Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Imagination and Science

Science or imagination?
Every couple years I'm in the habit of asking myself what we're doing at Mindport, or what Mindport is all about now. This time the subject came up as I was lying in bed half asleep. A phrase popped into my head, "Mindport is a museum of art and imagination." My tendency has been to think of Mindport as a museum integrating art and science, which I mentioned in an essay on my staff page.

I've written a good deal about art and science being two ways of perceiving the world, one looking at it from the viewpoint of the emotions, and the other from that of the rational or logical mind. My quest in the past has been to attempt to integrate the two, since I've believed that if you study science while ignoring emotion, or practice an artistic discipline without acknowledging the logical and rational style of thinking, you get into various sorts of trouble.

So why, in my semi-somnolent musings, did the word "imagination" substitute itself for "science" in the phrase "a museum integrating art and science?" And why did I like the sound of the latter description better than the one I'd habitually used for years?

After a day or two of rumination on the subject, I realized that my attitude toward science has changed considerably over the last ten years. Previous to that, I'd thought of science as an "objective" style of viewing the world, i.e., what we learn via the scientific style of examination is a truth that you can't argue with once it's firmly established. The trouble is, after a long spell of observation, and having read a great deal about the history of science, about various scientific disciplines, especially the strangeness of quantum physics, and having seen the results of scientific research twisted in order to mislead people about such things as the harm caused by smoking, pollutants, and climate change, I'm beginning to suspect that scientific objectivity is. . . well. . . suspect; that a great deal of what science "discovers" is biased by what is already thought to be known, or by what we want to believe or what it's convenient or profitable to believe. Which is to say that scientific knowledge, and particularly the technology it begets are colored in large part by social and psychological factors.

Hence, experience and observation have awakened me to the fact that science and imagination are more closely entwined than I've been in the habit of thinking, and that one thing I've half-consciously been doing at Mindport is weaving the two together in such a way as to make that fact more obvious, at least to me, and possibly to others as well. This idea first came up in an essay I wrote about radio, which is a pet subject of mine, since I've been a licensed amateur radio operator for over 50 years. You can download the PDF here, then scroll down to the section, "Technology and Meaning," for a more detailed discussion.

To expand slightly on what I said in that essay, it seems that the direction taken by scientific research and the technological devices that follow on the heels of scientific discoveries is strongly determined by the way in which we collectively imagine ourselves. It's fun to consider what might have happened had we not been a "dominator" culture, bent on expanding our influence and ultimately creating an empire. If a culture with no interest in expansion had stumbled on electromagnetic radiation, would anyone have bothered to invent a use for it? Radio is a means to exert power at a distance, which is highly desirable for a culture bent on bringing large territories under its control. When a member of such a culture stumbles on a means to communicate instantly over long distances, of course that capability will be developed and refined. If we did not imagine ourselves to be conquerors or to have expansive desires, either physically or socially, there would be little motivation to develop communications technology.

The Aboriginal People of Australia, who inhabited the landscape of that continent for 40,000 years or more, are said to have been able to communicate over long distances via "bush telegraph." Somehow they knew at a distance what was happening to others of their society without recourse to mechanical means. Such human capabilities have been researched and well-documented, but are scoffed at by mainstream science. It doesn't fit with our current beliefs about ourselves or with the scientific paradigm, which holds that whatever cannot be proven by repeatable experiment does not exist. What would life be like if we were to consider anything possible unless absolutely DISproven by repeatable experiment?

Radio, as I see it, is an artifact of imagination. It seeded my 8 year-old mind with dreams of something quite similar to a smart phone, a handheld device with which you could communicate, watch movies, and do a number of the things smart phones are capable of. It's slightly spooky that such a device actually materialized 50-some years later. (Ironically, I don't own one.) If I'd been embedded in, say, the isolated culture of an Amazonian tribe, it's highly doubtful that anything like that would have occurred to me. Our present culture is the combination of many imaginations working in concert to realize a technologically-mediated sort of life that, if it's not exactly what WE dreamed of, it has certainly conformed to the dreams of the corporations and their technological enablers.

The Short Wave Radio exhibit at Mindport, is an example of re-visioning a technological artifact as an expression of meaning. Another exhibit, Wave Music, converts the movement of water waves to musical sound. It exemplifies an instance where "data" that might ordinarily graphed and used as a source for scientific inquiry, is turned toward aesthetic purposes instead. The intention was to be able to appreciate wave motion, not only as a physical sensation, but as a musical one as well. The ultimately pleasing application for it is to attach its four sensors around a tub of warm water, then lie submersed, wearing headphones, and listening to the music created by one's slight bodily movements stirring the water. From personal experience, it beats the hell out of lying in the tub listening to ads on the radio, which are mainly intended to convince me to colonize my life with more stuff.

In answer to my own question about what I/we are doing at Mindport: The present chaotic and possibly collapsing state of the economy and the culture have made it even more obvious to me how important it is that there exist havens of beauty and quiet. . . and good humor. Such places provide breathing room, and suggest alternatives to our increasingly frenetic and technology-plagued existence. We continue to present Mindport as one of those places. We hope that genuine peace and prosperity will rule your life in the New Year, and invite you to drop by and enjoy what we have to offer.
Kevin Jones

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