Friday, June 8, 2012

Bats, Beagles, and Kuhn’s Problem

We know that bats and beagles live in very different sensory words, sensory worlds that are different from ours as well. This causes us no distress. We understand that bats and beagles live in different life worlds—which differ from ours as well—and that they each have sensory and motor equipment appropriate to their world. Though we can’t hear sounds that bats can, we know of and can measure such sounds, and the same holds true for smell and beagles.

All of this makes sense in the generous framework of biological evolution. No one has fits about “relativism” over the fact that animals live in worlds constructed by their sensory and motor capabilities. No one worries that the constructedness of animal worlds somehow threatens the fabric of reality. Bats and beagles have different life worlds, but we understand that neither of those life worlds is THE WORLD, writ large.

So why does the fact that Newtonian mechanics and Einsteinian mechanics cause us some little distress? That’s what I’m calling Kuhn’s problem since, as I explained in an earlier post, he’s the one who explicated the problem in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Bats and beagles have in different life worlds as Newtonians and Einsteinians have different mechanics. But in all cases THE WORLD is the world, no?

Kuhn’s problem, and others like it, didn’t seem to cause Kuhn himself much distress, but it did seem to cause distress in others, or triumphant glee for those who wished to get out from under the weight of oppressive science. Kuhn’s work got assimilated to social constructivism and that was GOOD for some and EVIL for others. But the sky did not fall, nor is it likely to do so in the foreseeable future, at least not on account of Kuhn’s ideas.

Why, then, does Kuhn’s problem have such a different valence from that of multiple life worlds among animals?

There’s a lot one could say about that but the difference I’m driving at is this: In the case of animal life worlds we clearly see that different animals have different sensory and motor access to the world. We automatically and explicitly take that into account we thinking about animal behavior. But, as Latour emphasizes, we treat our own theories of the world quite differently. We divorce the theories from the investigative work and apparatus—yes! the apparatus—which support them. We thus give our theories a transcendent cast that we mistake for the world itself. Thus, when two such theories both work, and work well, as is the case with Newtonian and Einsteinian mechanics, it appears to us as though the world itself were fundamentally unstable.

Which it is not.

At least not on that evidence.


  1. .

    No, but I was trying to be a dog for a moment --
    not that I am but was trying
    to be a dog for a long walk on a leash
    in a scent world with image track
    and sound too,
    the way dogs, try as they may to walk as humans
    in a sight world with sound track
    and blind as bats to the whole world of smell

    simply can't and never will, and
    the wolf in me keened to bay at that moon
    but the brambles ached louder,
    there was what I might want to call
    a polyphony of scents each one ineffable --
    but imagination failed, nor strayed I from our paths.

  2. Wonderful, Charles.

    Looks like a bit of what Ian Bogost calls alien phenomenology.