Quote: Why you don’t fucking love science

So you think you love science, do you?

What does that mean to you, exactly?

For most people, I’m guessing it means something like this:


Or perhaps something like this:


That’s not what science is, though.  That’s data, and like countless “Principal Investigators” of the science world (the professors who are named on research grants), you’re confusing data with science.  This is what science is:

Science is people.  It’s a collective human endeavor, where people make theories, test them based on observation, and then refine the theory when the tests disagree with it.  Data, seen in the beautiful pictures before, is just a side object that confirms the process is working.  Science is the process and the people.  Data is the residue.

I’m not making it sound very nice, am I, to love a “residue?”  Good.  There’s a reason for that.

Read the rest of this excellent post (with graphs!) by John Skylar over at The Anachronist.

Toward a taxonomy of dimensions

For some time I have been thinking about our relationship with our world in terms of the dimensions available to us, and how this structures our interactions with reality (I was tempted to call this a taxonomy of dimensionality, but thought it might be better to use that word in the ‘form’ column). Of the first type of dimensionality and the last (direction and time), these are the well understood 4 dimensions of space-time. I know nothing about other dimensions such as they exist in alternative geometries, or at the quantum level, and so I didn’t include anything which I would only have scraped off a wikipedia article anyway. This is the preliminary outline:

Name Dimensions Form
Absolute direction 3 Cartesian dimensionality
Absolute pressure 2 Boylean dimensionality
Absolute gravity 2 Newtonian dimensionality
Absolute time 1 Einsteinian dimensionality

What I am trying to do here is consider how there are certain objective (alternative to absolute?) dimensions which are the conditions of the outside world. I use the words objective and absolute advisedly. The dimensions here listed are not discrete, but are rather continuous. As such, when I have listed 2 dimensions, that is to say that we effectively have “on” and “off”. The precise ‘amount’ can easily vary, measured in atmospheres for pressure, or g-force for gravity (both standardised forms of measurement, if geocentric if using Earth as the yardstick.)  So absolute direction takes place in the x,y,z coordinates of Descartes’ coordinate system, time is the vector from past to future through the continuous present, the flow which we cannot interrupt. Pressure and gravity both vary according to the environment which we inhabit, and equally cannot be changed. 

My aim here is to raise some questions. Firstly, do these four dimensionalities adequately capture the outside world? Do they allow us to set up some baselines by which we might capture the conditions of a given point in space? Are there other dimensions which we need to include? I am trying to avoid anthropocentrism here, by not making reference to human, subjective conditions, but I can make the argument against myself that I am already biasing my picture of the world by not including the presence electric fields for one. A taxonomy like the above if drawn up by a platypus would have to include such absolute electricity given that these creatures parse their experience of the outside world through electroreception. A platypus’s taxonomy might also have to further finesse the notion of absolute pressure to include a secondary, mechanically created form of pressure, i.e., the push-rods on the platypus’s bill, signals from which they combine with those their electroreceptive rods sense, to create a detailed, ‘multi-dimensioned’ mental picture of their world.

Indeed this exercise being almost immediately doomed to failure is telling, since by providing an example which might be taken from the experiences of another creature, the limits of the absolute, objective quantification of reality become readily apparent. As soon as we develop a ‘view from nowhere’ picture of the world, one which is formal and abstract, we quickly need to realise that, many more arguments are necessary to draw up such a picture. As an attempt at this, however, I suggest the following: 

Name Dimensions Form
Absolute direction 3 Cartesian dimensionality
Absolute pressure 2 Boylean dimensionality
Absolute gravity 2 Newtonian dimensionality
Absolute time 1 Einsteinian dimensionality
Absolute electricity 2 Electric dimensionality
Absolute radioactivity 2 Curiean dimensionality
Absolute fractality Mandelbrotian dimensionality

I have included radioactivity and electricity separately, and what I have said above regarding continuous, and non-discrete presence of both still stands (also, my use of “electric” here testifies to the complicated nature of the history of the discovery of electricity and its various theoretical underpinnings). What is new, and what I haven’t mentioned above is the notion of fractality. I apply this here in the sense of there being a possible divergence between an object’s surface area and its volume. It is a further dimension which is exploited in nature and by various plants and animals to their own ends. The brains of intelligent mammals display cortical folding, or increasing degrees of folding in the cerebral cortex, which effectively increases the surface area of the brain. This folding and intelligence have been suggestively linked. Along with this, leaves on trees increase the surface area available for photosynthesis, and fractal geometries are to be found in intestines, lungs, branching of blood vessels, and lungs (there is undoubtedly a limit to fractality, but I left it ‘infinite’ through a desire to refrain from proscription). With this attempt to at taxonomising dimensionalities, the picture of the world becomes more richer. Is there anything else that could or should be included here?  

Digital humanities: a discipline unto itself, or just another methodology?

How do you define an academic discipline? Or indeed a sub-discipline for that matter? If one goes to enough conferences and seminars concerned with digital humanities, this is a question which will raise its head. The way it goes is usually as follows: there have been papers presented regarding research being undertaken within the digital arts and humanities, and there is a discussion among practitioners about the relative merits of different metadata standards, or questions about the broader implications for other types of research which would build upon the work which had been presented. Then comes the question nobody wants to hear, which usually comes from an established member of the academy (a tenured professor if you’re really lucky, in something like Classics) who asks a question which attempts to pull the rug from under proceedings.

“But what is actually different about what you’re talking about? Why is it different? Why call it digital Humanities as though it was separate? You are a part of the humanities.” The implication is that somehow research and knowledge creation is a zero-sum activity. If you do work over there, that detracts from what is going on in our well-established discipline. Continue reading

Michael Polanyi’s “Personal Knowledge”

This is a book with whose project I have much sympathy. This sounds awkward and condescending, and that is my fault, but it’s true. It is the effort of a successful chemist (who turned to philosophy later in his career) to engage with the broader implications of scientific knowledge and activity on the wider field of human knowledge. It seeks to challenge what Polanyi considers the orthodoxy of the critical mindset, which he regards as little better than scientism. Ultimately, however, all Polanyi offers us is a mish-mash of unreconstructed realism, pragmatism, and metaphysicism (!).

Both the title and subtitle are misleading, and are something of an insight into difficulties with the book as a whole. The former is problematic because it makes Polanyi‘s project sounds like some sort of psychological intervention in philosophy. Where Polanyi uses “personal”, a later continental philosopher would have had the confidence/coglioni to coin a neologism such as “empersoned”, and this would capture his work more clearly. It is an effort to outline the nature of our minds as implicated in the project to arrogate more knowledge for ourselves. In that regard, it involves working through our interactions with Vernadsky’s noosphere. This is a much more comprehensive effort than Polanyi is often credited for, and indeed he is usually only noted as saying some things vaguely similar to Kuhn or Feyerabend. In actuality, Polanyi prefigured both of these, and Kuhn in fact had a very real debt to Polanyi, which he would later gloss over. (More on this priority dispute in Martin X. Moleski’s “Kuhn vs. Polanyi: Worlds Apart”, available as a pdf here.) Continue reading

Applying methods of data science to philosophy

[Firstly, I will admit that this post is part of the problem it diagnoses.] Recently watching Hans Rosling‘s rather fun “The Joy of Stats”, I encountered Microsoft Research‘s Head of Computational Science, Stephen Emmott, discussing how advances in statistics and computation are leading the way towards a new model of science. Where previously, he says, science worked according to experiment and hypothesis, our new ability to process vast amounts of data as never before is in fact opoening up new realms of study, allowing us to make new proposals and even to ask entirely new kinds of questions. We have changed the words, and now we are playing around with the syntax and grammar. (Link to Dr. Nico Sommerdijk of Eindhoven University of Technology discussing the same matter here) Continue reading

Philosophy of technology notes: 3

Consider technology as a nexus of problems of solutions. I want to suggest that philosophy of technology then would be more concerned with the form of the solution rather than the content or the actual materials used; how rather than what.

In their everyday, vulgar ontology, people interact with the world in a fairly standard manner. We rely upon rules, prejudices, established procedures. This is the realm of “this is the way it’s done”. (Aside: indeed, Gadamer developed an entire philosophy predicated on just this fundamental mode of interacting the world, via his hermeneutical analysis of what is – not wholly felicitously – translated from German as prejudice, the praejudicium or “prior judgement” of medieval law.) That is to say, on a daily basis, we encounter an entire constellation of already existent solutions that long precede us.  Continue reading

A note on emergence


One of the points about spontaneous order is that we do not discuss it, “Emergence”. What we have to actually discuss are emergent features, emergent patterns, emergent phenomena. It is a matter of addressing concrete examples and considering them in the light of an idea which we hold very lightly in our hands. It is a frame which is delicate, but which nevertheless has great powers of consolidating complexity into a structure which does justice to the totality examined. For this reason, it is difficult to draw out because we so often appeal to reductive epistemology, which is fundamentally alien to emergent phenomena. So we attempt to explain it via analogy, and in this analogy we hope to betray the limitations of the more standard epistemology, which is often predicated on basic arithmetic notions and binary opposition. When explaining “Emergence” we will each and every time have to indicate a new phenomenon. Perhaps at some point, after enough study has been done, generalization will be possible, but for now we need to aim for specificity and precision.

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