Sunday, 3 February 2013

The trouble with physics

Lee Smolin in his book, The Trouble With Physics (2006), talks about how theoretical physics kind of lost its way with the rise of the string theories which I think is a perfect analogy of the crumbling institution we call, our public education system. You see, superstring theory is not one "theory" the same way Einstein's theory of general relativity and quantum theory are, but, besides being multifarious species of theoretic-physics, none of these various species are even experimentally testable. They are rather more "mathematical" speculations whose only apparent claim to fame is that some of them - they say - generate a way of incorporating gravity into the quantum theory. It is pretty safe to forward the "results" of a given species because there is no possible way of verifying them.

The problem, as Smolin points out, is that there's been an unchecked burgeoning of university courses focussed on this speculative art taking up almost all of the funding and space/accreditation dedicated to physics, and a looking away from particle physics and the standard-model theory. This situation is eerily familiar to those boards of education that have been forced to choose and incorporate creationism along with the theory of evolution. There's a snake-oil salesmanship quality about the whole thing.

I'd argue that the source of all this is what is called, 'heretical' postmodern critique. I call it 'heretical' (taking signals from Umberto Eco's insightful essay, On Symbolism, 1994) because it is less a principled, reasoned method(s) of doubt and deconstruction in the tradition of Northrop Frye, Richard Rorty or Wittgenstein or any other servicable philosopher/literary critic than it is a means of forwarding plausible argumentum ad hominem.

Anyone not familiar with the terms and references I'm using here may be familiar with the current, sometimes terrifying, state of politics and religion with the rise of rightwing extremism (in both Western and Islamist worlds) which have made use of heretical postmodern critique to such devastating effect. That is, Harper's politics is less about politics than it is a cult of personality with its attendant demonization of and readiness to attack anyone or anything that would be seen as posing a challenge to the all-encompassing, highly mutable narrative. The plausibility of this type of postmodern critique is more apparent than real, thus a need for ad hominem attacks.

Eco says, "Where there is no recognizable rule there cannot even be deviation from the norm," (On Symbolism) which is not to say that the narrative's "incongruity equals lack of internal logic, or that gratuitousness means frivolity. Sometimes the symbolic mode exhibits its own rigid, though perhaps paranoid, logic, and the symbol is solid, geometric, and heavy, like the galactic obelisk that appears at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssy." (ibid)

Couple this scary state of affairs with, again, Eco's Phenomenology of Mike Bongiorno - an Italian tv show host who epitomizes the anti-intellectual dullard (Misreadings, p. 156) - and the description of our contemporary times is complete, for the rightwing ideologues are, to a large extent, completely oblivous of the philosophical foundations of postmodern critique (and proudly so). Such is the nature of heretical postmodern critique.

Northrop Frye was always a strong and able advocate for a liberal arts education which, I think, he saw as a counter to the rising anti-intellectualism of the so-called "student-centered education" (even way back then). A Harvard College Admissions website, in a statement about the value of a liberal arts education, reads:

A Harvard education is a liberal education — that is, an education conducted in a spirit of free inquiry undertaken without concern for topical relevance or vocational utility. This kind of learning is not only one of the enrichments of existence; it is one of the achievements of civilization. It heightens students' awareness of the human and natural worlds they inhabit. It makes them more reflective about their beliefs and choices, more self-conscious and critical of their presuppositions and motivations, more creative in their problem-solving, more perceptive of the world around them, and more able to inform themselves about the issues that arise in their lives, personally, professionally, and socially...

Not having gone through this type of educational program myself, I discovered the concept of a liberal arts education in my time at Memorial University of Newfoundland's Queen Elizabeth II Library. I was supposed to study linguistics (I did study linguistics) but I discovered thinkers like Rorty, John Dewey, Umberto Eco, etc. as well and was blown away by the thoughts of such men. The strand is a continuous chain of references and accidental discoveries, and I count myself extremely fortunate to have come to know Northrop Frye in this long, long journey that will end only on the day I die. Frye is not only a fellow Canadian but also a natural milestone in my journey as an interested person on education issues. My whole educational program is built to appreciate and revel in the words and thoughts of Frye and Eco and Hall.


Ps: Smolin's book and thoughts and assessment were vindicated by the recent discovery of the Higg's boson that have effective proven the Standard Model of Particle Physics as the most realistic model of the physical world.

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