Slavoj Žižek’s Philosophy of Science: Quantum Obscurantists and Ideology
To tackle first things first. The title of this piece may be a little misleading. (Nonetheless, I decided not to change it.) It’s not about the obscurantism and ideology of Slavoj Žižek’s philosophy of science. It’s about Žižek’s position on the obscurantism and ideology he himself has found in modern science. Having said that, the words “philosophy of science” are used slightly ironically simply because I doubt that Žižek would be that keen on having his ideas classed under that title.
In any case, Žižek places his cards firmly on the table when it comes to the people he calls “obscurantists”. (Obscurantism is something Žižek has himself often been accused of.) He writes:
“To avoid any misunderstanding: as an old-fashioned dialectical materialist, I am opposed as ferociously as possible to these obscurantist appropriations of quantum physics and astronomy.”
Žižek is then even more explicit when he warns us about the
“New Age obscurantists appropriations of today’s ‘hard’ sciences which, in order to legitimize their position, invoke the authority of science itself”.
It can now be added that we all know about the Flat Earthers, Creationists, Intelligent Designers, etc. whose books are replete with mathematical equations, technical terms from physics, graphs, stats, etc. In other words, we need to be careful when people drop scientific technical terms into their discourse. Or, alternatively, we need to be careful when such people include only certain (sexy) aspects of science; though who then also ignore (or reject) what could very well be far more scientifically important or relevant when it comes to the legitimacy of their non-scientific (or strictly philosophical) claims.
So although Žižek is both a Continental philosopher (well, he’s Slovenian) and a Marxist, some might have assumed that he would have some sympathy for obscurantism or the “anti-science movement”. However, Žižek would say that it’s precisely because he’s a Marxist that he hasn’t got any sympathy at all for these things. Indeed Žižek makes that clear in the quote above when he uses the phrase “an an old-fashioned dialectical materialist”. In any case, Žižek certainly has a problem with postmodernism and deconstruction (or post-structuralism) and their quietism and conformity vis-à-vis the “capitalist status quo”.
“for [Lacan], modern science is absolutely not one of the ‘narratives’ comparable in principle to other modes of ‘cognitive mapping’ — modern science touches the Real in a way that is totally absent from premodern discourses”.
One wonders what the Austrian-American analytic philosopher, Paul Feyeraband, would have thought about Žižek and Lacan’s words when he put voodoo and astrology in (roughly) the same category as science. In his book, The Trouble With Physics, the physicist Lee Smolin (when discussing this issue with Feyerabend himself) wrote:
“Was it because science has a method? So do witch doctors. Perhaps the difference, I ventured, is that science uses math. And so does astrology, [Feyerabend] responded, and he would have explained the various computational systems used by astrologers, if we had let him… Newton had spent more time on alchemy than on physics. Did we think we were better scientists than Kepler or Newton?”
To return to Žižek. Žižek has no problem with science or physics, as Paul Feyerabend did. Indeed he has said (in the New Scientist) that he has “a very naive Enlightenment fascination with it” and that he has “total admiration for science”. Nonetheless, Žižek does have a problem with the attempt by certain scientists (or their supporters) to create some kind of (as Žižek himself puts it) “hegemony”. (I intend to cover this in another piece.) And since I mentioned Feyeraband, perhaps the Austrian-American philosopher (who was also an anarchist) put voodoo and astrology in the same bracket as modern science precisely because he didn’t like modern science’s “hegemonic tendencies”.
The Paradoxes of Quantum Mechanics?
Žižek’s actual positions on quantum mechanics are almost entirely orthodox.
For example, take the quantum leap (as it were) from the “scientific discoveries” of quantum mechanics to expressing those discoveries in what Žižek calls “everyday language”. This has been commented upon countless times in the literature. (Žižek himself says that “[a]ll these topics are widely discussed in the literature on quantum physics”.) This is how Žižek puts it:
“A further impasse concerns the necessity somehow to relate scientific discoveries to everyday language, to translate them into it: it can be argued that problems emerge only when we try to translate the results of quantum physics back into our common-sense notions of reality — but is it possible to resist this temptation?”
Of course the philosophical point comes at the end of the passage above: viz., is it “possible to resist this temptation”? Richard Feynman couldn’t resist this temptation. And that’s why he was led to say (as quoted by Žižek) that “nobody really understands quantum physics”. In other words, that lack of understanding only occurs when we “relate scientific discoveries to everyday language”. Or, in in Žižek’s own words (which square with Feynman’s), that lack of understanding only occurs when we realise that
“one can no longer translate [quantum physic’s] mathematical-theoretical edifice into the terms of our everyday lifeworld notions of reality”.
Again, Žižek is hardly being original when he makes these points. Indeed he says that himself.
It’s certainly the case that Žižek’s “obscurantists” fixate on the paradoxes of quantum mechanics. It can even be argued that these ostensible paradoxes are, for them, the whole point. Yet Žižek is also (partly) correct to argue that
“the moment one wants to provide an ontological account of quantum physics (what notion of reality fits its results), paradoxes emerge which undermine standard common-sense scientistic objectivism”.
So the paradoxes are there… Or are they? Well, they are if we move from the quantum scale to the large scale. And that leap is at least partly responsible for the paradoxes. To sum this up:
i) If we stick with the theory and mathematics (which most of us can’t do),
ii) and don’t care about “interpretation”,
iii) then there are no paradoxes.
And that’s why Žižek is also correct to say that
“this fact is constantly emphasized by scientists themselves, who oscillate between the simple suspension of the ontological question (quantum physics functions, so do not try to understand it, just do the calculations . . .) and different ways out of the deadlock”.
i) If you “just do the calculations”,
ii) then no paradoxes will emerge.
i) If you want to ask “the ontological question”,
ii) then paradoxes necessarily emerge.
In that former case, there simply is no “deadlock” to get out of. But if you do have a need for ontology, then that deadlock can be broken. And Žižek himself cites various candidates for breaking this deadlock:
“ Copenhagen orthodoxy, the Many Worlds Interpretation, some version of the ‘hidden variable’ theory which would save the notion of one unique objective reality, like the one proposed by David Bohm, but which none the less involves paradoxes of its own, like the notion of causality which runs backwards in time .”
These are the interpretations that the average quantum mechanist hardly ever thinks about. And that’s because, as one physicist once puts it, the “average quantum mechanist is no more philosophical than the average car mechanic”.
So, as a philosopher, it’s no surprise that Žižek does ask the following question:
“[C]an we, in fact, simply renounce the ontological question and limit ourselves to the mere functioning of the scientific apparatus, its calculations and measurements?”
That all depends on what Žižek means by the word “we”. Quantum mechanists can indeed “simply renounce the ontological question”. Philosophers can’t. Having said that, there have also been plenty of physicists who’ve said that quantum mechanists can’t — or shouldn’t — ignore the ontological question!
Is Quantum Mechanics Postmodern?
Žižek makes the interesting point that it wasn’t just (to use his own example) Cultural Studies , postmodernism or deconstruction which “brought into question” the nature of “reality” (in scare quotes). That is, modern physics was guilty of “shattering of the traditional naive-realist epistemological edifice”. Indeed Niels Bohr, for one, was explicit about this way back in the 1920s — some 90 years ago. That was decades before Cultural Studies, deconstruction and postmodernism. Bohr wrote:
“There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract quantum physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.”
More relevantly, according to Žižek it was the “sciences themselves” which opened up a gap in which obscurantist shoots were able to grow. It’s of course also true that the obscurantists (whoever Žižek has in mind) very rarely had any training in physics. Nonetheless, they were, in at least certain respects, saying similar things — if in very different ways! And one way which was very different, and which Žižek and the physicists themselves picked up on, was the application of what’s true of the quantum scale to the everyday scale — precisely the applications which appeal to Žižek’s obscurantists.
(There are of course questions as to exactly where “Heisenberg cuts” can be made or even whether they can be made at all. However, I don’t believe that this has much to do with the applications the obscurantists make of quantum mechanics to such things as “quantum healing”, “quantum love”, “quantum society”, “quantum baked beans” and “quantum t-shirts”.)
David Bohm & Co.
Now we’ve moved from Copenhagenist “subjectivism”, we can tackle New Ageist David Bohm & Co.
Žižek argues that New Ageism (or at least certain parts of it) grew out of science and the words of scientists themselves. Žižek is at least partly correct on this. He writes:
“[O]ne should note that despite the salient distinction between science and ideology, obscurantist New Age ideology is an immanent outgrowth of modern science itself — from David Bohm to Fritjof Capra, examples abound of different versions of ‘dancing Wu Li masters’, teaching us about the Tao of physics, the ‘end of the Cartesian paradigm’, the significance of the anthropic principle and the holistic approach, and so on.”
Even though Žižek over-eggs his theme above, it was David Bohm himself who explicitly set various New Age cats among the “hard science” pigeons. As the science writer Philip Ball put it:
“[David Bohm believed that] thought exists in the cosmos as a holistic entity akin to quantum potential, which it would, [Bohm] said, be ‘wrong and misleading to break… up into my thought, your thought’. This quasi-mystical view of reality has made Bohm popular with the New Age movement.”
On a pedantic note. Žižek talks about “modern science” and its impact on New Age obscurantism and then mentions David Bohm and Fritjof Capra. This is slightly problematic because Bohm’s first important publication (at least in respect to the issues covered here) dates form 1951 and he didn’t become well-known until the 1960s and later. (Fritjof Capra wasn’t even born until 1939.) That’s some 40 years after the early work of the Copenhagenists. So, in in other words, the New Age accoutrements weren’t there from the beginnings of quantum mechanics, even if “subjectivism” was.
In any case, having made these historical and philosophical points, Žižek then makes his political point — which he no doubt sees as being more important. That point being that instead of “pouring our scorn on to poor old Cultural Studies”, we should acknowledge the source of those ideas. Žižek believes that
“it would be much more productive to approach anew the classic topic of the precise epistemological and ontological implications of the shifts in ‘hard’ sciences themselves”.
But that would be extremely problematic because it is these obscurantists themselves who are very happy to trace their ideas back to the Copenhagenists of the 1920s and after. This means, in addition, that they have no problem in using the jargon and even the mathematics of the Copenhagenists for purposes of obscurantism.
Science and New Age Ideology
One may think that it’s surprising that (as a Marxist) Žižek does appear to acknowledge a difference between science and ideology. As before, Žižek will probably argue that (good/proper) Marxists have always made such a distinction.
For example, in one place Žižek tells us that “one should note” the “salient distinction between science and ideology”. More explicitly, he writes:
“It is therefore crucial to distinguish between science itself and its inherent ideologization…”
There’s a problem with the passage above. Žižek does, after all, use the word “inherent” before the word “ideologization”. That surely means that ideologization is, well, inherent in science. (Inherent = “existing in something as a permanent, essential, or characteristic attribute”.) If that’s the case, then how can Žižek also argue that it’s “crucial to distinguish between science itself and its inherent ideologization” — if science’s ideologization is inherent? Unless Žižek is saying that non-ideological science is something that scientists should strive for. That it is, therefore, an ideal. But that still doesn’t stop science, according to Žižek’s own logic, from being inherently ideological.
In any case, Žižek delves deeper into these ideologisations of science when he mentions New Age science and philosophy. He writes:
“The often present New Age inscription in which the shift in paradigm is interpreted as the outgrowing of the Cartesian mechanic-materialist paradigm towards a new holistic approach bringing us back to the wisdom of ancient Oriental thought (the Tao of physics, etc.).”
The problem with the passage above is that it can be read as saying that “ideologism” didn’t begin until New Age holism. Surely, as a Marxist, Žižek can’t believe that. So perhaps the upshot of Žižek’s position is that what he calls “hard science” is not inherently (or intrinsically) ideological. However, it can easily be made to be so. (Indeed it often is made to be so.) Yet that still doesn’t make sense of Žižek’s use of the words “inherent ideologization”.
It doesn’t help, either, when elsewhere Žižek seems to argue that science must be political. (Surely Marxists have always believed that.) But, here again, the distinction which Žižek himself makes between “science itself” and its “ideologization” can be made. Yes; science itself is not political. However, Marxists like Žižek believe that scientists should be aware of the political import and consequences of their science. Indeed Žižek is explicit about the need for science or scientists to be political when he says that physicists like Stephen Hawking
“silently pass over the burning questions which actually occupy centre stage in current politico-ideological debates”.
That must surely mean that it’s not the ideologisation of science per se that concerns Žižek: it’s the wrong kinds of ideologization of science.
Žižek’s Examples of Scientific Ideology
Žižek goes on to offer us some explicit examples of the wrong kind of ideological science.
Firstly, Žižek tells us of science’s “subtle transformation into a new holistic, etc., ‘paradigm’”. He then gives two examples: “complementarity” and the “anthropic principle”. He says of these examples that they’re “doubly inscribed, functioning as scientific and ideological terms”. In fact, because the Third Culture propagates these aspects of science, it is, Žižek argues, “infested with ideology”.
Of course it now needs to be explained exactly why such things as the anthropic principle, holism and complementarity are “ideological”, rather than purely scientific.
Žižek seems to be right: his examples do go beyond science. Or, at the least, they’re philosophical rather than strictly scientific. At worst, they’re also ideological.
For example, the focus on humanity (or human beings) when it comes to the Anthropic Principle is “ideological”. And if “Cartesianism” was/is ideological, then, by definition, anti-Cartesian “holism” must be ideological too. It’s certainly odd that certain philosophers and scientists have overstressed “the Cartesian paradigm” and how it was broken by New Ageists and Žižek’s obscurantists. And if Cartesianism isn’t it overstressed when it comes to science itself, then it certainly has been in philosophy.
So is Cartesianism really that all-encompassing?
In addition, there were various kinds of “holism” dating back to the ancient Greeks. (Conformational) holism can also be found in the work of W.V.O Quine — a hardcore naturalist and empiricist - in the mid-20th century.) One could even argue that a certain degree of holism has always been part of the scientific picture.
As for Žižek’s own stance, he gives another example of ideological science. He cites “the jump from genes to memes”. This, according to Žižek, is an example of
“an all-too-fast metaphorical transposition of certain biological-evolutionist concepts to the study of the history of human civilization”.
The Context of Discovery
In analytic philosophy of science, an important distinction is made between the “context of discovery” and the “context of justification”. Žižek himself comments on that “distinction”. However, he does so with different technical terms and he also puts things in his own way (as one would expect).
Firstly Žižek tells us that the “standard distinction” is between
“the social or psychological conditions of a scientific invention and its objective truth-value”.
Žižek has a problem with this all-too-neat division. He writes:
“The least one can say about it is that the very distinction between the (empirical, contingent sociopsychological) genesis of a certain scientific formation and its objective truth-value, independent of the conditions of this genesis, already presupposes a set of distinctions (between genesis and truth-value, etc.) which are by no means self-evident.”
Let’s firstly comment on certain terms which Žižek uses and which, it can be argued, needlessly complicate matters. Take the words “objective truth-value”. Surely one can make a distinction between the context of discovery (or Žižek’s “genesis”) and the context of justification and still not have a strong (or even any) commitment to objective truth-values. For one, what does “objective” mean in this context?
The words “scientific invention” also (to use Žižek’s own words) “presuppose a set of distinctions” which Žižek himself is making. In this case, that scientific theories (or even experimental findings) are little/nothing more than inventions. Thus “invention” is a very loaded term. And later Žižek seems to use a synonym of “scientific invention” when he refers to “scientific formation”. Nonetheless, Žižek is on strong ground here (or at least on ground some distance away from Continental philosophy) because some quantum theorists (who’re also physicists) also stress this.
Fuchs believes that “quantum states represent observers’ personal information, expectations and degrees of belief”. More relevantly, Fuchs believes that this
“allows one to see all quantum measurements events as little ‘moments of creation’, rather than as revealing anything pre-existent”.
Now what could be more New Ageist than scientific “moments of creation”?