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GIF Minutes for September 9, 2005

Prepared by Roland Stahl

Graduate Idea Forum meeting, September 9, 2005
Reading: Carl Zimmer. Soul Made Flesh.
Participants: Anneliese Butler, Judy McCormick, Roland Stahl, Anne Dalke, Paul Grobstein, Corey Shdaimah, Tom Young

In this GIF meeting we discussed Carl Zimmer's Soul Made Flesh . In his book, Zimmer explores the history of the scientific exploration of the human brain over the last centuries. Among many other aspects of the history of brain research, Zimmer focuses on the 17 th century scientist Thomas Willis who was among the first to conceptualize the brain, and therefore the Self in modern terms.

We spent part of our meeting debating the complex interrelationship between politics and science. Paul was fascinated by the debate that Willis' theories triggered among English intellectuals, scientists, and political figures in England in the 1600s. Even more than the substantial questions that were being discussed at the time, it was interesting to see how Zimmer portrayed the evolution of the debate about the function of the brain. Zimmer shows how puritans, royalists, and scientists had each particular political or cultural agenda in mind. The royalists were concerned that Willis' theories might threaten established knowledge, the puritans on the other hand wanted just that, developing a new and universally applicable truth that would replace old ideas about the human mind and the brain.

In Paul's reading, the scientists - Willis among them- found themselves in the middle of these particular interests. They were mostly just concerned with trying to come up with new ways to think about the brain and with the necessary empirical data to support those claims. Yet, they were less concerned with finding 'the truth' but rather with acquiring new ways to conceptualize the brain's functions. Paul argued that this story was a wonderful example of the complex ways in which science and politics (or culture) interact. He referred to this problem as the difference between "knowledge seeking" (perusing new knowledge) and "knowledge" (preservation of established knowledge claims or "the trenchancy of knowledge").

We discussed at length how politics and science are mutually conditional but still have different functions in societies. Corey raised the question whether this problem was different in small vs. large scale societies. Annelise thought that this might be the case in an empirical sense but not in terms of the basic theoretical questions being Asked. Anne then questioned the role of the state or the government with regard to the science vs. politics problem. She referred to recent debates about the role of government in the wake of the tragedy that occurred in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast . She referred specifically to a recent piece by George Willis in Newsweek Magazine in which he argued - with Hobbes - that societies need a strong government in order to reign in the destructive tendencies of human behavior. This lead to a discussion about the role of reason vs. the role of power regarding the organization of societies, a problem that is reminiscent of the debate about the difference between science and politics.

Tom then referred to the debate about intelligent design and argued that Zimmer's book gave him pause in believing that the defenders of intelligence design theory were merely following political interests and had no empirical data to back up there claims. The problem with of this type of critique, Tom argued, was the fact that it is difficult to know without doubt whether the truth that we believe in (evolution) is more true that the truth that the other guys believe in (intelligent design). This led to a discussion about the importance of 'process' as a method of constructing truth or "a collective story" as Paul called it. Paul suggested that we read some of Rorty's work in order to pursue this problem further.


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