World Philosophy Day 2020 – Marvellous mysteries and the unity of science

According to the United Nations, philosophy is ‘the study of the nature of reality and existence, of what is possible to know, and of right and wrong behaviour. It is one of the most important fields of human thought as it aspires to get at the very meaning of life.’ Today we are celebrating World Philosophy Day by sharing a post written by Francesca Bellazzi, a PhD student on the ERC-funded MetaScience Project*, which delves into marvellous mysteries and the unity of science…

‘But what vast gaps there were, what blank spaces, she thought leaning back in her chair, in her knowledge! How little she knew about anything. Take this cup for instance; she held it out in front of her. What was it made of? Atoms? And what were atoms, and how did they stick together? The smooth hard surface of the china with its red flowers seemed to her for a second a marvellous mystery.’ (Virginia Woolf, The Years)

So reflects Eleanor in Virginia Woolf’s The Years. How can this china with red flowers be made of atoms that somehow stick together? Many solutions to this marvellous mystery have been offered, and these are the kinds of questions that the MetaScience philosophy project addresses.

The world, like the cup, seems to be composed of different levels, one clustered beneath the other. Different disciplines study these different levels. Each of them focusses on a specific level of inquiry: physics at the physical one, chemistry at the chemical one, economics at the economical one, and so forth. However, how these levels relate to each other is not obvious. They are not isolated clusters such that the things happening in the ‘biological’ and ‘physical’ clusters are completely independent from each other, nor do they seem easily reducible to the one unique level of physical particles.

In light of this, two extremes have been debated within philosophy. Some philosophers are in favour of what is known as ‘strict identity-based reductionism’, arguing that phenomena at the higher level – such as biological phenomena – are strictly identical to phenomena at the physical level. Such a view might lead to ‘eliminativism’, which essentially says that if all higher-level entities are identical to their lower-level components, then we should stop speaking or even worrying about the higher-level stuff. The only fundamental level is then the physical one, and all the sciences have to be reduced to that. However, this is now an ‘old dream’ – the world is way too complex to be pinned down by identity relations.

Against this reductive dream stand those that argue for the disunity of science. Often called Diagram titled 'An Old Reductive Dream' showing the levels‘pluralism’, this position argues that the physical, chemical, biological and social realms can all equally understand the world on their own. However, this route also appears too extreme, as it disregards important interactions between levels and the growing exchanges between disciplines. 

In the MetaScience project we are investigating how to achieve the unity of the sciences by saving the unity of the world itself without being an identity reductionist. Our project studies how the different levels can interact via a variety of dependency relations, such as ‘multiple realisation’ and ‘multiple determination’. Multiple realisation means that a higher level can be realised by different lower-level phenomena. An example is colour, where different microphysical phenomena can realise the same shade. Different surfaces (composed of different microphysical particles) can reflect the same wavelength. Multiple determination goes the other way around: the same lower level can determine different higher-level properties, such as moonlight proteins that play different functions in different environments. Our aim is to use these – and other – dependency relations to find out whether the sciences can be effectively unified.

Let us try now to be a bit more concrete and go back to the china cup: how can its smooth surface be composed of atoms?

Illustration of a china cup decorated in a flower pattern
Illustration by Francesca Moro

The strict reductionist would say that the cup is nothing more than the result of physical stuff interacting with each other following the laws of physics. The pluralist, on the other hand, would say that any of chemistry, physics or psychology can give us an equally valid story about the cup. However, both options seem to take the wrong direction. There is no 1:1 correspondence between the colour red of the flowers and some underlying microphysical phenomena; as we saw earlier, colour is an instance of multiple realisation. However, there are some relations between the colour level and the microphysical one; these are not self-isolated clusters.

Possibly, the truth lies in the middle. Pursuing philosophical enquiry, MetaScience studies the possibility that within one cup, all sorts of different properties can be found and that this is not mysterious. One and the same china cup can be described by different disciplines that consider different properties: its material composition can be studied by chemistry, its solidity by physics, its geometrical form by mathematics, its colour by the interaction between optics and neurophysiology, its function by psychology and sociology. Nevertheless, this does not imply that this single cup is nothing but atoms or that the different descriptions of the cup are self-standing and detached. Rather, it means that the existent cup is only one and yet is complex. It is composed of many levels studied by different disciplines that all help to understand how the compositional parts of the cup are related. The mystery might be solved without taking away the marvellous. Thanks to the interaction between sciences and philosophy, we are able to formulate a unified view of the one china cup with its red flowers.

by Francesca Bellazzi,

PhD Student in the ERC-funded Project MetaScience (771509)


*The MetaScience project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant agreement No. 771509).

 

International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

Today, 9 August, marks the United Nations’ International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, raising awareness of the needs of indigenous people across the globe.

Dr Camilla Morelli, a lecturer in social anthropology here at the University of Bristol, has been working with indigenous communities in Amazonian Peru for over a decade. Here we learn more about her most recent piece of research.

Amazonimations – co-producing animated films with indigenous people in Amazonia

Amazonimations is a collection of three animated films produced collaboratively with the indigenous Matses people of the Amazon rainforest. The films are the outcome of a research project (funded by the British Academy) that brought together academic research, art and animation with the objective of using collaborative film production as a means through which people living at the margins of technological and economic inclusion can find forms of self-representation and gain a sense of wider recognition.

Like many other indigenous societies, Matses people had no contact with outsiders until fairly recently, and they are now dealing with the challenges of urbanisation, socioeconomic change, and the impact of globalised media and markets. Amidst the difficulties they face, a key issue is the feeling of being largely unheard and cut out from wider society; their goal, as they phrased it, is for the world to know who they are. In each animated short, a different generation of Matses tells a story: the elderly talk about the traditional ritual of ‘acate’, an intoxicating substance that is said to create a connection between people and the forest; Matses children tell a story about rainforest animals and spirits; and young Matses who migrated from the forest to the city discuss their experiences of adjusting to urban life.

This work is quintessentially collaborative – the films have been scripted, narrated and illustrated by Matses people themselves, and the overall goal of this is to disseminate the animations widely in order to raise awareness about threatened indigenous lives and their precarious futures. Learn more about the Matses people and their culture by watching Amazonimations on Vimeo.

Celebrating Pride Month

We’d like to wish all members of the LGBT+ community a very Happy Pride Month! We caught up with Dr Jamie Lawson, a queer anthropologist whose major research interest is in sex and sexuality, to find out more about his research, Pride, and the path to equality for all.

What was it that first drew you into the exciting world of anthropology?

It was a lucky accident really – I got very bored at school, so come university application time I felt a strong urge to study something new. Archaeology and Anthropology was the first thing in the UCAS course book that fit the bill. I fell in love with anthropology quite quickly, though – I enjoy the freedom of the discipline, and felt a strong pull towards an intellectual tradition that resists being pinned down. It’s a big, sprawling subject with as many definitions and angles as there are practitioners, which is what you might expect from a discipline that’s focussed on understanding people; we’re complicated things, after all. There’s a very thin line between anthropology and activism as well – I think I always found the political engagement of the discipline really exciting.

What was it about sexual minorities and human sexuality in particular that led you to pursue a research career in this area?

I developed an interest in sex and sexuality towards the end of my undergraduate degree, and followed it through to master’s and eventually PhD level. Initially I adopted an evolutionary perspective on the topic, but found that a little too heteronormative for my tastes, and have drifted over the years towards a more phenomenological position, focussed on queer identities and subcultures. This led me to my recent work on the puppy play community. It’s no coincidence that over the same time, I became properly politically engaged with my identity as a gay man, and got involved with activist work, including organising the first Pride up in Durham, and eventually writing my book. I think it’s important to challenge the dominant structures of society which act to marginalise and oppress anyone who doesn’t fit in with the trans- and homophobic, racist and patriarchal norms.

You were involved in the Art of Relationships project at the Open University, which was designed to explore the power of art to engage members of the public with social science research – can you tell us more about that?

That was a lot of fun. The project involved screening a set of short films that had been made to communicate research findings from a large, nationwide project on love and relationships called ‘Enduring Love’. In order to evaluate the impact those films had, I ran a reflexive group exercise called a visual matrix (based on a social dreaming matrix, for anyone who has encountered one of those). The method is designed to tap into group-level, collective ideas and feelings rather than individual, to see what the audience collectively had taken from the films. A visual matrix is a wonderfully egalitarian method which breaks down the distinction, to some extent, between researcher and informants. We used it to see what sorts of ideas had made their way from the films to the audience, to see if it was possible to communicate research findings through art (in this case, films).

June is Pride month here in the UK – what does Pride mean to you?

This is a favourite question to ask queer people around Pride time – I’m never really sure how to answer it. Pride is about visibility, community and celebration, sure, but we should never forget that it was born out of anger. The rights that the LGBTQ+ community has fought for and gained, the space it carved out for itself – that was all the result of anger, focussed against oppression. Pride this year comes at a scary time – the world is in the grip of a pandemic, and the hard right have risen in political power. The protests that are currently sweeping the world as a result of systemic racism and anti-Black violence in the United States are also an expression of anger, deeply and collectively felt. My hope is that we can all come together around that anger and push back against those who want to strip minorities of their rights and turn us against each other. I am a very angry queer, and very proud of that anger.

Last year you released your first book – Rainbow Revolutions: Power, Pride and Protest in the Fight for Queer Rights – which is aimed at children aged 12 and over. What inspired you to write specifically for this age group?

The opportunity landed squarely in my lap. I was approached by the publisher off the back of some consulting work I had done for them on another project, and they asked if I would like to write a book on queer history for children. I said yes almost immediately. The mainstream, cishet world does everything it can to stop queer people feeling connected with each other, including dismissing the idea of there being such a thing as queer history. Being disconnected from your own history makes growing up queer a very isolating thing – you feel lost, untethered in a society that only begrudgingly makes space for you. Knowing that you have ancestors, traditions, that you belong to a group of people who learned lessons collectively and had an impact on the world, that’s empowering and important. I wrote the book for young queers, hoping I might help them feel a little bit less lost.

What is the key message you hope young people will take away from your book, and what impact do you hope it will have?

I wanted the readers of Rainbow Revolutions to understand that queer rights were fought for and won – not given – and that the community has a history of its own , and perhaps most importantly that Black and trans voices inside the LGBTQ+ community have been some of the most important and most powerful we’ve had. As trans people are having their rights stripped away and their lives endangered around the world, and as the Black Lives Matter protests sweep the globe, it’s hugely important that the readers of my book understand how connected we all are, and that none of us are free until all of us are free. I tried to reinforce an idea that collective action that visibility en masse is key to liberation and safety. Most of all I wanted them to know that they are not alone.

What societal changes do you think are required to get to a point where we can ensure young members of the LGBT+ community are fully supported, included, and safe from discrimination?

That’s a big question, and there are a lot of moving parts, but if I could wave a magic wand and make one big change (and if I knew there were others out there with their own magic wands) I would disconnect the idea of sex from the idea of reproduction. The idea that “sex is for making babies” is at the absolute core of the oppression of queer people, and the oppression of women (queer or not), around the world. It’s dangerous most of all because it feels like such a self-evident fact, and is so deeply embedded in Western cultures. Alongside that, I’d make white people around the world turn to face the evils of colonialism, and engage with our collective responsibility to dismantle the structures that supported it, of which trans- and homophobia are important components. Big aims, both, but I have to believe they’re possible.

What more do you think could be done as a Faculty – and more widely across the University – to support the LGBT+ community and ensure equality for all?

I think the higher education sector is starting to shift in really interesting and quite radical directions, and that’s what we need here: radical change. If we don’t make active decisions to disrupt colonialist, oppressive structures then they persist. I think the pandemic has forced us to start to think properly about what universities could and should be and how they could and should work, and to confront difficult facts about access and inclusion. Finding new ways to imagine the University will be key to equality for staff and students alike.

Third Year History with Innovation student Jasmine Smellie on making the right choice studying an Arts degree

Third year History with Innovation student Jasmine Smellie talks to us about her degree, studying Innovation and why she made the right choice.

Before joining University, every time I mentioned I wanted to do an arts degree, the question that very quickly followed on was “what can you do with an arts degree?” In reply I would say “well what can you not do,” because I was confident in the skills I would acquire through university would set me with a range of understanding that could be moulded into any job position.

“I realise now how much I underestimated the true breadth of skills an arts degree could bring”

However, admittedly I remained secretly sceptical about what career it was, exactly, I was wishing to pursue. Since actually now studying History with Innovation, my perception has only got stronger. I realise now how much I underestimated the true breadth of skills an arts degree could bring, from analytical and comparative studies into textual information, to improved communication skills and learning how to work in teams.

“Some advice I would give to a new starter of an arts degree at University is to really have faith and belief in your own decisions and that you have chosen the right course for you”

Through Innovation, I have learnt skills that I have been able to apply during the summer whilst working at a cloud software based company, an internal communications design agency, and a variety of creative studios around Bristol. Which truly highlighted to me that when applied, the skills you acquire (sometimes unintentionally) through an arts based subject really can put you in good stead for any career area.

Some advice I would give to a new starter of an Arts degree at university is to really have faith and belief in your own decisions and that you have chosen the right course for you. Be confident to throw yourself into as many things you can, from drama and music, to working with the engineering and computer science based societies. The key is to explore all different areas, get to know what you like and dislike and where your strengths lie, but also see which areas you require people to work with you in order to create something.

Follow Jasmine’s blog on Linkedin for more information on studying Innovation and her internship experience at Home design studio in Bristol.

Why do arts matter?

Why do arts matter? Over the coming months, we will be asking staff, students and alumni this question, sharing their stories of learning and research, and shining a spotlight on the Faculty of Arts.

What would a world without the arts and humanities be like? Without music, drama, literature, history, the visual arts? The arts and humanities give us the tools to learn about other cultures, other people, other ideas. They help us to understand who we are and where we come from. They also give us ways to appreciate and value things that we don’t understand.  

The arts are an intrinsic part of what it means to be human – they’re threaded through everything we do and everything we are.

Follow us on twitter @UoBArtsMatter