions were even confirmed by scientific instruments. That is, though Kepler could not explain his own posited planetary laws, Newton could. And although Newton could not explain his three laws of motion, Kant could. But I’m thinking of another case in particular that will solidify the argument I’ve been building to. Bruno’s case.
Giordano Bruno, the famous philosopher and scientist of the fifteenth century, once postulated that the difference between the sun and the stars was a matter of perspective. In assumption, he posited them as being the same yet very far from one another—which is the reason why the stars appear so small to us and the sun so big. His hypothesis eluded to the idea that the universe was much larger than we had anticipated; a proposal at the time that was considered absurd to scientists and punishable by death to the Catholic Church. Consider now what Lee Smolin writes about Bruno’s “novel prediction”:
“Of course, this was an opportunity to make a novel prediction: If you could measure the distances of the stars, you would find they were in fact much farther away than the planets. Had it been possible to do this in Bruno’s day, he might have escaped the fire. But it was centuries before the distance to a star could be measured. What Bruno had done, in practical terms, was to make an assertion that was untestable, given the technology of the time. Bruno’s proposal conveniently put the stars at such a distance that no one could check his idea. So sometimes the need to explain how things are unified forces you to posit new hypotheses you simply cannot test.”
What does this mean? Well, one way of looking at it is that Bruno’s prediction could not be tested during his lifetime due to an insufficient amount of technology, and yet when the time came that technology was fully sufficient, his prediction was confirmed by experiment and thus added to the plethora of demythologization projects. In other words, all sciences consist of large strings of intelligent men and women who at some time during their careers (typically the height thereof) were left only to make predictions about how the universe operates. That’s it: predictions, not confirmed tests; for the blessings of scientific knowledge come only after a trial of faith. In past times, many of those predictions were considered absurd and laughable as in the case of Bruno’s sun/star postulate.
However, as soon as technology advances and future scientists pick up old theories and play with them, it suddenly seems as though the religious people’s term coined “miracle” uncannily manifests itself in the scientific realm. What was once considered “absurd,” “otherworldly,” or “fantastic,” becomes the current sciences of the day. We need look no further than the examples I’ve given to be convinced of this truth, unless of course you simply find it as pleasurable as I do to indirectly demythologize the religious community, for their claims are no more absurd than are today’s predictions about M-theory and its multiple, parallel universe postulates. Could it be, then, that science is the great mechanism to bring heaven to earth? That what prophets have “postulated”—and I use the term more as a euphemism in place of ” firmly declared”—as the distance between heaven and earth cannot as of now be measured simply because we have not advanced far enough as a race? It seems as though prophets have “conveniently put the [heavens:] at such a distance that no one [can:] check [their:] idea[s:].”
But as Smolin reminds us, “sometimes the need to explain how things are unified forces you to posit new hypotheses you simply cannot test.”
And it is here that I am reminded of the late Hugh Nibley’s words: “Time vindicates the prophets.”(less)
“Everything is so out-of-the-way down here!” exclaimed Alice.
Throughout the course of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, these words grow more and mor...more“Everything is so out-of-the-way down here!” exclaimed Alice.
Throughout the course of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, these words grow more and more inalienable as the only sure expression that Alice can count on in a world that continually frustrates, challenges, and violates her understanding of the natural world. She never quite experiences in the underground the kind of customary ease that was so familiar to her back home, but instead feels like a fish-out-of-water that awkwardly flops and plops upon foreign soil. Undoubtedly, this is a frightening fable about the adverse and inevitable loss of childhood innocence. It is wondering about the relationship between adulthood and childhood – and where in that complex, mesmerizing struggle innocence becomes tinctured by madness. Nothing stays the same for Alice after she falls down the rabbit-hole, much like nothing stays the same for you and me once we hit puberty. Like Alice, we experience a tremendous amount of trauma, grief, discomfort, and confusion as our bodies begin to change in new and unfamiliar ways. Alice shrinks and grows, has difficulty accepting her size, and is fed to a pack of querulous logicians who grind her into that anomalous and upsetting realm of nonsense. Analogously, teenagers also struggle to maintain that comfortable physical size, and in middle-school are frequently heckled by their niggling peers who pounce on them like vultures for every unstatus-quo thing they do. It is a time of great physical and spiritual unrest; a time of melancholy and loss. Soon the pleasantries of youth fade, leaving us, like Alice, to face the horrors and absurdities of growing up.
Very few people will doubt that maturation is a strange and scary process, especially when it’s experienced far away from the comforts of home in a land ruled by chaos and nonsense. Paradoxically, the meaning of maturation presupposes that, of course, one cannot arguably grow unless the comforts of home are left behind. And ‘home’ here can mean a multitude of things: rest, routine, normalcy, familiarity, my ideas, my traditions, and so on. One must lose the presence of home and experience the stranger’s rabbit-hole before appreciating his or her own ontological and epistemic values. After all, our paradigms are not the last word, for they too need to be frustrated by those whose wonderlands have much to teach us; the stranger has meaningful lessons to share and can help us grow into the kinds of people we desire to become. The persistent puzzles, paradoxes, and riddles which thus preoccupy Alice in her journey are in one sense a mirror of the child-haunted adult who is obsessed by the questions of meaning. In reading the fable we find ourselves divided between two contradictory positions adopted by Alice and the King: to find no meaning in it, as Alice does, or decode “some meaning from it all,” as the King proclaims. But as the editor of the Alice books Hugh Haughton observes: “Finding meaning, like losing meaning, involves pleasure as well as pain. But then losing meaning, like finding it, does too, as the best nonsense reminds us” (x).
The prevailing monstrosity of the tale is Wonderland itself; specifically, how its nonsensical nature can at times drive us to dizzying heights of meaninglessness. Lots of things go playfully backwards – “Sentences first – verdicts afterwards,” shouts the Queen of Hearts. Riddles with no solutions pervade the air, like the famous “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” Alice’s exclamation “Curious and curioser!” suggests that her new environment is not behaving in ways she expected. Causes do not meet uniform effects, and subsequently expectations are aggravated. The naivety of youth is fading, and the sophistication of adulthood is appearing. Since nothing is impossible in Wonderland, with perhaps the exception of fitting her experiences into a rational framework, Alice is repeatedly discouraged and finds it paradoxically impossible to obey the rules – which rules seem to act as emblems concerning the customs of adulthood. For example, consider the seven-year-old who listens to her parents talk about bills and politics at the dinner table. Unless she’s an exceptionally precocious little thing, she’s not going to understand a lick of what’s being said. It would be like drowning someone in a sea of auditory cheesecake but then starving them of its taste. She simply would not have the conceptual faculties, let alone the mansions of presuppositions, that could turn on the cerebral light-bulb of her parent’s conversation. Thus it would be meaningless jibber-jabber, and she would be forced to exclaim as Alice does: “It seems very pretty, but it’s rather hard to understand.” “Somehow it fills my head with ideas,” she reflects, “only I don’t exactly know what they are.” In this sense, Wonderland reflects an intentional absurdity and randomness that, according to one interpretation, is meant to mirror an inchoate perspective of a growing child. And it is this absurdity and randomness that challenges children, like all of us who were once young, to create meaningful structures and patterns in order to make sense of the fluctuating details of their otherwise chaotic lives.(less)
“For is it not possible that science as we know it today, or a “search for the truth” in the style of traditional philosophy, will create a monster? I...more“For is it not possible that science as we know it today, or a “search for the truth” in the style of traditional philosophy, will create a monster? Is it not possible that an objective approach that frowns upon personal connections between the entities examined will harm people, turn them into miserable, unfriendly, self-righteous mechanisms without charm or humour? “Is it not possible,” asks Kierkegaard, “that my activity as an objective [or critico-rational:] observer of nature will weaken my strength as a human being?” I suspect the answer to many of these questions is affirmative and I believe that a reform of the sciences that makes them more anarchic and more subjective (in Kierkegaard’s sense) is urgently needed.”
Feyerabend is one of the most delightful, rigidly cutthroat thinkers I’ve recently added to my piggybank of great philosophers. He fits in rather well, too, with Nietzsche’s exaggerated nihilism, Rand’s pretentious confidence, and Kuhn’s pluralistic ingenuity. In his book “Against Method,” he begins with the following remark: “…anarchism, while perhaps not the most attractive political philosophy, is certainly excellent medicine for epistemology, and for the philosophy of science.” In a blow to any one’s naivete or self-absorption, Feyerabend prescribes epistemological anarchism as the means by which science has, does and yet will progress in pasts, present and futures. Stringent methodological rules which scientists presumably follow are nothing but a “mixture of subterfuge, rhetoric and propaganda.” That is, all successful scientific revolutions—from Newtonian physics to quantum mechanics—have never proceeded according to rational methodologies, but have definitively divorced from traditional, formalistic rules. Hence, the “revolt” against traditional ways of doing science.
A study of relativity (macrocosms) and the quantum (microcosms), both which require us to decisively break from Newtonian physics, convince us that science has in fact proceeded according to the anarchism Feyerabend aforementioned. Some theories prove utilitarian, others not so much. The ones that fail us, though they initially were considered holy writ, are the ones that remind us of the fall of man; the fall of so-called “proven” theories; the fall of the modern scientific era. We need look no further than Ptolemy’s epicycles conjecture or Galileo’s illustrative metaphysics to be convinced of these truths. Hell, even Bruno’s sun/planet conjecture is evidence enough that a prophet, let alone his prophecies, is rarely, if ever, accepted in his own day. Feyerabend drives the message home in classic demythological fashion, “Knowledge of today may become the fairytale of tomorrow and the most laughable myth may eventually turn into the most solid piece of science.”
The point here is that what was once considered a rational methodology—a premiere way of doing science—becomes, in time, “a monster.” Old theories reach their limits, stop making predictions, are demonstrated as falsifiable when sufficient technology advances (e.g. Geocentrism), and by and large become unreasonable, nonsensical, and add to the deconstructional foreplay of scientific brainwashing. Feyerabend argues that today’s scientific community, with its supercilious sensibility that no doubt mirrors the ancients, stultifies the imaginations of the young and impressionable, starves their ability to make lucid connections either secular or non-secular outside what is currently prescribed as “rational science,” indoctrinates them with a language (e.g. simpler, objective, proof) uncannily parallel to most church dogmas, hides behind cold, sterile “facts” which “facts” have already been filtered through anthropomorphic, subjective lenses, and overall freezes human progress in the mire.
Scientists have followed different methods at different times. They receive as much revelation on how to alter said courses as does the religious zealot; the irony being that while certain religious dogmas celebrate the fact that rules need to be broken in order to ontologically advance, scientific dogmas lament and even try to hide the reality of breaking methodology—for instance, string theorists must hide the unseen particles/forces/dimensions of their mathematically elegant (though pragmatically vagrant) theory in order to keep it unfalsifiable by naked observation. Feyerabend attacks falsification theories quite adamantly, and it should be known that falsifying a theory is no easy task. Very often, scientists preserve a theory even after it appears to have been falsified; they do so by changing the interpretation of the experiment. Or they challenge the results themselves. Sometimes this proves rather futile because the theories are actually wrong, but other times it is the right thing to do. But how can you tell which situation you’re in? Feyerabend argues that you can’t—it’s impossible. There is no general rule for when to abandon a theory and when to keep it alive even in the face of blatant contradiction.
Thus, if science does not definitively break from strict methodologies at one time or another, progress inevitably comes to a grinding halt. And interestingly, then, science thus becomes (as Popper emphasized) impossible to distinguish from other belief systems such as Marxism, witchcraft and intelligent design—all whose methodologies are difficult to discern falsifiable. That is, the witch doctor or I.D. proponent could easily, just as his scientific brother, change the interpretation of his theory when being intellectually assaulted by those who disagree. That’s the nature of ad infinitum rebuttals, or intellectual wrestling as I like to call it. So who’s up for the challenge?
The modern characterization of science, with logical positivism at the forefront, leads to an unintelligible, cognitively dissonant end. 1). Physics as the premiere science, 2). The universe as rationally intelligible (in the modern sense), and 3). Observational/experimental uni-methods as the arbiters of all truth is nothing but a sham. We can solicit the authority of Kant and Wittgenstein, too, who perhaps did more service to the prefigured death of modern arrogance than any other two philosophers I know; Kant with the noumenal/phenomenal distinction that bares the fact that we do not have access to reality independent of perception; and Wittgenstein with his saying/showing distinction that bares the fact that there is no ironclad correspondence between what is observed by scientists and what is stated in their language: assumptions and biases sneak themselves into their descriptions of the world even in the simplest of observations, thus becoming dogmas. Ironically commenting on the dogmatic idolatry of the modern era, Strindberg wrote:
“A generation that had the courage to get rid of God, to crush the state and church, and to overthrow society and morality, still bowed before Science. And in Science, where freedom ought to reign, the order of the day was “believe in the authorities or off with your head.”
Thus, in adding his own polemic to the fall of the modern scientific world, Feyerabend’s “Against Method” exhaustively argues that intellectual progress can only be achieved by valuing the creative wishes of the scientist who is unrestricted to develop freely within the sociological bounds of the community. Again, this means that scientific progress comes by way of adopting pluralistic strategies; to embrace the myriad routes, both secular and non-secular, in discovering truth and to avoid those cemented, fashionable dogmas of antiquity.
Further thoughts on the need for Epistemological Anarchism
“Given science, reason cannot be universal and unreason cannot be excluded.”
Feyerabend argues that the tenets of critical rationalism (avoid ad hoc hypotheses, examine the seriousness of falsifications) and the tenets of logical positivism (base your theories on empirical measurements, avoid inconsistent ideas)—each which subsumes a so-called “rational” methodology of the natural sciences—fails to account for how science has actually operated throughout the centuries.
Broken down, the natural sciences have always been connected with theory, experiment and observation. All three must be unified and quickly lead to new insights and hypotheses, becoming the engine that fuels understanding. A good unification theory, then, offers unprecedented predictions that only make sense in the context of a new theory. The predictions then must be confirmed by experiment and explained coherently by theory (i.e. obedience to Occam’s razor). The rules that scientists enforce upon these basic tenets include: 1). A theory which contradicts an accepted basic statement must be abandoned, 2). The content of a new theory must increase its falsifiable vulnerability/potentiality, and 3). All ad hoc hypotheses are strictly forbidden.
Feyerabend argues, and quite successfully too, that the history of science has repeatedly broken these rules and as proxy operated according to the dictates of scientific anarchism under the guise of scientific dogma (the guises of ‘precision,’ ‘objectivity,’ and ‘uniformity’). So often history demonstrates that human expectations of how the universe operates disappoints rather than confirms in the long run. Ad hoc hypotheses—after-the-fact explanations—conveniently sneak into scientific language, thereby changing the interpretation of any given experiment/conclusion rather than presenting premises and inferences that lead to those conclusions. Science is not “rational” in the sense that it obeys stringent, traditional laws—otherwise there would have been no revolutions—but rather playfully tinkers with preexisting material in anarchistic fashion.
To solidify his point, Feyerabend takes a basic problem—the problem of the planets at the time of Plato. On the one hand, it was thought that the celestial bodies were divine in that they were expected to behave in orderly, lawful ways. On the other hand, it was later concluded that planetary regularity was not so easy to discern. Copernicus, for instance, would in time demonstrate the failure of Ptolemy’s epicycle conjecture, leading to the newly accepted belief that the planets move in quite chaotic fashion, though to the naked eye it appeared otherwise. “The problem [of these two held beliefs:] is a result of a conflict between an expectation and an observation which in turn is constituted by the expectation,” argues Feyerabend.
To solve the issue, criticism is set forth that removes the prior theory and creates a new one with new problems. In order for this to work, the new theory (e.g. the ideas of Copernicus) must reproduce the successful consequences of the old theory (e.g. the Ptolemaic universe), deny its mistakes and make supplementary predictions never made before. But if more and more facts are discovered (or constructed with the help of expectations) and are later explained by theory, there is no guarantee that at any one point in time, any one scientist will ever be able to omnisciently solve, so to speak, let alone replace, every theory (new or old) that had been refuted with a successor.
Theories, say, like general and special relativity which affect the overthrow of a comprehensive and well-entrenched point-of-view, like Newtonian mechanics, and take over after its demise, are initially restricted to a fairly narrow domain of facts. And this should make sense too. After all, why should a newer point-of-view be stymied by older problems which, at any rate, only make sense in the abandoned context and which look silly and unnatural now? New views thus strike out in new directions and frown upon the older problems. However, where the new and hottest theories do pay attention to preceding theories, Feyerabend argues that “they try to accommodate the factual core in the manner already described, with the help of ad hoc hypotheses, ad hoc approximations, redefinition of terms, or by simply asserting, without any more detailed study of the matter, that the core ‘follows from’ the new basic principles.” But what kind of science is this, where explanations of universal phenomena are not founded upon premises and inferences that lead to conclusions, but are given after-the-fact?
It is here that Feyerabend asks a crucial question: “Is it desirable to live in accordance with the rules of critical rationalism?” His answer is a resounding “No.” And perhaps his reason is similar to why the leftist community slammed the Bush Administration for entering Iraq. The initial assumption was based upon the so-called “proof” that weapons of mass destruction existed, yet when no evidence was found to confirm the claim, the interpretation was changed and the war was still justified because Saddam was a tyrant. This same shifting of interpretations to justify current theories is found pervasive in scientific revolutions and procures what Feyerabend calls the “epistemological illusion”—the notion that those once “objective” theories of yore are in time understood as imagined; the imagined content of the older theories shrink in comparison to the imagined content of the newer theories, which newer theories are tied together by ad hoc hypotheses, ad hoc approximations, and will be potentially falsified in years to come.
What this means is that the principles of critical rationalism and logical positivism—both with their claims of precision, avoidance of ad hoc hypotheses, mutual consistencies, and clearance of falsifications—do not give an adequate account for how science has actually developed in the past. Feyerabend persuasively argues that if anything, science is much sloppier and irrational than what its methodological, arrogant image likes to reveal. The attempt to make science more “rational” in the aforementioned prescribed sense is to obliterate science. There must, therefore, be a distinction between science and methodology, the latter indicating a weakness for how science has been treated by rational opportunists. Feyerabend argues that science is no doubt sloppy, chaotic and full of deviations which act as preconditions of progress. “Without ‘chaos,” he says, “no knowledge. Without a frequent dismissal of reason, no progress.”
Within science, reason cannot be held universal in the sense that it avoids prejudice, conceit, or passion. Reason is often overruled, if not eliminated, in favor of these other agencies. In fact, there is not one single rule that remains valid under all circumstances and not a single agency to which ad hoc hypotheses or other appeals can always be injected. The peculiar development of science, then, attests rather strongly to Feyerabend’s anarchistic epistemology, for science is not sacrosanct.
“The restrictions [science:] imposes (and there are many such restrictions though it is not easy to spell them out) are not necessary in order to have general coherent and successful views of the world. There are myths, there are the dogmas of theology, there is metaphysics, and there are many other ways of constructing a world-view. It is clear that a fruitful exchange between science and such “non-scientific” world-views will be in even greater need of anarchism than is science itself. Thus anarchism is not only possible, it is necessary both for internal progress of science and for the development of our culture as a whole.”
Reason thus joins all those other monsters like Truth, Justice, and the Good and is not isolated, clear or distinct like the many Randian cronies would like to believe. (less)
The slow dissemination and eventual dominance of Christianity throughout the Greco-Roman Empire (100-300 A.D.) led to a mixture of attitudes towards t...moreThe slow dissemination and eventual dominance of Christianity throughout the Greco-Roman Empire (100-300 A.D.) led to a mixture of attitudes towards the Christian and pagan ways of learning. While some were hostile to science and philosophy, claiming them to be subversive and hazardous to faith, others like the Christian apologists argued that Christianity could profitably utilize pagan Greek philosophy and scientific studies. This became known as the handmaiden theory—that is, that philosophy and science could be used to enhance understanding Holy Scripture. Some like Clement of Alexandria and Origen believed that science and philosophy were not intrinsically good or evil, but could be either according to how they were used.
The extent to which early Christians demonstrated their interest in Greek learning is evident in the writings of Basil of Caesarea, Philo Judaeus, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas—all of who were heavily steeped in pagan culture. These types of thinkers no doubt understood the delicate balance between full acceptance and total rejection of pagan learning; for while on the one hand, Greek philosophy could generate understanding towards the assumptions of the Trinity and other esoteric dogmas; but on the other hand, there were aspects of Greek cosmology that Christians could not accept lest they went contrary to revealed doctrine (e.g. the eternal nature of the world and the determinism of the planets and stars). While there was not a stringent wedge between early Christians and Greeks, Christians did proceed cautiously on what they would and would not allow into their established tradition.
Grant seems to view Christianity as a positive force in the development and spread of Greek science during late antiquity (from the birth of Christ to the fall of Rome) and the Middle Ages (from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance). His focus on Christianity’s slow percolation into the Greco-Roman empire almost seems tantamount, a deliberate foreshadow even, to the progression of medieval science’s influence upon the modern scientific world. His purpose in stressing the relationship between Christianity and Greek science and philosophy, and between Christian church and state, sets up the instrumental conditions to which he attributes the rise of academic study of natural philosophy during the Middle ages. As a result of this rising interest in natural philosophy made available through the unique university system of the Latin Middle ages, the later scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was made possible.
Having mentioned the Latin Middle Ages, there was a group of individuals during this transitive period known as the Latin encyclopedists. Their role to the scientific revolution would become pertinent, for they were the ones who compiled their own handbooks on science during the Roman conquests of Greece. To their benefit, the Latin translations of ancient Greek handbooks—including all of the geographical, meteorological, philosophical and astronomical developments—were far less cumbersome for Romans to read than the original Greek. However, the extensive scissor-and-paste methodology that most Latin encyclopedists used to reveal ancient Greek past would mean that most of them, if any, would be ill-acquainted with those scientific authors who wrote the originals. As a result, many of the translations would distort those authors’ words, leading future compilers to distort even further their predecessors work. Nevertheless, enough was communicated and preserved that led to the scientific Revolution, for without their contributions there would have been nothing to divorce from or add upon. Because of their efforts, we owe them our deepest gratitude.
Although the terms “new beginning” or “age of enlightenment” are often attributed to the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there were certain historical developments that predated the Renaissance by two or three centuries that had tremendous impacts for intellectual life and therefore the history of science and natural philosophy. Without these impacts, according to Ed Grant, the Scientific Revolution would have never occurred. It is therefore necessary to examine what these impacts were and how they opened the way for what Grant calls “the new beginning.”
The roots of this new beginning began during the age of translation in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. During this period, massive translations from Greco-Roman and Arabic science and natural philosophy were converted into Latin. This is quite significant to understand since the division of the Roman Empire separated Greek-speaking eastern individuals into one camp and Latin-speaking western individuals into another. What this meant is that because Greek had been the language of science and natural philosophy, those in Europe who spoke only Latin would not have access to the treaties of their forefathers and would therefore be ignorant of their past.
Since it was in Western Europe where the later Revolution would transpire, it was essential that a galvanization occur there that sparked the natives’ interests in their forefather’s traditions of science and nature. Certain teaching masters emerged, like Gerbert of Aurillac, who acquired Arabic treaties in Latin translations on secular and scientific subjects. The cathedral schools were deeply impressed with Gerbert’s teachings and sought to augment and incorporate them as an integral part of the liberal arts education. Slowly, then, by degrees, the concern for nature and its operations generated an intense interest amongst Western Europeans.
So intense was this interest that it even began to change Western European’s attitudes toward traditional authorities and toward nature itself. Instead of soliciting the authority of God as a natural explanation of universal phenomena, a “new spirit of inquiry” emerged that caused Latin-speaking theologians (e.g. William of Conches) to thirst after and discover the laws of Nature to better understand God’s creation. In this noble pursuit of knowledge, Conches and his colleagues used philosophy, not the Bible, as the primary resource to further understand the causes of the universe—even so that man might become even as God is (a possessor of all knowledgeable causes). The Bible was secondary in this case. Though some theologians viewed secular learning as contradictory to biblical explanation, natural inquiry (as opposed to supernatural inquiry) played for the most part a significant role in twelfth and thirteenth century European scholarship.
Again, all of this new found interest in their forefather’s past was made possible because of the massive Latin translations from Arabic and Greek that had transpired during this period. The treaties that existed in either Greek or Arabic aroused the curiosity of European scholars to “seek after their kindred dead,” to act to acquire the scientific heritage of their past, to present the treasures of the East to the West to thus relieve the intellectual impoverishment of the Latins, and to learn both Greek and Arabic languages so that they could stand on the shoulders of the learned giants of antiquity. All sorts of things were translated too—philosophy, science, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, astrology—all of which led to a flood of translations into Latin between 1125 and 1200. Scholars from all over the world, whether Christian, Jew or Muslim, got aboard the intellectual enterprise, obtained both Greek and Arabic manuscripts, learned the languages, and began the technical process of converting their forefather’s past into intelligible, communicable terms. This rigorous and “great age of translation” sparked the necessary fuel that would later haul the inchoate stages of the Revolution.
When gods were men, and men wrote books, some of their books were not meant to remain on earth. Some were to ascend beyond the grave to be translated,...moreWhen gods were men, and men wrote books, some of their books were not meant to remain on earth. Some were to ascend beyond the grave to be translated, sealed, and shelved within the innumerable libraries of heaven. These are books of a divine origin, for only the gods can penetrate their depths; mortals are left confused. On occasion, one of these books is left behind on accident, or falls from above as a gift, giving men a poetic taste of eternity and the formidable climb they have yet to make – pleasant for some, and horrible for others. Borges’ Labyrinths is like one of these books: it is extremely esoteric, otherworldly, and makes its readers feel, at times, alienated from a sort of heavenly council or sublime manner of thinking. The entire book, or anthology really, with its emblems, musings, intertextual references, biographical mazes, and capricious transitions, is like trying to unlock an enormous riddle, or parable, whose timeless themes include: meaningful dreams, infinite libraries, mirrors, madness, the space/time continuum, idealism, identity, magic, and the vexing problems of infinity.
Much of the time, Borges challenges the boundaries between fiction and fact, truth and fantasy, levels of reality and unreality, and uses the Lacanian “mirror-stage” to shift between the imaginary and the symbolic, or as Kant would argue, the analytic and the synthetic. After awhile, it becomes difficult to discern whether he is telling correspondent truths about the external world, or whether he is dressing them up, conjuring them ex nihilo, or falsifying them partially – it is up for readers to decide. He recasts the customary notion of truth, expands its breadth beyond scientific concretes, and argues that truth is not merely a relationship between thoughts and existential objects, but embraces both visible and invisible worlds of perception – what literary critics call “metaphorical truth.” Because his characters and plots are often referentially fictional, but spiritually resonate, he shows readers that “the line between real and not-real will become more and more blurred” as time moves forward (Byrne 275).
Through the passage of time, as Borges argues, fantastic ideas manifest themselves in the material world, physical objects are willed into existence by the imagination, the intrusion of the irrational penetrates the scientific realm, and what was once absurd becomes reasonable – for as the scripture states, “old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Cor 5:17). In “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” Borges indicates that through the passage of time, all philosophical and scientific doctrines, once thought immutable, become obsolete; they begin “as plausible descriptions of the universe,” but in time become chapters, if not paragraphs of a name (43). He seems not only to accurately describe the history of scientific revolutions, but also foreshadow the blueprint for Paul Feyerabend’s “epistemological anarchism” – an ideology that prescribes a syringe full of the illogical as a necessary precondition of progress.
In “Deutsches Requiem,” Borges lays the foundations for epistemological anarchism. His belief that things which are currently “exceptional and astonishing, will shortly be commonplace,” mirrors Feyerabend’s inverted, demythological statement in “Against Method,” – “Knowledge of today may become the fairytale of tomorrow and the most laughable myth may eventually turn into the most solid piece of science” (Borges 142, Feyerabend 52). Both passages share the belief that there are realities beyond our physical grasp, just like the intangible qualities of numbers and feelings, waiting for us to awaken to them, waiting for us to acquire the eyes to see and ears to hear. There is a reason why Borges has been hailed as a romantic visionary: He understands the power of disembodied ideas and the process by which they become embodied – in “The Circular Ruins,” for instance, a wizard dreams a man into existence, thought by thought, limb by limb. Like all acts of creation, they begin with an idea, or a heaven in mind, and through willpower, exertion, and sufficient material, can be brought into existence; Borges observes, “the effort to mold the incoherent and vertiginous matter dreams are made of [is:] the most arduous task a man [can:] undertake” (47). Later in “The Zahir,” he argues that it is only when we perceive less and less of the real world – by which he means our current world – and more of an imaginary world that we begin to awaken the gods within us (164).
In “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” Borges promotes the power of ideas to reconstruct the world anew, but laments over how much unfulfilled potential – speaking collectively of the human race – has yet been awakened to. The story details “an unknown planet’s entire history” which exists only in an encyclopedia, but a history which nevertheless stirs wonder, insight, truth, and release within those who read it (7). The planet was once a reality, perhaps like the lost city of Enoch, full of jacks of all trades and industrial workmanship, but its language, however, and perceptions of space, time, and rituals even, are so ineffable, alien, and quixotic that it seems near impossible for anyone to believe in its magic; for “the metaphysicians of Tlön do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding” (10). This reoccurring primacy of fiction over fact – the uncanny over normalcy – is a major theme throughout Labyrinths, one which by the end of “Tlön…” causes Borges to admit his desire to submit to the irrational; to reclaim, and build anew the lost planet of Tlön – a task he likens unto conquering a labyrinth; for while “a labyrinth is devised by men, a labyrinth is destined to be deciphered by men” (18). The earth, he believes, by degrees, can become Tlön – can become a paradisiacal haven.
Because he assumes his readers are as intertextually savvy as he is, Borges often treats the printed page as a maze to explore the inexhaustible, and surely recondite, wormholes of his consciousness – a style that only enhances the meaning of his book’s title. For Borges and readers alike, the book itself is a labyrinth, “a structure compounded to confuse men” but to enlighten the gods within (110). He frequently equates labyrinths with libraries, and libraries with knowledge, and knowledge with freeing the brave, reckless gods within. Thus, for Borges, to know the world is to know it by its constituent books; to know the world is to adopt a read-everything-you-can-get-your-hands-on sensibility in order to learn about the divine, collective unconscious – for we all have the embryonic seeds of divinity within us, waiting to be actualized as Aristotle might argue.
Interestingly, Borges never wrote any fiction until his mid-forties for fear that everything good, beautiful, truthful, and praiseworthy had already been written. There is a certain impulse here – both humble and noteworthy – that readers can discern, even without this biographical information, which reflects Borges’ own fears: plagiarism and God. Much of his fears are trans-personal, inter-subjective expressions that any reader can relate to, whether literally, figuratively, or vicariously. They subsume the inner, deep, primordial anxieties that are character of the human condition, and for Borges, they call for a catharsis. In “The Theologians,” for instance, he expresses the joy he feels when inspired by the muses, but immediately afterwards, is “troubled by the suspicion that it was the work of another” (124). In “Tlön,” he wrestles with the concept of originality; “all books are the creation of one author; plagiarism does not exist in Tlön” (13). His fear of plagiarism also seems connected with his fear of God, or conscience; that is, a fear of being accused or persecuted. In “The Library of Babel,” he admits that he would sooner live in hell and be “outraged and annihilated, but for one instant, in one being, let [God’s:] enormous Library be justified” (57).
Borges believed that God (the collective unconscious) could be found in the libraries of the world, or rather, the Library of the world, if only that Library was truly justified, held purpose, and was meaningful. Much of the time, he wanders in existential curiosity. He ponders the countless permutations that shape man’s identity, how a chosen path eliminates myriad alternatives, the extent to which man may have been different, the arguments for and against causal determinism, and the degree by which man might seek out the next step in the evolutionary chain. As an active participant in life, Borges is fully committed to creating meaning in a potentially meaningless world. His commitment, however, is no doubt a terrifying exercise for his pseudo, natural self to endure, yet is pleasurable for his higher, real self to embrace: he states, “My flesh maybe afraid, but I am not” (147). This same conflict within Borges – “my flesh” vs. the “I” – is found in “Tlön” when he asserts that all men are really two: the dream-self and the waking-self; “that while we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and that in this way every man is two men (10).
Every man is conflicted by his inner devil and angel, and readers can taste a glimpse of Borges’ wrestle in “Three Versions of Judas” – for “Judas [much like Borges:] sought Hell, because the happiness of the Lord was enough for him” (98). Hell, for Borges, is two-fold: to remain tied to the earth without frequent exercise of the imagination, and, to transcend into imaginative heights without pragmatic discipline (53). The consequence of the former leads to a sudden and fearful, face-to-face contact with the totally Other, while the latter leads to a nebulous perception, and often socially despondent sentiment, of what the totally Other is. In “The Library of Babel,” he qualifies his belief in the totally Other, or God, with the following warning: the higher one climbs without sufficient knowledge and training, the more incomprehensible the books become (-). Only by gradual degrees, or modified steps, can the books of the gods be intelligibly discerned. By and by, then, those fantastic, impenetrable books – the ones thought absurd by the majority – become lucid in time; they become the norm.
Labyrinths is a collective work of fictions that ironically demythologizes the concepts “fiction,” “fantasy,” “unreality,” and “heaven,” and gives them all pragmatic, earthly underpinnings. It is a book that asks readers to reconsider what they believe truth is, to augment its definition beyond the empirical realm, and to embrace both visible and invisible worlds of perception. Although supernatural events are inexplicable and marvels incommunicable, Borges reminds readers not to dismiss them as mere unreality tales. For it just might be the case, as Feyerabend argues, that the “knowledge of today may become the fairytale of tomorrow and the most laughable myth may eventually turn into the most solid piece of science” (52).
I am a sick man.… I am a spiteful man. An unattractive man.
These words begin what is perhaps Dostoevsky’s most agonizing inner analysis of everything...moreI am a sick man.… I am a spiteful man. An unattractive man.
These words begin what is perhaps Dostoevsky’s most agonizing inner analysis of everything humanly loathsome. It is a brutal and unforgiving tale about personal dissatisfaction, wild solitary, and the dreaded nausea that accompanies “excessive consciousness” (4). The nameless narrator of the tale who we no doubt suspect is Dostoevsky himself, or at least a characterization of his personality, treats each page as an empty bucket to vomit in. No exposition, no inciting incident, no fairytale denouement. Just a flustered memoir full of tormented thoughts; an account of a spiritually emaciated man who suffers from severe unhappiness. His honesty is, at times, a disease driven by self-hatred and remorse which contrives all sorts of imaginary wrongs under the pretext of natural law. In short, he feels determined to be a “coward and a slave” to his consciousness (43). At one point his inner-devil exclaims, “You’re a scoundrel,” to which his angel responds, “So what if I am? Everything’s lost now anyway” (81). Hopelessly, we swim through each line, each thought, each word, as though it were a river of filth. It is an experience that draws us near feeling buried alive.
The despondent milieu of the tale, while perhaps borderline nihilistic, is not, however, without its rich and much deserved merits, for it seems unable to escape from falling back upon Russell’s credo, “No man can achieve the greatness of which he is capable until he has allowed himself to see his own littleness” (22). Ironically, some might argue that Dostoevsky exceeded true humility and surrendered instead to abject servility, perhaps even sadomasochism. While that might be true, the horrors of his tale give us reason to suppose that his servility is not without good justification. In fact, much of his despairs are derived from the ill-effects of Eighteenth-Century Rationalism and those thinkers who polluted the relationship between freewill and natural law. His response to the intellectual climes of that century reveals a horrifying discovery: some men, including himself, are meant to suffer unbearable cruelties because of their intrinsic nature. They cannot change their vileness, for modern science has instructed that everything is determined to act in definite ways, and only in these ways. If a man desires to go against his nature – or in Dostoevsky’s case, go against his depression – he becomes “crushed by sheer inertia” and ends up banging his head against a brick wall (16-17).
The pains expressed here no doubt reflect a horrific battle that Dostoevsky is charging against modern science itself – an endeavor that taught us that we never possessed a will or a whim; that we are in fact nothing but piano keys (23). If such mechanistic dogma is correct, we are no longer answerable to our actions, for everything we do is calculated and designed according to unforgiving algorithms. In short, our adventurous, free spirits are crucified. In what Burgess would call being “shagged and fagged and fashed and bashed,” Dostoevsky’s bedeviled mind is naturally led as though it were by the dictates of another, giving rise to some very dreaded, deep, and primordial inner-voices such as:”You’re a slave, yes a slave. You’ve surrendered your freedom. And later you may want to break these chains, but no, they’ll bind you forever – that’s the kind of accursed chain it is; you can never buy your way out; it’s like selling your soul to the devil” (92).
Since the authoritative grip of modern science “assumes a determinism which involves…the power of predicting human actions,” there should be no surprise then why Dostoevsky and the rest of his existentialist gang – including Sartre, Nietzsche, Camus, Foucault, etc. – wrestled with severe mental nausea (Russell 30). After all, what dignity can we attribute to the human soul, or better yet, what joy or meaning is left in the world if everything we do is calculated according to fatalistic graphs? Would we not feel as Dostoevsky? – doomed to be mistreated by insufferable, predetermined laws; natural laws which force us “to sit with folded arms” and sickened faces? (16). Everything detestable and humiliating, torturous and “stinking in an underground hole,” he says, “proceeds from the normal and fundamental laws of an excessive consciousness” (6). Such laws, without our say, cause us to suffer while the laws themselves feel nothing at all; in fact, according to Dostoevsky, “[nature:] doesn’t give a damn for [our:] wishes or whether its laws please or do not please [us:]” (12). They simply exist to make us tremble.
However, in his utter refusal to submit to what nature has allegedly dictated for him, he asserts that “men are still men and not piano keys” (30). And science is surely not the last word. Man invents destruction and chaos in order to prove to himself that not only he will have his own way, but to demonstrate that the universe is larger and far more nebulous than the exactness of scientific paradigms – ones which constantly shift every generation. What was solid science yesterday is a laughable myth today, and man must prove this to be true even if it means he turns into a troglodyte in the process (31). Man will be free, he must be! The pitiful part about Dostoevsky’s moments of self-awakening – moments he calls “the lofty and the beautiful;” and those same moments where he realizes that freedom is not a sophomoric idiom – is his inability to sustain them. Occasionally, he envisions how he might climb out of his wretched hole with “penitence and tears, curses and exaltations,” and enter into God’s “absolute rapture and happiness” (55). He even at one point exclaims his desire to “embrace all people, all mankind, immediately, at once,” without “the slightest trace of mockery within; … only faith hope, and charity” (56-58). But his desire to confirm human autonomy fights against everything rejected by the modern, secular authorities of his day. Soon he is carried away by such visions only to find himself back down in the slime again; all visions of freedom lost, and his contradictory impulses – or “contrary elements” as he calls them – left to drive him mad.
“Oh, absurdity of absurdities,” he cries (12). His feelings are constantly shifting throughout the tale; the more aware he is of “the lofty and the beautiful,” the more he is bound by vanity and tormented by remorse. The more “tearing and nagging” he thrusts on his soul, the more pleasure it gives him (6). Little by little, he must get use to it and learn to endure it, for a “decent man cannot be decent without making boundless demands upon himself and without moments of self-contempt verging on self-hatred” (39). Caught in this pernicious thought-process, he finds himself back at the problem of determinism, unable to escape his so-called “nature.” In some ways he seems to be atoning for unrepentant waywardness. He alone carries his burdensome cross, refusing to allow others to love him and lend him support. If only he can secure an inferior identity through isolation from society, or shirk his life away in a dark corner “through loss of contact with anything alive,” then perhaps by some blind miracle “everything would suddenly expand, enlarge itself; that a broad horizon [both:] beneficent, sublime, and best of all, entirely ready to be entered on—would open up before [him:]” (56, 129). The horrors he describes here could very well reflect the process of mental and physical entropy. The horrors of death itself! On the one hand, that process is very scary; it shows us our own nothingness. On the other hand, that process alchemizes everything corrupt within us – it changes us into something holier, where the end product is a “definite, positive pleasure” (6).
For Dostoevsky, purification and godliness is the root of the most caustic, most painful of experiences to endure. He fears “the lofty and the beautiful” because of its tendency to love him, and for Dostoevsky, love has never been anything but a struggle. In fact, he admits he has brought himself to such a state of spiritual corruption that he finds the presence of love completely unbearable. He wants it to disappear. He wants peace. He longs to remain underground – or, to use Christian language, “buried under the rocks.” The real tragedy of this tale lies in his inability to love others, because “loving to him meant tyrannizing and flaunting moral superiority” (125). Love is something totally foreign to him, something he fears to give away because it may result in a loss of his identity, or worse, existence. Jonathan Tingey once made the compelling remark, “Love is the acceptance of pain; fear is the rejection of pain – but both will make you tremble.” Such a catch-22 leaves us with sparse options, and for Dostoevsky, a maddening tug-o-war. Even more tragic is his conviction that “even if there were time and faith to change [himself:], [he:] wouldn’t wish to change; and if [he:] did wish [he:] would do nothing about it” (6). What an utterly terrible and heartrending conclusion to arrive at: to think that hope is completely lost; that a man cannot change who he is because of the pretense of scientific dogmas.
Dostoevsky is indeed a troublesome writer who rarely, if ever, provides easy solutions. Oftentimes we find ourselves in spiritual despondency when reading his works that some might think utterly nihilistic. But to dismiss his work as valueless without first understanding the context from which his thoughts arise would be doing great disservice to an otherwise deeply compassionate and searching man. In fact, much of his existential themes sprout from the intolerable grounds of his Siberian incarceration. There he spent four hard years of labor under Gestapo cruelties where in one account he relays: “In winter, endurable cold. All the floors were rotten. Filth on the floors an inch thick; one could slip and fall…We were packed like herrings in a barrel…There was no room to turn around. From dusk to dawn it was impossible not to behave like pigs…Fleas, lice, and black beetles by the bushel” (135-37). All of his physical and spiritual torments, however, would later serve to shape his perceptions and alchemize his cynicism into virtues of humility, submission, and long-suffering. Whatever horrors exist in his works are not horrors of a fictional nature, but of personality, circumstance, and his own personal wrestling with God.
"They have turned you into something other than a human being. You have no power of choice any longer. You are committed to socially acceptable acts,...more"They have turned you into something other than a human being. You have no power of choice any longer. You are committed to socially acceptable acts, a little machine capable only of good."
If a man is robbed of choice, deprived of his ability to fend for himself, or can only perform good or only perform evil, can we really distinguish him from a clockwork toy, subject to external forces beyond his control? Historically, this question has generated substantial dialogue from a variety of secular and spiritual traditions, each which spin disparity on the fixed versus volitional man relationship. In the theological works of Bresson, we see an artist who wrestles with placing his characters at the mercy of the gods; a sort of predestinarian logic built upon the scriptural phrase, “prisoner of the Lord.” From the Zolaian naturalist endeavor, stage-characters are crushed by genetic forces that subject them to perverted and uncontrollable appetites beyond their ability to suppress; they are victims of social inheritance. Then there is the correlation between Newton’s mechanical philosophy and the horrors of Nineteenth-Century existentialism with Dostoevsky at the forefront – a tortured soul who felt his freedom was under threat to scientific servitude. After the many testimonies given by those who sought to rectify the problem, or at least point their finger at a culprit, Anthony Burgess entered the stage to give his own horrific twist on human character.
A Clockwork Orange (1962) is a social satire on choice, told through the disturbing eyes of Alex – a sadistic, malenky malchick who is intoxicated alongside his droogs on the titillating and destructive thrills of mugging, robbery, gang-fight, auto theft, rape, drugs, Beethoven, and general mayhem. After landing himself in prison for cold-blooded murder, Alex is selected as an experimental candidate to undergo a treatment called Ludovico’s Technique – a form of brainwashing that “gets you out of prison in no time at all and makes sure that you never get back in again” (92). In short, the treatment forces Alex to be good. Similar to the horrors of 1984, this futuristic dystopian novel is very much responding to the behavioral and psychological techniques used by repressive governments to turn their citizens into walking, talking, law-abiding automatons. Rather than blame the gods, heredity, or even physical sciences as the sources of behavioral fatalism, Burgess hones his wit and criticism against the social infrastructures of society, responding specifically to despotism and B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism. Where Skinner argues that aversion therapy (the reward-and-punishment method for learning behavior) is central to an ideal society, Burgess counters by asking: “Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him? (106). Burgess was very much against behavioral conditioning, for although it might help reduce crime to secure a quieter life, it sells liberty at the cost of conformity and dehumanizes man in the process; it strips him of moral freedom, dignity, class, and character, and transforms him into a ‘clockwork orange’ – an organic, external expression of an inner-mechanical state of mind.
“Clockwork oranges do not exist, [for:] it is as inhuman to be totally good as it is to be totally evil,” says Burgess (xiii-xiv). Social institutions that would have us believe, or worse, force us to believe, that we are wound-up toys in the hands of fate without the genuine ability to choose good from evil, or right from wrong, are the sources of monstrosity. These institutions are not merely limited to governments, but also extend to families and individuals who together provide commentary on the horrors of parenting. In most horror stories, the parental archetype takes several forms: monster and creator, God and man, parent and child, government and citizen, my ideas versus your ideas, and Us versus Them. A Clockwork Orange lends itself to several parental variations: the legislative Father (Ludovico Technique) seeks to teach his monstrous, wayward child (Alex) a lesson in moral decorum; the oppressive state autocracy brainwashes the insidious growth of a violent citizen culture; or the power of godliness (authentic choice) is choked by satanic ritual (forcing goodness/badness). What is meant by this last reference is that parents become satanic when they fail to sufficiently respect their child’s moral agency. However, their reasons for doing so are not always reprehensible. Oftentimes it stems from parents who fear that their children will make wrong choices and thus end up in hell, whether it’s in the form of lost friendship, mental disease, embarrassment, prison, or any other sort of social despondency. Parents want to protect their children from the ultra-violence they will inflict upon themselves and others; and more generally, they want to protect them from the horrors of a clockwork and naïve youth. For Alex, this desire comes to him only after he’s grown past his own childhood rebellion, thereby leading him to discover the eternal pattern of parenting:
My son, my son. When I had my son I would explain all that to him when he was [old:] enough to like understand. But then I knew he would not understand or would not want to understand and would do all the [things:] I had done, perhaps even killing some poor [old trout:] surrounded with mewing knots and [cats:], and I would not be able to really stop him. And nor would he be able to stop his own son, brothers. And so it would itty on to like the end of the world, round and round and round, like some [big:] gigantic like [fellow:], like old Bog [God:] himself, turning and turning a [smelly dirty:] orange in his gigantic [hands:] (211).
The most regrettable part about Kubrick’s adaptation, though not necessarily his own fault, is that it leaves out the twenty-first chapter concerning Alex’s moral transformation. It leaves out this aforementioned parental truth. Burgess strongly believed in the principle that humans can change, and stated that “when a fictional work fails to show change, when it merely indicate[s:] that human character is set, stony, and unregenerable,” it is not giving a fair picture of human life (xii). Kubrick’s version leaves us with barely a shred of optimism, though its sarcasm does seem to sneer more in the face of what Burgess intended: to show the failure of Big Brother’s ministerial powers. We ask ourselves at the end: “Is Alex really cured, or have those who forced his will spoiled the authenticity of his goodness?” This question leads us to consider if whether behavioral techniques can really make a man good. According to Burgess they cannot, for goodness comes from within; it is something chosen. And “when a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man” (93). Dostoevsky came to a similar conclusion when he stated: “Men are still men and not piano keys” (“Notes” 30). The choices we make determine to a great degree the kind of people we are, but if we are compelled to instantly gratify or scourge ourselves because of what we think will yield an immediate pleasure or pain, there is little room to exercise genuine autonomy. Spencer W. Kimball explains further:
If pain and sorrow and total punishment immediately followed the doing of evil, no soul would repeat a misdeed. If joy and peace and rewards were instantaneously given the doer of good, there could be no evil—all would do good and not because of the rightness of doing good. There would be no test of strength, no development of character, no growth of powers, no free agency…only satanic controls (Faith Precedes the Miracle, 97).
The fact that Alex feels compelled to choose good, for fear that if he doesn’t the sickness will swell within his “rotten guts,” shows that in some instances the horror of personality is not genetically caused, but externally manipulated (133, 135). This manipulation can be seen as positive or negative. Positive in the sense that his soul is learning that violence is a horrible thing, and that any healthy human organism contemplating the forces of evil “will respond to the presence of the hateful with fear and nausea” (122). He’s being made sane and healthy. But the cost of his sanity can also be seen as negative in the sense that the “big machines” are curbing his autonomous appetites. They are acting upon him with virtually no room for him to act for himself. How then can any of his virtuous actions be considered admirable if they weren’t freely chosen? The same can be equally stated for what Alex can be blamed for, for as the audiences members at his Ludovico graduation contend: “He has no real choice. Self-interest, fear of physical pain, drove him to that grotesque act of self-abasement. He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice” (141). Thus is the great divide that haunts the story throughout: on the one hand we desire the pleasantries of a fully cooperative and peaceful society; no hideous crimes or dystopias. Yet on the other hand we desire to freely choose that society without being coerced; we desire to be “undrugged, unhypnotized, unvicious, [and:] unviolent,” for as the book title reveals, “the attempt to impose upon man…laws and conditions appropriate to a mechanical creation, against this I raise my swordpen” (25, 137).
To cast this story to the winds (as I’ve seen many people do) because of its unseemly, pornographic, and at times, pernicious content – though all of it is filtered through the fictional slang “nadsat” – is really to throw the horror baby out with the horror bath water. Assumingly some might desire for that baby to be cast out. Fair enough, of course, after taxonomy sifts the wheat from the tares. But to refuse to acknowledge the R-rated content of this novel may also perhaps be tantamount with refusing those who struggle with similar R-rated situations. I’m speaking liberally here but hopefully not licentiously, for as Dean Duncan says, “Grown-ups need to watch more than just Disney films.” And I would add Disney novels too. Generally speaking, Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange is a very principled, synchronic, and frightfully informed novel that has much to teach us about parenthood. This is not, as mentioned earlier, the type of parenthood that is exclusive to a father/son or mother/daughter relationship, but is emblematic of a multitude of relationships for how we treat the socially diseased. However, if we do compare the novel to the raising of our own child, we most likely will find ourselves in as much murky water as Burgess did. When should a child be scorned, praised, freed, manipulated, indulged, controlled, exonerated? – these are questions with deep theological underpinnings that are coeval with the religious feeling. They have no easy answers, but for Burgess they provide us a philosophical framework to get our minds tinkering on how to usher in society proper — free of mechanistic morality. (less)