First for some theory, then for some fun.
In my last blog post, I raised the suggestion that as a community, it would be more valuable for us to be confused, and somewhat uncomfortable, by the connections between our data than interpret them according to a predetermined set of expected relationships. As scientists of the natural world, it’s our duty to assemble explanatory knowledge- data collecting, testing, experimentation, etc. But this can lead to the unquestioned rise of the quantitative over the qualitative – in other words, a higher estimation of the usefulness of data rather than what the summation of those numerical points signifies.
Quantum physicist and philosopher David Deutsch puts forth a thought-experiment in his new book The Beginning of Infinity delving into philosophy of science’s school of Instrumentalism: “[I]magine that an extraterrestrial scientist has visited the Earth and given us an ultra-high-technology “oracle” which can predict the outcome of any possible experiment, but provides no explanations… How would the oracle be used in practice? In some sense it would contain the knowledge necessary to build, say, an interstellar spaceship. But how exactly would that help us to build one, or to build another oracle of the same kind — or even a better mousetrap? The oracle only predicts the outcomes of experiments. Therefore, in order to use it at all we must first know what experiments to ask it about…Prediction —even perfect, universal prediction— is simply no substitute for explanation.
…To put that another way: there already is one such oracle out there, namely the physical world. It tells us the result of any possible experiment if we ask it in the right language (i.e. if we do the experiment), though in some cases it is impractical for us to ‘enter a description of the experiment in the required form’ (i.e. to build and operate the apparatus). But it provides no explanations.” [emphasis mine].
As Deutsch suggests, it’s transforming our questions into the language of best fit – the translating bit – that allows us to use the universe as an “oracle,” as a machine that will answer any question we put to it. I think this truth may be used as an elegant metaphor for many of my experiences in Panama, but perhaps most effectively to describe Kalu Yala’s mission, specifically that of the biology program. The answers to our inquiries await our experimentation, but we have to ask them in the correct language, or form, first for the answers – our data – to be useful, and indeed to make any sense. Thus, “conjectural creativity” – the ability to ask questions in a variety of forms – is crucial to our gathering and development of expository knowledge.
It’s this feature of our natural environment that makes the case for the type of work that Kalu Yala does. No model can accurately provide the outcomes to the predictive ideas we have about sustainability, social responsibility, and economic viability of the project other than simply testing it out; eventually all of these ideas will either be substantiated or dismissed by the property of the world-as-oracle model that some have called “the laboratory of the real.” This logic seems pretty obvious when explained, but I find it consoling and invigorating when thinking about how Kalu Yala is in early stages of development.
I’ve never been part of such a young organization – and duly never had so much potential investment in what Kalu Yala calls “the creation of a culture.” How do we know if what we’re doing is the right thing, or that we will be successful? To some extent, we can’t know, until our experiments are tested empirically in the real world.
On a societal scale, Kalu Yala, in attempting a paradigm-shift in fields diverse as agriculture, community-building, structure, the relationship between man and nature, etc., engages in an implicit debate regarding how the world best operates. It is a comforting reminder that reality resolves the disputes we cannot. It is an incredibly useful and beautiful feature of the world that we can present any question in, as Deutsch would say, “the right language” (or the right equation, the right shape, the right design…), and receive a response. But the response is in the form of uninterrupted data; it is our creative, synthetic task then to generate explanations. So, in a crucial way, the usefulness of the universe-as-oracle, or “laboratory of the real,” model depends upon our integral relationship as scientists willing to test our conjectures and modulate the language of our experiments as we receive responses. What better a place to do this than Kalu Yala? Not only are we building a culture, but we are rejecting the position of spectatorship as the world inevitably changes, in favor of active participation in improving the accuracy of the language of our dialogue with the natural world.
One of my current projects that I am working on in San Miguel is establishing an environmental literacy after school project with community outreach interns, called “Árbol de la Vida.” I’ve led the students through an activity in which they use disposable cameras to explore their world in the community, and capture images of life around them – be it flowers, animals, trees, or their family. In doing this project, I wanted to expand their resources, physically and mentally, for exploration and investigation. In an attempt to explain the concept of an ecosystem, I asked the students to think about how they were individually connected to each element of life in a generated list – to horses, monkeys, the tamarind trees, wild-cashew trees, neighbors, and so on.
By challenging the students to widen their definition of “life” and generate ideas of how connections can be made between these elements, I hoped to arm the students with a wider arsenal of ways to observe. By infusing the science lesson with a fun art project, I suggested that the students think of art and science as not that different: both involve looking at the natural world differently, and translating it into something that makes sense in a different context.
Translating – there’s that word again. And really, the theory I proposed before is not that far off of from what we’re doing in the San Miguel school as outreach initiatives. By guiding the students to think about the natural world in creative ways teaches them the invaluable lesson that we do not learn through texts; we learn through observation and experiments: the instantiation of ideas in our real, physical lives.
One of my challenges this semester has been to connect my thoughts on the philosophy of science – on how it should be conducted, how we should interpret our results – into viable projects. After having spent four wonderful years in academia, my focus was always on the process, not the results. But spending the past several weeks among the community in San Miguel has gently led me to a realization that I can contribute to our company’s overall project by establishing a common language of observation and curiosity of our world between Kalu Yala members and our closest neighbors in San Miguel – the younger generation of a village that will grow up to live in conjunction with our community in the valley.