Software Musings

Pre-Modernist Physics

Posted on: 14/09/2008

There are three threads coming together in this posting: two books and a lunchtime conversation. The two books are the ones I’m reading in parallel at the moment: Robert Fisk’s “The Age of the Warrior” and Alan Sokal’s “Beyond the Hoax”. Parenthetically, it is interesting (to me, anyway) to note that I was actually present when the photograph adorning Fisk’s Wikipedia page was taken.

I’m not going to write book reviews. I assume that everyone reading this knows of Fisk’s columns in The Independent, a British newspaper that started with such good intentions. But didn’t we all? I assume also that everyone knows about Sokal’s famous hoax: “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”. What I’ve realised, perhaps ludicrously belatedly, through reading these two books in parallel is why Sokal’s hoax matters.

As one reads “Beyond the Hoax”, as everyone with any interest at all in science should, the overwhelming impression is that of observing someone demolishing an inadequate foe. The post-modernist interpretations of science that Sokal was hoaxing are so ludicrous as to be sitting targets. Why, one asks, would anyone take the trouble to attack the strong relativist argument? Given statements like the following (quoted from Katherine Hayles’ 1992 paper “Gender Encoding in Fluid Mechanics”):

Despite their name, conservation laws are not inevitable facts of nature but constructions that foreground some experiences and marginalise others…Almost without exception, conservation laws were formulated, developed and experimentally tested by men. If conservation laws represent particular emphases and not inevitable facts, then people living in different kinds of bodies and identifying with different gender constructions might well have arrived at different models for flow.

it could be thought that it is only necessary to publish these types of papers in order to discredit them (by the way, I think that “different gender constructions” means “of different sexes”—“gender” is a term used in grammar and, as far as I know, only words can have genders).

However, I haven’t yet introduced my third thread, arising from a lunchtime conversation with a staunch realist and someone with philosophical views as far from post-modernism as is possible while remaining on the planet. He casually asked the other day whether, were our senses different (if, for example, instead of being able to detect electro-magnetic radiation with frequencies between 400 and 790 THz, we could detect different forms of radiation), our physics would be different.

I suppose I must come clean here and declare an interest. If I’m anything in science, I’m an instrumentalist. Sokal makes short-shrift of people like me in his 2004 paper “Defence of a Modest Scientific Realism” which, by the way, is “defence” only in the sense that he spends 21 pages demolishing to his satisfaction alternative views and, in the remaining 5 pages describes realism as the only theory left standing. But his demolition of us instrumentatalists relates directly to the lunchtime conversation: if an instrumentalist relies on sense data then where does she stop? Must she rely on her unaided eyesight or is she allowed to augment it with spectacles? Or telescopes? Or microscopes?

This re-inforces the view that the physics we have is very dependent on the accident of which (augmented) senses we have. That is almost dangerously relativist.

And this brings me back to Fisk. Why is Sokal’s demolition work important? Because, if it’s not, the truth of the work of courageous journalists like Fisk and Patrick Cockburn becomes contingent on the sex, age, nationality and, for all I know, hair colour of the reader. Whether the Armenian Genocide took place becomes not a statement of history but a whim of the Turkish government.

Reading Sokal’s papers, one gets the impression that he has chosen a target that is too easy, albeit fun to shoot at. The overwhelming impression one gets is of shooting fish in a barrel (sometime I must find out the origin of that phrase—it sounds extremely difficult to shoot a fish). But, however easy the target is, it is a target that must be demolished.

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Post Scriptum: A colleague has referred me to this site regarding the practicality of shooting fish in a barrel. Apparently it is possible.

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Disclaimer

The author of this blog used to be an employee of Nortel. Even when he worked for Nortel the views expressed in the blog did not represent the views of Nortel. Now that he has left, the chances are even smaller that his views match those of Nortel.
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