Categorically Not! – Point of View

By cjohnson | September 4, 2005 5:50 pm

This is a reminder, for those of you busy people in the Southland who need plenty of warning, to mark your calendars for September 18th. Recall my post on the Categorically Not! series of events held at the Santa Monica Art Studios. Well, the first one of the new season is fast approaching. Here is K.C. Cole’s teaser:

Point of View

As physicists know better than anyone, they way we look at things determines what we see. A point of view is inescapable. Yet science and journalism both are frequently expected to be “objective”—a goal that is not only unattainable, but intrinsically fraudulent and ultimately counterproductive. Instead, the lesson of both relativity and quantum mechanics is that “truth” emerges only when “point of view” is inserted squarely into the equation. As the philosopher Max Otto wrote: “Let us remember that even Plato wore spectacles, and that if he or any absolutist ignores or repudiates this fact, it only makes him careless of the kind he wears.”

For our September 18th Categorically Not!, USC anthropologist Amy Parish will discuss how point of view has been central to her research into relationships among female bonobos, close cousins to chimpanzees who may be our closest living relatives; many aspects of their female-dominated society challenge popular assumptions about human evolution. From a journalistic perspective, Victor Navasky, author of the recently published A Matter of Opinion, will draw on his experience as an editor at Monocle, “a leisurely quarterly of political satire” (it came out twice a year), The New York Times and The Nation to speak about objectivity, subjectivity, ideology and opinion. Finally, Jon Boorstin, Oscar-nominated filmmaker and author of Making Movies Work will talk about how making movies, and enjoying them, relies upon the mysteries of point of view.

Directions and other information from the website. I’ll try to remember to do another reminder closer to the date, but I’m not promising anything, so mark those calendars now!

Do come and hang out with us!


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Arts, Entertainment, Philosophy, Science
  • David

    Hay Clifford,
    Just couldn’t let this pass me by. Concerning the first paragraph of the “Point of View” blurb.

    “As physicsists know better than anyone, the way we look at things determines what we see”

    You know as well as I do that in physics there is a hard and fast reality. Things may look different as you go from one frame of reference to another but the rules for transforming from frame to frame are immutable, clearly and precisely outlined, similarly the predictive power of quantum mechanics has been astounding. We can say the probablity for x to occur is w%, y% and z%. Why do people in the humanities use physics as an analogy to their subject, by saying things like “the lesson of both relativity and quantum mechanics”? Why do they think that because things are “relative” or that their are probabilities in physics it is some sort of justification for things to be relative (note no quotation marks) in journalism or some other humanities subject, that an objective judgement is not possible because it’s impossible to say where some elementary particle is?

    “Yet science and journalism are both frequently expected to be “objective”—a goal that is not only unattainable, but intrinsically fraudulent and ultimately counterproductive.”

    Fraudulent definition:

    Intrinsic definition:

    Objective definition:

    First, “frequently expected”???, whatever about journalism, isn’t science *always* expected to be objective?

    Second, to be objective is “unattainable” and furthermore “instrinsically fraudulent”. In less flowery language we have the author saying “stating facts free of personal bias is not possible” and “is by nature designed to deceive”. huh? I would say: “stating facts with personal bias is designed to deceive”. He goes on to opine: that stating facts free of personal bias is “ultimately counterproductive”. So to have hard and fast facts does not help you, in fact it is a burden for you. Tell that to string theorists or to aid agencies in Louisiana.

    Clifford if you go to this meeting, I hope that you will address the author of this blurb and correct his misconceptions.

  • Fyodor Uckoff

    Why do they think that because things are “relative” or that their are probabilities in physics it is some sort of justification for things to be relative (note no quotation marks) in journalism or some other humanities subject

    [a] They want to politicize *everything*
    [b] Because we, or rather those who, by writing pop sci books, presume to speak for us, do such a crappy job of explaining these things. *Especially* relativity.

  • Clifford

    Thanks guys….the teaser worked, evidently!


  • Lee Smolin

    Dear Clifford,

    This looks interesting. I don’t know if you and KC are aware of a certain resonance in the title “Categorically not”. There are mathematical and physical formulations of how to “put the point of view squarely in the equation” and the math involved is closely related to category theory. More precisely, to topos theory, which is a development of intiutionistic logic expressed in category theory terms. I am not an expert on the math, but my understanding is that you can construct logics where truth value depends on point of view, for example, you can make sense of the fact that the set of propositions we can give truth values to grows in the future.

    Markopoulou used this to express a quantum theory of cosmology in terms of information that a real observer, inside the universe, has access to. Since no observer has access to more than the information coming from their backwards light cone, different observers have access to different observables and states. See,

    Fotini Markopoulou,“The internal description of a causal set: What the universe looks like from the inside”, Commun.Math.Phys. 211 (2000) 559-583, gr-qc/9811053;” An insider’s guide to quantum causal histories”,hep-th/9912137, Nucl.Phys.Proc.Suppl. 88 (2000) 308-313;
    “Quantum causal histories”,hep-th/9904009, Class.Quant.Grav. 17 (2000)
    2059-2072; E. Hawkins, F. Markopoulou, H. Sahlmann, {it Evolution in quantum causal histories}, hep-th/0302111.

    In an earlier appraoch, Crane proposed expressing quantum cosmology in terms of a set of Hilbert spaces, each associated to a boundary in space. The idea is that each Hilbert space codes the information that an observer on one side of the boundary can have about the system on the other side. This led him to anticipate the holographic principle, it also led to the use of Chern-Simons theory to formulate the boundary observables, which is used in LQG to describe the states on black holes and cosmological horizons.

    See L. Crane hep-th/9301061; Topological Field theory as the key to quantum gravity, hep-th/9308126, in Knot theory and quantum gravity
    ed. J. Baez, (Oxford University Press); Clocks and Categories, is quantum gravity algebraic? J. Math. Phys. 36 (1995) 6180-6193, gr-qc/9504038.


  • David

    Haha! Indeed. :)

  • Clifford

    Lee. That’s really interesting indeed. Thanks! -cvj

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  • K.C. Cole

    Now that it’s time for our October Categorically Not!, I finally have a moment to respond to objections some people raised about my September blurb on the subject of Objectivity, or Point of View.

    As a journalist who writes about science, I thought my colleagues could learn a thing or two about the nature of “objective truth” from physics. Objectivity is a word that journalists use a lot—but in my experience, scientists don’t, because it’s not a very useful term. Journalists believe that it’s possible (and desirable) to have zero point of view—that is, to look at the world from some privileged frame through which they see the unvarnished “truth.” What makes science strong, in my opinion, is that it doesn’t fall into that trap. What scientists say is: I made this measurement, and I got this result. Or, I solved an equation, and I got this solution. To say you have a “result” or “solution” without saying how you got it is meaningless. Even when I say the sky is blue, it’s understood that I am a human being whose retina is detecting certain wavelengths of light which are then being interpreted by my human brain in very specific ways. The sky is not “blue” to a snake or a dog or a bee (or if I look through a red filter).

    Similarly, if I say the universe was created in a Big Bang (never mind the details) 13 billion or so years ago, there’s no reason anyone should believe me unless I point out that this particular “objective reality” is based on evidence from several very different points of view (cosmic microwave background, expansion, nucleosynthesis….). Journalists often fail to explain this—which is one reason I believe the whole ID issue has been so badly handled in the press. It’s not enough to say “most scientists think evolution is correct….” That leaves the reader in the position of choosing who to believe—the NAS, or the president, for example. It’s not so difficult, I think, to explain that evolution is an answer to specific questions about the fossil record, morphology, DNA, embryology, etc. But it’s rarely done.

    What really seemed to get people’s goat (goats?) was my statement that how you look at something determines what you see. I fail to understand the problem. If I look at light with a certain kind of apparatus, it’s a wave; if I look with another, it’s a particle. Reality is always reality, but how we choose to ask the question does determine the answer. So the only way to get an “objective” answer to is say how you asked the question! (And if I’m viewing the world through the eyes of an educated middle aged white woman living in LA–which I am–then I’d better take that into account as well.)

    An astronomer friend told me he was upset because my wording played into the hands of the “relativists” (not that kind); that it was understood as “code” to mean “there’s no reality,” or some such. But I’m really tired of other people telling me what my words mean—whether the subject is objectivity, “family values,” “culture of life,” “liberal,” “feminist,” or any of the rest.

    So, yes. Objectivity—meaning looking at a situation from a supposedly privileged frame from which you can see the unbiased “truth” —is, as I said, “not only unattainable, but intrinsically fraudulent and ultimately counterproductive.” Science understands this; it’s journalism that has the problem.

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