Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ontology of Thought Experiments and its Relationship to Science Fiction.

 I wrote this as a manifesto to the project that I am doing here as recorded in this blog. It is still at an early stage and I wish I have had more time to pour through all the materials I've captured since that will be so very useful to updating and thinking through this manifesto. But this will act as draft 1 for more to come. As I work on it more and develop it further, and make the meaning of each sentence more rigorous and easily understood, it can form a part of my larger dissertation prospectus. Comments to improve on it is most welcomed.

The purpose of my project is to explore how thought experiments done within a ludic context help us think more creatively about epistemology. I am interested in scientific epistemology specifically because it enables me think about the meaning of knowledge. The relationship between science and non-science and the querying involved to understand what goes on at that level help me work out the ontology in which scientific epistemological formation and action takes place.

I argue that much of knowledge production that takes place in scientific practices is about the exploration of all possibilities within reason, and that play is ritually performed in scientific work as a way of working through the knowledge of origins (Huizinga 106) that has informed the work done by science practitioners, whether directly or indirectly, especially in the fundamental sciences.  This is because knowledge excavation is similar to finding a key to the riddle of the universe. However, the process of excavating and understanding how science acts and works is only the first step to understanding the larger world in which it is situated. The process of understanding the production of knowledge in science also leads us to question how one determines the boundaries of science and non-science, and whether it can exist outside of institutional structures. As science-making is inextricable from the social, it is by trying to understand its relationships and operations within the social that we can begin to approximate an understanding of the meaning-making processes involved in the construction of scientific epistemology.   Therefore, I see the analysis of epistemic practices as a path towards constructing a picture of its ontology that helps advance our understanding of the effects that arise from consciousness. Furthermore, one can construct a database that collects the effects, which can then proceed to construct a picture of consciousness from outside-in, going from effects towards causality. For me, this is similar to trying to excavate knowledge that seemingly no longer exists, knowledge that has either become buried or that have disappeared through suppression, repression or destruction. And I see this as important to a work I intend on doing, which is to excavate agency that has long been suppressed in marginalized communities and that became lost because of the destruction of civilizations.

Hence, the way forward is to construct a methodology, a theoretical framework by which one can start off this process. I see thought experiment as a possible methodology for encoding what I call an alternate universe. In this alternate universe, one is able to consider even the seemingly ‘unreasonableness’ of particular juxtapositions of theories and experimental practices which may never take place in the ‘real’. In this universe, such juxtapositions are meant to expand and complicate determined boundaries in epistemic practices, particularly as one traverses disciplines, therefore going beyond surface interdisciplinarity, beyond mere borrowing of theories and methodologies from one subfield to another. The juxtaposition of epistemic practices in ways thought impractical because of how research institutions are structured can be simulated in this universe because the only criterion would be whether there is a conflict or not in the composition of the practices. And in cases where a conflict takes place, what is important is to compare the supposedly conflicting epistemes and to discern the point of conflict. Hence, the encoding of an alternate universe helps us to deconstruct the various social entanglements, dividing between that which can be separated from the system and that which is inextricable tied to the system. In ‘separating’ between the separable and the inseparable, I would like to analyze the reason why a particular social effect/affect is attached to a particular episteme.  The alternate universe can be encoded with a large relational database so as to be able to store different permutations and combinations; to take off and re-insert the different combinations and compute the results of those combinations. The various effects and causes of these combinations can then be interpreted.  In laying out the results/effects against the original causes, we can analyze the patterns in which they are constituted, and study the structures from which they are formed, especially the structures that have been mixed, entangled or altered.   

In this ludic universe of free-play and transgression of disciplinary boundaries, we are also able to explore various ethics that govern or regulate scientific practices, to simulate them under different ontological conditions, something that is not usually possible due to ethical prohibitions in the real world. The point is to elucidate what the outcome will be as a result of uninhibited actions and the purpose is to observe and interpret the impact of careless attitudes when we decide to pursue a particular way of doing regardless of ethical consequences. This can serve as an examination of knowledge-values, particularly in light of the abovementioned invisible knowledges, or subaltern epistemes, that no longer exist within the enclave of dominant discourses. This paves the way by which I can now engage with epistemic practices that have been classified as ‘pseudo-sciences,’ knowledge considered illegitimate/non-credible when compared against current standards of legitimate (empirically-motivated) knowledge. In the process, I hope to develop a set of methodologies that would allow me to complicate the ways involved in determining the legitimacy and non-legitimacy of particular sets of epistemic practices, and to find a way by which I can coherently explore subaltern epistemologies.

Therefore, the question would be, how can one develop these sets of methodologies? This is the question which I am tentatively exploring here. Perhaps the first thing to do is to create a set of narratives on the dominant discourse of scientific epistemes, and then inject these narratives with dialectical meta-narratives. These narratives can be developed as theoretical structures, using available critical theories in science studies, philosophy and literature as different points of interrogations, contentions, and comparisons. These narratives can then be reverse-engineered and rearranged into forms that need not necessarily fit particular conventions of narratives, but instead, contest the position of narratives as the dominant method for working out embodied epistemes. What I hope to develop is a methodology that will challenge the primacy of narrative discourses and this, I argue, can be done through the process of transcoding, which Thacker equates with the transformation of “certain visual, haptic, auditory, and corporeal habits” (54) as it negotiates through differentially mediated modalities. If Thacker discusses the process of transcoding in light of a “dual investment in biological materiality, as well as the informatic capacity to enhance biological materiality (53),” I am interested in exploring how I may use the transcoding procedure to enfold the incorporeality of epistemes into the materiality of narrative discourse before transforming the entangled events into a different form of logic, a narrative-logic that is not necessarily the narrative of logic nor the logic of narrative, but a form of Other logic. This Other logic works outside the materiality of deterministic narratives, but uses the informatics derived from the interrogation between the body of narrative and theory, the reconfigured narrative (or non-narrative), to code the ontology by which we can resituate the epistemes under examination.  The epistemes could be any form of arbitrarily defined (in the modern sense) scientific and non-scientific practices. These epistemic practices are transcoded onto a narrative body and then continuously complicated as they are enacted through different mediations, such as through technological mediation. The results of such exploration are not yet known, as I’ve only recently developed a material showcase of a thought-experiment which I intend to perform under different modes, and these would include fictive modes.[1] The fictive mode sets up a virtual world by which one can test out even the most outrageous epistemic claim and this virtual world is what I intend to simulate by computational means. In light of my interest in scientific epistemology, I see science fiction as the most productive site for such an interrogation, and useful as a medium for thinking through the trope and use of thought experiments. Science fiction becomes the site of spectacle, which is the spectacle of the ludic involved in the site of ontic negotiations of situated knowledges, or of epistemology under analysis.

 Bukatman, in Terminal Identity, argues that
Science fiction narrates the dissolution of the very ontological structures that we usually take for granted. Theorists of poststructuralism and postmodernism are fond of cataloging the crumbling of such foundational oppositions as “organic/inorganic, male/female, originality/duplication (image/reality, artifice/nature), human/nonhuman” (this typical list is McCaffery’s)… Science fiction constructs a space of accommodation to an intensely technological existence. (10)

These ontological structures are the very structures I have discussed above; taken for granted because of the inadequacy of existing methodologies to query the ontic world in which dominant epistemologies are enframed. However, I am less interested in the narrative function of science fiction and more interested in it as medium for negotiating between the fantastical and the mundane. While science fiction can be the site of contesting ideologies, it could also be the site of contesting epistemologies since the ‘universe,’ or the ontic-world, in which science fiction resides, is the universe where the fictive and the factual collide. I consider the act of fictionalizing epistemologies as a transversive act, with the goal of defamiliarizing facts, kicking them out of their position within the ‘comfort zone’ which we are accustomed to but which prohibits us from looking further. We can then turn hypotheses and the act of theorizing into a ritual of play, and ‘fictional’ facts into a world of serious play, both oxymoronic juxtapositions that allow us to turn the rational upside down and play the game of interdisciplinary transcoding, rendering fiction fact and fact fiction until neither is recognizable as separate entities. Once that is done, we can then allow interactions and intra-actions between these transcoded elements/entities, taking note of the results that follow. These transcoded fictive-factual epistemic atoms are what Bukatman calls a cyborg, a site where multiple meanings are transposed; cyborgs can also be constituted as cut-ups with a ‘hybrid body.’ This is an apt description of how epistemology seems to be working out.

As we collect the results and code them into recognizable patterns and interpretable forms, we will now look at how they compare to the ‘untinkered’ or seemingly ’uncorrupted’ facts within the same epistemic field in relevant science textbooks and trade journals, the more ‘playful’ and ‘pleasure-inducing’ writing in popular science books, and the writing in ‘mundane’ science fiction before we move to the more fantastical, utopic and speculative aspect of science fiction writing. Moreover, I am interested in complicating the differences between science-writing (both the scholarly and the popular) and science-fiction writing by analyzing the discourses in selections of work included in these two categories, and then comparing them with the fictive-factual cut-ups that had earlier been extracted from the same selection of texts as well as from other texts within the same categories, or within the same epistemic fields. Due to my own particular interest, I would be most likely at the moment to concentrate my selection on texts relating to different subfields of physics and also mathematical physics.

At the same time, as a point of epistemic comparison, I am also interested in plugging in some of the older texts which I am in the process of researching, especially texts that seem to gesture towards what we recognize as the sciences today, but at the same time, I am using these texts as a stepping stone towards tearing down walls on what is constituted as non-science, which would include looking at texts that are interested in empirically indeterminable effects or causes. These would include texts that deal with medicine, which could sometimes cross-over (or cross-pollinate) into the underdetermined world of suprapsychology/suprascience and the metaphysical. In extracting the narratives of these works and analyzing the interactions of the physical and the metaphysical in these texts after we have transcoded them, it is possible to distill the contents to a point that we can begin making comparisons between the contents of these ‘ancient’ texts and the kind of discourse populating the various works of science fiction. Moreover, I am also interested in interrogating and excavating science fiction texts in the early modern period, texts that span the Western and Eastern traditions as further points of comparison. At this point in time, I am still working out the methodology for making my textual selections and claims.

What I am interested in elucidating from these texts, at the end of the day, is a more complicated notion of science, and therefore of scientific epistemology and what constitutes as legitimate forms of knowledge, even to claim that the hegemony of material forms of knowledge (knowledge that is visible or observable by instrumental means) have deprived us of considering more seriously the metaphysical, as well as fragments, of the ‘Other’ with material gaps and unaccountable logic. This is where I pull out another possible key to the riddle, which is phenomenology, and using that as a tool for engaging with science fiction and contours of the technological at a meta-level. To de-anthropomorphize human-centric discourses in science fiction in order to work at a level outside of the human range, I decided that I would like to take a step in a different direction, away from the ancient texts, into that of the present which extends into futurity. And this is where the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) comes in. 

At the time of writing, the LHC is partially functional, as it is put through some test-runs that seem to be edging towards final full-functionality each time. However, the future possibilities that may unfold make it a tangible construction of fiction where speculation continues to unfold in popular presses and trade journals on which direction the vision could be realized; such as whether the artificially induced reproduction of Higgs boson would violate laws of the nature and thus cause repercussions on the full-functionality of the LHC. It is speculated that to keep the balance of normalcy and acceptability for the future, future predictions ‘haunts’ the past, leading to a series of troubles and problematic encounters.[2] Existing predictions are extrapolated from the successful functioning of existing colliders of heavier particles, such as the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, which is home to a two-mile linear accelerator center that pioneered the way in experimental high-energy physics and the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider in the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York. Once the LHC is able to make a successful run, the missing particle brings the scientific world one step closer to understanding and proving that the cosmogonic string theory is not purely an unrealizable fantasy, despite its various detractors as well as concerns over the danger it may pose to the world due to fears of global entropy.[3]  Such fears and the speculations surrounding future disasters and potential Armageddon are the material fears that we can see being channeled through science fiction. Behind the ambivalent attitude of all the speculations is a modulated form of affectivity which governs them all, and this affectivity can be extracted as one of the methodologies for examining human-machine or human-nonhuman interactions. Affectivity can also be enlisted to help us understand human fears that may have been instrumental in the destruction and suppression of certain knowledges and the marginalization of knowledges. To understand affectivity and its ontic location, we should observe 1) human relationality to the leviathanic world of the LHC, 2) the interactions between humans, and 3) interactions between the different sections of the LHC and its computing GRID. These I have begun tentatively to explore in the digital graphic novel project I have recently worked on (its website link is on footnote 1). This graphic novel project is the first of a series of projects where I will be investigating the potentialities of thought experiments. The LHC is a rich site for such an exploration because its ontology is a phenomenal blackbox similar to the box in which Schrödinger’s cat hypothetically resides, one which we cannot directly peer into, but which we can probe by looking at these three sets of interactions

Thought experiments connect well with science fiction because the latter works on the pretext of a play of knowledge, and fictionalizing epistemology (even if the process of fictionalizing does not render the knowledge unreal or improbable) to the point where inhibition may break down and affectivity harnessed to tap into human phenomenal senses rather than situating oneself solely in the material noumenal. Science fiction, in the sense that it welcomes the hybrid and the cyborgian body, is a fertile site for thought experiments, because that is where all limitations can be removed, all possibilities considered (even when that possibility seems to stretch the boundary of the probable and reasonable) and narratives/discourses tracked and problematized. I see science fiction as simulation of the actual ontology, a sort of self-contained capsule where all interdisciplinary interventions are not considered an incursion or invasion, and where points of epistemic conflicts noted are first and foremost stripped off institutional and social interference that are not directly related to epistemic production. Hence, this is how I encode an alternate universe that legitimizes science as a free play of knowledge production and epistemic formations, and where all ideas come out to play in ontology.

Barad, Karen. (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. (Durham: Duke University press).

Bukatman, Scott. (1993). Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction. (Durham: Duke University Press).

Huizinga, J. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-element in Culture. Boston:  
               Beacon Press, 1955.

Journal Articles
Cho, Andrew and Daniel Clery. "Bracing for a Maelstrom of Data, CERN Puts Its Faith in the Grid."  Science 321 (2008): 1289-91.

Nielsen, Holger B. and Masao Ninomiya. "Search for Effect of Influence from Future in Large Hadron Collider." International Journal of Modern Physics A 23 (2008): 919-32.

Thacker, Eugene. “What Is Biomedia?” Configurations. 11.1: 47-79.

[1] An incipient exploration into the narrative mode as a way of interrogating epistemology through the process of mixing, entanglement, complication, contention and entanglement, can be seen in its prototypic manifestation at
[2] Ninomiya, Masao and Holger B. Nielsen. "Search for Effect of Influence from Future in Large Hadron Collider." International Journal of Modern Physics A 23 (2008): 919-32.
[3] Cho, Andrew and Daniel Clery. "Bracing for a Maelstrom of Data, CERN Puts Its Faith in the Grid." Science 321 (2008): 1289-91.

No comments:

Post a Comment