Re: Deconstructing Physics

Danny Yee (danny@MORIA.CS.SU.OZ.AU)
Sat, 9 Apr 1994 11:00:59 +1000

Paul Speaker <phs@ASTRO.CALTECH.EDU> is quoted:
> I think that it would be interesting to apply deconstruction to
> the language of particular areas of science, rather than the methods of
> science as a whole. The applications to creating a new viewpoint on
> the subject of evolution, I think are rather significant, but as I am
> ignorant on some of technical details of evolutionary theory, I would
> rather look at an area with which I am more familiar, i.e., the
> theories associated with the so-called "grand unified theories" of
> physics.(I am a Ph.D student in astrophysics at Caltech, by the way.)

[ Parallels between modern theoretical physics and Scholasticism ]

An entertaining parallel, and certainly one with some truth behind it.
As well as parts of theoretical physics, I would include some areas
of pure mathematics in the same category. In their case it's not so much
producing untestable theories as producing ever more esoteric work on
really 'minor' subjects that aren't really of any 'use' or 'interest'
(which concepts are just as contested in mathematics as in the rest of
epistemology, of course).

On the other hand, I've always found the weirder cosmologies (as far as
I can follow them) to be rather interesting (entertaining?), and it's
really hard to predict whether these things (or the esoteric
mathematics) will ever be useful. Sociologically I suspect a lot of it
is driven simply by publication incentives. Most of that kind of work
uses very little in the way of resources (pure mathematicians and
mathematical physicists sometimes use fast computers, but that's about
it), so it worries me a lot less than more obviously 'useful' science
that requires huge amounts of labour and resources ("costs" a lot, in
common parlance).


At any rate, I'm certainly prepared to accept that work this esoteric
has no application to anthropology. In fact I recommend to everyone on
this list that they avoid looking at any of it (seriously, some
of this stuff might hurt your brain - has anyone read Cherniak's "The
Riddle of the Universe and its Solution"? :-). If you are interested in
mathematics or physics there are much more accessible and 'interesting'
things to read.

But now imagine people start using mathematical cosmology in
anthropology papers. They fill this work with enough jargon that no one
who hasn't done graduate work in mathematics or physics can follow them,
but make what they say are significant claims about anthropology; and
these claims are not just supported by the incomprehensible theory, but
permeated by it to the extent that they too are incomprehensible. I'm
just going to laugh at them and tell them to go back to their toy

Now someone is going to tell me that doing this is ok because I have a
background in mathematics and physics, but dismissing Derrida isn't
because I don't have a background in literary criticism. To which I
reply that I don't understand the mathematical cosmology any more than I
understand Derrida, and the reason I am rejecting both is because of the
way they present themselves, not because of their content. (So I am
quite happy with anthropology papers that use really abstract,
unfathomable theory in such a way that the theory is 'shielded' from the
premises and conlcusions; that way I can at least fit the paper into the
'existing scheme of things'.)


Anyway, if Paul Speaker's message is deconstructionist then I'm
pleasantly surprised! No jargon, no quotes from Nietzsche or Derrida or
Heidegger - it looks like 'ordinary' philosophy of science to me.

Danny Yee (