A Blog for Everyone and No One
Abstraction, difficult as it is, is the source of practical power. A financier, whose dealings with the world are more abstract than those of any other ‘practical’ man, is also more powerful than any other practical man. He can deal in wheat and cotton without needing to have seem either: all he needs to know is whether they will go up or down. This is abstract mathematical knowledge, at least compared to the knowledge of the agriculturalist. Similarly the physicist, who knows nothing of matter except certain laws of its movements, nevertheless knows enough to enable him to manipulate it. After working through whole strings of equations, in which the symbols stand for things whose intrinsic nature can never be known to us, he arrives at last at a result which can be interpreted in terms of our own perceptions, and utilised to bring about desired effects in our own lives. (Russell, ABC of Relativity (1925) pp.159-60)
This is interesting in a few ways:
1. Russell seems curiously unconcerned about the ethics of abstract trading and the chrematistics of pure wealth accumulation; and he is similarly relaxed about the scientific manipulation of nature. Regarding the latter, perhaps it is just from a post-Bomb perspective that we would expect Russell’s pacifism to clash with this indifference. More than this, Russell appears surprisingly entranced by power, and his unquestioning use of the male pronoun (as we know, still all too common in philosophy in 2012), mirrors a certain machismo in his attitude.
2. To be briefly CRMEP-specific: the linking of power, practice and abstraction is interesting in the context of the Critique, Practice, Power class; what do those who are taking it think? Here reason in the capacity of abstract knowledge is practical power: central terms from the course are combined.
3. In relation to the discussions on the blog around Meillassoux, finance and the in-itself, Russell’s statement about scientific knowledge (which he repeats throughout his book on Einstein’s relativity) sums up why I can’t buy into Meillassoux’s use of science (and this relates to the issues raised in Adam Kotsko’s recent post, and the comments, on AUFS). The knowledge that physics produces is highly abstract – at least since Newton, it is a combination of sophisticated mathematised theorisation and the checking of these theories against empirical data. Physics claims no knowledge of the essence or nature of things. As Russell writes:
Between bodies there are occurences, such as light-waves; of the laws of these occurences we know something – just so much as can be expressed in mathematical formulae – but of their nature we know nothing. (p.157)
Feynman’s classic Lectures on Physics describe the discipline as ‘an expanding frontier of ignorance’. Physicists no doubt secretly believe or hope that they’re making some progress towards the real, through their reams of computerised data from the sensors in the LHC, for example, but no physicist I know (I do know some) would claim to be doing anything more than honing our current best hypotheses by formulating theoretical models and testing them through experiment. This is why physics, in what I know of the form in which it is taught at university, is almost completely uninterested in philosophy.
Surely physics is far from the means through which we can escape correlationism, as Meillassoux contends, but is instead the most paradigmatic form of correlationism? It is simply the ongoing report of the correlation between mathematical theory and numerical experimental data. Print-outs of numerical records of radioactive decay that allow us to give a date to the ‘arche-fossil’ are no different. This seems so self-evident that I feel I must be missing something: let me know what…