Search results for "ontology "

Genes and inter-disciplinarity

Author: joe

Friday, 11 November, 2011 - 00:13

The 'gene' is an example of a concept which means something to everyone, but different things to different interests. To mainstream geneticists it is supposed to be the 'molecular unit of heredity'; to lay people the gene is the brute fact that makes us what we are; some sociologists argue that the gene is a social construct; meanwhile a few molecular biologists might also argue that the gene is a convenient shorthand which is otherwise inadequate for the functions we expect it to fulfil.

Each of these different domains brings different conceptions of the gene, often based on disciplinary ontologies which are incompatible, using criteria for factual legitimacy which conflict with each other. The shared use of vocabulary only serves as a mask for the competing accounts of the gene's form, provenance and function. The various morphologies of the gene as they appear in the respective disciplinary approaches often reflect those domains' practices, values and self-preserving interests.

The pursuit of the basic unit of heredity during the 20th century inflected the gene with the pervasive attitudes of the times. As part of the effort to find an explanatory mechanism for heredity as articulated by Gregor Mendel, Wilhem Johannsen's coining of the word in 1909 formed part of the search for a unitary, invariant, material, autonomous and causal 'master molecule' which directed inherited characteristics, phenotypic development and evolutionary variation, which could play the same role in biology that the atom played in physics. As more was understood about the action and dynamism of DNA encoding, the scientific emphasis moved onto 'programming', in which the metaphor of contemporary technological and cultural forms were drafted in to provide a model for the gene's function. By the end of the century, even as the first sketch of the human genome was published, the very notion of a sequence of DNA which had discoverable boundaries, independent causal properties and sufficient reach to account for inheritance, development and variation, was approaching collapse.

At the same time that scientific disciplines intimately concerned with governing the definition and analysis of the gene were gradually developing their ever evolving and nuanced conceptions of its formal properties, the dominant model of genetic determinism was leaking out of the laboratories and journals and into common public understanding. Even if the scientific establishment were to publicly pronounce on the dissolution of the gene in favour of more complex, non-linear, pan-genomic and epigenetic biological development in which a dynamic network of distributed causal processes intertwine with environmental factors to influence individual morphology and heritability, such an epistemic break would be unlikely to reverse the folk-wisdom that can be mobilised to play nature against nurture, account for idiosyncratic behaviour, or even justify dogma and prejudice, by a simple explanatory abstraction which at best appeals to fate and the hand which we are dealt, and at worst ascribes contingent and malleable factors to apparently blind and deterministic forces.

What would it look like to develop shared or non-exclusive ontologies between these competing domains? How might people from each discipline negotiate models that can include different worldviews through accommodation, rather than exclude them through competition? Evelyn Fox Keller's work both as scientist and as a historian of science is instructive. Following her experiences as a woman working within the male-dominated field of science, she contributed to the analysis of the gender-related cultural and social relations that were encoded in scientific approaches that valorised 'master molecules', 'founder cells' and other causal agents in molecular biology, and thus brought into view the way that sciences, because they are caught up in the social order, often discover 'in nature' what they have already put there. However, once her work was championed in the critical field of science and technology studies, she nevertheless maintained that the choice to be either a scientist, or a historian of science, was a false one: it is not necessary to reject all of the accomplishments and affordances of a particular discipline in order to provide a constructive critique of its blind spots or weaknesses. Fox Keller's contribution is salient precisely because she engages with her discipline both as a practitioner and as an observer and critic, rather than merely as an apostate.

The lesson here then is that the bridging between different disciplinary perspectives can't depend on critique alone but must also work by engagement. For example, the partisanship that exists between scientific communities and sociologists of science has little effect on the practice of science as such by its proponents, nor on the engagement with social scientists with empirical problems. Even in multi-disciplinary approaches, such as scientists and artists collaborating in specific research fields, the participants often work in parallel isolation, with non-overlapping methods and dissemination, remaining hermetically sealed from each other's worlds. The challenge of genuine inter-disciplinarity is to bypass 'either/or' choices, and to consider 'both/and' possibilities. How does - or how could - a folk-psychology worldview map onto a scientistic worldview; how might a phenomenological and a positivist approach accommodate each other? What are the consequences for ontology and epistemology in such cases if pursued faithfully?

Categories: inter-disciplinarity, genes, science, ontology, epistemology, Evelyn Fox Keller,
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Three things

Author: joe

Friday, 15 February, 2008 - 10:44

Three things

Firstly: having pack removed from nose redefined pain in ways I had not anticipated. Since I seem to be doomed to an eternity of pain in the head, I should at least give my head a reason to hurt. Therefore reading Heidegger, Gadamer and Habermas.

Secondly: so, yesterday, I began by reading about the divisions between Gadamer and Habermas on the co-extensivity of truth and method, and our relationship to 'authority and tradition'. For what it is worth, Gadamer seems to think that there are positive ways to view the inheritance of authority and tradition as a positive way of constituting truth. Meanwhile, Habermas seems to take a harder - 'strong-Enlightenment' line which says that anything 'handed down', as it were, from authority, is necessarily dogmatic and therefore should be rejected. In the maze of epistemology (empiricism over-assumes the ability to produce correspondence-to-reality statements from induction, while hermeneutics asserts the situatedness of any observation) perhaps the performance of the role of 'detached' observer should be rejected and (contrary to intuition) a fuller observational potential can be approached by more participation in the observed situation. Know by 'being-in', not know by 'looking-in' - immanence not transcendence (because the former is simply more honest).

A detour here led to Arthur Danto, who describes "the last historian". Of course the historian constructs a narrative out of the stuff of meaning, and the stuff of meaning is necessarily over-determined by the historian's present. Retelling the past is meta-retelling of the present. So much, so good. But consider what it would require for the adequate telling of 'truth' regarding histories (and here I suppose is where I do need to investigate Heidegger on time): the future will have historicity which is constituted in part by the present I create now from my own historicity. The only way to ensure that I responsibly pass on a historicity to the future which is consistent with the future's ability to act freely is to tell every possible history, or as Scheibler puts it "to give a complete description, historian would have to be able to see into the future, encompassing all possible future perspectives". And it is repeatedly observed by others, I see, that all historians must see themselves as this last historian (otherwise they would not feel any compulsion to write histories, surely?) but I would also add that we all therefore consider ourselves to be the last historians, telling ourselves the versions of the past we need to tell in order to construct the futures we wish to see.

And Danto seems also to help with the co-extensivity of truth and method. On representation, he emphasises what we might call the pre-semantic stage of the 'sign' (useless word). Consider the evolution of semantic codes. Something is given as a representation of something else - an idol represents a god, for instance. Danto dwells on the the fact that this is a two-stage process. Before we recognise the idol as 'representing' the god, we must first interpret the idol as identical to the god - the sign is the meaning. Only later do we bifurcate the sign into metonymy and synecdoche, and allow the possibility that the sign might be a lie - give it a semantic dimension, recognise the difference between sign and referent, and even signifier and signified. Truth is first constituted by the representation. Prohibition of the idolatry of the graven image by a jealous god for good reason, then, if you are a god.

Of course, when I say Danto helps with the co-extensivity of truth and method, I mean helps in the loosest sense of the word.

So anyway, yes I went on a huge detour, and at some point in the future, when I have to write something sensible about my methodology for my PhD thesis, I'll be grateful to myself for having written this loosely connected synopsis of a day's reading, which records in roughly chronological order the digressions I took. I still, of course need a proper bibliography to go with this, so I can retread my steps. So here it is:

Scheibler, I., 2000, Gadamer : Between Heidegger and Habermas, Rowman & Littlefield: Lanham
Ankersmit, F. R., 2003, 'Danto, History, and the Tragedy of Human Existence', in History and Theory, Vol 42, No. 3
Hesse, M., 1978, 'Habermas' Consensus Theory of Truth' in PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, Vol 1978, Vol 2
McCarthy, T., 1978, 'History and Evolution: On the Changing Relation of Theory to Practice in the Work of Jurgen Habermas' in PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, Vol 1978, Vol 2
Wachterhauser, B. R., 1986, Hermeneutics and Modern Philosophy, SUNY: Albany
Danto, A. C., 1965, Analytical Philosophy of History, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
Danto, A. C., 1997, Connections to the World: The Basic Concepts of Philosophy, UCP: Berkeley
Ormiston, G. L., & Schrift, A. D., 1989, Hermeneutic Tradition: From Ast to Riceour, SUNY: Albany
Dallmayr, F. R., & McCarthy, T. A., 1977, Understandinf and Social Inquiry, UNDP: Notre Dame, Ind.

Now, the third and final thing: I want a way to access the information here in different ways. I want to be able to pull it around, and mesh it into other things. Biblipedia was designed to do some of the things I want to be able to do here - notes about books which can be grouped thematically. The use of the folksonomy creates a powerful tool that creates (heuristically and algorithmically, or what I want to call 'bottom-up') connections between notes and books. But I also want some top-down control too. I want to drag things together on the spur of the moment, as though they were index cards in my hands. Biblipedia can be susceptible to such manipulation (you can 'invent' tags for specific purposes, for instance).

But I want something with more power. The account I've given of my readings yesterday is clunky, because it is isolated here, on this web page. Sure I can grab it out via RSS, but that won't retain any of the semantic or chronological connections within it. Sure, I could sketch it on paper, because that could show the progression and map-like structure of the reflection, but it's made of atoms, and I still want the heuristic, crunching power that computerised meta-data provides.

So here's the kernel of my next project: a way of aggregating content like that in Biblipedia, (or any other webservice, for that matter) which, on top of the 'bottom-up' ability to analyse meta-data such as tags and produce expected and unexpected connections and groupings, also has a 'top-down' ability to sketch relationships in terms of time, theme, order, digression, space... a way to easily denote relatedness explicitly, rather than merely implicitly.

So that's summer 2008 sorted then. Hopefully my head will have stopped hurting then.

Categories: working-through, PhD, phenomenology, Heidegger, Gadamer, Habermas, truth, method, epistemology, ontology, Danto, history,
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