This is an interview given recently for Ivan Stepanyan’s science and technology blog:
Why do you think science is going through a particularly critical time right now?
The different sciences are used to have periodic crises in their models, but now, as a faithful reflection of what is happening in our societies, the accumulated problems have reached an extreme point.
On the one hand, the decline of the unipolar world threatens the hegemony of the “Anglo-Saxon model” of science, which has imposed narratives and ways of doing things that have become so accepted that we no longer even realize it. If we really move to a multipolar world, countries with great scientific potential such as Russia, China, India, Japan and others will rethink their general guidelines of research. However, this alone will not bring about a radical change in priorities, because large institutions have an inertia proportional to their size and, moreover, the basic premise of the current model, which is that the essential aspect of scientific knowledge is prediction, is hardly questioned by those in power.
What is tipping the balance is that the fusion of science and power at the institutional level has reached such a point that debate has been eliminated in everything that matters, which has little to do with what mainstream media reflect. Opacity, consensus and disinformation are manufactured on an industrial scale, causing the most talented people, mainly nonconformists, to flee the institutions and wonder what they can do with all the knowledge they have acquired. But no one wants to talk about this profound discontent.
You have talked about the new role that multi-specialists are called to play in this scenario.
Yes, multi-specialists, people trained in several specialties that don’t feel a special loyalty to the rules of any of them, are a new specimen, an unprecedented agent that introduces new dynamics into the ecology of knowledge. We are no longer talking about multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary research, but about a different kind of subject that has another kind of perspective on what is technoscience today. They are both at the apex of discontent and innovative capacity. It is not easy to define their position, and many of them strive for their independence and distance themselves from the institutional logic.
So the panorama we have is one of growing leadership vacuum, as the present model dyes of success because it has exhausted its potential and the ideas are repeated over and over again with predictable twists and turns. And we have a new techno-scientific species that is rethinking many issues but is distanced from the decision centers and is looking for its own place in an environment that is apparently very competitive but tightly controlled from above, from a few institutions whose names we all know.
And on top of all this, we have an organization proclaiming worldwide a Great Reset of the system towards human-machine fusion and the genetic modification of humanity for its own good and to protect its health. An organization without any legal authority but which seems to dictate the script to the UN itself, which uses its official statements to second it. It would seem that instead of talking about science and technology we are slipping into politics, but this is just what mainstream media are campaigning for 24/7. It is just the background that allows us to understand some of the unexpected things that may happen.
This may sound like a futurology exercise.
Futurology is entertaining, but all this is too topical. Now, what is evident from all these statements made from above is that there is nothing new to offer, everything is more of the same and the only thing that changes qualitatively is the increasing degree of control.
There is a total divorce between science and culture because power and inspiration are things that cannot mix, and there is only culture when the sap continues to rise spontaneously from below, not when it is offered from above to those below in the form of consumer products.
Technoscience seems to define the limits of our world. Technology is not only about machines, as techne it was originally more concerned with artistic production. Why do we now want to reduce it to machines and their multiple levels of organization? Obviously it is a reduction, but it seems to be a reduction of a fatal and irreversible nature. It doesn’t have to be this way; however, in order to pass «to the other side» without destroying ourselves, we have to create an aperture within mechanics itself. If we don’t do it for ourselves, no one will do it for us.
And it is in this context that you address the issue of mechanology. What new turn are you proposing within this field? As far as I know, mechanology is a branch of philosophy that has never reached the status of science.
Mechanology emerged in the middle of the 20th century in France as an attempt to classify machines. Lafitte made a typology of machines according to levels of function, Ruyer according to levels of information, and Simondon according to levels of organization. Their pioneering reflections are very valuable and meritorious, but it is striking that the fundamental premise, namely the very principles of mechanics, which crystallized in Newton, are out of question.
Today we should be compelled to ask, can anything exist that is not mechanical? But the endless fugue of machines, with artificial intelligence and all the rest, is a barely conscious articulation of that question. And yet we should better ask: does anything mechanical exist at all? And naturally, since we have poured our entire worldview into the mold of mechanics, the answer will depend on what we mean by that word.
Newtonian mechanics is summed up in that nothing moves without being moved by something else. But in Germany, in the 19th century, Gauss, Weber and Hertz (not to mention the ideas of Leibniz and Mach) tried to create a relational mechanics crucially different from Newtonian mechanics, although largely compatible with their predictions and with experience. In our time various fundamental theorists such as Kulakov, Aristov, Vladimirov, Assis, Mazilu, Noskov, and many others have tried to develop this relational program in some of its many aspects, but Newtonian concepts still prevail.
Is it not conventional wisdom today that relativity and quantum mechanics have superseded Newtonian mechanics?
They have overcome many of its aspects, but we do not pay enough attention to the unchanged ones, which still are the most important. And there is one fundamental aspect unchanged by each of the three principles: we still adhere to the principle of inertia, to the idea that in Nature there are constant and universal forces that depend only on distance but not on the environment or the speed of bodies, and finally, to the simultaneity of action-reaction, which sets the notion of a closed system and the global synchronization of its parts.
What do we know about physical inertia? Nothing, but it is still the basis of mechanics. The principle of inertia asks us to believe in a closed system that at the same time is not closed. That is, it begs us to believe in something contradictory, which in addition generates all kinds of scholastic distinctions of reference frames. Now, with the principle of dynamic equilibrium, which says that the sum of all forces of any nature acting on any body is always zero in all reference frames, we can dispense with the idea of inertia forever, and we can even interpret that bodies move by their own impulse without incurring in contradiction.
In a relational mechanics such as Weber’s, forces may depend on the environment or on factors such as velocity and acceleration of the bodies. This gives rise to the so-called «retarded potential», which actually is only retarded with respect to the «global synchronizer» implicit in the third law. However, by definition, it is assumed that in Weber mechanics the third principle is automatically fulfilled, whereas in field theories such as Maxwell’s this is not the case and one has to stick to conservation of momentum. This leads to various confusions and misunderstandings. Actually the retarded potential is telling us about a system’s proper time, but being the global synchronizer a supersystem —in fact a metaphysical instance— that becomes irrelevant.
You propose to include the geometric phase within the principles of mechanics. How is that possible?
Sometimes I mention a «fourth principle of mechanics», sometimes «three and a half principles», but it is not so much a question of adding principles as of contemplating the aperture or internal space that the classical principles have within. The Kepler problem still remains the keystone of physics, both at macro and micro level. As we know, the claim that Newton’s theory provides an explanation for the shape of ellipses is only a didactic device, but most physicists have been content with that. Hertz lamented that the third principle cannot be verified there and proposed a distinction between material particle, as point of application for a force, and the material point that can have an indefinite volume, but physics conflates both concepts routinely.
For Nikolay Noskov, Weber’s retarded potential did allow a satisfactory explanation of the ellipse, with a phase velocity and a longitudinal wave in the moving bodies that coincides with de Broglie’s matter wave and implies a resonance. Now, what is the difference between a retarded potential and the geometric phase generalized by Berry for quantum mechanics? The only difference is that in the ellipse of a moving body it is already embedded in the known equations, while in the «anomalous» shift of the geometric phase it is not. And, despite what is so often said, we know that the geometric phase occurs on both micro and macro levels, being truly universal —something that can be said neither of classical nor of quantum mechanics.
The geometric phase is considered a mere appendix of quantum mechanics only because it was identified later and because its contribution to the total phase is usually much smaller than that of the dynamic phase; however, we can see that it already existed long before as a retarded potential, and, on the other hand, there are also systems, including those of living beings, in which its contribution can be far greater than that of the dynamic phase itself. The same pulse wave in the arterial wall would be another of its manifestations, and on the other hand, today it is routinely included in robotics and control theory; only that each case is considered separately.
From this point of view, the geometric phase would be key in the spontaneous synchronization between different systems?
Yes, because if there is synchronization between bodies, it can neither be determined from above in an absolute way, nor can it belong to the domain of dynamics, which is the realm of interaction. Because of the order of development of our concepts, we think that the dynamic phase as related to forces is the active element and the geometric phase the passive element; but what is instantaneous cannot be secondary with respect to that which needs time to operate; what is pure act cannot be passive with respect to that which takes time to actualize. Physics has inverted our perception of many things, including our idea of potency and act. The consequences of all this reach to the present day.
It seems that all this directly affects the foundations. Is it possible today to modify the foundations of such established sciences as physics, or we can only look ahead?
In mainstream physics the foundations are out of question, but in countries like Russia things are different because there is other kind of theoretical concerns. However, the problems remain where they were first met. The real changes can only come from the very foundations, but there is too much built on them.
So other strategies must be devised. Physicists cannot allow themselves to rebuild their discipline bottom-up, however what is at stake is more than a theoretical domain. What is really at stake is the relationship man-machine-nature; but this relationship cannot be clarified without knowing what is non-mechanical. Nature is amechanical, but since physics studies it in the light of the principle of inertia, and of the other two coordinated principles, Nature becomes just another machine.
But Nature is not only what is out there, it is also within us, even in our thoughts. There must be a way out of this anthropological deadlock. And mechanology, when it gets back in touch with the foundations of mechanics, closes a circle that I call the «Tao of Technoscience».
How would you define this technoscientific circle?
Poincaré, in his analysis of Hertz’s mechanics, already saw clearly that principles in physics are based on experience but cannot be invalidated by it. Yet in physics, as in almost everything, we have principles, means and ends. The principles are the axioms that determine the elements, the basic method is calculus or mathematical analysis, and the ends are the physical interpretations. Interpretations are not a philosophical luxury for the end of the day, because interpretation, together with description and representation, outline the scope of technical applications.
Theoretical physicists take credit for most practical applications, yet experimentalists and engineers very often make breakthroughs in spite of the fact that the theory says they are not possible; however, in the end theoretical standards confiscate the explanation of these breakthroughs and have the last word.
Even mathematical calculus, as it is conceived today, is a clear instance of reverse engineering known results. But there is another way of going from principles to ends back and forth, which is open-ended and creates another dynamic. And the key is not to think that prediction is the ultimate justification for physics or calculus. The greater the balance between prediction and description, the deeper we go into reality.
And how can this balance between these two elements be found? There are countless interpretations of a physical law, which indicates that they are subjective; that is why physicists consider them secondary.
Right, no doubt they are subjective, but nonetheless they are indispensable for our practical use of science. And if these interpretations can directly affect the very nature of calculus, and the principles themselves, everything changes.
Many researchers still believe that physics must explain the causes, the whys of phenomena; others think that the world is just phenomenon, and that what we need is to describe it well. On the other hand, positivists who think only in terms of predictions and dismiss the whys have little doubts about the causal agency of many of their theories. But even if we could only aspire to truthful and more or less rounded descriptions, the illusion of causality serves often to improve the description itself. In my view, the greater the balance between prediction and description, the more the mirage of efficient causes operating in time disappears. But today, to believe in physical reality is to believe in the reality of efficient causes.
We do not act according to our ideas, on the contrary our ideas are shaped by the way we act and want to act. This is true for everything, including physics. In the 17th century the world became a Great Clock because supposedly it was the best we could do. And what is the best we could do today? To find what is beyond and before the Machine. But, obviously, one can never find that if prediction is the main goal.
The idea of efficient cause is problematic enough in today’s science, but should we be content with mere correlations of data? Is there room for something else?
It is well known that final causes were discredited during the scientific revolution and replaced by efficient causes. I for one think that final causes are more important and certain than the efficient causes. However the force that matters in physics is not the measurable force, but the controllable force. Finality is real, but not primarily as design, not as a machine: that is precisely what has created our all-too-human misunderstandings.
We can resume Clausius’ entropy, before Boltzmann; entropy is no longer a by-product of mechanics, but a spontaneous tendency towards a maximum. One can reformulate mechanics as Pinheiro has done and replace the Lagrangian by a balance between minimum energy change and maximum entropy production. Then, entropy is already within the “fundamental” laws; given that “order» produces more entropy than “disorder”, this completely invert the question and our vulgar clichés about entropy, disorder and finality. It should have a profound impact on our idea of information, equilibrium and evolution.
There is something in man that can only be released if we first liberate what is locked up in our idea of Nature. By unlocking this we will also liberate our own nature, which can never be reduced to an object. Assuming this goal will be an inexhaustible source of inspiration.
In your writings you suggest an elementary relationship between math, physics and consciousness. Could you tell us something about it?
For modern science, consciousness would be the last frontier where all the most sophisticated disciplines converge: the ultimate playground for the multispecialist. But consciousness is not an object, not even a process as they now say.
Anyone who observes his thoughts attentively will realize that they come from the outside, that I do not produce them. But outside of what? They are out of consciousness; it matters little whether they come from the brain or from a screen. Consciousness knows this because it is empty and has no motion. How could it perceive motion were it not still? Yet consciousness is also the indifferent continent where all this takes place.
From this point of view, consciousness seems to us an absolute about which nothing can be said. But the same applies to a primitive homogeneous medium with unit density in which matter and space are not separated, and can equally be full or empty, have zero or infinite dimensions. However, from such a medium one can derive formally different types of equilibrium. The Hilbert space in quantum mechanics also starts with infinite dimensions but it does not include the geometric phase, which is only a reflection of the «geometry of the environment», whatever that means. This additional phase may have many interpretations, such as parallel transport, interference, resonance, transition between scales, dimensions, and so on, but it always implies an aperture with respect to the conservative, closed systems of Hamiltonian mechanics. Not only that, it could also be the loop that closes the contour of a closed system starting from an open background, if the former depends on a resonance. The homogeneous primitive medium is always open and indeterminate, just like consciousness; but the geometric phase represents a peculiar connection between the dynamics of interactions and what is beyond.
You suggest the existence of a «fourth-person knowledge». Can you tell us more about this concept?
We have first-person or subjective knowledge, and we have second-person knowledge, by direct interaction with objects and the world. Third-person knowledge is the generalization of the first two by formal means that gives us the sense of regularity, of the Law. Can there be fourth-person knowledge? Yes, and in the same sense in which we speak of «a fourth principle of mechanics»; they are two sides of the same coin.
In fact the laws of mechanics are just a particular application of the laws of thought and the semiotic transformation of symbols. The question is, what happens if we totally reverse this direction towards the first person and still keep the formal tools of mathematics and interaction with physical objects? Then we would enter a completely unforeseen territory, which does not belong to any of the «three persons» of our intellectual economy.
But this cannot be done just like that. This is not about accumulation of knowledge, but about its transformation.
What kind of transformation do you mean?
Of a very profound but subtle transformation in the view of principles, interpretations, and the calculus itself. Modern analysis is a dazzling construction, but it has been concerned with the justification of predictions, not with the description of the physical geometry of problems. Often it has not lived up to its name, since, seeking rigor for already known solutions, it has not even made a correct analysis of the physical, not mathematical, dimensions of the problems. We also have the aforementioned confusion between material point and material particle, which prevents us from advancing in the description of real particles, which are bodies with extension. This has all kind of consequences, since it give us the indispensable frame to conceive the non-singular individuation of bodies and processes. And a series of very important equilibria that are hardly considered in modern physics and mathematics. And there is the ubiquity of highly heterogeneous quantities in the fundamental equations of physics, which gives us so many inextricable knots.
Without good analysis you can’t have a good synthesis; without directly addressing these questions, among others, knowledge cannot be properly distilled, because it has too many mixtures and impurities. If they are addressed we will find another horizon of understanding; and a convergence that is both formal and informal not only between different disciplines, but between different approaches within any of them.
Fourth-person knowledge already exists virtually within the other three, we just don’t pay attention to it as is overshadowed by our assumptions and abusive generalizations. Newton’s three laws of mechanics, inspired by Descartes’ earlier three laws, seem a great achievement, but they are also a universal leveler. They translate to motion something that still remains different —if physics were only motion, it would be entirely trivial. But why are these three laws not reducible to a single principle? For knowledge in the fourth person unfolds to the same extent that we are able to subsume different laws, even the three laws of motion, into a single principle. And in this very sense, Newton’s laws lock an unknown potential that we must learn how to unlock.
My impression is that the current philosophy of technology leaves the technical issues to the engineers and scientists to focus on the more human aspects of use and meaning. Isn’t that so?
Of course; and it is further assumed that in technoscience we can only question the future but not the foundations. But assuming this, those who want to think technology are relegated to the position of chroniclers and commentators of a present that is beyond them. On the other hand, in a digitalized world, they tend to believe that information has superseded mechanical and material categories, when it does nothing more than reproduce them at another level. This is all too superficial, but most people think that looking for something new in the three principles of mechanics is like pretending to bring forth water from a rock. And yet this rock has water in abundance.
We do not realize the double meaning of all this. We have predictive sciences, such as physics, and we have descriptive or narrative sciences, such as cosmology or the current theory of evolution, without the slightest predictive capacity, but which try to fill the huge gap of the predictive sciences when it comes to explaining the appearances and forms we observe. Between one and the other there is wild gap, a divide that only statistical and probabilistic means attempt to bridge; but this divide works in both directions. Yet something “as simple” as the principles of motion are a precondition for both the consistency of prediction and description; not to mention that they summarily contain the three dimensions of discourse.
There is nothing more powerful than the tacit concept of the «global synchronizer» established by the Third Principle. And yet it has feet of clay, it is only a metaphysical ghost that is hiding from us the true synchronization between multiple agents, the natural feedback and the amechanical relationship that exists between the global and the local. But all technology since language belongs to the tertiary order. If we admit the existence of another type of tertiary relationship in Nature itself, its impact on human culture may be incalculable. Of course, this cannot occur in isolation, but within a much broader context.
However, many do think that information technologies have definitively overcome mechanicism. Is a Turing machine really mechanistic?
Still there are discussions on this. Turing was asked “what is a mechanical process” and his answer was “something that can be done by a machine”; so for him his machine was clearly mechanical, though not in the mechanistic, but in the functional sense of the word. On the other hand, the same Turing criterion is irrelevant to the real work of a modern computer, being just a meta-analytical artifact. Anyway, the much more basic question we should ask is: are the principles of mechanics mechanistic? For the three principles of mechanics are already a universal symbolic machine. And the answer is no, for their application is not a mechanical matter of fixed rules, but something extremely delicate that often requires great discernment; in fact the new theories have arisen from careful modifications in their many possible strands.
There is nothing mechanical without intention. But it happens that machines are successful externalizations of that intention, portions of spirit frozen in matter. In the middle of the triangle of mechanics there is always a great Eye assigning the articulation of its moments; that is the little secret that the intervenor, nothing divine, would rather we did not see.
Someone said that «software ate the world and now has indigestion»; well, mechanics already ate it before, but we did not even realize it because the predictive sciences find their expansion and their alibi in the narrative sciences that supplement them and in which there is such a wild margin for speculation. But all these narratives also derive from the logistics of mechanics, in which, so to speak, software and hardware merge.
Finally, are there practical applications for these ideas?
Sure, but I am not interested if we don’t change the very idea of «application» to begin with. Constant differential calculus, for example, profoundly changes the idea of what applied mathematics is, and with it, physics itself, measure theory, dimensional analysis, probability, and so on. But it is still entirely undeveloped. As our idea of applied mathematics changes, so does the idea of physical reality, of technical application and even of pure mathematics, because our standards for describing mathematical objects change. It is impossible to do really new things without touching the foundations; everything that is built on the known foundations, by sheer historical inertia, is already headed in the same direction.
The priority is to shed new light on mechanics, our concept of “machine» and our relationship to it. We can look for very simple concrete designs that require hardly any means and are more eloquent than heaps of theories. It is not a matter of «falsifying» the old principles, for that is not possible, but of creating «machines» and «functions» that clearly and lucidly illustrate this new amechanical perspective. Once this makes its way into our minds, we will not want to go back to business as usual. Why? Because we want to overcome mechanics, and mechanics is just a successful language created by our minds. From a certain point of view, you can reduce all music to mechanics, but when it comes through us and we pay attention to it, it is something alive and very different. Surely there must be an important relationship between the geometric phase and music that we have so far neglected, just as we neglect its presence in biomechanics and living beings. Feedback and biofeedback acquire a completely different interest if the displacement of the potential defines the contour of a loop. Just as the geometric phase is now used in robotics for control, we can use it for tuning, decisively changing its meaning.
So where does all this lead us? Let those with imagination try to imagine it. Disconstent with the present orientation of technoscience is on the rise, and maverick researchers are looking for a different direction and outlet for their efforts. The time has come for multi-specialists to join forces and spirit to bring something new to the world.
Are you a multi-specialist yourself?
No, I don’t have any special knowledge; I am interested in redirecting different aspects of knowledge to a certain perspective.
Since Newton’s Principia, knowledge in all branches has multiplied by about four million; and yet physicists themselves have misunderstood several crucial passages of that obscure book, precisely by over-specializing and restricting its meaning while at the same time generalizing its scope without measure. Multi-specialists have the freedom of perspective and the technical competence to do things, and a good number of them longs for meaning and purpose.