Peter Zinkernagel interviewed by N55

Peter Zinkernagel, Danish philosopher, 1921-2003. Books: Doctoral thesis “Omverdensproblemet” 1957 (English version “Conditions for description” 1962), “Virkelighed” 1989, “Tilvante forestillingers magt“ (“The power of customary views”) in 2001.
All the work of Peter Zinkernagel concerns fundamental problems in philosophy. In his doctoral thesis he formulated certain rules for using language, conditions for description, repudiating the classical philosophical problem of the existence of the material world (“how can we know for certain that there is a world which exists independently of human perception?”) After the 60s, Zinkernagel was primarily preoccupied with physics while also formulating the political and ethical consequences of his work on logic.
Based on a conversation recorded in May 1993.

What is it that you have discovered?

Peter Zinkernagel:
What I have in fact discovered is that thinking is far more difficult than anyone has ever imagined. Most of our discussions happen on a level where we repeat and repeat habitual conceptions to each other. But there exists a level so fundamental that it normally does not appear in our conscious mind, where things are not about more or less well founded subjective opinions - here things are simply right or wrong. So far, one has believed that the formal logic of Aristotle, which is the part of this fundamental level that was first formulated, was the only place where one could speak of right and wrong in this way. In formal logic, the presumption is that one is able to deduce right conclusions from certain basic evaluations, premises, and that these conclusions are true as long as they do not contradict themselves.
Thus far, one has believed that formal logic was unconditionally valid, - one can not contradict oneself - but in addition, it was taken for granted that it was the only thing that was unconditionally valid, and the only that was strictly necessary. Philosophy, by concentrating efforts on issues of language, overlooked that there is a necessary relation between person and body, and by questioning the material reality, it overlooked the fact that persons have bodies that exist in the same reality, more precisely in concrete situations. And that every assertion is necessarily about reality. Had it been presumed that the assertions made within formal logic are conditioned by necessary relations between different factors, for example that an assertion only exists through the force of a certain relation between an assertion and asserting it and denying it, and that if one tries both asserting and denying the same assertion, then there is no assertion - if one had seen these relations, one would also have had to assume that other necessary relations existed - since one would have no reason to assume the opposite. But one did not see them; one obviously believed that what logic is, had now been discovered. Logic was formal logic.
My definition of logic is that logic is necessary relations between different factors, and factors are that which exist by the force of those relations. Formal logic is only one example, and by all probability, many exist which we do not know of. The decisive thing about logical relations is that they cannot be reasoned. Nevertheless, they constitute necessary conditions for any description, since they also cannot be denied. The only way to discover these logical relations is by concentrating on that which is constantly taken for granted. But from a traditional philosophical point of view, this is unsubstantiated assertions and tautologies. Still one must presume that any horse trader in Greece knew that he shouldn’t claim that a horse was good and at the same time that it wasn’t if he wanted to convince a customer, and Aristotle only made this knowledge explicit in a formal system. There are necessary relations between assertions and what they are assertions about, between assertions and persons, persons and bodies, bodies and concrete situations. These relations limit and condition our possibilities of description, and if we forget them, we do no longer know what we are talking about. If we remove the relation to the body, we don’ t know what we are talking about when we are talking about persons, and still a body is not the same as a person. And this we can by no means deduce from formal logic.

Logic is something more fundamental than language. Logic is, for example, the circumstance that the ashtray on the table prevents me from sliding my hand over the place where the ashtray is. Material things are first and foremost characterised by the fact that they limit our actions in certain ways. We are used to concentrating on the sensual properties of things - many of our conceptions are connected to the ways in which we sense the world. For all who are not blind, visual impressions play a dominant role. Here, our concepts correspond to formal logic; we cannot imagine that something happens and does not happen, is there and is not. The elementary logical conditions I am directing attention at are often in opposition to the way we experience the world, because we don’t experience the world as composed of relations between different factors which only exist because of these relations, but rather as composed of houses and people, suns and stars. Children learn what I call logical-practical usage of language by using words in certain ways relating to the things they experience through their senses, but at the same time they are not made conscious of the reasons that these words can be used, and the relations that condition their own existence. Nobody is concerned with them. And therefore they are very difficult to grasp. Logical-practical usage of language, which is what is most often used in daily life, in a strange way encloses us in language, often to such a degree that we forget that there are other ways of describing things, for example, by religious or poetic use of language. When children learn to use language, they also learn how to keep from experiencing the world in a non-verbal way, with a sort of comprehensiveness. But as soon as one gets in touch with logical relations, the frames of what we normally refer to as thinking, then it becomes clear that if one tries to deny them, we get pure babble. Then, what we normally understand by language disappears. If one starts talking of persons without bodies, one can say anything, and therefore there is nothing that is worth saying. Furthermore, if one can no longer talk of assertions as something that is made by persons, then what could we possibly understand by assertions? And can you refer to a person which is not in a concrete situation? Descartes’ well-known division of persons into a "thinking thing" and an "extended thing" is really hopeless, but he makes one wonderful remark: "Although people often complain that they are not as rich or skilful as others, they still feel that they are in possession of a healthy ability to reason - the Lord obviously succeeded in distributing that ability evenly". It is a rare thing to hear people complain that they do not have common sense. The decisive, elementary things are completely common for all, the prime minister and the worker, and all other differences that may exist between persons are completely irrelevant in relation to this basic level - it is so basic that everybody, even if they are not conscious about it, uses it when they talk.

One could also say that I have discovered a very fundamental natural law. It is quite serious that not even physicists have discovered what a natural law is - but if one doesn’t accept my definition of logic, it becomes impossible to even say what a natural law is! According to this definition, a natural law is a necessary quantitative relation between different factors, in contrast to the customary definition of logic, where a natural law is an empirical regularity, and thus something that could be different tomorrow. This customary logic offers a very insufficient understanding of what it is we deal with in physics. Presumably, no physicist doubts that the sun rises tomorrow, but they are unable to prove their conviction. If one only accepts formal logic, one gets a serious contradiction between what one theoretically has to accept - that the sun perhaps will not rise tomorrow- and what one of course believes in practicality - that it will rise. That it will rise, one is unable to explain, because one, per definition, has abolished all other necessary relations than those of formal logic. One overlooks the condition for description that our very existence is determined by physical conditions. We were walking on earth also before Newton discovered the law of gravity.

Even after the theory of relativity, physicists experience space and time as containers where the physical bodies exist and where the physical processes are played out. But the decisive things in recent physics imply that space/time act as proper physical quantities in line with mass, energy etc.
Now, afterwards, one can see, if I am right, that if one makes only one necessary assumption, one can directly deduce the special theory of relativity, and it becomes almost obvious what quantum mechanics is. Physically, velocity exists only because of a relation to mass density. [Mass density is the mass in a point: The mass of a body divided by its extension assumes a certain limiting value - the mass density.] But in classical mechanics, the assumption is that we operate with constant mass densities, mass densities that remain unaffected by the velocity of the body. According to the theory of relativity, the velocity of a body cannot exceed the speed of light, which is introduced as a constant, and if the body is still being affected, instead of increased velocity, its mass density will increase.
Classical mechanics operate with constant mass densities, which presuppose absolutely rigid bodies, meaning bodies whose different points cannot be moved independently of each other. Now the point is that there are no absolutely rigid bodies, only bodies with varying degrees of elasticity. This is decisive for the theory of relativity, because in the space/time-description here, mass densities increase with velocity and bodies are therefore shortened in the direction of movement. This deformation is only unambiguous if one looks away from the deformation that is caused by the elasticity of the bodies. In order to avoid this ambiguity in the theory, one must therefore treat almost rigid bodies as if they were absolutely stiff bodies.
This [assumption, that mass densities do not depend on velocity] leads to an inconsistency, since this means that there exists no relation between the mass on the one hand and space/time on the other. And if we say that we by a natural law, understand a necessary quantitative relation between different factors - and by physical quantities we understand quantities that are part of such relations - then space and time and mass are not physical quantities because they are not part of quantitative relations with each other. When constant mass densities lead to the conclusion that there exist no such relation between mass and dynamic quantities on the one hand and space/time/matter on the other, meaning they are independent from velocity, then the simplest way of changing this is to assume that they are depending on velocity. It thereby also becomes clear that space and time are physical quantities and not human forms of perception such as Kant believed them to be.
Now if one begins with the necessary assumption that mass densities are dependent on velocity, meaning that one accepts that there is a relation between mass and dynamic quantities on the one hand and space/time/matter on the other, it becomes clear that space and time are proper physical quantities that form part of necessary quantitative relations with mass and energy. But this is only valid when almost rigid bodies are treated as if they were absolutely rigid bodies. Therefore, classical-relativistic space-time has a limited area of validity, which also shows in the description of the quantum-mechanic systems. The space-time used here is characterised by that we are talking of probability densities, not mass densities, and by that the relation between dynamic and space-time quantities is broken: we can know the position of an electron, but then not its impulse, or its impulse, but then not its position.
Another example is that we can not refer to points and distances independently of each other, because we by points understand something which is characterised by their distance to other points, and distances we understand as distances between points. Points and distances are totally different quantities, but still we cannot refer to either without referring to the other. As soon as one becomes conscious of these relations, one’s understanding of physics becomes far better. At the same time, physics is far more difficult than we believe - the reason why it is experienced as fairly simple is again habitual thinking, and all the possibilities we look away from. It is far from simple. The decisive thing is that we get, if I am right, a better physics. And that presumably becomes of practical importance. I can point at experiments that would come up with other results than one normally counts on. There are excellent criteria for deciding that one theory is better than the other, and that satisfies my assertions.
One of the necessary relations exists between persons and rights. If one says that persons, or certain persons, ought not to have rights, one signs away the use of the word ought. It has been assumed, again in formal logic, that it is impossible to deduct an ought to-sentence from a that-sentence - that it is impossible to conclude from the statement that something is, to the claim that it ought to be different. I mean quite literally that all we know about politics is that politics ought to respect the rights of persons. Unless one agrees upon the normative foundation of the political efforts, such as that politics ought to respect the rights of persons, political discussions become meaningless. If people disagree about what to emphasize, it becomes impossible to talk of preferring one alternative to another. Norms that are regarded as given is the precondition of any political discussion. Any discussion of values presupposes common norms, and by norms we must understand something that we cannot disagree about without having to redefine what norms are. Conditions of power have for tens of thousands of years been closely connected with the idea of growth as an absolute good. It was absolutely good to have more of what was good. Now we are in a radically different situation, but the European Union (EU) and prevailing economical thinking still are based upon these hopelessly outdated values. We can by no means afford to think in that way any longer. The debate around the EU in Denmark has to a far too high extent been characterised by details, advantages and disadvantages concerning a closer cooperation. Nobody is capable of foreseeing the advantages of a political and economical union. The pro-EU campaigners claim that they are in favor of increased cooperation, and thereby they tone down the fact that what we are really talking about is an increased power concentration. As long as one keeps talking of the details, then of course people get confused. And what should be discussed is one thing and only one thing: Should we concentrate power further? This aspect is subdued and is blurred together with a lot of other things which are clear to no one. Power is characterised by always being in opposition to other powers. And according to all our experiences: it renders us powerless.
If we accept that the only thing we know about politics is that it should respect the rights of persons and that we should try to organise the smallest concentrations of power possible, no one can predict the possibilities that might unfold, since we thereby would change the foundations of our evaluations, again leading to a change in what is conceived as politically possible. The same instance as it becomes clear to the population that power must be limited, the options for organization and collaboration will also automatically change.
It can be argued that this is remote and unrealistic idealism - there are no other arguments - but what are today regarded as political realities are things that are based on other ideals, such as that power is the real reality, we are all subjugated to mechanisms of power, this is the way we are; and thereby one overlooks the fact that a change in the basic valuations is the important thing. All I am doing is directing attention at something that everybody is capable of understanding: the difference between respecting power, and the opposite. You don’t have to be a professor to be able to see that. If everybody realizes this, nobody knows what will happen, because we have no precedents. We would know what the task was about - to reduce concentrations of power as much as possible - and no one would know how. Thus far all we have known has been based on other concepts, for example, that we knew what was politically possible - that is what is understood by political realities - and it is precisely those that are so complex and impossible to grasp. Hopefully, by making these totally banal circumstances explicit, we can increase consciousness about necessary norms for politics and become able to concentrate on the real task - to realize these norms. It is decisive. If we abolish reality and personal morals, we abolish ourselves.
Our daily lives are quite literally decided by international corporations. Via the commercials and via consumerism, our lives are decided by the struggle between different forms of power, in spite of the seeming freedom we live with. Theoretically, it is possible to step outside of society, but it poses very serious demands on the individual. The choices of the individual in a certain sense do not exist, he or she nearly has to take part in the attempt to acquire as many consumer goods as possible, that is the way things work. This is a very subtle form of power, you don’t even have to openly kill someone; you can just let the corporations do the fighting.

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