File spoon-archives/foucault.archive/foucault_2000/foucault.0011, message 43

Subject: Foucault, Heisenberg et al
Date: Sat, 25 Nov 2000 16:56:38 -0700

The National Interest (Summer 2000)

"The Challenge to Certainty"
Zach Shore

   In the Winter 1999/2000 issue of The National Interest, Alan Charles Kors
asked, "Did Western civilization survive the twentieth century?" He
concludes, rather optimistically, that despite its many critics Western
civilization has emerged resilient, as it had from so many previous, darker
times. But Kors, engaged in a lengthy jeremiad against the multiculturalist
Left, misses a critical feature of the past century: a far deeper, more
pervasive attack from which the West has not yet recovered.

   The twentieth century will ultimately be remembered for its challenges to
certainty. All of the major themes historians have pointed to as markers of
our age can be subsumed within this paradigm. More than any previous period,
the twentieth century called into question many of the fundamental beliefs
upon which Western civilization had been based. Notions of class privilege,
racial hierarchies, gender roles and sexual identities all underwent
dramatic rethinking and led to readjustments in political, social and
economic relations. Beyond grand societal transformations, certainties upon
which individuals had always counted -- such as where to live, what
occupation to enter, whom to marry, and even what would become of one after
death -- ceased to be sure. As political and social traditions were being
questioned, so too were basic assumptions in the sciences and philosophy.
The multiculturalists' assaults upon Western civilization, which Kors
adroitly parries, scarcely equaled the mighty blows struck by those from
within the very heart of the Western scientific tradition.

     The twentieth century began with Einstein's sweeping away of several
fundamental human, not simply scientific, assumptions. Einstein's theories
gained worldwide attention for suggesting that two dimensions always assumed
to be constants -- time and space -- were in fact curved and relative,
dependent on that which interacts with them. Newtonian mechanics, the basis
of Enlightenment advances, no longer functioned in the expanding universes
of astrophysics and subatomic particles. If the very dimensions in which we
exist were not absolute, what absolutes could we hold on to?

   At least there was the certainty that one and one makes two. Or rather
there had been, until Kurt Go del came along. Go del saw that mathematics
was based upon assumptions, not indisputable truths. His infamous
incompleteness theorem, published in 1931, argued that the system upon which
mathematics is partly based is unprovable because in a logical system using
symbols to construct axioms, any proof must come from outside that system.
One plus one, therefore, equals two only because there is consensus that it
is so. Just how far could relativity be taken?

   Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle reached into the subatomic
realm. Stating that we can never know both the position and the speed of any
particle, Heisenberg's theories have influenced contemporary notions of
probabilistic occurrences, in which we are now only able to speak of a
particle's probability of existing in any given space or time. Praising
Western civilization's resilience, Kors writes: "Greece fell, but its
mathematics still measures, actually and metaphorically, the world." Its
mathematics does still measure the world, but the twentieth century saw
Western science's ability to measure with certainty undermined from within
its finest ranks.

   The notion that nature behaved with regularity and that humans could
measure and predict its patterns with precision formed a salient aspect of
Enlightenment thinking, but this notion crumbled in our age of uncertainty.
Chaos theory, first formulated by the French mathematician Henri Poincare in
the latter half of the nineteenth century, but developed and tested in the
1960s by the American meteorologist Edward Lorenz, maintains that long-range
prediction is impossible. Systems sensitive to their initial conditions can
exhibit chaotic behavior where tiny errors at the start become gigantic ones
later. Chaos theory, which extends to countless other systems, from weather
patterns to water flow to leaky faucets, exposed the inability of science to
predict with certainty.

   When James Watson and Francis Crick unlocked the structure of DNA,
genetic programming became virtually inevitable. Soon we would know the sex
of an unborn child. By the century's final decade, human ears were being
grown on the backs of mice, Dolly the sheep made cloning a living, tangible
reality, and scientists spoke of the ability to create life. In 1999 the
human genome project unraveled the first pair of human chromosomes and
promises shortly to map the entire digital code that determines much of
human identity. This undertaking represents far more than just an
extraordinary advance in knowledge. If we discover that our genetic
programming determines most of our personality, emotional make-up and
spiritual inclinations, it may well present a challenge to the
millennia-held notion of a soul.

   Philosophy followed suit with science in the century's long march toward
uncertainty. Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus popularized in existentialism
the view that the world was a chaotic place, not divinely ordered, and this
notion has enjoyed worldwide popularity. While Nietzsche's proclamation that
God is dead represented an extreme, the open questioning of God's existence
was a leitmotif of the twentieth century.

   Not only did the truth of God's existence and his ordered universe fall
prey to attack, but the very notion of truth itself fell into doubt as
Michel Foucault argued, among other things, that the basic assumptions that
societies take for granted as truths are wholly dependent upon power
relations and are therefore fluid over time. Foucault's relativism struck at
the heart of commonly accepted Western beliefs and challenged the idea that
anything could be established with certainty.

   Perhaps the most common feature attributed to the twentieth century is
that it witnessed the greatest violence in human history. Yet the great
tragedy of the century's carnage was not solely that it wrought death and
suffering of a magnitude hitherto unknown, but that it challenged citizens'
faith in the modern state. After Stalin's purges and Nazi terror it became
clear that the full power of the modern state could be harnessed not only
for civilizing and improving social conditions, but also for the destruction
of whole peoples.

   Even if the state were unlikely to inflict terror upon its own citizens,
its ability to protect them against foreign attack seemed questionable. A
profound change occurred in the way people conceptualize war. With the
advent of thermonuclear weapons and delivery systems capable of projecting
warheads around the globe, the nuclear age redefined the potential
devastation of war, holding forth the prospect of the planet's total
destruction. Post-Cold War triumphalism casts a dense fog upon our memories
of bomb shelters and missile attack drills, but the uncertainty that
surrounded a nuclear holocaust was once, and not so long ago, as palpable as
today's jubilation over stock market booms.

   In addition to scientific development and unparalleled violence, one
other salient trend of the last century often cited is the magnitude and
rapidity of social change. Groups traditionally marginalized by elites broke
through rigid class, race and gender barriers to attain varying degrees of
control over their own destinies. These social upheavals, too, can be seen
as challenges to certainty, for they questioned the long-existing order on
which societies were based.

   As class certainties gave way to greater social mobility, so too did
notions of racial supremacy. Even the one great certainty on which all men
could rely -- that a woman's place is in the home -- crumbled in the last
century. The growing acceptability of "coming out", the open assertion that
women did not need men in their lives for sexual gratification, and the
increasing openness of bisexuality -- a behavior proclaiming that sexual
identities are fluid -- have all produced a kind of sexual glasnost, whereby
a once taboo topic not only penetrated mass media, but threatened the most
basic societal norms.

   Professor Kors' question is a good one, and the answer is surely yes. The
more interesting question is: What damage did the twentieth century inflict?
The principal themes of that century -- scientific advances, social change
and barbarity -- can all be seen as challenges to certainty, and it is this
idea for which the past century will eventually be remembered. That the West
will recover all or even most of its lost assumptions is unlikely. The West
may, however, invest in new canons. Faith in the state may already be in the
process of being supplanted by faith in markets. Faith in God may rise among
some as an ultimate reaction to uncertainty. But will there again be faith
in absolutes?

   Lurking just below the surface of these reflections is yet another
question: whether there is some link between the century's great themes --
between unprecedented horrors, genocides and brutality on the one hand and
the scientific, philosophical and social challenges to certainty on the
other. Did Heisenberg and Foucault merely reflect the growing uncertainty of
the century, or could its catastrophic man-made upheavals have been caused
by the unmooring of previously unshakable beliefs? This is a question whose
answer is as uncertain as the age itself.



"Thought is no longer theoretical. As soon as it functions it
offends or reconciles, attracts or repels, breaks, dissociates,
unites, or re-unites; it cannot help but liberate and enslave.
Even before prescribing, suggesting a future, saying what must
be done, even before exhorting or merely sounding an alarm,
thought, at the level of its existence, in its very dawning, is
in itself an action--a perilous act."
           -Michel Foucault


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