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.

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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.

 

Hyacinths & biscuits

Synthesis results in innovation, imagination, surprise.

Carl Sandburg, in Good Morning, America (1928): among 37 other “definitions” of poetry, Sandburg wrote that poetry is “the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits.”

Well, maybe not. Then again, my recent reading has resulted in synthesis in my own gray matter, and it is not difficult to see where the reflection leads.

Lakoff & Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh; Greenblatt’s The Swerve, which describes how 16th-century book hunter Poggio Bracciolini rediscovered Lucretius’ poem On the Nature of Things and what resulted to change Western thought; a re-reading of said poem (available in prose or verse translations); some verses by Li Po; and Mary Oliver’s 2009 collection Evidence.

Add to this thought processing a beautiful spring day spent out of doors, gardening and visiting with friends.

What results? I don’t know, really. But it feels a bit like joy in the moment.

hyacinth burpee

Image thanks to Burpee gardens

Randomness & poems

The past weeks unloaded upon the blogger a host of responsibilities and reasons for reflection: reams of student essays to read and grade, piles of snow and the resultant delays and work closure leading to backlogs, and such usual complaints. In addition, the dropping-of-everything while attending to the death of our no-longer-resident nonagenarian, not to mention the bureaucratic heaps of forms and notifications that follow a passing.

I’m writing poems. It seems to be what I need to do at present, despite the state of my household environment and the backlog at work.Untitled-writer

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The blizzard put my gardening on hold, though I remembered to purchase some seeds and thus can get to the tomato-starting process within a week or so. Before the snow came, I did get outside to prune and deadhead a bit while the weather was unseasonably warm. A little at a time. Such things are sustaining to me, emotionally.

And watching the birdfeeders has been soothing and delightful. Today a small nuthatch joined the party. My youngest cat spends large segments of his day crouched by the window, as fascinated as I am (but for different reasons, I suppose).

scoot window

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I am thinking of a friend-in-poetry who has need of special care and financial assistance while going through and recuperating from some extremely painful, delicate, dangerous and potentially-disabling surgery-&-rehab. She will need more than the initial $4K this GoFundMe portal suggests, so if any of my readers feel inclined toward a random act of (financial) kindness: Jessamyn’s Medical Fundraiser. Thanks.

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Addendum: Yes, I’m sticking to my determination to read more poetry. And it is helping. Most recently, re-reading early Li-Young Lee, Mark Doty’s Deep Lane, Dave Bonta’s Ice Mountain: An Elegy, and a really wonderful new collection by Kim Roberts: The Scientific Method.

 

Problems of moral order

“Authority in the moral sphere is modeled on dominance in the physical sphere. The moral authority of the parent over the child is metaphorically modeled on the physical dominance of the parent over the young child…it is a metaphorical model in which the logic of moral authority makes use of the logic of physical dominance.”   –from Philosophy in the Flesh, George Lakoff & Mark Johnson (p. 301, my italics)

Here is a problem: “folk philosophy” assumes that the moral order is the natural order, a logic much used in the dogma of many Western religions; but Lakoff and Johnson point out how such suppositions lead to “a hierarchy of moral superiority and authority.” Because we are corporeal, physical phenomena in a physical world and our initial human relationships get established through the parent-child model, human beings have a hard time escaping the physical dependence-physical dominance-physical responsibility metaphors, which we incorporate into our languages and philosophies.

There is no reason to refute or escape such metaphors, fundamentally embodied as they are, as long as we are aware of them. For people who accept physical dominance as the natural order without recognizing it as evolutionary and metaphorical, however, the logic that [this metaphor]=Natural Law=Moral Order can be harmful.

And not just to them but to their families, their neighbors, and their societies.

Lakoff & Johnson write, “The consequences of the metaphor of Moral Order are sweeping, momentous, and, we believe, morally repugnant…the Moral Order metaphor gives us a better understanding of what fascism is: Fascism legitimatizes such a moral order and seeks to enforce it through the power of the state” (p. 304).

The authors later note that “the view of moral concepts as metaphoric profoundly calls into question the idea of ‘pure’ moral reason” (p. 330). In other words, pretty much all of Western philosophy since Aristotle. Which makes me contemplate whether that question also suggests there is no “pure” abstract consciousness–whether there is any me (I do not mean Ego here) without the body I inhabit.

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Then again,  Dürr’s speculation that memories exist as data–a kind of cloud network, as an analogy–and somehow persist, merits some consideration. I find Lakoff persuasive, however. I know he has since added to, altered, and labored on the concepts laid out in this 1999 book.

The foundations and evolutionary development of our families, tribes, and languages create our philosophies; this much seems as certain to me as anything–and thus arrive in our collective consciousness as metaphors, stories, poems.

 

Metaphor & mind

In a recent New Yorker article about the trial of Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof, Jelani Cobb reports that during the lead prosecutor’s presentation

Roof’s mother sank down on the bench as he delivered his opening statement, which contained details of the crime that had previously been withheld from the press. At a certain point, she slumped over. It seemed for a moment that she had fainted, but she was taken to a hospital, and it was later learned that she had suffered a heart attack. She survived, but did not return for the remainder of the trial.

In her situation, I might have had the same response. How metaphorical: the heart revolts from within–an embodied reaction. When I read about this incident, I thought of cognitive scientist/philosophers George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, who have been pioneering the concept that the mind and body evolved together and cannot be separated through the literal, analytical, categorical approaches of classic Western thought.

Languages the world over use body-based metaphors and gestures that reinforce how our  minds are integrated with and connected to our human bodies–we intuit from the gut; a situation makes our skin crawl; we place hands over hearts to demonstrate love, loyalty, compassion. Medical science confirms what people have long understood, in a “folk physiology” way, for years: emotional and intellectual stress has physical expressions and repercussions.

Lakoff and Johnson have been investigating such universal human phenomena since the 1970s. Their work has implications for a wide range of endeavors from artificial intelligence to brain trauma. In 1999, when Philosophy in the Flesh was published, they said Western philosophy needs to retool its thinking from the ground up, the ground being the body itself.

Reason, they assert, is as embodied as emotion; and their argument that intellectual functioning arises metaphorically through the physiological experiences of the (human) body is persuasive and extensively documented through research, particularly neurological research. Exactly where what we term “consciousness” arises may never be determined, but phenomenology, Taoism, and empirical science converge with what we are learning about synapses, cells, hormones, and the neural network to suggest there may be an answer as to how consciousness emerges; and that answer is likely to be biological.

brain

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The brain, the heart, the entire bodily system under emotional, mental, psychological duress, the conflicting moods of love, grief, anger, fear, and a chasm of misunderstanding; the terrible awe of disbelief–an embodied self might well collapse, physically, literally, under the metaphorical strain.

 

 

Knowing the mind

I am reading an unusual pairing of books…Joseph Fins’ Rights Come to Mind and George Lakoff & Mark Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh. One is about traumatic brain (and to some extent, spinal) injury and the differences between minimally conscious states and persistent vegetative states, and what we know–or mostly, don’t know–about the brain and its ability to recover or reorganize (see also Will Storr’s article from 2015 about some recent medical discoveries in neurology).

The other book is an inquiry into how Western philosophy may be seriously challenged by scientific, empirical findings about the embodiment of the conscious self. Then, after suggesting that neural pathways help us to create abstract reason–largely through metaphor–he asks whether we can adequately understand the world through science alone!

Fins’ book is not elegantly written, from a literary standpoint; but he raises hugely important questions about consciousness, healthcare decision-making, medical institutions’ and physicians’ difficulties dealing with how to measure consciousness and brain activity–to determine who may be “locked-in” or who is minimally conscious, or which patients will never recover any conscious neural activity again. Fins details the agony of family members making impossible decisions in a medical system that often views brain-trauma victims as medical failures when the patient does not recover quickly enough; he asks us: by what measure is quickly-enough? (Usually, as determined by a health care insurer…alas, my family has been snarling with too-general insurance categories lately, so I am sympathetic to Fins’ perspective).

These are tough areas to investigate, and his argument is that physicians and researchers have not spent enough time investigating them. He also asserts that this would not be a waste of money on irreparably-injured patients, because we can learn much about the brain’s capacity to heal through observation, therapy, and scans of such people. He takes pains to be certain his readers recognize how much remains unknown about the brain and human consciousness. (Here, I refer my own readers to Douglas Hofstadter’s book I Am a Strange Loop).

In the Storr article cited above, Greg Downey, co-author of the blog Neuroanthropology, cautions: “People are so excited about neuroplasticity they talk themselves into believing anything.” And it is true, there’s a chance of false hope and huge disappointment here. But the brain does exhibit an astonishing ability to rewire itself–in the body.

Which brings me to Lakoff & Johnson’s text. Lakoff calls himself a cognitive scientist, not a philosopher. He says, “In 1978, I discovered that metaphor was not a minor kind of trope used in poetry, but rather a fundamental mechanism of mind.” He and his colleagues have gone on to provide a body of evidence to support this claim that they’ve been working on since the late 90s.

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neural matrix fiber topography, Johns Hopkins University

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As a poet interested in neurology and in philosophy, these claims interest me. As a person whose elderly best-beloveds are now beginning to show evidence of significant cognitive lacunae…or “decline”…I am interested in losses of neural plasticity, or perhaps a misfiring in the processes of rewiring. The evidence of such losses are, indeed, embodied. Gaps in the ability to recognize metaphor or analogy appear. On a recent visit, the nonagenarian said, “I can no longer seem to say any of the things I want to say, that I hear in my head, but can’t…can’t seem to…make. Make into the world. Do you know what I’m saying?”

~

A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day.

~ Emily Dickinson

 

 

 

Head in a book

I am tackling some fairly difficult texts* at the moment and, when I need to find something less academic, have interspersed them with poetry and short fiction. In the latter genre, Ted Chiang‘s work has been a marvelous discovery for me. His speculative fiction derives its plot points from scientific and mythological sources. Though his writing style differs from hers, much about the short stories reminds me of the late Octavia Butler‘s work. “Understand” is a fascinating perspective on intellect vs consciousness, “Tower of Babylon” a lovely mythology that owes something to Borges, Calvino, archeology, the Hebrew Bible, and torus theory.

As to poetry, I’m reading Moira Egan‘s sometimes hilarious and often authentically moving Hot Flash Sonnets. Although “women of a certain age” can easily relate to the apparent topic of the sonnets, these poems appeal to much more than insight into female physiology or stereotyped emotionality/mood swings; they are about desire of many kinds, about taste and sex and grief, aging and joy–moments the world opens up to us and sings (in sonnet form!).

Yes, I know history is going on around me; and here I am with my head in a book.

It’s better than having my head in the sand. I’m learning something!

 

 

 

*Philosophy in the Flesh; Untranslatable: A Philosophical Lexicon.