“We can only ask questions that we have imagination for.”

“We can only ask questions that we have imagination for.” January 19, 2019

 

A form of lichen
Lobaria pulmonaria, Lobariaceae, tree lungwort, lung lichen, lung moss; Upper Bavaria, Germany.   (Wikimedia Commons public domain image)

 

Here’s a brief but interesting article on a little-known field in the biological sciences:

 

“The Overlooked Organisms That Keep Challenging Our Assumptions About Life: Gorgeous and weird, lichens have pushed the boundaries of our understanding of nature—and our way of studying it.”

 

I like the opening passage of this 17 January 2019 article, which was written by Ed Yong for The Atlantic:

 

“Science is sometimes caricatured as a wholly objective pursuit that allows us to understand the world through the lens of neutral empiricism. But the conclusions that scientists draw from their data, and the very questions they choose to ask, depend on their assumptions about the world, the culture in which they work, and the vocabulary they use. The scientist Toby Spribille once said to me, “We can only ask questions that we have imagination for.””

 

A good illustration of this view of science is lichenology, the study of lichens.

 

Since roughly 24 November 1859, when Charles Darwin published his masterpiece On the Origin of Species, which is generally considered the founding text of modern evolutionary biology, biologists have been strongly inclined to view nature as a gladiatorial arena, dominated by perpetual conflict for reproductive success, light and energy and nutrition, and what might be termed, with a very conscious nod to those notable Social Darwinists Hitler and the Nazis, Lebensraum or “living space.” More and more, though, biologists are recognizing that lichens aren’t simple and single plants but, rather, colonies of cohabiting, cooperative organisms that would, in a sense, not exist on their own.

 

But, of course, the point suggested by Toby Spribille is relevant far beyond the sciences, and perhaps even more obviously so.  If complete objectivity and neutrality are difficult to achieve in the physical and biological sciences, if not altogether impossible, how much more obviously so will this be the case with respect to the social sciences and the humanities.

 

If the conclusions that scientists draw from their data, and the very questions they choose to ask, depend on their assumptions about the world, the culture in which they work, and the vocabulary they use, won’t that be even more obviously true for psychologists, sociologists, and historians?  The principle that we can only ask questions for which we have the imagination surely holds true in philosophy, historiography, archaeology, and similar fields where error isn’t so immediately apparent in the form of unsatisfactory instrument readings and, sometimes, laboratory explosions.

 

 

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