A note on theory -- B. C Han
A note on theory: from Byung Chul Han, The Agony of Eros, pp. 50-51.
Not long ago, Chris Anderson – the Editor-in-Chief of Wired—published a provocative article entitled “The End of Theory.” In it, he claimed that the inconceivably large volumes of data now available have made theoretical models entirely superfluous: “Today companies like Google, which have grown up in an era of massively abundant data, don’t have to settle for wrong models. Indeed, they don’t have to settle for models at all.” Instead, they don’t have analyze data for patterns of affinity or dependency. The hypothetical models of theory are to be replaced with the direct comparison of data Correlation is more important than causality:
“Out with every theory of human behavior, from linguistics to sociology. Forget taxonomy, ontology, and psychology. Who knows who people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, they numbers speak for themselves.”1.
Anderson’s thesis rests on a weak and simplistic conception of theory. Theory offers more than a model of a hypothesis to be proven or disproven by means of experimentation. Strong theories such as Plato’s doctrine of Ideas or Hegel’s phenomenology of Spirit are not models that could be replaced by data analysis. They are founded on thinking in the emphatic sense. Theory represents an essential decision that causes the world to appear wholly different—in a wholly different light. Theory is a primary, primordial decision, which determines what counts and what does not—what is or should be, and what does not matter. As highly selective narration, it cuts a clearing of differentiation through untrodden terrain.
There is no such thing as data-driven thinking. Only calculation is data driven. The negativity of the incalculable is inscribed in thinking. As such, it is prior and superordinate to “data,” which means “things given.” Indeed, for thought, negativity is preexisting and prescribed. The theory underlying thinking is a precept, guide, and parameter, It transcends the positivity of given facts and makes them suddenly appear in a new light. This is not romanticism, but the logic of thinking itself, and it has been from the very beginning. Today the volume of data and information, proliferating without end, is pulling science away from thought on a massive scale. Information is inherently positive. Data-based, positive science (“Google science”), which amounts to merely balancing out and comparing data, is putting an end to theory of the emphatic sort. It is additive or detective—not narrative or hermeneutic. No narrative tension animates it. As such, it falls apart into mere information. In view of the pullulating mass of information and data, theories are now more necessary than ever. Theories keep things from running together and sprawling. That is, they reduce entropy. Theory clarifies the world before it elucidates it. Consider that theories and ceremonies (i.e. rituals) share an origin. They confer form on the world. They shape the course of things, framing them so that they do not overflow. In contrast, today’s mass of information is exercising a deformative effect.
Massive information massively heightens the entropy of the world; it raises the level of noise. Thinking demands calm. Thinking is an expedition into quietness. The crisis in theory corresponds to a crisis in literature and art. Michel Butor, the representative of the nouveau roman in France, sees it as a spiritual crisis: “We’re not just living in an economic crisis, we’re also living in a literary crisis. European literature is threatened. What we’re now experiencing in Europe is a crisis of the spirit.” When asked how one may recognize as much, Butor responds:
“For the last ten or twenty years, almost nothing has been happening in literature. There’s a tide of publications, but an intellectual standstill. The reason is a crisis of communication. The new means of communication are remarkable, but they cause tremendous noise.”
Rampant, massive information—an excess of positivity—makes a racket. Today’s society of transparency and information has an extremely high noise level. But without negativity only the Same exists. Spirit—which originally meant unrest—owes its spiritedness, its animacy, to negativity.
Chris Anderson, “The end of theory,” Wired, July 16, 2008. The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete | WIRED
“Learning to use a "computer" of this scale may be challenging. But the opportunity is great: The new availability of huge amounts of data, along with the statistical tools to crunch these numbers, offers a whole new way of understanding the world. Correlation supersedes causation, and science can advance even without coherent models, unified theories, or really any mechanistic explanation at all.
There's no reason to cling to our old ways. It's time to ask: What can science learn from Google?”
Chris Anderson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the editor in chief of Wired.