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Friday, December 19, 2003

THIS Is Science?

It's been said that focusing our minds on the thoughts of the giants of intellectualism is a kind of cathartic freedom. I'm not exactly sure who said it, but whoever it was needs to spend a little more time recognizing what it takes to be a giant in the field today. So much of human thought in the hard sciences has been covered that people are turning to the social sciences to make advances. In things like physics, the extension of our knowledge has now become cleaning up the edges in terms of the pragmatic models of our world. The theoretical is, barring another major revolution (which is inevitable... but not yet), sort of done. The flurry of activity which came as a consequence of quantum electrodynamics and the like is winding down. You can tell this becuase now everyone is riding the superstring bandwagon (ie: False hope: The theory).

As few as thirty years ago, the social sciences were considered interesting, but not exactly respectable scientific fields in the way chemistry or physics were, and rightly so. Anthropology was the only vaguely scientific discipline of any of them, and then, the focus was more on coopting the success of evolutionary theory (as genetics hadn't really become a big deal yet) in the realm of social dynamics. Generally, sociology and psychology were not viewed in such high regard, except in the latter's capacity to medicate highly volatile cases. They were largely either descriptive or therapeutic, but not theoretic. But all of that began to change as people realized something very important: nobody knows shit about the fields. So the experts of the day decided they'd do something crafty: they decided to take the success of the hard sciences and try to gain validity by pretending they'd accomplished an equal feat.

Jacques Lacan is a paragon example. For anyone unaware (blissfully unaware), Lacan is a French psychiatrist. He worked with psychotic patients for a lengthy period of time and began developing a version of psychoanalysis and really a whole conception of the human mind which continues in the vein of Freud. Basically, the premise he starts from is this idea that the conscious mind (the ego, in Freudean terms) is an illusion propagated by the unconscious. First: Consider the idea that consciousness is an "illusion." What does that even mean? I mean, right off the bat, what is the actual difference in the use of the concept if it is an 'illusion'? It's possible that consciousness is a consequence of some subconscious processes (in fact, unless you believe in consciousness creating itself, this is even a compelling model), and as such I assumed on first reading that this is what he had actually said. But no, he is an actual proponent of the idea that the unconscious and the processes therein actually control someone, and somehow there is a self-identity which is independent of this (the perceptive mind, which he somehow divorces from the control centers) which believes (which in and of itself suggests something - if a self-identifying mind can believe things, it's not 100% perceptive, but whatever) that it is in control. Contrived enough for you?

Lacan would of course have to answer these objections. He does it, in classic style, by completely obfuscating the issue and failing, on any level, to make a sensible argument. He simply starts ripping off a graduate text in topology and pretends as if he's done something. For example:
"This diagram [The Mobius strip] can be considered the basis of a sort of essential inscription at the origin, in the know which constitutes the subject. This goes much further than you may think at first, becuase you can search for the sort of surface able to receive such inscriptions. You can perhaps see that the sphere, that old symbol for totality, is unsuitable. The torus, a Klein bottle, a cross-cut surface, are able to receive such a cut. And this diversity is the very important as it explains many things about the structure of mental disease. If one can symbolize the subject by this fundamental cut, in the same way one can show that a cut on a torus corresponds to the neurotic subject, and on a cross-cut surface to another sort of mental disease.
I submit that this entire paragraph (which I am not taking out of context - if you're curious, it's from an article he wrote in 1970. Translated from French, but not altered) is completely meaningless. Lacan just throws out a bunch of random topological terms (knot, Klein bottles, Mobius strips, cross-cut[sic]) which, with the exception of the knot, are just toplogical surfaces and don't have any actual translation into modeling anything he refers to.

Other examples of Lacan being a total douche vis a vis using mathematical terms in a way that clearly shows how little he knows about them are abundant. In a paragraph on identifying one's self with a given gender, he uses "It is false that there exists x." The negation can only be applied to complete logical statements... yet he decides that it is expedient to apply negation to stand-alone quantifiers, as well as functions. It's possible there are just notational difficulties, but he also says things which, even correcting and giving him the benefit of the doubt on his ability to write simple first order logic statements, he's still an ass. One of the specific statements he uses (from a 1973 paper) is (~Ex~Ox)^(~AxOx). There isn't an x such that there is the negation of Ox, but there exists the negation of x such that Ox? (note: Ox isn't an animal here, but more a function with an unspecified mapping [actually a phi in his paper, but I can't do phis here without more difficulty than it's worth]) For that to be true, the set of x you have to use is one where the negation of any element is not in the set. In other words, neither x nor the opposite is true. In first order logic, he's referring to a vacuous function. It's also possible that what he meant to say (correcting for some of his sloppy notation) that the set of all people who consider themselves women, they don't consider themselves not women. Which is tautological. So either he's using a meaningless bit of logic or he's saying something which is self-evidently true. Either way, he's just an obfuscating son of a bitch.

Why do social scientists feel the need to include this sort of crap in their theories? Is it just because they realize, on some level, that what they're saying is completely meaningless, devoid of any substance? Is it that they just want to appear to be more valid and scientific than they are? Or is it really just that they believe that they're somehow saying something? The more I consider it, the more it seems like the people writing these sorts of things just get so caught up in their own little world of "proving" something about human consciousness or whatnot, that they never actually sit back and consider the types of things they're saying in relation to the actual world. It's like philosophers who get caught up in theories like neotropism, or anything Nietzsche ever said in his entire life. They get so caught up in the intellectual gymnastics that they never get around to considering whether what they're doing even begins to hold meaning.

There are entire philosophical journals devoted to the question of what one means by "I." Identity is one of those concepts which people want to explicate in a compelling and original way, and by way of doing so, they manage to go about writing serious journal articles which go on for pages and pages about whether or not "I" can refer to one's self if one is asleep or otherwise unconscious. These are interesting exercizes for potheads to entertain while in a state of altered consciousness (right up there with: "What if we're a hamburger and God is just waiting to take a bite?"), but is this really an exercise a serious person should take up? Is there a single person out there who is unclear on what is meant when you refer to yourself? If someone punches you in the stomach, do you sit and ponder if he really punched "you"? If you decide you like a sundae, is it an ambiguous desire becuase you're not sure of the source of this liking? Of course not. No individual, even those who write this sort of thing, actually believe this. So if the theory can't possibly help in our understanding of something, why on earth would you continue to do it?

It seems very much like people are waiting for the next major revolution in thought, the way people were waiting for the next great revolution in physics. They are unsatisfied with this postmodern, morally insipid ethos polite society is degenerating into, and really, really want someone to come along and tell them that this bleak outlook isn't the truth. That somehow, there's more to it. It doesn't seem a coincidence to me that the decline of religion and the overthrow of God in society correlates pretty strongly with the rise in this sort of interest in an explanation other than the obvious. It's as if people were unsatisfied with the way the world appears to be, so created a personification of God to tell us that we are not, in fact, alone in the meandering path we take through our brief consciousness - but found this eventually to be an unsatisfying interpretation as the dogma of the various religions became confused with what "God' really was. The result is a creation of new gods, equally irrational and meaningless, as we trick ourselves into believing that we really are explaining the universe.

For some reason, we as people seem to be unable to just accept that maybe things are what they seem to be. That there isn't some great unity to it all, and that we aren't superheroes. We use language to create a sense of identity larger than ourselves - Lacan tells us that it's the subconscious, which is so much more powerful - but we always work towards it. We've created new gods, and it will be a while until these ones get old, like some broken toy from a Christmas passed. Then we'll come up with new ones and so on until, in the end, it is all regarded as silly superstition. When people understood God to be out there, they didn't believe they were creating some opiate for the masses or related bit of fiction. They actually thought they were describing both metaphysical, metaethical and pragmatic truth. We do the same thing with our Chomskyan and Kantian and Lacanian myths. We tell ourselves that it's not all incomprehensible. We tell ourselves that - if we just have enough faith - we can explain consciousness, we can explain why we act how we do. Eventually.

It's all about faith in an unseen god. It's just the terminology which has changed.

cranked out at 3:17 PM | |

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