Dialogue: Refining Responses, Cycle 1

Cycle 1: Having read all of the thought pieces, each member of the class will write a 250-300 word response (please address the idea, not the person posting) that explicitly identifies, and expands on, a central theme from any one, or any combination of, the thought pieces. As necessary, given your approach, please cite sources.

Amanda K Phillips

What are the political consequences of a science that lacks a rigorous philosophy? Is a world with an insecure science one we wish to inhabit? From discussions of large scientific endeavors and institutions (Burnett and Stettler Kleine) to the problem of demarcation (Patrick) to a defense of realism (Lua), each response suggests there is something quite significant at stake in attempts to shore up scientific endeavors against potential criticism. One tension that emerges out of this is what can broadly be understood as the public orientation of science. Should a strong science serve the ‘public’ or does science serve itself. While the position is not so clear-cut, we must also tangle with competing interests, funding models, or private sponsorship, it might be helpful to begin to ask what might a philosophy of science look like if (to paraphrase Burnett) “thinkers communicated in practical terms the effects of technology on society to society itself”. As Stettler Kline observes, this was the intervention of STS practitioners when they worked to understand the role social life and behavior within the seemingly purified realm of scientific inquiry.

But, what I am suggesting pushes beyond an STS intervention. We have often remarked in this course is that when philosophers attempt to map science on to the world or nature (Lua) problems of reason or logic seem to follow. Could perhaps we do away with this problem by a shift of orientation by trying to understand the ethical or moral obligations science may or may not have in a society? Indeed, this is a utopic fantasy of mine, but if we take the claims of philosophers to be true, we perhaps need to find another mechanism for justifying its continuance as a major recipient of public funding and investment. If science has made ‘us’ better, perhaps one way out of the many quagmires or reference, law, or falsifiability is to acknowledge that social, political, and individual efforts matter to an outcome. One could imagine a philosophy of science that laid these claims to bare, and worked towards understanding values and difference as essential to articulating scientific claims and research agendas.

Joshua Earle

Contrary to what might be inferred by my questions during our first student-led discussion, I happen to be an ardent realist. Kian is correct, I believe, in stating that reality can be inferred from the fact that science works. We can consistently produce widgets and phenomena, get to Mars and drive around, and vinegar and baking soda always makes a foamy mess. If reality were not there, what then could ever be said about the world? We could draw no conclusions, we could make no predictions, and all the regularity we perceive would be a most magnificent coincidence. And yet, like Kian also says, whether or not theories are true and map on to the world is a completely separate question. I think this hews well onto my own thoughts necessitating an active, reflexive, conscious move to separate when we’re talking about epistemology and ontology. The two become conflated and confounded far too easily.

Finding a way to reconcile this realism with the more perspectivalist, constructivist, and complexifying feminist epistemologies and theories has been difficult for me. STS seems to have conflicting desires when it comes to the world: one in which we explode dimensionality and bring in the greatest number of contingent and entangled factors (Haraway, Foucault to some extent), and one where we simplify our view of interactions, and erase as much dimensionality as possible to get to the essential, important issues (Latour and many of our readings). With our simplification, we run into the very same difficulties that philosophers of science have, that of simple, elegant, essential law-like ideas not mapping well onto the world. And yet, with our complexification, where does the real ever come into play, and how do we make it work in practice?

We may never be able to get to a place where we can say that our knowledge maps perfectly onto reality, and perhaps that is an impossible and foolish task, but we can infer from the regularity of our observations and the fact that shit works as fairly good evidence that we’re on to something with our ideas. Requiring 100% proof-positive I think is a fool’s errand that leads us in circles (see: philosophers asking the same questions for the last 3000 years). However, a move towards Agential Realism (Barad, 2004) might give us a pragmatic workaround.

Barad, Karen. 2004. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University Press.

Roger Burnett
Reading the first thought pieces, I am struck by the fact that the only philosophy of technology that is addressed is Heidegger. It seems to me that what is termed philosophy of technology is more like descriptions of technologies followed by discussions of complex social issues that emerge, such as ethics, the role of politics in technological discussions and even predictive efforts as we have seen in the discussions of transhumanism. However, Heidegger deals with abstractions to the point of obscurity; if the word “science” is inserted where he writes “technology”, his writing seems more like a philosophy of science. Heidegger’s use of the term poiesis seems to be very aligned with the quest for truth that we see in the philosophy of science reading. So an unstated common theme might be to question whether philosophy of technology is really philosophy in the larger sense.

Another common theme in our initial thought pieces seems to deal with the efforts of philosophers of science (and Heidegger) to oversimplify in an effort to define truth. Science, pseudoscience, demarcation and realism are examples of terms that emerge as the issues of scientific discovery in the past few centuries are studied. It seems that after Newton and the emergence of differential calculus, the language of scientists and philosophers of science began to diverge, so language to the philosopher becomes very important. I sense a frustration with quest for simplicity and the entangled language games that emerge in this quest. Accepting that things are not so simple would do wonders for the credibility of the philosophy of science.

A final theme in our thought pieces that I’d like to mention is the role of philosophers of science and technology in the shaping of the modern world. The real connection to actual science and technology is questioned. Clearly Science and Technology in Society as a discipline is much more than philosophy.

I have missed the mark of identifying and addressing a single common theme, but came up with common themes that seemed to emerge. However, I need help coming to a single theme, so look forward to reading other refining responses and then will address one theme in cycle 2.

Annie's Response for Cycle 1
There were many thoughtful responses from last week’s assignment. One of the first to stand out in the readings was regarding poiesis. Poiesis is described as the bringing forth of something that has not existed prior, yet has a possible impact on the future (Phillips). I think that this statement says a lot in regards to what the philosophy of science and technology (and perhaps more in regards to technology) attempts to bring to its audience’s attention. Further, Burnett brought forth an interesting concept that connects with this statement. When changes are revealed, instead of more people becoming concerned, less people have an idea of the implications. Is this a part of what Heidegger means when he discusses the two dangers within enframing, destining, and the revealing? (19) Heidegger believes that a real danger and threat of the revealing is when the concealed part of technology is revealed, but man displays no concern toward it. Heidegger goes further into his analysis of technology and the ideas of enframing, reserve, and so forth. However, it was after reading the thought pieces that that part of Heidegger’s reading came to light. Reflecting on some of the readings and discussions concerning technology over the past few weeks, I sense that developers of technology approach technology from the idea of “Look what I created!” Yet, never further that curiosity to the question and concern of “What have I done?” Are technology innovators shortsighted? And if so, is this purposeful or just part of their make-up? And are the users of technology any better? Is our concern to the technology that is revealed to us any more responsible than the developers?

Heidegger, Martin. “Question Concerning Technology.” Readings in the Philosophy of Technology, edited by David Kaplan, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009, 9-24.

Kian Lua's Response:

I think the tendency and desire for philosophers to simplify concepts and produce “simple, elegant, pure statements that are true about the world” (Earle) could just be something natural and logical in the epistemic process of “getting to the bottom” of an issue. Of course, simple and elegant statements need not be always truth statements, but perhaps philosophers do not always start with the end goal of finding the “truth”. Perhaps their curiosity and desire to understand what lies behind a certain theory is what drives them to delve deeper and further into the theory. This would naturally lead them to break-down and dissect a complicated theory into its constituent and smaller parts, to analyse ‘smaller’ concepts that are the subset a larger and more complicated theory. It would be illogical to think that complex concepts and theories can simply be reduced to simple statements, but the ‘small’ and constituent concepts are likely to be explainable in simpler terms or syntax. The effort to analyse and understand smaller concepts in their essence may ultimately be useful in building-up explanations for larger and more complicated theories.

I will use the analogy in doing mathematics or physics to explain my point above, using the formula E = γmc^2 , where γ = 1/√(1-v^2/c^2 ), which essentially states that energy and mass are different forms of the same thing. Considered by many to be simple and “elegant”, the formula itself is derived from even rudimentary formulae (usually treated as a ‘given’), and is used in the derivation of other more complex formulae in atomic and nuclear physics. Could theories in philosophy emulate and work as well as mathematics in coming up with “simple and elegant truths”? I do not know the answer to that. I am not well-versed in the issues Earle has mentioned, hence I might not be adding anything important to this discussion. I just wanted to put this thought of mine into words.

Marie's Response 1
To Whom Does it Matter if Science "Works?"

Why does it matter if science “works?” Many students in our class have observed that defining induction, realism, law, and objectivity (a handful of the core topics in this course) rely on whether or not science is a real thing to observe versus a way of knowing (Earle). To believe that science is a tangible thing that is ever-present and can be consistently observed is to afford the believer a certain level of simplification (Lua). This is not a popular move in STS, but there are many that hold stakes in scientific realism’s claims being more or less representative of how we gain knowledge about the world around us. There is an intense practicality in asking questions about what it means for science to “work.”

The thought pieces brought up these very same practical issues. Scientific demarcation and falsifiability is still a live (but revised) debate (Patrick). It matters what counts as science so that the proper institutions can be financed to best support scientific inquiry. If our understanding of science is more of an epistemological one, we need a different standard for judging “what is science” beyond experts claiming that a particular kind of inquiry is legitimate. Now, relying solely on expert opinion guiding what “counts” as science is the beginning of a dangerous cycle of affirmation. If who has been dubbed “expert” begin to be the gatekeepers of what our science is, their metrics of qualifications begin predicting what our science ought to be. We must strike some kind of productive compromise between those that believe that science is an ontological inquiry versus those that see science as a social line of questioning that is set by those in power, only to be reified and confirmed by preexisting and contingent scenarios.

Ezra Awumey Response One

Anti-realists argue that a theory should never be accepted as being universally true. They cite the fact that most theories are either discarded or refined over time. Even theories that play a pivotal role in our understandings of natural phenomena have been modified or extended, as is the case with Newtonian physics. While they are useful they are incapable of accounting for some of the phenomena they wish to describe, this causes anti-realists to argue that they aren’t objectively true. It should be noted that Anti-realists don’t believe that natural phenomena are inexistent, rather that our means of explaining the world (theories) are incapable of accurately defining real objects and their properties.

Realists have a tendency of looking at how things in the world correspond or approximate the truth. To say the least, this has been controversial in the philosophy of science. For the realist, if we are rationally warranted in believing in a theory, we are also rationally warranted in believing in the theoretical entities that it assumes. Realists believe that the practice of science is a process of discovery, whereas anti-realists believe that it is merely a tool for understanding the world as to achieve certain goals. Current research being done at CERN may be decisive in this debate, as scientists have long theorized the existence of black holes given certain conditions. Should we discover that black holes do exist and can be created under certain conditions, this would go a long way in supporting realism and the notion that our scientific discoveries and theories can/do approximate the truth.

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