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HTLGI2012: Science & Poetry

By Dave Snowden  ·  June 3, 2012  · 

One of the highlights of this years festival was the presence of moral philosopher Mary Midgley.  Her book on Wickedness is one of my favourite reads and her moral dissection of Richard Dawkins in the pages of Philosophy a delight.   The first session of the day, Poetic Theories featured her along with a game theorist Ken Binmore and a poet (also a great great granddaughter of Darwin) Ruth Padel.    The context of the debate was Dawkins attempt to place poetry in context as a means to inspire scientific insight.  A point I made in a question was that for Dawkins poetry is simple a means to a created end, namely scientism (which is not the same thing as science) he doesn't understand that there are entwined and entangled.  Basically the session combined Ruth's insight into the origin of words, with Mary's sharp insight (I would not want to earn her contempt she is savage in the best sense of the word) and Ken's attempt to create a dichotomy, not to mention misquoting Keats which is a mistake when you have a polymath sitting next to you.   

There was a substantial debate about metaphor and its role in human sense-making.  While Ken seems to want see metaphor as some sort of model the other two, rightly I think, emphasis that it is much more than that.  In my question I suggest that the difference for Dawkins is linked to his advocacy of adaption (things have a purpose) over exaptation (general capabilities used for many purposes); this forces him into a linear model.  Mary's interest in the question makes the day worth while.

From there I moved onto Hawking vs Philosophy which is similar in vein.  It picks up on Hawking's remark that Physical has replaced Philosophy.  Unfortunately we have two polemicists on the platform in Lewis Wolpert and Stephen Fuller.   The former advocates the uselessness of Philosophy, the latter has advocated intelligent design as a legitimate perspective which I suppose it is if you have adopted the post modernist heresy.  Wolpert I am afraid is really stupid and obviously has little or no understanding of the field.  I and another member of the audience give him examples of neuroscientists who are also philosophers or who work with them.  He only response (other than a tacit admission of ignorance of the names) is that it is good some philosophers have started to do science.  Fuller hectors, Wolpert pontificates in ill thought through soundbites.  Jonathan Derbyshire, Culture Editor of the New Statesman attempts to intervene but is not listened to.   I enjoyed the session for the polemic, but the subject deserved better exploration and more informed participants.

My final session for the day was Fuller again on The Proactionary Imperative.  Here he introduced the transhumanist position as advocating the unique of humans and our entitlement to impose ourselves regardless of the consequence to the planet and other species.  Proaction is contrasted with precaution which says we should not use up the earth's resources.  Again we were hectored, I got some good ideas especially his suggestion that proaction is panglossian and a god complex thing, but no discourse.

There were a lot of interesting sessions in the afternoon, but I was booked to take Peter to his first ever Wagner production (Tristan) so we left and headed for Cardiff.   I will blog on that next week as part of a wider consideration of opera.  For the moment I will content myself with sharing notes.

 

Note from Poetic Theories

Chair kicks off with Dawkins quote. Science is and ought to be poetic, should use poetry etc.  (some boos in audience!).  Implies Dawkins sees it as a springboard only.   The scourge of scientific pretension - guardian on Mary Midgley!

Ruth starts with reference to Hockney statement that western mistake is to select a single perspective (not exact quote).  Science a word is debased in respect of objectively.  Theory started as a Greek work to look at or to go on a journey and report back.  Plato, alchemised the word to give birth to science perspective.  A theory should be what best fits the facts as we know them at the moment.   Poetry comes from the Greek to make, science is to know.  they are complementary in their overlaps.  Poetry. An hold the question it does not have to answer them.  They are b oth after truth.  Both of them work empically when they are that best, Woking Bottom up and finding the patterns.

Ken says he is the villain here.  Doesn't think Dawkins means anything specific but is saying that s Cirencester is poetical in the sense that it can be inspirational inspired by wonder.  Same pleasures as I poetry and music in science, but he wishes he would shut up about religion, shares his via but he is becoming very tiresome.  Villains hat on - poetry has done zero for science.  Keats quote on truth and neutry satirised .  Poets have no discipline.

Mary says he has misquoted Keats as related to Grecian urn.  Science rests on imaginative visions and they are sometimes wrong (this is what Dawkins says).  View On mind and matter from 17th century based on Greek reductionist atomism which is still strong.  That came from poetic imagination.  Kepler liked Greek idea of attraction rather than banging together.  

Chair takes control back (bastard)  with question on wasteland

Ru th points out that darwins favourite book was miltons paradise lost and that influenced origin of species.  Loss of garden ending up with a tangled bank a new paradise is there in survival of...  Visions are not answers.   Evolution may be objective, but then we discover something else and have to adapt. 

Mary says that both aim at truth in the sense of to the north signs. On motorway, you are going that w ay, but you will never get there.  Wants to talk about metaphors and asks ken to respond.   Ken talks about benzine model and discoverer dreaming of snakes.  In respect of metaphor he references models and their limits, we are not allowed to go where the poets go as metaphysical insights are for them

Mary says that science rests on metaphors, references machine metaphor but these are not literal truth.  Locke says we should use plain language, but even the plainest of language contains metaphor.  It's all entangled.  Ken says that Mary does not understand what truth is

Metaphor comes from Greek to carry across   Aristotle says from a foreign place to a new place.

Ken says that science would carry on without poetry although it would be a loss.

I asked about entanglement and exaptation.  Referenced Dawkins adaptationist and seeing poetry as stimulating the the real stuff which is his perspective on science.  Anoth challenges Ken.

Mary Ken is right about some factual statements but most of the tie we deal with more comple issues.  When we talk about things we suggest that something is the case.  Ken's examples ad one end of the spectrum.  Raises King Lear again, and disillusion a out facts,   General truths cannot be finalised.  Ken wants to separate the facts of science from getting it across to people. 

SUMMING UP
Mary says imaginative vision is crucial to science and when it changes can change science but can be bad so needs attention.  Others more or less agree.

Note from Hawking v Philosophy

Lewis (biologist) starts.  HaKins is right, philosophy only tells us the obvious or the trivial,  Aristotle had some use.  Philosophy of science is junk.  As useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.  Science tries to find out how things work.   Philosophers are clever and use. Harming language.

Jonathan says Hawkins is wrong.  Not clear if Hawkins has kept up with philosophy.   Firstly is that philosophical assumptions play a role in science and philosophy plays a role in science.  Distinguishes between science as explanation and (not his words) sense making.   Don't say the are both in the same boat and neither succeeds in explaining the world.  However philosophy makes sense of human behaviour and intellectual endeavour.  There  retain areas of things like human behaviour that sciene annoy explain.  Gesture of an cricket umpire understanding of rules of cricket and social context

Steve has history with Lewis.  Says that there is an overlap, philosophers can ask why we do sciene what is it value over other formsofknowledge 

Philosophy as clarifier not explainer.   A certain philosophy of science allows it to make progress.

This is mostly polemic on well worn tracks.  Fuller as ever is hysteric

Note from The Proactionary Imperative 

Contrasts with precautionary principle - replace what you use which inhibits some aspects of science.
Proactionary introduced in a transhumanist event, sees itself as pro-science and our use of technology marks us out as a species.  Step changes such as singularity and gene changes.  Proactionary principles tends to ignore the past.  Colonising planets also way to see surviving on earth as parochial thinking.  So black skies research thinking of the universe.

Proactionary imperative is a god complex thing.  With humans the ball game changes.  What doesn't kill you makes your stronger. We can learn from and can make things better.  Suggests that these people are Panglossian per last nights accusation by the chair against Bjorn

Libertarian right linked to Proactionary People; science is an extension of the free market
On the left some are pro with planning and science base.  Argues social safety net issues link