Thursday 24 April 2014

Physics, common sense and habit

Terence Blake writes about Latour's take on physics versus common sense appearances:
[Latour] does not allow himself the facility of such a traditional metaphysical move, which costs nothing to advance, a labour-saving philosophy for the intellectually indigent. No, he claims that the “popularizer” of quantum complexity believed in the simplicity of our common-sense world because “it cost him nothing to believe that the microphone into which he was speaking, the rostrum from which he was pontificating, his own body, his genes, the walls of the room, the assembly that he was carrying along in his frenzy, all that too was bathed in a Euclidean space”. It costs him nothing to believe this simple fable because he does not do the work necessary to explore the contours of the common sense world, to investigate its multiple dimensions.
The important thing left unspoken here, I think, is the crossing with which [ref]erence is engaged. Is it [ref·dc] or [ref·hab]? Latour is clear that: 'Appearances are not shams'; on the contrary, appearances and [hab]its are what make the word 'habitable' (AIME: 268-270).

There's nothing necessarily wrong with habits or simplifications as such. High school physics classes needn’t descend into detailed exegeses of the infrastructural history of physics (although students might well benefit from some sociology of science mixed into their curriculum!). Most of the time the fact that we cannot speak of the objects made known by science except through the networks of science is trivial and needn’t be given a second thought. However, this is not true in instances of contestation, of disputation (scientific or political). In these cases the networks do have to be made explicit—morally, politically and epistemologically. At these points the test of a good versus a bad [hab]it is raised: does it retain the memory of what 'launched' it? can it switch back to the other modes of action necessary to unravel networks and comprehend indecision without undue confusion?

To go down the road of [ref·dc] (double click), on the other hand, is to embrace dogmatism, to make the ineradicable necessity of referential, mediative circuits only a 'matter of fact'; to hold out on the possibility of 'in principle' knowing without mediation; to make science a content provider rather than a constituent producer.

Another way of putting it might be that not all representational thinking necessarily leads to the "dogmatic image of thought," as Deleuze put it. Such dogmatism is the result of bad habits that are unable to shift back into other modes that allow the unravelling of networks. They create an illusion of transcendence and thus power but in fact radically weaken because they leave existents lost and alone, unable to shift out of a single register.