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WorldCon: The Philosophy of Science
Three panels, one general report, and maybe one followup to go. Slow but steady . . .

The Philosophy of Science
Chad R. Orzel, James Morrow, Jeff Warner, Richard Crownover, M.D., Ph.D., DD Barant
To what extent does SF explore the meaning of science for scientists and create the ideas that our culture has of science?

Barant & Morrow are SF authors. Crownover does clinical medical research; Orzel is a physicist and non-fiction author. Warner is a media criticism guy.



Orzel: description's two questions stuck together, tension between aspects of these. start by exploring meaning of science for scientists. first thing, triumphalist narrative of inspiration to become scientists, predictive power (Arthur C. Clarke invested global telecomm network): what do people think of that?

Warner: fairly obviously an amount of "Great Man Hypothesis"; re: Clarke's invention, what's left out is that he thought would be the satellites would be manned to care for vacuum tubes. Parts of narrative left out to sanitize or simplify; human interactions always contanimate or color

Crownover: simplistically maybe why we got into science; reading SF as child may get wrong impression that world is meritocracy

Orzel: seems almost heroic romantic version, myth scientists tell selves about how things work

Barant: as kid don't necessarily understand how science works, flashy fun captures imagination; then irritation that don't work that way, drive to go make it that way (cell phone inventor trying to do Star Trek communicator?)

Morrow: "far be it for me to claim that I invented VR", but Clarke singled out (name of novel that I missed) as predictive; " . . . that I ended the arms race", _This Is the Way the World Ends_, his British publisher sent to Margaret Thatcher; _Shambling toward Hiroshima_ premise (Godzilla, WWII, satire, Bomb analogy)

Orzel: that brings up the second part, other idea of science in culture: cautionary tales from _Frankenstein_ through Michael Crichton, science creating problems that drive story; interplay, tension between those?

Warner: _Frankenstein_ clarifies tension between socio-religious cultural framework & science, things not meant to know--abandon your faith? in a general culture that is not scientifically aware, scientists = snake in garden, watch carefully

Morrow: speaking more to the movie adaptations than Shelley, cites that husband's views were not religious, read as parable on responsibility of scientist (and as parent?), rejection of creature because didn't meet his expectations

Barant: very much agree, think would be wonderful novel, what if Victor Frankenstein didn't abandon? what kind of Victorian steampunk world would have arisen out of that kind of tech

Orzel: not actually any lightning in novel

Barant: alchemy and chemistry (to create monster)

Orzel: steampunk biotech

rysmiel from audience: a lot of what's underlying Victor Frankenstein's philosophy: swallowed Paracelseus whole, then found rubbish, was an undergraudate mad scientist in the grip of passions that undergraduates get; very important philosophical shift underlying whole thing

audience: the opposite is Hogan _Inherit the Stars_, scientists bickering and then revealing truth (? not sure I heard right)

Barant: toss question: anything out there we are not meant to know?

Warner: wrong dataset (to ask the question to, I believe)

rysmiel from audience: telological way of putting things, but not impossible that there are concepts that human brain didn't evolve to grasp

papersky from audience: not meant to know position & momentum at same time

Crownover: back to responsibilities: as kids, we learned scientists could be either hero or villain, both career paths were open; does teach responsibility, personal choices

Morrow: US cultural majority feels there is great deal not meant to know

me from audience: recommends Octavian Nothing (without spoilers, as critique of uses science can be put to), Steerswoman series, exploration of scientific method and critique of ways science & technology can isolate and privilege

Morrow: never stop conversation about ethical responsibilities; _Philosopher's Apprentice_ is a modern-dress retelling of _Frankenstein_ [I have here: "audience: eeww" but I don't remember why now]

(another one I thought of, _Cyberiad_, silly and about engineers but also about unforeseen consequences etc.)

audience: question about not meant to know: is question not really possible to answer since logically (I think, we wouldn't be able to tell what we don't know; my notes are cryptic); is it more, are there things we shouldn't use?

Orzel: loaded term, "meant," things that are impossible to know or prove

Morrow: at mystery of consciousness panel (notes from skwidly), the quasi-conclusion was it's a paradox when consciousness attempts to contemplate itself, it doesn't have a privileged/objective viewpoint, so dead end; may need aliens to explain

Crownover: not common for something to be known & never used. requires effort put into maintaing information as secret

Orzel: with very limited success

Barant: "not meant to know" = wish that didn't know that (more personal, but)

Orzel: another slant: philosophy of science is large academic discipline, talk about whether SF engages with that, or is it interesting about how it fails to; Kuhn (Wikipedia), Popper (Wikipedia) line about provisional nature of knowledge

Morrow: "not here to only talk about my own novels, yes I am, what did I spent 12 hours on the train for?" _Last Witchfinder_ example

Orzel: Newton also famously an alchemist

audience: careful to hide all that

Morrow: book about Newton, _Last Sorceror_, gravity came out of alchemy

audience: CS Lewis: theory that science & magic grew up in tandem, as twins, the peak of witchcraft view of world was at same time science was getting going

Morrow: Keith Thomas, _Religion & Decline of Magic_, argues that natural philosophers didn't know what they were getting into: the idea that nature could be court of final appeal in experiment was brand new & didn't know what to make of

Orzel: key notions in thinking about science: knowledge is always provisional, best theory liable to be supplanted by a deeper theory that first was approximation of; this is a particular view of philosophy of science, that have to be able to prove theory wrong for it to be science; hard time thinking of things deal with besides _Anathem_; it's a place genre doesn't go enough

audience: Kuhn: got a paradigm, stops working, at that moment sort of revolution, scientists become thought experimenters, have to build up ideas to make new science; think that SF writers have place as thought experimenters? example of Abbott's _Flatland_, written before Einstein wrote down theory of 4th dimension

(me, in my notes: wouldn't you have to show that Einstein read it?)

Orzel: to be slightly pedantic, Einstein has 4th dimension of time, not space; (someone else) had 4th of space; now quantum theory have 4th

Morrow: think everything write is thought experiment, though not formally trained in biology or physics so don't expect to be predictive. Einstein famous for thought experiments, which read like SF stories (what if we are all falling?)

Orzel: circling back around, Alan Lightman's _Einstein's Dreams_

Warner: science, SF, routinely told that can't happen, back of every SF reader's mind hope for shift that will allow this to happen (if don't know where 90% of matter is . . . )

Orzel: really unfortunate aspect of Kuhn's philosophy, it acts as balm for crazy people who convince themselves they're leading edge of new paradigm

Warner: self-filtering, SF that didn't come true, we forget

Orzel: Sagan's quote about laughing at Einstein, Galileo, . . . and Bozo the Clown

jon_singer from audience: Clarke's first law ("When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.")

Orzel: actually find more wish-fulfillment than observation

Crownover: his rule (?): if want to do something done before, get an engineer; if want to do something new, find physicist because they work from first principles

Warner: to take left turn: cultural ideas of science are really mostly of technology

Crownover: watching real science can be very exciting, but what's not exciting is hypothesis-free science, just making measurements etc.

Orzel: the endless days when things in lab don't work are not that exciting, (but/have to) catch at right time

audience: mathematics is great divide between scientists & lay public; how bridge?

Orzel: I do it with a talking dog

Barant: I married a math teacher, I can recommend that solution

Morrow: he put Heisenberg Uncertainty equation in a book; kept getting wrong in every new edition; one of problems up against is typesetters

F. Brett Cox from audience: philosophy of science has more effect on philosophers than scientists; Kuhn is read in critical literary theory courses; how much effect has it really had on working scientists?

Orzel: on way I do science: essentially zero; don't spend a lot of time thinking about philosophical basis of what I do, just do things. Walter Mosley said worst people to ask about how writing works are writers, same for scientists, too close and too involved

Morrow: post-modern understanding of supposed crisis that science was in re: Heisenberg uncertainty, chaos theory, made for very peculiar bedfellows (missed a lot of this)

Crownover: in writing, do people really sit around thinking about whether literary critics are right? some, but not most; think philosophy of science's impact is logical standard by which science is done

Orzel: philosophy of science that sounds most plausible, Feyerabend (Wikipedia) (which he hasn't actually read but), scientists do whatever need, whatever tool, not scientific method that learned in school

audience: scientists can be actively involved in philosophy, Bohr & Einstein debate

Orzel: "it's one of the great failings of elderly physicists that they become philosophers"

Orzel: spate of SF books recently talking about origin of scientific worldview (Keyes, Stephenson, Morrow), may seem larger than is b/c Stephenson's books are so large; why this topic at this time?

Morrow: embarked on _Last Witchfinder_ in a vacuum, but something in the air; such a hostility to science in the air, Enlightenment takes it on the chops from the left (post-modern academics) and right (evangelicals), plus general ignorance (different scientific meaning of theory)

Warner: Western-centric view, some cultures not as much antipathy to science, _Ghost in Shell_ melds science in, this is here let's deal with it

(me: is this too simplistic?)

audience: philosophy of science in a soudbite?

audience: organized skepticism

Crownover: never prove anything true

Morrow: curiosity

audience: Popper: a valid scientific hypothesis states conditions under which could be proved; insistence on stating well enough

audience: there is a philosophy of science that's implicitly accepted: naturalism, positivism, etc.--can make observations etc.

Morrow: even Popper has been critiqued

final thoughts?

Warner: circling back, need to understand, culture wants soundbites, scientists want lots of detail

audience: devil in the details

Warner: oppressive thing to say

jon_singer: devil and God both

*end*

I enjoyed this; I don't know how it was for people who'd heard of all these philosophers and such, but I hadn't, so I learned something, and the audience was engaged and enjoying it.

Some disorganized thoughts

(note, I wasn't there)

Too bad there weren't any philosophers of science on the panel. Maybe they're not much into SF.

I sometimes wonder about the "childhood motivation" line. Personally, though I liked SF when I was a kid, I didn't actually consume a huge amount of it, and I really think that popular and children's nonfiction were much, much more influential in getting me to study science. (Which Chad will be happy to hear.) Even my youthful space geekery really had more to do with reading about actual space missions in magazines and such than with science fiction. As I got more scientifically sophisticated, though, I eventually started mistrusting most of the pop nonfiction I read, and read more SF instead, where it didn't matter so much that it was mostly nonsense. So the causation went the other way. Not that I actually went on to a long-term career in science...

(And now I'm in danger of violating my previous dictum about not trying to make the discussion about me. Moving on...)

Morrow mentioned attacks on science from the academic left. The complaint seems like a weird relic of the 1990s now. It's amazing to think that around the time of the Sokal Hoax and Egan's Teranesia, there was that conference on "The Flight from Science and Reason" in which people decided that the main threat to science was a bunch of lefty humanities professors, radical feminists and Deep Greens! They just had no idea what the right was capable of.



Re: Some disorganized thoughts

Agreed that the panel needed some actual philosophers of science. Or at least Ted Chiang.

In my mis-spent youth as a Philosophy minor (undergrad second major, graduate minor), I found that the hardest part in talking P of Sc with my scientist, engineer, and F&SF fan friends was getting them to see that there were any problems in the first place.

Re: Some disorganized thoughts

Physicists, I know, tend to be rather defensive about outsiders problematizing what they do in various ways. I was in grad school in physics during most of the academic "Science Wars" era of the 1990s, and my impression was that physicists thought that philosophers of science thought that physicists were all just pulling a big scam and making everything up.

(It didn't help when, every so often, somebody came out and made the accusation directly in a newspaper op-ed. But those people were usually not philosophers of science. John Lukacs, to name one, was a historian.)

Then came the war over string theory, in which suddenly half of the particle theorists in the world started accusing the other half of pulling a big scam and making everything up. (Not that particle theory is typical of science or even of physics.)

Re: Some disorganized thoughts

...also, when I was in grad school my impression of Feyerabend was exactly that, that he was one of those guys who thought we were all a bunch of frauds. Later I read an interview with him that more or less dispelled that.

Re: Some disorganized thoughts

As noted at the panel, I haven't read Feyerabend, so I don't have a direct impression of him or his work. My comments about him are mostly based on things Lee Smolin said at a workshop last year. Smolin seemed to like him a lot, so I'm inclined to think he wasn't just hating on physicists.

Re: Some disorganized thoughts

(Anonymous)
As I recall, Feyerabend was rather schizophrenic on this issue. There's a nice article (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feyerabend/) at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It is worth pointing out that much of Feyerabend's work is an explicit rejection of Popper.

Aaron

Re: Some disorganized thoughts

It's not a physicist thing per se, but I definitely flinch whenever I hear the word "problematize" used without irony...

Re: Some disorganized thoughts

I definitely flinch whenever I hear the word "problematize"

You don't like how that word is utilizationalized?

Re: Some disorganized thoughts

I was thinking more of the way philosophers of science take the Problem of Induction seriously, and worry hard about what it means to say that X is evidence that Y. Scientists... not so much.

Of course, now that Philosophy of Mind has concluded that we're all just evolved automata, it hardly matters whether the program is valid or not...
:-\

Re: Some disorganized thoughts

Too bad there weren't any philosophers of science on the panel. Maybe they're not much into SF.

The only sf writer I know of in this area is Liz Williams. She has a PhD in philosopy of science. Would be interested to hear of others.

...Oh, yeah, and that remark about James P. Hogan reminds me that initially Inherit the Stars came across as an unusually good fictional treatment of science!

Sure, looking at it in hindsight, you notice that the actual scenario everyone eventually arrives at is quasi-Velikovskian nonsense, and that Hogan seems to have way, way too much admiration for the steely brutal killer manliness of his prehistoric spacemen. But I did like the way that the scientist seemingly set up to be the antagonist actually comes around and helps come up with the big picture. There's no hint at the contempt for the profession that Hogan would display in his late phase.

Thank you; this is a great recap. May I link to it when I get to the next bits of my worldcon report ?

The Morrow novel that prefigures VR is The Continent of Lies.

Open linking to everything public, no need to ask, but thanks.

Heh. This is the panel where I announced loudly right before it began "Oh, Kate is here! I don't need to take notes, awesome!" And I was right, good job, as always.

I did however, take this nice shiny picture:
The Philosophy of Science

And shiny it is.

?

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