The Integrity of Offline Practices

In Technology Matters, historian David Nye distinguished between the knowledge we might gain of a tool by “reading” it as if it were a text and the knowledge that would arise from using the tool. It is the distinction between conceptual knowledge and embodied knowledge or knowledge that we can articulate (e.g., what is the capital of Argentina)  and knowledge that we simply carry in our bodies (e.g., how to type).

To illustrate this distinction, Nye used the American axe as an example:

“The slightly bent form of an American axe handle, when grasped, becomes an extension of the arms. To know such a tool it is not enough merely to look at it: one must sense its balance, swing it, and feel its blade sink into a log. Anyone who has used an axe retains a sense of its heft, the arc of its swing, and its sound. As with a baseball bat or an axe, every tool is known through the body. We develop a feel for it. In contrast, when one is only looking at an axe, it becomes a text that can be analyzed and placed in a cultural context.”

This was well put and instructive. When I recently came across a short essay called “Axe worship” by Bella Bathurst that described the joys of chopping wood, I recalled the passage above from Nye and went on to read the essay with interest piqued.

Bathurst did not disappoint. The essay was just the right length for what it aimed to do and was written in just the right tone. It also included two paragraphs in particular that nicely captured the joy of wood chopping. Here’s the first:

“Personally, I just like chopping for its own sake. There’s something warming about the ritual of it and the sense of provision. Place, stand, breathe, swing, cut. Watching the wood. Watching the radial splits out from the centre, marking the place to bring the axe down, waiting for the faint exhalation of scent from the wood as it falls. Like cooking, it provides a sense of sufficiency and delight but, unlike cooking, log-chopping has a particular rhythm to it, like a form of active meditation. You do, very literally, get into the swing of it.”

And then there was this:

“The point and the pleasure of chopping logs is that it is just me and a stone-age tool. Standing there in the shed in a deep layer of sawdust and chippings, I can hear the birds and the river and the changing note of the blade as it strikes different ages and sizes of timber. I can sense the rhythm of my own work and the difference between old wood and new.”

This resonated with me. Unlike Bathurst, I don’t live in a place that necessitates the chopping of wood for fires to keep warm by. But I have exerted myself in other physical tasks which yielded not entirely dissimilar experiences. But even as Bathurst words were resonating, I was thinking to myself, “I bet Nathan Jurgenson would file this under “IRL Fetish.'”

(IRL – “in real life” – Fetish, you may remember, is Jurgenson’s name for what he takes to be the unseemly valorization of offline, non-digitally mediated activities. Sherry Turkle’s reflective stroll on the shores of Cape Cod was Jurgenson’s paradigmatic case.)

But then I realized something: Bathurst doesn’t mention digital technology at all. She did not frame her experience as an escape or respite from the tyranny of the digital. There was no angst about the hyper-connected life. It was simply a meditation on the joys of swinging an axe. So, then, can it be classified as an instance of “IRL Fetish” if it makes no mention of digital technology?

I wouldn’t think so. This sort of experience appears to be altogether un-preoccupied with the discontents of digital technology. It is not that we can claim that some thought of the digital world never entered Bathurst’s mind — how could we know anyway — but that even if it did (to note that this would make a good online essay for example) it appears to have done so unproblematically.

Bathurst’s account of her experience strikes me, in fact, as another example of a practice which offers, in Joseph Conrad’s words, “a chance to find yourself.” It is a practice in which we might become absorbed, and one that offers the particular pleasures of working against the resistance presented by the material world and the satisfaction that comes from having done so successfully toward some end.

These practices and the pleasures they yield have an integrity of their own that are not necessarily coupled with digital technology (although they may sometimes be justly contrasted to digital technology). What they offer are goods in themselves irrespective of their relationship (or non-relationship) to digital technologies. We should, in other words, engage in these sorts of practices for their own sake, not merely as antidotes or countermeasures to digital mediation.

Perhaps we do such practices and experiences a disservice, those of us who do highlight their significance in light of digital realities, when we discuss them only as such. Ironically, we may, in doing so, be granting digital technology undue prominence, as if these other practices were significant only as modes of resistance to digitally mediated life. Such is not the case.

Hilaire Belloc noted the following long before the advent of digital technology:

“… the most important cause of this feeling of satisfaction is that you are doing what the human race has done for thousands upon thousands of years … Whatever is buried right into our blood from immemorial habit, that we must be certain to do if we are to be fairly happy (of course no grown man or woman can really be very happy for long — but I mean reasonably happy), and, what is more important, decent and secure of our souls. Thus one should from time to time hunt animals, or at the very least shoot at a mark; one should always drink some kind of fermented liquor with one’s food – and especially deeply upon great feast-days; one should go out on the water from time to time; and one should dance on occasions; and one should sing in chorus. For all these things man has done since God put him in a garden and his eyes first became troubled with a soul. Similarly some teacher or ranter or other, whose name I forget, said lately one very wise thing at least, which was that every man should do a little work with his hands.”

Written today this may have “IRL Fetish” written all over it. Written, as it was, in the early 20th century, it is a reminder that advocating such practices and experiences need not necessarily be an act of escapism or fetishizing. It might simply be an honest recognition of what has long been uncontroversially true about human experience. Or, as Freud reportedly put it, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

42 thoughts on “The Integrity of Offline Practices

  1. I would argue that one does not have to evoke the digital anymore for the digital dualist frame to be present. We are now primed to understand experience in a false binary of real/digital. Even if the author doesn’t frame log-chopping as an act opposed to digitally mediated life, the false binary frame is widespread enough to be evoked in the minds of many when they read something like this. And I agree — we lose the value of the experience by running it through a digital dualist frame. We value it not for what it is but for what it is not.

    1. Good point. I would myself be Exhibit A then. But is it the case that because some might read the experience “for what it is not” importing the digital dualist frame, that for it was for Bathurst herself, as she was engaged in the act, framed this way? In any case, your last line captures the gist of what I was trying to say perfectly.

      1. Agreed, Bathurst did not use the digital dualist frame, at least not in the essay. Who knows what she was thinking. But the pervasiveness of the digital dualist fallacy leads to a disservice done to an essay like this. We fill it with meaning it wasn’t meant to have, and its potential value is lost.

          1. I’m not sure why thinking in terms of the opposition (online vs. offline) undermines the integrity of the experience (or the ability to get meaning out of reading the essay). One could come to Bathurst’s essay thinking in terms of the opposition of country life vs. city life and be happy about a discussion of the joys of country life. Coming to it with a feeling of annoyance towards smart phones and Facebook also doesn’t mean one doesn’t somehow get the “real meaning” out of an essay. Its like the statement that such and such an essay (say from 100 years ago) is “more relevant than ever today”.

  2. Boaz and Shannon, I’m picking up the thread here since the nesting eventually gets a little ridiculous.

    Boaz, fair point. “Undermine” is perhaps too strong a word. Without wanting to speak for Shannon, I think her qualifying follow-up comment, as well as my second line suggest that neither of us thought it entirely undermined the experience or the essay. More importantly, yours is pretty much the key point. As Shannon pointed out, so pervasive is our preoccupation with the digital that we’re importing it into places and experiences where it would not otherwise be present. But then again, so what? Carry on, right? Keep chopping wood and enjoy it for what it is. (Not unlike the Zen thought above.)

    1. Well said, Mike. It’s not that the digital dualist frame necessarily leads us to lose the value of experiences, but the potential is there to lose sight of the richness of experience when we frame it as “this is so different from my tethered-to-my-phone/tablet/computer life!” rather than focusing on what the experience *is.* I think the *fetish* element of the IRL fetish is particularly relevant here: it encourages a more superficial, surface understanding. Not that it necessarily *does,* but I think the point is that it *can.*

    2. Thanks Mike and Shannon. Yeah, it looks like more than two replies doesn’t work so well as far as formatting the comments. (Hoping this comment is placed after Shannon’s!)

      I appreciated this essay, Mike. I’ve read a lot of the digital dualism stuff (mainly on the Cyborgology blog) with interest, but do sometimes think it goes a little too far. I particularly like what you say when you write in the main essay:
      “Ironically, we may, in doing so, be granting digital technology undue prominence, as if these other practices were significant only as modes of resistance to digitally mediated life. Such is not the case.”

      1. Boaz, I have a history on this blog of hitting the wrong “reply” button, as well as other formatting trouble, as evidenced above (“ShannOn” was a mistake, and not a cute attempt to make my name more interesting. I was on my phone in the car when I posted that…passenger seat, not driving!).

        Boaz, your comments are reminding me to keep my eye on the ball when it comes to theory and make sure that the theoretical concepts match practice. I think with much philosophy and theory it’s easy to let concepts play with each other in my head and in my papers, where they can lose grounding in the world. Mike always does an eloquent job of integrating theory and life, as in the post we’re discussing.

        1. Hi Shannon,
          Well, I work in the field of physics, so we are supposed to be pretty careful about how we connect theory to reality (often referred to as experiment in our case). I’ve found myself drawn to some of these debates on digital culture and sociality, though its not my field. I guess when I see someone saying that “digital dualism” is a question related to the difference between atoms and bits, I think that if this is really going to be a serious discussion that makes some sense and connects to the knowledge we already have, physics ought to be involved in some way. Of course, for understanding a face to face interaction between two people and thinking of that in terms of atoms and physics is a pretty absurd perspective, in at least partly the same way that understanding digital communications between two or more people in terms of bits and information theory is also somewhat absurd. But if grand statements are going to be made, its at least worth having some grounding in the well founded theories (with their holes and areas where more work is still ongoing) describing these realms.

          1. Boaz, I confess that I know little of physics. I work with social theory and media theory, especially digital media, and it can be very easy to make grand statements without empirical backing, especially with new technological developments. I think those of us who do research and social theory tend to see those over-generalizations being made at the social level (“this technology is going to fix everything!” or “this technology is going to destroy everything!”) and we scholars don’t consider that we are often vulnerable to making such blanket statements ourselves. I’m not sure the digital dualist argument is one of those over-generalizations, but your comments are reminding me to keep theory grounded in the world.

        2. Boaz, I’m not a physicist, but I resonated with your outlook as described in that last comment. I’d certainly welcome your comments and perspective. Thanks for the interaction on this post!

  3. Michael, I dig some of the ideas here, but, unfortunately, feel that you misrepresented my argument in my IRL Fetish essay.

    Certainly I would *not* see someone enjoying cutting wood years ago as part of my IRL Fetish argument. Even if someone wrote of enjoying the activity today, that doesn’t not mean they are doing what my essay was criticizing. However, you say that I probably *would* think there is IRL Fetishizing happening, and that follows from your description of my argument. However, your description does not follow from my essay.

    You state that the IRL Fetish describes the “unseemly valorization of offline, non-digitally mediated activities.” This is not correct. The last half of the essay is about how these are not “offline” or “non-digitally mediated” activities to begin with. Your summary seems to say that I’m arguing against enjoying activities like cutting wood, when my argument is that we should enjoy them, but just not fetishize them. By this I argued that we should enjoy, say, time spent outdoors hiking or cutting wood, but, and this is the important part of the essay, we shouldn’t call them “offline” or “non-digitally mediated”; we shouldn’t pretend like these activities are disappearing when we know face-to-face communication often increases with social media use; and we should drop the smug self-satisfaction of thinking that doing things like taking a hike makes one more real, deep, authentic, real than everyone else.

    Thus, your conclusion, framed as counter to my essay, is very much in agreement with my argument. Your example, unlike what you say above, does not have IRL Fetish written all over it. I’m asking us to enjoy experiences in a realistic way, not fetishizing them irrationally, and not putting others down in the process. It is very, very possible to enjoy cutting wood without doing any of that (even though few op-ed writers can resist going the lazy IRL Fetish route in their conclusions).

    1. Nathan,

      First, let me say that any misrepresentation of your point of view was certainly not intended. I think a little clarification on my part my clear things up. Here is the sequence of my statements:

      I was thinking to myself, “I bet Nathan Jurgenson would file this under “IRL Fetish.’” …
      But then I realized something: Bathurst doesn’t mention digital technology at all. …
      So, then, can it be classified as an instance of “IRL Fetish” if it makes no mention of digital technology? …
      I wouldn’t think so. …

      What I was giving expression to is the progression of my thoughts which began with an initial feeling that this essay (which is in fact contemporary) might fit IRL Fetish critique, but then realizing it didn’t and moving on to another line of thought. Your article was only momentarily a foil, although I can see how, in the stream of consciousness mode I was writing, this was not entirely clear.

      My main point, as it evolved (and continued to evolve in the comment thread) is that not every advocacy of the offline (or whatever one may call it) need be understood as an instance of IRL Fetish. With that much, then, I think we are agreed. I might go farther and say that even when framed against the digital, such advocacy may still have more to commend it than you might grant (but that’s another conversation, I’m not sure).

      My parenthetical summary of your article was certainly not intended to be exhaustive and, as you point out, didn’t cover the whole of your argument. It perhaps focused on the “we should drop the smug self-satisfaction of thinking that doing things like taking a hike makes one more real, deep, authentic, real than everyone else” part. That was just an effort at brevity (and also why I linked to your original piece and my own lengthier interaction with it).

      As always, I appreciate your taking the time to read and comment. These exchanges are always helpful for me as they further clarify my own thinking.

      1. okay, this makes a lot more sense. i guess my worry is not that your parenthetical summary was too short, it just isn’t accurate. though, my original essay was purposely evasive in many ways, so i have no room to complain! it is funny because i’m the person in my friend groups with my phone out the least, and goes backwoods camping the most, etc., so i have a special desire to appreciate being explicitly (even if still implicitly) disconnected, and that means, for me, being realistic about it. random tangent: explicit versus implicit disconnection…just wrote that for the first time here…of any conceptual use?

        1. Yes, I think that distinction gets at something. Just now I’m thinking the online/offline dynamic needs two vectors, one to get at material (for lack of a better word) connectivity — being on my smartphone, on my laptop, next a friend with a smartphone, in the woods with no access, etc. — and another to get at the present consciousness of the online, “psychic” connectivity or something. So, for example, I might be without my phone and so offline in that sense, but very conscious of wanting to post something to Facebook about what is just now happening. Conversely, I may have my phone on me and yet at that moment not be thinking about the online at all.

          Does that make sense?

  4. It seems to me that the main point here is just that the IRL Fetish argument just doesn’t apply to lots and lots of situations. It may well be prevalent within op-eds these days and perhaps important and relevant to people in some cities around the world, but to take this filter and apply it to experience in general these days seems to be going much too far. When you say ” I’m asking us to enjoy experiences in a realistic way, not fetishizing them irrationally, and not putting others down in the process.” who is this “us” you are referring to? Are you really claiming to say something general about “experience in 2012”? Certainly there are some people that need to be reminded of this, and this makes your point interesting, relevant, and important. But perhaps there are many many more that have no need of such a request or reminder?

  5. Obviously I’ll let Nathan respond for himself, but your reply did prompt a point I wanted to get down here, although it is really a tangent. You asked “who is this ‘us'” and about the validity of generalizations. I want to make a similar point but in another direction. As you point out, not everyone needs to hear IRL Fetish critique because, of course, it doesn’t apply universally. Conversely, because the concerns raised by Turkle, et al don’t apply to everyone, it doesn’t mean that they don’t apply to some. Sociological studies that conclude that use of social media, for example, does not, for the statistical majority of the sample, result in social isolation or loneliness or whatever doesn’t negate the fact that for a statistical minority it very well may. In other words, Turkle is not making crap up.

    My logic there may be flawed and I’m certainly happy to have that pointed out by Nathan, or any other trained sociologist that happens to be reading.

    1. Thanks for the response, Michael. And thanks for your other comment above. I’m somehow out of my field, but keep finding an urge to comment and get involved with these debates… Anyway, hopefully I can make a positive contribution.

      Also, my reply to Nathan’s comment was supposed to go underneath his post… along with Shannon, I seem to have problems pressing the right “reply” button.

      The validity of generalizations does seem to be of issue here. When one talks about something as broad as “experience”, I think one should be extremely careful about generalizing.

      1. No worries, I’m contemplating a change of blog template because I’m not a big fan of the way the comments display. Also, please do keep getting involved. Sometimes those “in the field” need some outside perspectives. Besides, in the case of digital communication and the like, most of us have a personal stake in the debates whether we are specialists or not.

        And yes, generalizations are a part of most conversations, but we should be careful with them.

    1. Thanks for the response Nathan. No, you don’t say that. But you do reference PJ Rey’s article and write “We can’t log off.” and conclude with “Let’s not pretend we are in some special, elite group with access to the pure offline…”
      With this collective “we” you seem to be putting all of human experience within the purview of the online/offline dichotomy. What I got out of Michael’s post here is a reminder that its not always a relevant distinction.

        1. right, it is an ontological position that materiality and information are always interpenetrated (to use Katherine Hayles term)…though, that enmeshment, augmentation, etc, comes in many different flavors for different folks in different times and different places…

          in any case, your point about the first-person-plural universalism is a good one! in an academic paper, or even on my own academic blog, i hesitate to use such “we” statements, but a fancy essay in a culture mag is a different audience and i know the power of those “we” statements to propel ideas in a way that more careful language fails to capture. i mean, i wanted to throw something out there that might be read by some of the folks who read Turkle’s op-ed’s etc. i can’t fault you for being very skeptical of so many “we’s” – that’s the right reaction!

        2. Fair enough. I’m still learning who reads this and what’s at stake in
          these kinds of debates. While something might strike me as ugly if
          applied universally, it may be that this is an over-reaction given the
          actual audience.

          The other topic I read about in blogs and other online magazines
          and occasionally comment on is
          the debate on string theory and its role in physics. In that case, I
          think there is a tendency of some of the leaders in the field to not
          have an appropriate awareness of their public role. They have a very
          particular philosophy of science that may make some sense with
          respect to the questions that they are considering, but when applied
          to science as a whole does not fit well. And given assumptions about the
          role and status of fundamental physics within science, these attitudes and philosophy can be
          damaging to the public debate and I think science education in general.

          Interesting to try to see this online/offline question in a larger
          context and not just with respect to internet technologies of the last
          ten/twenty years. I can slowly try to read more of the literature
          referenced in these discussions, and maybe have a more informed opinion.

        3. Reading a little bit of Katherine Hayles here:

          I get some feel for where this is coming from, though of course I’d have to read more closely to have a deeper understanding.
          I do tend to be somewhat skeptical of some of the postmodernism. The metaphors are loose and suggestive, and hard to pin down when you really try. Also, with regards to physics (materiality) I often think to what happened with Alan Sokal with his “hermeneutics of gravity” article in “Social Text”, and use that as a reference point for a not always respectful relationship between the social sciences and the natural sciences (in both directions clearly).
          Anyway, these are somewhat loose thoughts as well, but they come up when I hear of “atoms and bits” or “ontology” that I see as at least partly sitting in between the sciences and the humanities.

          1. Boaz, we have a great deal of tension within our disciplines along those lines as well (though I’m hesitant to make that claim, as the rest of us in this discussion do not come from the same discipline, and I have trouble with the idea that there are hard boundaries between those “disciplines,” but that’s another conversation). Social scientists, critical theorists, and humanities scholars often have such differences over ontology that we can’t even talk to each other (over theory and research, I mean). The Sokal affair is sometimes a touchy issue within our circles, and will be used as evidence of faulty practices and worldview on all sides. I think what it demonstrates more than anything is the importance of peer review.

            And here’s where I think we may find a bridge between physics/the philosophy of science and the present discussion. It could be said that at the heart of the matter is a debate over reductionism, materiality, the appropriate position of science in experience, and what counts as “evidence” (though Nathan, I don’t want to mischaracterize your work, and I fear I already have in this discussion). Boaz, I’m curious about your position on string theory and the philosophy of science. I have an interest in the philosophy of science, though I know it mostly in terms of its intellectual history and know nothing of current debates. I’d like to.

  6. Hi Shannon,
    Let me respond to your last nested comment! Thanks for the thoughtful response. And thanks to Michael for hosting this blog with comments allowing for some interesting reflection and interchange.
    Regarding the Sokal affair, its true that it does point towards the need of good peer review. But it also raises questions about the interaction between disciplines. Sokal’s article was reviewed, but just not by anyone that had much knowledge of quantum gravity (though not many do, and its a pretty far out speculative subject, anyway). I agree that lines between disciplines are often not so clear, and there can be a lot of benefit to be gained by working across lines if done in a way respecting both disciplines. But I think its quite a challenge to try to work at the interface of how societies work and understanding of extremely strong or small scale gravitational fields!

    As for string theory, I tend to see it as having gone a little too far away from physics and engagement with the real world. I think in a way, it has become a kind of solution in search of a problem. One takes a few ideas — start with strings rather than particles, and try to hold onto quantum mechanics and relativity — and allows a fair amount of freedom in constructing multi-dimensional spaces with a wide variety of string inspired fields inside. Since the theory itself is so little constrained, there are people who say that it cannot be wrong. There is always room to tweak it. And indeed, methods that came out of this approach have been somewhat useful in treating completely different problems- such as those involving superconductivity and heavy ion physics. And it has also made some valuable contributions to pure math.

    As for philosophy of science, over the years I’ve tried to read the work of Nancy Cartwright. Actually, during graduate school I found her work fascinating, (I’ve tried to read “How the Laws of Physics Lie” and “The Dappled World”) but very demotivating, when I had a lot of physics problem sets to do, or need to solve some physics problems (I work in the field of accelerator physics and synchrotron radiation). She does not start from a perspective that physics is great and can model the whole universe. Instead she puts it back on the physicists to argue as to why their theories should cover as much as they say they do. More recently, she has had similar things to say about economics, and I would guess might mount similar criticism to cybernetics or information theory.

    So I guess there is somehow always a tension between preventing theory from getting too untethered from reality but at the same time allowing a freedom to play around with ideas and then see if some of them are useful. I’m reminded of this by one of Nathan’s comments above where he introduces the concept of “explicit versus implicit disconnection” and then asks if has any conceptual use. A social science theorist- good stuff! But I do think its healthy to have regular reality checks as to whether one’s theories make sense in real situations, and also a bit of scope check to clarify which swath of the physical phenomena or humanity one is attempting to clarify.
    Anyway, I hope this was wasn’t too far afield of the original post (or too long!).

    1. Hi Boaz,
      Thank you so much for this comment. I’m curious, when you say string theory has become a solution in search of a problem, I find that very interesting since (though I’m not familiar with any developments in the last few years) string theory has often been presented as a solution that reconciles quantum mechanics with relativity, and has the potential to rescue pure reductionism, a philosophy that some were seeing (both within and without the hard sciences) as inevitably flawed.

      I think what’s at the heart of many current philosophies of science is a critique of reductionism, the idea that everything can be ultimately reduced to physics. Many scientists have your reaction to the works of Cartwright, and others like Latour, who sometimes seem to philosophize about science without much respect for 1) what scientists actually do, and 2) the fact that science works.

      Have you read Wimsatt? I’m pretty sold on his arguments, especially those in “Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings.” He does reject pure reductionism and the elimitavism that follows adherence to it, but he begins from a place of “science works–how?” He allows for the validity of all different kinds of theories, as long as they produce fruitful results. He allows for incommensurability and still retains respect for all the interlocking systems that make up a holistic picture of the world. (He’s developed an ontology of his own to explain it.)

    2. I’m enjoying this exchange and I’m very glad to see it unfold here. I don’t have too much to contribute as I’ve not thought too deeply or read very widely in these matters. But I have been interested in these sorts of discussions. It was interesting to read Boaz’s evaluation of string theory. I have absolutely no expertise in physics, but hearing the string theory described it did once occur to me that we were no longer trying to match theories to reality, but reality to our theories. Also, I’ve not read either Cartwright or Wimsatt, but resonated with what I know of Michael Polanyi’s work. I’m curious if either of you were familiar with him or had any thoughts on his work.

      Please feel free to keep this discussion going here, it’s a good one.

      1. Mike, I’m enjoying this discussion, too! More evidence of why I absolutely love this blog.

        Polyani was only one of a group of philosophers of science who attacked positivism and emphasized that all scientific knowledge is always influenced by and cannot be understood outside the assumptions we already hold, and that observations, both scientific and causal, are understood only as framed by certain theories. His work, along with that of Duhem, Quine, and ultimately Thomas Kuhn, basically exploded the philosophical integrity of science and opened the door to pure relativism, and, in my opinion, the diagnosis of postmodernity which, like Boaz, I have some trouble with. For me, once you get past Kuhn, the question is, “Okay, now what?” They may have torn positivism and reductionism apart, and rightly so, but to keep going along those lines (Cartwright would be an example) gets kind of indulgent. Science still works. How? Wimsatt reconciles the loss of positivism and reductionism with the fact that we still have this whole working world in our face no matter how we philosophize about it.

      2. Hi,
        Actually, regarding Cartwright, I would say that for awhile I had the feeling that she didn’t really get what was right about science, and was missing something big somehow. But once I got more into the details of her arguments, I didn’t feel this way any more. Her writing on the quantum measurement problem is really interesting. She takes the example of a real device- a SQUID (superconducting quantum interference device) and talks about how quantum mechanics is really used in the modeling and the use of the device. Hard but wonderful stuff there.
        As for string theory and its reconciliation of quantum mechanics and relativity, there’s a certain truth to it, but this is also debatable. Basically, our most robust theory out there for describing elementary particles is quantum field theory. But quantum field theory is tricky. It is presented in one way (as a kind of generalization to fields of non-relativistic quantum mechanics), but then you find out that this description is wrong. Without doing a fancy procedure called renormalization, (first developed in the context of ferromagnetism, I think) you can’t get sensible results out of it. And it turns out that only certain field theories can be renormalized when quantized. And it looks like gravity isn’t one- hence one way in which QM and GR don’t work together so well. It turns out that string theory is renormalizable. But it may well be that we just need to reexamine the foundations of quantum field theory. Or maybe some kind of finite theory could be made to work. Anyway, the point is that string theory has a few things going for it as far as a general theory, and lots of problems as well. I don’t believe its the only renormalizable theory (theory framework, really) that could potentially say something about gravity. Anyway, perhaps quantum mechanics itself could undergo some small change in perspective. I think the push towards quantum computation could lead to this. I think we still really don’t have such a great picture of quantum mechanics itself. So I still think there’s something perhaps fundamental to be learned by studying quantum mechanics on its own- and I found Cartwright to be possibly pointing in a useful direction when she talks about the limitations of our models.
        Shannon, when you say you’ve heard that “[string theory] has the potential to rescue pure reductionism…” what do you mean by this?

        Wimsatt…. yes- I loved his book “Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings.” Actually, its funny because I posted something about Nancy Cartwright on my personal blog a few years back, and was recommended to read Wimsatt by another philosophy of science grad student…
        Its been one of most grounding books I’ve read regarding taking all this fancy stuff and bringing it down to reality. I also really like his development and discussion of reductionism. What he writes about complex systems is also really interesting. About how complexity comes from different perspectives on a system that refer to non-overlapping parts… something like that. Its been a year or two since I looked at it. I should look at it again.

        Thanks for the reference and perspective on Polanyi, Shannon and Mike. I hadn’t heard of him. I’ll have a look.

  7. I guess another point I’d make related to string theory and reductionism is there it can be a real downer on the whole enterprise of science to think that quantum gravity is the only interesting question left. There is a kind of pyramid of fundamentality in which elementary particle physics is pretty much the most fundamental, and quantum gravity and mysteries about dark matter and energy are also up there. Someone with the purely reductionist view of science then thinks that really the most important problems to work on are these supposedly foundational questions. One learns many things in a physics education- electricity and magnetism, thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics, classical mechanics, etc. To feel that only work on elementary particle theory or quantum gravity is really valuable is kind of sad. So I’d agree that its important to get beyond a simple reductionist view regarding fundamentality of theories, but I don’t really see how string theory helps with that.

  8. Boaz, thank you so much for your comments! I have a very limited understanding of physics, and admit that I can only understand some of what you wrote, but this: “Someone with the purely reductionist view of science then thinks that really the most important problems to work on are these supposedly foundational questions. One learns many things in a physics education- electricity and magnetism, thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics, classical mechanics, etc. To feel that only work on elementary particle theory or quantum gravity is really valuable is kind of sad.” is a beautiful articulation of one of the problems with reductionism. From an intellectual point of view, reductionism is boring, and it limits the potential of science. I never thought of it that way. My personal concern with reductionism was from a social research perspective. Hard reductionism discards everything I do, everything I read, and classifies it as invalid. That’s why I dig Wimsatt. If a system or a field can produce robust predictions and explanations, then it’s a valid, working piece of the whole. I love that you like Wimsatt, too! I have tried and failed to incorporate Wimsatt’s work into my own research somehow. I’ll think more on it.

    “Shannon, when you say you’ve heard that “[string theory] has the potential to rescue pure reductionism…” what do you mean by this?”

    This was probably a very uninformed statement, but I have often heard string theory discussed in terms of its potential to be that Theory of Everything that would explain, well, everything. Reductionism needs a theory that everything can be reduced *to.* Physics has always been at the foundation of reductionism, but tensions within physics have made that problematic. (quantum mechanics and relativity, for example)

  9. Hi Shannon, Glad you could get something useful out of my comments.
    Yes, string theory has been put forward as this theory of everything. But I think it is failing in that.
    No one has any clue as to how we can recover the standard model from it (basically most of what we think of as the stuff really here in the world). Also, for it to work, it tends to incorporate something called supersymmetry. This has been an idea people have been looking for other reasons for awhile now. There were expectations that particles confirming supersymmetry would be found at the LHC at CERN, but so far they have not been. Finding it wouldn’t have necessarily confirmed string theory, but it would have made that game more interesting.

    I think the question of reductionism is really interesting to think about concretely even without anything so exotic as string theory. We can think about the supposed reduction of chemistry to physics. Chemistry is interaction of electrons in molecules, and we can describe the way the electrons work within the molecules via physics. But I think that even in this more clear case, its not at all easy to do the reduction, and it makes one have to be a lot more precise about what one means by saying that one theory reduces to another.

    Another important reduction these days is to say the people are just data. There’s maybe a certain kind of truth to it, but it is extremely simplified and can be quite damaging as well. I really like looking more carefully at this question. Interesting to hear you think about it within the context of your work. I guess I do the same. I tend to think that the emission of radiation from electrons can still hold some mysteries, whereas a reductionist perspective would say that we have quantum field theory which is known, and therefore there is no possible way I could ever find anything really very interesting.

    Getting back to the original topic perhaps, saying that there is something called the online which is about data, and there is something called the offline which is material or physics or atoms- this is indeed a rather reductionist way of viewing the world. Maybe true from a certain perspective, but also not true from many, and potentially dangerous as well (and you just added boring, which could be relevant as well). Not obviously wrong, but good to engage with some of these debates on reductionism.

  10. Looking back through Wimsatt, his final Appendix D is really fun – “A panoply of LaPlacean demons”.
    When one has the sense that an eliminativist reductionism is taking place, that may be possible in principle, but is extremely questionable in practice, one can have a look around for one of these demons…

    1. How did I never read this before? I didn’t even know it was here, as this little three-page gem has hidden itself between the glossary and the notes. I love the language, too: “The Turing/Church demon… Useful against someone who claims that…” Reads like a handbook. Love it!

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