Tag Archives: science

Putting Descartes Before the Hordes

He was a lawyer who never had a client—but he argued the case for rationalism, inveighing against the theretofore vague definitions of knowledge and truth, in his voluminous correspondence with the great thinkers and theologians of his age.

He joined the army of a Dutch prince at the age of 22—but he eschewed a military career to devote himself to the rigorous pursuit of knowledge through the study and application of mathematics and philosophy. He was French by birth—yet he died in Sweden after living most of his life in Holland.

Anomalies abound in the life of René Descartes, a man who, on the one hand, stands as a milestone on mankind’s long road to enlightenment and reason, and on the other, has had much of his life’s work disputed and derided.

The Procedural Rule

Rejecting the scholastic methods of his philosophical forebears, who sought truth by contrasting and comparing the views of accepted authorities, Descartes posited in “Meditations on First Philosophy” that a “firm and permanent structure” of knowledge requires building “anew from the foundation.” He determined to rid himself of presuppositions, ignore all but incontrovertible facts, and discount any evidence supplied by his senses.

To the extent that the use of this truth-seeking methodology—his Procedural Rule—succeeded in advancing the studies of optics, analytical geometry, and the theory of equations, Descartes shall be forever ensconced in the pantheon of intellectual giants. That his main contribution to philosophy was to establish the certainty of uncertainty suggests that his quest left him, as its chronicle left so many of his skeptical descendants, personally unfulfilled.

However readily one might accept Descartes’ process for challenging conventional wisdom by application of his Procedural Rule—and the fact that rationalism as a philosophical denomination was born with his “Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason”—it is clear that the “father of modern philosophy” was himself stymied by the limits of his senses and intellect. “[It] is not in my power to arrive at the knowledge of any truth,” he finally admitted.

Descartes was quick to add, however, that his Procedural Rule could ensure that he would never give “credence to any false thing.” Common sense, the sciences, mathematics, logic: In no domain is there indubitable truth provable by human methodologies, because of the undependable nature of our senses.

Yet pervading all of these realms is the consciousness of man, the inquiring and doubting self that is the only solid, certain, provable entity in Descartes’ dualistic universe, to wit: Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am.

Failing His Own Test

René Descartes, an extraordinarily gifted man, brought his formidable mind to bear on the profound questions of many disciplines, but through a peculiarly human, undisciplined application of his own methodology arrived at any number of specious, spurious, even silly conclusions.

For instance, the notion that “animal spirits” in human blood interact with “thinking substances” of the brain to create a nerve-channel charge that enables the limbs—was this fanciful idea put through the Procedural Rule wringer? And did the great Renatus Cartesius display intellectual integrity and dedication to objective truth by abandoning his belief in a Copernican universe when it was pronounced heretical by the Catholic Church?

So where, outside of his analytical analog to Euclidian construction, or the fundamental law of reflection, or his inspired though embryonic assertions of the undulatory theory of light, is the consistency, the unassailability, of Descartes’ philosophy?

A Place of Primacy and Permanence

The man who shook “foundations to [bring] the downfall of the rest of the edifice”; the man who was first to challenge categorically the perceptions, assumptions, and sensations upon which entire classical belief systems were founded; the man who enshrined along with the doubt of the objective the certainty of the subjective; the man who extrapolated from that subjective certainty the existence of a God apprehended by reason—this man does, indubitably, occupy a place of primacy and permanence in the history of philosophy.

Today, many of his great and varied contributions to our knowledge of geometry, optics, anatomy, and mathematics—not to mention our knowledge of knowledge itself—are unknown to most people on the planet. Yet someday, perhaps, the great René Descartes will be more widely recognized for his grand, passionate, provocative reasoning.

Perhaps he will even be as revered and respected as modern celebrity philosophers Eckhart Tolle, Bono, Bill Cosby, or Tom Cruise. It could happen; I don’t know.

I only know that I doubt it.

Cogitation 101: Science and Technology

You don’t have to go “full tilt Foucault” to believe that words have great power, and when wrought and wielded in certain ways can utterly fail in their assigned tasks to explain and enlighten. We face that situation today with the words “science” and “technology”—two words often used quite interchangeably, even in places where people should take some care (colleges, laboratories, the media).


So what is the difference? Is Apple’s MacBook Pro a scientific breakthrough or a technological construction? Both? Neither? Something else entirely? Since it actually does matter, and will provide a foundation for further (real) understanding, let’s take about 500 words and a few minutes to go over some things.

Basic definitions = clear distinctions

Science is a systematized, evolving body (or “base”) of knowledge. Within a particular field, one can trust that following a series of steps will result in the outcome predicted. As evidence accumulates, an initial “hypothesis” or testable proposition becomes a “theory” of explanatory and predictive power.

The various pursuits of knowledge employing this methodology are what we know as “the sciences”—physics, biology, geography, chemistry, physics, and so on. Some 44 years’ worth of advances in computer science, for example, are represented by today’s basic, entry-level computer that’s incalculably more powerful than the primitive contraption that took Americans to the moon in 1969.

Technology is another thing altogether, the application of knowledge (or science) to problem-solving and service provision, primarily via manmade tools and devices. If we allow that science is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, for the evolving knowledge base, then technology is the practical application of that knowledge to meet people’s needs and solve their problems. Advancing solar energy science would lead to such technologies as more-efficient solar panels, for instance.

Science explains, technology performs

Science has analysis in mind, following which come generalizations, then the crafting of theories. Experiments are a way of controlling and defining discoveries, so excellence in science requires creativity, logical thinking, and the usual “x factor” that eludes definition, like Steve Jobs’ star quality and that of his game-changing iMac that revolutionized (modern) computing.

And technology? It brings design to the mix, as well as invention, production, process, construction, testing and measurement, quality control, and synthesis—thus possibly beginning the cycle again with new ideas, even new science, leading to ever-newer technology, and on and on.

To summarize:

Science studies specific subjects, technology applies what is learned.

Science analyzes the data, technology synthesizes a design.

Science is theory, technology is process.

It’s really quite practical and sensible, this “science and technology” lesson, as they both conspire to do us good at every turn even when we misuse them for ill. When the human imagination conjures up positive new ideas to replace the old, great things happen in science. When allowed to fly, creativity always takes wing.

That creative energy is amplified many times over as motivated parties all over the world turn sterile science into useful, productive, empowering, and, yes, fun technology. There’s the occasional nuclear bomb, sure, but it’s only slightly more dangerous than the testosterone that fueled the Manhattan Project, truth be told. Keep the latter in check, and we’ll likely have fewer of the former.

LifeTech: Cultural Issues in Tech Adoption

iPad with flags of the world

The Apple iPad is not just translated into other languages, but other cultures, as well.

Tech users worldwide bring their cultural biases to the use of new technologies. Even product safety standards are largely based on a nation or region’s reigning sociocultural values. For global companies—what firm isn’t, what with the Internet, FedEx, and consumer electronics with components from different continents?—understanding these cultural issues is essential. Working toward that understanding along with a growing number of consumer-tech firms are researchers, anthropologists, and (yes) philosophers.

Formed from culture and tradition, a people’s collective mental model defines everything, including color. In China, black borders mean a pictured person is deceased, so the first digital photo frames with thick black bezels—as on the original plasma displays—did not do well there. (White has other issues.) Everything from design and production through marketing and sales must pass the culture test, lest a product fail because people don’t “get it”—or worse, because something is silly or offensive. The classic, possibly apocryphal example? Citroën sold few cars in Holland because its name in Dutch means “lemon.”

IBM, True Blue Trailblazer

Making sure to consider all “society-based cultural factors…in the design of technology” is difficult, according to Geert Hofstede. Hofstede first studied, then strategized the international spread of IBM’s business in the 1960s and 1970s, back when “computer rental” meant paying by the hour to use what was essentially a refrigerator-sized tape deck (with no spell-check). At least IBM’s management team was smart enough to put even smarter academic researchers on the job. Hofstede developed the landmark four dimensional framework for adapting technology to particular cultures (later upped to six dimensions with long-term orientation and indulgence).

Writing in 1980, Hofstede posited four adversarial principles at work across human cultures:

  • Weak vs. strong uncertainty avoidance. Some cultures, such as Greece and Japan, place great importance on avoiding ambiguity, especially in interpersonal relations. This explains the Japanese preference for video-calls, which they make in the billions on every phone, PC, and tablet available. Video-calls require being seen, but also positively ID the caller. In Scandinavia and Hong Kong, on the other hand, more ambiguity is tolerated and video-calls are less numerous.
  • Individualism vs. collectivism. The UK and U.S. cultures idealize self-sufficiency and independence, whereas Venezuela and Colombia are proudly collectivist. While people use laptops in the U.S. for a variety of personal and/or corporate reasons, a marketing campaign in Colombia would focus on group collaboration. Traits such as confidence and creativity develop in individualist cultures, while cooperation and conformity are strongly encouraged in collectivist ones.
  • Small vs. large power distance. A large “power distance” exists in cultures like India and the Philippines, where the privileged classes use all the latest tech while the powerless remain “unplugged” on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder. Austria, Sweden, and other Western nations—where high-tech devices are commodities that even “the poor” can afford—have “small” power distances.
  • Masculinity vs. femininity. Cultures that are task-oriented, and emphasize material success, are called “masculine.” Ones that are people-oriented, and value quality of life? They’re “feminine.” Such previous markers as the American female’s mythical affinity for frilly pink things are in flux, however: Apple’s MacBook line now includes “girly” light-as-Air models that guys seem to like just fine.