This Academic Life
  Anything but the void?
In this day and age, what we seem to fear the most is randomness. The idle metaphysical speculations that I have been posting lately as I try to articulate the importance of contingency in realms as empirically different as that of organized baseball and social theory touch on something that I think bothers all of the societies suffering from Enlightenment hangovers -- and bothers them in ways that no other societies have been bothered. Donning my "anthropologist on [or, perhaps better, from] Mars" hat for a moment, I invite my readers to consider the following excerpt from an essay written by a superstitious Red Sox fan (is there any other kind?) before hell froze over and the Sox swept the Cards last week:

"Most of us, I suspect, would rather believe that the devil is running things than that no one is in charge, that our lives, our loves, World Series victories, hang on the whims of fate and chains of coincidences, on God throwing dice, as Einstein once referred to quantum randomness. I've had my moments of looking back with a kind of vertigo realizing how contingent on chance my life has been, how if I'd gotten to the art gallery earlier or later or if the friend I was supposed to have dinner with had showed up, I might not have met my wife that night, and our daughter would still in be an orphanage in Kazakhstan.

Anything but the void."

There's real pathos here, a genuine anxiety about the lingering possibility that "shit happens" really is the only valid account of events. And also the implication that if things are random, then they have no broader significance; the "vertigo" that the author speaks of seems to be induced by the sudden realization that nothing supports or upholds the way that things are except for the simple fact that things are that way, or at least seem to be. Maybe they aren't. Maybe we're even wrong about that, and we have no way of knowing it. Cue extreme existential angst.

But what is perhaps most fascinating and revealing in this article is that the author goes on to tell a story about how random chance rules the world. In so doing, he deploys a metaphor derived from quantum theory (or, at least, from stories about "quantum theory," since the distinguishing characteristic of the mathematics of quantum theory is precisely that they defy anything remotely like an ordinary narrative account. I don't think that anyone has yet improved on J.B.S. Haldane's observation -- albeit from a different context -- that the universe may be queerer than we can suppose, and quantum theory properly understood certainly provides yet another example of this) to justify his refusal to watch Red Sox games:

"But it's easy to imagine that in baseball, where a quarter of an inch or a hundredth of a second can be the difference between a home run and a grounder to first, the Heisenbergian touch can have a profound effect, and my words -- just the thought -- were enough to collapse the wave function and the Red Sox. The branch of the universe in which the Red Sox are winners split away into some other parallel space, as near as an irrevocable breath, as unreachable as a black hole."

The incident in question involves the the author's decision to turn on the TV during the tenth inning of game 6 of the 1986 World Series, and to allow himself to think that he was about the watch the Red Sox win the World Series…just a moment before the infamous incident where the ball went through Bill Buckner's legs and allowed the Mets to score the winning run, which was followed two evenings later by the Mets' victory in game 7. So the author draws on "quantum theory" (granted, in a tongue-in-cheek manner) to blame himself for the loss. Is this really any different than blaming the Red Sox's 86-year drought of World Series victories on the "Curse of the Bambino," supposedly derived from the sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees shortly after the Red Sox's previous World Series victory in 1918? Or explaining dramatic Yankee comebacks in Yankee Stadium with reference to the "ghosts" hovering around the place?

Anything but the void, indeed. This appears to be so much a part of contemporary humanity, humanity the way we have constructed it for the moment, that we are incapable of living in a void; we spin stories like spiders spin webs. Even stories about random chance remain stories, accounts crafted in language that lend meaning and significance to the occurrences that they relate, even if they do so by virulently denying that there is any larger significance to those occurrences. Nietzsche's admonition in The Genealogy of Morals that "the human being would rather will nothing than not will" partakes of the same spirit: anything but the absence of meaning, even if the meaning is that there is no meaning.

Now, to be accurate, stories about curses and ghosts affecting the outcomes of baseball games aren't stories about meaninglessness; they are stories about The Universe Itself caring whether the Yankees or the Red Sox win and lose games. In this way they have more in common with salvation narratives and Enlightenment attempts at "universal" (or "philosophical") history, in which the author tries valiantly to grasp the inner course and direction of history as a whole. "The Universe hates me," like Machiavelli's stories of virtu-ous rulers being confounded by the evil bitch goddess Fortuna, work by displacing randomness in favor of its polar opposite: determinism. Ditto "the Universe loves me." In both of these cases, the outcome is foretold, and the course of occurrences is nothing but a little bit of local color. And as a result, nothing that any of the characters in the story can do will have much impact on the narrative flow; agency, as the capacity to have done otherwise, disappears. And in a final twist, determinist accounts often give rise to the suspicion that nothing holds them up other than the author's insistence on their validity, leading to cynical nihilism…but Nietzsche already said this so I'm not going to repeat his brilliant diagnosis of the sickness of the Enlightenment at this point.

There is a third option for telling stories, however: the embrace of contingency instead of either randomness or determinism. But in the social sciences, we seem to prefer accounts that incline to determinism, either the determinism of statistical correlations among variable attributes or the determinism of "progress" as the ultimate guarantor that our work is meaningful. Statistical correlations work reasonably well when we have a relatively closed system of social relations, which is why correlations are meaningful in the game of baseball -- but they don't yield determinism even there. As for "progress," well, I defy anyone to demonstrate that such a notion has any epistemic status other than that of ghosts and curses. (It might have normative status, but that's a different matter.)

Accounts based on either determinism or on randomness are problematic ones, if the teller of the tale has any desire to preserve agency. If we have social institutions that are erected to generate accounts on one or the other principle, such accounts might capture what is going on reasonably well, but they do so only by temporarily accepting the denial of agency that the institutions embody. ("The contemporary post-season generates random outcomes" is in this sense a story that reflects a set of social institutions, perhaps as a preparation for criticizing those institutions, but not necessarily -- some commentators love the randomness. "The academic job market / academic publishing market generates random outcomes for individuals" works the same way.) At the most extreme, anti-agentic accounts end up combining both misleading principles to generate strikingly silly arguments like this suggestion that Curt Schilling is the greatest post-season pitcher of all time

"That's the thing about discussions of greatness: They're not just straight analytics. They come with resonances of expectation and surprise. They're all bound up with the who, how, and when.… So even if Schilling never pitched another day in his life after Game 7 of the 2001 Series, he'd be in the discussion of great postseason performers because his stuff coincided with the stuff we carry around with us. Because it felt, as it was unfolding, pitch-by-pitch, inning-by-inning, historic. Momentous.… This [Schilling's ALCS game 6 performance, in which he pitched through extreme pain in his ankle] was mythic, woven into the incredible story of the Red Sox coming back from 0-3, carrying on its shoulders the birth of hope from where hope had died a sad, writhing death."

Please. Spare me. Here we have a celebration of the randomness of the post-season [parenthetically, it makes no sense to talk about "post-season greatness," because almost no one has enough innings played in the post-season (which used to be just the World Series itself) for their performances to mean much of anything] combined with the post-facto determinism of the innate near-divinity of Curt Schilling -- who is a very good pitcher, I'd argue, but not one of the game's all-time greats. What did Schilling do to deserve these accolades? He pitched well in a couple of key games. If he hadn't, the story would have been very different: the Red Sox made a mistake spending so much money on a has-been, the curse lives, etc. So the judgment that Schilling is "great" would have been very different if a few minor things had been different, illustrating the collapse of determinism into randomness.

Both judgments -- Schilling is great because of some clutch performances, Schilling is not great because of some clutch performances -- are in my opinion equally silly. Whether Schilling is a great pitcher or not depends not on his performance on any given day, but on his performance over the long term. Such a judgment would take contingency into account in a way that placing overmuch emphasis on singular events simply does not. And I will be deeply disturbed if the people who award the Cy Young award allow themselves to be influenced by arguments about "post-season greatness" and end up giving it to Schilling this year instead of to the far more worthy Johan Santana.

I run into this problem when designing syllabi all the time. Which works do I want to make students grapple with? I generally adopt something of a historical standpoint when teaching things like social theory or epistemology, and argue that it is important to read people like Weber and Popper and Searle and Wittgenstein at least in part because the conversation that came after them is all but incomprehensible without knowing what it is that they said. Plato is worth reading not because of some inherent greatness that The Republic possesses, and not because of some "timeless truths" that Plato communicates to contemporary readers out of the mists of history (in point of fact, one of the most striking things about Plato is just how different ancient Greek values were from ours, whether we're talking about epistemology or social mores), but because Machiavelli and Hobbes argued with him, and Kant argued with them, and Nietzsche and Habermas argued with him, right on up to the present moment. The story I tell to animate the syllabus is about contingency: things could have gone that way, but they didn't, they went this way, and if you want to understand what's going on now you need to know how things developed and why they did so. Nothing higher or deeper involved here, as far as I'm concerned; if you get vertigo in the absence of Absolute Certainty, don't look down.

Is there then no destiny that shapes our ends? Maybe from a God's-eye view, what we think of as random really isn't random. But we'd never know whether this were the case or not, given our apparent tendency to retrospectively reconstruct sequences of occurrences as though they had a coherent plot. But this is where faith enters the picture, stepping beyond the knowledge that we produce into something wholly different. In fact, I'd actually argue that embracing contingency is in no way incompatible with having faith in a divine plan, as long as that plan remains ineffable instead of rationally knowable: while a rationally knowable plan shades off into determinism, an ineffable divine plan (or meaning of history) gives us a narrative challenge: tell the story in such a way that a larger purpose emerges. And organize human social institutions in such a way that a larger purpose emerges, and doesn't get trampled under by sheer randomness or absolute determinism.

In this way, contingency -- the preservation of human agency -- emerges as the most defensible way to generate meaning and to preserve the human capacity for doing so. When we design our syllabi, when we write our accounts of occurrences, even when we enter into debates about baseball, we should keep that goal in mind. I would argue that connexion as a purpose, and certain kinds of competition as ways of enhancing and generating the worlding that emerges from and is implicated in such a way of being, advances this goal and preserves human agency. We should have the courage of our convictions, I think, and celebrate and defend contingency -- rather than continually trying to evade what may be our highest and truest calling as human beings.

[Posted with ecto]

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"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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