THE REVOLUTION THAT WILL HAPPEN: CHINA AND THE FUTURE OF TECHNO-SCIENCE

It is being said that this year 2020 could mark the beginning of the Asian Century, or if you prefer, the Chinese Century; though we will not find Chinese analysts among those who claim such things. The authors who insist on this reading of the facts point, for example, to China’s clear leadership in such an strategic sector as 5G, or the imminent arrival of the digital yuan, which could cause the collapse of the dollar hegemony sooner or later. No doubt, China plays for real.

Yet this need for China to do things independently and in its own way is too often interpreted as an aggressive or expansionist policy in the West, without wanting to see that it is the West itself that has created the current rules where the winner takes it all. In the coming years we will not fail to see this rivalry for technological supremacy increasing, with the usual war of accusations and disqualifications led almost exclusively by one side.

But here I want to touch on a much broader subject than that of technological competition that is not receiving the slightest attention. I am referring to the relationship between science and technology to form a whole, what we now call Technoscience. Technoscience is the reciprocal action or continuity existing between the utilitarian applications and the development of the scientific method, between practice and theory, between power and knowledge. Power and knowledge limit each other, but incredibly, modern studies on technoscience, still know nothing about how and on what depends that knowledge and power are self-limiting —in a totally involuntary, spontaneous way.

To start knowing something about this, we would need counter-examples, that is, we should be able to contrast what we have now with other developments in science and technology with the same level but really independent. However, in the Western countries they use to stress that there is only one possible way of doing science —precisely the one those countries advocate and control.

We don’t need illustrations for such an overwhelmingly accepted assumption; but I will still bring up an example to help us appreciate how it sounds when someone wants to put it into words. In a Foreign Policy article appeared some two years ago, titled “The Future of Particle Physics Will Live and Die in China“, the author laments that the extremely expensive next-generation supercollider will no longer be built by Europeans or Americans, but by the Chinese. And that is not the bad news: Western researchers will only have the status of guest observers, instead of deciding what experiments are performed or how the data are filtered.

So to prevent this from happening, the author does not fail to invoke the universality of science: the Chinese must know as soon as possible that there is no such thing as “a science with Chinese characteristics”, but just plain old international science, which, just by chance, come directly from the offices of Princeton, Cambridge or Geneva. In other words, the Chinese should be content to pay for the project, while they watch and learn from the creative American scientists how to make the most of an investment. Thus spoke Foreign Policy.

There is no need for comments, as this position disqualifies itself. As for the rest, the mega-projects of Western Big Science with their enormous inertia have always been the worst imaginable place for critical thinking, since such large investments force these endeavors to justify themselves whatever it takes —something well known even by the lowest operator working in them.

This is why Chinese scientists have very good reasons to be suspicious. On the other hand, the Chinese authorities could seriously consider whether it is worth inviting Western scientists who, freed from having to justify their own projects, would be eager to revive all that repressed critical spirit waiting for a better occasion.

If there is no Chinese, American or European science, but just international science, why be alarmed that China does its own experiments? They should relax and calmly wait for the results, and be thankful for saving them so much money and work; but it seems there is something more to it.

The most trite case of “concern” about what Chinese scientists might do is in biotechnology and genetic manipulation, especially as it affects humans. But, once again, it is not the Chinese who have invented cloning, nor those who have put into circulation the now universally accepted idea that genes are nothing more than “information”, right? And yet this latter reduction is the first thing that should be challenged, because it is what has led us to the indiscriminate manipulation of life. Besides, it is clear that no private corporation will have higher standards in this regard than governments.

But while these issues already attract media attention and are subject of discussions, they are still at the crudest levels of debate —those of propaganda, suspicion and veiled or open accusation. What I want to raise here, and no one has raised yet, is a much more far-reaching challenge for our ideas and our imagination, and surely for the future of humanity. What I want to raise here is whether China will finally be able to develop a science, or a techno-science, really different from what the West has so far deployed.

It has become a cliché to talk about the lack of originality of Chinese researchers, systematically ignoring the enormous effort it has taken for them to catch up and adapt to rules of the game that are completely alien to their mentality. We do not realize that this “lack of originality” is nothing but the effect of belonging to a culture that has been the most differentiated and original in the world, but which has also suffered the tragic circumstance of an amputation of its autochthonous traditions.

It is these two simultaneous circumstances, a modernization as fast as ever seen, together with the unfortunate destruction of their own traditions, that has created this cojunctural, momentary image of the Chinese as lacking in originality, which is so easy to undo just by looking back. On the other hand, China has had a wonderful tradition of natural philosophy unique in the world, but its conception of Nature has so far been incompatible with the standards of modern positivism. We are referring, of course, to a loose set of traditions encompassed under the name of “Taoism”.

Modern science, since Descartes, is based on the idea of a self separated from the world. For today’s technoscience, that intelligence is totally separated from nature is an indispensable condition for recombining all aspects of nature as we please: atoms, machines, biological molecules and genes, or the interface between any of them under the utterly disengaged criterion of information. This is the condition of what I call our liberal materialism or material-liberalism.

However, although Taoism was far from playing a central role in Chinese society prior to the Revolution, the need to reintegrate intelligence into the unity of being, into the unity of nature of which it never ceased to be a part, still remains. And the same violent amputation of such a consubstantial part of Chinese culture still ask for redress, which will take place sooner or later.

The great English sinologist Joseph Needham long ago posed a famous problem known as “the Needham question”, namely why it was not China but Europe that carried out the modern scientific revolution, when the Chinese civilization was much more advanced in terms of industries, inventions and technological achievements.

This is a question that sparked a wide debate among historians, but which in my view is still confronted with more than remarkable naivety. It is said, for example, that there is no point in asking counterfactual questions, and in a sense that is obvious. But even so we are taking many things for granted. The first is that technological development has been good, and not promoting it, a mistake. The second is that the story is over, and that there will be no more unexpected turns in the relationship between science and technology. The third, related to the previous one, is that there is no option left for us than to adapt to the inexorable course and that we cannot change its direction. And all this, which now seems to us to be a fait accompli, are just assumptions.

It has been understood that during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), just before the European scientific revolution, when the number of Chinese inventions seemed to be approaching a critical mass, the ruling class decided to curb technological development as a threat to social stability. And surely this would have been the wisest decision, had it not been for the fact that other less developed and permanently warring peoples on the other side of the Eurasian continent were unable to put a brake on themselves. We all know what the outcome was.

Westerners have long been called “barbarians” in China, and I do not think that is an inappropriate rating were we to judge by the general behavior of their warring elites in the world. No doubt the West has had great values, but to think that our values are superior to those of other civilizations due to the overwhelming material success of their model shows a very low conception of what the word “values” means. And the same could be said of the ancient Chinese civilization before its decadence, if we are only able to judge it by its material development.

Today we live in the midst of a full-blown technological barbarism, and the belief, driven from above, that the solution to all our problems lies in technology leads us into the worst of all possible worlds. The same applies to the twin agenda that pretends that society must exist for the economy rather than the economy for society. These are inseparable programs whose mere assumption is already the greatest defeat, for a life governed by functionalism is not even worth living.

And it is the West, not China, that has spread this program by blood and fire all over the world. But when China has had to assume it to the end, even if only to survive, it frightens us and even horrifies us —because it gives us back in a reflection not only what we do not see of ourselves, but above all what we do not want to see: that our lives have no more meaning than theirs, no matter how much we insist that we are the good guys and those who do things with soul and originality.

And here comes my first judgement and my first “prediction.” The West has been unable to tame technology and its drift that leads us to the abyss. In this, its failure is as spectacular as the very rampage of the functional, technological and economic sphere. However, if China is really capable of assimilating and making the modern scientific method its own —something so far has only done in appearance- its greatest effort will lie precisely in dominating what dominates us and governing what today is ungovernable.

That is to say, it would return to the same reflex of the Ming dynasty, when it was still the most powerful empire on Earth —but in a world that has nothing to do with it, and in which turning back is simply impossible. And this would seem praiseworthy to me, for it would show that there is still a certain amount of wisdom on this planet. So the greatest danger is not that the Chinese develop “a science with Chinese characteristics”; the real danger is that they don’t develop it.

Moreover, the West should facilitate this process as much as possible, and contribute to it with the best of its intelligence. First, because if they are freed, we are freed as well. And second, because we tread a garden of forking paths. Here there are no good or bad agents, but good or bad decisions. And, as always, the good can soon become bad and vice versa.

Were to continue the script of our known history, China could give a social and collectivist turn to the new revolution of technoscience; the United States, one based on entertainment and consumerism; and other parts of the world, such as Europe, Russia, or India, would have to choose among the available models or develop their own. Digital currencies or crypto-currencies will soon put us in this field of difficult decisions and spheres of influence; but they are only a small part of the major changes that are coming in our way of seeing and acting in the world.

In a world where everything is revolutionized, waiting or talking about revolutions is like wanting to push someone who is falling —something unnecessary and without effect. And the same can be said of all the “revolutionary” changes in science and technology, which are nothing but successive concentric waves of a single great impact that took place in the 17th century. But what I am talking about is not the present “technological revolution”, since that, even if it drags us along, is little more than consensual inertia. For if we do not realize now that this drift is simply dragging us, when will we do it?

The “revolution” we are talking about requires, on the contrary, an active will capable of turning the course of events without frontally opposing the current, which rarely makes sense. This political will today seems only to exist in China, because it is still fully aware that it is at a disadvantage in a world where it has not made the rules. And scientific and technological rules are basically conventions and standards. If Poincaré already stated this in 1900, with an idea of science that is infinitely higher and more demanding than the current one, I do not know what we would have to say now. In any case, for the Chinese scientists and engineers this is painfully obvious. Do not the scientists themselves speak of the standard model of cosmology or that of particle physics?

In modern Big Science there is very little room for originality, and maybe that is the reason to use that word like a mantra. This is so much so that those who really want to do things differently have to give up research when they experience first-hand the overwhelming reality of the production of consent on an industrial scale. This is at least what many researchers say who had to choose other ways of making a living, and one can be sure that these are not mediocrities but quite the opposite.

The originality thing is a typically American public relations claim to extract illusion and give a “positive” and fresh image of scientific research. Large scale science can never be original, neither in Boston, London, or Beijing. Added to this is the fact that in Western science, that is, in the American hegemony of world science, scientific competition, like the neutrality of markets and everything else, is for the most part fictitious, and reduced to who gets the consolation prizes and the minor parts of the loot. Everything fundamental is out of the question; one has no option but to “innovate” in a carefully delimited arena.

We do not say this in a controversial spirit or to denounce anything, but to bring to mind that a “free science” and “a science by itself”, as it is claimed in the West, are absolutely contradictory and incompatible things. Ever since the times of Newton’s Royal Society it was clearly understood that science was another way of conquering the world and the minds of its inhabitants. Today’s “science by itself” is a phenomenon as natural, “spontaneous” and neutral as the hegemony of the dollar, and surely it will not last longer, since both live on our trust.

And this is precisely where the interesting part begins. Everything that seems inevitable to us today, as if fallen from the sky, still has an almost unlimited margin of change in one direction or another. For example, the current Internet in which we almost even breath, since the Internet and its digital revolution is not a product of technology alone, but of the particular way Silicon Valley shapes this technology.

But all of this, no matter how much it shapes our current environment, still is very superficial. The most profound changes do not depend merely on technology, but on the specific relationship between scientific theories and practical applications, and it is precisely in this that there is much more than meets the eye.

The United States made its unofficial takeover of world science in the shadow of the Manhattan Project and other military research of the Second World War. Around 1948, quantum electrodynamics, cybernetics and information theory crystallized. Five years later the DNA helix was identified, which would soon be reduced to the new master category of information.

All these developments have a great continuity with the interwar European science and the change is only of emphasis, towards a more “algorithmic” approach. Quantum electrodynamics, for example, which has been sold to us as the “jewel of physics”, is but a feat of computation that adds nothing new to the already diverse formulations of quantum mechanics by Schrödinger, Heisenberg or von Neumann. Information theory recycles the concept of entropy from the old statistical mechanics and applies it to machines and communication channels. Cybernetics is a gradual development of the theory of control and stability to which Wiener makes many new contributions but with a monumental strategic hole at its centre that current science has not even noticed.

In short, and to put it clearly: if the takeover of American science was not very traumatic for Europeans, it was basically due to the lack of originality of their contributions. It only involved a slight change of emphasis in the general program, clearing the way of unnecessary obstacles and scruples. However, if China truly makes the scientific method its own, and not just the technological applications, the transformation will be incomparably deeper, and to some extent, an antithesis of everything the West has known. In fact, this is the only thing that could be compared in magnitude with the scientific revolution of the Baroque era.

And what might this new Tao of Technoscience look like? No one knows that, nor does it have to be something to worry about now. Much more important is to realize that a Tao of Technoscience has always existed: that there is a relationship of reciprocal dependence between theory and practice that determines the scope of our vision, our interaction with nature and its results.

This mutual dependence has not been even remotely calibrated due to a typical Western assumption. Among natural sciences, we distinguish between “hard” and abstract sciences that make predictions, such as mathematical physics, and “soft”, descriptive sciences, much closer to the world of appearances in which we live and with a much less relevant role for mathematics: evolution theory, biology, or cosmology.

Both types of science need to concur to some extent to give coherence to our world: they are like the subjective recreation we make of time by the mutual interplay between memory and anticipation. However, Western science crystallized with the predictive sciences and the application of mathematics to physics; and then added descriptive supplements for the vast majority of phenomena that do not support prediction. These are parallel circuits of reasoning, but it is their degree of connection that decides what we can conceive and what we cannot.

I always like to give an example that exposes the connection of practice and theory in modern science. In 1956 Bohr and von Neumann came to Columbia to tell Charles Townes that his idea of a laser, which required the perfect phase alignment of a great number of light waves, was impossible because it violated Heisenberg’s inviolable uncertainty principle. The rest is history. But now everybody says that quantum mechanics predicts and makes lasers possible! Things like this happen all the time. In a word, theoretical physicists are experts at taking the credit for the hard work of experimental scientists and engineers, who have actually struggled with a theory that makes it almost impossible for them to figure things out.

But it is clear that a theory that can “predict” anything a posteriori is not a great theory, but a great rationalization, and this is true for any type of theoretical construction. Think, for example, of quantum electrodynamics, which subtracts infinities from infinities in recurring computation cycles until the expected result is reached. Today everything is justified in the name of prediction, but Ptolemy’s epicycles also held an unbeatable predictive power.

Just as the Chinese are allergic to theories, we Westerners are very good at speculating. We Westerners say, “there is nothing more practical than a good theory”, because we see the benefit we get from it, but what we do not see is the cost of adhering to it. Anyone can make theories, the difficult thing is to avoid the temptation to develop one. It is typical of Western speculative genius to overrate the role of theory to the point of actually believing Nature obeys its equations. To such an extent it has forgotten the tricks of its reverse engineering.

Technoscience has as its own matter the relationship between practice and theory. It is a fact that we owe China more technical inventions than any other culture before the scientific revolution; however the hypothetical-deductive method and its procedures are very different from the ancient Chinese methods of observation, inference and invention. There is a serious problem of compatibility here that has not yet been solved, but there is also a way to make it happen.

One should know that it is possible to change the principles, methods and interpretations of science and still have the same observations and predictions; therefore, it is only a matter of time before Chinese scientists adapt the results of modern science to their own way of seeing things. This is perfectly legitimate; what is not legitimate is wanting to prescribe to others how they have to understand nature.

In reality, current science has exhausted its theoretical potential and is at a dead end. It has abused speculation to such an extent, and has collected so well all the low-hanging fruit of predictable things, that now it can only recycle the same tricks over and over again. With a tight control of scientific production, real competition has been eliminated and dissonant voices have been marginalized. On the other hand, the same process of differentiation and specialization has an eminently irreversible character.

The problem is not that there is an American, Chinese, or European science, but that science cannot be very different from the society in which it takes place and which it serves; and it seems that we are still talking about societies that are very distant in their assumptions and objectives.

In science, as in life, the important thing is not to want to solve the problems that are not your own. What prevails today is neither “Western science” nor “international science”, but the Anglo-Saxon system of talent extraction from the global pool, which decides which problems and approaches are convenient and pertinent, all this with uninterrupted campaigns of propaganda and public relations.

In this situation of overwhelming hegemony, if China did not exist, history and nature would have had to invent it. The national viewpoint has a high degree of contingency, but appearance itself resists to be reduced to a single principle. The one-sidedness of American supremacy and its excesses could not fail to create a great void in other areas that has to be filled in some way, and science and technology are only manifestations of something more general. This we used to call “dialectic”.

Chinese science will manage to harmonize the descriptive and predictive halves, as well as its principles, means and ends. No one will be able to prevent it, and when it is achieved, we will realize how primary, short-sided and improvised scientific progress has been during these four hundred years. We shall speak of these times as the “age of prediction” and “the religion of prediction,” something very much like the California gold rush and the conquest of the West, in which the gunmen defied each other to see who had the biggest prediction.

However, no amount of knowledge or scientific development will by itself lead us to a better world. This depends on something very different. Still, the polis has come out of the physis, cultures are a second nature, and the uncertain gap between the first and second nature defines our plane of existence.

It has taken us four hundred years to weave all this fantastic web of knowledge, but it does not take four hundred more years to turn a glove inside out without breaking it. While scientific managers were concerned with control, the enormous advantage that historical perspective gave us has been completely wasted. Others will benefit from it.

No, we are not talking about the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, but about the Second Scientific Revolution, which is something completely different and has not even started. For Europe took centuries to assimilate the number system and the experimental procedures of Islamic world, which were combined with the Greek propensity for theory, to get a totally distinct outcome. We are now talking about a process of cultural transformation of at least similar scope, and probably greater, but which we can see taking shape already in this very decade of the 20s.

It can also be predicted that this transformation of science, which cannot be reduced to a single country and will end up affecting very different parts of the world, will have a much deeper cultural penetration than that of current technoscience —since the known scientific concepts are the result of a peculiar specialization that greatly limits their assimilation. The same will not be true of the new-old concepts, which by its very nature will be much less isolated; but, to begin with, these fresh developments will start from a higher degree of self-consciousness.

When the most basic scientific concepts connect with a deeper level of the human selfhood, everything will change.

I have dealt with these issues in greater depth in a book entitled “Pole of Inspiration — Math, Science and Tradition“, which I would only recommend to those who want to see science from a totally different perspective than the one that prevails today.

References

[1] Foreign Policy — Yangyang Chen, The Future of Particle Physics Will Live and Die in China,2017.

[2] Miguel Iradier, Pole of inspiration —Math, science and tradition, 2020.

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