Scientifically Creative

Lately, I feel as though science and the humanities are placed into conflict. It sends me into a defensive posture if I let it, immediately pushing back on the diminution of the arts in favor of STEM as an ultimate educational goal, wondering at how competent use of our language seems of secondary importance to a child learning how to code. We cling to what is most natural to us, after all, and, while I work in the technological world, the humanities remain my first love.

Even in that statement, though, I’m taking the bait, because I’m categorizing them in opposition to each other. I don’t for a moment think that they should be. I’m a believer in interdisciplinary pursuits, and it’s only in relatively recent Western culture that we’ve began to see the humanities and sciences as even somehow separate, to say nothing of being mutually exclusive.

Still, I’m troubled by how I see science elevated to an ultimate concern, and find no small amount of irony in how we treat it as an absolute truth….that thing that our culture considers a reprehensible concept philosophically, but clings to scientifically with what borders on desperation. It’s dangerous to establish an absolute authority on a house of cards. Pseudoscience was once regarded as fact, after all, until it wasn’t. Prior to a specific point in history in which we had the technology and insight to say otherwise, living on a flat planet seemed a plausible theory to some, despite its basis in nonsense. While it would be considered blasphemous to say this in many circles, what we regard as scientific fact today always seems irrefutable until the underlying hypothesis behind that fact is discovered to be nonsense. As much as science likes to plant its flag of certainty into evolutionary theory, it seems to forget that it is, itself, evolving as a practice and discipline.

Think of how, in just your lifetime, theories have shifted on what is healthy to eat or not eat. A small example of exponential importance.

If, then, an underlying scientific principle should be discovered to be false, how much confidence in our society crumbles? When one’s ultimate concern falters, after all, the effects are wide reaching. This is a where faith comes in, but faith is seen as out-dated, something for the ancient or uneducated. And so our house of cards collapses.

I appreciate what a reader said in a recent issue of the Atlantic:

“Hardly anything in science is for keeps….That’s how the scientific method works…ultimately granting us not a measure of truth so much as a better approximation of reality.”Letter to the Atlantic, November 2018 issue, p. 15

Something that faith gives us is a love for mystery, a recognition that what we don’t…and, indeed, can’t….understand is far more beautiful than what we can. The belief that there is a reality beyond what we can measure and touch and visualize is integral to the human condition. To say that in the negative, refusing to believe in anything that we cannot see, touch, hear, taste or feel limits us as humans, places blocks on what we have the potential to be.


This weekend, as the holiday festivities came to a close, I took our oldest daughter to a science museum to which we have a membership. She’s quite the artist, our oldest, but equally loves the natural world, fascinated immediately by any new animal about which she has not yet learned. No one has told her that artistic scientists aren’t supposed to exist, and she is happy to be both.

As we walked around the new exhibits, I saw some changes from the last time we visited the museum a few months ago. Photography exhibits were on the walls, showcasing beautiful and artistic explorations of the scientific principle in place for the children to explore. In another exhibit, instead of a detailed and technical description of what was happening, a simple poem adorned one wall.

The two worlds had met. Our daughter took it all in, considering it natural.

As for me, I walked away with hope.

Aside

The Tools of Conquest

I recently read The Stories We Tell by Mike Cosper. It’s a theological exploration of themes in modern story-telling as they play out in television and film. It’s not a heavy read, and as thoroughly entertaining as it is thought-provoking.

Stories capture themes that are timeless, warning of futures that could happen. Sometimes they peek out from the past, old stories that suddenly become appropos, that we perhaps wish had been heard and considered more thoughtfully back then. Cosper quotes one of those, from the Twilight Zone:

The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices-to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill. And suspicion can destroy. And a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own…” Rod Sterling, “The Twilight Zone”

I think that it’s import to consider today what the fallout of our suspicions, prejudices, and searches for scapegoats will be the future. Perhaps our children will wonder why we didn’t listen to our stories.

 

On Seinfeld and Wake-Up Calls

Photo of the restaurant used in the series "Seinfeld." Used under Creative Commons.When Karen and I moved into our current apartment, we reversed a decision that we had made only a couple of months into our marriage: we purchased cable. The reason was not actually that we wanted to, but that we received a better deal on our Internet package by doing so. For the first several weeks, we did nothing with it. Eventually, however, I connected the equipment, because why pay for something and not use it?

This decision has met with mixed results, but occasionally there is good. Stumbling onto occasional Seinfeld re-runs when staying up late is one of those unexpected positives.

I was enjoying one of those late night positive Seinfeld experiences last week. The episode centered it’s comedic digression around Elaine using a wake-up call service. Essentially, she paid someone to call her at a given time each morning and wake her up with conversation instead of an alarm clock.

Does this sound familiar? The premise might, if you’ve been around long enough. We used to do this at hotels, and you’ll still see it occurring in movies that we might now refer to as “classic.” When was the last time that you requested a wake-up call at a hotel, though? Some readers may see this as a completely foreign concept, something that they had never done. We have no need of this now, after all. We carry our alarms with us, in the personal computers in our pockets, likely also using them to track our sleep patterns while we’re at it. After all, health is important.

I think that the wake-up call service depicted in this episode of Seinfeld would have been a “disruptive” industry then, similar to ride-sharing now. Similarly, I know people to whom calling a cab is an alien idea, for whom “Uber” is a verb. Indeed, in the episode in question, Elaine be-friended her wake-up caller, and I often strike up friendly conversations with my Lyft drivers. These aren’t far apart, and these sorts of cultural changes are often a good thing. Of course, conversely, the wake-up call service also assumed a landline telephone, considered a concept of antiquity in many homes today.


For all of the excitement that accompanied my first mobile phone (a huge bag phone in my car that required an external antenna mounted on the back glass), I also remember the gift of my first landline telephone to connect in my high school bedroom. It was bright red. I remember calling friends. I remember using a post-it note to keep the request number of the local radio station next to the phone.

I also remember using physical maps and directions written on scrap paper to navigate long road trips to places I had never before seen, and wonder today if that part of my brain has atrophied, as the idea of asking for directions doesn’t even occur to me. I simply reach for my phone.

I read a post recently in which the author expressed longing for the days when we discovered blogs organically instead of by social media algorithms. I miss those days, too. I miss a different era more, though. This was an era of landline phones and computers that were luxury items instead of necessities. An era in which we thought about things before shouting them out, in which getting from one place to another required intentionality, not whimsical abandon. An era in which we looked for the thoughts with which we wanted to engage, and were not willing to have others make those choices for us.

This was a Seinfeld sort of era, a radically modern era at the time, too quickly left behind in our frantic scramble for the next new thing.

It’s one to which we can never return.

“The frantic abolition of all distance brings no nearness.” Heidegger, “Poetry, Language, and Thought” p. 163

Image attribution: dnorton under Creative Commons.

A Review of “The Space Between”

Cover of the The Space Between by Eric JacobsenIt’s funny…or perhaps sad….how the academic sorts of reading that I pushed through in grad school is now attractive to me as reading in my spare time. I suppose that, by the time I was reaching the end of my master’s program, I was sort of just realizing my true passions. Around that time is when I became fascinated by theological examinations of culture. I’ve also always been attracted to more urban lifestyles, so a theological examination of urbanism….or, more precisely, new urbanism…was bound to pique my interest.

The Space Between, while a dense read and obviously an academic text, is engaging from every angle. Jacobsen begins with detailed examinations and explanations of the disciplines of city planning, urbanism, and new urbanism, taking the reader into an exploration of how sidewalks fall into the design of a city, how sight-lines should terminate on an urban horizon (particularly fascinating if you have any background in theatre), and other minutiae of the process of laying out an urban environment that will bring enjoyment to most readers simply by exposing them to the knowledge of a field of which most of us know nothing. Then, with a firm understanding in place, we dive into the theological examination of urban spaces.

A foundational premise of Jacobsen’s work is that public spaces are intended for use, but are activated by use. He is intentional about defining his subject as the “built environment,” separate from the natural environment but existing alongside. This is the environment with which we engage and that is more than just buildings and streets and shops, but includes the in-between places…alleyways, the spaces between buildings, and parking lots…all of which have an effect on our lives. Interestingly, as I read this, I remembered several foundational events in my life that took place against the backdrop of parking lots.

Another of the author’s primary assertions is that the industrialized transition from a pedestrian society to an automobile society de-humanized our interactions. Streets no longer accounted for walking after the industrial revolution, but were built to accommodate automobiles, instead. This pushed our interactions out, away from homes that we previously could walk by as we traversed our environment and potentially interact with neighbors, yet now we are all walled off in our vehicles, not only limited in our interactions with one another, but tending to view each other as less than human as we are encased by steel.

Zoning laws (something that the author is firmly against) then moved homes and businesses apart, disadvantaging many because a vehicle is now required to do even the most mundane of tasks in many places in our country. Public transit is generally not a priority. A by-product of this, the author describes, is the “safe haven” philosophy, a relatively recent evolution in Western thought. In this philosophy, we view our homes as safe havens within which we can isolate ourselves from interaction with the world. The practical upshot of this is that Christian influence in our communities and the public sphere (or, at least, meaningful Christian influence) has diminished. We no longer have to engage with our neighborhoods, and often don’t. Our children don’t learn how to do so as a result.

The way to effect change in the polis, Jacobsen argues, is to engage the neighborhoods in which we live. When problems arise, engaging with other and working them out, instead of immediately calling the police, for example. I can’t help but think, as well, that this reduces the need for excessive law enforcement in our communities, and just may, were it to become a common practice, divert us away from our march toward a police state, as well.

Jacobsen goes on to describe a church liturgical interface with the built environment, which I won’t outline here as it is lengthy, but it is compelling.

For all of the author’s excellent points, he is absolutist in his framing of his theological engagement from the standpoint that human dignity is only affirmed and protected when in a well-functioning urban environment. I find this to be strikingly short-sighted, as it ignores a large portion of our country that lives in rural environments. In these rural environments, not having an automobile (a state in which Jacobsen implies is closer to Godliness….I don’t entirely disagree, but…) is not an option. There is a sense that the author views rural environments as somehow lesser, which, for all of his thought-provoking points, is a perception that we can scarcely afford given today’s culture wars.

Still, The Space Between will change the way you view your engagement with your neighborhoods, working space, and others around you for the better. If your academic interests lean at all in this direction, or if this sounds at all interesting to you, then this is certainly a worthwhile read.

A Review of “World Without Mind”

Cover image of "World Without Mind", taken from audiobookMuch as the author does in the beginning of World Without Mind, which is interestingly split between being opinion and being investigative journalism, I’ll admit my own pre-conceptions going in. Namely, I don’t require any convincing that Amazon and Facebook are evil, and, given my recent suspicions, I would require little to nudge my opinion of Google over the same line. So, of course, this book quickly slid to the top of my to-read list given the description.

The author, too, admits his bias at the beginning of the work. He was an editor for the New Republic who was displaced when the magazine was purchased by a Silicon Valley investor who had come from Facebook and, so we are told, sold the magazine’s soul of liberal tradition in the interest of clicks. To Foer’s credit, he admits the lens of frustration through which he writes early. I think that he underestimates the level at which it colors his work.

This book is curious, equal parts history, op-ed, and social theory. He has done his research on the foundations of Google, Facebook and Amazon, and he doesn’t mince words in condemning their questionable practices. My hesitation was in the missing sources in his work, but I read this an audiobook, which doesn’t really lend itself to referencing footnotes or endnotes as a format. So, I honestly don’t know if these are present or not. If not, then the journalistic integrity is obviously called into question.

What becomes at times odd, however, is Foer’s digression into what I can only describe as conspiracy theory. He paints a dystopian undercurrent to our present, theorizing how Facebook and Google conspire to be the sole entities to possess all of the data of our personal lives, using it to manipulate us into thinking and feeling how they want us to think and feel, and to purchase what they want us to purchase. I don’t think that he’s entirely wrong. His condemnation of the algorithm in particular, however, paints more of an image of an eccentric professor ranting against an evil that only he can see more than it does a serious journalist giving us facts in order to inform our choices.

His denunciation of Amazon is more focused on corrupt business practices than the other giants in his crosshairs. Again, I miss sources, but the history he outlines of Bezos’ empire is a damning portrait of a power-hungry business intent upon devouring any competitor in order to become the only source from which we can ever purchase anything.

Foer also spends some time speaking of the fate of the writer and the de-valuation of intellectual property in the Internet age. His feeling is that the dorm-room philosophy of tech giants is to abolish all individual credit to any writer as part of the process of implementing the hive mind. For all of his valuable points as to how writers are continually not paid their worth, and to how print journalism in general is overwhelmed by less intellectual forms of media, this smacks of paranoia and the curmudgeonly punches of one done wrong.

World Without Mind is thought-provoking for all of its shortcomings. While the concluding call to action falls flat, I do find myself examining the trust that I place in Google in particular (my own condemnation of Facebook and Amazon were solidified long ago), and I have found myself beginning to change some of the choices that I have made in how I engage these services.

Anyone who uses social media and e-commerce without questioning would be served at some level by this book. My concern is that Foer is unable to detach from his personal bias sufficiently to present an argument in a compelling enough way to sway the opinion of the majority of readers. I can’t help but feel that there’s a darker truth under the surface of our daily interactions with the Internet that Foer is sensing and the rest of us are downplaying. Hopefully that is my own conspiratorial imagination at work.