Homologic Assurance


Photograph by Geraint Rowland

by Alexei Grinbaum

That five from eight was always three
gave them assurance that in me
there was sound doctrine somewhere.


Philosophers divide into assured and unassured. The assured teach truth, the unassured not to marry foreign truth. Doubt sustains Socrates and Montaigne.

Assurance in the truthfulness of a proposition is distinct from assurance in the correctness of an assertion one makes. A shrewd philosopher on a collision course with politics easily transforms his assurance into self-assurance. In the 20th century, the assuredest politicians were the Marxists, the assuredest philosophers the Logical Positivists.

Some of those assured in the truthfulness of propositions trust the truth of the fact. While a sentence is a fact of language, a belief, in disentangling itself from language, aims at a truth outside propositionality, i.e. a fact of ontology. Wittgenstein prepared the ground for Logical Positivism by asserting the sufficiency of language: “The propositions show the logical form of reality.” It merely remained for the Vienna Circle to decide on a language spoken by reality.

Rudolf Carnap rooted for formal languages. There is unquestionable logic in their construction, which suffices, however, for neither establishing truthfulness nor separating possible from impossible propositions. Logic needs to be complemented by an external criterion, for example, the Laws of Nature revealed by Science. Meanwhile, science nomologically demarcates meaningful propositions from empty formal constructs. But what science? Hopefully, one capable of successfully establishing the truthfulness of a proposition. Any such empirical verification requires the experimenter’s assurance in the outcome of the experiment and, additionally, in the translation of this outcome into a formal sentence. Carnap, then, belongs to the assured philosophers.

Moritz Schlick rooted for natural language. Grammar and syntax can build a haystack of sentences, but only those are meaningful that can be logically verified. Thus logic in Schlick’s camiceria is worn as a straightjacket for natural language. One’s success in the fitting room now depends, not on physical shape or scientific tailoring, but on logical precision that seamlessly cuts out meaningful propositions. Yet assurance, as it stitches up every successful logical verification of the truthfulness of a sentence, is once again de rigueur. Schlick no less than Carnap belongs to the assured philosophers.

The positivist assurance bears on the possibility of a precise scientific or logical verification of meaningful propositions. All other sentences are metaphysical. Metaphysics, then, simply does not make sense. What is meaningless, in particular, includes Kant’s structure of knowledge. Indeed, one does not logically verify the truthfulness of the categories of thought; the synthetic apriori is not empirical. Logical Positivism had backwatered Kant, but a few years later the fish vomited him back onto dry land.

Whatever its object, assurance is a religious quality. In 1936, Schlick was assassinated by a student who ill afforded the denial of metaphysics noetically. Religious mysticism has, too, made a contribution. It is not mystical but mysterial religiosity that can be found to afford the logical positivist approach to truth.

First, an aside on poetry. Futurist poetry and formal theory can lay a claim to positivist terminology no smaller than philosophy’s. They have constructed languages, stripped natural language down to the absurdity of bare grammar, studied meaning via the absence of meaning. In so doing, futurist poetry and formal theory hit a record in rapture by assurance.

Unlike Logical Positivism, futurist poetry and formal theory speak of and to society. Rapture by assurance returns revolutionary intoxication. It is hard to gauge here the responsibility of the spinning frame, the mainframe, the twenty-fifth frame, the spin doctor and the spin one-half. There exists, too, an unpoetic variety of positivist rapture: a literature dried by the prose of the Bolshevik fact.

Both Carnap and Schlick fancied contemporary science, positivism’s chum. Both penetrated general relativity mathematically and screwed it up with quantum theory. Platonov and Shklovsky, on the contrary, battered language clear of abuse, for they embraced science as a metaphor. Their loan words left a hickey of modernity but ignited no fire of truth; they impressed only an utterance.

At the centrum of the positive circle Khlebnikov the bolshevest, insensitive to physics, labored the number. Khlebnikov a yielding computer of mysterial religiosity quathe homologic complex assurance.

Second, science can be taken as metaphor in two ways. The poet sees in it a keen wit, hears the voice of an upstanding angel. The sociologist records a triumph of determinism and a source of historical inevitability. The metaphor utilized as determinism’s fertilizer for political science seeds Marxism and totalitarianism. The same dressing of language results in emasculation of the secret and in analytic philosophy. But, whichever metaphoric perfume Science wears on its way to the Forum, it diffuses rigor: the poet surrenders corporeally to strange rigor; the Marxist sets it under the yoke of historicism; the Logical Positivist employs it to ameliorate the squelchy mud of meaning.

Any rigor is mysterial.

The private-public distinction is a fundamental anthropological given that first appears when man begs to differ from the group he belongs to. The individual is what is hidden from the collective; private cult is the opposite of public religion. The latter transcends the citizen; the former, proceeding from individual secret, is mysterial. The Eleusinian mysteries as well as those of Isis, Mithra or Great Mother are held for many but not for a group. The mystai ascend to the secret one at a time. The unsaid may not be broadcast in the Forum.

Both religion and science interfere with this fundamental distinction. A mystery cult emerges through a secret disclosed to each but not to all initiates; science is for many but not for the entire society. Both stem from a secret hidden beyond the threshold of knowledge.

Citizens possess gadgets, yet only initiates can read their entrails. Even if they proclaim this knowledge in the Forum in appropriately scientific language, only a metaphor would resound. In this sense, the termination of the Latin Mass and the cleansing of classical curricula have put forward the language of mathematics as chief secret tongue. Mathematical investigation enters into conflict with the transparency, accessibility and participatory non-individuality of public cult. Science cannot be for all however open source we make it.

A mystery cult is grounded in the rigorous ineffability of secret words. Apart from words, the ineffable also includes things and actions. The latter are particularly important: any initiation requires alert participation in a rigorous action, whose strictness is countered by dream, although it borders, too, on the divine. The closer thy neighbor, the more rigorously the ritual is extorted; the more hidden a secret, the stricter its means of access.

As a result, the initiate gains assurance in god’s special attention: the tauroboliate is certain to have twenty more years of young power, the Isiac rejoices in immortality. In the language of sacred anthropology, which studies the structure of religion in abstraction from a concrete symbol of faith, the mystery initiation, essentially, is the phenomenon of rigor. A mystery is the strictness of access to the secret taken as a general, and at the same time a strictly individual, motive. Respected rigor leads in turn to assurance. There exists an anthropological identity between the initiate’s mind and the phenomenon of assurance.

To conclude, positivism is a scientific-religious mystery. A mysterial foundation underlies both literature, which, taken as praxis, bows to the inevitable, and empirical philosophy which restrains language in the camisole of logic. But literature, due to its consideration of science only as a metaphor, enjoys an unexpected advantage over philosophy. Logical Positivism sounds all too serious and straight when it asks Science for more than a mere transposition of words. As the scientific Weltanschauung changes, Science readily cheats on Positivism with an up-and-coming proletarian worldview. In our time, the scientific-religious mystery, whose language is mathematics, gives over to the technological-religious mystery, whose language is informatics. Unlike pure science, technology, though still potentially a metaphor, is but a sterile guarantor of the logical empiricist démarchethat seeks to establish the truthfulness of a proposition.

The hierophant deploys secret knowledge in a solemn rite. Meaning instilled in sacred words, actions and things does not proceed from these alone; its appearance requires priestly performance. A secret communicated makes a mystery, while a secret merely kept bears witness only to potential sanctity.

The solemn rite of modern technology is computation. A gadget is a place where, like in a Mithraeum, it is dark inside. A curious user holding a black box in her palm, undergoes an initiation while  the smartphone enacts secret knowledge. One presumes that the engineer would play the role of the initiating priest but, in a theological innovation, the solemn rite occurs in his absence. The user stands retina to retina with her gadget; res computans acts on its own. The hierophant and the computer are one.

This is exactly the secret that the Logical Positivists have failed to grasp. Natural language is clothed with logic; logic, too, applies by construction to formal languages. The latter, while unfolding in a process of computation, give birth to informatics. A diminutive computer at the core of every gadget spreads darkness in the locus of mystery: an unclenched fist. It contains a secret that begets meaning. Yet the sentences it employs to communicate with the user are no red herrings: they march to the Forum within a meaningful cloud woven from their internal darkness.

Poetry hears the voice of this darkness, “a pure that better than ten thousand that.” This voice consists of labels and numbers. Every user, but not the entire society, gains assurance through initiation, better: gets a new voice. This voice arranges labels and numbers into meaningful sentences. It announces a new mystery of meaning: our participation in the truth of the computer. In code we trust.

A modified version of this essay first appeared in Russian at Translit. Cover image by Susanne Nilsson.

About the Author:

Alexei Grinbaum is a physicist and philosopher at LARSIM, the Philosophy of Science Group at the Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives at Saclay near Paris. His main interest is in the foundations of quantum theory. He also writes on the ethical and social aspects of emerging technologies, including nanotechnology, robotics, and synthetic biology. He is a member of CERNA, the French ethics committee for research in information technology. His latest book is Mécanique des Étreintes (Paris: Encre Marine, 2014).