Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Dialectic and Timelessness

One of the great arguments in physics concerns the nature of time: is it real? or is it a fiction which we construct? Physicists like Lee Smolin argue that time is not only real, but it's the foundation of every other physical process. Leonard Susskind upholds what he calls the "anthropic principle" - we make this stuff (time) up. Smolin's objection to this is that it is unfalsifiable (see https://www.edge.org/conversation/lee_smolin-leonard_susskind-smolin-vs-susskind-the-anthropic-principle).

I want to approach this from a different angle. Physics underpins biology in some way, and our biology appears to be the basis of our consciousness. Consciousness in turn is responsible for social goods and ills in the world, and these social goods and ills seem to be produced over time. Moreover consciousness gives us our ideas of physics and biology, and it allows us to create our institutions of science wherein those ideas are manufactured. To some extent, these ideas imprison us.

Our lives appear as an ecological ebb-and-flow of perceptions and events which from a broader vantage point look like what philosophers call "dialectic". For Marx and Hegel, dialectic is one of the fundamental constituents of reality - although Hegel's dialectic is an "ideal" one - it is ideas which oppose one another synthesising new ideas - whereas Marx's dialectic has to do with the fundamental material constitution of reality, which underpins social structures. The Marxist underpinnings are scientific - it is physics at the root. However, if time is not real, what happens to dialectic?

The intellectual challenge is this: imagine a timeless world where there is no past or future, but a whole and total "implicate order" from which we construct our "now" and our "then". In our constructing of a "now" and "then", we give ourselves the impression of a dialectical process, but actually this is an illusion which causes us to mistake the nature of reality, and in the process, leads to social ill.

So how might we re-conceive reality in a way that we don't impose an idealised dialectical process, but rather attempt to grasp the whole of time in one structure?

One of the problems is the hold that evolutionary theory has on us - and evolutionary theory was also influential on Marx. What if all the stages of evolution co-exist at any instant? It's not so difficult to imagine that the "you" that is now includes the "you" that was a child. But it's more challenging to think that the cells that make up "you" each include the cells that existed in the primordial soup of the beginning of life. If we accept this for a minute, then some interesting things emerge. For example, we might think of a dialectical process being involved in being struck by a bacterial infection, and fighting it off: in Hegelian language, thesis - healthy cells; antithesis - cells under bacterial attack; synthesis - healing, production of antibodies. This is time-based. But what if it is seen as a step-wise movement through a "table" of co-existing biological states?

Let's take our healthy cell as a stage in a "table" of evolutionary states. When the cell is attacked by bacteria, its physical constitution changes. In fact, it seems to regress to a previous stable evolutionary state (you might imagine the cell "moving" towards the left of a table). The healing process finds a path from this regressive state back to its original state - moving back towards the right. This is "dialectic" as a process of movement from one stable state to another - rather in the way that electrons shift from one energy band to another. John Torday remarked to me the other day that the cells of the emphysema lung become more like the cells of the lung of a frog. Disease is evolution in reverse.

So what about social disease? What about oppression or exploitation? If the free and enlightened human being exists on a table of possible states of being human (probably on the right hand side), and the slave exists on the left, how does this help us think about a dialectic of emancipation? Like the cell under attack, what pushes the cell to take an evolutionary step backwards is a threat in its environment (bacteria). What matters in both cases is the relationship to the environment:  the relationship between cells, and the relationship between people. In examining people at different stages of freedom, we are seeing different sets of relations with others. The pathology lies in the master-slave relation, not in the slave; health resides in the convivial openness of the enlightened person with all around them, not in the person themselves.

Marx's principal insight lay in the recognition that emancipation from slavery could arise from the organisation of the oppressed: workers of the world unite! The organisation of the oppressed might be seen as the creation of the conditions for growth from a basic state of evolution (slave) to a more advanced state. It is similar to the healing process of a wound. Marx's dialectic becomes a coordination between people where the collective management of the environment outweighs the pathological effects of that environment on any one individual. Each stage of development towards emancipation is a "stable state" which can be attained progressively with the production of the right conditions. Equally, evolution in reverse can be produced with the creation of negative conditions - for example, austerity.

Dialectic is not a temporal process: it is not a matter of "now" and "then". It is a process of structural alignment in a structure which simultaneously contains all possible states of increasingly sophisticated "wholes". Time is implicit in this structure. The better we understand the structure and how it affects the way we think, feel and act, the better our chances of survival in the future.