Caramels

SKYLAR (cont’d)
Maybe we could go out for coffee
sometime?

WILL
Great, or maybe we could go somewhere
and just eat a bunch of caramels.

SKYLAR
What?

WILL
When you think about it, it’s just as
arbitrary as drinking coffee.
Good Will Hunting

I just finished a great sci-fi novel (Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson) wherein a character is convinced that knowledge is discovered, not created. The distinction seemed false and arbitrary to me. Swift googlery revealed that others have bothered to have opinions on this, so I guess it’s more than just a trope. On the “discovery” side of the ledger, we might post Archimedes and his flash of insight regarding specific gravity. On the creation side reside, I believe, not only legitimate synergistic and innovative applications of existing knowledge within a scientific theoretical framework to create the never-before-known, but also all those attempts to apply language to understanding that require nuanced distinctions and arbitrary dimensional shifts in order to lend a fresh perspective, to restate the mundane. The former are meaningful. The latter devoid of meaning. Viva, I suppose, la differance.

Knowledge can be created when there is theory to lend a framework, a perspective for discovery. For years the atomic chart had holes in it. But experimentalists devised methods to isolate the previously undiscovered elements and thus created knowledge of their existence.

Fresh perspectives yield new theoretical frameworks, and within these frameworks undiscovered information waits to be revealed, hidden knowledge to be discovered, or created. This is a modern sensibility that fuses the arbitrary distinction between created and discovered knowledge. Knowledge is seldom discovered or created and never described outside of a theoretical framework, and the controlling irony of scientific investigation is that the purest and most parsimonious application of Occam’s razor yields an understanding of systems that evolve from simplicity to chaos.

All of which may be by way of thanking J. Alva for the DVD, I suppose. Inspector Lohman, in a lengthy post that J. Alva linked, said:

The wish to convey one’s understanding of the world to others asserts one’s existence. That most blogs are nothing more than online journals is decisive, for the intent is not to communicate one’s thoughts to oneself, but are, rather, intentioned attempts to share oneself with others, and is, thus, necessarily a way to discover or create community, to find someone who will witness one’s thoughts, one’s experience. It is a call that says “I am living, and this is what I see, what I feel, what I think” — whether or not that call is answered. The desire to blog is a testament to our innate wish to connect with others: it is tossing out a line into the ether, one that asserts our existence through our voice, a voice that wants to be heard; or, put another way, they are messages in a bottle tossed into the ocean that is the blogosphere, messages which have the potential of finding a sympathetic reader who understands; and thus a connection is made, a community is formed.

My post today on Caramels is the kind of thing that few will value… it’s ruminative at best and it adds little to anyone else’s understanding of the world. There are many bloggers whose brilliance and sensitivity I respect who seem to understand the world in the context of creation of knowledge through verbal exploits. I try to temper with humility my certainty that they are wrong, that “post-modern theory” is objectively a construct that has pushed aside the most promising and legitimate lines of inquiry in the areas of artistic criticism, political governance, psychology and social studies making room for the global emergence of corporate fascism.

I’m pleased that there are those like Bruce, Ray, J. Alva, Norm, Leslie, and many others in my corner of the blogosphere who are willing occasionally to entertain, and be entertained by my retro-socialist observations and convictions.

I hope that in 2022 we can have a CaramelCon, and all come together somewhere to enjoy each other’s company.

Posted in People, Science
14 comments on “Caramels
  1. Considered as a Text, there is some merit to the view that institutional PoMo is meretricious and recherche, and that keen observations may infrequently emerge in spite of this. Some would go further and hint that it’s best relegated to its origins: an entertaining literary device.

    That being said, I still choose corporate fascism. A man has to make a living somehow, eh?

  2. I’d be selling out myself, if I could find a buyer.

  3. Ethan says:

    On the creation side reside, I believe, not only legitimate synergistic and innovative applications of existing knowledge within a scientific theoretical framework to create the never-before-known, but also all those attempts to apply language to understanding that require nuanced distinctions and arbitrary dimensional shifts in order to lend a fresh perspective, to restate the mundane. The former are meaningful. The latter devoid of meaning.

    Cool. Can you create a way to re-state that in five words or less? I’ve seen more straightforward boardroom-speak. :-(

    Lest I be too troll-ish, I’m not sure that I buy in to the idea of “creating” knowledge. Holes in the atomic chart/table of elements is a good example. Whether we knew it or not, Carbon exists. Carbon was created, of course, but regardless of how ready you are to accept it, Carbon will always be around. Someone had to make the effort to “discover” Carbon. I think I side more with the Platonic view that all learning is recollection, or put another way, God doesn’t keep any secrets. Applied science is a good example: If you make the effort to figure it out, yes, atom bombs can be in your list of accomplishments. Politically, we have ideas about who should or should not have, let alone apply this knowledge. But it’s out there, regardless.

    Dig?

    Also: The methods [of discovery/knowledge creation] may seem new, but generally speaking, I agree with Dave Rogers who says technology doesn’t change what we do, merely how we do it. At root, if the goal is “discovery”, we can hack together any number of means to achieve it, but fundamentally, the objective never changed, just the methodology.

  4. Five words would be absurd, but I can try to reduce the number of syllables for you…

    Creating scientific knowledge involves putting together stuff that we already know in ways that are new… innovation — it’s a good thing. But creating post-modern “Theory” involves putting together words in new ways that the writer hopes will freshen perspectives on the commonplace. I think that’s usually a waste of time.

    So I went from 65 words to 51 and together the 116 words may have begun to shape for you what I’m getting at.

    For another view on what I was trying to say about creating knowledge within a theoretical framework, take a look at the link to the people who worked on filling in the blanks on the periodic table of elements. Check out Ramsey… based on the chart he knew there would be inert gases that we hadn’t seen yet in nature. Did he create the knowledge by developing the experimental procedure that isolated some of these elements or did he discover knowledge? As I said near the beginning of my rambling post, the distinction seems false and arbitrary to me. Working in a theoretical framework he uncovered new stuff. That was good applied science. Your basic theoreticians, on the other hand, develop new theories, new frameworks for pursuit of knowledge and understanding. Are they creating the theories or discovering them, and is that a meaningful question? I don’t care one way or the other. What I tried to creep up on in my post is the distinction between real work creating or discovering real knowledge, versus the kind of intellectual wankery represented by post-modern “theory.”

    Sorry I couldn’t meet the five word challenge.

  5. Ethan says:

    I appreciate the clarification, word counts aside.

    To check my understanding: Are you saying that it is better to actually do the grunt work to verify that say, Dark Matter exists, as opposed to saying “theoretically, Dark Matter exists”?

    If so, I say, “right on.”

    But semantically, I think what you’re driving at is not how the knowledge is “created”, but rather disseminated, and more importantly, applied.

    Yes? No?

  6. Well… yes and no. :-)

    I find it an endlessly interesting discussion.

    The work isn’t over and the knowledge isn’t in a tidy box until the grunt work has been completed. Later a new theory will destroy the tidy box of course.

    I think that if theoretical physicists can offer compelling reasons for a belief in the existence of dark matter, then among those reasons will be data that others can verify and that lead people who understand physics to agree that the theory is meaningful. Verification through experimentation and observation would move our knowledge of dark matter out of the realm of “theory” into the workshops of “applied science,” and yes — that is certainly important.

    From a couple of theoretical physicists smoking a joint out back of Lawrence Labs high in the Berkeley hills, through the data gathering and formalization that follows that first stoned insight, through peer reviewed papers expounding theoretical concepts, to astrophysical observation and lab work that supports the theory to an application of the knowledge is a journey of discovery. A lot of information is created along the way nailing down a discovery.

    And I think the information, the data and how it is interpreted, is perhaps a subset of the knowledge. This is pretty deep stuff, and there are schools of thinkers who may have gotten in over their heads. Those over their heads seem more often to be philosophers than physicists. People who dwell in more subjective realms have appropriated the language of objective science and created a lot of confusion.

  7. AKMA says:

    I’m not sure where I come down, if I have to decide between the epistemologies you describe; on the whole, I put a lot of effort into demonstrating that forced choices constitute part of the problem. If postmodern theorists offer compelling reasons for a belief in the social constitution of knowledge, then among those reasons will be data that others can verify and that lead people who understand postmodern theory to agree that the theory is meaningful, no?

    “Those over their heads seem more often to be philosophers than physicists.” Presumably physicists understand both physics and epistemolgy equally well?

    Frank, I readily agree that some people puff nonsense out an unbecoming orifice. Some of them are politicians, some of them are philosophers, some of them are physicists, some of them are Anglicans, some of them are Friends, some of them are leaning up against the wall of the Quik-Mart, some of them have spcious offices with leather chairs. And some people in those positions actually have as good a handle on some “pretty deep stuff” as does Frank Paynter (and no doubt, better than AKMA).

  8. Ran across this by Clifford Geertz this morning. Seems to create the distinction I’m looking for, experimental science versus interpretive

    The concept of culture I espouse, and whose utility the essays below attempt to demonstrate, is essentially a semiotic one. Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning. It is explication I am after, construing social expressions on their surface enigmatical. But this pronouncement, a doctrine in a clause, demands itself some explication.

  9. tom says:

    I will endeavor to prove the unworthiness of your link to me as follows:

    man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun

    I think this is a beautiful sentiment. For it to be more, I would need to know what Geertz/Weber means by “animal” and “significance.” The rest of the words seem fairly straightforward.

    And while on the subject, I think it would be misleading to put AKMA in the verbalist camp, as you seem to, tho’ I might be mistaken. In his recent book, Faithful Interpretation, he argues for dimensions of signification and interpretation that lie beyond words, or at least beyond the usual norms of verbality.

    What I guess I’d ask Geertz, except I alas no longer have the chance, is what he thinks those webs might be suspended from.

  10. Jon Husband says:

    I recently suggested to Lohmann, J. alva, BMO and jeneane that we attemtp to pull together an un-un-conference with invites to echo chamber members whom we appreciate … to be held in late spring 2022 in Montreal, for three days. maybe ebven in early Junem, to coincide with the world-famous Montreal International Jazz festival.

    2.5 to 3 days (or whatever suits anyone’s fancy) traipsing around central Montreal, drinking, eating, watching, listening, talking, no winers, no presentations, no selling, no posing, women and men.

    I can imagine the following partycipants … Bruce, Jeneane, George S., Ray S, Ray D., you, Ken Camp, RB, BMO, J. Alva, Tom M., the Tutor, Lohmann, me, Madame L., Winna, Shelley, Meg (in spirit), a number of Montreal bloggers I know, and others any of us might invite. South Africa is a long way away, but it would be great to invite Golby – we could start a fundraising drive to offer bursaries.

    Fun place, know it like the back of my hand, and know lots of interesting people and places to whom such a gang could be introduced in order to play.

  11. Jon, yes! Montreal in late spring would be great.

    ***

    Tom, we can’t ask Weber, but Geertz is barely cold in the ground and we know he was into that seventies semiotics thing, so unless he was signifying… but maybe it’s you who’s signifying… do you disagree that man is an animal? How deep do you want to go into cultural definitions, detailed assessments of those “webs of significance,” which, since they are largely symbolic and not subject to laws of gravity need depend on nothing or from anything.

    Right now it’s enough for me to appreciate the beautiful sentiment evoked by the “webs of significance” line. As for AKMA’s sense of meaning trancscending usual norms of verbality, I think that I closed the book and gave it away too soon, impatient with myself for my stubborn inability to accept what I was reading. Fortunately, my next copy just arrived yesterday, and I’ll pick it up again soon. The art appreciation parts, Kristeva and what-not, seemed simple and accessible.

    I like Geertz’ breakdown, his distinction between the experimental science in search of laws, and interpretive science in search of meaning. Based on what little I’ve read and my imperfect understanding I’d definitely put AKMA on the interpretive side.

    But I hope no one gets me started on so called “natural law.”

  12. Winston says:

    I’ll take a more anal position on this… The word “knowledge” is, methinks, being misused here. By definition, knowledge is the sum of our internalized facts and truth. The “truth” is out there as surely as the tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it, does make a sound. When we become aware of (“discover”) the truth, it then becomes a part of our body of knowledge.

    I believe we do discover truth, not create it. Carbon existed, as one commenter said, even before we became aware of it.

    Fish are unaware of and have no comprehension of the very water they swim in and cannot live without. And weaving that back into this discussion would take more time and ability than I have this beautiful morning in downtown Tennessee…

  13. tom says:

    How, Frank, can I disagree that man is an animal so long as I do not know whether we are talking about the same thing(s). An animal that spins webs that defy gravity and hang from nothing n’ain’t yr usual critter.

  14. Winston, I can go with that, except for the part about the fish.

    ***

    Tom, sometimes I fear that, “I have of late,–but wherefore I know not,–lost
    all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed,
    it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly
    frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this
    most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
    o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with
    golden fire,–why, it appears no other thing to me than a
    foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece
    of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in
    faculties! in form and moving, how express and
    admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension,
    how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of
    animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of
    dust?”

    Not that language alone can suffice to express these things, and the bard’s vision was occluded, we think, by a simpler perspective for while he — as a child of the enlightenment — was prepared to create metaphors hanging from the great chain of being, he had an audience of commoners that still believed in the mythological constructs surrounding the divine right of kings and of royalty who encouraged that belief. It would be another fifty years before the regicide would demonstrate that the world didn’t end when the people with the awful haircuts took power.

    But you know all this.

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