Tag Archives: epistemology

My ontology and epistemology in tension with my pedagogy

A transcript of a work-in-progress presentation about ontology, epistemology, and pedagogy— specifically, my ontology, epistemology, and pedagogy. More specifically, how they might be affected by our current time of crisis.
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Feminism, Science & Materialism

The new feminist materialism is popular — see the range of papers from a February ’13 conference. It positions itself by claiming that science and technology studies (STS) has neglected something significant, which needs to be remedied by paying more attention to what scientists show about the world and, especially, how their knowing of the world is dependent of their interventions in that world. (Think: quantum mechanics, in which only when the particle-wave is measured does it show itself to be a particle or a wave; see recent work in this area.) Extending this sense of meeting or encountering the material world, new feminist materialists advocate, with a political sense, entanglement in what matters. The philosophical term “ontological” is used to contrast the “epistemological” emphasis in STS they are critical of. The feminism label is used because… the exponents see themselves as feminist?

Let me, as an ecologist who then began to contribute to STS in the late 1980s, briefly sketch a path within STS that does not seem to warrant the claim that epistemological STS neglected what matters and opens up multiple points of engagement.

During the 1970s the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), a field now subsumed in science and technology studies (STS), introduced an angle of inquiry that remains common in STS: what does it mean in actual practice for people to establish and modify scientific knowledge? (This practice-oriented epistemology was SSK’s antidote to philosophy of science’s emphasis on ideals about how scientists ought to proceed in justifying or refuting knowledge.) Since the late 1980s the STS literature includes many rich descriptions of the diversity of things scientists do and the resources they use in the production of scientific knowledge: scientists employ or “mobilize” equipment, experimental protocols, citations, the support of colleagues, the reputations of laboratories, metaphors, rhetorical devices, publicity, funding, and so on (Latour 1987; Law 1987; Clarke and Fujimura 1992, 4-5).
from Taylor (2011).

The obvious question is to what extent does the real world provide resources in that production or establishment of knowledge? This question leads to another: to what extent do the real world resources trump the social resources in that production of knowledge? To the first question, my answer is that the real world always provides some of the resources in that production or construction of knowledge. However, to assess “the extent” or the hypothesis that the real world resources might trump the social resources would require a method for
i) mapping the diverse resources and their interconnections; and
ii) assessing the relative weight of the different resources.
Taking on the challenge of (i) has led me to think that (ii) is a concept that cannot be operationalized. In short, that is because science-in-the-making as constructed in the colloquial sense of “an on-going process of building from diverse components, just as a house is built over time using plans and measurements, laborers and contracts, concrete and concrete mixers, wood and saws” (Taylor 2005, 102; building on Taylor 1995). (Curiously, this is the one sense that philosopher Hacking did not consider in his 2000 book, The Social Construction of What?) This means that the significance of any resource depends on how it is linked to other resources in this process; it does not have a weight on its own. The diversity or heterogeneity of resources–something quite evident to scientists in their everyday practice–led me to spell out a view of heterogeneous construction (Taylor 1995, 74):

(a) Without any superintending constructor or outcome-directed agent,
(b) many heterogeneous components are linked together, which implies that
(c) the outcome has multiple contributing causes, and thus
(d) there are multiple points of intervention or engagement that could modify the course of development. In short,
(e) causality and agency are distributed, not localized. Moreover,
(f) construction is a process, that is, the components are linked over time,
(g) building on what has already been constructed, so that
(h) it is not the components, but the components in linkage that constitute the causes. Points c and f–h together ensure that (i) it is difficult to partition relative importance or responsibility for an outcome among the different types of cause (e.g., 80% genetic vs. 20% environmental). Generally,
(j) there are alternative routes to the same end, and
(k) construction is “polyvalent” (Sclove 1995), that is, things involved in one construction process are implicated in many others. Interventions in a construction process, even very focused ones, will have side effects. Finally, points f and k mean that
(l) construction never stops; completed outcomes are less end points than snapshots taken of ongoing processes.

(This developmental view is very similar to the one Anne Fausto-Sterling has been working on to get beyond persistent nature-nurture dualisms.)

If we put aside the idea of weighting resources from “reality” vs. society (but see a 1992 schema), we still face the challenge of mapping the diverse resources and their interconnections. The following themes and open questions summarize the cases discussed in the second half of Taylor (2005; see 218-221).

• interpretation of scientific work as heterogeneous construction exposes specific points at which concrete alternative resources could be mobilized.
-> Q: how to realize the possibility that explicit attention to scientists’ diverse resources could help them—or others in comparable situations—alter their personal, scientific and social facilitations, and so modify the directions in which their science moves….

• interpreting science as heterogeneous construction requires conceptual and methodological choices in which practical considerations are implicated, which means that interpretation also involves heterogeneous construction.
• interpreters of research as heterogeneous construction should distribute the work of interpreting and engaging with that research, e.g., through leading researchers to
map the situations they study and their own situatedness, or,
e.g., stimulating them to take initiative in mobilizing new resources and organizing them to support new directions in their work.
• there is a tension between a) the logic of exposing the situatedness of particular researchers–scientists and interpreters of science–and b) pragmatic choices that limit the probing of conceptual and methodological choices and that keep situatedness in the background.
-> Q: how, in practice, to open up researchers’ situatedness in ways that facilitate its reconstruction?…

• knowledge-making agents are always moving:
a) between system-like formulations and accounts of unruly complexity;
b) among three angles for viewing their own practice—dialogue with the situation studied, interactions with other social agents to establish what counts as knowledge, and efforts to pursue social change by addressing the complexities of their own social situatedness as well as the complexities of the situations they study; and
c) between a concentrated view of their agency and awareness of conditions for modifying or restructuring their situatedness that are more distributed and dependent on the actions of other agents.
-> Q: how individuals, with their knowledge, themes, and other awareness of complex situations and situatedness, can participate with others in restructuring the distributed conditions of knowledge-making and social change?

What is underdeveloped along the preceding knowledge- or epistemology-centered STS path is the materialism of macro-economics and political theory that addresses that (see earlier post on Hobsbawm and Marxism). In the words of Werskey (2007), “the social relations of science were being transformed and more closely yoked than ever to sustaining the power and profitability of global and, more specifically, American capitalism.”  How does the new feminist materialism address or neglect the materialism of macro-economics and corresponding political theory?

Hacking, I. (2000) The Social Construction of What? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Taylor, P. J. (1995) “Building on construction: An exploration of heterogeneous constructionism, using an analogy from psychology and a sketch from socio-economic modelling” Perspectives on Science, 3(1), 66-98.

—– (2005) Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

—– (2011) “Agency, structuredness, and the production of knowledge within intersecting processes,” pp. 81-98 in M. Goldman, P. Nadasdy, and M. Turner (eds.), Knowing Nature: Conversations between Political Ecology and Science Studies, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Werskey, G. (2007). “The Marxist Critique of Capitalist Science: A History in Three Movements?” Science as Culture, 16:4, 397 – 461.

Free will discussion often miss a crucial point 2

Let me entertain, then explore the consequences of, one answer to the previous post‘s questions about the free will debate, which was:

Could someone else point to conditions 1,2,3,… (e.g., biochemical or neurological or unconscious) at or before time t that imply that B and C were not actual choices I could have made, that is, that I was mistaken in saying they were?  What method of finding out about the world would show this inadmissibility of choices I had pointed to?

Actually, the point is probably deeper: Could someone with this knowledge of the inadmissibility of choices B and C convey the knowledge to me in a way that would influence my (mis)understanding of the choices I faced?  And, if they could, is this a way of engaging with each other that we want to foster?

Fried et al. (2011) “report progressive neuronal recruitment over ∼1500 ms [=1.5 seconds] before subjects report making the decision to move.”  If (and that’s a big if) that research developed to the state that the firing neurons could be linked to which decision, say choice A, I was about to be able to report that I had just then made, then the neuronal firing would be “the conditions 1, 2, 3, … at or before time t that imply that B and C were not actual choices I could have made.”  The next challenge would be to convey that information, namely, that I had already decided on A, back to me within the 1.5 seconds.  If that became do-able, we would then have to see if conveying that information influenced the decision.  If not, then we would still be left with the last question: “[I]s this a way of engaging with each other that we want to foster?”

It could be argued that the short time—1.5 seconds—is not an issue.  If neurons fire before I am aware of my decision, then it’s neurons all the way back (by analogy with “turtles all the way down“).  Trace the neurons back and someone would have time to provide information that contradicts my view that I have more than one choice.  My response:  Of course there are neuronal firings that precede the final ones 1.5 seconds in advance.  (That is, I am not denying a mechanistic view of living organisms.)  I doubt, however, that firing neurons could be linked forward to which decision would later appear to being made—the computational and statistical complexity of discerning associations among masses of neurons over time is too great.

The traditional rejoinder to doubts about what future research will be able to show is to say we have to wait and see empirically, implying that my response is not a strong argument conceptually (especially given the doubters of the past who have turned out to be very wrong).  This rejoinder fails to address the computational and statistical complexity issue in general or how it plays out in specific cases, such as linking genomes to diseases and behaviors.

Free will discussion often miss a crucial point

…if you could rerun the tape of your life up to the moment you make a choice, with every aspect of the universe configured identically, free will means that your choice could have been different. Although we can’t really rerun that tape, this sort of free will is ruled out, simply and decisively, by the laws of physics.  Jerry Coyne, Professor of Biology, University of Chicago

Of course, if the free will debate were as simply resolved as Coyne suggests, it would never have persisted long enough for a high-status scientist to be asked for his views.  The error in Coyne’s argument is one, however, shared by many.  The point (at least as I see it) is not whether or not our decisions and actions are determined by the past and current conditions (a question of the way the world is), but whether there is a way we can find out about the world well enough to show what determined the choice (a question of ways to know the world).  That is, suppose I say there are three choices—A, B, C—I could make at some time t (or retrospectively say that there were three choices I could have made), but I make (made) choice A.  Could someone else point to conditions 1,2,3,… (e.g., biochemical or neurological or unconscious) at or before time t that imply that B and C were not actual choices I could have made, that is, that I was mistaken in saying they were?  What method of finding out about the world would show this inadmissibility of choices I had pointed to?  Coyne’s thought experiment of rerunning a tape, which indeed he admits is an impossibility, gets us nowhere in answering these last questions.

Actually, the point is probably deeper: Could someone with this knowledge of the inadmissibility of choices B and C convey the knowledge to me in a way that would influence my (mis)understanding of the choices I faced?  And, if they could, is this a way of engaging with each other that we want to foster?

I do not claim that my points resolves, say, legal debates about culpability and I haven’t studied the philosophical literature on free will.  My lack of interest in doing so is probably a mix of a sense that the points I made above have been missed with a sense that debates about culpability are distractions from the serious issues of defining and reducing crime and treating criminals.

Gender, Race, and the Complexities of Science and Technology: A bibliography

In a 2011 graduate course on “Gender, Race, and the Complexities of Science and Technology,” students were asked to add an annotated reference or resource (=person, organization…) to the evolving googledocs bibliography each week.  (Annotations were to convey the article’s key points as well as its connection to the student’s own inquiries and interests.)  The result is as follows: Continue reading