Theory: January 2014

12th

Reading Annemarie Mol's excellent account1 of ANT. Puzzling if it would make sense, usefully interfere with the thinking of someone new to these ideas or just seem like nonsense. The ladder metaphor keeps nagging. What was it like not to know about these ideas? Where did those bottom rungs go?

It is clever writing that engages theory in an ANT-tradition. She plays with the idea, tinkers with key terms and avoids closure in a modest manner that is, to the acquirer of good ANT stuff, one of those marker texts.

11th

I am assembling a couple of IKEA bookcases. The clever engineering of the kit and the instruction book which is designed for any language, assuming some of the symbols translate across cultures strikes me as a way that theory may be thought of. Not a very interesting one but one that seems to resemble how students think about theory2. So, there is a kind of meta-theory - the great bookcase kit builder in the sky3 provides the wherewithal to put together templated theories, aka bookcases. You can obtain various sizes, with different numbers of shelves, colours and so on. Then, once the beast is assembled it can accommodate books (cases?) of various sizes. The theory can be adjusted to fit big and small books and allows you the freedom to juxtapose one book with another. Hmmm. Ugly and mechanistic.

It's also simple and Stuart Firestein4 reminds that simply because a phenomenon is complex that it does not require a complex theory.

To take that a step further, the difference between modern physics and brain science is that the unintuitive thoughts one has to think in physics can be done with the language of mathematics. We don’t use math in biology that way—at least not yet. The objection to equations most often voiced by biologists is that they oversimplify, that you cannot capture the complexity of biology, of a biological system, whether it be a single cell or a whole animal, in an equation. Nonsense, I say. You can capture the whole physical universe in a few of them. This is another case of pre-Copernican thinking creeping into our reasoning as received wisdom. The brain seems complicated, so its explanation must be also. (p.134)

Things brings me to the point about theory and models5. Note to self: Important to tinker with.

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