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Books and stuff

September 13, 2011

Today I went to the post office to ship my personal library to Chicago. (For those of you who don’t know, I’m moving to Chicago on Saturday.) It was a surprisingly unnerving experience; I found myself somewhat terrified that one of the boxes would get lost on the way, that I would lose a sizable number of books and not even know what books I had lost. I could have made a list of what books were in which boxes, but that would have taken rather a long time. I ended up taking out insurance on the shipment, so I’ll be able to replace at least a few of the books if need be, but I’ll sleep much more easily once I have all the books safe in my new apartment.

I’ll be somewhat busy this week and next with the moving, so posts here will probably slow down. I’m not going to drag this one on longer than necessary; instead, here’s an article on a subject somewhat related to the above: the meaning we find in artifacts, and why we shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand. It’s from the always interesting Futurisms group blog (“critiquing the project to reengineer humanity”), from the often interesting The New Atlantis (“a journal of technology and society”). It makes an interesting point about science, history, and particularity:

Putting these problems aside for now, it seems that Kelly wants us to value objects only inasmuch as they yield information, in particular scientific information. Scientific theories are interested in universals and types, not particulars and instances. A lab rat is useful because we can manipulate it and perform tests upon it to verify or falsify theories. But the particular rat has no scientific value beyond its membership in a class. This is because science is especially interested in studying repeatable events — events whose existence is, paradoxically, not bound to a particular time or place. It would be superstitious to scientifically value any particular rat, because the future will always yield more rats.

The problem is that the reason people value historical artifacts is quite different from the reason they value objects that are useful for forming and validating scientific theories. In both cases, the central task (if not the ultimate goal) involves learning empirical facts about the world. But where scientific facts are repeatable, available for verification by anyone anywhere, a historical event happens only once, and then is gone. (The two qualities that Kelly concedes might make an artifact legitimately valuable — age and rarity — are in fact only valuable in a historical sense; their value seems scientific simply because it can be quantified.)

This is the rub of history: we can’t go back and see it again for ourselves, because it already happened. So we tell stories, and we remember. But we worry that we will forget; and we worry that the next generation will not believe us — or that they will believe, but not feel, because it didn’t exist for them as it did for us. Perhaps we worry that, after enough time, even things that happened to us, and people we knew, will begin to seem less real — because even for us they don’t exist now as they once did.

I think in English departments this topic is known as “material culture,” and people spend a lot of time studying it. I probably won’t end up doing that.

An interesting side note about science, history, and philosophy: there aren’t really very many natural philosophy museums. Even “science” museums are usually full of taxidermied elephants and dinosaur skeletons, which the public is interested in primarily because the idea of a twenty-foot-tall lizard-monster is cool, and only secondarily because we can use those bones as proof for evolution. I don’t think I’ve ever even been to a museum of chemistry or physics; what would be there, a taxidermied specimen of Newton’s First Law? I’m not sure what conclusions can be drawn from this.

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