Tuesday, 19 May 2009

The land of colloidal suspensions and monosaccharides

Is the cosmologist’s yearn for unification a religious impulse?
In this period of transition from its religious basis, science often shares with the celestial maps of astrology, or a hundred other irrationalisms, the same nostalgia for the Final Answer, the One Truth, the Single Cause.
In the cultural troposphere we frequently encounter great, conclusive quests: for the Grail, the End of History, Nirvana, Sunlit Uplands, a Grand Unifying Theory, the Final Reckoning, a Universal Acid, the Promised Land, a paradise of virgins, the Land of Milk and Honey, the Great Day of Judgement – the Singularity – as these if are things we should expect imminently, or at least one day hope to see.
Our collected values – these tales we retell ourselves compulsively – reinforce and hammer home the idea of an eventual conclusion to our labour: in literature the mythical archetype identified by Joseph Campbell is consciously and accidentally replicated in many of the stories we tell ourselves. 
The unvarying narrative is linear progression goes, roughly, like so: imbalance, challenge, fortitude, reckoning and, at the very last, final victory and dominion. Even Campbell’s “mono-myth” itself takes this form of unification: it is an uncomfortable shoe-horning of geographically and linguistically dispersed creation myths, that dont quite fit, into a single archetypal story.
Mythical stories, of course, tend not to ask “and then what?” The archetype refuses to consider these very consequences (naturally: it assumes there are no more consequences). This bleeds into our metaphysics. We are acculturated to yearn for “closure”. It suits us to suppose we’re headed somewhere, that whether or not we personally live to feast our eyes upon the promised land, at least our descendants will. (Are we fated, like Moses, to be denied at the last, our greatest pleasure to watch from a distance? And was this really a disappointment for him? Did Moses not go to heaven?)
We predicate our existence on that hope: While we, personally, may fall by the wayside our struggle will not have been in vain.
This Will to Closure is a religious idea. We know – well, we ought to, by now – that there is no cure for war; that solutions create problems, reward takes risk, supply creates demand, fulfilment creates expectation. The land of milk and honey is a terrifying idea (what would we do all day? Just eat? Would we apprehend a need for literature? Art? Discourse? Change? Why?), it is also an absurd one, because what we call milk and honey is precisely what be believe to be just somewhat out of our reach. Gold’s intrinsic worth is its very scarcity.
So whatever Heaven might be, we know it can’t be filled with only compliant virgins and winged granddads plucking on harps. That would be ghastly, and heaven isn’t ghastly, Q.E.D. There will be strife, discord, bitterness and fury because on these things, despite ourselves, we thrive. Life is the very process of solving these problems, answering these questions.
The land of milk and honey is a terrifying idea. What would we do all day? Just eat?
The Will to Closure is an indulgence though; we truck with it only because, deep down, we know it to be misconceived. We can’t have it, and we wouldn’t want it if we could. Who wants a final solution?
So much for the religious Will to Closure. But there is a scientific analogue: the aspiration to grand theoretical unification: call it the Will to Reduction. This is the proposition that Science is a singular, proper noun, that it will accordingly eventually yield a single, coherent, closed system of rules; a complete operating manual for the universe.
This is no less religious an idea. 
To be sure, the Will to Reduction is a noble quest, but its practical importance is in its aspiration and not its outcome. It generates useful practical tools as a by-product. The prospect that Science might actually reach a conclusion would be as catastrophic as the great day of judgement, were it not as equally absurd:
For what would we then do? Our lot would be as dismal as an entrant’s to heaven. All knowledge, all fiction, all superfluity, all contingency would cancel out to a common factor, and a single, integrated über machine would be left; a super brain. What would remain would be no different from God, and in a final hot blast of logic we should redundantly shrivel and evaporate in His sight, the question WHY AM I HERE? having been answered, without irony or compassion, AS OF NOW, YOU’RE NOT.
Absurd, of course, because such an extrapolation isn’t possible. Like our moral knowledge, or technological knowledge is path-dependent, contingent on the questions we want to ask. The contingency of knowledge is fundamental to its acquisition, and to its use. 
It's a Dappled World, as Nancy Cartwright put it, and thank the Lord (if you'll excuse the expression) for that. 

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