Culture Clash

Higgs Boson, or What’s the Meta in Metaphor for?


Let’s get God out of the way to start. The Higgs Boson particle/field is not the God particle. (I keep telling everyone – the neutral B-meson is the God particle.) In part because of that name, and, certainly, the momentous confirmation at the largest site of physics experimentation in the world of a near sixty-year-old mathematically theorized element of the Standard Model for explaining the universal forces (whew!), the general public has taken a greater than usual interest in the doings and don’tings of particle physics.

Has come, then, the question from parts far and wide, “Do you really understand what this thing is?”

This, too, is unusual, because generally speaking, when people talk about particle physics at the breakfast table or over their martinis, it is pretty commonly accepted as being not worth the effort to mention that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Why, now, the big deal?

Well, God, I guess.

But let’s, as I say, forget about God. Let’s consider “understanding.” (Not “peace” and “love,” for now – just understanding.) What do we mean by that word?

Among the more read and discussed expressions of mystification over the Higgs Boson have been several by Robert Wright, at his Atlantic blog. The Wall Street Journal even took one of them up as the basis for its own call for humility. Wrote Wright, and the WSJ in citing him,

In sum: I personally continue to have no idea what the Higgs boson is. And I think the physicists who ‘understand’ what it is can do so only because they don’t have the layperson’s compulsion to think about the world in ways that are ultimately metaphorical. Or, at least, these physicists have dropped the idea that to truly understand something is to have a crystal-clear metaphor in your mind, a metaphor that doesn’t break down at any point and doesn’t contain internal contradictions. For them, apprehending a purely mathematical description of something is tantamount to comprehending it.

Now, again, this normally is not an issue. Have Wright and the rest until now lived contentedly in complete knowledge of what a charmed quark is, but are only now finding themselves fully up against the brick wall of understanding in their attempt to fathom the Higgs Boson? No, and my interest here is not in enlightening anyone about HB, but in challenging a rather dim presentation of what knowledge is, including the usual cheap devaluation of metaphor.

Knowledge – or the word that Wright carelessly uses in its stead, understanding – is not one thing only.  Many thinkers have subdivided it. One fundamental division from the last century, from information science, is known, in ascending profundity, as DIKW: data, information, knowledge, wisdom. Some formulations exclude wisdom. Some replace it with – hey! – understanding.

(The exclusion of wisdom sometimes is not casual. Data – as they say about dying and living – is easy; wisdom is hard. Let’s just get rid of it…)

Then there is, from the field of education, Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational objectives, which presents its own hierarchy of ascending degrees of knowledge. In Bloom’s pyramid, as we see, “knowledge” so called is actually the lowest order cognitive skill.

I can say for instance – probably you too – that I “know” the formula for atomic energy. Sure: E=MC2. Ha! But do I – to move to the next level – comprehend it. (There is no question, take my word for it, whether I can bring any applied knowledge – next level up again – to bear on whatever it is I know. I cannot produce atomic energy.) The answer depends on what we mean by “comprehend” and is one of the two points at which I think Wright makes himself dull.

Do I, any more than Wright, and likely you, comprehend the mathematics behind the formula? I do not. To the extent that ultimate reality – the constituent structure of the universe, and the inciting event that caused that structure to arise – is expressible in numbers, only the mathematicians and physicists who have the math comprehend the deepest levels of what we know of it.

If that is what we mean by comprehend…

If we are modern day Pythagoreans, sworn to the mysteries of our secret society and convinced that the universe is really numbers, a numerically encoded Matrix presenting itself in appearance, as astral bodies, frequencies and rays, attractions and repulsions. As if, in analogy, we were to present this

and say that is what a human being is in his or her totality.

There are many scientists who believe so.  Lawrence Kraus, most recently, publically does. To explain the physical origin and workings of the universe, goes this way of thinking, is to explain the universe. All the rest is contingent human creation and, thus, a form of meaning we make only for ourselves, and not, therefore, an integral element of reality contributing to its greater account. That belief is a subject for another day, but such an assertion about reality is an entirely unsupported claim, and not thereby dispositive – no proof one way or the other – and a faith in itself if clung to absent a different kind of humility than the kind of which Wright spoke.

There is manifest and abundant evidence of features to our reality beyond the merely physical. For most of human existence, people have made of those features a sandbox for castle creation, the wonders of an imaginary architecture. That history then leads the more literal, less figurative minded among us to dismiss those elements as mere fancy, or worse. Data does not give them foundation, support their ultimate truth, and we have no reliable standard other than the data. There is, too, no reason other than the mere assertion of God‘s existence and nature to expect the universe to meet our expectations – not even that of the scientists, that the universe is, finally, orderly and mathematically beautiful. God, Einstein famously said, speaking of something other, does not play dice with the universe.

So maybe, contra the Eleusinian mysteries, the parables of Jesus, the visions of Plato and Hegel and the ratiocinations of Kant, not to mention the insights of the Buddha and the ineffable flights of poetry – maybe the real elect among us are, lo, the physicists, and the answer to it all, all our coming and going, a series of mathematical calculations, and that, friends and family, is finally the accounting of what we can call wisdom in the world.

Could be.

And all the rest merely the most enduring matinee, with a late, late curtain, any of us could ever have imagined.

Or maybe, let us consider, metaphor is not just a curlicue of the imagination, a rhetorical ornament of language, a human trill between data points. That is the common derogation. Affirming to a non-literary colleague not long ago my general antipathy for political poetry – because of its usual attachment to the politics in negligence of the poetry – my untutored fellow understood me to lament a lack of metaphor. She thought I meant that political poetry is not pretty enough, and metaphor is a ball gown for a literary coronation. That is what most people think who are not readers, or only passingly so, of poetry and literary prose.

What, though, if unlike Wright, we did not believe of physicists that, along with the math, they can understand Higgs Boson

only because they don’t have the layperson’s compulsion to think about the world in ways that are ultimately metaphorical. Or, at least, these physicists have dropped the idea that to truly understand something is to have a crystal-clear metaphor in your mind, a metaphor that doesn’t break down at any point and doesn’t contain internal contradictions.

I rather do not think that most people believe that “to truly understand something is to have a crystal-clear metaphor in your mind.” Most people, I think, believe what Wright seems to – that metaphor constitutes in varying degrees (depending on how clear or breakable is the figure of speech) some rude pretense of understanding. A fake kind of knowledge. “I mean, sure, I understand the words, sentence by sentence …” says Wright. But he still doesn’t get it, he says.

As long as we think of metaphor as a colored glass through which to see reality prettily and differently from what it really is, we limit what metaphor can be, which is itself another way of knowing. It is true that metaphor can be no more than just that filigree to place around an object. It can be bad, often is. There is lots of mistaken math, too, and high flying scientific theory that does not pan out. The bad does not obviate the good. What, though, of thinking about metaphor as a pick that cracks open the object and reveals it? What if it is a Buddhist koan intended first to confound, a Zen master’s slap to the face meant to startle? That is, for instance, what catachresis is – a jarring, paradoxical, even senseless metaphor, an unknown meteor crashing out of your head instead of the gentle rain of an oft-told tale on your noggin, lulling you to sleep.

Wright offers in another post,

For example, Garance writes that bosons are a special kind of particle: two of them can inhabit the same space at the same time. Now, that by itself just doesn’t make intuitive sense. We don’t think of two rocks as being able to inhabit the same space–or two pebbles or two grains of sand. Garance acknowledges the problem and suggests we think of bosons not as particles but as “entities”. Sorry–doesn’t help. To the extent that I can envision something as generic as an “entity” at all, I think of it as a “thing”–and in my intuitive universe two “things” can’t inhabit the same space.

Here he seems purposely to be boxing himself in. He cannot conceive anything other than the way it already is in the world? He has never seen a double exposure in a photo, a dissolve and superimposition in a film? He cannot imagine the sub-atomic level (come on, Bob, be that microscopic eye zooming in) at which it is revealed that matter is mostly empty space? Cannot pretend, then, the particles of each thing might occupy the empty space of the other? Never listened to a Firesign Theater recording? (How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All.)

He never lived in contradiction, with what Keats called negative capability?

Mere metaphor is a one-trick pony, a blind man holding an elephant’s trunk. The best metaphor, metaphor that enlightens, does not simply offer observation of the world; it puts us in relationship to it, and no account of reality that does not include us and our consciousness of the world, of our being in it and in relation to it, is remotely complete.

The map is not the territory.




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The Political Animal

Boycotting Rush, or Citizens United


It isn’t that you boycott.  It’s what you boycott. And why. As the ends don’t justify the means (most people would agree), ends don’t illegitimize the means either. Reasons matter. Aims matter. We can pursue good ends through bad means, and for bad reasons. We can likewise use a good – or at least neutral – means toward a bad end. In that case, it is the end that is bad, not the means.

Categorical confusions – where would public debate be without them?

I don’t argue the efficacy of boycotts here, one way or the other. That is another discussion, and lots of people have opinions on that. I don’t argue that boycotts should be like ballots, in the daily toolbox of democracy. That would be the end of community, like everyone not speaking to everyone else.

That make silence a bad thing?

My point is that boycotts, at their best – meaning, pursued for good and compelling reasons, to achieve just goals – are actually, though performed in extremis, an expression of community.

Community: commonality, leading at times to joint action.

That can be bad, like shunning the different: small towns at their worst – or, let us say, states legislating inequality. But community, obviously, can be a good thing, too. Why the whole history of civilization is an expression of faith in the value of community. And communities acting together in expression of their values, to praise and, when they feel a significant boundary has been unacceptably crossed, to censure – community is conservative. It conserves and promotes the values and vision that bind us together, even in the toleration of, the invigoration from, difference. It also unites, when pushed too far, in spurning what would tear it apart.

What, then, of the effort, as it has been called, of a “secondary boycott” against Rush Limbaugh – a boycott not against a business directly, Limbaugh himself, by encouraging listeners to abandon him, but against the sponsors, the businesses, who advertise on his show? According to Bradley A. Smith in the Wall Street Journal,

secondary boycotts have long been recognized as harmful to civil society. They rend the social fabric by making it difficult for people to simply live their lives.

This is remarkably selective – though hardly any longer surprising – conservative social analysis. Produce an American social and economic system over the past three plus decades that enriches the very rich and corporations beyond any previous measure and destroys the American working class dream, in job security, economic advancement and security, health and education, and when the shat upon rise up from the stink, accuse them and their public advocates of waging “class warfare.” “Rend the social [and governing] fabric” for more than thirty years, beginning with Newt Gingrich’s Conservative Opportunity Society, despoil the public conversation for over twenty years with Rush Limbaugh’s vile and divisively ugly discourse, and when a tactic is chosen to fight back against this cancer on community, charge it with being harmful to civil society.

This form of offhand faux innocence riddles Smith’s article. ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) is described as

a nonpartisan nonprofit that provides a meeting ground for conservative state legislators to share ideas.

“Nonpartisan,” no doubt, because it also serves the agenda of all those conservatives in the Democratic Party. And, of course, ALEC is not “a meeting ground for conservative state legislators to share ideas”:  it has, instead, a professional staff that writes model legislation for dissemination to GOP state legislatures in order to promote a uniformly reactionary agenda. State and local governance, indeed. This is rather a new form of federalism – outsourced market-financed stealth reactionary federalism.

Achieving contradictory dissimulation just between the start and midpoint, and completely misinforming over the length of a single appositive phrase should earn the writer some kind of award.

Target, Smith further informs us, was itself targeted for boycott, for contributing to the campaign of

Tom Emmer, a pro-business candidate for governor of Minnesota who also happened to oppose same-sex marriage. [Emphasis added]

“Also happened.” Like how he just happened to be bald or five feet ten. Marriage equality and all the rest of gay equal protections are the civil rights issue of our time, and the kind of movement that conservatives – always swimming against the rising tide of human dignity – invariably oppose. So it delivers only what has become the usual conservative hypocritical con for Smith to invoke the boycotts of the Black Civil Rights movement in the desperate argument against the Limbaugh boycott.

All these examples are what are called “secondary boycotts”—attempts to influence the actions of the target by exerting pressure on a third party. Secondary boycotts should not be confused with primary boycotts. A decision not to patronize a business that discriminates on the basis of race is an example of a primary boycott. Primary boycotts—used to great effect during the Civil Rights Movement—have a long and often laudatory history.

The laudatory history of civil rights boycotts and the Black Civil Rights movement is one, during its contemporaneous actuality, of course, that conservatives of the time uniformly opposed, often violently. The patron saint of modern conservatism, William Buckley as soon as a year after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, would nonetheless editorialize “Why The South Must Prevail.” Four years later, he could still assert,

Should we resort to convulsive measures that do violence to the traditions of our system in order to remove the forms of segregation in the South? …I say no.

The attempt to distinguish, in ethical and civil legitimacy, between primary and secondary boycotts is a categorical casuistry, the now usual ruse by which conservatives draw on the historic moral achievements of liberalism and attempt to co-opt them, use them as a buttress for whatever is their current resistance to an expansion of equal rights and protections. So it is with Smith’s distinction.

Would we now, in the moral afterglow of the Black Civil Rights achievements, claim that a corporate supporter of a segregationist enterprise – a restaurant, a bus company – would have been undeserving of the same censure as its beneficiary, should have been spared the same opprobrium? How else best to express that communal censure but though the same economic sanction, of consumer business both withheld and discouraged? That is what worked in those glory days Smith invokes. It was not some sudden conversion to the integrationist cause that led the Montgomery bus company ultimately to reverse itself.

In 1955, in the midst of the bus boycott, all three members of the Montgomery, Alabama city commission announced on television that they had joined the [White] Citizens’ Council.

It was the economic pain.

Opponents of the StopRush Project argued first that the campaign was an effort in censorship. Smith makes a passing attempt at this argument.

Boycotts are particularly unattractive when intended to squelch speech. In each of the previous examples, boycotts were organized to harm the target economically so that the target would pressure the original speaker to, well, shut up. The power of ideas is abandoned for the power of economic coercion.

I responded to this misconception of censorship here and here.

Rather than censorship, by a “government, media outlet, or other controlling body,” it is economic pressure: politics attempting to work in the marketplace…. Limbaugh, who, like you and I, has a right to cry “slut” and “feminazi” and “magic negro” on almost any street corner, has no right to be on the radio. He is there because the economics support him in being there: he has enough supportive listeners to earn him his commercial sponsorship.

Rather than censorship, the issue of Rush Limbaugh – of Rush Limbaugh not simply speaking his mind or what passes for it, but of Rush Limbaugh on commercially sponsored public airwaves – is precisely one of economics and of American community standards.

In one sense, this is, indeed, the marketplace, and a marketplace of ideas and speech too, and conservatives should have no difficulty with it in principle.

This is precisely what the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision affirmed, that the expenditure of money is expression, which may not be constrained – and by corporations, too. I wrote,

In the Citizens United decision, in the opposition to public funding of campaigns for government office, conservatives have upheld the claim that the expenditure of money is speech and may not be restricted. Liberals reject this claim, but must live, for now, in that land. In the full rhetoric of political contention, money – who has it and who wants it, what they will do for it and what they spend it on – is part of our language of inducing cooperation. It is what purchases Limbaugh his megaphone when other, better, smarter, more constructive voices are without it. It purchases his megaphone, not because he is making better arguments, but because he popularly plays, like all demagogues, to fear and anger, and the customers a sponsor has, with their purchases, speak louder than those the sponsor doesn’t know it is losing in the quiet withdrawal of their business.

As I argued in that second post, while some liberals, and certainly his supporters, may see a campaign against Limbaugh as an opportunity to vanquish a political opponent, many liberals – and others too, no doubt – are genuinely offended by him, and deplore the effect he has had on the national political culture. His conservative fans, like any partisans, may love the way he sticks it to what they perceive as liberal shibboleths, pieties, and hypocrisies. How many of them, though, not seduced by anger and alienation, can look at themselves in a midnight mirror and think with honesty – without the rationalization of who else does it too – that the divisive contempt he has injected into the national culture for over two decades has been good for the nation?

What else can community values mean, but to affirm that Limbaugh has every right in the Constitution and in greater principle to say the things he does, but that much of what he says is hateful and deplorable, and the community will not sponsor him in saying it and in disseminating his ugly message? The community will not sponsor him, and if you, commercial advertiser, will sponsor him yourself, supporting and advancing what the community finds objectionable, then we will withhold our support from you too.

Expression is not only the spoken word, but the unspoken word. Silence is speech too: the assent not given, the promise not made, the agreement not offered. If the expenditure of money is speech, then the refusal to expend money is speech too. If cash may be donated to PACs and Super PACs for the purposes of advertisement persuasion – not simply the expression of one’s own views, but the effort, secondarily, to influence the views of others – then it may, conversely, be withheld, and one may just as rightfully and reasonably seek to influence others to similarly withhold the expenditure of their money. If corporations – only through the craven pursuit of consumers where they converge, or through the expression of their executives’ political views by sponsoring a political voice like Limbaugh’s – will enter the public forum, then they can expect to receive reply. They seek to leverage their influence and their profit among the many customer-listeners of a single show; their critics may seek to leverage their influence by persuading others, beyond only themselves, to speak their silence too, by choosing to pocket their own cash in rejection not only of Limbaugh, but all those who support him.

“People have a right not to do business with companies or individuals,” Smith nearly concludes. They do, indeed. And they have a right to influence others – or try to – through words or with money. Or the withholding of either. It’s all expression, it’s all speech, it’s all good. So Smith and I reach some agreement in the end, and we got there without either calling the other a slut or a magic Negro or some such. Because talk like that could rend the social fabric, and neither of us wants that.


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