24 JUNE, 2015
By: Maria Popova
“When someone exposes himself as a slave in the market place, what wonder if he finds a master?”
Many decades before Rebecca Goldstein, one of the most compelling philosophers and scientific thinkers of our time, examined how Einstein and Gödel’s work on relativity rattled our understanding of existence, her twentieth-century counterpart — the brilliant French philosopher and political activist Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943) — probed the subject with extraordinary intellectual elegance in an invigorating essay titled “Reflections on Quantum Theory.” Originally written the year before Weil’s death and later included in the out-of-print posthumous 1968 collection On Science, Necessity and the Love of God (public library), the essay considers how the advent of two theories — relativity (“a very simple theory, so long as one does not try to understand it”) and quantum mechanics — ripped our understanding of the world asunder, opening up a massive abyss between “science as it had been understood ever since ancient Greece” and modern science.
After a swift primer on the evolution of science from Galileo and Newton to Einstein and Planck, Weil turns to the key culprit in this major rift between classical and contemporary science — our increasing and, she admonishes, increasingly dangerous reliance on mathematical expression as the most accurate expression of reality, flattening and making artificially linear the dimensional and messy relationships of which reality itself is woven:
What makes the abyss between twentieth-century science and that of previous centuries is the different role of algebra. In physics algebra was at first simply a process for summarizing the relations, established by reasoning based on experiment, between the ideas of physics; an extremely convenient process for the numerical calculations necessary for their verification and application. But its role has continually increased in importance until finally, whereas algebra was once the auxiliary language and words the essential one, it is now exactly the other way round. There are even some physicists who tend to make algebra the sole language, or almost, so that in the end, an unattainable end of course, there would be nothing except figures derived form experimental measurements, and letters, combined in formulae. Now, ordinary language and algebraic language are not subject to the same logical requirement; relations between ideas are not fully represented by relations between letters; and, in particular, incompatible assertions may have equational equivalents which are by no means incompatible. When some relations between ideas have been translated into algebra and the formulae have been manipulated solely according to the numerical data of the experiment and the laws proper to algebra, results may be obtained which, when retranslated into spoken language, are a violent contradiction of common sense.
Weil argues that this creates an incomplete and, in its incompleteness, illusory representation of reality — even when it bisects the planes of mathematical data and common sense, such science leaves out the unquantifiable layer of meaning:
If the algebra of physicists gives the impression of profundity it is because it is entirely flat; the third dimension of thought is missing.
That third dimension is that of meaning — one concerned with notions like “the human soul, freedom, consciousness, the reality of the external world.” (Three decades later, Hannah Arendt — another of the twentieth century’s most piercing and significant minds — would memorably contemplate the crucial difference between truth and meaning, the former being the material of science and the latter of philosophy.)
Illustration from 'Alice in Quantumland' by Robert Gilbert, an allegorical primer on quantum mechanics inspired by 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.
But most perilous of all, Weil argues, is our tendency to mistake the findings of science for objectivity and capital-T Truth, forgetting that it is scientists who make science — and scientists are human, a product of their time, beholden to their era’s values and to their own subjective impressions of truth. She cautions:
Scientific theories pass away as men’s fashions did in the seventeenth century; the Louis XIII style of dress disappeared when the last of the old men who had been young during Louis XIII’s reign were dead… Science is voiceless; it is the scientists who talk. And what they say is certainly not independent of time.
Weil argues that much of the subjectivity, which robs science of the necessary largeness in explaining the world in its full dimensions, is due to a certain scientific tribalism — scientists’ tendency to confine themselves to small groups that study only small subsets of the larger whole, with little or no cross-pollination between these tribes:
The villagers seldom leave the village; many scientists have limited and poorly cultivated minds apart from their specialty or, if a scientist is interested in something outside his specific work, it is very unusual for him to relate that interest, in his mind, with his interest in science. The inhabitants of the village are studious, brilliant, exceptionally gifted; but all the same, up to an age when mind and character are for the most part already formed, they are lycée students among the other and are taught from mediocre textbooks. No one has ever been particularly concerned to develop their critical spirit. At no point in their lives are they specifically trained to put the pure love of truth above other motives… Among the inhabitants of the village, as among all men, this love is to be found, mixed in varying proportions with the other motives — among them the taste for precision and work properly done, and the desire to be talked about, and greed for money, consideration, fame, honors, titles, and also antipathies and jealousies and friendships. This village, like all other villages, is composed of average humanity, with a few excesses above and below.
Thus, Weil argues, the capital-T truth science purports to produce is merely the average of the various subjectivities of the villagers:
As elsewhere, the strife of generations and individuals results at any given moment in an average opinion. The state of science at a given moment is nothing else but this; it is the average opinion of the village of scientists… As for the scientists themselves, they are naturally the first to pass of their own opinions as if they were deliverances of an oracle, for which they have no responsibility and cannot be called to account. This pretension is intolerable, because it is not legitimate. There is no oracle, but only the opinions of scientists, who are men. They affirm what they believe they ought to affirm, and they are right to do so; but they themselves are the responsible authors of all their affirmations and are accountable for them.
Art adapted from Alice and Martin Provensen's vintage pop-up book about the life of Leonardo. Click image for more.
What modern scientists are most accountable for, Weil argues, is the rupture with classical science, which was better integrated with philosophy:
What is disastrous is not the rejection of classical science but the way in which it has been rejected. It wrongly believed it could progress indefinitely, and it ran into a dead end about the year 1900; but scientists failed to stop at the same time in order to contemplate and reflect upon the barrier, they did not try to describe and define it and, having taken it into account, to draw some general conclusions form it; instead, they rushed violently past it, leaving classical science behind them. And why should we be surprised at this? For are they not paid to forge continually ahead? Nobody advances in his career, or in reputation, or gets a Nobel Prize, by standing still. To cease voluntarily from forging ahead, any brilliantly gifted scientist would need to be a sort of saint or hero, and why should he be a saint or hero?
What Weil is essentially championing is a necessary balance between progress and pause for reflection — something John Dewey had memorably advocated decades earlier. Having forgone that, she argues, modern scientists removed themselves from the big-picture questions of meaning by gradually fragmenting science into smaller and smaller units of measurable truth.
For a contemporary parallel, we need not look further than journalism and the media industry, which in their insatiable hunger for progress along flawed metrics like pageviews have reduced the profession’s true social currency — substantive writing that elucidates meaning — to “content,” which implies the very thing thing it purveys: meaningless filler material to stick between advertising. In her eternal prescience, Susan Sontag — who famously wrote that “anything from Simone Weil’s pen is worth reading” — presaged this modern epidemic half a century ago, writing in 1964: “Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art… Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.” Where modern scientists erred, Weil argues, is in lurching forward with the content of science without stepping back to see the thing at all — the thing being the ultimate subject of their study, the nature of reality itself.
But make no mistake — severe as Weil’s critique may be, it is the opposite of anti-scientific: At its heart is not an assault on science but a passionate plea for protecting its integrity and ensuring its survival for generations to come. She considers the root of the problem:
Science, like every effort of thought, consists in interpreting experience… It is a mistake to think that experiment is of any use for this purpose, because all human thought, including beliefs which appear completely absurd, is experimental and claims to be based on and confirmed by experience… All thought is an effort of interpretation of experience, and experience provides neither model nor rule nor criterion for the interpretation; it provides the data of problems but not a way of solving or even of formulating them. This effort requires, like all other efforts, to be oriented towards something; all human effort is oriented and when man is not going in any direction he remains motionless. He cannot do without values. For all theoretical study the name of value is truth. It is impossible, no doubt, for men of flesh and blood in this world to have any representation of truth which is not defective; but they must have on — an imperfect image of the non-representable truth which we once saw, as Plato says, beyond the sky.
Illustration from Ralph Steadman's 'I, Leonardo.' Click image for more.
Classical scientists, Weil argues, had an imperfect representation of scientific truth — but they had one. She proposes a somewhat improbable and, in its imaginative improbability, a rather poetic solution — a mandatory period of pause for reflection amid science’s galloping progress:
A compulsory halt would … force scientists to try to recapitulate and revise… to make an honest survey of axioms, postulates, definitions, hypotheses, and principles, without omitting those which are implied in experimental technique itself, such as the use of the balance. Such a work would perhaps make science a field of knowledge, by revealing clearly the difficulties, contradictions, and impossibilities which today are hurriedly concealed under solutions behind which the intelligence can discern nothing. But it is a work which should be begun soon. Otherwise the arrest of science might lead, not to a renewal but to the disappearance of the scientific spirit throughout the whole world for several centuries, as happened after the Roman Empire had killed the science of Greece.
Weil argues that this compulsive concealment of the difficulties inherent to science, coupled with increasing specialization of the different villages, has ensured that “the layman cannot understand anything about science and that scientists themselves are laymen outside their own special departments.” Granted, with the hindsight of more than seven decades, we can perhaps exhale with a certain grateful awareness that this is no longer the case — if anything, we can even wonder whether the greatest scientific development of the twentieth century isn’t any particular theory or branch of science but the rise of science communication, which continues to popularize science among said “laymen,” increasingly inviting all of us to understand — and, in the case of citizen science, to contribute to — the conquest of truth.
And yet such cultural developments notwithstanding, Weil’s central charge rings just as true today:
In the present crisis there is something compromised which is infinitely more precious even than science; it is the idea of truth… So soon as truth disappears, utility at once takes its place, because man always directs his effort toward some good or other. Thus utility becomes something which the intelligence is no longer entitled to define or to judge, but only to serve. From being the arbiter, intelligence becomes the servant, and it gets its orders from the desires. And, further, public opinion then replaces conscience as sovereign mistress of thoughts, because man always submits his thoughts to some higher control, which is superior either in value or else in power. That is where we are today. Everything is oriented towards utility, which nobody thinks of defining; public opinion reigns supreme, in the village of scientists as in the great nations. It is as though we had returned to the age of Protagoras and the Sophists, the age when the art of persuasion — whose modern equivalent is advertising slogans, publicity, propaganda meetings, the press, the cinema, the radio — took the place of thought.
The official guardians of spiritual values have allowed them to decay… In the period of sorrow and humiliation which we have already entered and which will perhaps be a very long one, our only hope of recovering some day what we lack is to feel with our whole soul how well-merited our misfortune is… When someone exposes himself as a slave in the market place, what wonder if he finds a master?
How very pregnant with poignancy this final remark is, for in the decades since Weil penned her lament, culture has become even more subservient to commerce. In fact, this very book — a packet of some of the most luminous, intellectually exhilarating, and spiritually stimulating thinking of the past century — is deeply out of print, presumably because at some point publishers determined there wasn’t enough of a “market” for these ideas outside the few of us willing to pay exorbitant prices for the handful of surviving copies.
Should you be so lucky as to find one such precious copy of On Science, Necessity and the Love of God — your local library might help — you will find yourself at once infinitely gladdened by Weil’s enduring ideas and infinitely saddened by the self-fulfilling prophecy embedded in this particular one. Complement it with Weil on how to make use of our suffering and how to be a complete human being.
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