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Neither Scylla nor Charybdis: Gauging Crisis

By Clarissa Lee.

So far, the cultural wars between the sciences and the humanities have not reached a truce. Moreover, the so-called “two-culture” war has been insinuated into the “crisis in the humanities” debate—a crisis exacerbated, as we are repeatedly told, by the rise of the likes of science studies; or at least, the kind of science studies not produced under the ‘expert’ direction of philosophers, historians, and sociologists from ‘reputable’ schools of thought.

If the ‘science wars’ of previous years had pitted a handful of scientists (and a number of analytic philosophers) against scholars of literature and critical theory, this year’s lineup has diversified slightly. It now includes a social scientist and a popular science writer, who both join the ranks of embattled cross-disciplinary literary scholars and a miscellany of other non-traditional humanists.

While Alex Rosenberg suggests that literary scholars have overextended their expertise by trying to read literature into science (or science into literature) without a real understanding of what science is, William Deresiewicz’s scathing article decries the reductionist reading (and what historians would refer to as ‘upstreaming’ or a whiggish interpretation of history) performed by a political scientist and science writer seen as not possessing a sufficient understanding of literature—nor, probably, of history.

The problem with Rosenberg and Deresiewicz is the way in which they rush to pass judgment, using a few straw man examples (and an effort at disciplinary gate-keeping in the case of Rosenberg) to condemn entire areas of scholarship. We can all agree that there are good and bad approaches to scholarship, interdisciplinary scholarship included. Just as there are poorly conceived projects that bring together literature and science, the same holds true even among those who take more conservative approaches within their respective disciplines (philosophy included), not to mention within the work of ‘real’ scientists,´ who, by the way, are not entirely averse to pontificating about literature and the arts.

I want to demonstrate a cross-disciplinary way of thinking that uses examples from physics, philosophy and science fiction. I would argue that it is possible to make political interventions into the internal values of science—values that much of the philosophy of science, and certain persuasions within the history and sociology of science, deem ‘untouchable’—because ideological and political factors do act to augment certain epistemic (knowledge) choices over others, and mathematics is not exempt from this. However, the technical inscrutability of higher mathematics (and mathematically-dense sciences) causes such factors (which in no way detract from the rigor of science) to escape unnoticed.

A lot of knowledge-building in science—especially at the frontiers of science—is about challenging certainty, presumptions and disciplinary comfort zones. However, the process is sufficiently glacial that few are shook by it. Additionally, scientists choose scientific models (understood as ‘temporary’ theories used for hypothesis-testing) because these models give the best descriptions (even if not prescriptions), and are computationally expedient for pushing an experiment along; physical models are as easily discarded as a used tampon once they run their course, and the history of science is littered with the corpses of such models. No doubt, scientists triangulate their findings by reproducing an exact experiment or variants of that experiment, but the process of experimenting itself is also an act of fiction-making; of setting parameters for constructing a potential story. Further, the choices scientists make are shaped by particular interpretive (or purely analytic) preferences that in no way change how the beginning and even the ending of all scientific knowledge is always speculative.

As a case in point, consider ‘speculative physics’—an idea explored in great detail by Friedrich W.J. Schelling, and birthed of the philosophy of nature’s interest in a more organic approach to thinking theory and experiment; but one which can be extended to rethinking what it means to produce theories and experiments in physics, and how we might interrogate such production. Indeed, Schelling’s interest in a more organic way of thinking about the physical sciences activates an approach that can have both scientific and creative potential, regardless of Schelling’s own attitude towards the science of his time. One can produce astute conceptual contributions even when one gets the science wrong, as Aristotle’s miscomprehension of natural physics has shown us.

Here are the two ground rules driving this discussion. Firstly, one must heed the differences between ontology (the irreducible being / state of all foundational matter) and epistemology (structures of knowledge and ways of knowing). At the same time, the theories of speculative physics are derived from a close investigation of microphysical states whose rules appear to be counterintuitive. As far as we are concerned, there is a kind of inscrutable quality to the microphysical world because of its resistance to unproblematic sense-making. However, that itself is due to our partial understanding of all the moving parts that constitute our lived reality.

Secondly, the very consideration of speculative physics, whether through physics or fictions, involves speculative theory and speculative experiment. A speculative theory is neither a pure hypothesis nor an underdetermined theory that contains non-correlative, traceable causes and effects. Instead, a speculative theory is a theory with extended life, and which promises access to the core of material existence regardless of the availability of a framework enabling that access, and even when the theoretical predictions made cannot yet be observed in actuality. Speculative theory is that in medias res cognitive praxis that enables a historicization of model formation; demarcating building blocks of ideas and concepts with a multiplicity of probable narratives. It is not unlike a play that might already have been written, yet which remains open to reinterpretations and rearrangements by different directors—as with Shakespeare’s plays, for example.

If aspects of speculative theory resemble the sort of thought experiments one could more readily identify with hard science fiction, speculative experimentation requires a re-envisioning of what experiments should be, or can do. However, it is important to establish that speculative experiments are not equivalent to indeterminate outcomes; rather, they are about working towards paradigms for a new science, and in this case, a new physics.

Ian Hacking and Allan Franklin have pointed out that experiments persist beyond the shadow of theory and can exist independently as a solid body of scientific research, despite not having a body or bodies of predictive theories to frame that research. Moreover, experiments can form and produce their own theorization strictly through the analysis of known cause-and-effect, which would then feed back into the revision, alteration or modification of existing experimental designs. It is under such conditions of experimentation that speculation occurs, because this is where the tension between measurement, observation, and modeling takes place, although not necessarily in that order.

Hence, acts of interpretation, forming the core of problem-solving in evidence-based science, are just as rigorously pursued in science fiction, but with greater leeway over how thought experiments can be set, given that current mathematical (and material) constraints can be more flexibly negotiated in the latter.  Moreover, pondering over how one might reconcile the demands of fictional narrative with the constraints posed by science can lead to an unconsidered outcome for science.

In his essay, ‘When Science Writes Fiction,’ Robert L. Forward provides an example of how—while dealing with a knotty problem involving where to put a neutron star in relation to a spaceship studying the frontiers of space—he developed an idea that combined thought experiment with mathematical computation: the starship could stay near to the star without being torn apart by its massive gravity if six ultradense masses were placed as a counterforce. Remarkably, Forward was able to turn this idea into a publishable scientific paper—even though his earlier intention had only been to write a credible science fiction story! Why should the real world be constricted by realist interpretations which merely represent our way of straining at objectivity— not, in itself, an unquestionable virtue—in our knowledge production? As Alfred North Whitehead argues in Process and Reality:

That actual world, in so far as it is a community of entities which are settled, actual, and already become, conditions and limits the potentiality for creativeness beyond itself. The ‘given’ world provides determinate data in the form of those objectifications of themselves which the characters of its actual entities can provide…Thus, relatively to any actual entity, there is a ‘given’ world of settled actual entities and a ‘real’ potentiality, which is the datum for creativeness beyond that standpoint.

Whitehead’s dictum parallels Stanislaw Lem’s gruff observation, in his essay ‘On the Structural Analysis of Science Fiction,’ that science fiction is a chance mistake which defamiliarizes reality (that is, ‘makes it strange’) through a play of inversion. For Lem, science is a kind of knowledge that can be realized and set in distinction from logic, even if such a distinction may not always be possible. Moreover, science fiction is ontologically different from the rest of the world. In Dimensions of Science Fiction, Bainbridge states that science fiction is an imaginative interpretation of science and technology, which communicates to a wider audience scientific ideas for guiding the future of our civilization.

As literature, science fiction produces a critique of politics as they come into play in science. Even if this is not always evident, the interpretive practices in science—however much they hinge on supposed facts—are also driven by a desire to read an observation in accordance with sets of beliefs held by scientific communities. Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch document this quite clearly in The Golem: What You Should Know about Science, as does Karin Knorr-Cetina in Epistemic Cultures: How the Sciences Make Knowledge. There are many other examples within the history of science.

Darko Suvin, in ‘SF and the Novum,’ discusses how science is an all-encompassing ‘horizon’ of science fiction, though not in the vulgar sense of the ‘gadgetry-cum-utopia/dystopia.’ Rather, Suvin argues that to refuse to countenance the cause and effect of science in one’s fiction is to reject science fiction itself. However, he hastens to add that the credibility of science fiction is independent of the rationale of science (the science may or may not be accurately depicted in the fiction). Instead, we have to think of what the rationale does in terms of what is displaced and what is interpreted in the process. The science fiction that Suvin advances is one where scientific cognition prevails, and where any kind of narrative that does not adhere to a strict logic (of the materially possible) is not science fiction, but simply a metaphysical tale. This does not mean that a ‘paranormal’ phenomenon would have no place in the domain of science fiction. Rather, the phenomenon itself, however astonishing, must be dealt with using the scientific method, even as the basis of that method must not be left unchallenged.

The common ground shared by science fiction and speculative theory lies in the eschewal of a definite end and the favoring of heuristics as a method for extrapolating the seed, or novum, of cognitive hypothesis, that could then be related to messages out there in the world, but which are hidden at first glance. In pulling science fiction and the hard sciences together, a nucleus is formed as a result of their interface. Given how measurement and interpretation are conceived within the very strict parameters of the quantum/classical praxis, the introduction of subjectivity brings new judgments into the picture, so that one may break out of what Whitehead refers to as the Cartesian ‘substance-philosophy,’ with new anticipations stemming from new environments that are ‘assigned’ with a possible reordering, or flattening, of current dominant hierarchies because of the shifting of the original logics.

Needless to say, science fiction ‘prototyping’ does exist, and is used by futurists, scientists, engineers, information technologists, artists, and even market forecasters as a way of imagining a future world. An example of such work is Brian David Johnson’s book, Science Fiction Prototyping: Designing the Future with Science Fiction. Johnson starts by discussing how science fiction has stirred the imagination of those who then make it their career to create new possibilities for the future. He provides examples of technological possibilities, such as robotics, that are constituted through a chain of causal what-ifs, extending the spectrum of possible occurrences through the introduction of seemingly innocuous (or sometimes more radical) variables. Science fiction, for all its tensions with science, is a comprehensive medium for social, political, and technological challenges.

Nevertheless, science fiction is more than a platform for prototyping scientific ideas: within it lies the seed for foregrounding science’s form as much as its practice; also, it is able to showcase how the literary form already existent in the genre can juxtapose a narrative of life with a scientific ideology. For instance, there are elements of the fictional model at work in theoretical physics. This is because theoretical physics is about imagining a multitude of ways by which a problem can be approached while remaining dependent upon experiments to materialize the solutions. Until the solutions are evident, the imagined narratives are potentialities not yet instantiated. One of the better-known examples to date would be the prediction, search for, and discovery of the Higgs Boson.

Physicists and philosophers of physics do not always agree on epistemic priority: while the latter are interested in understanding better how a particular formalism invokes a certain interpretive direction by recuperating an older formalism that has fallen out of use with most working physicists, the former are typically less concerned with working out such fundamental tangles as long as the existing epistemic frameworks prove useful and do not break down at the most inconvenient time. Indeed, physicists are more concerned with whether the shortcomings of their theories would impede the development of a research program grounded on these same theories. This is not too different from other humanistic interventions, including of the literary kind, in terms of thinking about how science relates to our larger learned society, even if the endgame differs. No one is attempting a coup against the scientists.

Is there an easy way forward for interdisciplinary discourse between science and the humanities? Not unless, to invoke Peter Galison, we can find a trading zone of compromise by meeting each other, without prejudice, on our respective grounds. But most importantly, cross-disciplinary scholars should not simply be defensive about the criticism they receive; instead, they should use that criticism as an opportunity to improve on what they do, and to communicate the outcome of their work to an audience beyond the academy.

Clarissa Ai Ling Lee is a PhD candidate at the Literature Program at Duke, and is also pursuing a graduate certificate in the history and philosophy of science, technology, and medicine. She has written a recent blog post on how physicists think, drawing on preliminary research that combines a survey with material culture. She tweets as @normasalim. This essay draws from a presentation of her work at the recent Modern Language Association 2014 conference.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, January 27th, 2014.