Sunday, July 6, 2008

Multiple Realization and Poets


Sometimes, after my mother (R.I.P.) would do something based on intuition, she would say, "Don't ask me why [I did that]." "Don't ask me why, but I had a feeling there was a rattlesnake there, so I didn't lift up the box."

Don't ask me why, but I've been reading some philosophy of science, though I haven't probed the depths as extensively as the Hyperborean,whose blog is on my list.

Specifically, I've been reading Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction, by Samir Okasha. These very short introductions from Oxford U.P. are nifty little books. As is often the case with books, I'm drawn to these because they're physically pleasing--thin, nicely designed, easily fitted in the back pocket. I think I own about 10 of them now, everything from short intros to the Koran and to Islam to short intros on Descartes, Spinoza, Literary Theory, and Ancient Philosophy. If you know the subject already, the books are great refreshers, with updates on newer literature in the field. If you don't know the subject, they're great introductions (indeed) and point clearly to additional reading.

Among the topics I was drawn to in Okasha's book was the concept of multiple realization:

"How can science that studies entities that are ultimately physical not be reducible to physics? Granted that the higher sciences are in fact autonomous of physics, how is this possible? According to some philosophers, the answer lies in the fact that the objects studied by higher level sciences are 'multiply realized' at the physical level" (p. 56). The example of the concept Okasha deploys is demotic: ashtrays. That is, you can have a theory of or a design for ashtrays, but then when you go out into the world, you see that ashtrays are multiply and, figuratively speaking, infinitely realized. Even two ashtrays based on the same design are different. One has a nick in it, for example, or it's slightly warped. So any one ashtray cannot be completely reduced to the physics underlying. Another science, or two, is necessary to explain that one particular ashtray you're looking at.

I like this concept because it articulates the way in which what is always seems to outrun or disrupt what is thought about what is. I like it also because I think poets are drawn more to the particular manifestations of reality as opposed to reality as generalized by scientists, custom, and so on. That one particular bird, city street (and moment on that city street), interchange with a person, sweater, kiss, cloud, or copy of Kant's writing (the copy with the coffee stain on page 92): these highly specific realizations are what, in most cases, first hook a poet's interest. Poets aren't necessarily opposed to concepts or categories, and a lot of poets, I think, aren't in fact interested in the particular. But most are. In this sense, the poetic way of looking at the world is not so different from the scientific way. I think in another context, Emily Dickinson (for example) would have become a botanist or an entomologist. Her poems are far more grounded than most readers expect or think. Almost all of them begin in close observation of a single realization: not "snake" in general, but a snake, seen on that day. Also, Wordsworth liked geometry--because it was, in his view (and according to the etymology), it was the science of measuring the earthy [geo + metric]. That is, it had to do with the planet that supported his beloved lake country and its multiple realizations. Most mathematicians now, I gather, do not think of geometry as the science of measuring the earth but as just another conceptual framework--another dialect of math, as it were.

Don't ask me why, but I think I'll end this particular realization of the blog here.
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