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Section II Epistemic Concepts & Practices II

Chair: Peter McLaughlin (University of Heidelberg)

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M. Norton Wise (University of California, Los Angeles): On the Historicity of Scientific Explanation and its Relation to Technologies: Materialized Epistemology

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Summary

I approach the historicity of scientific explanation from the perspective of changing technologies of knowledge and the aphorism that “there is no knowledge without a technology of knowledge.” To capture the ubiquity of the role of technologies, I will begin from work in literary theory on written language as technology (Russell Berman, Fiction sets you free; Walter Ong, Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word). On this view, writing materializes speech by providing a visual representation of oral expression. Its materiality helps to make it a technology of distance in space and time, conferring a certain autonomy on the writer and the reader. And this autonomy supports the capacity to create new ways of thinking and acting. In brief, writing is a technology of creative imagination.
Much the same can be said of the technologies that provide the means of systematic exploration and of thought in the sciences. A quite general example from physics, and certainly a technology of creative imagination, is the continually evolving landscape of partial differential equations (PDE’s) and methods for solving them that constituted for nearly two hundred years both the means and the goal of physical explanation. The equations, roughly in chronological order, include: Lagrange’s equations, Laplace’s equation, diffusion equation, wave equation, Navier-Stokes equation, Hamilton’s equation, Maxwell’s equations, Schroedinger equation, Klein-Gordon equation, etc. And the standardized toolboxes of mathematical techniques that every physicist of the 20th century learned to employ in dealing with this array came to be known simply as Courant & Hilbert or Morse & Feshbach. To explain the behavior of a system, one would try to write down a PDE to describe it and then seek solutions under appropriate symmetries and boundary conditions.
PDE’s are still a mainstay of description in many areas of physics but their relation to explanation has changed fundamentally since the 1960s. Their weakness had always been that they were soluble only for relatively simple systems (e.g., the Schroedinger equation for the hydrogen atom with one electron) and became unmanageable for the vast majority of real-world problems (e.g., an atom with ten or more electrons), which typically involve non-linear dynamics. In these areas of complexity, computer simulations, whether beginning from a PDE or not, have taken over the role of explanation. The temporal development of a successful simulation, typically followed visually on screen, now explains the dynamical behavior of the system. The technology of knowledge has changed dramatically and with it has changed both what we can know and how we know it.
Through this example and others more easily recognizable as material or mechanical technologies I will extract some implications for how the historicity of explanation is bound up with the changing technologies on which explanations are based. I would like to call views of this sort “materialized epistemology,” with reference to, for example, Rheinberger’s “epistemic objects,” Galison’s “epistemic machines,” Pamela Smith’s “artisanal epistemology,” and my own mediating machines

Discussion

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Michael Heidelberger (University of Tübingen): Plurality and/or Historicity of Causes

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Discussion

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Commentator: Sandra Mitchell (University of Pittsburgh)

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General Discussion

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