Instrumentalism, Dali, My Dad’s Photographs, and Me

While reading a very interesting string of comments on the Oikos blog, I had to look something up: instrumentalism. Wikipedia describes it as a philosophy that places the importance of scientific theory in prediction, i.e., a theory is important to the degree that it can make accurate predictions. It also says that “theories about unobservable phenomena are regarded as having no scientific meaning.” This took me back to what I regard as one of the most important events in my scientific education. I was learning about orbitals in chemistry, and struggling to understand hybrid orbitals. Either I read something in the text, or the thought occurred to me independently, that hybrid orbitals were not necessarily real, but a description that fit the data, which freed me of trying to understand it with my visual imagination. Later on, thinking about the uncertainty principle, I had to make a similar leap to ask whether the uncertainty in a particle’s position was independent of observations, i.e. whether inertia and position are best approximations for reality, not real in themselves.

In gearing up to go back to school, I had been reconsidering my longstanding fascination with and simplistic belief in deconstruction and its implication (if you can say that deconstruction implies anything) that the world has no independent existence of the person interpreting it. One of the ideas that occurred to me that seemed problematic was the connection between how we describe chemical behavior through a system of models and how that scales up to the visible, observable world.

Thinking about visible space in this way makes me think about the work of Salvador Dali, whose landscapes never quite worked for me, because it always seemed that Dali was using his amazing realism to support sophomoric observations like how an outcropping of rock could look like a person and how strange things look when they have really long legs. As I’m writing, I’m finding that I have the urge to reference, also, Cordwainer Smith’s series of  sci-fi short stories on the Instrumentality.

I want to compare Dali’s pictures to my father’s landscape photographs. My father’s best landscapes, in my opinion, have a similar floating quality to them. My very favorite is a picture of the east side of Mount Whitney, in Southern California, where the rocks and vegetation in the foreground seem to be in the same picture plane as the mountain, and there is barely any sky. It’s all information that I react to ecologically, in the way ecology is connected to mapping and positioning, the way an organism has a trophic position or a range. What I really prefer in my father’s pictures to Dali’s is how landscape is presented “as is,” and allows you to make your own mind up about what is meaningful, what is real.

Note: the picture I described above is too fragile to scan, so I’ve included a more recent landscape that illustrates what I mean.

Goat Rock in Anza-Borrego State Park, early in the morning

PS: I had an exchange with Jeremy Fox of the Oikos Blog about instrumentalism (and Terry Pratchett) that helped me understand it somewhat more clearly. Don’t know if it detracts from what I was writing about.

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About aquaticbiology

I'm a person from the San Francisco Bay Area. I like reading, the movies, my family, and biology. I think the science blogosphere is really fantastic and this is my blog about aquatic biology and the life sciences - along with digressions into science-art and commentary. Enjoy!
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3 Responses to Instrumentalism, Dali, My Dad’s Photographs, and Me

  1. GAJ says:

    Metrics are never independent of the mutual relationship between the observer and observed. They must include the effects of the senses and tools. Shake it up, put in a little taste of wonder, and you get unusual situations like your picture that give you skewed, but wondrous life variations.

  2. My first comment! Thanks so much, reader-who-shall-remain-anonymous! I agree with your statements, but as a small challenge, I wonder how we can ever understand the ways our senses fail to conform to reality – what do we have to compare with?

  3. Pingback: Pictures from a Vacation | aquaticbiology

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