‘The aesthetic relation of art to reality’

Celestial Fireworks: Into Star Cluster Westerlund 2

‘As the illustrative animation begins, the greater Gum 29 nebula fills the screen, with the young cluster of bright stars visible in the centre. Stars zip past you as you approach the cluster. Soon your imaginary ship pivots and you pass over light-year long pillars of interstellar gas and dust. Strong winds and radiation from massive young stars destroy all but the densest nearby dust clumps, leaving these pillars in their shadows – many pointing back toward the cluster centre. Last, you pass into the top of the star cluster and survey hundreds of the most massive stars known.’

Source

‘Defence of reality as against fantasy, the endeavour to prove that works of art cannot possibly stand comparison with living reality – such is the essence of this essay. But does not what the author says degrade art? Yes, if showing that art stands lower than real life in the artistic perfection of its works means degrading art. But protesting against panegyrics does not mean disparagement. Science does not claim to stand higher than reality, but it has nothing to be ashamed of in that. Art, too, must not claim to stand higher than reality; that would not be degrading for it. Science is not ashamed to say that its aim is to understand and explain reality and then to use its explanation for the benefit of man. Let not art be ashamed to admit that its aim is to compensate man in case of absence of opportunity to enjoy the full aesthetic pleasure afforded by reality by, as far as possible, reproducing this precious reality, and by explaining it for the benefit of man.’

N.G. Chernyshevsky, ‘The Aesthetic Relation of Art to Reality’, MA thesis, 1855, in Selected Philosophical Essays, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1953, 379

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Engels on materialism: part 6 – the universe is a process

The second specific limitation of this materialism lay in its inability to comprehend the universe as a process, as matter undergoing uninterrupted historical development. This was in accordance with the level of the natural science of that time, and with the metaphysical, that is, anti-dialectical manner of philosophising connected with it. Nature, so much was known, was in eternal motion. But according to the ideas of that time, this motion turned, also eternally, in a circle and therefore never moved from the spot; it produced the same results over and over again. This conception was at that time inevitable. The Kantian theory of the origin of the Solar System (that the Sun and planets originated from incandescent rotating nebulous masses) had been put forward but recently and was still regarded merely as a curiosity. The history of the development of the Earth, geology, was still totally unknown, and the conception that the animate natural beings of today are the result of a long sequence of development from the simple to the complex could not at that time scientifically be put forward at all. The unhistorical view of nature was therefore inevitable. We have the less reason to reproach the philosophers of the 18th century on this account since the same thing is found in Hegel. According to him, nature, as a mere “alienation” of the idea, is incapable of development in time — capable only of extending its manifoldness in space, so that it displays simultaneously and alongside of one another all the stages of development comprised in it, and is condemned to an eternal repetition of the same processes. This absurdity of a development in space, but outside of time — the fundamental condition of all development — Hegel imposes upon nature just at the very time when geology, embryology, the physiology of plants and animals, and organic chemistry were being built up, and when everywhere on the basis of these new sciences brilliant foreshadowings of the later theory of evolution were appearing (for instance, Goethe and Lamarck). But the system demanded it; hence the method, for the sake of the system, had to become untrue to itself.

Friedrich Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, 1886

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Full text at Marxists Internet Archive

Lenin: the recent revolution in natural science, and philosophical idealism – part eight

A massive star in NGC 6357

A massive star in NGC 6357

“Matter has disappeared” (continued)

The opinions expressed by Bogdanov in 1899 regarding “the immutable essence of things”, the opinions of Valentinov and Yushkevich regarding “substance”, and so forth – are similar fruits of ignorance of dialectics. From Engels’ point of view, the only immutability is the reflection by the human mind (when there is a human mind) of an external world existing and developing independently of the mind. No other “immutability”, no other “essence”, no other “absolute substance”, in the sense in which these concepts were depicted by the empty professorial philosophy, exist for Marx and Engels. The “essence” of things, or “substance”, is also relative; it expresses only the degree of profundity of man’s knowledge of objects; and while yesterday the profundity of this knowledge did not go beyond the atom, and today does not go beyond the electron and ether, dialectical materialism insists on the temporary, relative, approximate character of all these milestones in the knowledge of nature gained by the progressing science of man. The electron is as inexhaustible as the atom, nature is infinite, but it infinitely exists. And it is this sole categorical, this sole unconditional recognition of nature’s existence outside the mind and perception of man that distinguishes dialectical materialism from relativist agnosticism and idealism.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, 243

The first image (a 180 degree panorama) sent from another planet (Venus). Venera 9, 1975

The first image (a 180 degree panorama) sent from another planet (Venus). Venera 9, 1975

Opportunity at Santa Maria Crater, Mars, 2011

Opportunity at Santa Maria Crater, Mars, 2011

Philae on comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko, 2014

Philae on comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko, 2014

Flying past Neptune’s moon Triton

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Part eight/to be continued…

Full text at Marxists Internet Archive

Image sources: 1st/2nd/3rd/4th

Hegel on the dialectical relationship of cause and effect

To_pot_the_red

…though the cause has an effect and is at the same time itself effect, and the effect not only has a cause but is also itself cause, yet the effect which the cause has, and the effect which the cause is, are different, as are also the cause which the effect has, and the cause which the effect is.

But now the outcome of the movement of the determinate causal relation is this, that the cause is not merely extinguished in the effect and with it the effect, too, as in formal causality, but that the cause in being extinguished becomes again in the effect, that the effect vanishes in the cause, but equally becomes again in it. Each of these determinations sublates itself in its positing, and posits itself in its sublating; what is present here is not an external transition of causality from one substrate to another; on the contrary, this becoming-other of causality is at the same time its own positing. Causality therefore presupposes its own self or conditions itself.

G.W.F.Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, Trans., A.V.Miller, Humanities Press, New York, 1976, 565-566

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We have lost track of the dimensions of philosophical language

MyCn18: An Hourglass Planetary Nebula

MyCn18: An Hourglass Planetary Nebula

‘…we have so little experience in taking metaphorical speech seriously as a carrier of philosophical meaning that we read right past it. …we have become so accustomed to the monotone hum of the abstract concept and the category, the fluorescent buzz of the argument, that we have lost track of the dimensions of philosophical language. We have forgotten its secrets and cannot recollect its manner of eating bread and drinking wine.’

Donald Phillip Verene, Hegel’s Recollection: A Study of Images in The Phenomenology of Spirit, State University of New York Press, Albany, New York, 1985, 34-35

M2-9: Wings of a Butterfly Nebula

M2-9: Wings of a Butterfly Nebula

Planetary Nebula Mz3: The Ant Nebula

Planetary Nebula Mz3: The Ant Nebula

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Images: top/middle/bottom

Marx acknowledges his debt to mysticism – and its potential

NGC 7635: The Bubble Nebula

NGC 7635: The Bubble Nebula

‘I therefore openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker…The mystification which the dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general forms of motion in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.

In its mystified form, the dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and glorify what exists. In its rational form it is a scandal and an abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesmen, because it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well; and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary.’

Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, Postface to the Second Edition 1873, Penguin, London, 1982, pp. 102-103

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Contra sacerdotes latentes

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Can we learn to love uncertainty?

Vredefort crater - remains of the largest verified impact crater on Earth, more than 300km across when it was formed. Free State Province, South Africa

Vredefort crater – remains of the largest verified impact crater on Earth, more than 300km across when it was formed. Free State Province, South Africa

There are aspects of this article with which I disagree, but that the author advocated for uncertainty is, I think, most important.

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David Malone, ‘Can we learn to love uncertainty?,’ New Scientist, 04.08.07, 46-47

You might think that no one could argue with the value of certainty. It has the air of one of those indisputably good things, like world peace or motherhood. But I would argue that the pursuit of certainty has become a dangerous addiction. Like alcohol, it makes us feel safe, but it is also making us stupid and belligerent.

Few notions have become as deeply embedded in our culture as the belief that there is a perfect certainty to be had – and the desire to have it. It has survived virtually intact the transition from religion to rationalism as the touchstone of our society. Even as science squeezed out belief in God and scriptural certainties, a perfect law-governed creation remained; it was just under new management. Science has become, in the minds of many, the new guarantor that there is certainty and that we can attain it.

We are faced with all kinds of questions to which we would like unequivocal answers. Do mobile phones cause cancer? Does depleted uranium? Is global warming real? There is a huge pressure on science to provide concrete answers when the alternatives are cant and self-serving opinion.

But the temptation to frame these debates in terms of certainty is fraught with danger. Certainty is an unforgiving taskmaster. It may seem prudent to say that when the scientists are certain then we’ll know what to do, but it is a mere step from there to say we should do nothing until we are certain.

As every climate scientist knows, there will always be facts that won’t fit even the best model of global climate. That’s the nature of models and the weather – and it illustrates just how badly we can be led astray by the fiction that science is about certainty. If we are honest and say the scientists’ conclusions aren’t certain, we may find this being used as justification for doing nothing, or even to allow wriggle room for the supernatural to creep back in again. If we pretend we’re certain when we are not, we risk being unmasked as liars.

The very word ‘uncertainty’, along with ‘incompleteness’ and ‘uncomputability’, encapsulates one of the three of the most profound theories in 20th-century science and mathematics. Yet they are all defined in terms of the unsettling lack of something positive or better. It is perhaps for that reason that the stories of those who discovered these uncertainties have been largely overlooked.

This is why I made Dangerous Knowledge for BBC television: to champion the incomplete, the uncomputable and the uncertain.

Another crater making life uncertain - an antlion waits for visitors

Another, more recent crater, making life uncertain – an antlion waits for visitors

In a society desperate to find certainty, and beset on all sides by people who claim to have it, this seems like a suitable moment to show that the idea of certainty-from-on-high was discredited 100 years ago. I wanted to tell the stories of the people who made this discovery and the great personal price they paid. A line of thinkers from Georg Cantor to Alan Turing saw the extent of the uncertainty in science, and incompleteness in logic and mathematics, and understood what we still haven’t grasped as a culture. I am fascinated by just how reluctant we are to face up to what these heroes revealed.

What is also striking is how much of 20th-century history has been defined by a disastrous oscillation between two equally hopeless reactions to the perceived loss of certainty. At one extreme, if the things we think are true can’t be underpinned with certainty, we declare that nothing can be true and make a bonfire of all certainties. Think fin-de-siècle Vienna or Weimar Germany or even the postmodernist stance, which becomes the perfect apologists’ creed for the status quo.

At the other extreme, think of the absurd and deranged certainties of Hitler’s Reich and Stalin’s five-year plans, or the cold-war doctrine of mutually assured nuclear destruction. And all this, ironically, at a time when Kurt Gödel and Turing were busy destroying the dream of absolute certainty.

We have still not really absorbed their ideas. Turing in particular laid bare the profundity and seriousness of incompleteness and uncomputability, using his invention, the computer, to show how deep and pervasive our inability to know for certain is. As it turned out, his invention overshadowed his conclusion and, ironically, for the past 50 years the computer has be seen as the certainty engine – the machine that can solve the problems we can’t. What we failed to notice is that the computer has actually made us less certain: we now know, for example, that we cannot precisely model weather, climate or the economy, and very probably never will.

The computer has turned out to be like every other industrial process: designed to turn out something desirable through the front door but with an unintended by-product, a ‘pollution’, emerging from the back door – in this case, uncertainty. Non-linear mathematics, the butterfly effect, emergent phenomena, all revealed by the computer, add to the incompleteness of logic and conspire to make certainty elusive.

We need to reach an accommodation with uncertainty. Not only is the universe uncertain, but so too is human knowledge. Science as a process should never have fostered any illusions about this: it was always about provisional truths and knew it.

Perhaps it’s time for us to finally accept that we shouldn’t believe in science because we think it certain, but precisely because it’s not.

Certainty is totalitarian. It forecloses further thinking, Not one of the theories devised by Newton, Darwin, Einstein or Planck is certain and perfect. Powerful and beautiful they undoubtedly are, but they are still partial and incomplete approximations of truth.

For the modern counterparts of Gödel and Turing – the likes of Roger Penrose and Gregory Chaitin – intellectual certainty is a dead end. Serious thinkers are not afraid of uncertainty. For them a theory’s uncertainty or incompleteness is not a failing but a positive and creative condition in is own right. The profound discoveries of modern mathematics and science show that life and thinking flourish only in the liminal and fertile land that lies between too much certainty and too much doubt. The art of scientific inquiry is to tack back and forth between the two.

More than ever, science needs to remember the words of Bertrand Russell: ‘Uncertainty, in the presence of vivid hopes and fears, is painful, but must be endured if we wish to live without the support of comforting fairy tales…To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralysed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing.’

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Images: top/below

Top Documentary Films: Counter-Intelligence

All five parts of this series which I highly recommend can be found here.

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The earth is a noble star 

Full Moon, Full Earth

Full Moon, Full Earth

‘Therefore, the earth is a noble star which has a light and a heat and an influence that are distinct and different from [that of] all other stars, just as each star differs from each other star with respect to its light, its nature, and its influence. And each star communicates its light and influence to the others, though it does not aim to do so, since all stars gleam and are moved only in order to exist in the best way [they can]; as a consequence thereof a sharing arises (just as light shines of its own nature and not in order that I may see; yet, as a consequence, a sharing occurs when I use light for the purpose of seeing).’

Nicholas of Cusa, De Docta Ignorantia, 1440, Bk, II, 166, in Nicholas of Cusa On Learned Ignorance, A Translation and an Appraisal of De Docta Ignorantia, Jasper Hopkins, The Arthur J. Banning Press, Minneapolis, 1990, 94

The Sombrero Galaxy from Hubble

The Sombrero Galaxy from Hubble

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NASA images: top/bottom

The works of Cusanus

The one (theoretical) absolute is change

The one (theoretical) absolute is change

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