The relativity of bananas, part 1: Physical relations

Picture a banana.

Better yet, go get a banana (I’ll wait) and then look at it. Or a coffee cup, or a computer monitor, or, well, anything you like. But bananas are good. They have potassium!

So, you look at a banana, and you see a banana. Simple, right?

Well, no. Let’s unpack that a little.

But don’t unpeel it, ‘cuz then you’ll just eat it

You see a solid object. But physics tells us that a banana, or any other solid object, consists mostly of empty space, interspersed with molecules, made of atoms, made of protons, electrons, and neutrons, all of them very far apart from one another relative to their size but connected by strong bonds of electromagnetic force. These electromagnetic bonds, not the particles of matter themselves, give the banana its solidity.

Visible light, a form of electromagnetic radiation, emitted by the sun or by a local light source, travels through spacetime, and strikes the surface of the banana. Some light gets absorbed, some reflected, and some scattered. Some of what got reflected or scattered enters your eye.  This light passes through the cornea, the pupil (controlled by the iris), and then the lens, all of which act together as a compound lens to focus packets of light (photons) onto your retina. Photoreceptor cells in the retina then react to the light by producing electrochemical signals, which activate bipolar cells, which activate ganglion cells, which transmit information to the brain through the optic nerve.

Sounds complicated? It gets worse.

The banana is in there somewhere, right?

Your brain has several highly complex neural networks for processing visual information: the lateral geniculate nucleus, the optic radiations, the visual cortex, and the visual association cortex.

Your body needs all of this to convert light into a visual image, and it all happens without your conscious involvement or even your conscious perception. You don’t perceive your body converting packets of photons into electrochemical signals and thereby into a visual image; you just see a banana.

And I have only discussed one sense – sight – and one activity – looking. Try perceiving the banana through other senses. Pick it up. Sniff it. Heft it to feel its weight. Hold it in front of you, behind you, above you. Lick it. Knock it against something else (gently) and listen to the sound it makes. Each of these ways of sensing involves chains of physical processes as complex as those involved in seeing.

Let me go one step further and say that we can understand all of these physical processes as relations.

By relations I mean both

  • the actual concrete relationship between two or more things (e.g. seeing a banana in a certain light and from a certain angle), and
  • the indeterminate cloud of potential relationships that could connect those things (e.g. the fact that you could see the banana under a different light or from different angles).

We perceive a banana — or any physical object or event — through the operation of many complex physical relations. These relations don’t just transmit an experience to our minds. They produce that experience.

In other words, our experience of a banana comes not just from the banana as a thing separate from ourselves, but from a dynamic network of physical relations.

This raises a question:

How could we possibly know anything about the banana independently of these physical relations through which we experience it?

Stay tuned …

13 thoughts on “The relativity of bananas, part 1: Physical relations

  1. Excellent questions!

    The question of independent knowledge gets raised in discussions about the legitimacy of scientific knowledge-claims. Among scientists, including positivistically oriented social scientists, popular conceptions of objectivity seem to imply a view of objects as having or not having properties independently of the observer and hence, by implication, independently of the observer’s relations to that object. Even critical realism, which asserts that we can never know objects absolutely, retains a notion of reality in-itself, the world of Kantian noumena (if I understand that term correctly), as an indispensable point of reference. This seems to imply that knowledge should try to approximate that complete independence, even if it can never achieve it fully. I want to articulate a notion of knowledge without that absolute independence as a point of reference. And I want to do so in language that harmonizes with Marx’s account of his own epistemology, what people call historical materialism. Indeed, I want to show how historical materialism can imply radical relativism.

    The stakes come from the politics of knowledge. What status should we give to science as a way of knowing amongst other historically existing ways of knowing? Should we treat modern science as categorically superior to Indigenous knowledges about local ecosystems, for instance? What about Indigenous spiritual beliefs? What about the fundamentalisms of the Abrahamic religions (like Christian creationists, for instance)? These questions speak to the political relationship between the complex of cultural and institutional forms that people call ‘modernity’ or ‘Western modernity’ and its various non-modern Others.

    The idea of objective knowledge seems to imply objective truth, with the further implication that truth is unitary and singular – that there is one right answer to questions about the world, one right way of knowing the world. This implies consensus as the goal of legitimate debates about knowledge. And it raises the possibility that some form of coercion or at least exclusion is an appropriate tactic in those debates. The singularity of truth implies a unitary hierarchy of knowlege-claims, which in turn legitimates a social hierarchy among those who claim to know the world.

    A great many Marxists and other left-wing radicals seem to accept uncritically the notion of unitary truth, just as a great many voices on the left seem to accept uncritically the necessity of social hierarchies. I’m interested in radically egalitarian forms of activism. These forms haven’t solved the problem of what to do when we disagree. They wrestle with what to do with deep disagreements (what David Graber calls “the wingnut problem” is one example of this). I think that part of the trouble is that we tend very readily to think of disagreements over knowledge as contests in which someone must be wrong. This way of thinking tends to come to the fore the higher the practical stakes are. We can make allowances for difference, but only as a kind of surplus, a luxury. A radically egalitarian movement would have to deal with difference noncoercively precisely when the stakes are highest, without thereby forfeiting its ability to make a difference in the world.

    So for me the problems of relativist epistemology are tied directly to the problem of egalitarian social struggle.

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    • Thanks for your answer! There’s so much at stake here that I’ll get confused if I try to work with all of it at once, so I’m going to go at this bit by bit. This doesn’t mean that I’m disagreeing with you, but just not understanding all the parts and how they hang together. So I’m just responding to the first paragraph. Here I’m influenced by some feminist philosophers (e.g., Longino, Okhrulik) who reject the positivist notion of objectivity, but hold an alternative notion of objectivity (they locate themselves somewhere in between positivism and standpoint theory). The idea is to work backwards to the object using a series of inferences, while questioning the assumptions that support the inferences. Longino in particular also emphasizes the importance of investigating social systems that otherwise make these assumptions invisible. While this process doesn’t yield anything like a direct apprehension of the object or system, and certainly not from some Archimedian position, it does give us reliable information, and that’s good enough for the kind of objectivity they have in mind. Their view is that we can take a middle ground between positivist objectivity and radical relativism. So here’s my question. Do we have a disagreement?

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      • Not exactly. I have a lot of sympathy for those intermediate positions. And a disagreement in this context would seem to entail me saying that I think I’m right and Longino is wrong, which part of what I’m trying to get away from. What I will say is that I’m interested in trying to push further into relativism — albiet a materialist relativism, as opposed to the idealist relativism associated (rightly or wrongly) with postmodernism. Partly for the reasons I’ve described, and partly out of an inarticulate intuitive sensibility.

        From the little that I know of Longino’s position, it seems to me that it has much in common with things that I like from Frankfurt School critical theory and from Weber. But I would question why she wants us to hang on to the concept of objectivity in particular, as opposed to some other concept like, say, validity, or reliability. What’s at stake there, for her (or for you)?

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  2. Good question. I’ll answer for me rather than for Longino, and I reserve the right to change my mind later. At least two things come to mind in response to the question of what is at stake. The first is, not much, at least not if I can use surrogate notions like reliability or validity. This ties in to the second thing that is at stake, which is avoiding cynicism about science. If we can avoid this by appealing to a surrogate notion rather than to objectivity, then I’m satisfied.

    I don’t hold the view that science is the only information-providing system out there, or the best in some absolute sense, but I do hold the view that it is very effective for getting certain kinds of information very reliably. Consider the medical sciences. Western medicine is extremely good at certain things (spotting and cutting out tumors, killing bacteria, etc.) and really terrible at other things (the hormonal system, promoting wellness, etc.). If we take it to cover everything we need to know about health, then we are making a (tragic) mistake. But it is the best course of action for problems that require the attack-and-destroy model. The challenge is figuring out exactly which problems these are, and when other models should be used. So my worry is that if we develop cynicism about western medicine because it doesn’t cover everything, we might not use it in the domains where it does the best job. So I’m wondering if similar considerations apply to the question of the status of science as a way of knowing vs other ways of knowing (the answer would then depend on the domain and the desired outcome).

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  3. I take a view of science similar to the one you describe. I perceive science as doing certain things very well — according to particular criteria — and other things badly or not at all. When people talk about knowledge I’d like them to be able to talk openly about the relative costs and benefits of various modes of knowledge production, and also about the criteria they use for judging costs and benefits.

    This is one reason why I prefer concepts like “validity” or “reliability” over “objectivity”. If we talk about reliability, I find it easy to ask, reliable for what purpose? If we talk about validity, I find it easy to ask, valid according to what criteria? But I feel a strong sense of dissonance when I try to ask, objective in relation to what purpose? or, objective according to what criteria? Part of this dissonance comes from my strong habitual association of the concept of objectivity with that of mind-independence.

    For me, relational and relativistic thinking make it easier to disaggregate science, to weigh the relative merits of its various particular achievements in light of changing socio-historical circumstances. This disaggregation seems in turn to promise the ability to respond flexibly and creatively to new exigencies and new opportunities, and to negotiate more fruitfully with others who perceive things differently from myself.

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    • Good, thanks. Now I think I understand at least the bit about science and objectivity. I especially appreciate your concern that the concept ‘objectivity’ carries with it associations that might be undesirable. I still don’t fully understand the connection between that and egalitarian social struggle (is the one necessary for the other, is it sufficient, etc.), but we can leave that for another time. On the “for what purpose” front, are you familiar with Collingwood’s philosophy of history? He argues that one can evaluate the legitimacy of historical stories, but that they are always legitimate or illegitimate as answers to questions. They are never stand-alone legit.

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  4. Pingback: The relativity of bananas, part 2: Social relations « The Practical Theorist

  5. Pingback: The relativity of bananas, part 3: Practical relations « The Practical Theorist

  6. Pingback: The relativity of bananas, part 4: Conclusion | The Practical Theorist

  7. Pingback: Some Arguments for Irrealism « The Practical Theorist

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