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Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity

Alan D. Sokal
Department of Physics
New York University
4 Washington Place
New York, NY 10003 USA
Telephone: (212) 998-7729
Fax: (212) 995-4016

November 28, 1994
revised May 13, 1995
Typeset in LaTeX

Note: This article was published Social Text Spring/Summer 1996.

Biographical Information: The author is a Professor of Physics at New York University. He has lectured widely in Europe and Latin America, including at the Università di Roma ``La Sapienza'' and, during the Sandinista government, at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua. He is co-author with Roberto Fernández and Jürg Fröhlich of Random Walks, Critical Phenomena, and Triviality in Quantum Field Theory (Springer, 1992).

There are many natural scientists, and especially physicists, who continue to reject the notion that the disciplines concerned with social and cultural criticism can have anything to contribute, except perhaps peripherally, to their research. Still less are they receptive to the idea that the very foundations of their worldview must be revised or rebuilt in the light of such criticism. Rather, they cling to the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook, which can be summarized briefly as follows: that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in ``eternal'' physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the ``objective'' procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method.

But deep conceptual shifts within twentieth-century science have undermined this Cartesian-Newtonian metaphysicsgif; revisionist studies in the history and philosophy of science have cast further doubt on its credibilitygif; and, most recently, feminist and poststructuralist critiques have demystified the substantive content of mainstream Western scientific practice, revealing the ideology of domination concealed behind the façade of ``objectivity''. gif It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical ``reality'', no less than social ``reality'', is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific ``knowledge", far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities. These themes can be traced, despite some differences of emphasis, in Aronowitz's analysis of the cultural fabric that produced quantum mechanicsgif; in Ross' discussion of oppositional discourses in post-quantum sciencegif; in Irigaray's and Hayles' exegeses of gender encoding in fluid mechanicsgif; and in Harding's comprehensive critique of the gender ideology underlying the natural sciences in general and physics in particular. gif

Here my aim is to carry these deep analyses one step farther, by taking account of recent developments in quantum gravity: the emerging branch of physics in which Heisenberg's quantum mechanics and Einstein's general relativity are at once synthesized and superseded. In quantum gravity, as we shall see, the space-time manifold ceases to exist as an objective physical reality; geometry becomes relational and contextual; and the foundational conceptual categories of prior science -- among them, existence itself -- become problematized and relativized. This conceptual revolution, I will argue, has profound implications for the content of a future postmodern and liberatory science.

My approach will be as follows: First I will review very briefly some of the philosophical and ideological issues raised by quantum mechanics and by classical general relativity. Next I will sketch the outlines of the emerging theory of quantum gravity, and discuss some of the conceptual issues it raises. Finally, I will comment on the cultural and political implications of these scientific developments. It should be emphasized that this article is of necessity tentative and preliminary; I do not pretend to answer all of the questions that I raise. My aim is, rather, to draw the attention of readers to these important developments in physical science, and to sketch as best I can their philosophical and political implications. I have endeavored here to keep mathematics to a bare minimum; but I have taken care to provide references where interested readers can find all requisite details.

next up previous
Next: Quantum Mechanics: UncertaintyComplementarity,

Daniel Sleator
Thu Jun 6 15:34:37 EDT 1996