What do we want? When do we want it?

In response to Clive Thompson’s A War of Words, in which he argues for scientists to begin speaking of theory as law, I write of the fascism in expediting social evolution through authority. I begin by reminding the reader and myself that evolution takes time. I finish with a call for more theory. (While sourcing some of the material, I read the article Thompson based his piece. (At least I think I read the source article.) Helen Quinn is far more measured in her argument and doesn’t make the suggestion Thompson relays. He links Quinn’s argument with evolution, but I think Quinn had in mind “the potential dangers of anthropogenic interference with Earth’s climate system.” Regardless, the Quinn “controversy” is worth reading.)

At Long Last

“At long last the search of knowledge will reach out for its due; it will want to rule and possess, and you with it!” (Nietzsche)

Darwin held back the publication of On the Origin of Species fourteen years. According to Joseph Carroll (2003) this was a good thing.

“What then, if anything, did Darwin gain through waiting for fourteen years before writing the final version of his work? There are three main forms of gain: (1) vastly more detail both in apt illustration and in considered inference, (2) an extended compositional process that resulted in an extraordinary density, coherence, and clarity in the exposition; and (3) one new idea, or at least a latent idea rendered explicit and available for development.” (p.39)

I mention this first as a sort of mental massage. Seriously, take it easy. Breathe. We’re getting there. What follows, an unfocussed post on theory, most of it anyway, was set in motion by Clive Thompson (2007), but he can’t take all the blame. We live in fast times. Or we think we do. Darwin’s theory, or the theory of evolution bubbled up out of social consciousness over 150 years ago and we’re still dealing with it, and we’ll be dealing with it for a long time to come. There’s no need to get into a panic. Hofstadter’s Law is a law for our times. It states that everything takes longer than expected, even when you take the law into consideration. I’m presenting this as much as self-help as advice. I too, live in a city, drink coffee and move about in a perpetual state of anxiety, a whole lot slower than desire. So to me and you, a little perspective.

Everything is constantly evolving, but evolution is so difficult to understand because the timeline is beyond anything we can easily comprehend. The evolutionary timescale, the universe, or the multiverse, the limits of space, the realization that every star in the night sky is a solar system; you can think these things but they are a little big, a little intimidating. But that doesn’t stop you thinking. Only death stops thinking. The perfect example:

In Jesus Camp there’s a scene, a wavy blond-haired boy is sitting on the stage, (this is how I remember it) he’s surrounded by all the other kids, the camera is on him, and you can see him thinking and he says something like, “Sometimes I don’t know if I believe it.” All the kids look at him, I don’t want to read too much into it, but he stops talking and that’s the end of that scene and line of inquiry. Even in that environment you can’t stop curiosity completely. Even in that environment of conformism and information control there’s variation, and where there’s variation, there’s evolution, or, at the least, divergence. This process takes time.

happy in the knowledge that a constantly changing vision has been replaced by a fixed pole.
There is a war going on between the Jesus camp and the Science camp. On the one side they’re fighting for God or absolute social certainty in politics and the other’s interest is political funding and free pursuit of inquiry. There’s a very real conflict of interests here. So Thompson writes, A war of words: Science will triumph only when theory becomes law. The piece was “inspired” by a recent essay in Physics Today by the physicist Helen Quinn, who suggests (according to Thompson) that scientists stop using the word theory (and believe) and refer to evolution as law, because the public understands the authority of law. Thompson makes clear this difference of meaning for scientists and people. He writes:

“While it’s true that scientists refer to evolution as a theory, in science the word theory means an explanation of how the world works that has stood up to repeated, rigorous testing.”

“But for most people, theory means a haphazard guess. It’s an insult, really a glib way to dismiss a point of view: “Ah, well, that’s just your theory.””

Quinn, and Thompson through her authority, suggest that to people who “understand that law is a rule that holds true and must be obeyed,” scientist should refer to their findings with certainty as law.

Clive Thompson is not a fascist. In no way am I implying that Clive Thompson is a fascist. I say this because I want to use the word. I could say euphemistically that he errs on the side of expediency when he writes, “Public discourse is inevitably political, so we need to talk about science in a way that wins the political battle – in no uncertain terms.” And I could choose to see the play on words, the wit of “no uncertain terms” in the context of the article, but I choose, at this moment, to point out the fascism of those words in the social context. It’s probably best to refer you to Foucault’s Guide to a non fascist life. It’s a little too long to quote, but a very short manual for living, so I’ve typed it out in full here (not yet).

Introduction to the Non-Fascist Life

This art of living counter to all forms of fascism, whether already present or impending, carries with it a certain number of essential principles which I would summarize as follows if I were to make this great book into a manual or guide to everyday life:

  • Free political action from all unitary and totalizing paranoia.
  • Develop action, thought and desires by proliferation, juxtaposition, and disjunction, and not by subdivision and pyramidal hierarchization.
  • Withdraw allegiance from the old categories of the Negative (law, limit, castration, lack, lacuna), which Western thought has long held sacred as a form of power and an access to reality. Prefer what is positive and multiple, difference over uniformity, flows over unities, mobile arrangements over systems. Believe that what is productive is not sedentary but nomadic.
  • Do not think that one has to be sad in order to be militant, even thought the thing one is fighting is abominable. It is the connection of desire to reality (and not its retreat into forms of representation) that possesses revolutionary force.
  • Do not use thought to ground political practice in Truth; nor political action to discredit, as mere speculation, a line of thought. Use political practice as an intensifier of thought, and analysis as a multiplier of the forms and domains for the intervention of political action.
  • Do not demand of politics that it restore the “rights” of the individual, as philosophy has defined them. The individual is the product of power. What is needed is to “de-individualize” by means of multiplication and displacement, diverse combinations. The group must not be the organic bond uniting hierarchized individuals, but constant generator of de-individualization.
  • Do not become enamored of power.

Thompson has crossed the line into fascism. (About retiring words, Thompson’s article suggests
theory and believe, and fascism is a word that’s been socially retired, I’d suggest, obviously that we bring it back, not in the sense of Hitler, but as Foucault writes “The fascism in all of us.” We need the word to confront the tendency. Theory, again obviously I like the word, and concept, I keep wondering if the suggestion is satirical, if I am missing the play, or the wit. But believe, I’ve worked it out of my vocabulary. “if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire.” (p30 Portable Nietzsche). This brings up meaning. Believe as used by science and believers, and theory used by science and believers. Weiner has a good line about two different uses of language.

Leave the dictates and decrees to the government and church. Scientists when speaking to the public, should speak as philosophers and educators. Norbert Weiner (1950) writes, “The functional part of any science cannot escape considering uncertainty and the contingency of events.” This view of the world and facts as moving targets has had social impacts, but is far from a world view. What Thompson suggests is counter to the educative quality of science. It’s science and theory and the masses educated in contingency that have been taking on the absolutist state and church so far. What’s needed for theory to set us free (my interest in theory is a little different from institutional scientists) is not that it become authoritative and law, but more theory.

When Thompson writes that the best result of changing theory to law is the linguistic jujitsu performed, he misrepresents theory, misapplies the martial art and underestimates the opposition. If, and it won’t happen, the scientific community were to speak of evolution as a law, creationists would say “I believe in one law: God’s Law.” There’s nothing gentle in changing an inviting and unfinished process of theory building into an authoritative infallible law.

Not Enough Theory
The argument that a frustrated theory needs more theory is more than 200 years old. Kant (1793) writes that impractical theory may simply be incomplete and “in such cases it was not the fault of theory if it was little use in practice, but rather of there having been not enough theory, which the man in question should have learned from experience and which is true theory even if he is not in a position to state it himself and, as a teacher, set it forth systematically in general propositions.” In his descriptively named essay On the common saying: That may be correct in theory, but it is of no use in practice, Kant argues that “no one can pretend to be practically proficient in a science and yet scorn theory without declaring that he is an ignoramus in his field, inasmuch as he believes that by groping about in experiments and experiences, without putting together certain principles (which really constitute what is called theory) and without having thought out some whole relevant to his business (which, if one proceeds methodically in it, is called a system), he can get further than theory could take him.”

Quinn’s article is worth reading. An awareness of meaning is necessary for anyone interested in moving ideas around. The scientific idea of theory as practical or physical, the result of experience, the product of hypotheses, and Kant’s idea of theory a priori, of desire or metaphysical are both opposed to theory as an untestable whim. We can do without belief, at this point we could do without the word, but to take advantage of the meaning behind religious belief and substitute Law for theory is to trade on a notion of authority that the liberating power of theory and science has been subverting for only a few centuries now.


Thompson, Clive. (2007) A war of words: Science will triumph only when theory becomes law. Wired 15.11 p.102 November

Quinn, Helen. (2007) Belief and knowledge — a plea about language. Physics Today.
January 2007, page 8

Letters Language of science I: Theories and laws

July 2007, page 8

Letters Language of science II: Degrees of knowing

July 2007, page 11

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