January 17, 2022

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The progress of mankind is hidden in the stumbling block of science

As noted by epistemologist Aharon Kantorovic, there is an analogy between biological evolution and the evolution of science: DIY.

Even unintentionally, neither premeditated nor infinite, the biological process of transformation and adaptation follows a pattern of unexpected benefits and expected solutions.

It often happens that the structure or behavior, which arose in connection with the initial adaptive functions or remained as non-functional side effects and remnants of other changes, is useful, with changing environmental conditions, in carrying out completely different and independent functions. From the wings to the lungs, from the new functions of old genes to the plastic reuse of many areas of our brain: the historical origin of a trait and an organ rarely matches its current function.

Evolution is a paraphrase, the difference being the subject. Although unfortunately in the scientific literature it is still called preadaptation (a term that is steeped in finials, as if it were a trait already in existence waiting to be exploited, and preadapted for this purpose), the phenomenon is called cheer, that is, a genius and opportunistic reuse of existing structures, which have evolved with other functions or without any function.

excess truth

In short, the evolutionary process makes the virtue of necessity. Natural selection does not start from scratch every time, but starts from the available material, with its limitations and history. Thus, the result of bricolage will not be perfect, but a literal compromise between different needs. Above all, an organism can gain unexpected advantages, not originally involved in the process of adaptation, by exploiting opportunities that already exist, in a flexible and flexible way.

In other words: what is functional now actually has a range of potential effects, many of which are now completely unknown and unpredictable, just like chance discovery.

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Just think, as Richard EF Leakey points out, about the consequences copious A series of walking on human two feet: a whole range of new behaviors and characteristics (liberation of the upper limbs, kinematic flexibility, narrowing of the birth canal, etc.) Urgent environmental change. The human race, including the brain, is an encyclopedia cheer.

Well, this too seems to serve to our minds grappling with an abundant truth: it searches for one thing, moved by a certain intent, and then finds another, as if an investigation into hyper-reality ensures the course of our search, immersed in the vast, unknown, latent potential of chance discoveries. Unexpected.

In short, there is chance opportunism in both evolution and cognition, because the mind of the scientist embarks on its voyage of discovery, like the Three Principles of Serendippo, with a powerful set of skills, abilities, methods, dreams, aspirations, beliefs, and questions.

That equipment, which counteracts and collides with experimental reality, becomes a repository of cheer potentially applicable. As the neurobiologist Jean-Pierre Changux has argued several times and as historian of science Enrico Bellon wrote in many natures: “Every scientist works in bricolage” by relying on multiple resources and “considers his brain as a generator of innovations which must then be subject to a court of choice”.

If there is an abundant reality out there, a reality overflowing with possibilities, without highways but with many viable ways, it can be explored in unexpected directions, those directions that no one else sees at that moment because they focus on a smaller reality.

Perhaps this explains the paradoxical fact that every time we discover something more, it is as if we are confusing that unknown, shaking it and letting new questions pop up, leaving them with the impression that they are more ignorant when in fact we know more and more.

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The unknown, like a seemingly inexhaustible quantity, does not seem to be eroded by the progress of our knowledge, but on the contrary it seems to resonate with them, as if each open window indicates new ones that are opening. Hence, it is noted that the question marks increase over time, not decrease.

imaginative momentum

Now let’s ask ourselves: Nature is much greater than our knowledge, okay, but is it also greater than our imagination? It’s only fair to suspect it, and come to our final coincidence.

Popper argued that in the relationship between us and our immense ignorance, the creative world manages to transcend itself through imaginative criticism: “This is how we transcend our local and temporal environment by trying to think of conditions beyond our experience: , inventing and anticipating new situations—that is, test situations, Critical Situations – and try to identify, define and challenge our usual biases and assumptions.”

It is the profession of the Hadamard painter scientist, who first paints the imagined landscape on canvas and only then opens the window.

The evolutionary bricolage of existing science connects us to the continuity between the giant and the dwarf on his shoulders: we play with already existing bricks and find unexpected combinations that become solutions in search of problems. The imaginative impulse, another component of the mind willing to chance, pushes us instead toward renewal, a break.

Popper continues: “In this way we raise ourselves out of the quagmire of our ignorance, and in this way we throw a rope into the air and climb upon it, hoping that it will take root, even in a perilous way, on some small branch.”

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Popper’s rope finds its grip in “world 3” of ideas, critical discussion, and mental structures, i.e. cultural evolution interacting with biological evolution. If we are lucky, we will be able to survive some of our faulty theories, once again by testing the contingent possibilities we have envisioned in our imaginations.

As Peter Medawar has written, science is not just about facts: it is an imaginative and exploratory activity. Just think of the role of thought experiments, from Galileo’s ship to Einstein’s free-falling elevators.

The scientist must have intuition, produce ideas, theories, hypotheses, to be subject to the activity of analytical and critical control. It takes imagination in both basic and applied research, because there is no pure observation already unsaturated with the theory that formulated this specific question of nature.

The scientific hypothesis, after all, is an imaginative preconceived notion of what might be true, a theory in the case of larvae: to propose it requires responsibility, not free exercise.

The formulation of general laws begins, Medawar continues, with an imaginative effort: “Science will live as long as we possess a faculty which shows no sign of weakness: the capacity for imagination, even in a primitive and imperfect form in so far as one likes, may be the truth; and so long as we keep in the same Time is available to check whether what we have imagined corresponds to reality or not.”


The text is an excerpt from Telmo Pivani’s book coincidence. unexpected in sciencePublished by Raffaello Cortina Publisher

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