“A picture held us captive”

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Author(s): 
Djaballah, Andy

Giovanni Macchia’s "Alternative Worlds, Multiverse: ThePoint of View of Cosmology" seemed for a while to be a strange inclusion to the conference but, I think, one that will pay off as we let it sink in. We saw some early walkouts, maybe it was a long day and the dreamy ethereal worlds that Macchia was guiding us through might have drawn some somnolence; or maybe the presentation of a science based in some hard core math seemed beyond the entertainable relevance of a transmedia-inclined audience. But all in, we weren’t asked to do any math. But we were given some straightforward definitions and rough synonyms (world, universe, cosmos); and we were oriented around the goals and primary principles of cosmology: for instance, that the shift from Newton to Einstein radically transformed our way of imagining the universe, and that the primary “tactics” of modern cosmology are to derive “all possible solutions” to Einstein’s equation and see how they match up with our empirical observations.
And here’s where it got interesting: these tactics describe an essential cosmological division between the observable universe and the literally hypothetical universe beyond this. Here is where we were shown graphs of the potential fate and shapes of the universe (collapsing/expanding, increasing/decreasing velocities, crunches and rips, empty and doughnut shaped universes), each one of which adhered to Einstein’s equation. But in what sense does the connection between Einstein's general theory and the fantastic depictions of these potential universes become relevant to world building practices?
Two points/questions were brought up in the discussions: one was about the relationship between math and the world, that is, between the fundamental logic of physics and its representations; and the second was of the viability of imagining other universes governed by a different set of physical laws and creating fiction that take place in them. I would like to extend these questions, as questions, with a parallel problem:
In Being and Time, Heidegger claims that “things” are first disclosed in relation to a totality, as things-in-a-world, as already ready-to-hand (zuhanden). Our relation to things is one of involvement, from the beginning, not neutrality.
In his infamous discussion of the privacy of the expression of pain in Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein posits grammar as providing a similarly non-neutral involvement in our relation to language. In our acquisition of language, a great deal of stage-setting must be presupposed (vorbereitet).
Both Heidegger and Wittgenstein are interested in refuting the notion that we can make sense of a picture of something that we are not already involved in – this is (one of) the principal conditions which make our experience of the world possible. From Descartes, to Locke, to Kant and Hegel, there is a necessary background wherein the operations of what we are describing as a picture of our experience of the world become intelligible. Intelligibility of the world picture requires such background engagement.
So when Macchia ended his talk with three quotes as suggesting ways of considering the proposed solutions to Einstein’s equation, it was his generalization of these quotes that struck me. The first proposed “don’t take them seriously”: wherein the quote was about denying the importance and relevance of mathematics to our everyday lives; the second encouraged us to “take them seriously”: which precisely reverse the earlier proposal and went a step further in encouraging us to take the very process of theoretical physics as immediately relevant to ordinary life. What both of these extremes share is their (mis)taking our extant ordinary involvement with math as a fundamentally shared background. Our experience of the world is governed by assumptions about math and physics that we take for granted, and these are necessarily the only background against which to intelligibly project a sense of reality; and this at any scale, atomic or cosmological.
But these were straw-men quotes, designed to be brushed aside. The third position, of tapered enthusiasm/caution which Macchia says he espouses, is both radically skeptical of our epistemic endeavours to reach the world, and yet resiliently attached to this very conception of a dualist mind-world experience as the basic condition of human experience. But knowledge of the world is precisely what appears under these conditions of possibility. Like Heidegger, like Wittgenstein, we are held captive by a picture of the world, that unthinkably powerful picture of mind-in-world that holds together and structures modern epistemology.
And in this sense, it’s the third position that is fundamentally Cartesian (with a Kantian inflection perhaps, but decidedly and classically modern). And so isn’t “world building” (or universe building) outside of this picture not merely unverifiable but unintelligible? Moreover, aren’t the worlds that we’ve been discussing at this conference, in fact, not new worlds at all but necessarily merely alterations of our world, based on the grounds of intelligibility? Are we not – consistently – simply being metaphorical?

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