Matter is also an education, a genuine school for life. Fighting against it, you mature and grow.
Since David Stove’s landmark article “Farewell to Arts” in Quadrant, May 1986, these pages have covered the destructive forces of postmodernism and relativism on culture—mainly emanating from the humanities departments of our universities. Stove’s description of the Faculty of Arts at Sydney University—“a disaster area, and not of the merely passive kind, like a bombed building, or an area that has been flooded. It is the active kind like a badly-leaking nuclear reactor, or an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in cattle”—can now be seen as an accurate prediction over thirty years later of the wider cultural effects of postmodernism, extending far beyond the academy.
Now, thirty-three years after Stove, there is a new source of attack on objective truth and empiricism: the “post-truth” phenomenon. Post-truth includes an unashamed disregard for empirical facts in public discourse and the cultural “perfect storm” of moral relativism combined with celebrity culture and distrust of science. One of the major causes of post-truth is, I shall argue, the phenomenal growth of virtual environments and obsessive screen usage (covering computer gaming, websites, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, other social media, blog posts—hereto referred to as “Virtuality”).
This essay appears in April’s Quadrant.
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Virtuality is, by definition, a detachment from the world of primary physical matter. Virtual environments are characterised by a total absence of external reality tests in the indifferent medium of the physical world. Whereas any claim by an engineer is judged by the laws of physics, chemistry, metallurgy and materials science relevant to his or her design (for example a bridge designer’s claims are tested by the indifferent and objective laws of structural mechanics)—the claims made in a virtual environment are judged by the quantity of “likes”, re-tweets and online opinion. These are all purely subjective sources, and anything but indifferent.
Virtuality combined with postmodernism has formed a pincer movement against objective truth and led to the “post-truth” phenomenon. I shall argue that the antidote to the cultural and philosophical problems of Post-Truth and Virtuality is literally in front of us: the world of primary matter. It offers, via the practice of engineering and other science-based and technical professions (including all the trades, such as carpentry, plumbing and motor mechanics) the epistemology and character virtues that directly counter post-truth. Meeting the objective demands of working with matter, by daily repetition, becomes habitual in the practitioner, and their effects become ingrained as “character”. These demands are characterised as purely objective by the kind of reality tests they make and how they are measured: for a bricklayer, the wall is either straight or it isn’t. A bridge designer succeeds or fails utterly on his respect for the laws of structural mechanics. A farmer is judged by the success of his crop and how it handled the variables of weather, soil conditions and so on. My own experience covers mathematical modelling of traffic flow and satellite navigation and control—for improvements to existing processes or insight into the physics of a process and sources of variability. In both cases our models are compared to results in reality. In turn that reality is determined by the physics of traffic flow or the physics of orbital mechanics.
There is a real philosophical effect in practising an engineering or technological profession —an ethical and epistemological dimension to the work—when one is forced to regularly measure oneself against matter and its laws. It forces you to be a thoroughgoing empiricist, have a sense of realism about truth, rely on particular, specific knowledge and have an aversion to abstract generalisations that cannot be tested. It also requires an economy in the use of language in general, due to the exacting demands of using technical terminology. The words of technical language have precise meanings as they are used in their intended setting. Technical language has a seriousness and respect not found in ordinary usage—one cannot “play” with the meanings of words when working on a construction site or in a chemical plant.
Of course, all engineering work and technological work is done in the context of solving a commercial or practical problem. It is subject to external factors of the market, economics, budgets, political considerations and aesthetics. While these features do indeed provide the context of engineering and technical work, they do not change the fact that the essence of judgment and performance is based on successful interaction with the physical world. Ultimately an engineer’s essential work is judged by matter and its laws, patterns and features—as described by science.
That critical feature of working with matter—experiencing its indifference as a judge of our actions—leads to those positive ethics and character traits that I call the virtues of reality.
The effects of post-truth—the disregard for empirical facts and truth—are serious and go well beyond the tweets of Donald Trump. The anti-vaccine movement has resulted in the return of previously defeated diseases among children in the Western world; the anti-nuclear ideology has, in defiance of all the scientific evidence, denied Australia the benefits of nuclear power over the last forty years; Western “Green” opposition has denied the Third World the proven benefits of genetically modified foods. The ideological belief in alternative medicines such as homeopathy has drawn millions of dollars of resources away from science-based medicine and has led to increased suffering in those believers who fall for its claims—despite being proven to be utterly false (assessing more than 1800 studies on homeopathy, Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council was able to find only 225 that were rigorous enough to analyse. A systematic review of these studies revealed “no good quality evidence to support the claim that homeopathy is effective in treating health conditions”.
In political discourse post-truth has revealed itself most widely by the valuing of appearances and feelings to the point where facts and quantitative analysis are disregarded completely. Examples can be cited in the “debates” around Brexit (false claims about £350 million per week being sent from the UK to the EU), the Australian gay marriage postal vote (where those opposing changing the Family Law Act were reflexively labelled bigots and homophobes), correctly naming sources of terrorism (the media refusal to identify them as Islamist terrorists), bans on coal-seam gas extraction (despite evidence of its benefits and safety record) and more.
By suggesting an antidote to relativism and post-truth I am not attacking the internet, information technology or the use of virtual reality. I am concerned with the loss of sight, contact and direct touch with the physical world and the demands that it places on us which are hard but also beneficial to our character.
In virtuality, we are freed from the onerous demands of the physical world and its constraints, but we pay a hefty price for this apparent freedom. We lose the benefits of being subject and measured according to objective criteria. As Primo Levi, the industrial chemist and writer said, “Chemistry wasn’t only a profession, it was also an existential formation, the source of certain mental habits.”
I claim that the ethical and epistemological dimensions to engineering and other technical professions make them immune to post-truth. The built-in features of working in these professions—which in many ways define them—demand precisely an attitude to knowledge, facts and the physical world that are the antithesis of post-truth.
Reality tests and post-truth
How do we get from virtual environments to post-truth and moral relativism? The key is an objective reality test, or rather, its absence. Not having the reality test of physical matter leads to post-truth simply through the absence and relevance of some objective requirements and standards.
It should be noted that engineers do use virtual environments to assist in understanding the performance of systems in the physical world. The virtual environment is in the form of mathematical models. However, there is a highly significant difference between an engineer using a virtual tool as a simulation or model of the real world and some internet “booster” claiming it is a new alternative to reality. Crucially, engineering virtual models are only accepted for use when they are compared to real empirical data (known as the “calibration and validation” process) and the results can be compared to reality. A model is a close approximation of reality. John von Neumann, the great pure and applied mathematician, once said “truth … is much too complicated to allow anything but approximations”. The usefulness of a model is explained by its correctness about some important structure of the modelled phenomenon.
A successful practising engineer simply cannot have a relativist view of truth when working: to hold such a view would work directly against what it takes to be a successful engineer in the first place. Put another way—can you imagine the effect of doubting objective truth when working with a bandsaw?
Conversely there are professions governed by subjective demands. The media and politics are, of course, the most obvious examples: a politician, in order to be successful, must know how to impress voters, deal with changes in public opinion and, above all, have a good sense of what will win votes and what will not. These are all purely subjective demands (a politician is judged by the objective result of a vote count, but the means to win the vote are clearly subjective).
The political aspect of post-truth has been extensively documented with a focus on Donald Trump’s candidacy and presidency (for example see Michiko Kakutani, The Death of Truth, 2018; Lee McIntyre, Post-Truth, 2018; Kurt Andersen, Fantasyland, 2017). All these works diagnose the post-truth problem by blaming the usual suspects of social media, identity politics, religion, economic disruption and postmodernism. However, they suffer from Trump derangement syndrome and divide the problem along old Left–Right political lines—as if post-truth is restricted to the political Right, Trump and his supporters. They have missed the crucial role in post-truth of the materiality–virtuality divide. Furthermore no practical antidote to post-truth is proposed in any of these works (beyond “standing up for truth”) and certainly none has looked for salvation to the technical professions to see what they can offer.
Two incisive works on the topic were written before the post-truth phenomenon got its name and notoriety. Harry Frankfurt, a philosopher, wrote On Bullshit in 2005—a serious philosophical analysis of how “bullshit” differs from lying. Frankfurt distinguishes the bullshitter as one who is not lying, but rather has a total indifference towards the truth. Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (2009) elegantly described the benefits for character and human agency of working in the trades. Crawford is both a philosopher and a motorcycle mechanic. His work is a celebration and analysis of the benefits of the hands-on skills of carpenters, mechanics, electricians and many more. While I am in total agreement with Crawford’s position, he omits to address modern technology and the complexity of modern industry. It may be seen as a lamentation for the traditional skills of trades. Conversely, I propose a celebration of modern engineering and industrial work while still maintaining the ethics and virtues of reality that are found in practising traditional trade skills.
In the case of postmodernism and post-truth, it needs to be asked—Why now? After infecting university humanities departments for almost forty years, how does it make its way so far outside the academy?
What is new in recent years is the phenomenal growth in online activity. Post-truth has erupted mostly online where, with no reality test, the perpetrators simply get away with it. They get away with it because without a reality test there is no feedback or measure that is agreed upon. Nor are there any consequences to discarding the truth.
Clearly this is not the case when dealing with the physical world, as nature cannot be avoided and it gives instant feedback! As the physicist Richard Feynman said when reviewing his investigation of the 1986 Space Shuttle disaster (caused by ignoring the physics of the effect of temperature on a critical component) “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” Indeed, nature cannot be fooled, as in technology—which is the transformation of matter and systems of matter—its feedback and judgments are omnipresent. In the virtual environments everyone can be fooled as no such judge exists.
Nature presses against us but does not conform to our wishes. This is clear whether you are hammering in a nail or operating an underground coal mine: the only way to succeed is to understand the mechanics of what nature is doing and work within that. This is in total contrast to a virtual environment where instant gratification takes no effort—it’s only a mouse click away, with no resistance, limitless choice and all wishes can be met—but only virtually, of course.
Primo Levi on work and character
Character development arising from the demands of the technical professions has not attracted much literary or philosophical attention. Most writers and philosophers have little or no experience of such work.
Two significant exceptions to this are Joseph Conrad and Primo Levi. Conrad drew on his experience in the British merchant marine to explore themes of solidarity, fidelity and the fellowship of craft amongst merchant seamen—based on mastering the technical skills of navigating sailing ships across the oceans. Primo Levi drew on his career of thirty-five years as an industrial chemist to write on the challenges and moral aspects of transforming matter for constructive and commercial purposes.
Primo Levi (1920–87) was an Italian-Jewish industrial chemist, writer and Holocaust survivor. He is widely regarded as the pre-eminent literary interpreter of the Holocaust, based on his books If This Is a Man, The Truce and The Drowned and the Saved. Levi’s fame as a survivor, witness and interpreter of the Holocaust has overshadowed the other active and literary interest that occupied him before and after his imprisonment in Auschwitz: the world of modern industrial work.
As a successful industrial chemist of thirty-five years experience, Levi wrote extensively on the challenges and moral aspects of transforming matter for constructive and commercial purposes. His major works on industrial work are The Periodic Table and The Wrench. Other People’s Trades and the literary anthology The Search for Roots contain several essays and commentaries where Levi expands his ideas on work, technology, morality and culture. He also gave a number of interviews (collected in Voices of Memory, 2001) where he expanded on the themes of his major works with added biographical material.
By writing on the moral and epistemological challenges of industrial work, Levi was participating in a rare literary genre. Levi said on his motivation to write The Wrench: “I wanted to fill an ecological niche: literature is full of duchesses, prostitutes, adventurers, so why not include one of us ‘transformers of matter’.”
As Levi looked back on his career and explored the meaning of his work as an industrial chemist, he found (later on) many things with philosophical and moral relevance. He said, “Matter is also an education … Fighting against it, you mature and grow,” and “Chemistry wasn’t only a profession, it was also an existential formation, the source of certain mental habits, above all that of clarity.”
Levi drew on his industrial experience to show that the work of Homo faber (man the maker) involves matter itself interpenetrating with life; it is also in “a subtle way a factor in the problem of existence”, as the work of transforming matter is part of what it means to be human. Here is Levi in The Periodic Table explaining his “calling” to be a chemist to a fellow student:
That the nobility of Man, acquired in a hundred centuries of trial and error, lay in making himself the conqueror of matter, and I had enrolled in chemistry because I wanted to remain faithful to that nobility.
The Periodic Table, The Wrench and Other People’s Trades contain many examples of Levi’s and his characters’ adventures in their work. The critical common denominator in all the stories is that the antagonist is always primary or physical matter. Not just in its raw form as in Levi’s examples of industrial chemistry but also systems of matter as in structures which are assemblies of matter (usually steel or iron) that must perform a certain function. Just like inorganic chemical compounds, structures are subject to the indifferent laws of physics—those of structural mechanics known in mechanical engineering as “statics” for rigid structures (cranes or bridges) and the “mechanics of solids” for structures like pressure vessels, distillation columns and tanks.
The Periodic Table
Starting work as an industrial chemist in the 1940s for the first time since graduating, Levi experiences working under the “stern judgments” of matter just to meet the necessity of earning a living. He realises that these encounters are not just about earning a living but mean something significant to his character formation.
In “Nickel” Levi starts to generalise what he learns in industrial chemistry beyond the work itself: Despite some frustrations in enriching the nickel content to a commercially useful level, Levi rejects despair and sees meaning in the struggle of his work. It goes beyond himself and his personal “life lessons”: “We [chemists] are here for this—to make mistakes and to correct ourselves, to stand the blows and hand them out.”
The work of battling with nature is in fact part of our nobility as humans, as it demands the use of our intelligence and will. Doing this work is part of being human—it is not just for chemists.
In the chapter “Iron” of The Periodic Table the struggle against matter takes on a political dimension: Levi recounts the “chemical” adventures when he and his fellow chemistry students take a course in Qualitative Analysis, at the same time as Nazi victories around Europe are increasing and the Fascists in Italy are increasing repression and censorship. Levi relates how the clarity and precise demands of the chemistry course are an antidote against the lies of fascism. He describes the chemical battles of his autobiographical self in thrilling, sporting terms:
Here the relationship with Matter changed, became dialectical; it was fencing, a face-to-face match. Two unequal opponents: on one side, putting the questions, the unfledged, unarmed chemist … on the other side, responding with enigmas, stood Matter.
The nobility of man in making himself the conqueror of matter is also the antidote against fascism, as he continues to tell his slightly bemused friend Sandro:
And finally and fundamentally, an open and honest boy, did he not smell the stench of fascist truths which tainted the sky? Was he not filled with disgust at all the dogmas, all the unproved affirmations, all the imperatives? He did feel it; so then how could he not feel a new dignity and majesty in our study, how could he ignore the fact that the chemistry and physics on which we fed, besides being in themselves nourishments vital in themselves, were the antidote to fascism which he and I were seeking, because they were clear and distinct and verifiable at every step, and not a tissue of lies and emptiness, like the radio and newspapers. [emphasis added]
The stress which the Fascists placed on the Spirit, on the “life-force”, was bogus: without materials, without Matter you cannot win a war, something which it took Mussolini a long time to realise.
From The Periodic Table to The Wrench, Levi moves from the chemist’s direct interaction with raw matter to the rigger’s interaction with systems or assemblies of matter. The Wrench mainly consists of a highly skilled Turinese rigger, Libertine Faussone, recounting his work adventures to a nameless chemist who is an obvious autobiographical representation of Levi himself.
The job of a rigger is to assemble cranes, bridges, towers and derricks. To perform this work a rigger must have an intimate understanding of structures, which means being subject to the laws of structural mechanics (the static and dynamic forces on structures). While Faussone does not work directly with raw matter as Levi did, he still has to do battle with an indifferent medium—the laws of physics as they pertain to the behaviour of structures.
Faussone, the rigger hero of The Wrench, is the complete manifestation of Levi’s “industrial ethic”: he has freedom and happiness in his work, he is continually tested by an indifferent medium; he learns by mistakes; is mistrustful of appearances, generalisations and abstractions that cannot be empirically tested; he is judged (and judges others) by the strict criteria of technical competence. In all of Faussone’s stories the focus is on competence versus incompetence as shown by the performance of a structure he worked on—relative to its design specification: Does it do what it was designed to do, and was it built on time and on budget?
Similar to Levi, Faussone expresses the deep interpenetration into his life of the objects he works with and the problems and processes relating to them (specifications, measurements and so on). He deeply internalises the elements of his work. Quality in the work is his supreme ethical value. It is the source of pride in his work and becomes the source of his self-worth. In the closing paragraph of The Wrench Faussone is commenting on Levi’s decision to leave industrial chemistry to become a full-time writer:
So you really want to shut up shop? … Excuse me for saying so but if I was in your shoes I’d give it some careful thought. I tell you, doing things you can touch with your hands has a real advantage: you can make comparisons and understand how much you’re worth. You make a mistake, correct it, and next time you don’t make it.
In the chapter “Tiresias” the chemist based on Levi starts to tell Faussone about his second profession of writer. By using terms familiar to Faussone he shows precisely where the differences between the two professions (writing and rigger) are located: in how judgments of quality and competence are made and the existence of consequences arising from the work. On quality, Levi writes:
It can also happen that you write some things that really are botched and futile (and this happens often) but you don’t realize it, which is far more possible, because paper is too tolerant a material. You can write any old absurdity on it, and it never complains: it doesn’t act like the beams in mine tunnels that creak when they’re overburdened and are about to cave in. In the job of writing, the instruments, the alarm systems are rudimentary, there isn’t even a trustworthy equivalent of the T square or the plumb line.
And on consequences:
I explained to Faussone that one of the writer’s great privileges is the possibility of remaining imprecise and vague … inventing freely, beyond any rule of caution. After all, on the towers we construct they don’t run any high-tension lines; if our structures fall nobody gets killed, and they don’t have to be wind resistant. In other words we’re irresponsible …
These two quotes contain the main elements that differentiate work in an indifferent medium from working in a wholly subjective environment: the indifference of matter to human effort, the clear feedback provided by instrumentation, the existence of strict rules, and the very real consequences to others of a failure.
Work and Character in 21st Century Industry
I want to see if we can expand Levi’s ideas to professions outside industrial chemistry and rigging—to any technological transformation of matter. This widens the “reach” of Levi’s philosophy to all branches of engineering as well as manufacturing, transport, mining, agriculture—any type of work where matter or systems of matter are transformed. The only criterion is that the laws of nature are still the judge of performance.
While Levi is not proposing a theory of work and character development, it is possible to detect recurring patterns in his examples from which we can induce a relationship between features of work and the ethical and epistemological perspectives of a successful practitioner. The essential element in the formation of Levi’s “industrial ethic’ was the set of demands that arose from working in an indifferent medium. The issue is then to see if the same indifferent media and workplace demands still exist in twenty-first-century work.
The indifferent media are certainly still there—no amount of automation, software or “virtuality” will make the physical elements of matter disappear. But what of our interaction with them? A lot of industrial work today has changed from working with matter itself (as Levi did in his laboratory work) to working with systems of matter and models of those systems.
A well-designed and tested engineering model, as an approximation of reality, can give insights on the system being modelled that turn out to be very useful. This becomes clearer as the complexity of a system increases (meaning that the number of variables that have a significant effect on the output is increasing) and there are also complex interactions between these inputs.
Modern engineering often requires designing and testing on mathematical models of materials and systems, before working on the material itself. Models are used in the design of almost all of the familiar objects that make up modern life: cars, aeroplanes, boats, bridges, freeways and so on are all tested in a mathematical model initially, which often includes a computer simulation model. The predictive results of the model are then compared to what is expected in physical reality.
However, the modelling work of the engineer is still tested and validated by the indifferent medium of physical matter. That is due to the fact that all models used in industry need to include empirical data taken from physical reality—that data that is derived externally from the model. This ensures that the model will sufficiently approximate the relationships between the inputs and outputs of the real systems being modelled.
The purpose of building mathematical models of systems of matter is twofold. First, they help us understand the working or “physics of a process” without having to take apart the process or plant itself. We seek to learn more about the relationships between inputs and outputs and which inputs have the greatest effect on the value of the output and its variability. Second, models allow us to make predictions of how a system will perform at levels which it has never been exposed to.
To ensure that a model can be useful as a representation and predictor of physical reality, it first must go through the processes of calibration and validation. In calibration the values of the main parameters that determine how the model works are compared to what is close to the reality being modelled. The modeller’s skill is needed here to tune the parameters in an iterative fashion. Then the model is given a dry run and validation is performed by comparing the outputs from the dry run to outputs from a physical reality close to what is being modelled. The key factor in validation is that independent data is used—a separate data set to what was used to build the model.
Calibration has the objective of finding the values of the parameters that will produce a valid model. Validation provides an answer to the question: “Do the model’s predictions faithfully represent reality?”
So Levi’s “stern judge” of Matter is still with us, even if we are one step removed via models that still reflect the structure of a real process. While primary or raw matter was Levi’s focus, my extension is to the whole wide range of modern industrial activity—of interacting systems of matter. This includes such activities as automated manufacturing, research, development and manufacture of new automobile engines and alternatives to petrol, design of traffic control systems to reduce congestion in cities, computer-based design and simulation of aircraft, modern methods of oil and gas exploration, to name a few.
The modern engineer still needs to use (as Levi did) a combination of “know what”—abstract scientific understanding—and “know how”—making and seeing connections as part of the modelling process and seeking structure in complex processes. The modern engineer requires skill, judgment based on experience, understanding of theory, and testing by feedback from the process itself.
I have suggested as an antidote to the dangerous post-truth phenomenon an appreciation of the engineering and technological professions—in what they can offer for character development, a practising epistemology and a worldview that demands realism about objective truth, empiricism and a mistrust of appearances. These are the philosophical standpoints that can directly counter post-truth.
We need to be wary of an existence driven by virtuality, as it is saturated in subjectivity. The problem of such an existence has been described most eloquently by the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. When talking about why twentieth-century poetry had such a gloomy and apocalyptic tone, he blamed it on “the progressing subjectivisation that becomes manifest when we are imprisoned in the melancholy of our individual transience. This has led to a separation of the poet from the great human family.”
We can apply Milosz’s insight for poets on the problem of subjectivisation leading to the “imprisonment of individual transience” to anyone saturated by subjectivity in an existence dominated by virtuality, separated from the external world and its demands. While they may seem free from the onerous demands of the physical world and its constraints, they pay a hefty price for this apparent freedom. The benefits of being tested and measured according to objective criteria are totally lost.
I take post-truth to be the social manifestation of imprisonment in subjectivity. Fortunately, the key to release us from its imprisonment—the world of primary matter—is literally in front of us. It offers that unique experience of indifference as a judge of our actions.
While I have focused on the engineering and technical professions I realise that not everyone can or may wish to become an engineer, technician or craftsman. However, the character attributes that I have outlined above can be appreciated by anyone whenever they engage directly with the physical world. Those who take that engagement seriously for what it can offer as a guide for epistemology and ethics, may see a way out of the prison of virtuality and subjectivity.
David Shteinman is the CEO/Managing Director of the Industrial Sciences Group in Sydney—a consulting engineering company specialised in the applications of mathematics and statistics to transport, mining and aerospace. He was also the founding editor and publisher of the Philosopher Magazine. He is writing a book on a philosophical interpretation of modern engineering. He thanks Kellie Tyrell and Professor James Franklin for their comments on an earlier draft of this essay, and especially thanks Mirna Cicioni for her generosity in providing many insights, advice and secondary literature on Primo Levi.
Primo Levi’s Works in English Used in This Essay
- The Periodic Table, tr. Raymond Rosenthal, London, Everyman’s Library, 1985
- The Wrench, tr. William Weaver, London, Abacus, 1987
- The Search for Roots, tr. Peter Forbes, Harmondsworth, Allen Lane, 2001
- Other People’s Trades tr. Raymond Rosenthal, London, Abacus, 1991
- The Voice of Memory. Interviews 1961-87 ed. Marco Belpoliti and Roberts S C Gordon, Cambridge, Polity, 2001
- Box, George “ Statistics as a Catalyst to Learning by Scientific Method” Journal of Quality Technology, Vol.31, pp.16-29
- Crawford, Matthew, Shop Class As Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, New York, Penguin, 2009
- Montgomery, Douglas, Design and Analysis of Experiments, 5th ed, New York, John Wiley and Sons, 2001
- Frankfurt Harry G; On Bullshit, Princeton University Press, 2005
- Kakutani, Michiko; The Death of Truth, William Collins, 2018
- McIntyre, Lee ; Post-Truth, The MIT Press, 2018