3.278 physics as metaphor; intellectualism (151)

Sat, 22 Jul 89 15:49:48 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 3, No. 278. Saturday, 22 Jul 1989.

(1) Date: Thu, 20 Jul 89 22:06:00 EDT (50 lines)
From: <BCJ@PSUVM.bitnet>
Subject: physics as metaphor

(2) Date: Friday, 21 July 1989 1036-EST (81 lines)
Subject: Intellectualism, Rationality and Method

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: Thu, 20 Jul 89 22:06:00 EDT
From: <BCJ@PSUVM.bitnet>
Subject: physics as metaphor

Rhetoricians often warn against the dangers of pursuing every
conceivable parallel implicit in a metaphor (or, conversely, of rejecting
a metaphor apt on its major levels of correspondence because other parts
of the comparison do not mesh). I confess that quantum mechanics make me
dizzy, and assure my colleagues that I do not consider myself in any way
qualified to join the debate about the essential meaning of this (to me)
arcane realm of thought. Still, since I have observed that most humanists
who refer to it are actually poaching in other disciplines, part of the
endless search for curious likenesses, analogies, similitudes, models,
gnomic or parabolical explanations, &c. --- and not really leaping into
the pit among the active, professional theory brokers. It's valuable if
we can use it, even if we don't use it absolutely correctly. Indeed, in
some ways, our misunderstandings may be valuable, too.

Anyway, let me recommend to all readers of HUMANIST a remarkable
story that has just appeared in _Harper's_, Jane Hamilton's "When I Began
to Understand Quantum Mechanics" (Vol. 279, No. 1671, August, 1989, pp.
41-9). The protagonist's uncle, a physicist, has been feeding her "brain
food" for some time; the intellectual formulae she has absorbed help her
explain (understand?) occurrences that otherwise seem inexplicable. When,
for instance, she and her sister have to sing "All things wise and wonder-
ful, / The Lord God made them all. / Each little flower that opens, / Each
little bird that sings...", she substitutes "fart" for "flower", her action
is hard to understand:

> No one mentioned my slip, not even Kelly, who has always been
> good, but in retrospect I understand that the error was in some ways
> like the big bang, that there was a very tiny but non-negligible
> probability that an explosion would happen and then it did, and
> voila, here we are on planet Earth. The same thing with my goof: the
> key phrase being "non-negligible probability." However small the
> chance, I was bound to sing the wrong word.

Without giving away the events of the story, I can say that the heroine
undergoes what Joyce calls an "epiphany" in her perception of life, a
life that changes in part *because* it is being perceived. Things aren't
as they seem. *The fact that the world shifts when it is measured means
simply that you cannot make precise predictions about it.* This principle,
together with Heisenberg's principle of uncertainty and the notion of
particles as waves (& vice versa), all contribute to a woozy shock of

I would be very glad to hear from other HUMANISTs how they respond
to Hamilton's story.

-- Kevin Berland, Penn State (BCJ@PSUVM)
(2) --------------------------------------------------------------84----
Date: Friday, 21 July 1989 1036-EST
Subject: Intellectualism, Rationality and Method

I have read Sheldon Richmond's recent lengthy and meaty posting
on the "status of intellectual culture" twice, and despite the
recognition that I probably cannot avoid employing some of the
"techniques" listed at the end (to point out that SR himself
dabbles in some of these "techniques" is itself to use one of
them, and to say "so I won't do so" is to use another!), I would
like to reply to a couple of points.

In an earlier HUMANIST posting, I bemoaned the fact that I was unable
to get clear from the previous discussion just what SR meant by such
terms as "intellectual" and "hyper-rational" and the like. His recent
discussion helps, although not as much (or in as rigorous fashion)
as I would like. Nevertheless, a couple of things seem clearer to me

1. By the definitional criteria presented by SR for "hyper-rationalism,"
I don't seem to qualify (and I wonder who does qualify?) -- I certainly
would not affirm that "all cultures are wholly rational" (or that
most individuals, who after all, make up "cultures," are rational, by
which I mean AT LEAST consistent and coherent in terms of the categories
of western logic and reason by which I function), or that "cultures are
historical" except in the sense that everything that happens is
"history" and thus potentially subject to "historical" analysis.
Nor would I be happy embracing the statement that "reason, or
rationality achieves truth and attains reality" -- indeed, I find
that terminology to be very strange from my perspectives.
I would, however, feel comfortable about saying that "rationality
is culturally bound" and that "standards of truth and reality
are culturally bound" -- indeed, I would say that ALL human attempts
at knowing, interpreting, expressing and communicating are "culturally
bound," and that is why explicating definitions seems so crucial to me.

As for SR's "transformations" of "culture" into other terms, I find
that on some of the transformations I may come closer to SR's
"hyper-rationalism" than on others. For example, to me, BY DEFINITION,
all scholarly metholological norms are rational. If they are not
rational (in the sense of selfconsciously consistent [see above])
I would not call them methodological norms. But I would not claim
that all minds or thinking or politics or law or ethics are "rational"!

2. Despite the fact that SR lists it at the top of the "techniques"
to be avoided (presumably), I would argue that the sine qua non of
rational and thus perhaps "intellectual" discussion is attention to
"the definition game," which sometimes involves "pretending not to
understand" since usually it is not "pretending" but a feeling of
insecurity about what one thinks is being said ("can the speaker
really mean what I understand to be the meaning?"). For example,
I think I have learned a great deal from SR's somwhat "in passing"
definition of the position he advocates, namely that there is a
transcendent, deep and partially incomprehensible reality that
doesn't admit of inconsistency, which explains why "our cultures
can be incomplete, and have deep inconsistencies that require
resolution, and have irrationalities that require further understanding."
But in the interests of "the definition game" and "pretending not
to understand," I wonder what the function of the element "doesn't
admit of inconsistency" may be in the above statement. I suspect
that it undergirds SR's goal of continued "further understanding"
(that is, reality is potentially consistent and understandable
if not actually so since we are "fallible," etc. -- a position
with which I would agree as an operating principle, if not as
an ontological commitment!) and "resolution" of inconsistencies.
But it is not entirely clear. And if SR made it clearer, I think
that BY DEFINITION of his position, many of the other matters
that seem even less clear would be automatically resolved.

My suspicion is that SR will be hard pressed to find many
real instances of academics who disagree with his goals of
better understanding, etc., but that there is an ontology
(we used to call it "metaphysics") implied in his approach
that would be subject to much more heated discussion. My own
position is pragmatic. Since BY DEFINITION (mine or SR's)
I cannot actually (rationally) understand "reality" in its
fulness, I don't see much point arguing about it. There is
plenty to do in improving understanding of what IS within
the ability of human thinking (and doing).

Bob Kraft (Religious Studies, Univ. of Penn)