Tag Archives: Science

Fascinating things from inside and outside the labs

To interest, amuse, or instruct

Many definitions of story emphasize the fictional part. However, there’s one major definition that gives a wider, and in my view more accurate, interpretation: “A narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader.”

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But back to hypotheses — and vocations. People become scientists because they want to tell stories, preferably exciting, original ones; and once trained in their discipline they weave stories without cease — stories that attempt to explain how the universe and its inhabitants are made (they also explain why, unless someone insists on intelligent design or intent). Before the stories go into the testing crucible, they’re called hypotheses. Observations or measurements are done in the framework of a story at its hypothesis stage. If a story jibes with reality, it gets renamed to theory. To put it succinctly, science cannot be practiced without stories, without the call and response between story and world. The stories dictate what experiments/observations get done; the stories, to some extent, dictate what conclusions are drawn (and thereby can bias the venture, as all powerful stories do).

Athena Andreadis, who knows whereof she speaks. The sociologically-minded will note the clear echoes from e.g. Haraway and Latour and other STS headz in this description of (techno)science as a narrative endeavour. However, the importance of the “sensawunda” aspect doesn’t always make it through, and I’m interested in working with the notion of the technoscientific imaginary to see if there’s a way to bring that forward.

Ravens, reductionism and consciousness

We’ll never find proof for the existence of consciousness by picking the animal apart, or by looking at its parts in isolation. That’s like trying to understand the caching behavior of ravens by grinding them up, examining ever smaller parts down to the molecules, and studying them through the laws of physics or chemistry. That’s backwards. To the biologists life is made of matter, but the nature of every living thing in the cosmos is time-bound. Every living thing is, like a book, more than ink and paper. It is a record of history spanning over two billion years. The more we dissect and look at the parts disconnected, the more we destroy what we are trying to find—the more we destroy what took millions of years to make. Mind, like life or liveness, is an emergent property that is a historical phenomenon, though also still a wholly physical one. It reveals itself far above and beyond its component parts, in this case, primarily the nerve cells with their infinite interconnections that cannot and will not ever be unraveled one and all. Consciousness is not a thing. It is a continuum without boundaries. We can most readily see its presence or absence in the extremes.

Excerpt from Mind of the Raven, Bernd Heirrich (1999), p339.

Been enjoying this book about late-20th-Century studies of the birds that are my family namesake, my picking up of which had absolutely nothing to do with a rapidly developing Odin complex, no sirree.

The most remarkable thing about it, besides the insights into the complex (and quite probably conscious) behaviours of ravens, are the descriptions of Heinrich’s experimental methods, which involve a great deal of living out in the woods of Maine and dragging around animal carcasses of assorted sizes and origins; guy scrapes up a whole lotta roadkill. Lab-coat-and-test-tube biology, this is not; I believe one of the labels for this sort of work is behavioural ecology, but even that seems a little too restrictive. A lucid (if sometimes pedestrian) writer, cautious and careful in his descriptions of experimental processes but, as indicated above, not afraid to share his philosophies and theories when they go beyond the boundaries of what peer reviewers will accept (which is quite often).

A threshold phenomenon

This whole fake news phenomenon is hugely important and historically significant. At the moment I’m completely captivated by the strength of an analogy between the Gutenberg era and the internet era, this rhythmic force coming out of the connection between them. Radical reality destruction went on with the emergence of [the] printing press. In Europe this self-propelling process began, and the consensus system of reality description, the attribution of authorities, criteria for any kind of philosophical or ontological statements, were all thrown into chaos. Massive processes of disorder followed that were eventually kind of settled in this new framework, which had to acknowledge a greater degree of pluralism than had previously existed. I think we’re in the same kind of early stage of a process of absolute shattering ontological chaos that has come from the fact that the epistemological authorities have been blasted apart by the internet. Whether it’s the university system, the media, financial authorities, the publishing industry, all the basic gatekeepers and crediting agencies and systems that have maintained the epistemological hierarchies of the modern world are just coming to pieces at a speed that no one had imagined was possible. The near-term, near-future consequences are bound to be messy and unpredictable and perhaps inevitably horrible in various ways. It is a threshold phenomenon. The notion that there is a return to the previous regime of ontological stabilization seems utterly deluded. There’s an escape that’s strictly analogous to the way in which modernity escaped the ancien régime.

Also:

My tendency is not to draw a huge distinction between [scientists and artists]. In all cases one’s dealing with the formulation or floatation of certain hypothesis. I am assuming that every scientist has an implicit science fiction. We all have a default of what we think the world is going to be in five years time, even if it’s blurry or not very explicit. If we haven’t tried to do science fiction, it probably means we have a damagingly conservative, inert, unrealistic implicit future scenario. In most cases a scientist is just a bad science fiction writer and an artist, hopefully, is a better one. There is, obviously, a lot of nonlinear dynamism, in that science fiction writers learned masses from scientists, how to hone their scenarios better, and also the other way around. Science fiction has shaped the sense of the future so much that everyone has that as background noise. The best version of the near future you have has been adopted from some science fiction writer. It has to be that science is to some extent guided by this. Science fiction provides its testing ground.

Nick Land.