February 20th, 2011

S.C. Hickman

Lee Smolin: Science as Democracy in Action

"Science is a kind of open laboratory for a democracy. It's a way to experiment with the ideals of our democratic societies."
     - Lee Smolin

Loop Quantum Gravity
Lee Smolin is an American theoretical physicist, a researcher at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, and an adjunct professor of physics at the University of Waterloo. He is an advocate of
loop quantum gravity (LQG), which affirms the concept that space can be viewed as an extremely fine fabric or network "woven" of finite quantised loops of excited gravitational fields called spin networks: a spin network represents a "quantum state" of the gravitational field on a 3-dimensional hypersurface. Ultimately he believes that either one/or both of the main theories (loop quantum gravity and string theory) prevalent within theoretical physics can be reconciled as different aspects of the same underlying theory.  

In an essay on
Loop Quantum Gravity on the Edge site Smolin once said that in "science you must accept the fact that you live in a community that makes the ultimate judgment as to the worth of your work. But at the same time, everybody's judgment is his or her own." He goes on to say:

"The ethics of the community require that you argue for what you believe and that you try as hard as you can to get results to test your hunches, but you have to be honest in reporting the results, whatever they are. You have the freedom and independence to do whatever you want, as long as in the end you accept the judgment of the community. Good science comes from the collision of contradictory ideas, from conflict, from people trying to do better than their teachers did, and I think here we have a model for what a democratic society is about. There's a great strength in our democratic way of life, and science is at the root of it."

In this essay he describes the process of how the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, in Waterloo, just outside of Toronto was created and funded, and how it was to shaped by the fundamental idea of democracy. In particular it was "meant to be an incubator for innovative ideas about fundamental questions, and new ideas tend either to come from young people or from people who keep themselves young by constantly moving into new areas." How true that statement is. At 59 I have been shaped by constant change and innovation, having lived through the computer age and worked within the information industry since the early 70's I've seen first hand the power of openess and democracy at work, of constantly keeping pace with new discoveries in both technology and culture, and not allowing one's mind to remain static and bound to a rigid or dogmatic view of nature, technology, or culture.  

Recently we've even begun to understand that the brain itself changes over time, and that brain plasticity (
neuroplasticity) refers to the empowering ability for constant change, growth, and remapping of the brain over a lifetime. The brain has the ability to adapt and deal with new input and information. We've learned that there are three types of brain plasticity: the first occurs when infants are born and start developing into children. Studies have shown that the immature brain grows and creates neural networks at an unprecedented rate, as the brain is flooded with new sensory input from the outside world. The second type occurs over the course of a lifetime, as the brain changes with age to reflect new experiences and events. Additionally, the brain demonstrates tremendous plasticity in the wake of injury.

Without plasticity, the brain would remain static, frozen at a particular point in time. Brain plasticity allows the brain to do everything from learn how to speak to refining physical movements such as those associated with playing a musical instrument. Every time the brain encounters information, it reworks itself to accommodate it, and creates a map of the information it contains so that it can readily retrieve information when it is needed. People always need to be able to store and interpret new information, making brain plasticity critical to function at all ages.

Change and innovation not only in the brain but in our culture and technology, as well as our views of science, nature, and the cosmos is one of the hallmarks of our supposed modernity. But what keeps this all from going awry is the idea that certain individual experts, trained artisans or specialists in a myriad of fields can help guide change and innovation in directions that can benefit both nature and humanity. This doesn't always work in practice, since in this real world the economic engine of Capital seems to have hooked to this behemoth like a leech and has now become the ultimate arbiter, judge, and executioner. Yet, in principle, at least the idea of democracy lends itself to keeping people and ideas honest. As Smolin iterates it discussing the creation and direction that his Institute took: "One thing they did very early was to create a committee of prominent scientists as advisers, to oversee what we do. They're there to see that we don't wander off in strange directions scientifically—to keep us honest." And, I would add, not only scientists, but philosophers, too. For it is the philosophers that guide our concepts and thoughts of reality, who show forth the ways in which both math and natural language are tools to probe the weird world we all live in. We should also add the poets and artists of many types, and in many fields that are always on the cutting edge of thought and innovation, showing us the way forward. We need beings in many forms, a democracy of beings channeling change and innovation that will benefit both our planet and our own very existence in this multiverse. 

Smolin describes the interaction among two fields of endeavor within his institute that are working examples of a democratic community in action: quantum gravity and quantum information theory:

"We opened in September 2001, which was a strange time to begin any endeavor, starting with three scientists on long term appointments; Robert Myers, Fotini Markopoulou, and myself—a string theorist and two people in quantum gravity. Very much present in our minds from the beginning was the idea that we were not going to favor one particular approach. We have good people in both camps, and we are creating an atmosphere where people in different camps will talk to each other. A lot of good science has happened so far."

What is key to this is the sense of openness, the sense of sharing and camaraderie, of community; and, as he says, it "was heartening to see that the leaders of at least one country understand that the support of pure science is essential for a modern democracy." And, of course, he was speaking of Canada. The other aspect is that of an openess to many approaches, many conceptual frameworks rather than a dogmatic lock down on the mind that produces nothing but the sameness of all unenlightened discourse. Without open minds, minds that are allowed the freedom and power to innovate we will never produce the philosophical or scientific foundations of a democratic society. As university after university is through economic pressure beginning to shut down their humanities and philosophical departments we are seeing the pressure of Capital to tyrannize over those very powers of innovation and openness that the democratic enlightenment brought into existence. Even if the we disagree with aspects of the liberal enlightenment heritage with its centering on the human, we do not disagree with the foundations of democratic community upon which those very institutions were founded to begin with. Without the the freedom to think freely and innovatively we are all doomed to a world that will sooner or later fall into a circle of sameness and unfreedom. Yet, as in all things, freedom does not reside only in humans, freedom is at once the power of objects themselves to duel and resist all that would enslave it and keep it from both change and innovation. 

Levi Bryant in an interview with Peter Gratton's on his blog 
Philosopy in a Time of Error
 describes how the internet, and in particular the "blogosphere" has become a revolutionary force of change and innovation, overturning "the hegemony of the academy or the university system." He goes on to say:

"Traditionally philosophy has taken place in expensive and hard to obtain academic journals, difficult to find philosophy texts, and professional conferences that can be very expensive to attend.  And by and large the “price of admission” in any of these venues has been an advanced degree of some sort. Further, in many cases articles in journals are seldom read, but you also get group networks of like-minded philosophers that begin controlling the content of journals, what articles will be published, what articles will not be published, and whose articles will be published.

The blogosphere significantly challenges these institutions by bringing people together that come from both inside and outside the academy, and by enabling the possibility of philosophical movements that emerge outside of the gatekeepers of the journals and conferences.  It is unlikely, for example, that SR would have taken the form it has taken had the blogosphere not existed.  To be sure, certain books might still have been published, but rather than coagulating into a loose movement it’s likely they would have been aberrant texts soon forgotten.  This is because the Continental philosophy journals and conferences are currently dominated by certain forms of philosophy inimical to both the style and content of SR.  However, with the internet it became possible to form collectives and discussions outside of the academy that brought the work of very diverse thinkers together under a single banner.  This led to the formation of special issues of journals and entire journals devoted to SR, the hosting of conferences, and the founding of presses to publish this work.  A number of graduate students, in their turn, became interested in variants of this thought, pestering, I imagine, their professors and dissertation directors to let them work on these issues, thereby forcing establishment academia to pay more attention to this movement rather than dismissing it out of hand."

We have seen also how recent events in Egypt and others places around the world have spawned revolutionary fervor and the power of democratic ideals through the use of the internet and its innovative technologies: twitter, blogs, facebook, et. al. Allowing the pressure of information to show forth the vein attempts by dictators to suppress through violent means the populace of their countries. We can only hope that this is a continued trend and that all peoples will tend toward that freedom that many of us enjoy. Maybe as Levi says, that on the "internet philosophizing tends to lead to a very quick evolution of thought where positions change rapidly.  Perhaps this calls for a new sort of philosophy, where one doesn’t so much embody a fixed position as engage in a developing tendency of thought not unlike the evolution of a species over time." Maybe it calls for a new type of democracy as well: maybe, even, a Democracy of Objects. Of course, I say this in deference to Levi Bryant, whose new book is coming out soon and is named just that: The Democracy of Objects!