Comments on: Alien Phenomenology PoBC discussion: chapter 1 Wed, 10 Sep 2014 18:53:13 +0000 hourly 1 By: Mark N. Tue, 03 Jul 2012 00:40:47 +0000 That I agree with; I’m not really any bigger fan of the Strong Interpretation of science than of some varieties of constructionism in the other direction. Particularly the Strong Pop Interpretation, which isn’t even really consistent with modern physics, and instead imagines some pre-quantum-mechanics world more like early-modern science’s atoms and clockwork universe. But even the non-Pop folks are often not great.

The bridge example comes because I really did have a baffling conversation in the early 2000s on that subject with what you might call more of a “party-line continentalist”, who had some good points but would just utterly refuse to admit that anything other than culture/ideology/power/capital/etc. was a legitimate explanandum of anything at all. I can buy that lots of those factors are involved in bridges: bridge companies may jockey for contracts with their designs, and where we put bridges may be for reasons involving developers’ gain or socioeconomic or racial disputes, etc. But at some point it seems to me that a non-human explanandum has to come in; for example, if we ask why you can cross the golden gate via the Golden Gate Bridge, but not via just walking across the water, the answer seems like it has to have something to do with the differences between water and steel, and the presence of gravity, not just culture/ideology/capital. There is no ideological critique we can undertake that will make walking across the water without having to build bridges work better, because it’s not an ideological problem preventing us from doing so!

I can even buy Quine-Duhem style confirmation-holism and agree with skepticism that “gravity” and “water” and “steel” are ultimately stable/correct categories, but nonetheless it seems clear that there is something nonhuman that makes one of these modes of transport across the golden gate better than the other one, even if our scientific analysis of it is imprecise or wrong or could be replaced with a different yet equally explanatory explanation. Similarly with how, say, there are ways of arranging material into a “computer chip” that produce a functioning computer, and other ways that produce something that seems very much like “not a functioning computer” in the sense that I can’t post this commenting using that heap of junk. And that isn’t all a question of who “counts what functions”, but of some nonhuman fact that results in some of these arrangements of junk actually doing things that other arrangements don’t!

That’s mostly the angle from which I felt a sense of relief, of “not all continentalists are totally insane”, when I ran across Latour’s response to David Bloor.

By: Alien Phenomenology PoBC discussion: chapters 2 and 3 Mon, 02 Jul 2012 18:29:58 +0000 [...] is a continuation of my Alien Phenomenology discussion summary posts (see here for a description of what these are). This one covers chapters 2 and 3 of AP. Participants here include me, Michel [...]

By: Darius Kazemi Mon, 02 Jul 2012 12:47:12 +0000 Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Mark. I’m in agreement with you. It’s interesting, I think there are some really strong places where OOO and science are aligned, but people sometimes overlook this because OOO does not accept reductionist ontology (“fundamental are the basis of reality” type thing). I like to use meteors colliding in space as an example. Obviously, science has a lot to say about meteors. A lot of people in philosophy I talk to would like to claim that we can never really know anything about meteors: we say things about the power structures that built the telescopes that let us see the meteors, that without a military-industrial complex we wouldn’t even have a concept of meteors colliding in space, yadda yadda. But at least OOO is aligned with science in saying with confidence that the meteors do really exist. That has to be worth something.

By: Ben Abraham Mon, 02 Jul 2012 12:46:37 +0000 Interesting comments, Mark.

I guess I wanted to try and justify (a little bit) the “strong-ish” (if not the strong – I’m not a SCOT fan) anti-reduction stance. While your bridge analogy stands up for what it is, as soon as we get into weirder territory (for instance, the brain and neuroscience; basically any extreme of large or small) where our day-to-day intuitions and expectations confound more than they prove correct, I think it actually is vitally important not to be reductionist. Why? Because they way that science has often progressed tells us that there is a very good chance that the bit we reduce often ends up becoming… almost the most important part, later on. I can’t think of a very good example off the top of my head, but epigenetics and so called “junk DNA” is a reasonable example.

That’s not to retroactively suggest that the human genome project was a worthless product of scientific reductionism, just because it didn’t map any epigenetic DNA (I’m assuming). As you say there’s use to be had from reduction, but the point is that reduction is never the ‘whole picture’ that it is so often presented as. Just take a look at some of the statements some pop-science loves to come out with – you’d be forgiven for thinking you were at a TED conference there’s so much certainty in some of these things. The contingency gets lost so often when qualified, reductive results end up being interpreted by (for instance) journalists and laypeople.

That’s the concern I’m trying to express in my comment, anyway. Bryant’s “There is no world” has echoes of The Matrix’s “There is no spoon” too, which adds a kind of pop-cultural resonance that I think is kind of neat (and persuasive!).

By: Mark N. Sun, 01 Jul 2012 14:10:44 +0000 Two sort of disjointed comments on the scientific reductionism angle:

1) While a lot of scientists are sort of reductionist by default, my impression is that among scientists who spend much time thinking about the question (e.g. theoretical physicists), positions that even verge on anti-realism are actually pretty widespread, especially varieties of instrumentalist and “it’s just statistics that works so far” phenomenological interpretations. Which then presents a sort of different problem for OOO than reductionism does.

2) I think some of the default reductionism is not only in reaction to religious-type anti-science views (though that’s probably most of it), but also some of the less nuanced science-studies and social-constructionist views. There seems to be a strong, almost visceral dislike in some corners of Theory against scientific reduction as a method, not only as an overarching theory or metaphysics, but as something to do at all. The idea that you can understand something, even in part, by taking it apart, running experiments, measuring things, constructing models, etc., and actually learn anything thereby about the object of study (rather than only about the power structures of the scientific lab, etc.), is just deeply anathema to some corners of 20th-century Theory. But to many scientists it seems pretty clear that you do learn something by even something as simple as going into your backyard, building balsa wood bridges, trying out different designs, observing when they break, etc. And that what you learn has some “reductive” component, in that you can understand something about a bridge’s operation by understanding something about its components, the components’ materials, and how everything is assembled. So the strong anti-reduction view seems to argue so much that seems clearly wrong that it’s easy to be tempted into concluding, “these people are insane, let’s just go back to doing science”. One of the good things by contrast about OOO imo, and Latour as well, is that there seems to actually be some interest in looking inside objects, even to their parts.