Year of Short Fiction Part 6: Cosmicomics

I’ve sort of been dreading this one, but it’s the only thing remaining on my short fiction list that I own. Three years ago I wrote up my interpretation of Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler. Calvino can be strange and highly symbolic, but that book’s meaning jumped out at me with little effort. He had constructed a condensed history of critical theory through the story.

I had a vague familiarity with Cosmicomics, so I knew it would be harder. The stories all feature or are told by a character named Qfwfq. Each story starts with a tidbit of science such as:

Situated in the external zone of the Milky Way, the Sun takes about two hundred million years to make a complete revolution of the galaxy.

The story that follows is usually related to this somehow. The collection as a whole can be read as a symbolic retelling of the history of the universe. Calvino has taken real science and created mythologies that actually fit the data.

But it’s more than that. The stories often have a moral to them or a symbolic quality. They aren’t just fictionalizations of the events of the early universe. They’re almost parables like classic mythology. He’s achieved something odd with these.

The collection came out in 1965, fairly early in Calvino’s career, and well before the highly experimental If on a winter’s night a traveler. Calvino believed realism to be dead, and these stories mark his foray into a new type of fiction. He held on to pieces of realism but incorporated highly fantastical elements.

That’s enough of an overview, let’s dig into my favorite story to see these elements at work. “All at One Point” is a story about the Big Bang. More specifically, it’s about the time when the universe existed in a single point.

The beginning of the story comically plays with the idea that “we were all there.” On a scientific level, this is obviously true. Every atom in the universe existed in the singular point “before” the Big Bang. This includes every atom in our bodies, so we were physically there.

Calvino cleverly takes this statement to its extreme form and personifies us as actually existing at one point. The narrator, Qfwfq, says, “…having somebody unpleasant like Mr Pber^t Pber^t underfoot all the time is the most irritating thing.”

The story spends quite a bit of time in a Flatland-type thought experiment. Through humorous interactions, Calvino teases apart a lot of odd ideas about what it actually would mean to collapse the universe to a single point. For example, one couldn’t count how many people were there, because that would require pulling apart, no matter how slightly.

One family, the Z’zu, got labelled “immigrants.” This, of course, makes no sense, because there is no such thing as outside or inside the point. There is no such thing as before or after the point. Time only started at the Big Bang. So the family couldn’t have come from somewhere else.

The humor in this surface-level reading of the story is already worth it, and I won’t spoil any of the other awkward moments shared by these people from all occupying the same point.

Then the story turns its attention to Mrs Ph(i)Nk_o. She is one of the Z’zu, the family everyone hated. But she’s different. She is pure happiness and joy, and no one can say anything bad about her.

In an act of epic generosity, despite what people say about her family, she says:

Oh, if I only had some room, how I’d like to make some tagliatelle for you boys!

That’s what causes the Big Bang. The universe is made and expands and the Sun and planets and everything. It all happened because of a true act of selflessness and love. The phrasing of the final paragraph is very moving. I won’t quote it here, because I think it must be read in context to be appreciated.

The theme, when condensed to a pithy phrase, is something like “love can make universes.” It sounds really cliche and cheesy, and I think this is one of the things that makes these stories so brilliant. In the moment of reading, they feel profound and fresh.

Calvino’s use of vivid space imagery takes you on a grand journey. These cliche themes are the same that one can find in all the great ancient stories. They only feel tired when done in modern stories. By creating his own mythology, Calvino is able to revisit these sorts of themes without embarrassment.

For the Year of Short Fiction, I do want to return to the question of: why short? In other words, does great short fiction have a genuine uniqueness to it, or is it essentially the same as a novel, just shorter?

I think here we can definitively say that this type of writing can only work in short stories. Even expanding one of these to a novella length would be too much. These stories each revolve around a conceit and a theme. The conceit would grow tiresome if done for too long. I cannot imagine a novella of jokes about everyone existing on top of each other. They would lose their impact.

What excites me about Cosmicomics is that this is the first thing I’ve read this year that I feel this way about. I could imagine the novellas I’ve read and even Cthulhu working as full novels. They wouldn’t be as tightly written, but they’d still work. The very nature of Cosmicomics is that they are short stories. I’m glad to have finally found this.

I should stipulate, though, that one can read the entire collection of stories as a novel: an autobiography of Qfwfq’s life and fictionalization of the history of the universe. This is also an interesting and unique aspect, because almost every short story collection I can think of has separate, unrelated stories. This full collection should be read together to get the best experience.

Critical Postmodern Readings, Part 2: Finishing Lyotard

Last time we looked at the introduction to Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. That introduction already contained much of what gets fleshed out in the rest of the short book, so I’m going to mostly summarize stuff until we hit anything that requires serious critical thought.

The first chapter goes into how computers have changed the way we view knowledge. It was probably an excellent insight that required argument at the time. Now it’s obvious to everyone. Humans used to gain knowledge by reading books and talking to each other. It was a somewhat qualitative experience. The nature of knowledge has shifted with (big) data and machine learning. It’s very quantitative. It’s also a commodity to be bought and sold (think Facebook/Google).

It is a little creepy to understand Lyotard’s prescience. He basically predicts that multinational corporations will have the money to buy this data, and owning the data gives them real-world power. He predicts knowledge “circulation” in a similar way to money circulation.  Here’s a part of the prediction:

The reopening of the world market, a return to vigorous economic competition, the breakdown of the hegemony of American capitalism, the decline of the socialist alternative, a probable opening of the Chinese markets …

Other than the decline of the socialist alternative (which seems to have had a recent surge), Lyotard has a perfect prediction of how computerization of knowledge actually affected the world in the 40 years since he wrote this.

Chapter two reiterates the idea that scientific knowledge (i.e. the type discussed above) is different than, and in conflict with, “narrative” knowledge. There is also a legitimation “problem” in science. The community as a whole must choose gatekeepers seen as legitimate who decide what counts as scientific knowledge.

I’ve written about why I don’t see this as a problem like Lyotard does, but I’ll concede the point that there is a legitimation that happens, and it could be a problem if those gatekeepers change the narrative to influence what is thought of as true. There are even known instances of political biases making their way into schools of scientific thought (see my review of Galileo’s Middle Finger by Alice Dreger).

Next Lyotard sets up the framework for thinking about this. He uses Wittgenstein’s “language game” concept. The rules of the game can never legitmate themselves. Even small modifications of the rules can greatly alter meaning. And lastly (I think this is where he differs from Wittgenstein), each speech act is an attempt to alter the rules. Since agreeing upon the current set of rules is a social contract, it is necessary to understand the “nature of social bonds.”

This part gets a little weird to me. He claims that classically society has been seen either as a unified whole or divided in two. The rules of the language games in a unified whole follow standard entropy (they get more complicated and chaotic and degenerate). The divided in two conception is classic Marxism (bourgeoisie/proletariat).

Even if it gets a bit on the mumbo-jumbo side through this part, I think his main point is summarized by this quote:

For it is impossible to know what the state of knowledge is—in other words, the problems its development and distribution are facing today—without knowing something of the society within which it is situated.

This doesn’t seem that controversial to me considering I’ve already admitted that certain powers can control the language and flow of knowledge. Being as generous as possible here, I think he’s just saying we have to know how many of these powers there are and who has the power and who legitimated that power before we can truly understand who’s forming these narratives and why.

In the postmodern world, we have a ton of different institutions all competing for their metanarrative to be heard. Society is more fractured than just the two divisions of the modern world. But each of these institutions also has a set of rules for their language games that constrains them.  For example, the language of prayer has a different set of rules from an academic discussion at a university.

Chapters 7-9 seem to me to be where the most confusion on both the part of Lyotard and the reader can occur. He dives into the concept of narrative truth and scientific truth. You can already feel Lyotard try to position scientific truth to be less valuable than it is and narrative truth more valuable.

Lyotard brings up the classic objections to verification and falsification (namely a variant on Hume’s Problem of Induction). How does one prove ones proof and evidence of a theory is true? How does one know the laws of nature are consistent across time and space? How can one say that a (scientific) theory is true merely because it cannot be falsified?

These were much more powerful objections in Lyotard’s time, but much of science now takes a Bayesian epistemology (even if they don’t admit to this terminology). We believe what is most probable, and we’re open to changing our minds if the evidence leads in that direction. I addressed this more fully a few years ago in my post: Does Bayesian Epistemology Suffer Foundational Problems?

… drawing a parallel between science and nonscientific (narrative) knowledge helps us understand, or at least sense, that the former’s existence is no more—and no less—necessary than the latter’s.

These sorts of statements are where things get tricky for me. I buy the argument that narrative knowledge is important. One can read James Baldwin and gain knowledge and empathy of a gay black man’s perspective that changes your life and the way you see the world. Or maybe you read Butler’s performative theory of gender and suddenly understand your own gender expression in a new way. Both of these types of narrative knowledge could even be argued to be a “necessary” and vital part of humanity.

I also agree science is a separate type of knowledge, but I also see science as clearly more necessary than narrative knowledge. If we lost all of James Baldwin’s writings tomorrow, it would be a tragedy. If we lost the polio vaccine tomorrow, it would be potentially catastrophic.

It’s too easy to philosophize science into this abstract pursuit and forget just how many aspects of your life it touches (your computer, the electricity in your house, the way you cook, the way you get your food, the way you clean yourself). Probably 80% of the developed world would literally die off in a few months if scientific knowledge disappeared.

I’ll reiterate that Lyotard thinks science is vastly important. He is in no way saying the problems of science are crippling. The above quote is more in raising narrative knowledge to the same importance of science than the devaluing of science (Lyotard might point to the disastrous consequences that happened as a result of convincing a nation of the narrative that the Aryan race is superior). For example, he says:

Today the problem of legitimation is no longer considered a failing of the language game of science. It would be more accurate to say that it has itself been legitimated as a problem, that is, as a heuristic driving force.

Anyway, getting back to the main point. Lyotard points out that problems of legitimating knowledge is essentially modern, and though we should be aware of the difficulties, we shouldn’t be too concerned with it. The postmodern problem is the grand delegitimation of various narratives (and one can’t help but hear Trump yell “Fake News” while reading this section of Lyotard).

Lyotard spends several sections developing a theory of how humans do science, and he develops the language of “performativity.” It all seems pretty accurate to me, and not really worth commenting on (i.e. it’s just a description). He goes into the issues Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem caused for positivists. He talks about the Bourbaki group. He talks about the seeming paradox of having to look for counterexamples while simultaneously trying to prove the statement to be true.

I’d say the most surprising thing is that he gets this stuff right. You often hear about postmodernists hijacking math/science to make their mumbo-jumbo sound more rigorous. He brings up Brownian motion and modeling discontinuous phenomena with differentiable functions to ease analysis and how the Koch curve has a non-whole number dimension. These were all explained without error and without claiming they imply things they don’t imply.

Lyotard wants to call these unintuitive and bizarre narratives about the world that come from weird scientific and mathematical facts “postmodern science.” Maybe it’s because we’ve had over forty more years to digest this, but I say: why bother? To me, this is the power of science. The best summary I can come up with is this:

Narrative knowledge must be convincing as a narrative; science is convincing despite the unconvincing narrative it suggests (think of the EPR paradox in quantum mechanics or even the germ theory of disease when it was first suggested).

I know I riffed a bit harder on the science stuff than a graduate seminar on the book would. Overall, I thought this was an excellent read. It seems more relevant now than when it was written, because it cautions about the dangers of powerful organizations buying a bunch of data and using that to craft narratives we want to hear while deligitimating narratives that hurt them (but which might be true).

We know now that this shouldn’t be a futuristic, dystopian fear (as it was in Lyotard’s time). It’s really happening with targeted advertising and the rise of government propaganda and illegitimate news sources propagating our social media feeds. We believe what the people with money want us to believe, and it’s impossible to free ourselves from it until we understand the situation with the same level of clarity that Lyotard did.

The Ethics of True Knowledge

This post will probably be a mess. I listen to lots of podcasts while running and exercising. There was a strange confluence of topics that seemed to hit all at once from several unrelated places. Sam Harris interviewed Neil deGrasse Tyson, and they talked a little about recognizing alien intelligence and the rabbit hole of postmodernist interpretations of knowledge (more on this later). Daniel Kaufman talked with Massimo Pigliucci about philosophy of math.

We’ll start with a fundamental fact that must be acknowledged: we’ve actually figured some things out. In other words, knowledge is possible. Maybe there are some really, really, really minor details that aren’t quite right, but the fact that you are reading this blog post on a fancy computer is proof that we aren’t just wandering aimlessly in the dark when it comes to the circuitry of a computer. Science has succeeded in many places, and it remains the only reliable way to generate knowledge at this point in human history.

Skepticism is the backbone of science, but there is a postmodernist rabbit hole one can get sucked into by taking it too far. I won’t make the standard rebuttals to radical skepticism, but instead I’ll make an appeal to ethics. I’ve written about this many times, two of which are here and here. It is basically a variation on Clifford’s paper The Ethics of Belief.

The short form is that good people will do good things if they have good information, but good people will often do bad things unintentionally if they have bad information. Thus it is an ethical imperative to always strive for truth and knowledge.

I’ll illuminate what I mean with an example. The anti-vaccine people have their hearts in the right place. They don’t intend to cause harm. They actually think that vaccines are harmful, so it is the bad information causing them act unethically. I picked this example, because it exemplifies the main problem I wanted to get to.

It is actually very difficult to criticize their arguments in general terms. They are skeptical of the science for reasons that are usually good. They claim big corporations stand to lose a lot of money, so they are covering up the truth. Typically, this is one of the times it is good to question the science, because there are actual examples where money has led to bad science in the past. Since I already mentioned Neil deGrasse Tyson, I’ll quote him for how to think about this.

“A skeptic will question claims, then embrace the evidence. A denier will question claims, then deny the evidence.”

This type of thing can be scary when we, as non-experts, still have to figure out what is true or risk unintentional harm in less clear-cut examples. No one has time to examine all of the evidence for every issue to figure out what to embrace. So we have to rely on experts to tell us what the evidence says. But then the skeptic chimes in and says, but an appeal to authority is a logical fallacy and those experts are paid by people that cause a conflict of interest.

Ah! What is one to do? My answer is to go back to our starting point. Science actually works for discovering knowledge. Deferring to scientific consensus on issues is the ethically responsible thing to do. If they are wrong, it is almost certainly going to be an expert within the field that finds the errors and corrects them. It is highly unlikely that some Hollywood actor has discovered a giant conspiracy and also has the time and training to debunk the scientific papers that go against them.

Science has been wrong; anything is possible, but one must go with what is probable.

I said this post would be a mess and brought up philosophy of math at the start, so how does that have anything to do with what I just wrote? Maybe nothing, but it’s connected in my mind in a vague way.

Some people think mathematical objects are inherent in nature. They “actually exist” in some sense. This is called Platonism. Other people think math is just an arbitrary game where we manipulate symbols according to rules we’ve made up. I tend to take the embodied mind philosophy of math as developed by Lakoff and Nunez.

They claim that mathematics itself is purely a construct of our embodied minds, but it isn’t an “arbitrary” set of rules like chess. We’ve struck upon axioms (Peano or otherwise) and logic that correspond to how we perceive the world. This is why it is useful in the real world.

To put it more bluntly: Aliens, whose embodied experience of the world might be entirely different, might strike upon an entirely different mathematics that we might not even recognize as such but be equally effective at describing the world as they perceive it. Therefore, math is not mind independent or even universal among all intelligent minds, but is still useful.

To tie this back to the original point, I was wondering if we would even recognize aliens as intelligent if their way of expressing it was so different from our own that their math couldn’t even be recognized as such to us. Would they be able to express true knowledge that was inaccessible to us? What does this mean in relation to the ethics of belief?

Anyway, I’m thinking about making this a series on the blog. Maybe I’ll call it RRR: Random Running Ramblings, where I post random questions that occur to me while listening to something while running.