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Haitham's Aerie Haitham's Aerie Pages Home About Tuesday, September 1, 2015 The Worst of All Worlds The T-850 model from Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines The previous post discussed the relationship between technology and society, and concluded that it is much more analytically powerful to speak of the socio-technical as the matter from which our societies derive shape. Using this notion, we were able to show how the technical and the social are intertwined in ways that influence the evolution of either as time passes by. This is in contrast to the more usual narrative of some rustic social norms ending up corrupted by a technology that seems to come out from nowhere. In this post, the focus will be on discussing the effect of the social on the evolution of the technical, and how more often than not, this effect leads to a sub-optimal realization of the technology in question. The reason why we are going to focus only on this aspect of the relationship is pretty simple: accounts that discuss the role of technology in transforming societies are much more common. For instance, any standard treatment of the rise of Protestantism today is very likely to refer to the contributions of the printing press leading up to said rise, even if in passing. But you might ask, why is it that the relationship often times has a negative impact on technology? Will, because the outcome is one of two: either the technology is left to realize its full potential, in which case the effect would be neutral. Or, it is held back by the social, which obviously is a negative thing, at least from the standpoint of technology! Below are a few of the mechanisms through which the social can influence the evolution of the technical, with topical examples. Path Dependency The first example is the universal QWERTY keyboard layout - look at the first row of letters on your keyboard to understand what is being talked about. It is an artifact of times when typewriters were the state of the art technology. Back in the days, typing fast was a real problem. It meant that the internal mechanism powering the typewriter would jam regularly. The solution was a layout specifically designed to slow down your typing speed, by making your fingers travel more distance compared to a more time-efficient placement of letters. Since then, typewriters were superseded by electronic keyboards that don’t jam. Yet the layout persists, bogging down our productivity by who-knows-how-many-hours a year! The basic idea here is very simple. Humans’ expectations of new technologies are shaped by their prior experience with older ones. Take for another example the lighting systems used today to light our built environments. After inventing the system, Edison went out of his way to make it mimic in every way possible the oil-based lighting system prevailing in the times. He made sure it would have low brightness, give a headache inducing yellow flare, and hang from the middle of the ceiling; features that still persist to our day, despite their “glaring” sub-optimality. You can also expect something similar when fuel-cell powered cars start rolling-out into the market. In the best of all worlds, the driving interface would be reinvented from the scratch up - for instance the gas pedal will be necessary no more. But because this is not such a world, you can expect the realization of the full potential of hydrogen cars to be hampered by our - by then - rudimentary notions of how cars should be driven. The Social Construction of "Things" While so far it seems that humans negatively influence technologies by their sheer stupidity and lack of drive to forsake inferior conditions in favor of superior ones, there are ways in which they exert a much more sinister and deliberate influence. An example that delivers the message home clearly here is birth control technology. Most contraceptive methods today are used by women. Almost invariable they pose some degree of health risk to the user, by either messing up their hormonal cycles, or placing mechanical objects within their reproductive organs, which might dislocate and cause serious internal damage under certain conditions. However, there has been some attempts to shift this burden to men, by developing male contraceptive pills, which were claimed to have minimal side effects if any at all. Unfortunately, all of these attempts were nipped in the bud, simply because of the way gender-roles influence our expectations in this regard – i.e. traditionally speaking, it is a woman's thing to prevent undesired conception by any of the means available, and not a man’s, no matter the cost! Institutional Inertia According to our technological forecasts, we are supposed to be living in the pinnacle of the biotechnology age at the moment. By now, cancer should have joined the long list of conquered diseases, at a fraction of the current cost. So what happened? Could it be that our predictions were unrealistic to start with? May be, but generally speaking, technological forecasts are fairly accurate – think Moore's “law”. There is a pretty simple explanation here: legislation. Or to be more accurate the patent laws, which are geared towards fostering technological innovation in the ICT sector, but not biotechnology. This is because there are radical differences between the two, the most important of which is that the line separating science from technology in the latter is very thin and blurry for the current laws to be effective. What is happening in essence is that companies and universities alike are patenting basic science, and therefore preventing other companies from developing that basic knowledge into useful products. The idea here is that our institutions are too cumbersome and bureaucratic to keep up with the highly dynamic nature of science and technology. So there you have it! If anyone is to claim victimhood in all of this, then it is poor technology! Now scroll back up to the terminator photo, and reconsider! Posted by Haitham Seelawi at 2:22 PM 2 comments: Labels: actor-network theory, institutional inertia, modern sociology, path dependency, socio-technical systems, The social shaping of technology Monday, May 25, 2015 Technology Killed Nothing Hephaestus (Vulcan) the Greek god of what we can today refer to as technology We live in a time where not many days pass before we are reminded of how technology is killing our social lives. Obviously, what is meant by technology in this context is smart phones and social media. I still remember a time though when it meant video games, and another before when it meant a walkman. Perhaps if I were as old as my parents, it would have meant a transistor radio or a TV. For my grandparents, the “cursed” car was probably murdering the social. The point is, if we go back far enough in time, we’ll find many of the technologies we take for granted today (e.g. agriculture, writing, electricity, telephones… etc.) affecting radical reformulations of whatever organizing principles were underpinning the societies of the time, and by extension the societies themselves. This might sound a bit anecdotal, but rest assured that modern sociology confirms it. At one point during the past century, many sociologists came to adopt an interactionist perspective on sociology, which is to say that what shapes a given society is actually the interactions going on at the level of its individuals. But then primatologists came to the same conclusion regarding the sociology of other primates. This might sound like a validation of the perspective at first, but if you look close enough, you’ll maintain otherwise. How can a human society and another of baboons be described in the same terms, yet be so different from each other? Even if the former was a tribe of bushmen who live in the wilderness, there is still a world of difference between the two. It is true that humans and primates interact in pretty much the same way. All of our interactions are essentially social in nature, meaning we are constantly negotiating our relationships with other individuals. But whereas for a chimp these interactions can only be face to face, and are rather short lived, for a human, they have the potential to be carried out over vast temporal and geographic stretches. And it is technology that enables this, giving rise in the process to elaborate and diverse social configurations. It is because of this revelation that sociologists today speak of the socio-technical as the stuff that makes up societies. This means that the social and the technical are enmeshed in an everlasting relationship that is constantly defining and redefining each of them along the way. The solution to social problems often times call on for the development of new technologies. But as the technology matures, it begets social problems of its own, which in turn demand new technological solutions. Alternatively, a given technological platform enables the rise of certain social configurations. However, soon enough, new groups unsatisfied with the status quo start forming, which in an attempt to disrupt it, might end up developing new technologies, or employing already existing ones in novel ways. Portable devices and networking technologies might be changing the way we interact (the deplorable bit of the equation, even though I don’t consider it to be so), but they are already reshaping our societies, making them more efficient. A decade ago, having a job meant long commutes and fitting one’s life around a rigid schedule. That is still the major mode of working today, but more and more people now have the option to work from the comfort of their homes or co-work spaces (whether as freelancers or employees). We are still at an early stage of experimentation, so who knows what other modes of working will emerge and how our societies will reorganize in response. There is one thing we can be sure about though. The social is intrinsically transient, and just because people used to organize their lives differently in the past, doesn’t mean we are doing it wrong today. Posted by Haitham Seelawi at 6:55 PM 2 comments: Labels: actor-network theory, interactionism, modern sociology, socio-technical systems, The social shaping of technology Tuesday, October 14, 2014 They are Jordanians Before Being Christians! A few years ago I wrote an article about how Muslims in Jordan have some unjustified demeaning views of their Christian compatriots. Lately however, I started thinking that the recent events in Iraq's Mosul might have tilted the scales in favor of an overall sense of unity and compassion between the followers of either religion in the country, but boy was I wrong? It happened about a few weeks ago. I was with a group of friends discussing the authorities' decision to shut down a certain cake shop in Amman a couple of months before, due to some health concerns. I was in favor of the decision while they were not. Feeling we have reached a deadlock, I made it clear that I was boycotting the shop anyway because the owners refuse to print Christian symbols on their cakes. I thought I was playing my ace there, but I could not have been any wronger. It was as if I pressed a finger against an old festering wound, and the most nauseating of odors whiffed out. In an auto-pilot-like response, my friends lashed out against me justifying the owners decision with all sorts of lame reasons and non-consequential analogies. For instance one of them likened the cake shop of concern to a boutique that sells only trousers, and the Christians who ask for a cake with a crucified Jesus to a shopper who wants to buy a shirt. According to this logic, the boutique's owner is not under any legal obligation to provide the shopper with anything other than trousers! Often times, one can tolerate high levels of stupidity, but when it is deliberate, we perceive it as a personal insult, all the more so when it serves as a base to something hateful like religious bigotry. So at that point I got loud, and my face wore a menacing expression akin to that on the countenance of a Maori performing a Haka. "Dude", I said as my eyes widened and forehead stretched like never before, "if the owner refused to make a cake with a symbol that represents Chechens, would that still be right?". Anticipating my intents, he replied "No, but then that is a different matter". I quickly pointed out that the Jordanian constitution states explicitly that there should be no discrimination between the citizens of the country based on race, language or religion. He backed off, but was it because I was sporting an aggressive face or because he started realizing he was wrong? Not before long, I found it was neither. He was just thinking of a more "logical" reply than what he had managed to deliver so far. What was his reply? Well, according to him, Christians in Jordan should see how privileged they are compared to the their counterparts in Iraq and Syria, and for that alone they should be thankful! It dawned on me then that many Muslims in Jordan don't think of a Christian Jordanian as a Jordanian, but, first and foremost, as a Christian. This entails that they are nothing more than guests in the country, and they should be wise enough not to test the limits of the tolerance of their Muslim hosts. Since then, my discussions with few other Muslim Jordanians served only to corroborate this conclusion. For instance, I was astonished that a couple of friends who are pursuing PhDs in Europe are in favor of imposing religious taxes on Arab Christians. After all, they - my friends that is - are paying a significant portion of their income in taxes under the European law! Mind you, these guys had to exhibit no ordinary amount of logical reasoning capabilities and levels of education in order for them to gain admission to their respective universities. Yet, they had no problem with wishfully-thinking that Jizyah was no different than a tax paid in Europe! I mentioned above that these people were acting in an auto-pilot-like fashion. I could tell that they were simply living up to decades of Islamic education that made them look down on anyone who doesn't comply with their religious views. That of course does not absolve them from bigotry. After all, many young Jordanians who were subject to the very same education broke free from such teachings, and not only that, but turned against them. Still though, I guess a remedy of the situation should include some serious concessions from the side of the Islamists in Jordan in this regard. That, I am afraid, will not come about willingly from their side. Instead, their grip on the educational institution in the country should be forcefully broken. This will take more than lame conferences and festivals that celebrate a thinning coexistence between the various religious denominations in Jordan. It will call for persistence, consolidation and coordination, and no small measure of rage to put the bigots to shame. Posted by Haitham Seelawi at 5:41 PM 5 comments: Wednesday, February 12, 2014 It's Darwin Day Again! "Nature And Nature's Laws Lay Hid in Night God Said Let Newton Darwin Be And All Was Light" Two years ago, Darwin's day was celebrated here with a blog commemorating his qualities and personal life, so things are bound to be different this time. The theory of evolution, and that of natural selection are two very subtle statements of knowledge. No wonder then that creationists who set out to disapprove either, if they can tell the difference in the first place, end up mostly making a farce out of their comprehension and reasoning abilities. But this applies equally well to some proponents of the two theories, especially when it is journalists, or screenwriters we are talking about; alas, the two major sources of information for most of us nowadays. Thus, perhaps, dispelling common misconceptions of the proponents will make for a proper celebration this year, given that debunking creationist nonsense is becoming too hackneyed a topic to write about. Three misconceptions in specific will be dismantled today; to wit, that natural selection is intrinsically cruel; the evolution as a ladder metaphor; and, finally, the mis-employment of natural selection as an overarching explanation of life. Here goes: Nature red in fang and claw: Natural selection is exclusively understood by many as a perpetual arms race between different individuals. We are told, for instance, that the gazelle's magnificent agility would have never come to be if it was not for the cheetah's unusual speed, and vice versa. While this might be true, it definitely can't be extended unconditionally, for cases of cooperation are present in nature as well. Luckily, we don't have to look far away to demonstrate this. Our human body's existence owes much to mutualistic agreements struck with other species. One of these is the mitochondria, which in exchange for the protection offered by our massive Eukaryota cells - long before we even were humans - have happily ever since reciprocated with powering our cellular activities, among providing other services. There is also the relatively less stable agreements our bodies have forged with a host of other microbes - i.e. scientifically referred to as the "Human Microbiome" - which while not always essential, have nonetheless made our existence a lot easier. It remains to be noted that the above is not an exhaustive argument against the misconception of concern here. I remember once watching a fine documentary that shows how we are better off understanding natural selection, and the whole of nature for that matter, in the context of a complex mesh of connections, as opposed to trying to tease out the overall picture from mere dyadic relationships (you can watch the said documentary here). Evolution likened to the scaling of a ladder: Or put alternatively, the idea that recently evolved species/phenotypes are superior to their earlier counterparts. Not only has this particular misconstruction fueled many extreme ideologies - Nazism, and White supremacy are the first to come to my mind - but has also formed the basis for one of the most worn-out themes in the sci-fi genre of literature and movies! Scientifically speaking though, every evolutionary biology professor I have met is of the opinion that evolution exhibits some sort of progression - namely, a tendency towards achieving higher complexity - but that this in no sense translates to what the layman would think on hearing or reading such a thing. One doctor even told me that some taxas - unfortunately he did not mention the name of any - had come to develop a brain at some point in their evolutionary history, only to lose it all together when it seized to confer on them any survival advantage. Hard to swallow, but think of it like this: many wild felines - a group of animals the names of which alone strike us with awe - are eking out their existence at the moment. Roaches and insects in general, on the other hand, are faring exceptionally well, and will probably continue to, outliving humanity in the process. What I'm trying to get across here is the fact that the poetic value of a species is of no concern to nature. The only thing that matters is whether or not the species can adapt fast enough to perturbations in its ecosystem. This in essence is what separates the extant lines from the extinguished ones. Stretching natural selection beyond its legitimate domain of application: One eccentric professor I had in the past used to end his lecture with an inexplicable smile while teasingly stating that "a fool with a tool is still a fool". Natural selection is no exception; to be applied properly, it requires scrupulous attention to the particulars of the case, or else, it degenerates to become just another pseudoscientific explanation. Prof. Coyne aptly explains this with the following concrete example: hemoglobin is red not because this is a color of any survival value at all, but rather because it happens to be an unintended, dependent property - like spandrels in architecture - of an oxygen-carrying molecule that has been selected over other potential carriers solely for its efficiency in delivering oxygen (and probably Carbon dioxide as well). Yet, it is not in any sense removed from reality to imagine that some sociobiologist might try to explain the redness of blood with a tortuous link to some survival advantage - e.g. it produces a blushing effect that helps to attract high quality mates. Actually, if you think about it, natural selection is known to most people nowadays through similar titillating explanations of human behavior. To get things straight, this is not to deny that some aspects of the psychology and sociology of a given species can be the product of natural selection. But due to the unique epistemic properties of the theory, we have to be extremely cautious before declaring one trait or another as advantageous. The gist is, next time you read an article explaining in natural selective terms why teens act as such, or why women are so and so, then you'd do science a favor taking them with a liberal amount of salt. At the end, we should stay reminded that no celebration is commensurate with this day other than upholding those traits and values that comprise an essential foundation of scientific inquiry. But if you are looking for an excuse to pop a bottle of beer, then by all means, have a one for the old man! Posted by Haitham Seelawi at 9:47 AM 2 comments: Labels: Darwin day, Evolution, Limits of Natural Selection, Misconceptions of Natural Selection and Evolution, Natural Selection, Nature Red in Fang and Claw, Post Spandrel Adaptationism, Stephen Jay Gould Friday, December 6, 2013 Taking Stock of Recent Arab Irreligious Trends A snapshot taken from the video of Mashrou Leila's recent song "?????" (for the homeland), which features an Arab transsexual belly dancer The recent rise in Arab atheism seems to be a trending topic across the global online community. However, while diversified in their respective scales of analysis, almost all the material published on the topic have fallen in two crippling traps. The first of these is giving the Arab Spring a pivotal role in the parsing of the phenomenon. For instance an otherwise brilliant writer uncritically states that out of 60 Arabic atheist groups on Facebook, only a fraction predates the Arab rising. What he missed here is the fact that such groups have short life spans, given that they receive a large amount of negative reports as soon as they become slightly visible. Therefore, the writer could have as well claimed that a few of the said groups precedes any arbitrary date in the past five years, during which Facebook began gaining traction throughout the world - I personally remember a dozen defunct Arab atheists groups from the period intervening between 2008 and 2010. The second trap is according the phenomenon more significance than it really deserves. Of course, these active atheists are fulfilling the important but long disabled societal functions of pushing the limits and enfeebling the grip of the dominant discourse - that being religious in this case, more specifically Islamic - by showing it for what it really is - i.e. ossified, obsolete, self-referential and a heavy, unnecessary tax on personal and public development. But aside from the background of modern secularism against which this strand of atheism is perpetuated, very little is presented as a substitute for what is being lambasted. Yet the media is naively depicting the phenomenon with rosy colors without providing any account of the dynamics involved - e.g. the modes through which value shock is produced by this newly strengthened party of atheists, let alone their modes of organization and how the traditional authorities are responding among other things - which is a tell-tall sign that such articles are dictated by emotions as opposed to reason. Arab Secularism on the other hand is being pronounced dead by these very same online outlets, and the obituaries published are all to the effect that most Arab states were undergoing a rapid process of secularization during the 60's and 70's of the past century, which came to a halt during the 80's, and began reversing until it met its demise in the past two decades. Makes you wonder, will this myth ever end? The truth is these Arab "secular" movements of the past century were the manifestation of a process whereby a nascent Arabic-Islamic discourse - born little before the death of the Ottoman empire, only to grow under the supervision of condescending colonial mandates - was reshaping its exteriors to reclaim some of its dignity via gaining the respect of its former bullies, while leaving its interiors intact, pretty much like they were for an eternity by then - take the example of the expulsion of Egyptian Jews under Nasser, an icon of Arab "secularism", and the constitutional provisions explicitly prohibiting Christians from ever attaining country presidency, and banning civil marriage under the rule of Syrian Al Ba'ath, another, though it be less glamorous, icon of the "secular" movements of those long gone times. Nonetheless, a genuine notion of secularism - based solely on citizenship, merit, and civil liberties - seems to be at last emerging among the masses. To be clear, this is not restricted to the online sphere, but is becoming significantly tangible offline as well. My own guess is that it has been there for a while now, in an embryonic form buried deep down in the minds of frustrated bystanders, who until recently have operated under the assumption that no matter how bad things might go in the Arab world, the Afghan and Iraqi scenarios will never come to pass elsewhere. But, boy, were they belied? This assumption could not be proven any more false by the atrocities the radical Islamists have committed in tolerant Syria, and to a lesser extent in the scientifically advanced Egypt, where their rule has only seen the country through a devolution of medical practices - this notion of secularism does not approve of military despotism either, but that is a matter out of the scope here. However, while definitely becoming more and more vociferous by the day, the question remains whether or not these secularists will learn how to organize themselves so as to occupy a sizable space in the Arab political sphere in time. Will we witness such a thing? A little optimism can't hurt here: the French revolution was followed by period upon period of terror, until the French society became what it is today. A refreshing thought, but we should as well be reminded that pre-revolution France was as far as it can get from the ethnic and religious minefield that what we refer to nowadays as the Arab world has always been. Posted by Haitham Seelawi at 9:59 PM 7 comments: Labels: Arab atheism, Arab secularism, Mashrou Leila, Modern Arab sexuality, Modern History of Arab secularism Tuesday, September 24, 2013 Narratives of History "Perseus Confronting Phineus with the Head of Medusa" by Sebastiano Ricci It is said that the ancient Greeks were in the habit of remembering historical developments that unfolded over long periods of time in the terms of a single melodramatic event, and a great man to whom it can be attributed. With this in mind, it should not come to one as a surprise to learn that the Iliad and Odyssey took shape over two millenniums, and that there is very little historical evidence to substantiate that Homer had existed at all. To us moderns this might sound rather quaint, despite the fact that we are deep to our wastes in a very similar notion. But whereas the ancient Greeks were aware of the distortion involved in their tradition of commemorating history, we are simply not. This can be easily demonstrated by asking a sample of random people about who invented, say, the telephone, and one can be assured that she will be met with "Graham Bell" as the most recurring answer. In reality though, there is very little in common between the monstrosity that came out of Bell's lab, and the device our societies can't function without today. Furthermore, our good inventor here had a most modest vision in mind for the telephone, where it was to be used only by post offices, for the purpose of informing one another of the letters and parcels inbound. Had he had his way... but luckily we don't have to bother with imagining the consequences, as no one ever is allowed their way with history. I would venture to claim that this applies to all human endeavors equally, and not even science, an enterprise the mentioning of which evokes the images of individuals changing the course of humanity single-highhandedly, is exempt from this statement. Newton's proverbial quote about his standing on the shoulders of giants is but a droplet in a profusion of gratitudes expressed throughout history by indebted scientists towards their predecessors and collaborators. Moreover with a close perusal of any colossal development within science, one will always find more than a single individual standing behind it. For instance, we have Newton and Leibniz developing Calculus, Darwin and Wallace elucidating one mechanism of evolution, and Einstein and Lorentz formulating a theory of special relativity, each in every story working simultaneously and independently. However, it is always the case that one sinks into oblivion, while the other reaps eternal glory. Put alternatively, in the mind of the majority, history is perceived as a mere register of a few great men's deeds, despite this being a most atrocious crime of distortion. And, contrary to the impression that might have been imparted here so far, it is not even the register of collaborative deeds. If anything, history is the unintentional product of many tiny actors each tugging in a different direction. Predictably, our anthropocentric tendencies will reveal themselves here in the act of assuming that an actor is by definition a human being. As unflattering of our human pride as this may sound, historical actors can be, and are often, inanimate. Actually inanimate actors are what delimit the space of possibilities within which we humans can fumble around to realize one historical trajectory over another. They are innumerable, but to the end of helping one to develop an appreciation for what they might be like, it can be mentioned that institutions, dominant modes of thought, technologies, natural disasters and plagues have been quasi-constant fixtures on the stage of history - one can argue with some force that the first three of these are nothing but extensions of human will. However, sociologists have been, for a while now, utilizing the exceptionally fecund explanatory powers of theories that treat them as actors independent of human agency. Whether or not this goes beyond being a mere theoretical trick that corresponds to nothing real in life is left to the reader's discretion. Why is it then that the public still have such a naive conception of history? You'd often hear explanations to the effect that by adopting this approach to the subject, an individual is trying to communicate something about herself. If, for example, she constantly expresses an affinity for Ghandi, then she is probably trying to signal a peaceful but resolute personality, whether or not she really has any of these traits. As true as this may sound, it does not explain the origins of such narratives, for after all when it comes to their production, the public are mere consumers that exert no sophisticated demand that might change the quality of the product. There is another line of explanation implicit in the popular quote that history is written by the victors. But this claim is not exactly accurate. It is only that some documents of history are written by victors, as historical narratives are written and rewritten all the time. This malleability is endemic to the work of the historian, since she is often faced with a large number of accounts on any past event that she might wish to reconstruct. Naturally, some of these accounts will not jibe, and it is here that the historian exercises her agency in formulating history. Does that mean, as some advocate, that all historical narratives pertaining to a certain episode should be treated on equal footing? Of course not. If a historian bases her version of the story on the account of a hagiographer, instead of a less subjective source of information - such as some well preserved logs of economic activities - then all the worse for her. But why is it that she often chooses the former type of sources over the latter? Generally speaking, writers are natural-born introverts whose elegance of mind attract them away from the dross of daily life. There they build themselves domains of unique experience to reign supreme over. Most historians are of course writers, who are constantly attempting to break away from the present - one can tell without going through the previous chain of reasoning that a person who dedicates her life to the study of the past is at least a bit tad disgruntled with the present. In their attempt to escape, they romanticize the past in ways that make it a reflection of their own egos and a justification for their unattained aspirations. So if you ponder upon it, how can this be achieved if they acknowledge the role of droughts in central Asia and certain martial technologies, among other actors, in the vacillation of power around the Mediterranean throughout history, instead of attributing all of that to an unceasing clash between the wills of some nobilities? Granted, starting from the latter half of the past century we start seeing inanimate actors appearing in the credits roll of history. However, for the most part, these are only accorded minor roles, or are antagonized in a dramatic storyline where humanity always emerges triumphant. But perhaps to do otherwise is to forsake one's own present only to live in somebody else's. Probably not worth the trouble. Posted by Haitham Seelawi at 11:00 PM 7 comments: Labels: Alfred Wallace, Ancient Greeks, Darwin, Einstein, History, History of Science, Leibniz, Lorentz, Newton, Perseus and Medusa Tuesday, June 26, 2012 It is complex and meaningless but... One day, on a certain occasion, a friend stated confidently but ruefully that scientists don't like Plato. Will, by and large, they don't like dogma, and Plato just happens to be a byword for dogmatism, partly due to history's characteristic caprice. Still her remark was quite accurate, and I even found it to be impressive on the account of its "insiderness", and the challenge it throws to us: seeing philosophy through the eyes of a scientist. However, as soon as we take this challenge up, it proves to be a complex mental exercise. The enterprise of science is delicate. Dogma will naturally render it mystical and vain - think alchemy - but nevertheless, some "self-evident" propositions are always needed to hold any theory's structure together, like mortar holds the stones of a masonry. Actually, when science was subjected to a scepticism of a radical degree, manifest in Hume's dissolving criticism, it was stymied for a brief while, and it took only somebody with Kant's caliber to pull it out of this quagmire, and put it back on its tracks. But that is only one of its aspects, and one gets the hunch that all of its others are as delicately balanced. Yet much of the layers of this complexity can be peeled away by utilizing a few realizations. One is that talking of a perspective of scientists on philosophy is conceivable only in our contemporary time, for before the advent of modern science, probing the depths of nature was a natural philosopher's job, and after science came onto the spectacle - a thing we have Bacon to thank for - the walls drawn up between it and philosophy were porous for centuries further, allowing for considerable scholarly exchange across the division, and it even was the norm for a bright mind to straddle both. The caulking of the boundaries demarcating the different domains of knowledge that we live today is largely the legacy of the twentieth century - perhaps out of necessity at first, but then it became an expedient variant on the strategy of divide and conquer, upon which our false culture of the expert rests, to the advantage of politicians. A second realization that springs forth readily from the first is that the purview of the one of them does not fully coincide with the other. It is hence where they happen to do that the loudest incongruencies between them arise. One such major, and informing, point of difference is that scientists, especially biologists, take the corporeality of the universe for granted, or else, for their money, this quasi-infinite range of the phenomena it harbours becomes a gaudy extravaganza that can only be explained via revelation, a thing that they necessarily reject a priori. Philosophers on the other hand have the chutzpah to question the materialness of nature, or anything else for that matter, and have no troubles with entertaining, and even endorsing systems of thought where the entire universe is nothing but the product of the mental processes of some mind - one mild and understandable exception to this is the founding fathers of quantum physics, since they were taken by surprise to find that the act of observation in tiny realms plays an active role in the unfolding of events. That is exactly why some philosophy was in fact integral to their arguments, which also occasionally included references to a creator, as is reflected in few of the quotes of that dolt of a genius, Einstein. But at a deeper level, we will find that many of these incongruencies are less profound than they may appear, and can be imputed to secondary reasons such as mere tastes. For instance, scientists are fond of using simple and clear language, while philosophers are given to ornate and florid styles of exposition. So, whereas a scientist would proclaim prosaically that the laws of the universe are inescapable, this same fact expressed by a philosopher would assume something of a numinous quality, and since the current curriculum of either does not include adequate readings into the corpus of the other, such differences come to pass as fundamental rather than incidental. Perhaps the third realization that trails the first two is that this exercise is futile altogether, mainly because it was a folly to speak of scientists as unified in perspective from the onset, since it becomes apparent from the forgone discussion that how scientists perceive philosophy is not normally guided by something common among them, and as such falls to become a matter of peculiarities and personal convictions. Nevertheless, one can still speak of contemporary philosophic contributions to and inspirations by science, and visa verse. But these are better suited for discussion as particular cases, with, as an extra, few morsels on the lives of the philosophers involved. Here is a few. Karl Popper: The idea that what delimits scientific activities from their non-scientific counterparts, is the deduction of explanatory models and the subsequent act of working hard to falsify them is the brainchild of this guy. One consequence of it though, which he never failed to stress whenever he had the occasion, is that the social sciences, or alternatively the soft sciences, e.g. political science, sociology, psychology... etc., should be evicted from the circle of what we call science, and, presumably, be considered systematic studies only. However, it seems that at first his idea of falsification was embarrassingly enough inside the box, as when he denied natural selection the status of a scientific theory. A year later he recanted this position, when it was brought to his attention that finding certain animal fossils in certain geological strata is all we need to discard the theory for good. Personal life: few can boast a career path as erratic as his, taking him from carpentry, to teaching at school level, then to philosophy and professorship at London School of Economy. From his contemporaries we get the impression that he retained throughout his life the childish quality of hating to lose a discussion. His impugning the social sciences can be understood as an act of atonement for his joining the Marxist movement in Vienna for a while as a youth, though he forever stayed a staunch supporter of the establishment of welfare states and an advocate of social engineering. Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell: Founders of the school of analytical philosophy. They might not be the first philosophers to have got intoxicated with the clarity and well defined structures of mathematics and logic - Plato, Descartes and Spinoza are the firsts to come to mind in this regard - but they were among the firsts who tried to import these features into language, and even demanded it be refashioned in a manner conducive to such ends. To accomplish this, each devised his own distinct program, but generally speaking, they agreed on that words should be broken down to a level were they become referents to solid facts, or, failing that, be discarded. Once fully achieved, they told us like some did before them, this will solve every philosophical problem there is or will ever be. The geniuses that they were, however, they could not see from the beginning that any meaningful proposition we may utter is founded upon implicit suppositions, which is to say that imagery and relativity are endemic to the way humans understand the world around them, and therefore are inextricably reflected in language. Wittgenstein acknowledged this oversight in his posthumously published book, though he never wavered in his demanded for clarity of language. In the case of Russell, it was his predilection for logic and mathematics that inspired him to such an adventure, but it can be easily seen in Wittgenstein's case - an engineer turned philosopher - that his source of inspiration was the central role that he saw math and logic playing in the formulation of various scientific theories. Wittgenstein's: a despondent soul, whom I personally also believe to have been a masochist (I mean, why would somebody suffering depression ever spend a part of his life in Norway?). He was a Viennese as well and tried his hand at teaching for a while, but it seems like he was a terrible teacher, who had no qualms about boxing the ears of his students. One source I have on him claims that his favorite relaxation activity consisted in watching cowboy movies, which might sound as an odd way for relaxing, until we learn that his sexuality is a subject of varying speculations. He also happens to be the eponymous subject of a British movie produced in 1993. The director was gay himself, the auteur Derek Jarman, and one wonders if this is the reason why Ludwig's homosexuality is taken for granted in this movie. Russell's: at first apathetic toward everyday matters, it seems that World War I pricked his intellectual bubble once and for all, and from that moment on, no attempt at suppressing his voice succeeded. He, in no particular order, stood against the "great war", opposed Britain's colonial policies, campaigned for women's suffrage, was among the firsts to speak against nuclear armaments, and called for the implementation of eugenic laws and programs! A literature Nobel laureate, he bequeathed to humanity a treasure trove of essays and books that tackle themes from the philosophic to the social, and it was his Principia Mathaematica that proselytized Wittgenstein to philosophy. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: A modern rather than a contemporary philosopher. And while his opinion on science - among arts and culture - seems to have shifted during the course of his life, from science as an inducer of the corruption of societies, to science as a symptom of the moral degeneration of human beings, to science as a mere conglomeration of artifacts, made in the eternal race among individuals to prove their moral superiority to one another, we can notice that the constant thing in all of this is that progress in science and depravity come in pairs. We now know that this is not necessarily the case, and we might even hastily discard these warnings as the false prophecies of a deranged man. But this is to take the matter personally, and overlook whatever nuggets of wisdom these arguments contain, and to be sure they contain some. Rousseau takes us all the way to the threshold of a very important realization, leaving to us the last step to make on our own, in a critical time when people seem to have finally started blowing the saintly halos that have adorned the heads of religious figures for too long - a very commendable act - only to confer them upon the heads of scientists. Personal life: a misanthrope and a well documented case of paranoia, but also a gentle character and a believer in the innocence and purity of humans in their pristine state. Alternatively, if we are welling to expend some effort in understanding a person as she is, rather than as she appears like to our eyes, we might have second thoughts regarding Rousseau and entertain the possibility that he was generous and constant in his love for humanity, but where he felt this had gone unrequited, his reaction was excessively dramatic. His most notable contributions span a range of subjects, from politics to education, and from music to history and philosophy. We might even regard him as the modern father of the humanization of knowledge, on the score that he had written a very accessible account, The Dictionary of Music, on the theory and history of the musical arts. Toward the end of his life he dallied with botany and it seems that he had assembled a number of herbaria, of which many were destroyed during Wold War II. Despite their names being effectively antonyms, he and Voltaire are generally considered to be the two major epicentres of the earthquake that brought about the destruction of the ancien régime. Posted by Haitham Seelawi at 11:44 PM 21 comments: Labels: Analytical Philosophy, Descarte, Einstein, Evolution, Francis Bacon, Hume, Kant, Philosophy, Plato, Popper, Quantum mechanics, Rousseau, Russell, Science, Social Science, Spinoza, Voltaire, Wittgenstein Older Posts Home Subscribe to: Posts (Atom) About Me Haitham Seelawi Haitham (Arabic) = a young Eagle. Aerie (English) = the nest of an Eagle. View my complete profile Blog Archive ▼ 2015 (2) ▼ September (1) The Worst of All Worlds ? May (1) ? 2014 (2) ? October (1) ? February (1) ? 2013 (2) ? December (1) ? September (1) ? 2012 (4) ? June (1) ? May (1) ? April (1) ? February (1) ? 2011 (6) ? November (1) ? October (1) ? September (1) ? May (1) ? March (1) ? February (1) ? 2010 (1) ? July (1) Simple template. Powered by Blogger.

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