Holding Things Together

When it comes to order as opposed to chaos, that is, of holding things together, physicists speak of four fundamental forces of the universe. There is gravity, electromagnetic force, and the so-called “strong” and “weak” forces that hold particles together and govern their relations. These four forces supposedly explain everything. But what about life? And what about meaning? Do not living organisms have their own “life” force that holds the cells and parts of cells together and regulates their interactions? As for meaning, what holds the words a language together so that they make sentences? Why can’t just any word be combined with just any other? There must be something that makes meaning happen. Can these forces not also be considered “fundamental” forces of the universe? This question is important, at least if we want to avoid “physicalism,” that is, reducing everything to matter.

Let us call the force that turns inanimate matter into living organisms “negentropy” and let us call the force that holds words together to make meaningful sentences and thoughts “power.” In 1944 the Nobel Prize winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger published a book entitled What is Life?. The question arises because living systems do not follow the Second Law of Thermodynamics, that is, the law of entropy. In living systems, order increases rather than decreases. This goes against the law of entropy. Life, therefore, is a fundamentally different form of order than matter. Life is a so-called “emergent” phenomenon which means that we don’t know where it comes from or how it comes into being, but we know it did and that it is very different from the purely physical organization of matter which the law of entropy regulates. In distinction to merely physical organization, which does not negate entropy, life seems to do this. Negentropy means the negation of entropy. Entropy is the tendency of energy to dissipate to equilibrium, that is, the equal probability of all states. For Schrödinger, this was a paradox. How can entropy be negated, and systems move from being less organized to being more organized? Another Nobel Prize winner, Ilya Prigogine, spoke of “dissipative systems” which run energy through their structures much like water running through a mill or food going through the metabolism of organisms. Such systems use entropy to negate entropy.

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Back to School

Let’s go back to school. Not because technology is changing society so quickly that many jobs are disappearing, and new jobs must be learned or re-learned. Not because “life-long learning” is trendy. And not because one needs more and more qualifications and certifications to climb the career ladder. This may all be true. But “let’s go back to school” means let’s go back and think about school, about what it means to go to school, about what education really is. This may not be a pleasant task. Many do not have the best memories of their time in school. Why is this so? What’s the problem with school?

To begin with, education seems to be built on a paradox, if not a downright contradiction. On the one hand we are told that is it for us, that is, for me, the individual. Education is supposed to bring forth the best in human beings, help them realize their true potential, to become who they can, and should, become. Education, according to this view, is dedicated to perfecting the individual. We go into school thinking that it’s about us personally and individually. Once there, however, we quickly discover that education operates on the principle that one size fits all. Curricula, tests, grades, everything is aimed to make us into that which society expects us to be. These expectations are not aimed at individuals, but at classes, groups, demographic categories, anything but individuals. If you want to be an individual in school, you find out immediately that no one asks you what you want to learn or how, it is not about you at all, but about some typical persona that society prescribes for you, demands that you conform to, that is, if you want good grades, if you want to be “accepted,” to “get ahead,” to be “certified” and get a good job, or any job at all. And getting ahead, as everyone knows, is not the same as being a person of good character or what the ancient Greeks called a “virtuous” person. Virtue and social success, as the Sophists well knew, are two different things. Education, it turns out, is about society and not about you as an individual. Education is “socialization” and not “individualization.” But this is never openly admitted and laid out on the table to take it or leave it. The one hand is never allowed to know what the other hand is doing. Like a magician’s trick in the theater, we are so confused and psychologically numbed by what is going on in school that we repress the schizophrenic experience and try to move on, deeply disturbed about who we are and traumatically confused about how the struggle for self-realization is compatible with conforming to social expectations.

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Crazy Love or the Modern Predicament

One the most famous love stories of modern Western culture is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. This is a story not about love, but about what it means to be modern. What does it mean to be modern? Among the many meanings modernity may have, one is that it designates a problem. The problem is how can I be at once an individual and a member of society? The problem comes from the myth of free, autonomous individuals who originally exist in a state of nature in which they are involved in a war of all against all (Hobbes). This is chaos and a lose/lose situation in which everyone in the end dies. The only way out is for these free individuals to freely(!) enter into a social contract. But the moment they sign the contract, they become members of society and must conform to social constraints. Or, as Kant put it, henceforth there is freedom only under the law.

Paradoxically, this means that individuals can only exist when they give up their free individuality and submit to social constraints. But if they do this, and this is the paradox, then they are no longer autonomous individuals, they become products of society, that is, good citizens, family members, etc. Once the contract has been signed, the free individuals lay down not only their weapons, but also their individuality. They tend to disappear as individuals and become typical members of society. This may insure peace, but it has a price. If these free individuals disappear, then who is the social contract (society) for? In order for the contract to be valid and the law not to be mere tyranny, the individuals must be free before the law has been instituted and not only afterwards. But if individuals are free before the law, why do they need the law in the first place?

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Back to Normal?

Under the title, “There will be no ‘back to normal’” NESTA, the UK’s innovation think tank, published their views on the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. They admit that speculations about what the future will bring are only speculations but point out that it is important to predict what is coming to be better prepared. This is precisely the lesson the pandemic teaches. Already in 2014, Bill Gates held a TED talk in which he prophesied everything that is happening today. But no one was prepared. So we should make an effort to look into the crystal ball and see what could come out of all this.

One of the results of the pandemic is that it is finally obvious to everyone that we are global. Not only did global connectivity and flows of people spread the virus throughout the world in a matter of weeks, but subsequent shortages of protective materials and medical equipment showed international dependencies. The nationalist reaction of closing borders and blocking flows of people and materials represents a “lockdown” mentality aimed to disrupt connectivity and stop the flow of the virus, but at the cost of disrupting the economic, social, and political foundations of the global network society. Politically, anti-globalist factions see themselves justified, whereas those who see the nation-state and its populist supporters as outdated point to the need to strengthen international organizations, such as the WHO and the United Nations. Following these two possible trajectories into the economic realm, some expect a reorganization of supply chains and production favoring national independence under the regime of stronger centralized control and regulation even to the point of nationalizing some industries, while others look to decentralized and networked organizations that alone are capable of dealing with the complexity of the situation. The left is calling for a universal basic income and increased government support for those who have lost jobs and income, while the right is calling for deregulation to spur innovation and the quick development and deployment of new business models and new products and services.

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The One and the Many or What can Sociology Learn from Physics

Ever since its beginnings in the 19th Century sociology has been concerned with the problem of the one and the many. In other words, how can individuals be integrated into society. How can one community arise from many individuals? This was not a new problem. Long before, political philosophers such as Grotius, Hobbes. Locke, and Rousseau attempted to solve this problem. For Western democracies, the answer was the social contract. Hobbes argued that the many isolated individuals, who in a state of nature were inescapably involved in a war of all against all, decide, on the basis their naturally endowed rationality, to lay down their weapons and submit to a central authority. So arose the Leviathan, or society. The individuals remained fundamentally isolated and free, since if the central authority was not strong enough to guarantee peace, it could be deposed. For Rousseau on the contrary, the individual must be completely integrated into society which becomes then not a sum of individuals, but a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts,  the “general will.” This problem was then taken up by the new science of sociology which defined itself as the study of those social structures, organizations, and institutions into which individuals were taken up, transformed into citizens, or professions such as carpenter, baker, engineer, businessperson, politician, etc. The individual became a “person” (mask) that was socially constructed. As Shakespeare said, and as modern sociological role theory assumes, social existence is role-playing. The world is a stage and all individuals are but mere actors playing the roles society puts at their disposal. This solution seems to leave out the individuals who were there first, that is, before they learned to put on masks and play roles. Who are the individuals if personal identity is through and through a social construction and it is impossible to find an individual who is not somehow already “socialized,” completely alone and so to speak “in the wild?”

What does this have to do with quantum mechanics? Does not contemporary physics face a similar problem of the one and the many: On the one side there are particles, isolated points, hard and material. And on the other side there are fields, waves, or some kind of plastic common substance that seems to be able to account for all phenomena without reference to particles.  The particle seems to have suffered a similar fate as the individual. Originally considered the basic building blocks of reality, both social and material, that from which all activities arise, both the particle and the individual have become a product of the forces that bind them together with others into a “community.” Luhmann even goes so far as to ban individuals from society, which is a system made up of communications and not of individual human beings. The debate in physics is still raging, just as in sociology. Are there particles, or fields, or both, or neither? If matter is fundamentally a field and not a perhaps infinite number of individual particles, which are somehow bound together, we have a very different vision of reality and of what we are made of than has traditionally been supposed. If neither society nor nature are made up of individuals, but of fields or relations, then we may still need to talk about individuals who are related, but they are nothing outside of these relations. The individual is no longer the beginning of social or natural order, but a way in which nature and society configure themselves and create order. Perhaps the question of the one and the many is not the right question. We do not need to start from individual things, whether individual human beings or particles and then try to figure out how and why they enter into relations with one another in such a way that order arises from chaos. We could just as well ask how and why order uses such things and whether it really needs them. Many new theoretical projects in physics are moving in this direction. In sociology there are also endeavors to simply drop the typically modern Western individualism that lies at the heart of the problem of the one and the many. Of course, people are not “vibrating strings” – or maybe they are…

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