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Abstracts for Departmental Seminars

Seminars are held on Thursdays from 3.30 to 5pm in Seminar Room 2. There is tea beforehand from 3pm in Seminar Room 1.

Organised by Mary Brazelton and Marta Halina.

Lent Term 2017

Show overview

26 January James Sumner (University of Manchester)
Garbage in, garbage out? A history of representations of computers in popular media
A variety of recent scholarship has traced the development of popular science through print media sources, exploring how characterizations of scientific phenomena evolve through interactions between authors' agendas, audience responses, and changes in publishing culture. Studies so far have tended to focus on 19th-century cases, seeking the origins of the familiar boundaries of 'science in public'. Here I apply similar considerations to an inescapably 20th-century phenomenon: the electronic digital computer.

The vision of computers as profoundly new and world-changing endured over a paradoxically long period, from the mid-1940s to the 1980s, in newspapers, magazines and an ever-growing range of introductory books. Although some authors harnessed the blank-slate rhetoric to revolutionary social, economic or educational manifestos, the conceptual content of the literature overall was interestingly conservative, returning repeatedly to a default stock of narratives, justifications and analogies. Some of these representations originated in wider, older discourses: fears that computers would destroy white-collar jobs were an obvious reincarnation of pre-digital tensions over mechanized deskilling. Others were consciously introduced to shape expectations: industry sources promoted awareness of the GIGO principle ('garbage in, garbage out') to affirm the technology as a neutral tool, doing only and precisely what it was told. Still others seem to have persisted by default without much underpinning intent: the remorseless tendency to explain binary arithmetic, to all audiences and for all purposes, endured for half a century. Ultimately, I argue, 'computing' in the popular imagination was only to a limited degree a product of its time.
2 February Andy Clark (University of Edinburgh)
Only predict? Conscious experience, and the scope and limits of predictive processing
The 'predictive processing' framework shows great promise as a means of both understanding and integrating many of the core information processing strategies underlying perception, thought and action. But this leaves many questions unanswered. What, if anything, does this deeply probabilistic framework have to say about the nature of daily human experience and (indeed) the nature and possibility of conscious experience more generally? Can a story that posits prediction error minimization as cognitive bedrock accommodate the undoubted attractions of novelty and exploration? Is it falsifiable? What is the true scope of this story – can it really be a theory of 'everything cognitive'?
9 February Tara Nummedal (Brown University)
Emblematic alchemy: Michael Maier's Atalanta fugiens (1617/18)
Written by the German physician, courtier and alchemist Michael Maier, Atalanta fugiens (1617/18) offers its readers an alchemical interpretation of the Classical myth of Atalanta as a series of fifty emblems, each containing an image, motto and epigram (in German and Latin), an accompanying fugue (or canon) for three voices, and a Latin discourse explicating the emblem's alchemical meaning. The parts of each emblem and the 214-page quarto book as a whole are meant to work together, with the music, image and text as an interlocking guide to alchemical theory and to the production of the philosophers' stone. In this talk, I will explore the role of sight and image in Maier's alchemical epistemology and situate his book in the visual culture of early modern European alchemy.
16 February Marion Vorms (Birkbeck, University of London)
On reasonable doubt
Jurors in criminal trials are instructed to bring a verdict of 'guilty' if and only if they estimate that guilt has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt (BARD). This standard of proof raises intriguing epistemological and psychological issues, in addition to judicial ones. In this talk, I will take the juror's situation as a model for everyday reasoner and decision-maker, and try to extend the notion of reasonable doubt as a norm of reasoning and decision-making under uncertainty more generally. One important, and hard question, is how to draw a clear boundary between reasonable, and unreasonable doubts. After proposing a basic decision-theoretic account of 'reasonable doubt', I will challenge it on several grounds, which will lead me to clarify the picture of belief states and dynamics we need in order to account for this notion.
23 February Jonathan Birch (LSE)
Animal sentience and human values
The science of animal welfare provides an important context in which to consider the role ethical values should, or should not, play in setting appropriate burdens of proof. For example, if animals of a particular species can feel pain, but we fail to accept that they can feel pain when formulating animal welfare regulations, negative welfare consequences are likely to ensue. This has led a number of animal welfare scientists to argue that, with respect to contested invertebrate taxa such as cephalopods, decapods and cyclostomes, the precautionary principle should be applied and the burden of proof should be set intentionally low. However, this proposal has met with resistance from the biomedical research community. I offer a philosophical perspective on this controversy, and I attempt to extract some wider lessons regarding the relationship between science and values.
2 March Seminar cancelled
9 March William Ashworth (University of Liverpool)
The gifts of Athena revisited: protectionism, regulation and the British Industrial Revolution, 1700–1800
The British Industrial Revolution has long been seen as the spark for modern, global industrialisation and sustained economic growth. The emphasis of this paper is upon the British state and its fundamental role in the development of domestic manufactures, importantly, those at the heart of the country's precocious industrial trajectory over the course of the 18th century. This significantly dilutes the current popular view that it was a result of a unique rational culture and a set of favourable institutions.
16 March Deborah Coen (Columbia University)
Climate in word and image: science and the Austrian idea
One of the most urgent challenges of climate research today is that of conceptualizing interactions across scales of space and time. In her book in progress, Deborah Coen examines how this problem was addressed in the late Habsburg Monarchy, where scientists developed an unprecedented conceptual apparatus for tracking the transfer of energy from the molecular scale to the planetary. Her presentation will offer an overview of this project. The central argument is that these innovations arose in part as a solution to a problem of representation, a problem that engaged Habsburg scientists as servants of a supranational state. The problem was to represent local differences while producing a coherent overview; that is, to do justice to the vaunted diversity of the Habsburg lands while reinforcing the impression of unity. This problem was worked out at the interface between physical and human geography, and it stimulated technical innovations across a range of media, from cartography, to landscape painting, to fiction and poetry, to mathematical physics, while also shaping political discourse. In this way, Climate in Word and Image writes the history of climate science as a history of scaling: the process of mediating between different systems of measurement, formal and informal, designed to apply to different slices of the phenomenal world, in order to arrive at a common standard of proportionality. A focus on scaling emphasizes not only the cognitive work of commensuration, but also the corporeal, emotional and social effort that goes into recalibrating our sense of the near in relation to the far.