Indeterminate and Inconclusive: Satisfied?

Does any profession, academic or otherwise, require its practitioners to give decisive, categorical answers to questions? Should it?

My background in the humanities and social sciences, and my own propensity for equivocating, waffling, and generally mincing words (what a wonderfully evocative phrase: words minced like meat), tells me the answer should be No! Not a precise, clear-cut No but more of a wishy-washy Nah.

If I had not written a similar phrase, and thought it innumerable times, the following might jar me more than it does: “In this chapter I will not deliver any definite answers” (not citing). I will not cite this line in deference to the actual author and to my inner author that so often thinks/wants to write/does write such a phrase. My dissertation committee had no problem objecting to my lack of commitment as they appraised my final work. They exhorted me to take a position and defend it. I failed to adequately do so then. I still fail to do so. You should find no blustering, crowing, or gloating in that admission. If I were more sure of my ideas, I hope I would defend them better. A significant problem, then, amounts to a lack of confidence. It is a symptom which many others, particular in my branches of academia, appear to share. We hedge. Often. Wittingly.

An imaginative tale would recount a time when I gushed certainty and was rebuffed. Or when I lacked conviction only to later discover I had the right idea all along. Or recount someone I knew/know who experienced one or the other. I could go religious and try one of those stories. Or fairy-tale. Each appears ready to adjudicate the timid.

I have often been quick to pounce on texts in Science and Technology Studies as mere descriptions. Prescription should be the goal; description marks one as little more than an observer, a passenger. I did not want to go along for the ride. I wanted to drive. My infatuation with automated vehicles, and my exasperation with commuting by car (that I drive) reminds me that such a metaphor was as foolish then as it is now.


Where Will We Find Meaning?

Paul Kalanithi probed the mind and the brain. When Breath Becomes Air portrays his search for meaning, a sum of life. Through literature, philosophy, and neurology, his tale represents some of the best interdisciplinary work I have read. His keen awareness of himself, others, and his environment permits him to weave philosophical, literary, and medical theory into a coherent narrative. His clear, lucid writing style pricks cerebral and emotional faculties. His topic attracts us all.

Between biology and philosophy yawns a chasm. Never mind philosophy of biology or some mixture of the two. Kalanithi’s work seeks a grand unified theory; it reconnoiters a common crevasse that each discipline claims for itself yet hardly manages to penetrate. Clinicians with their cadavers and philosophers with their phenomenology each aim to delineate and demarcate. Each miscalculate in their own idiosyncratic ways if one assumes that their audiences lie beyond the confines of their own cloistered cadres. And they do. Meaning does not accrue only to the initiated. It confounds specialists by flowing through fissures they (we) consider carefully closed, sealed. To be fair, it bewilders and mystifies most everyone. Yet, each of us returns to the abyss at some point–for pay or no–and when we turn away can only remark that it is there, waiting, if only we had the right mental and physical equipment to explore it fully.

Perhaps glimpsing his own mortality made Kalanithi finally corral and compose his thoughts. We may fairly argue that he lacked time to finish, to complete his search for meaning through practicing medicine, reflecting on literature, and examining his lived experience.

Or, we might conclude that he found what he sought. He pushes me and countless others who have and will encounter his work (I, in particular, will assign his writing to my students aspiring to be physicians) to explore the interplay between corporeal clusters of neurons and mental musings. My metaphor, then, is all wrong. There is no fixed, physical fissure. There are only integrated circuits, much like those we make in our own descendants: machines and artificial agents. Through them, perhaps, we will better comprehend ourselves.

Two Claims

A few years ago I was fortunate to attend a writing workshop facilitated by Dr. Thomas Basboll. Though I appreciated his arguments and told myself I would adopt his strategies, I failed to put enough them into practice. Today I begin to make good on what I promised my writer (myself).


Labels like genetically-modified, transgenic, etc., help shape biologists understanding of organisms. Kuhn would describe the underlying perspective and worldview afforded by such labels and thinking as a paradigm. Werner Heisenberg, in Physics and Philosophy (1958), noted the difficulty of physicists in the early twentieth century to adapt to quantum theories proposed by Niels Bohr and Heisenberg himself. Heisenberg notes that a significant obstacle to shifting from paradigm to another involves underlying philosophical perspectives. In this particular case, that shift involves relinquishing a materialist ontology. Recalcitrant physicists–Einstein included–resisted quantum theory’s vocabulary in part because it denied a Cartesian worldview where only mind is immaterial. The extended body, including all atomic particles, must always exist independent of our observation (instruments included) of them. Heisenberg proposes that characteristics like velocity and speed are secondary qualities–they do not define the quantum things, but they can be used to describe them. The human observer cannot help but alter the quantum matter any time she observes the matter. The tools we use to measure position alter its velocity, thus both cannot be measured simultaneously. Heisenberg argues that our everyday language, including vocabulary passed down from Newtonian classical physics like space and time, condition us to think of all things as cohering to how we already see the world. Quantum theory, on the other hand, proposes perspectives that clash with such language and, more importantly, wish such a worldview. Matter, says Newtonian physics, can neither be created nor destroyed. Yet quantum theory pushes against such an understanding of atomic particles–tiny pieces of matter. For the biologist (wow, this entire paragraph went in a completely different direction until now), gene editing tools like CRISPR-Cas9 mark no revolutionary shift in how they have been doing their work for the last century. Such tools significantly shorten the time, cost, and difficulty of the work in plant and animal breeding. However, making some process faster, more efficient, cheaper, and easier does not imply the process has fundamentally changed. From the biologists’ perspective, then, genetically-modified plants and animals have extensive histories. Performing gene modification on organisms pre-dates Gregor Mendel; current work merely extends such projects. Perhaps a general perspective would be that when scientists break things–organisms, atoms, etc.–down into concomitant parts, they do not create new things. As Bohr and Heisenberg pointed out, however, physics (but maybe all science fits here) does not intend to discover what nature is. It concerns what we humans can say about nature.

“Physics is to be regarded not so much as the study of something a priori given, but rather as the development of methods of ordering and surveying human experience” (Bohr, 1960).


Through description, postphenomenologists make normative claims about method. In their introduction to Postphenomenological Investigations, Rosenberger and Verbeek argue that postphenomenology articulates a normative perspective: Postphenomenology “[brings] together the empirical orientation of STS on concrete case studies with the conceptual and also normative orientation that are characteristic for philosophy of technology” (p. 10, emphasis mine). They argue that postphenomenology attempts “to answer the philosophical question of how the role of technology in human existence and experience can be understood” (pp. 10-11). Though they do not intend it, I want the last line to read: “how the role of technology in human existence and experience can and should be understood.” If so, then I would expect many parts of their edited volume to tell readers how we humans should view human-technology relationships. Through the first half of the text, I do not see such normative claims. I may certainly be asking more of the text than it aims to offer. Nevertheless, the first quotation evokes the normative. The empirical orientation + philosophical analysis does not, in my mind, equate to normative critique unless the normative here involves directives for how postphenomenological inquiry should proceed. If so, then Rosenberger and Verbeek’s volume certainly delivers. Its authors espouse an empirical + analysis methodology and seem to claim that the normative should play a part in the analysis. That the normative should play a role in postphenomenology is, perhaps, the sharpest edge of their normative blade. They wield it to acknowledge the import of normative analyses, yet the blade rusts from neglect as the edited volume progresses. My own work suffers from similar abandonment of the normative. My dissertation begins with grand aspirations about bringing more normative claims to philosophy of technology. It ends with little more than description and some hand-waving about why we should adopt posthumanist perspectives.


Ok, I only got to two sentences today. And they rambled. I might try again later today. Otherwise, I will have more to write tomorrow.

I must say, it feels good to get some writing done, even if the quality is little more than a draft at this point.


For another day:

From Postphenemological Investigations, I understand that we canonly move forward by reflecting upon the past (Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty).

Postphenomenology needs a coherent story.

Tell me a story

I’m re-reading Donald (now Deirdre) McCloskey’s If You’re So Smart (1992). I’ve been on about narratives for quite some time, so I disappoint myself by taking so long to pull the book of the shelf.


McCloskey, besides writing clearly and succinctly, tells a good story. The tetrad–fact, logic, metaphor, and story–deserve more attention. Like the biologist telling a story about genetic manipulation, and using a model to answer questions the story fails to explain, science and technology (among other genres) are rife with tales. I wonder if my bio and chem colleagues think of themselves of storytellers? I should ask.


I also wonder what kind of story–and what model (a kind of yang to story’s yin)–would be necessary to change minds about the moral status of machines and artificial agents. Before Rachel Carson, before Peter Singer (perhaps Jeremy Bentham played a bit part), environmental ethics and animal rights groups had many facts and employed logic to impart them. After Carson and Singer, these groups have more coherent metaphors and stories. Does that partly explain the rise of these groups? Am I coming up with something akin to Kipling’s ‘just-so’ stories by these examples? Am I using metaphor and story right now–mixed with a dash of fact and logic–to persuade?




I need to start thinking more about story, fact, logic, and metaphor. I should consider how each will play a role if any convincing is going to get done about addressing the moral status of machines. They also will play a role in the book chapter I write for later this year. They also factor into the book review I have recently begun.


With all that in mind, a few sentences to kick off Tuesday writing (for you, Thomas):

Labels like genetically-modified, transgenic, etc. help shape biologists understanding of organisms.

Through description, we make normative claims (postphenomenologists) about method.

From Postphenemological Investigations, I understand that we can only move forward by reflecting upon the past (Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty).

Postphenomenology needs a coherent story.