Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Turbulent Thoughts of a Peaceful Mind


"Who am I? A vortex. A dispersal that comes undone." —Michel Serres, The Birth of Physics

An extraordinary philosopher of science has passed away.

Michel Serres was a Henri Bergson for the fractal age. He combined a precise grasp of the sciences with a philosophical appreciation of its lack of understanding of time and history.

His philosophy may have seemed “incomprehensibly French” to an Anglo-analytic eye, but Serres was a true polymath in a classical vein that has gone extinct in a world of institutional specialization. He was a philosopher of science who eschewed the dominant languages of both philosophy and science, and for this reason he was more incisive and relevant than most.

Deeply erudite in mathematics, physics, history, philosophy, and literature, Serres witnessed scientific revolutions first hand that transformed his thinking: the invention of topology in mathematics and that of quantum mechanics and cybernetic systems in physics.

At the turn of the 1900s, Bergson tried to speak across an emerging divide between philosophy and science, but half a century later Serres realized the widening gulf had made such a task impossible. Philosophy was fundamentally unable to account for the new directions of science, and science no longer had any use for philosophy (unless it served a legitimatory function). He had to blaze his own trail.

One of Serres’s key insights was that both philosophy and science were stuck in a framework of thinking in terms of subject and object relations: representation vs. reality, theory vs. experiment or observation, scientist vs. nature, etc. He tried to show a “third,” usually invisible, element at work in any such relation—a mediator or an excluded middle. Serres proposed philosophy in terms of prepositions rather than subjects or objects, theorizing relations between beings rather than beings themselves.

From this arose influential concepts like quasi-objects, exemplified by a football in a game, which is neither subject nor object but rather confers subjectivity on the player who has it. A quasi-object is a relation that structures the game. Serres’s ingenuity of thinking inspired, among many things, the development of actor-network theory in science and technology studies.

In The Parasite, he weaves together fable, history, and science to describe a logic not definable as subject or object, or within a certain space, but in terms of a host-guest relation. As a hidden “third” actor, the parasite works as an operator of change, a “thermal exciter,” on all scales, including humanity itself and its relation to the environment.

The parasite is intrinsic to the system as an operator of change, a disruptive tendency, a chaotic variable introduced to a smooth flow. In The Birth of Physics, Serres shows how the same logic is found at the heart of an ancient idea of Lucretius and Archimedes.

In the vortex, Serres finds a leitmotif of nature and thought itself.

What is readily apparent in rivers and clouds is also present in all dynamic behavior, from the double helix of DNA via parasitical disruptions to cosmic scales. For what are spiral galaxies if not vortices of force?

As I show in my own work, inspired by Serres, the metaphysics of the vortex resurfaces constantly in the history of science, as an early cosmology (Descartes), as atomic ether theory (Thomson), as implosive dynamics (Schauberger), and in other forms. But this qualitative understanding of the relation between energy and matter is always eclipsed by a framework of quantification—mechanistic or probabilistic—that tries to purge the chaotic element from the system. Despite its explanatory simplicity, the vortex remains “but a metaphor” to the physicist, who has inherited a certain language of science introduced in the era between Archimedes and contemporary chaos theory.

Serres’s abandonment of the traditional languages of both philosophy and science came at the price of not always being understood. His distinctive style resisted academic jargon and used ordinary language (playing with the French in the way Heidegger played with the German, often making him eminently untranslatable into English). He combined a poetic sensibility with the logical precision and erratic (sometimes frustrating) swiftness of a brilliant mathematician. If he does not leave behind a school of thought, his legacy is consonant with his style of philosophy: inspiring unorthodox thinkers and opening new pathways across divides.

But inspiration still flows, and the vortex keeps spinning.

Rest in peace, Michel Serres.


Bjørn Ekeberg is a philosopher of science and author of Metaphysical Experiments, published by University of Minnesota Press.

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