Friday 18 October 2013

From physiká to metaphysiká; Grand theories as 'portals'

In the comments to my last post dmf writes:
... personally I don't feel the need for a "meta" to physics and I think this ties in with our earlier discussion of Latour leaving the field/lab behind to take a perch for a more God's-eye view.
It's late and I'm not sure that I can think straight but this prompts some words to emerge from my brain, run through my nervous system and into my tippy-tappy, keyboard bothering fingers.  Here they are:

I don't think there's anything to be feared in shifting from physiká to metaphysiká.  If any discourse claims to be a god's eye view of reality it's surely modern physics!  A metaphysics that tries to explain things away or to denigrate the non-meta is a bad metaphysics but one that acknowledges the metaphysical presuppositions implicit in our physical experiences, gives them a vocabulary and thus makes them thinkable is alright in my book.  As long as it does something worthwhile it is worthwhile.  That it is intrinsically speculative is neither here nor there.

I think that we need to do away with the notion that metaphysics is the 'highest' form of knowledge.  In a way it's the lowest.  Below even common sense.  It's an expression not of knowledge but of ignorance; it's a way of muddling through despite our almost complete ignorance of that of which we speak.  It can be exciting but it's nothing to be exalted.

The same is broadly true of e.g. grand, macroscopic social and political theories.  These are usually accorded the grandest honours and greatest respect.  The more a theory is said to 'explain,' the wider the window it gazes from, the higher the vantage point it looks down from the more wonderful it is said to be.  This is nonsense.  The higher you rise up in your observation balloon the further you see, yes, but the worse you see it.  Reach increases as resolution declines.

The best that can be said of grand theories (and this is an important virtue, I'm not damning by faint praise) is that they are often extremely well connected.  Like a good map, you can use a grand theory to travel widely and securely with very little terra incognita roughing up your smooth ride.  A good map is a 'portal' that connects intimately to everywhere it represents but without even beginning to 'sum up,' much less 'explain away,' anything (or even trying).

If every pixel of a digital bitmap is a trajectory connected to a locality then you can either focus in closely on one thing and connect to it very intensively or step back and capture many things but be much less connected to any one of them.  That's a stretched analogy but hopefully it makes sense.  Grand theories as portals are valuable.  The trouble comes when we take grandiosity to suggest proximity to the real.  If anything the opposite is true, although a bad map connects to nowhere.