Authority and Experience

For us, to whom the privileged status of eyewitnesses seems obvious, this great revolution [in epistemology, privileging experience over authority] has ceased to be visible, and it is almost impossible to conceive of ourselves living in a world—a world that was never real, but always imaginary—in which garlic disempowers lodestones and goat’s blood softens diamonds” (David Wootton, The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution [Harper Collins 2015], 283).

However: quarks. (To quote Wallace Stevens again: “pages of illustrations.”)

However: quarks supposedly are based on a chain of inference & testimony that begins in—is founded on—direct experience, replicable and falsifiable, consistent with other observations and experiences, and so on. Continue reading

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Blurry Mental States

Here’s a little ponder I did a while back, which I came across recently while poking around in my files.

Zadie Smith in NYRB, reviewing The Social Network (the Mark Zuckerberg movie) and You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier (11/25/10):

“When I read something like that [semi-literate Facebook posts to the recently dead], I have a little argument with myself: ‘It’s only poor education. They feel the same way as anyone would, they just don’t have the language to express it.’ But another part of me has a darker, more frightening thought. Do they genuinely believe, because the girl’s wall is still up, that she is still, in some sense, alive?”

More and more, I’m coming to think of this as a false dichotomy. To mis-use a concept Smith deploys in this review, it’s a kind of 1.0 thinking—or, to put it in more familiar terms, it’s characteristic of the long tradition of Enlightenment thought. My experience teaching composition has led me to the conclusion that people’s minds are much messier than we hyperliterate types like to represent them as, and that what appear on paper to be logical contradictions like this are in fact quite normal in most people’s everyday thinking.

[Then, to quote Wallace Stevens, “pages of illustrations.”]

Even this understates the case: language itself requires a clarity, a crystallization—a reduction to the monads of words—that imposes an appearance of discreteness quite at odds with the fluidity of actual thought. Writing by people unaccustomed to the conventions of writing reveals this fluidity in the ways it violates the conventions. It’s not the writing itself but the fluid dynamics, the roiling of the reader’s own thinking and expectation, that acts as a trace, revealing indexically that elusive fluidity and ease with contradiction that characterizes ordinary thinking. Language, I suspect, will never be able to represent this reality. At best it can indicate it by producing those same disruptions. Perhaps this is just a way of saying what Stein and Faulkner and Joyce and others were after with the development of stream-of-consciousness; certainly it helps explain what I love about Woolf. But for me, the language itself always interposes itself, becomes the object of attention, and the fluidity of thought escapes again into its nonverbality.

Maybe what I’m trying to describe is, again, Bateson’s idea of “primary process” (a concept he borrowed from Freud), and I’ve come unexpectedly by a different route to the same question I addressed in my comments on writing from a nonhuman perspective.

Kick the Kochs off the Board

A group of scientists have published an open letter to the Smithsonian, the American Museum of Natural History, and others to cut all ties with the fossil fuel industry, including removing David Koch from the boards of those two museums.

As James Powell, one of the signatories, put it on Democracy Now!,

And when you have on your board someone who has gotten the science wrong and who is a billionaire and is sitting at the table when trustee decisions are made, you at least give the appearance that your exhibit might be tainted and might not be giving the best science. And, in fact, with the Smithsonian exhibit that you talked about, I think that’s not just an appearance, but it’s actually the reality—the notion that we can evolve our way out of global warming. I like to say my grandchildren are already here; they’re present on the planet. They’re not going to evolve by the time they’re my age. What is going to happen is that the world is going to be a much more dangerous place.

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Everything You Know Is Wrong: Reflections on Epistemological Anxiety

Here’s an essay on what we think we know and why we shouldn’t be so sure. After I wrote it I read and enjoyed Jonah Lehrer’s piece “The Truth Wears Off: The Decline Effect and the Scientific Method” in the New Yorker, which explores similar themes. As an aside, this essay might help explain why I was a lot less inclined than many of my lefty friends to mock Donald Rumsfeld for his famous “known unknowns” remark, though I did appreciate the rendering of that remark into free verse.

In 1813, the noted ornithologist John James Audubon witnessed a phenomenon that has become legendary, both for its size and for its somber lesson: the passing of a flock of passenger pigeons. It lasted for three days and nights, stretching from one horizon to the other, darkening the sky like an eclipse. Branches and small trees broke under their weight, and many were crushed by those that landed above them. Their poop fell like snow. These flocks were “more like storm systems than assemblages of birds,” writes William Souder in Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of The Birds of America. They inspired a gargantuan slaughter by the farmers and recreational hunters of antebellum America, one that continued for decades until the species was nearly extinct, no longer able to sustain itself. The last one died in a zoo in 1914.
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