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Cargo Cult Contrarian

Cargo Cult Contrarian


Notes on language, memory and perception
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Reality, that seamless stream

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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“The influence, upon our thinking, of a comprehensive scientific theory, or of some other general point of view, goes much deeper than is admitted by those who would regard it as a convenient scheme for the ordering of facts only. …scientific theories are ways of looking at the world; and their adoption affects our general beliefs and expectations, and thereby also our experiences and our conceptions of reality. We may even say that what is regarded as “nature” at a particular time is our own product in the sense that all the features ascribed to it have first been invented by us and then used for bringing order into our surroundings.” -P.K. Feyerabend, Explanation, Reduction & Empiricism

Cargo Cult Contrarian is a new incarnation of The Psychotronic Girl, a would-be blog that never was.  It is named for Richard Feynman’s classic speech, Cargo Cult Science, which warns against the dangers of pseudoscience, and of letting the attractions of theory overrun careful experimentation.  In an age when science is increasingly being called upon to furnish explanations it is ill fit to provide, Feynman’s message seems more pressing than ever.

I will have more to say about Feynman on another occasion.  For now, by way of introduction, let me say a little about my interests:

One of the great attractions of studying the mind is the promise that we might one day unravel how the reality we each experience is manufactured, what it captures, and how it errs.  In this pursuit, the questions one might pursue are boundless.  For my part, I am fascinated by narrative; by how we lend meaning and coherence to our existence and our practices through language.

Words, as a tool for sense-making, can be dangerous, slippery things.  With them, one might weave false memories; derail moral judgment; guide what is seen, or noticed, or understood; carve up the world. Because our narratives help structure our expectations about how the world works, they can also deeply influence and profoundly distort our perceptions of it.

Yet there is little escaping such influence.  As humans, we must decide what to attend to and what to take meaning from, against a backdrop in which we cannot possibly attend to everything.  Cultures establish norms for how we should do this, and languages, in part, encode them.  Still there is nothing positively concrete or static to these conventions within or across cultures; nothing definitive.  Rather, there are loose edges, clusters, and distributions.  There are ways of seeing.

It is only in madness, where what we observe is a disruption in perception, a sharp break with culturally-wrought modes of understanding, that we gain some purchase on the space of what we call normal.  We see these breaks in the paranoia of the schizophrenic, in the depths of anxiety and depression, and the heights of mania.  The mind is no longer mining the world as it has done; as we think it should do.  It finds patterns where there are none, it fails to finds the ones that matter most keenly.  A screw has come loose, we say.  Something has gone deeply awry with the mind’s interpretive efforts.

In short: Disorder interests me.  Genius interests me.  The bewitchments of language interest me – how we wield words against each other, how we use them to deceive ourselves, how we communicate and negotiate power, how we construct and alter memory.  I am curious too about the extent to which we share our lenses in on reality, both within our culture and without.

This is some of what I will be writing on.

melody About the Author: Melody is cloudy with a chance of meatballs. Follow on Twitter @moximer.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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