The multi-specialist and the tower of Babel

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One hundred multi-specialists with a basic agreement on their priorities and no personal interests in the current system of scientific production would suffice to rewrite science as a whole without losing the bulk of their actual achievements.

To think today that the collective enterprise of science is at the service of all is simply despicable. It never was, and even less so with the screen of the information society. It is precisely in this time of “data deluge” that we are realizing that what is published about research is first and foremost a facade, that we must assume that real research has passed into the catacombs and that it serves increasingly particular and minority interests, in harmony with the inverted pyramid of wealth distribution. Or what did we expect, don’t we all know that the scientist depends on his funds not less than the caged guinea pig on its periodic food ration?

This would have to turn upside down our appreciation of scientific knowledge as an open skylight on the roof towards the universal. Something that is very difficult for us, because if we do not recognize the universal in science… where else? It’s been a long time since we shifted from talking about of the scientific revolution to talk about the technological revolution, a tacit admission that our interest in science itself is dwindling; and yet already in Newton’s day the scales were decidedly inclined to make from practice a theory, and that’s where we’re still at after all.

And the funniest thing is that for the modern figure of the scientist there was never betrayal, neither about who could be his master, nor about universality itself, because in both cases it was only a matter, between the compass and the square, of bringing step by step the sky to the earth. But now that it operates on autopilot and is sold as the West’s winning algorithm and killer application, we can be quite sure that it has become the best way to busily sleep, even if certain results are harvested, whose ever-decreasing return is difficult to hide.

All of which is still a fortunate and even favorable situation, for thoughtlessness in science cannot fail to pay dearly, and today’s science as sold demands it to a great extent. Such successful theories, methods, and procedures can only go forward at the cost of categorically denying many things, and just the very same which contributed to its rise ensures that they find a natural brake on their exponential claims.

Today, the multi-specialist, who has has acquired different competences and hasn’t placed his fate in any of them, seems to be the only force with muscle enough and the necessary position to stay free from the huge inertia and braking mechanisms of the specialized fiefdoms in their inevitable and triumphal proliferation. But having the necessary muscle does not take them beyond the category of labor force if they fail to raise their perspective on a panorama increasingly full of contingencies —only gaining height as generalists will they be able to decide where they place their loyalty and why. Beyond personal morals, science never had a criterion for such things, unless one believes in the value of those ethics committees so difficult to distinguish from their homonyms for corporations.

There is a question of content and another of form in the modern scientific deadlock, if we want to call it so instead of talking about a death of science that would be all the more unappealable the less felt it is. Both questions depend more on pure instinct than on any rational argument among the many that can be made, and that is why, because they test our instinct, at the service of which reason will be put, that they are interesting and revealing. Because they are not things that affect only the man of science or knowledge, but the space that man entails in what he does or doesn’t do, and that ends up defining also the outline of his action-knowledge.

The internal question is the weight we concede to motion, in our imaginary and out of it, when it comes to explaining things. The external question is the relationship between the quantitative and the qualitative. Both questions are intimately related but they are too vast to reduce their connections to a simple criterion.
With regard to motion, we have always known that physical reality —not to mention plain reality- is not limited to extension and motion. Of course, motion is not only extension either, although we are so inclined to think about it, nor is motion reduced to translation or displacement. The fact is that physical magnitudes —be they vectorial or scalar, forces or masses- always have an intensive component that can be bent towards interpretation in terms of motion, and on the contrary, motion can be used towards a more intensive interpretations in which motion is a secondary outcome.

Yes, we are talking about interpretations with all the subjectivity that this entails. It matters little that it is subjective if it is the rudder that determines all the syntheses and applications; science is a highly teleological enterprise bent on denying this last point, but this denial does not bring it closer to its reality but rather to the contrary. Thus, we can interpret what does not move as a function of what moves, as physics does from Galileo, and we can try to interpret what moves as a function of what doesn’t move.

Newton deduced the force of gravity from motion, even though what deforms a body —the most unequivocal sign of force- is the potential, and not the kinetic energy. Kinetic energy and potential weren’t even the same in the quantity conserved, the Lagrangian, but it didn’t matter as all that people wanted was to blindly take derivatives. In the end, the application is the interpretation. Could we say “and vice versa”? In general, it is what we do that determines what we think, not the other way around. But sometimes the will to do other things makes its way through “other interpretation”.

So if we want to go deeper into the most interesting part of physics, into that great unknown that has always been there, but that we have interpreted on behalf of the surface, we already know what we have to do: go in the opposite direction to the mainstream. Since this part is always present, it is less difficult than it might seem. Moreover, in the still very brief history of physics it is not at all difficult to identify the breaking points either, the introduction of operationalist criteria to the greater glory of our arbitrariness.

What is set in motion does not change, and what changes is not set in motion —if we understand motion as displacement in extension. This deep conviction becomes little less than irretrievable in a world incapable of deciphering activity in immobility, something that maybe we could call inmotion. More than science itself, which does not even have a position for this, what betrays us is the drag of the scientific imaginary, of a functionalism more presupposed than deduced.

The other point is the no less arbitrary opposition between the qualitative and the quantitative. It is indisputable that physics is a quantitative discipline based on measurement. But it also seems obvious that mathematics, the language in which physics is expressed, is no less qualitative than quantitative —some have even said that it is the quantitative translation of purely qualitative aspects. The distinction, also since Galileo, between primary qualities that are measurable and secondary qualities that aren’t lies at the basis of a dissociation that has come a long way.

And so today it has become a universal belief to think that in order to go further than with current theories we need instruments and experiments of a prohibitive degree of accuracy only within the reach of Big Science. This is usually true only within the current views of science and not in others. There are very simple experiments, within the reach of the means of the nineteenth century, which yield a continuous range of information and conceptually go beyond the models we handle, experiments such as those of Fizeau, Hoek, Scanglon, Miller, Sagnac, and so on. The only thing that has happened is that in the meantime the idea of a continuous medium has been discarded due to purely cinematic considerations, which are only a part of physics, and certainly the most superficial one. And so the theme of motion again has an impact on what is considered measurable or not, quantitative or qualitative.

But if even now it is admitted that broader and more general theories demand new concepts and criteria, the only thing that is being admitted is that these theories cannot follow the well-trodden paths of the standard calculations and have to be qualitatively different from the previous ones. Thus, deeper changes and rearrangements are more qualitative than quantitative, and then it is calculus that explodes these qualitative breakthroughs in understanding translating them into routines.

It happens, however, that theoretical physicists have exaggerated the greatness of the theory, in reality the part of calculation, and have subordinated to it the experimental part, which is often the one that best embodies the new concepts. The distortion in this sense has been extreme, turning the theoretical physicist into the priest who defines reality and the applied physicist into an inevitable operator. If we understand that the opposite is true, we will also understand that the conceptual and qualitative advance are more on the experimental side, and that it is the theoretical aspect, which should be at its service, that goes on to confiscate practical achievements and decides what experiments should or should not be done.

It is what we do that changes our way of thinking, much more than the opposite.

Quantum mechanics has often done nothing more than hinder a multitude of practical findings that later claimed as its own. Physicists speak of theories with eleven or twelve decimals of accuracy, but the great number of things that they cannot foresee in any way is ignored, not to mention discrepancies that only involve two or three decimals, as in the case of gravity. Let no one be fooled by these boasts.

The misrepresentation of experiments in the name of theory was already present in the most blatant way in experiments as famous as Newton’s prism or Joule’s one about the mechanical equivalence of heat; but all this has not ceased to grow like a snowball with the standardization and bureaucratization of the procedures of present-day Big Science.

Well understood, all this is excellent news as well as common sense. So who’s going to believe that the depth of concepts depends on the money invested in them? The opposite is by far the most likely: the more money is invested in a project, the more people are involved in it, the greater the flattening of its profile will have to be; it couldn’t be otherwise.

One hundred multi-specialists with a basic agreement on their priorities and no personal interests in the current system of scientific production would suffice to rewrite science as a whole without losing the bulk of their actual achievements.

Of all the experimental sciences we give priority to physics because it is the one with the most solid knowledge structure and the most difficult to change; if this can be done with physics, it goes without saying how much easier it can be done in biology or other less structured disciplines.

The current drift of science is completely irreversible, yes, within its present assumptions. So those who are satisfied with their winning algorithm go ahead and keep buying. We could never convince them of anything, as it is first and foremost a matter of instinct. My instinct tells me very clearly that the current model is going down, and that has been the case for a long time.

When I say that in order to revert the current situation one only needs independence, to value the qualitative over the quantitative and to go beyond motion, it goes without saying that there is a good note of exaggeration and simplification in it. But if one admits that the present research system has taken exaggeration in its own sense as far as it could be taken, it is understood that mine is only a way to regain balance. However this rather common sense reflection would be fraught with unexpected consequences.

Science was the West’s great asset, its dominating argument, but now that we lack the conviction of its universality, as pure domination, it could look detestable in the end. All their omnipresent public relations are directed against this perception.

And precisely one of the arguments most frequently put forward when talking about the superiority of Western science, and with it of the West itself, over its forerunners was the universality of its knowledge. Other cultures would have been more interested in the practical results than in their generalization, and the greater universality of knowledge corresponded to an equally more universal culture with a much greater natural right of expansion.

Whether we like it or not, there must have been some truth to these claims, for they did not merely refer to the argument of domination and the results themselves, but often to the formal conditions of knowledge —to matters of knowledge for the sake of knowledge itself. In a gradual process of degradation, it is these formal conditions that have been distorted, simply confusing mathematical language with universality. Calculus has always been a heuristic issue, but if everything for us is algorithm we can hardly notice it.

That is why we insist on going beyond motion and quality, so that we can notice it again. That the language of physics is mathematics does not automatically mean that the language of mathematics has emancipated itself from human limitations, as physicists so understandably tend to believe. Indeed, the fact that our idea of natural laws folds to what we can predict is a utilitarian criterion par excellence, and therefore, equally human, centered on a very partial and limited objective.

The more “algorithmic” knowledge is, the more it descends to a lower order. Two great ways of doing science have been spoken of in this regard, a “Greek” or axiomatic style, and a “Babylonian” or heuristic style. But does anyone have doubts about the side we are now on? One is free to proceed as one wishes or as one can, but we don’t abandon so easily our claims of universality.

We began by talking about an inverted pyramid and that is exactly what the current tower of Babel of sciences is —and it is mathematics that has inverted its own universality. It has been and continues to be believed that mathematics spares us the difficult problems of interpretation of experiments, and that by limiting ourselves to the prediction of events we also rid ourselves, holy simplicity, of the limitations of subjectivity. Only that subjectivity and universality are practically synonyms, which simply helps us to corroborate the aforementioned inversion.

Basically, no matter how much we talk about the complementarity of observation and theory, what always underlies it is the dualist mentality: in the best Baconian spirit, nature is something to hack. Experiments should help to refine “quantitative models”, not only in the number of decimals, but in the very quality of mathematical tools. The continuum mechanics is the best guide for this; the physical continuum itself is the basic assumption for mathematics to be refined by learning from physical reality. If we oppose observation and thought we have already lost the game beforehand.

There is a return staircase for this nefarious situation of quantitative sleepwalking that passes through the mathematicians themselves. They would be the prototype of the multi-specialist, if only they learned to redefine their situation with respect to observation, the physical continuum, the relationship between the qualitative and the quantitative and their contemplation of motion, immobility and mutation, which have their archetype in the very process of thinking.

Whether in China or India, Russia or anywhere else, it is still possible to change our fate as mere objects of quantity. This path necessarily passes through small scale, independence from large budgets, and the unwavering conviction that there are things more important than quantitative precision; things with which one acquires perspective and equally reduces the probability of being handled.

The specialist doesn’t know everything about his speciality; on the contrary, he is trained to selectively ignore many of the decisive steps that have constituted his domain. Multi-specialists need to know how to take advantage of this even if in principle they do not have open channels to express their disagreement: they will have to create their own.

The multispecialist has gone to great lengths to know what the specialist knows; the specialist has gone to great lengths not to see what the multispecialist sees. This gives the latter a huge and unexpected advantage.

Our misnamed “reductionist science”, in fact algorithmic science since it has not been able to reduce anything to mechanisms, moves between the reduction of the general case to a particular case, which then becomes general again without restraint, and a growing and irrepressible lack of faith in the existence of any physical reality, which has come to make matter first an equivalent of energy and then a mere support of information. What is not understood is that this leaves free an internal axis for another type of inverse generalization of the global features that is precisely based on the surplus of rejected physicality: in the five previous articles of this blog I have dealt with widely differing aspects of this very point.

Chris Anderson in his article on “the end of theory” in the age of the information deluge has defined well the level or rather lack of any level that modern science has reached and that the Anglo-Saxon culture has had the dubious honor of leading. And since they have been fighting tooth and nail to make history of it, their wish will surely come true.

Now, there is much more here yet. Anderson refers to the distillation of knowledge from the mass of Big data, the definitive mathematician farm. Of course these would be the assistants of an autonomous process with aspirations to become even purely automatic to finally get rid of their clumsy operators. A great future for the microserfs. Needless to say, the object of Big data is everyone and everything, and the active subject is simply power.

I don’t know if anyone has even noticed that the distillation phase of Big Data corresponds surprisingly well with a completely forgotten prophecy of a hundred years ago: the comparative morphology or general “physiognomic science” (???) of which Oswald Spengler spoke. For he emphatically predicted the advent of a purely formal science finally liberated from the very constraints of causality and logic. No one knew what to do with this anomalous outlook, but Anderson, who couldn’t be farther from the German, sentenced in 2008: “Correlation supersedes causation”. Bingo. Who would have said it.

One always knew that Spengler’s meta-scientific foresight would surpass immensely the scope of the philosophy of science, but it was difficult to see how its advent could take place. And it is that its material is exactly the opposite of matter, it’s the ubiquitous circulation of information that surrounds us. The purest creation of the spirit, as this abnormal prophet-historian-philosopher anticipated, at the service of power and social control. The final transmutation of the old social organism into mere organization.

And here comes the heavy dose of irony. Spengler, like so many other advocates at that time of “the White Man’s burden”, warned of the danger of putting in the hands of other cultures the knowledge of the Faustian man, that should remain under his scrupulous administration and responsibility. But it turns out that this last mefaustophelic creation, at least in the Anglo-Saxon version of “Bacon with Mathematics” that prevails today, has meant a reduction of science and of the knower to the rank of an algorithmic “Babylonian” stochastic tinkerer, the redoubled avatar of the “inferior man”, of the barbarian who only cares about the results, only that far below him in terms of his insatiable taste for manipulating and stirring up even the most defenseless things: the Super-elite and the Scum Club all in one. But perhaps these are not the only extremes that mate in this mysterium coniunctionis.

The dilemma is this: science, without aspiration to universality, is something abject and destined to serve power against the rest of the population. But a science that truly sought universality, rather than results, would be far more transparent and assimilable to the rest of the population, who would thus cease to be a clueless object of power. Between truth and power this dilemma is unavoidable and has always existed. But in an era of apparently unrestricted flow of information it has to adopt completely different defensive systems, which obviously rely on the very excess of information to filter/modulate it in the most convenient way. This seems to have come a long way and it can be assumed that the process will continue to be successively refined.

On the other hand, and as a counterbalance, there has always existed an assumption that lies at the very root of scientific optimism: it is very difficult to conceal a universal truth, that by its very nature seeks to be shared without hindrance. The intrinsic transparency of truth. Is this truth about truth really correct? We don’t know, but we do know that power also likes to air this contagious conviction.

Now, if universal truths are getting further and further and what we have is a mere instrumental knowledge, there is already little room for doubt as to the fate of such knowledge. But does it still have any value? Perhaps it does for others, certainly not for me.

Computers can analyze but even Anderson knows perfectly well how poor they are when it comes to producing or synthesizing knowledge, which is like saying “synthesize transparency”. Riemann’s zeta function is infinite and completely analytical, but ask a computer to draw global conclusions about it. The only thing computers could be used for there is to find a zero outside the critical line, as the ineffable Turing intended with a rudimentary machine, but you could still expect a quadrillion years.

What do zeta, light, the holographic principle, electrodynamics, classical chromodynamics, or the continuum mechanics have in common? And we haven’t even mentioned quantum mechanics here. What they surely have in common are global aspects that can be better understood by comparing them with each other. Can this be done with algorithms? Algorithms can also help, but synthesis has to be produced – or reproduced – by the subject.

I see a truth with many more layers than an onion. Energy transmits information but does not support it, matter supports information but does not transmit it. Only the subject can support it and transmit it. Every time we stop attributing to motion the reason for a phenomenon, we detach ourselves from a minimum layer of our superficiality and approach a bit the omnipresent nucleus, so similar to a flame.

Motion, on its own, is the insignificant thing; only with respect to that which does not move can it have any value. If I perceive motion and activity in my thinking, it is because there is something in me that remains still, otherwise, how could I detect motion? Technology as pure functionality is the most deadly incarnation of nihilism, of the “life of insects” that some are prone to attribute to other cultures. Technique dominates things, but who will dominate technique?

Can you imagine that the Chinese were the ones who finally tame the tamer, dominated the dominator? They, who have so often been criticized for their lack of originality? It is curious that the origin of the binary code is attributed to Leibniz’s logical reading of the Chinese exagrams of the Book of Changes; curious because the Chinese spirit had used this binary logic as a mere support for a self-sufficient code of images, the minimum symbolic compendium of a multidimensional characteristica universalis. And could they not succeed now in turning the tables again?

However, as we have already suggested, this things go through the reinterpretation of physical reality, something hardly hackable. This is the Ariadne’s thread, there is no resurrection of the Logos without a rebirth of Physis. Modern science blew up many bridges in its wake but now it cannot control all that immense territory from the air with flying algorithms. Logic doesn’t usually fall from the sky.

In any event it is necessary to go beyond the accidental geopolitics of knowledge and concentrate on the underlying problem: the fierce struggle between the universal and the particular in the arena of knowledge and action. If this context and its scope are ignored, it is almost impossible to speak meaningfully of anything.

Power is the immobile that can set other things in motion. One would have to be suspicious in principle of any “empowerment” that compels one to mobilize —no matter how often motion is needed. Change in action pass through a momentary shift from motion to inmotion or mutation. If non-particular knowledge begins to enter the motionless sphere of power there will be a problem of eviction. Who will evict whom? Only that there’s just not a single knowledge, just as there’s not a single power.

Naturally it’s not that motion is bad, but the compulsion to move and understand everything in those terms. It always gives itself away at its root, in its first impulse. The present and unnameable prison in which we participate is a prison almost exclusively made out of our own outer motion, or agitation, a technique that we could call inertial confinement or self-confinement of the subject and its substance. Others continue to call it alienation from the social, regardless of the fact that society itself is the prison and the stampede, the big time general escape.

So I am not only convinced of the existence of an electrodynamic Ether, I also take for granted the existence of the financial ether too, to which all financialization is accountable. And if you do not believe it, so much the better for me, says the power. Your agitation is my vein, and as the misery diggers know, there is no quicker way to separate gold than with the volatile and toxic mercury. What moves does not change, what does not move has the freedom to change.

From the present situation we would have to blame scientists more than science, otherwise we are only admitting that they have never been able to do anything and they are in every sense a pure nullity.

To understand to what extent our knowledge is low-level knowledge is tantamount to leaving on the same level the society that has produced it and even has boasted about it. This cannot be achieved by the impotent dragging drift of the future, but by the impulse of the past which opposes it, for in the present correlation, both are like motion without force as opposed to force without motion.

References

M. A. M. Iradier, Light, gravity and color
M. A. M. Iradier, Self-energy and Self-interaction—Extended particle and thermodynamics
M. A. M. Iradier, Beyond control — Feedback and potential
M. A. M. Iradier, Health, life, aging and evolution
M. A. M. Iradier, Between stress and pressure