Science & philosophy

The small, religiously-affiliated university at which I work graduates, percentage-wise, a large number of baccalaureates in the sciences although it offers a liberal arts-based core curriculum. How does that affect what coursework students must do? For starters, two Theology courses and one Philosophy course are required for graduation.

Three critical-thinking method, scholarly courses ought not to be more than a student in the sciences–or any other discipline–can handle; but I hear a bit of resentment among the undergrads. They question the necessity of abstract ethics classwork, wondering how such material will be applicable to a fast-paced, technologically-advanced, science-oriented career or life. Philosophy doesn’t seem to be a skill set to them.

SocratesWhile I fundamentally disagree, I take their point. With so much new information coming at them, info-savvy young people might well feel skeptical about what they can gain from reading texts by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas.

Philosophy has been around for millennia, though; empirical science as we know it–with electron microscopes, satellite-mounted telescopes, petri dishes and x-rays–is brand-spanking new by comparison. The techniques we use today seem concrete and tool-like rather than theoretical; yet as every real scientist knows, the only way developments occur is through hypothesis–theory–claim–assertion–question–pushing the envelope of the known.

Which is what philosophers have been doing for thousands of years.

The budding scientists and medical-studies researchers I encounter seldom realize that without philosophy, science would not exist. Philosophers asked the “why” questions, came up with theories and categories, tried to see into a future that might someday have the technology to confirm or refute the theories they came to solely through human observation and deduction. Problem-solving skills. They were the scientists of their day, and the methods of thinking they came up with are those that contemporary scientists in all disciplines continue to employ.

http://www.isys.ucl.ac.be/descartes/images/Descartes.gif Descartes

Descartes, 1640s

A wonderful book on the way philosophy developed into biology (to take just one of the scientific disciplines) is Marjorie Grene and David Depew’s The Philosophy of Biology: An Episodic History.

The authors–a philosophy professor and a rhetoric professor–provide a history lesson in science, taking us by steps and by leaps into the development of a scientific (empirical) skill set as derived from insightful cognitive understandings of those Dead White Guys on whose thinking Western philosophy is based.

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Darwin’s finches, 1840s

Now, I am not an advocate for a strict return to the Western Civ canon; I think university education should diversify into exploring (and questioning) other modes of cognition, culture, and philosophical approaches. Yet it seems to me imperative that students continue to study, and learn to value, the history of human thought. You can be a nurse without a thorough background in Aristotle’s categorical concepts; you can learn the drill about washing hands, donning gloves, and inserting catheters–all practical, concrete skills. You can understand the rationale for all of those skills; that’s true, and practical.

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Cajal’s drawing of a pyramidal neural cell, 1913

Nurses today, however, should have the thinking skills to solve unexpected problems rapidly and rationally, which is how things play out “in real life,” to deduce that something’s going wrong even when the readouts look stable, to recognize that the hurried intern added an extra zero to the number of milligrams of medicine prescribed. They need enough background in the history of medical care-giving to question a doctor or administrator when the ethics of a patient’s care seem to be at risk. These problem-solving skills are not only crucial, they are philosophically-based.

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I will dismount from my high horse now. With all the disorienting information being bombarded at me these days, I need a poem to reorient myself. Here’s one by Mary Oliver.

Snowy Egret (by Mary Oliver)

A late summer night and the snowy egret
has come again to the shallows in front of my house

as he has for forty years.
Don’t think he is a casual part of my life,

that white stroke in the dark.

==

We shake with joy, we shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body.

 

Citizen scientist

From as far back as quite early childhood, I have been interested in science: zoology, botany, biology, entomology, physics–if I had been mentored differently, I might have become a researcher instead of a poet. I possess that quality of curiosity that pushes for details, a trait that people refer to as ‘geeky.’ For me, it is fun to contribute my backyard observations to The Dragonfly Woman’s research or to the Eastern Pennsylvania Phenology Project, which asks for assistance from ‘citizen scientists.’ This evening, I am taking some elderly best beloveds to a fundraiser concert for March for Science.

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March for Science logo. The March is April 22, 2017.

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Empiricists have to begin as observers, and here’s where my science and poetry passions twine. Today’s backyard notes involve gray squirrels and the hypothesis that they learn behavior swiftly through their (many) generations.

My backyard is essentially a lawn and meadow, quite open, with two pear trees and a quince almost halfway between the property lines, both of which feature narrow woodlots and brush hedgerows. For 16 years, we had a dog; between the dog’s presence and the fact of hawks–of which there are many–gray squirrels seldom ventured from one side of the property to the other. Both woodlots are replete with walnuts and sumac and wild cherries, so squirrels really did not need to get across the meadow.

As of last year, though, they have learned they can cross the lawn in relative safety, as long as they exert haste and stop nowhere along the way. The dog died, but the hawks are still around.

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Gray squirrels by Beatrix Potter, “The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes.”

They may have learned this behavior last summer, when a mid-season drought led to very thirsty squirrels who were brave enough (no dog!) to dash to the pear trees and harvest pears. Juicy!

So now, they race across the lawn…to have sex. Squirrel sex is a frolic of prinking, rolling, tumbling–a bundle of tails and feet, a flurry of gray and white fur at the foot of a tree, dry leaves scattered by the wrestling. Then the pair scurries off side by side. Today is actually the first time I have witnessed squirrel mating, though clearly it occurs frequently to judge by the numbers of these creatures in our yard.

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From Potter’s “The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes”

I think of Beatrix Potter as an excellent example of the citizen scientist. While her paper on mycology concerning the reproduction of fungi via spores [“On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae“] was not accepted as science at the time she wrote it, her observations were correct.

Her drawings of animals are marvelously accurate, even when she puts them into dresses, jackets, bonnets, and tiny slippers. Though she personifies them, she chooses human attributes that suit animal behavior rather than the other way around.

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Science, then, is close reading of the world’s phenomena, not really so different from literary scholars with their close reading of texts. Poets also view the world with close reading–observation, curiosity, changing perspective–asking questions about what we think we know. And revelations sometimes occur. Like squirrel behaviors, including squirrel sex; like spores, and the life cycle of salamanders, and dragonfly swarms.

Consciousness reconsidered

A few months back, I was reading about consciousness (see here and here). This article on “brain tubules” caught my attention, although I admit to considerable skepticism as to how applicable, or even correct, this research will turn out to be. The material seems exciting–quantum vibrations in the brain!–because of the possibilities inherent in a synthesis of chemistry, biology, and physics and how such synthesis could lead to a theory of human consciousness.

The earliest article I could find on this theory dates to 1998 (an abstract is here). I suppose I should now break down and tackle Werner Loewenstein’s Physics in Mind: A Quantum View of the Brain. But I have a huge to-read list at present and no time or concentration to get to those books. Besides, at the moment I find myself more concerned with the less empirical side of consciousness theory. I mean: belief, attitude, faith. Those non-provable abstracts that nevertheless seem so much a part of most human beings’ operating systems…the things that psychology and neurology do not seem able to answer and that keep philosophers continually at work (the only true knowledge being the knowledge that one knows nothing).

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And maybe, as Daniel Dennett suggests, the very idea of consciousness is an illusion–the brain evolving to fool us through perception.

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This bust resides in the Louvre, and was found here: http://www.humanjourney.us/greece3.html

This bust resides in the Louvre,
and was found here:
http://www.humanjourney.us
/greece3.html

Do our brains fool us through our perceptions of emotion, too?

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And how does this affect how we understand, say, literature, or art? Poetry, for example: Is it possible to deconstruct the pleasure I take from a poem into quantum vibrations in connective synapses as a result of the evolutionary process and, if so, where does the knowledge get me?

Would I still love the poem? (I think I would.) Would I consciously love the poem, consciously find pleasure and surprise in it, once I understand fully the process and development of consciousness? (Why not?) Would such knowledge flatten my emotional or aesthetic attraction to the poem? (I doubt it.)

If loving my perception of art, my relationship with it or attachment to it, is “merely” an evolutionary development, that does not cheapen or devalue the way I feel.

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What brain studies and consciousness studies have to say about faith may perhaps set up more antagonism between science and consciousness-as-non-biological/i.e. religion, spirituality, etc. By faith I mean not necessarily religious faith but any non-provable conjecture, some of which are imaginative and potentially marvelous, not to mention potentially true. Some statements can be disproven but not proven…and there is the apagogical argument…and then there is the definition of faith (or belief) as Wikipedia defines it: “Faith is subjective confidence or trust in a person, thing, deity, or in the doctrines or teachings of a religion, or view (e.g. having strong political faith) without empirical evidence, or as confidence based upon a degree of evidential warrant (as in a Biblical sense).”

That empirical evidence thing is the perpetual stumbling-block, yet–paradoxically–it’s also what makes faith so appealingly…human. Yes, maybe we are fooling ourselves. And maybe that’s what is so marvelously cognitively neurologically fruitful and imaginative about the whole human endeavor.

Abstraction, evolution, & sky-beauty

I awakened this morning to a sunrise of surpassing beauty. As I drove to work, I remembered that the first poems I recall ever writing were about the wind and about dawn–perhaps I wrote other poems as a child, but these two are the only ones I remember: poems that celebrated something I found lovely in nature.

After the vivid morning sky, we had a day of rain; and on my commute home, a compelling sunset bookended the working day. I call these skies “beautiful” and would definitely regard my experience of looking at them as aesthetic.

And yet, it’s only the sky, some clouds, the sun, phenomena that science has explained. What makes it beautiful?

photo: Beejay Grob

photo: Beejay Grob (North Carolina coastal sky)

David Rothenberg’s 2011 book Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution has accompanied me for the past week; I have been reading it when I can find time to read and to cogitate. Rothenberg speaks directly to the question of what makes us experience beauty, whether beauty is a human-only construct, and from where the qualities of aesthetic experience arise. He explores among other things whether beauty (especially in the form of art) evolved along with us, what makes it timeless (if it is indeed timeless), and whether our grounding in nature as earthly beings formed the grounding for what we deem beautiful.

And he considers symmetry and biology and abstract art and math and music. There’s quite a good deal of synthesis and speculation going on in this book.

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Rothenberg writes that he is interested in whether humans’ developing education in abstractions–concepts and abstract arts–might produce an outcome that increases our appreciation of things in nature and the cosmos. He writes:

It might seem this century has freed us from interest in any kind of constricting form or function in art, but I want to test out a different theory: that abstraction in the arts has made us find more possible beauty in the natural world…as art exalts pure form and shape, the laws of symmetry and chaos found in mathematics and science seem ever more directly inspirational. Aesthetically, we become more prepared to see beauty where before we saw only the clues of beauty, its glimmers or possibilities…our minds are more attentive to an abstract kind of beauty that we can discover but not necessarily build or create.

It takes him several chapters to braid together the many strings of his interdisciplinary inquiries; but the upshot is that while I feel he does not answer the questions he begins with, he does deepen the reader’s thought process about art, beauty, and the evolution of ideas as well as of organisms. He says the interesting discussion lies not with what is or is not art, nor how to evaluate the individual merit of works, but rather “how artistic expression changes how we think in ways only art can accomplish.”

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In light of Rothenberg’s musings on how natural-feeling abstract art can be, here are some examples: Barlow, Ellis, (contemporary) and Klee (modern).

Rothenberg concludes with some ambiguity about aesthetics and evolution, which suits his book-length and life-long explorations on the interweavings of these ideas; but he adds with certainty that “[b]iology is not here to explain away all that we love in terms of the practical and rational. That is not how nature works. Nor should we shrink from our natural astonishment at the magnificence evolution has produced.”

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He mentions John Cage’s work and approach to composing, and I think Cage’s main point in so much of his work is getting us to listen, to see, getting us to be attentive. Viz Rothenberg’s words quoted above, maybe an integration of abstraction does open us to be more attentive to the beauty that exists in the world without any artist making it. We could not, in the past, have appreciated the fractal values of river deltas viewed from airplanes; and perhaps only natural (or trained) artists noticed how the twigs of a tree reiterate the shapes, angles, and curves of the branches, boughs, sometimes even bark. Now we know about Mandelbrot sets and fractal geometry, and those abstractions can generate beautiful patterns. Now we know the Fibonacci sequence of numbers–an abstraction–appears in snail shells and sunflower seed-heads.

We do not have to be mathematicians, chemists, art critics, environmental scientists, physicists, sculptors, violinists, composers, dancers, college professors or biologists to recognize patterns and symmetries, or to find that slight variations in the pattern enhance the experience through the kind of surprise and delight that I discover in great poems.

We just have to be attentive.

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