Monday, April 5, 2010

François Jullien, The silent transformations, Seagull Books, 2011

Version en français

François Jullien presents here, more clearly than in his previous works, the confrontation between Chinese thought and European philosophy. By placing in front of the other, he highlights what each of them has neglected, what it does not want to see.

Is Philosophy an expression of our culture, of the way of thought that the Indo-European languages structure (subject - verb - complement, declensions and conjugations)? Or did she, starting from the Greek source, structure the way we think? It is indeed vain to try to distinguish cause and effect: the two phenomena, inter-weaved, enclose us in a familiar circle.

Our representation of the world proceeds by concepts and definitions with clear contours. It is suitable for mathematics, it encourages the construction of science, but it does not help us to think our aging, the landslides of our emotional life, all these slow changes whose term takes us by surprise.

Not knowing how to think them, we do not know how to prepare them nor to take advantage of them. That's why we think action on the heroic mode: the world being not what it should be, we must destroy it and replace it with another, to substitute a bad concept by another that is better.

The Chinese, heir to a culture which is sensitive to the seasons, knows that the world is changing. One has to wait until the plants grow and the action, to be effective, must respond to the propensity of things : it would be foolish to plant in summer or to harvest in winter...

Here emerge two conceptions of the relationship between the natural world and the world of thought: while our philosophy, our culture focuses on explicit knowledge, concepts, the tradition of Chinese culture emphasizes the progressive action, the process of evolution.

Nothing of course prevents a Chinese of thinking by concepts, or a European concept of being attentive to silent developments. But it is easy for either one or the other.

*     *

Reading François Jullien engaged me in a parallel reflection, remembering the inscription that Plato engraved on the porch of the Academos garden: "no one enters here who is not a geometer" (that is to say a mathematician).

Devout to its heritage, the French consider mathematics as the "science of sciences", a model of certainty. Do they deserve to be enthroned as the top of the hierarchy of knowledge?

They explore the world of explicit thought, the world of concepts, under the sole constraint of non-contradiction, while the other sciences explore the natural world (physical, human, social) under the sole constraint of experimental control. What matters most: the consistency of reasoning from clear definitions, or the correctness of action in a world that no definition can summarize?

*     *

I was twice in conflict with colleagues, respectable mathematicians, who said they felt free to think and say that the Earth is flat.

From the perspective of a mathematician this is only an assumption, and in the world of thought we are free to make any assumption provided it does not contains an inconsistency. From the perspective of experimental science, by cons, this assumption is invalid because inconsistent with observation.

If one thinks, like Plato, that the real world is the world of ideas or, as Aristotle, that the real world is the world of the essences of things – that is to say their definition -, then in order to reach the correctness in action, one has only to know the definitions and to derive their implications by correct reasoning.

This assumption builds the foundation of Western philosophy. The world of thought is assumed to be identical to the real world, which it covers adequately: "the real is rational and the rational is real," said Hegel. Acquiring knowledge requires effort, but the philosopher who comes to possess it is worthy to govern, he is the "philosopher-king" of Plato. Is this not the ideal of the French "Enarques"?

If by cons it is considered that thought does not provide a representation of a real world whose complexity exceeds it, then we must ask:
(1) the pertinence of this representation against the requirements of the action,
(2) the accuracy of this action in view of the situation and of the intentions of the active person,
(3) the fidelity of these intentions in regard to the values that the person intends to promote,
(4) the consistency and quality of these values themselves.

In the world of values, an experimental control is impossible and the point of view of Plato is necessary: experience can not, for example, decide between the assumptions about our fate after death (metempsychosis and nirvana of the Hindus? Paradise of the Christians and the Muslims? black hole of the atheists?) but the hypothesis chosen - or no choosing one of them - determines the point of view of each individual on his own life.

The mathematician in his brain makes love with the brain, while he who takes the part of experimental science makes love with nature: there is a metaphysical alternative, an orientation in the world of values. If everyone is free of his choices in this world, he must still be that the choices are conscious and their consequences assumed.

*     *

Here's a question that lets you know what choice you made: do you feel free to think and say that the Earth is flat? If yes, you chose your brain as partner and if not, you chose nature.

In this second case, action is more important than thought, or more precisely, thought matters to you insofar it promotes the correctness of action, the judicious answer to situations. To sort out the assumptions on which your thoughts can build you will use the experimental method, even at the individual level where there is not a laboratory for controlled experiments. You will rely on your daily experience, on this common sense that philosophers like to denigrate and that you will continually try to improve.

Among the sciences, you won't place mathematics on the throne – they are an useful and valuable auxiliary, but a simple auxiliary - but the disciplines which, considering the action, assume its uncertainties: the history, economics, strategy and informatics...

To place the "soft sciences" on the throne, would it not be a sacrilege? So I should mention that I love and practice mathematics: exploring the enchanted worlds that open from a few axioms, I fill notebooks with calculations. Mathematics are a voluptuous mental gymnastics - but gym is not the purpose of life.

*     *

If we respect them so much, it is not only because of Plato but because they are an example of certainty. We say "that's mathematical" as if to say "that's for sure".

This is to forget that their axioms are arbitrary. Euclidean geometry is no more "real" than the elliptical or hyperbolic geometries and if it is convenient to our scale, it does not fit that of the Cosmos. The certainty of mathematics lies in the demonstrations which start from axioms, but the truth of axioms itself can not be proven.

In other sciences the reasoning is not based on axioms, but on assumptions build on an induction that, as was shown by Hume, generalizes the scope of a limited experience and hence does not constitute a proof.

Karl Popper has even seen in falsifiability the criterion for assessing the scientific nature of a theory: it is unscientific to require that a theory contains an absolute and irrefutable proof of its truth. All the art of research is to think from assumptions, to explore their implications and then revise them after examining the facts.

Mathematics is useful to clarify the assumptions and deduce their implications. But some people, imitating prostitutes who wiggle to attract attention, exaggerate pedantically their formalism to take advantage of its prestige. Among so many published equations, how many were needed?

Those who scorn the soft sciences are unaware that the certainty of mathematics is suspended from axioms chosen for the pleasure of exploring their consequences. Furthermore most teachers ignore the hypothetical nature of physics: reviving scholasticism which preceded the emergence of experimental science in the sixteenth century, they do not consider its approach but set out its results as dogmas. This ignorance, this pedagogical distortion, pervert our relationship with science as with action.

Those who require absolute certainty (about global warming for example) are wrong. We can only access the practical certainty that allows action, and this should be enough for us: of course, an assumption which has successfully passed all experimental tests is and remains a hypothesis and has not been demonstrated, but only extravagant people can challenge it.

If those who glory of "doubt everything" were consistent, they would doubt the doubt itself! They are like teenagers who, discovering one day that "everything is relative”, believe to have discover an absolute truth...