Thursday, June 24

“A Little Learning Is A Dangerous Thing” — A Few Desultory Examples

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian  spring :
There shallow draughts intoxicate the  brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

-- Alexander Pope

I cannot remember when I first fell in love with the English language, but subjectively, it seems like I could have fallen in love with it in utero. (My parents tell me I talked at an exceptionally young age, and both times I took the GRE, I blew the top of the scale off the language-skills section.) So it always irritates me to no end to look at the way people misuse and abuse the English language. (It also irritates me when people misuse foreign words that are imported into English, like the German Weltanschauung and Angst, but these are rants for another time.) Sometimes the frustration crosses a certain threshold, and I feel impelled to describe these malapropisms and to admonish the people who indulge in them to … dammit all! … become more literate regarding whatever subject they are addressing.  Sometimes I wonder how and why people were allowed to graduate from high school, never mind college, with such slovenly habits of writing and speaking … and therefore of thinking. Anyway, thanking you in advance for indulging my urge to vent, herewith some salient examples.

o Quantum

“Quantum” is a perfectly good, in fact, by now indispensable, word. But there should be some kind of law, some enforceable principle, that forbids people from using the word “quantum,” even in a metaphorical sense, unless and until they have undertaken the gonad-busting effort requisite to understanding and using it correctly. (In practice, this will mean at least a master’s degree in some relevant field:  physics, quantum chemistry, philosophy of science, etc.) In physics, “quantum” refers to the smallest possible physically observable / detectable unit of radiation. (And by the way, the plural of “quantum” is “quanta,” not some lexical monstrosity like “quantums,” the very writing of which makes my stomach queasy.) E.g., the quantum of electromagnetic energy is the photon. One photon is one quantum of electromagnetic radiation. Two photons comprise two quanta of such. Anyway, moving right alone …

Now, it is … yes, to be sure … possible to use terms like “quantum transition” correctly, i.e., there are such things as “quantum transitions”. But understanding how to use this term correctly, like using “quantum” itself, requires decaliters of midnight oil, together with blood, toil, sweat, and even tears. (General principle -- if you declare a major in physics but fail to declare a second, co-equal major in mathematics, steer clear of both:  you are too dumb to major in either.) The term “quantum transition,” when used correctly, refers to the phenomenon whereby a subatomic particle transitions from one quantum state to another without occupying any state in between, e.g., when an electron in an atom transitions from one “orbital state” – a purely metaphorical term: electrons are "standing waves," not micro-planets orbiting a micro-sun --- to another without being anywhere in between. I have lost count of the times when I have heard a religious conversion described as a “quantum transition” – as if the convert simply went from being an unbeliever to a believer, or vice versa, without experiencing, e.g., anything like a “dark night of the soul” in between. I am sure even St. John of the Cross would have been impressed with such a prodigious feat.

Anyway, in the “downstairs” world of the Cosmic Downton Abbey Mr. Carson, Mrs. Hughes, Daisy, Mrs. Patmore, et al., occupy, the world is indeed a quantum world. But upstairs where Lord and Lady Grantham and their feuding daughters live, the quantum effects smooth / average out to an apparent -- but only apparent -- continuity. Humanists and theologians fail to appreciate the difference, and so, in order to appear scientifically literate and metaphysically au courant, consistently misuse such terminology. A good example of this syndrome is Diamuid O’Murchu’s Quantum Theology, the very title of which is like fingernails scraping a blackboard, which is a good argument in favor of not using such terms at all unless and until you can use them correctly. Otherwise, you diminish your credibility, you do not augment it. If you cannot use the term literately, stay away from "quantum" altogether. Otherwise, you will merely succeed in playing the naked emperor modeling his new wardrobe.

o Entanglement / Synchronicity

These two words actually go together, especially in the area of “New Age” – is that terminology still a thing? – philosophy and theological puffery.  This pair of words is actually a double irritant, because it distorts two legitimate and fascinating concepts from two different fields, and manages in the process to pervert both at the same time. To wit:

"Entanglement" refers to the quantum state of two quantum systems which, for whatever reason, interact with each other.  For example, two photons are emitted in opposite directions from a common source. Conservation of spin says that the two photons have opposite spin:  +1 ("spin up", again purely metaphorically) and -1 ("spin down"). But wait … it gets better. We know that if one photon is passed through a device that flips the spin to the opposite – say, it flips the +1 photon to -1 – then conservation of spin says that the other photon of the pair flips from -1 to +1 and that the flip occurs instantaneously, i.e., with identically zero elapsed time.  The two photons are said to be entangled because their quantum numbers influence each other instantaneously over unlimited distances. (It has been a long time since I have taken a physics class, but I have a nagging suspicion that that preceding boldface statement should, technically, be qualified with reference to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. But that would not alter the gist of my point.) The two photons could be separated by the width of the Milky Way galaxy, and flipping one would still instantly flip the other, distance notwithstanding. Albert Einstein referred to this phenomenon – which is quite real, though Einstein had his doubts – as spukhafte Fernwirkung (“spooky action at a distance”). Today, physicists talk in terms of something called “non-locality”. So far, so good:  this is good empirical science.

But then along come the people who know just enough to be dangerous, the same type of people who habitually use the words “quantum” and “theology” in the same sentence.  Their contribution to the discourse is a word coined by Dr. Carl Gustav Jung:  synchronicity.  Jung believed that certain coincidences in the lives of his psychoanalysis clients could be accounted for by the meaning ascribed by the client -- important italics! -- to the juxtaposition of the two coincidental events. The example he gives is of his experience in the therapeutic treatment of a client who was having a whole series of dreams set in dynastic Egypt. As the client was recounting one such dream, into the open window of the consulting room flew a scarab beetle, one of the gods of ancient Egypt. The New Age interpreters of "quantum" metaphysics argue that the flipping of the photon is an example of Jungian synchronicity. The problem is that synchronicity is a matter of subjective, idiosyncratic meaning to a specific individual, i.e., the meaning attributed to the event by the analysand. Multitudes of coincidences are occurring all the time, but not all are meaningful. For all I know, thousands of scarab beetles are flitting into thousands of psychoanalysts' consulting rooms. But absent an ascription of meaning by the client, the aggregate portent of these events adds up to zero. So the question "What does the flipping of the photon spin mean?" begs the unanswered question "Meaningful to whom?"

Alternatively, others in the same marginal New Age tradition argue that ... golly-gee-gawrsh ... if we could only get everyone in the world, all 7 billion of us, to sit down in a quiet room at the same time and send out "positive thoughts" and "positive energy" that the socio-politico-spiritual state of the entire human race and the inanimate universe would be synchronistically revolutionized and a hundred million flowers would bloom ... just by thinking about it. Honest t'Gawd, I have had good friends actually send me literature about such exercises in conceptual masturbation. For one thing, I have my doubts about just plain-vanilla synchronicity. I seriously doubt that, even if it exists, synchronicity is susceptible to empirical science, even in principle, because Jung said synchronicity does not operate by cause-and-effect, whereas empirical science does. So saying that simultaneous exercises in synchronicity can cause anything, let alone eventuate world peace and harmony, is diametrically opposite Jung's own conception of the alleged phenomenon. He even wrote a book entitled Synchronicity:  An Acausal Connecting Principle (boldface added). So ... sorry gang, you cannot do something with nothing. In general, and except perhaps within the skull of the occasional individual sitting by an open window, synchronicity does not do anything.

o Deconstruction (and its adjectival variants, e.g., "deconstructionist," "deconstructive," etc.

As usual, "deconstruction" has a legitimate meaning. I became acquainted with the meaning -- actually, meanings, plural -- of "deconstruction" as a result of having taught courses as adjunct faculty in deconstructionist "lit crit", deconstructionist philosophy, and deconstructionist interpretation theory. The way the term is used in the popular press, often even undergraduate papers, makes me want to bang my head on my desk. But I can descry a common thread of meaning in virtually all the misusages, to wit ...

As popularly conceived, "deconstruction" is usually equated with some kind of "reverse engineering".  For example, if a flying saucer really had crashed and been recovered at Roswell, NM, in 1947 -- which I do not for a moment believe -- you can bet that the best engineering talent in the Nation would be intensively occupied dismantling the craft and attempting to reverse engineer its exotic propulsion systems.  In the popular press, this reverse engineering process would probably be described as an attempt to "deconstruct" the alien spacecraft. So in this popular understanding, to "deconstruct" something -- a machine, software code, a literary text, etc. -- means to peel back the various layers of development, redaction, and revision until one arrives at the original, e.g., the fundamental physics that made a gravity-drive possible, the source code for Stuxnet, the original meaning of a constitutional or Gospel text, etc. This, of course, presupposes that there ever was an "original":  an Original with a capital "O". This first principle is what almost all forms of deconstruction, of which there is a whole zoo, denies. Or as deconstructionists are often wont to express it, there is no "transcendent Signified". There are only ba-zillions -- sorry for the technical "lit-crit" language -- of individual signifiers that merely point to one another. (A "signifier" is merely what you have when your "signi-" is burning.) In deconstructionism there is no Original. So reverse engineering is the diametric opposite of deconstruction.

The following is the gedanken experiment I used to use to explain all the above to my students in my deconstruction classes, especially vis a vis "lit crit". Everyone at one time or another has made hundreds, maybe thousands, of photo- / Xerox copies of documents. Suppose all those copies were for public dissemination from the public domain, like accounts of Donald Trump's extramarital assignations. Intuition says that, at some point, however long ago, there was an original document of which all subsequent documents are copies. Let's call this the "Ur-Document" ("ur" is a German prefix meaning "ultimate" or "primordial"). Deconstruction denies this. Deconstruction says that there is "always already" no Ur-Document. There is no Original. There are only copies. And copies of copies. And copies of copies of copies. And copies of copies of copies of copies. Etc. The non-existence of an Original, an Ur-Document, in any context whatsoever, is one of the cardinal tenets of the currently fashionable attitude of postmodernist nihilism, which, as I have argued elsewhere at length, bids fair to demolish all 500 years of the European Enlightenment project, including liberal, constitutional democracy. But that is another rant for another time. For now, if you are interested in learning about postmodernism and deconstruction from someone who actually knows something, while avoiding the sacrifice of scholarly rigor for the sake of popular accessibility, nothing has been written better than Prof. Stanley Grenz's A Primer of Postmodernism.

For now, please accept my thanks for reading my ventings above. I don't know about you, but I feel much better!

James  R. Cowles

Image credits

"Death of Semele by a Theophany of Zeus" ... Peter Paul Rubens ... Public domain ... Peter Paul Rubens ... Public domain
Quantum collapse ... ScienceNews ... Public domain
Quantum person ... SyFyWire ... Public domain
Quantum interaction ... Colormos / Getty ... Public domain
Entanglement with Jesus ... YouTube ... Public domain
Synchronicity ... TheEventChronicle ... Public domain
Derrida quote ... ... Public domain
Michael Mapes ... Pinterest ... Public domain

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