Sunday, September 25, 2011

On science and Descartes

I have been reading on the history and philosophy of scientific inquiry and I am enjoying this activity very much. I do not know if I'm going to have the time to write my reflections but I can at least write the list of things I'm reading. I hope you write something and then we can discuss.

Shapin, S. (1984). Pump and circumstance: Robert Boyle's literary technology. Social Studies of Science, 14(4), 481-520.

Abstract: Robert Boyle's experimental programme had as its end-product the generation of indisputable matters of fact. In this paper I analyze the resources used to produce these matters of fact, paying particular attention to linguistic practices. Experimental reports rich in circumstantial detail were designed to enable readers of the text to create a mental image of an experimental scene they did not directly witness. I call this `virtual witnessing', and its importance was as a means of enlarging the witnessing public. The notion of a `public' for experimental science is, I argue, essential to our understanding of how facts are generated and validated. In these episodes, circumstantial reporting was a technique for creating a public and for constituting authentic knowledge.

Boyle's 'naked way of writing', his professions and displays of humility, and his exhibition of theoretical innocence all complemented each other in the establishment and the protection of matters of fact. They served to portray the author as a disinterested observer and his accounts as unclouded and undistorted mirrors of nature. Such an author gave the signs of a man whose testimony was reliable. Hence, his texts could be credited and the number of witnesses to his experimental narratives could be multiplied indefinitely. (p. 497)

One of the main arguments of this paper is that we cannot distinguish the production and presentation of knowledge. For me, it was pretty amazing to see the main features and basic assumptions of science we know today in the making. As Latour's work suggests, things are more explicit in the beginning, before knowledge or technologies become naturalized. This article was certainly a very good read.

Dear, P. Rhetoric and authority in the early Royal Society. Isis, 76(2), 144-161

The second article I read was by Dear. This article does not focus on a specific scientist/writer but rather on a scientific institution, the Royal Society, as "the embodiment of an ideal of cooperative research" (p. 146). The article shows how as a reaction to scholastic thinking, the institution promoted a new kind of knowledge by using tacit agreement on what that knowledge is, who has the right to speak, and what acceptable ways of presenting that knowledge are. The article also illustrates how basic principles of modern science were established as the gold standard in science, such as controlled experiment, generalizability, objectivity, measurement, etc. I was quite surprised by the fact that, in the beginning, context, particularity, and experience were such important parts of science and its rhetoric. I guess as empiricism lost ground to rationalism, a different portrait of science and rhetoric emerged--another indication that form and content are always intertwined and co-constitutive.

I also re-read Descartes's preface for Discourse on Method and Meditations. It was certainly a worthwhile read. However, at the risk of admitting my ignorance and inability to appreciate a great philosopher, I have to say that I find his philosophy quite... uhm...for lack of a better word...boring. Let me qualify that. First of all, I get it. For his time his ideas were revolutionary, he was an exceptional man, an important historical figure, scientist, philosopher, etc. whose contribution to our knowledge in many fields is enormous. I know that there are not many people in history who have been as influential as Descartes. I know all that. Nonetheless, I cannot help but find his philosophy boring when I look at his ideas from this time in history from my particular point of view (sorry but I interact with philosophers on a quite personal and subjective manner). In other words, his philosophy does not have much to offer me because in many ways I'm living in a world of Descartes and his imagination. I live in a Cartesian world. There is not a single day that I do not see a Cartesian coordinate system or this or that instantiation of dualism, follow his method, or read people who--either consciously or unconsciously--follow his method (take Chomsky, for example, a self proclaimed Cartesian and his influence on the fields I'm either part of or I read on). Descartes's philosophy is so naturalized around me that if I asked people I know if they were Cartesian they would look at me perplexed by the question and probably say no even though they are Cartesian in their thinking and acting and valuing (Don't get me wrong. I'm not looking down on these people in any way. Here I include myself to this crowd too. I'm Cartesian not because I adhere to Descartes' philosophy but mostly out of habit and in order to meet the expectations, as these people. There is a price to be paid if I do not behave Cartesian and in some cases, the price to pay is too high. For example, when I read the requirements for a prospectus, I see the sections, the parts that will presumable make the whole. Nothing more nothing less just these ingredients. This does not give me the option to create an organic unity rather than a sum of parts, as if they are the same. If I decide to go Anti-Cartesian I have to find an alternative way to writing a prospectus, which is doable I suppose and I would like to do that but I cannot start from scratch for everything around me. It is too costly, in some cases in terms of ramifications and in some cases in terms of the time and effort I have to put into doing things differently. So I play along. What I am trying to say is that I'm guilty as charged too).  Anyway, my point being, I'm drowning in the world Descartes imagined. That's why Descartes's philosophy is boring to me. I like philosophers or scientists who show me different ways of looking at things; Descartes is certainly not one of them.
Moreover, there are three things that I find hard to tolerate in Descartes's writing. The first one is his pomposity in his modesty (cheers to the spirit of dualism). On second thought Descartes probably have every right to be arrogant, I just find his attempts to be modest ridiculous (I know I know I'm not supposed to judge Descartes form this time and he probably wrote this way because he was expected to write this way. I know but I'm going to write it anyway because I'm mad at Descartes). At least those sections where Descartes tried to be modest were quite entertaining.
The second issue that annoys me is when I look at Descartes, I see a man who is scared of everything. He seems to be afraid of being persecuted, not being liked or appreciated by other people, criticism, crowds, making mistakes, doubts, uncertainty, chaos, not being in control, diversity, variation, action, changing something, his unconsciousness, learning, senses...in sum LIVING. (Now rather than being angry I almost feel sorry for him ^_^ I wish someone had told him that everything was going to be okay).  To me his philosophical exercises are analogous to trying to treat your phobia by facing it head on. Perhaps he was so afraid that he just wanted get rid of everything he was afraid once and for all, who knows. I can almost smell the anxiety emanating from his writing and I find it cowardly rather than heroic for some reason. This reminds me of a quote I have shared before, a quote about Cartesian anxiety.
"The feeling of anxiety arises from the craving for an absolute ground. When this craving cannot be satisfied, the only possibility seems to be nihilism or anarchy. The search for an absolute ground can take many forms, but given the logic of representationism, the tendency is to search either for an outer ground in the world or an inner ground in the mind. By treating mind and world as opposed subjective and objective poles, the Cartesian anxiety oscillates endlessly between the two in search of a ground." (p. 141).
Varela, F., Thompson, E., & Rosch, E. (1991). The embodied mind: Cognitive science and human experience. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

I could not have said it better. This anxiety, this fear darker than the darkest hour of the night radiates from Descartes's pages and I can almost hear him scream. (First, I was mad at him and now I feel pity. You see, I was not lying when I said I interact with philosophers on a personal level ^_^)
The third thing that I find irritating in Descartes thought is that I do not think he says anything that he does not contradict in these pages I read (again, viva dualism. I have to give it to him, he is at least consistent in his dualisms). Anyway, my main point is that Descartes is boring to me. I wonder if you feel the same way too, or if I'm alone in my attitude.
But let me leave you on a positive note. Below is a cartoon that I found in one of the how-to books about academic writing that I was reading as preparation for my prospectus (you see Descartes is omnipresent).


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