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Giambattista Vico, the Copenhagen Interpretation, and H.P. Lovecraft

From Ulysses (1922)

It's a little after 10PM on June 16, 1904, and Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom are in a maternity hospital, and James Joyce, writing in the style of T.H. Huxley, says this:

It had better be stated here and now at the outset that the perverted transcendentalism to which Mr S. Dedalus' (Div.Scep.) contentions would appear to prove him pretty badly addicted runs counter to accepted scientific methods. Science, it cannot be too often repeated, deals with tangible phenomena. The man of science like the man in the street has to face hardheaded facts that cannot be blinked and explain them as best he can. There may be, it is true, some questions which science cannot answer - at present - such as the first problem submitted by Mr. L. Bloom (Pubb. Canv.) regarding the future determination of sex. - p.411, 1946 Modern Library ed, episode “Oxen of the Sun”)

We can determine the sex of the baby before birth now, in 2011, but not in 1904. Joyce, writing temporarily as Huxley (Aldous's grandfather), was right. But Joyce is influenced by Vico, and in Vico's magnum opus, The New Science (1740), none of the big questions concerning humankind can be answered as “hardheaded facts;” Vico had invented a new view of history, and many credit him as pioneering cultural anthropology, sociology, and the sociology of knowledge. Robert Anton Wilson credited Vico with creating “transpersonal linguistics,” but I'll have to cover that in 2012. For now I want to discuss, as briefly and as painlessly as possible, Vico's idea of verum factum.

Verum Factum

Basically - 'cuz this stuff can get abstruse and plain wacky quickly - Vico thought we humans can only really “know” what we have ourselves - as humans - made. This precludes a truly profound and deep understanding of the natural sciences. When I first started studying Vico I thought he had it backward, that it was yet another brilliant yet sorta nutty idea of his. Lately, I've wondered.

The contemporary philosopher-historian Hilary Putnam has written, in a discussion of constructivism, “It is impossible to find a philosopher before Kant (and after the pre-Socratics) who was not a metaphysical realist, at least about what he took to be basic and unreducible assertions.” (Reason, Truth and History, p.40) Putnam says they all believed in objective truths that had perfect, permanent and superhuman validity. They may have disagreed about what those truths were…

But Putnam hadn't read Vico, apparently. In a direct attack on the prevailing Cartesianism of his time, Vico takes a strong anti-rationalistic stance about what is knowable. In some sense, God created nature; we humans made the social world. We cannot know nature because we did not make it. But we can know history, because we made it. The social sciences are knowable; the physical sciences we can have some knowledge about, but it will be based in mathematics, ultimately. And we made math! We still make it. When we find truths in the physical sciences, we are finding truths about our own minds and how they describe workings. Or: our minds make detailed maps of maps, but the maps are not the territories they describe. They are maps. We seem to desperately need to believe we have made contact with the one true deep “reality.” But we have not.

2011 cutting-edge cognitive science would say we have knowledge of ourselves and the external world because we have embodied minds, ensconced in human nervous systems. It's gonna have to do for now!

An astute reader of Vico, Isaiah Berlin, says, regarding Vico's verum factum, “I don't know what it is to be a table. I don't know what it is be electric energy. But I do know what it is to feel, think, hope, fear, question, be puzzled, be ashamed.” (Conversations With Isaiah Berlin, p.79)

So for Vico, understanding seems to be different than knowledge. Science is knowledge about the behavior of bodies in space. We cannot know such things from within; we can only describe them…seemingly one-removed.

A Stab at Copenhagenism

Supposedly still the most common philosophical interpretation of the quantum theory - the most successful scientific theory ever - is the Copenhagen interpretation, commonly aligned with Niels Bohr, although Heisenberg, Oppenheimer and a few other giants contributed. Einstein famously hated the Copenhagen interpretation, and spent the last 30 years of his life trying to find something wrong with it, with limited success (I would cite the EPR paradox as an ultimately fecund thought experiment.)

I previously stabbed at Bohr and Copenhagenism HERE.

In Nick Herbert's underrated little masterpiece of a book, Quantum Reality, he succinctly points out that we can think about the Copenhagen in two versions, and maybe both together. Version one Herbert labels as “There is no deep reality.” “Everyday phenomena are built on a different kind of being,”as Herbert interprets Bohr. Bohr urged a skepticism towards hidden, deeper realities.

“In words that must chill every realist's heart, Bohr insisted: 'There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract quantum description.” (p.17)

The “hippie” who perhaps did more to save physics than any of the others, Nick Herbert

Einstein thought quantum mechanics, with its statistical probabilities built into the equations, HAD to be wrong. It wasn't…elegant. God doesn't play dice with the universe, etc. Therefore, there had to be something wrong with quantum mechanics, or there were hidden variables, a deeper reality. Einstein was one of the giants that helped carve out the theory in the first place!

Now here's Herbert's second version of Copenhagenism. He calls it “Reality is created by observation.”

“Although the numerous physicists of the Copenhagen school do not believe in deep reality, they do assert the existence of phenomenal reality. What we see is undoubtedly real, they say, but these phenomena are not really there in the absence of observation.” (p.17)

I've been studying what physicists have been saying about the quantum world for at least 20 years now, and this is still really weird stuff to me. I don't blame the Reader for thinking it's bunk. All I'll say is that the Copenhagen interpretation is still very common among physicists with the PhD, and that, when one considers the alternative interpretations, the Copenhagen seems the most conservative. (As noted in David Kaiser's How The Hippies Saved Physics, which I discussed HERE, a great many physicists in the second half of the 20th century, especially in Unistat, were trained to not interpret what their equations seemed to be saying about nature, but were instead trained to “shut up and calculate.”)


Admittedly a generalist who gladly gives his mind over joyfully to the speculative, I have tried to suggest that Vico's view of science was at least proto-Copenhagenist, by about 220 years. I'm sure someone else has made the connection, but I have not seen it. (Please feel free to cite someone else's linkage of Vico to Bohr in the comments section!)

"God" and Vico-Bohr and...H.P. Lovecraft?

Don't even say it. I know what you're thinking. And yes, the crop of cannabis is really good this winter. That said, what are we to make of capital enn Nature after thinking about Vico and quantum mechanics here for a spell? What if we can't know the deep reality of…anything?

(Note I've tacitly assumed Vico may be right about the physical sciences but wrong about the Humanities: we seem to have wonderful descriptions of who we are as humans, but in action on the world historical stage, we seem as a species to not “know” or “understand” ourselves very well. I think we're wonderful at making and using tools, but not very good at universal brotherhood, peace, empathy, extended altruism, equality, etc.)

Well, we can say a big Yes, as James Joyce does in Ulysses, which is filled with yeses in the face of so much frank suffering and sadness in life. For there is humor in it all, too, eh? Even in our Dark Days, things can make us laff, if only because of their metaphysical incorrigibility. An influence on both Joyce and Vico, Giordano Bruno, talked of hilaritas, which means there is a humor and optimism in every pessimism and sadness. The coincidence of opposites, built into the fabric of…“reality.” Renaissance magick. Joyce's young intellectual Stephen Dedalus, one of the three heroes of the book, near the end accepts that everything is “ineluctably constructed upon the incertitude of the void.” Which sounds to me isomorphic (a math term meaning “having a similarity of structure”) to the Copenhagen interpretation.

But there's at least one other path to trod down with regard to all this stuff…

Okay, H.P. Lovecraft, the greatest writer of pulp horror fiction ever, and just now being recognized as a “classic” writer by academics. Dying of cancer at age 46 in 1937, he once wrote in a letter, “The time has come when the normal revolt against time, space, and matter must assume a form not overtly incompatible with what is know of reality - when it must be gratified by images forming supplements rather than contradictions of the visible and measurable universe.”

Lovecraft had dropped the religious underpinnings of the horror story in favor of science, non-Euclidean mathematics and possible liminal dimensions, abstract knowledge, quantum physics, and dreams. He combined all this material with archaic knowledge, mutations of Egyptology, the occult tradition, odd anthropology, and other sources. He had the uncanny ability to mix “real” knowledge with fantasy, so the reader felt destabilized and not sure what was “real” or not. All of this combined with a peculiarly florid prose style, and the yield was High Weirdness en extremis. And a general spookiness that has freaked out and delighted many an intelligent youth and young-at-heart.

Yes, but what does this have to do with Vico and Bohr? I'm getting to it. It has to do with “God,” and the ineffability of such a concept. In Lovecraft, there are “unspeakable” horrors from the abyss of…the 4th dimension or some other dimension inherent or immanent in the mood of the land or space his characters fall prey to. And the dread lies so heavily in the atmosphere of his stories, it seems to me, precisely because his monsters are so “unutterable.” In this world, we cannot speak of “God” in any normal sense. The…Thing that haunts his narratives is beyond language (as Negative Theologians say about God), and utterly outside, of any human concept. This seems to go beyond Vico and Bohr, or complements them. And Lovecraft is still thought by many as a “mere” horror writer, or some sort of proto-science fiction pulp writer.

Are there entities from other realms, other dimensions, who we - you and me - could possibly make contact? I will leave it to the Reader to decide. But I will suggest that the Reader would not be drilling in a dry hole were (s)he to look into the reports of people who have experimented with tryptamine hallucinogens such as dimethyltryptamine (DMT), or even psilocybin mushrooms.

What's weird is that…the DMT reports are so utterly Other, if you haven't done DMT you think you're being put-on. But we all make DMT in our own bodies. It's secreted by the pineal gland, and it's in every Reader's cererbrospinal fluid. You have enough in you right now to get arrested, according to the law. And the active trip-out chemical in magic mushrooms, psilocybin, is so close in structure to serotonin you have to look at the diagrams twice to make sure they're not the same molecule.

This seems as good a place as any to abandon yet another verborrheaic blogspew.

michael. “Giambattista Vico, the Copenhagen Interpretation, and H.P. Lovecraft.” <>. 12/29/11.

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