Follow Up …

… on incompatible systems: Our brain is much more complex than the apparatuses we use to assess it. What if fMRI and brain are just like course list (where I appeared as “registered”) and PennInTouch (where I registered as “audit” for the course)? It is pretty likely that we would not just continue to be nescient, but generate false knowledge.1 Anyhow, I think this point is very clear: If it happens to paper and digital databases, it can as well happen to neuronal systems and these noisy machines. Sadly, I will not take part in the class; luckily, however, I was able to communicate it—I am wondering how neurons / neuronal networks / brain areas might try to tell us we are in the wrong, when in fact they only audit a cognitive process while we think they are about to actively take part in it in order to receive credit for it. Poor neurons!

I want to share one more of many thoughts that usually come up while I am cleaning my new bedroom, organizing the books on my shelf, or hanging James Dean posters in my office (it really helps!): I recently read Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump for the first time in whole length. I was so surprised! Reading excerpts for recent classes, I had never realized that Hobbes was the guy on whose side I stand. Boyle always seemed to me the true scientist, and Hobbes trying to conserve an obsolete order. Learning in more detail about Hobbes’s understanding of the theory-ladenness of observation (although using the term in this connection is a little anachronistic), I felt more and more like Hobbes would have appreciated Ludwik Fleck’s concept of Denkstil as much as I do. And I was so relieved that in the end, Shapin and Schaffer also sided with Hobbes. There seems to be hope for me and my scholarly career.

Be that as it may, the remarkable concept of “virtual witnessing” employed by Boyle seemed not to fit the neurosciences, which was kind of bothersome to me. The neurosciences have an extraordinary authority not only in the sciences, but also in lay discourse. Therefore, I am convinced there has to be a particular strategy at least as successful as Boyle’s for making people who are not part or visitors of the experiment believe in what fMRI scanners purport to find in the brain (with or without incompatibilities). I believe that at some point in the sciences’ getting more and more specialized and technological, wo_mankind signed over their right to witness experiments. I am not sure to whom they did this, if to scientists, disciplines, or the idea of science as a whole, but this is where Pierre Bourdieu shows up (so many names today): Contemporary science has a tremendous amount of symbolic capital in our society. It seems to me that witnessing the experiment became obsolete, and that the neurosciences with huge interdisciplinary research cooperations and tremendously expensive apparatuses have enough power not to be questioned in a way Boyle might have been. Nevertheless, there are these lovely colored brain pictures to be found in scientific and popular media. I am not sure which part they play, but they are most likely not a substitute for witnessing the knowledge generating process as were Boyle’s drawings and writings, but much rather a trophy and illustration of what has been proven to be true by institutions whom we already trust (because of their capital—symbolic and pretty often monetary, as it turns out; otherwise they would not have been able to run the experiment in the first place).

P.S. Pictures will follow, as I promised. I will seize the opportunity to include pics of the recently renovated lounge, which was dedicated to Thomas P. Hughes today. I only know him through his remarkable work Networks of Power, but I wish I had also been able to take advantage of his generosity and human warmth.

1 —if there is anything like “false knowledge”; I am still not sure where I want to position myself regarding “reality” and “truth”—


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