Dialogue: Thought Piece

Each class member will post a 500 to 700 word (no longer) thought piece on a topic of interest raised in class — through the readings, discussions, question forums, and/and thought questions. As necessary, given your approach, please cite sources.

Please make sure to identify yourself at the beginning of your entry.


Amanda Phillips - Thought Piece

When writing my preliminary exams earlier this semester I was concurrently struggling through Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology. Reading Heidegger closely required paying attention to words, specifically their historically situated meanings. Poiesis, a term that is often used throughout the essay became one of the keywords I attempted to define. At the time I wrote, “Poiesis… involves a transformation, an emergence and separation from its creators body. Poiesis…is also a way of revealing, of announcing its new and novel presence into the world. For Heidegger, bringing forth is also a way of entering into “the realm of revealing of truth””(5). For Heidegger, poiesis is process lost in the world of contemporary technologies. Instead modern technological advances challenge nature, transforming matter into different states and reordering the world (6). Had I not been writing my prelims at this time, I might not have dwelled on this term much. But as it turned out I encountered the term yet again when reading Michael Warner’s ‘Publics and Counterpublics’. There he writes, “Counterpublics are spaces of circulation in which it is hoped that the poiesis of scene making will be transformative, not replicative merely” (Warner 122). Warner is writing from a political philosophy perspective in this case, discussing how mediated groups of people come to form and work to bring forth new meanings, representations, and claims to citizenship within the public sphere. What draws me to Warner’s phrasing is his distinction between transformative and replicative, implying perhaps that poiesis could be either.

Since reading these two pieces, I have dwelled upon this distinction. While poiesis always brings forth something that has not existed prior, does novelty or innovation impact its status? Specifically I am concerned with the political potentiality of bring forth and how that might impact how we plan for or conceptualize the future and the technologies we place into it. Now, it is important to emphasize that Heidegger understands technologies as enframing, and thus transformative of humans, nature, and the essence of both. But, his conclusions of this essay don’t dwell on this point. Rather he uses his conception of the essence of technology to suggest a way of understanding and critiquing technological artifacts. He writes,

“Because the essence of technology is nothing technological, essential reflection upon technology and decisive confrontation with it must happen in a realm that is, on the one hand, akin to the essence of technology and, on the other, fundamentally different from it” (19).

For Heidegger, art stands as the polar opposite of technology, and helps us see through a technological veil– question, pull apart, be less mystified by its novel capacities. This position asks us to thoughtfully consider the miniscule of technology. To look at the labor of its parts, the artistry through which it was crafted, rather than the end product. Heiddeger suggests a technique for analysis – but what does this analysis tell us about technologies themselves. How do we assess poiesis? This question brings me back to the earlier distinction between transformative or replicative within the process of poiesis. If poiesis involves the bringing forth of something new into the world, doesn’t it matter how and it in what ways it manages to reorder or make change in the world? Simply, the question I want to bring to the class in this dialogue is how do we develop a critique of technology without shutting down new or emergent possibilities? What does this language look like and how might it impact discussions of innovation or novel technologies?

Heidegger, Martin. “The Question Concerning Technology.” Technology and Values: Essential Readings. Ed. Craig Hanks. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. 1–23. PDF.

Warner, Michael, 2002. Publics and Counter Publics. New York, NY: Zone Books.

Roger B thought piece
Science and technology is profoundly shaping the human experience and it seems the rate of influence is growing exponentially. In the face of this fact, it is alarming that fewer and fewer members of humanity seem to have a grasp of the larger implications of the change that they are experiencing. All seem to be in the frame of Jonas’ “former ethics” in which the here and now prevail. Predictive ethics is a concept unknown to but a few students of the philosophy of science and technology. Ironically, recent technology advances have swamped humans in modern civilizations with orders of magnitude more information that each could possibly process so the art of reflective thinking is rapidly disappearing. Information is becoming solidly confused with knowledge. While much of humanity plays in this technology enabled info/entertainment pool, parts of humankind are starving, others are seeking to eliminate fellow humans in the name of various causes and our many species of our fellow animal inhabitants of this Earth are going extinct because of human activity. The inequities seem out of control and there seems to be no means to grasp the situation even if members of the human race cared to try. It is time for a new paradigm in the field of science and technology philosophy.
Philosophers in the field need to transcend the role of observer and describer of science and technology to being active shapers of the fields. In the ancient past humanity’s philosophers and scientists were one and the same. The large minds worked together to understand nature and its workings. Scientific breakthroughs were presented as philosophy. Humanity accepted the output of its great thinkers and progressed. As science was applied to the problems of humanity the distinct field of technology emerged. Sadly, recent history has seen the demands of warfare drive much of science and technology; the philosophy of that endeavor was clear. The atomic bomb is a perfect recent example of a society driven to dominate by means of science and technology. Our best physicists embraced the notion that physics had become “big science” and flocked to siren call of big funds in the quest for improved nuclear weaponry. The profound, but nearly mindless, shaping of society by science and technology that we are seeing cries out for direct involvement of the philosophers of science and technology.
Men and women of reflection and big thoughts usually shun the limelight and often work in a closed world among themselves. The Academy prides itself on admitting the best thinkers and then cloistering them from the pushing and shoving of the real world. I submit that must change. We need these thinkers to help communicate in practical terms the effects of technology on society to society itself. The ethics of science and technology needs to become predictive. While the profit motive serves business well in the short term, it does an awful job of serving humanity well in the long term. It is time for some philosophical, reflective and long term thinking to enter the fray.

Further editions to this piece will exam how the big idea of fully engaging philosophers in the daily discourse of human life could be accomplished. The thinking was inspired by Stansfield Turner (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stansfield_Turner) who gave a talk to a dinner at JHUAPL regarding the importance of eliminating the need for nuclear weapons. It was also inspired by Jonas “Technology and Responsibility”.


Annie Y. Patrick's Thought Piece

Prior to attending this class, I had never studied philosophy in a classroom setting or any setting for that matter. This is not because I had no desire to study philosophy, quite the opposite, I have always wanted to take a formal class in philosophy. It’s just that for most of my academic career, I have not been able to fit philosophy into my schedule…until now.
The philosophy of science has lead me to question…a lot, almost everything that I once took to be true by “science” or simply a scientific fact. For example, until this point, I had not consider the line of demarcation that separates science and pseudo-science. Having studied psychology, here was a philosopher that invited me to question the likes of Freud by the tools of falsifiability, refutability, or testability (Popper, 7). Which has lead me to ask the questions: Are philosophers the protectors of science? I put for that question because a stream of thought that is prevalent within the philosophy of science is objectively defining and separating the real science from the science imposters. There is ‘real science and there is metaphysics or “pseudo-science.” For an outsider to the philosophy of science, I was unaware of the effort put forth to define science from pseudo-science, or as Popper defines it, “the problem of demarcation (9).”

For me, this question and the difference was introduced in Karl Popper’s Science: Conjectures and Refutations. Popper is quick to point out that there already appears to be criteria to separate science from pseudo-science. That criteria is the empirical method. For what I have known to be true, the empirical method is the tried and true method of scientific inquiry. There is no questioning its relevance to scientific knowledge. However, Popper wished to delve further into this. For he states early on in his reading that “science often errs, and that pseudo-science may happen to stumble on the truth.” (3) Which puts forth a good question of where exactly is Popper going with this argument. Supporters of Marx, Freud, and Adler found strength in that their theories could be explained and applied seamless into any context and confirmed by almost any observation. In recognizing this, one could believe that this is what makes these theories strong, this flexibility to be applied to all. However, is this really a strength? For if a theory can be applied in countless contexts and observations, at what point does the theory cross the line into triviality? If there is no limit to how a theory can be interpreted by observation or context, then what is to stop that theory from crossing the line into a place of hilarity, manipulation, or an outright loss of credibility?

Popper developed seven statements to address these all-observation encompassing theories which he generalized by stating that “the criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability.” (7) Is Popper proposing this as a safeguard of what should or should not be included in the realm of science? In explaining how some theories are moving targets, Popper’s writing and proposal should not be ignored, he puts forth a good argument. If one seeks long enough for confirmation, they will find it, doesn’t mean that it is correct. And what of upholding false theories by an auxiliary assumption? Does this do more damage than good for the overall health of science? In reading Poppers, I stand that the philosophers of science stand to be the protectors of science. On further thought, perhaps, “protectors” is not the right word, perhaps the gatekeepers???

Popper, Karl. "Science: Conjectures and Refutations." Philosophy of Science: The Central Issues, edited by Martin Curd, J.A. Cover, and Christopher Pincock, W.W. Norton & Co, 2013, 3-10



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Kian Lua's Thought Piece:

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Despite criticisms from anti-realists regarding scientific realism, I still think the realists’ arguments hold well, and I am not much swayed in my belief that there exists a world that is objective and operates in ways independent of what humans think, that there is something “out there” waiting to be discovered, and that yet-to-be observed scientific phenomena do exist. Take for instance physicists’ and mathematicians’ belief in the existence of black holes. Black holes are not entities that can be directly observed with the naked eye, but mathematicians and physicists adamantly believe these entities exist. Using abundant indirect evidence gathered from various astroparticle detectors and increasingly powerful telescopes around the world, physicists are seeing “holes” or certain areas within galaxies that behave in ways they predict black holes would behave. The phenomena that physicists have been observing, whether or not they are what physicists think they are, has always been “out there”, independent of human perception and mental understanding.

Realists argue that reality cannot be based merely on human mental representation, hence in adhering to realism, it is essential to do away with anthropocentric ways of thinking about the world. To me this argument makes sense. The existence of natural phenomena is independent of human mind and perception.

Whether certain scientific theories are “true” and map on to the real world well enough is a different matter altogether. The reasons some accepted theories were later on rejected is because they did not map onto the world well enough. To realists, theories that map onto the world are, as Laudan mentions, “typically approximately true,” and these theories have the potential to be refined to be even more approximately true. If a certain theory is unable to map onto the world accurately enough, it will be abandoned sooner or later, and other theories that are closer to the approximate truths should eventually replace the old theory.

How can the “approximate” truthfulness or accurateness or a theory be measured? In my view, a good way these qualities can be measured is by measuring the success of humans in replicating, controlling, observing or “working with” the natural phenomena a theory is supposed to be explaining. It takes time and effort to understand what refers and what does not, due to the slow accumulation of observations and the piecemeal testing of hypotheses.

It can be said that the goal of scientists generally is to seek theories that refer as much as they can to real entities or phenomena. One must acknowledge that scientists’ commitment to realism is what motivates and drives them to relentlessly and tenaciously pursue science and to try to explain universal phenomena in their “truest” form or sense. I am not dismissing criticisms to realism, and I realize scientific realism is indeed a complex position to argue for. I am interested in knowing more about how presently realists retort to criticisms regarding their position.

Reference:

Laudan, Larry. "A Confutation of Convergent Realism." Philosophy of Science: The Central Issues, edited by Martin Curd, J.A. Cover, and Christopher Pincock, W.W. Norton & Co, 2013, 1108-1128


Joshua Earle Thought Piece

Behind our philosophy (of science) readings generally has been the problem of whether or not one is speaking of a thing (ontology) or of our knowledge/understanding (epistemology), and how to discern between the two and how to get from one to the other. This problem underlies the discussions about objectivity (how we determine the real properties of a thing), realism (i.e., whether or not a ontological reality can be said to exist), the problem of induction (how we get from things or observations to generalizations or predictions), of Laws (how we can tell whether those generalizations are reliable). This difficulty, combined with philosophers' desire for simple, elegant, pure statements that are true about the world put them in a sticky position.

I doubt I would be able to make any headway on the particular problem there, and certainly not in the 600-ish words here. However, the way they got themselves into this position of thinking themselves into these impossible boxes may be a thing that can be investigated. This was an issue I have brought up tangentially throughout the class, but most explicitly in our last class in the discussion on Natural Law. I wonder how the desire to simplify became so entrenched in philosophy. How did it become the goal to be able to describe the world in the fewest possible words/concepts? Why should truth be simple? Why should we expect that the hypercomplex machinations of nature (much less human nature and culture) would be perfectly described by a simple set of statements? The more explicit we try to define a thing, the slipperier it becomes. It seems to me that this gold standard is obviously self-defeating.

It seems to me that this definitional problem is one of the reasons that philosophers as early as Plato theorized definitional paradigms separate from the world that we can see. This puts the onus of definition on God, or Forms, or some external entity, removing the issue from human responsibility. This way the ultimate explanation could be simple and elegant, just separate from human ken. Much of this problem comes from our use of a representational language to describe concepts and things… thus definitions become representations of representations, and thus very slippery. Hence the move for analytic philosophers to move towards a more mathematics-like symbolic logic, and the assumption that those symbols would not be as fraught with social meaning. Unfortunately, as long as we describe the symbols with our normal language, as we must, that problem persists, and arguably grows greater due to the additional level of abstraction or representation.

While I hate going full-on postmodern with the claim that language determines reality, it does shape how we view the world and is contingent on cultural norms and shifting definitions. This seems to be a fundamental problem for philosophers of science. How one gets out of this conundrum seems simple, if not easy, and is something that we have talked about a lot in class: take history and other cultural factor into account, look at actual practice, and learn how to deal with uncertainty, probability, and unpredictability in these complex and emergent systems. Kuhn, as we have spoken of, began this move, and STS to an extent has taken it up, but I think the rigidity with which philosophers of science have stuck to their desire for simplicity and elegance in the face of a field which more and more values complexity and messiness is one of the reasons that the philosophy of science has lost cache in STS. One wonders what might motivate philosophers of science to undertake such a shift and return to a position of more relevance.

Ayer, A.J. 2012. What is a Law of Nature? Philosophy of Science: The Central Issues. 2nd edition. W. W. Norton. P 816-832. ISBN-13: 978-0393919035.

Goodman, Nelson. 2012. The New Riddle of Induction. Philosophy of Science: The Central Issues. 2nd edition. W. W. Norton. P 451-456. ISBN-13: 978-0393919035.

Kuhn, Thomas. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press.

Laudan, Larry. 2012 A Confutation of Convergent Realism. Philosophy of Science: The Central Issues. 2nd edition. W. W. Norton. P 1108-1128. ISBN-13: 978-0393919035.

Longino, Helen. 2012. Values and Objectivity. Philosophy of Science: The Central Issues. 2nd edition. W. W. Norton. p 144-164. ISBN-13: 978-0393919035.

Ezra Awumey’s Thought Piece

A major topic in the Philosophy of Science is whether or not we are rationally warranted in picking one theory or another. Scientific anti-
realists argue that there is no rational basis on which to pick a theory over its rival. A popular example is the Phlogiston/Oxidation debate. It was once believed that objects released “phlogiston,” when they burned. This accounted for smoke and other events consistent with observations of burning objects. However, it was later determined that the weight of objects increases when burning. This finding was incompatible with the theory of Phlogiston and as a result, a new theory of oxidation (that could account for the weight increase) was accepted. Although it must be noted that both of these theories were equally supported by evidence, until the new evidence became irreconcilable with the Theory of Phlogiston. Even today it is possible, (although very unlikely) that even more evidence could show that oxidation theory is also lacking in its explanatory power. In which case, we may adopt yet another theory, or even revisit Phlogiston theory. [202]

Underdetermination is a thesis arguing that for any scientifically based theory, there exists a rival theory that is equally supported by the evidence and can be logically maintained should new evidence arise. Specifically, if we cannot determine that a theory is irreconcilable with a body of evidence, then there is no epistemic basis on which to discredit it as a viable scientific theory. This can also mean “we should never accept any theory as objectively true no matter how well it agrees with the available evidence."[288]

Earlier in the class we discussed demarcation or ways in philosophers distinguish science and scientific theories from pseudoscientific or non-scientific theories. Underdetermination seems to pose a problem for philosophers such as Karl Popper who claim that theories can be compared and chosen (demarcated) on the basis of criteria such as falsifiability. It isn’t apparent that we can demarcate as easily as we might have hoped if a body of evidence can equally support different scientific theories. Another problem exists in that theories are largely dependent on how well they agree with the evidence. If evidence is subject to change, how certain can we be about the accuracy of our theories? At one point in human history, Phlogiston was likely seen as a cutting edge scientific theory. It seems at least possible that today, we are equally mistaken in many of our theories.

I’d argue that the theoretical virtues of logical consistency, observation, predictability, comprehensiveness and simplicity ensure that no two theories are actually equally supported by a shared body of evidence. So essentially, no theory has a rival theory that we are also rationally warranted in accepting. Some theories are undoubtedly better than others because they maintain a consistent logical framework and enable us to make observe and make predictions. For example, the Ptolemaic model of the universe was unable to account for retrograde motion (elliptical orbits) and as a result, its adherents had to add epicycles to account for these phenomena. As more observations were made, the Ptolemaic model had to revise itself and was unable to account for new findings. After a while, the model became complicated that it was eventually rendered useless, in comparison to the Copernican model. The Copernican model could account for the motion of celestial bodies, without relying on epicycles. It also enabled astronomers to make accurate predictions about what they might see at any given time. [202-205] It was simpler, more comprehensive, more logically consistent and led to more accurate predictions. To say that the movement of celestial bodies supports both theories and that there is no rational basis on which to pick one over the other seems very wrong, especially in light of the aforementioned criteria. I argue that these criteria, which are use in numerous disciplines, are a rational basis for theory choice.

Commentary. Philosophy of Science: The Central Issues. 2nd edition. W. W. Norton. p 202-205

Laudan, Larry. Demystifying Underdetermination. Philosophy of Science: The Central Issues. 2nd edition. W. W. Norton. P 288-292

Marie Stettler Kleine
Commensurable questioning at a tech-obsessed university?

Throughout this course, the ability to vigorously and aggressively make philosophical moves to preserve a space to question science at its core (without any real practical grounding) has got me puzzled. I don’t think philosophers of science have simply been holding the wool over the academy’s eyes, secretly questioning science at every turn while still being able to work within a world that seems to hold science up as the most systemic knowledge producer of our time; honestly, I think that its just because very few people outside of philosophy of science take notice. But, I think it is interesting how philosophers of science have preserved and justified their work, especially in settings that are so clearly driven by technological “progress.”

With a tagline like “Invent the Future,” Virginia Tech obviously has a clear devotion to technological inquiry. As a university-wide initiative, very little can be done to question technology’s impending presence in our university’s future. With these inevitable progressive steps tied to our belief in our technological prowess, there seems to be quite a bit of risk associated with questioning what defines us most. With a fragile place in technology-promoting universities, it is unsurprising that philosophers of science have emphasized the redeeming qualities of scientific inquiry, defending its borders and working to define just what makes it worth emulating (Popper). This kind of boundary guarding raises some interesting questions about the field’s ability to keep a level head as it also guards what they will allow their own field to include. Philosophers of science are playing an interesting balancing act between drawing attention to science and questioning what makes it so special while also protecting its ability to uncover truths.

Acknowledging this balancing act puts into question who the field of philosophy of science considers to be their audience. If, in fact, they are all speaking to scientists, why do they spend such little time with scientists, grounding their ideal science relative to how it actually functions on a daily basis? In the foundational pieces of philosophy of science, the observation of actual science is rarely emphasized. It seems as if conjectures are made about what might be happening, and what truths science may be uncovering, but very little consulting with actual scientists are included in their analysis. It seems ironic that if the foundational philosophers of science were so enamored by the knowledge-engine that is science, but had very little interest in observing it as is –replacing this observation with actively depicting the ideal picture of science that they wanted to paint— their motivations and interests began to blur between foreground and background.

The next disciplinary move, that can be seen by the remnants of philosophy of science in philosophy of technology and science and technology studies, seems inevitable in its own right. New critical scholars of 1980s-1990 had to begin observing science and the creation of technology in action. They began to reflect on the contingencies that they were witnessing as they observed the once pristine domain. With the acceptance of social contingency, came analysis of the alternative choices science never took. These untested possibilities got critical scholars running full bore towards limitless cases and contextualization. This disciplinary move also makes a lot of practical sense. STS scholars need to 1) continue to appreciate science and engineering as impactful (if not progressive) endeavors while also 2) feed themselves. If not only to preserve their own worth, STS’ers need to vouch for the possibility of limitless productive observation of science and technological development. This is not a new struggle. We should have been learning from the philosophers of science, and their balance between admiration and their value-add. We need to perpetuate the fact that we believe that science is a meaningful destination while trying to deconstruct it at every turn.

Popper, Karl. "Science: Conjectures and Refutations." Philosophy of Science: The Central Issues, edited by Martin Curd, J.A. Cover, and Christopher Pincock, W.W. Norton & Co, 2013, 3-10

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