Yertle The Turtle, Cosmological Anti-Foundationalism, And Political Change

Bertrand Russell and William James were informed, in rather arch fashion, we are told, that the solution to the age-old cosmological problem was that it was turtles all the way down. Another no less distinguished philosopher, Theodor Seuss Geisel suggested, however, that the chain of turtles, rather than extending into the deepest recesses of a cosmic infinitude, might terminate in a particular turtle, one named Mack, with a proclivity for burping at inopportune moments. Especially if you happened to be the top of the heap, and gazing fondly over the vast reaches of your empire, as Yertle, Mack’s oppressor, was. This rather simple opposition, however, does not do justice to the political and metaphysical sophistication of Geisel’s vision of this world’s orderings and the motive powers that might disturb them.

Consider that Mack does not remove himself from the bottom of the stack by shrugging, which might be considered the correct way to displace off one’s shoulders, the weight of an oppressive, individuality-destroying hierarchy (as Ayn Rand so memorably suggested in, er, Atlas Shrugged); rather, he burps. Why does Geisel chose the emission of the burp as the prime stack-toppling agent?

A burp is, as Wikipedia informs us, “the release of gas from the digestive tract (mainly esophagus and stomach) through the mouth. It is usually accompanied with a typical sound and, at times, an odor.”  As mention of “gas,” “mouth,” “digestive,” “stomach,” and “odor” suggest, a burp is a lowly, bodily thing. There is little reason in it; no premeditation, no planning, no ratiocination; it is irredeemably sordid with nary a hint of the sublime. It is all praxis and no theory. It is pure, elemental physicality, a surge of bodily power, a summoning up from the primeval depths of forces beyond our control. The murk stirs at the bottom of the pit, double bubble toil and trouble, and a gaseous charge is emitted, racing upwards for release at our oral orifice. (Modesty forbids me mention the alternate passageways that may be followed by such vaporous emissions when they race downwards instead.) The burp is the roiling forces of the Id, the dark Unconscious, made palpable and manifest. Especially to our olfactory and aural senses.

Thus does Geisel suggest that the greatest manifestations of power, the most towering reaches of human vanity, arrogance, and hubris, which seek to place themselves beyond the reaches of grubby, earthly powers, will be displaced by, not the high winds that blow at the summits, but rather by forces that reach up from below, from the deepest depths, from those most repressed, those that are the least visible. The political lesson here is clear and stark: do not expect change to come from the top, it must become from below, from those who are the most reviled, the most oppressed, the ones whose voices are all too easily ignored and shouted over. And when they do rise up, they will not do so in fancy, prettified ways; they will revel in the ugliness that was always ascribed to them. It will be their greatest weapon.

Blood Meridian and The Nature of the Universe

Yesterday’s post, in which I excerpted a couple of passages from Samuel Delany channeling Foucault, is followed today by two excerpts from Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West (Vintage International, New York, 1992). I’m going to call these ‘theological’ in nature. (The entire novel, I realize, may be termed a kind of theology.)

First, the judge speaks to us about the ways and manners of God’s speaking and how traces may be found, read and heard in the world around us:

[T]he judge took one of the packanimals and emptied out the panniers and went off to explore the works. In the afternoon he sat in the compound breaking ore samples with a hammer, the feldspar rich in red oxide of copper and native nuggets in whose organic lobations he purported to read news of the earth’s origins, holding an extemporary lecture in geology to a small gathering who nodded and spat. A few would quote him scripture to confound his ordering up of eons out of the ancient chaos and other apostate supposings. The judge smiled.

Books lie, he said.

God don’t lie.

No, said the judge. He does not. And these are his words.

He held up a chunk of rock.

He speaks in stones and trees, the bones of things.

As the judge’s investigations–careful and systematic and thoughtful–suggest, this reading and hearing is a form of diligent study; God’s ‘words’ are not written in the most straightforward fashion and may require some decipherment.

Second, a passage–again featuring the judge–that suggests the universe is a little less comprehensible than the first claim might have indicated:

The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a muddled field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.

The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.

These lines suggest a universe our understanding of which is necessarily limited; our best theories of it rest on assumptions about its comprehensibility and uniformity that are unjustified. We are especially hamstrung in our efforts to comprehend the universe because the very tools we use for its study–our mind included–are themselves part of it, and thus always subject to the mysteries and vagaries that self-reference creates.

Is Economics a Science?

Eric Maskin, 2007 Nobel Prize winner in Economics, responds to Alex Rosenberg and Tyler Curtain’s characterization of economics:

They claim that a scientific discipline is to be judged primarily on its predictions, and on that basis, they suggest, economics doesn’t qualify as a science.

Prediction is certainly a valuable goal in science, but not the only one. Explanation is also important, and there are plenty of sciences that do a lot of explaining and not much predicting. Seismology, for example, has taught us why earthquakes occur, but doesn’t tell Californians when they’ll be hit by “the big one.”

And through meteorology we know essentially how hurricanes form, even though we can’t say where the next storm will arise.

In the same way, economic theory provides a good understanding of how financial derivatives are priced….But that doesn’t mean that we know whether the derivatives market will crash this year.

Perhaps one day earthquakes, hurricanes and financial crashes will all be predictable. But we don’t have to wait until then for seismology, meteorology and economics to become sciences; they already are.

Maskin’s examples should really indicate that seismology and meteorology do make predictions; they just happen to be probabilistic ones like ‘there will almost certainly be an earthquake measuring 7 on the Richter scale in California in the next hundred years’ or ‘this summer’s Atlantic hurricane season will most likely see more hurricanes in the Caribbean than last year’; it is on the basis of these rough and ready predictions and the historical record (and, of course, the extra-scientific assumption that the laws of physics will endure) that building codes in the relevant regions have changed in response.

Still, Maskin is on to something: most careless characterizations of science attribute far too many essential features to science.

Consider for instance, a definition of science that says a scientific discipline necessarily relies on experimentation and produces law-like statements about nature. The former would exclude cosmology, the latter biology. (Rosenberg and Curtain have been careful enough to not talk about laws or experimentation in their description of the ‘essential’ features of science.)

The model of science that Rosenberg and Curtain work with is, unsurprisingly enough, based on physics. Furthermore, the examples they use–predicting the orbit of a satellite around Mars, the explanation of chemical reactions in terms of underlying atomic structure, predictions of eclipses and tides, the prevention of bridge collapses and power failures–are derived from the same terrain.  In general, there seems to be much consensus that a putative candidate for scientific status succeeds the more closely a description of it matches that of paradigmatic theoretical and experimental physics. As this similarity fades, more work has to be done to include that discipline in the scientific cluster.

It is still not clear to me that economics is a science. But that is not because it fails to meet some ‘essential feature’ of science; rather, it is because we still lack a complete understanding of what makes a discipline a science.  There is a persistent difficulty of the characterization problem in the philosophy of science: most definitions of science–as any undergraduate in a philosophy of science class quickly comes to realize–fail to do justice to scientific practice through history and to the actual content of scientific knowledge.

The debate about whether economics is a science is most interesting because it shows the prestige associated with scientific knowledge; a successful classification as a science entails greater acceptance and entrenchment of its claims, and concomitantly, greater support–possibly financial–for its continued practice.

In the marketplace of competing knowledge claims, this is the truly important issue at hand.