Scientific or Social Origins

I have finally got around to Lee Smolin’s new book, about time. As sympathetic as I am to his ideas, I can’t help but look toward the blind spots. Here’s one quote: “In the past, great conceptual steps in physical science have been echoed in social sciences. Newton’s idea of absolute time and space is said to have greatly influenced the political theory of his contemporary John Locke. The notion that positions of particles were defined with respect not to each other but to absolute space was mirrored in the notion of rights defined for each citizen with respect to an unchanging absolute background of the principles of justice.” Someone who advocates the moment of emergence, the unexpected and the new should be cautious about attributing causes. I wonder why he assumes that a new world view necessarily derives from science. It could be exactly the other way around—that Newton may not have even imagined time and space as background without prior social changes that disposed him to think that way. The problem lies in an academic orientation. Since when do the social sciences have any historical importance? Their view is always retrospective and their value is merely descriptive at best. If we want a real change of paradigms don’t look for it in the university. Better is the insight of Robert Musil, already quoted on this blog: “The train of events is a train unrolling its rails ahead of itself. The river of time is a river sweeping its banks along with it. The traveler moves about on a solid floor between solid walls, but the floor and the walls are being moved along too, imperceptibly and yet in a very lively fashion, by the movements that his fellow travelers make.” I love this quote, and it has inspired some of my own work.

Robert Linsley, #8 from 100 Views of Mt. Baker 1997

Robert Linsley, #8 from 100 Views of Mt. Baker 1997

Everything moves together, and neither science nor art nor even sociology have priority. If we wanted to derive a principle here it would be something like The German Ideology, despite over 100 years of criticism still the most shocking and enlightening text of our time. But all this makes me sensitive to another of Smolin’s metaphors. And yes they are metaphors. In the quote above science is a metaphor, in other words a substitute for more fundamental social facts. In this quote we can hear the ideology of Silicon Valley and the desperation of the entrepreneurial culture: “Both democratic governance and the workings of the scientific community have evolved to manage several basic facts about human beings. We’re smart but we’re flawed in characteristic ways. We’re able to study our situation in nature over a single lifetime and accumulate knowledge over many lifetimes. But we have also evolved a capacity for thinking and acting at the snap of a twig. This means we often make mistakes and fool ourselves. To combat our propensity for error, we have evolved societies that embrace the contradiction between the conservative and the rebel in the service of future generations.” Conservative and rebel are nothing if not fictions, metaphors in fact for the processes of technological so-called “innovation.” Since Lee’s book makes major claims, and welcome ones, it’s disappointing to see this kind of lapse into a weak rhetoric that comes out of business. And the idea that social organization can compensate for human blindness, when it is itself a product of that same limitation, is also distressing. But then these quotes come from the final chapter of the book, in which he perhaps gets a little off his turf.

Lee Smolin

Lee Smolin

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