… no knowledge content can win its independence from the question that gives it meaning; no question can gain its autonomy from the choice from which it proceeds; no choice can prevent its selective nature from being taken into consideration, can ignore what is excluded from being presented so that what is chosen can present itself.
This is the second of two posts today from Cosmopolitics II by Isabelle Stengers (2003):
… Obviously, Bohr never denied that reality “exists,” or that it is “knowable.” Reality is clearly “knowable,” as the existence of quantum mechanics demonstrates. But being “knowable” is something quite different than the possibility of knowledge that critics demand. What they express is nostalgia for that blissful situation where reality itself seems to dictate the categories of its definition.
… It is important to understand that the requirements of EPR [the Einstein, Podolsky, Rosen paradox] reproached “quantum reality” (as defined by quantum theory) for failing to satisfy has nothing to do with what other practices require of their “reality.” Even less with the knowledge one human can have of another. How can I even dream of knowing the other “in itself,” independent of the relation I have with it, independent of our respective abilities to form relationships with one another and with others? The notion that knowledge, in this instance, is dependent on words, on contexts of meaning in which those who know one another participate, is not something to regret. It is, rather, the possibility of knowing in the absence of a relationship that is a nightmare. Should we regret what takes place in a laboratory, where phenomena are effectively staged, purified in such a way that they become experimentally meaningful, acquiring the power to authenticate their representation? No one would dream of imagining that the necessity of a laboratory, of the devices that are used to transform an “empirical” fact, subject to a thousand and one interpretations, into an “experimental” fact, implies the “unknowable” character of reality. Quite the contrary, experimenters are all the more “realist” to the extent that their practice obligates them to fiercely distinguish between “fact” and “artifact,” that is, to distinguish between those cases where “reality” has indeed satisfied the requirements that define it as a reliable witness and those where the device has extended the power of interpretation to produce a “false witness” who cannot but confirm that reality. Laboratory practice connects “reality” not to the possibility of predicting without intervening, but to the possibility of an interaction productive of evidence whose meaning can be determined. From this perspective, Bohr’s indeterminacy does not signify unknowability. It reminds us that every determination is productive of a link that carries meaning, creates the ability to make a difference for the one who has the means to determine.
Bohr, therefore, did not give up trying to “know” reality. He remembered that is was only because the bodies interrogated by classical mechanics allow themselves to be presented in terms of the idealization of mere location that, in Galileo’s lab and that of his heirs, experimental practice appeared to have simply staged a reality determined in itself and by itself. The reality he wanted to reject was not the one presupposed by experimental practice, or the one each of us presupposes when addressing the world and other humans. It was the reality of the Queen of Heaven, the dream of a reality whose truth could be attained independently of any practice, any question, any relationship.
… each science must undergo, in its own way, the challenge of statements such as: no knowledge content can win its independence from the question that gives it meaning; no question can gain its autonomy from the choice from which it proceeds; no choice can prevent its selective nature from being taken into consideration, can ignore what is excluded from being presented so that what is chosen can present itself.
Nonetheless, the fact is that physicists have not abandoned the dream. We can even say that high-energy physics, when it addresses the mathematical symmetries that characterize its objects rather than behaviors in space-time, has reinvented the dream, which then becomes, as Heisenberg noted, frankly Pythagorean. Physicists no longer require of the interrogated reality that it subject itself “in itself” to the determinations in terms of which we measure it. They address symmetry properties that, independently of measurement, characterize the mathematical beings presented by theory.
… It is impossible to acknowledge that Bohr was right and denounce those who didn’t follow him without transforming my approach into a critical, and thus normative, endeavor. Bohr, like Duhem, failed. But we can use his failure to better understand the practice to which his proposition was addressed.
“Bohr was incomprehensible, his language was obscure, he would think out loud.” I don’t want to let such statements stand in my way, even though they might be relevant. Not only did people listen to Bohr, intensely, not only did he continuously struggle to express his thought in ever more lucid terms, but he had, in the person of Léon Rosenfeld, a faithful and perfectly intelligible interpreter. Anecdote alone is inadequate. Here, misunderstanding must primarily be understood as a refusal to understand, that is, a refusal to consent to understand, as William James would put it.