Episode 51 - Hasok Chang
[Introduction; Interview begins at 2:04]
Nick: Ok, well, why don’t we get to it. Why don’t we start back at the beginning, Hasok, and tell us a little about where you grew up?
Hasok: I was born and raised in South Korea in Seoul. I went to the US when I was 16. Got all my higher education there. So I grew up in both places, I guess.
Nick: What was it like in the late-60’s, early 70’s in Seol?
Hasok: Very different from what it is now. For one thing, it was a poor country I grew up in. It was not the South Korea of today, the most wired place on earth and all that. It was also a military dictatorship. The schools were both very strict and propaganda-ridden, if I may put it that way. So yeah, it was very different place.
Nick: I can imagine. What did your parents do at the time?
Hasok: My father was a civil servant. And my father had been a high school teacher, but after she had us, she stayed at home.
Nick: Did you have a number of brothers or sisters?
Hasok: One each.
Nick: Okay, okay. So around 16, going to study in the states, was this something that was your idea, something that encouraged by your parents; something that all of your brothers and sisters did?
Hasok: Oh no, it was just me who went off, actually. My brother later went to England to do his PhD. He’s my elder brother, so he left home quite a few years after I did. No, it all had to do with the fact that I got completely enthused about science, especially physics. To cut a long story short, my father said one day, “if you really are serious about this physics thing, forgot about studying in Korea. You won’t make it. If you want to be a great physicist, you need to go to America.” And I was quite shocked. I thought long and hard about it. I went back to him and I said, “I want to go.” He said, “you want to what?!” He hadn’t really meant it as a serious practical suggestion. But then, once I said it, we thought about it together. Luckily, I had an uncle, my father’s brother, who was teaching at the SUNY’s campus, Plattsburgh, New York, the state university of New York. So we basically asked him if he could take care of me. And he did. So, I went to high school for two years in Massachusets to a boarding school. My uncle took care of me during vacations. And it went from there.
Nick: So what was it about the science that particularly interested you? Physics, specifically?
Hasok: I think I had a rather naive and glorified view of physics.
Nick: I think that happens to a lot of us, doesn’t it?
Hasok: It does, doesn’t it? Especially compared to other sciences. I think many of us who went into physics had this very glorified view of what science was about, and how physics was the epitome of that glorified kind of science. So this also has to do with how I ended up doing philosophy, right. Because when I actually then went into physics, I realized, “this isn’t what I was looking for.” It was just week after week of problem sets, and labs where the answers were already well-known, and your job was to just get them.
Nick: So, what were you looking for?
Hasok: Like many of these naive people, I thought science was about understanding nature in the full sense of the word. And also, I mean, I was very wedded to the vision of the grand unified theory. So the way I approached my study of physics was to learn the fundamental theory, and then tell myself, “right, now I can deduce everything I want to know.” So I can solve all the problems, I don’t need to, you know, learn any trick. I don’t need to sit around with my friends doing these problems. I’m just going to sit there with my fundamental theory and solve all the problems.
And of course, that didn’t work out very well. That’s one reason I couldn’t really do very well in physics after a certain level.
Nick: And so around what time did you start to realize that a career in physics would not provide you with what you were looking for?
Hasok: I think this was already in freshman and sophomore years in college. Because in freshman year immediately I learned that the sort of questions I was most interested in in physics were not considered valid or useful questions. For example, I spent a lot of time worrying about the twin paradox in relativity and my physics professors were most displeased about that. And even if it wasn't the twin paradox, I mean whatever questions I asked about the physics they tended to answer sometimes literally: "That is a philosophical question."
Meaning, I shouldn't be worrying about it. So that was freshman year. And then sophomore year I got quantum mechanics, very excited about all the things that the philosophers of physics are still doing; the questions, their interpretation. Also questions of history, where did Schrödinger get that equation? Nobody tells you that when you're learning basic quantum mechanics. So all of his questions just came up and at the same time I realized, so this was the difference between freshman and sophomore years.
In freshman year, I could still do all the physics that I was required to do while entertaining my philosophical questions. In sophomore year with quantum mechanics [inaudible] that problem solving tasks that physics students were require to learn were actually not things you could tackle simply by knowing the fundamental theory. And that sort of hands-on skill of doing physics is something I wasn't picking up and I was, I think, internally refusing to believe that I needed.
Nick: Yeah, okay. So as these realizations are coming about, what direction do you go? Did you intuitively grasp that philosophy—a philosophical study was what would be a next or were there are other ideas?
Hasok: Oh I had lots of ideas about what I could do with my life but sticking with the eventual direction I took: on the one hand, I discovered that there was such a thing called the philosophy of science, which I got very excited about. And on the other hand, I tried to persist with my kind of physics, I guess.
So I was quite persistent about that. But it took me a couple more years to realize that there was no future in it if I stayed in physics. And I was very lucky. So I was at Caltech as an undergraduate student going through all of this and the lucky thing is there were great humanities professors there. Which is not why I went.
Hasok: Yeah. So my first philosophy teacher, philosophy of science teacher, was Jim Woodward.
Nick: Oh, he was at Caltech?
Hasok: Yeah, he was a little know young guy back then.
Nick: That's great. Okay.
Hasok: I was also taught by the great historian of science Dan Kevles and it was very, very lucky that I got to learn from these people as I was just beginning to realize that I had this deep need to learn the Humanities.
Nick: Yeah. Okay. Okay. Can you recall maybe one of your first humanities projects? Kind of philosophical or historical project, something that you began to work on as you transition from more sort of like hard skills base problems in physics to asking these more questions of deeper understanding?
Hasok: Yeah. I can recall the very first philosophy of science project I did, which was in the summer between my sophomore and junior years. And that was kindly supervised by Jim Woodward. I don't know if Jim really thought this would get anywhere but he agreed to do it. There was a special summer project and it was an attempted axiomatic analysis of classical mechanics. So that is really interesting not because it really got anywhere but because it in retrospect shows what I was hoping science would be like. I was thinking, I'm learning this physics but it's not presented in a rigorous way. And somewhere I picked up the idea that its figure as formulation of a scientific theory would be an axiomatic one. So I was asking: "Are three of Newton's Laws of Motion truly axiomatic and are they all needed?” And so on.
And it was a very instructive experience but it also taught me that this kind of thing even though welcomed by philosophers, was really not welcomed by the physicist; certainly not coming from a student.
Nick: There was that kind of---really? What was it about? Was that sort of like an elitism? What was the reaction?
Hasok: I think with that project, in particular, the physicists just weren't interested, they thought it was a waste of time and it was fine that I was doing that stuff with a philosopher but not with them. And then a similar but different experience. One time I was, sophomore year, I was still obsessing about the meaning of relativity. I plucked up the courage one day to go and talk to the man who taught me Intro to Quantum Mechanics because he seemed like a very open-minded philosophical kind of guy from his lectures. And I just went to his office and got up the courage to say---I don't remember exactly what I was saying to him. I think what I said to him is that I had found a different way of deriving the Lorentz Transformation Equations and he basically just stared at me. Well, first he said: "You look like one of my sophomores." And said: "Yes."
And then after I told him further about what I was thinking about, he basically told me to focus on doing my homework rather then pretending to think grand thoughts.
Nick: How did you take that?
Hasok: Very hard. I mean, I'm sure I can dig up my diary from that.
Nick: Yeah, that's crushing, to be so discouraged like that.
Hasok: Okay. In a sense he was right. I mean this is normal science in action. And I had actually read Kuhn just before I started college and I definitely remember just putting the book away thinking, that idea of normal science is definitely not the kind of science I'm going to be growing up to practice.
And just blow by blow by incidents like the one I just told you about, I realized Kuhn was absolutely right. That is, at least a reality of science education.
Nick: Okay. So I imagine despite these—the pushback by your professors— how did you make the transition into deciding to do it and to be encouraged to do Philosophy of Science, History and Philosophy Science?
Hasok: It’ss partly because of that pushback. Because, in a way my story is a version of the failed scientist going into HPS story. And I don't quite like to put it that way because I think there's a lot to unpack in the meaning of the word failure. But yeah, in the conventional sense I failed because I wasn't getting A+’s in my physics courses, which I had fully expected to do.
So the pushback certainly made me think very hard about what it was I was good at, what it was that I was really trying to achieve in studying science. And I mean, initially I was very resistant to going into philosophy or HPS because I still thought right up to the time of making graduate applications that what I wanted to do was science. The pushback made me think hard, and then there was are so the pull factor with just the fact that the people in HPS seemed so nice and encouraging and open minded and curious. Okay, yeah, later I learned that we're not all so nice and open-minded.
Nick: So who were some of the nice ones? Was it Jim?
Hasok: Jim, certainly, was one of my great teachers and others around him. So the first man who ever taught me philosophy in general was Randy Curran, who now teaches at Rochester in philosophy and he was wonderful and my junior year I spent actually back in Massachusetts at Hampshire College, just looking for something very different. And there were two wonderful teachers; a physicist called Herb Bernstein and there was a philosopher called Jay Garfield. And not strictly a philosopher of science but he sat me down and gave me Nancy Cartwright to read, Lakatos and Musgrave to read, Kant’s First Critique, three students and he sat around week by week eating through the First Critique. So they were wonderful experiences. And just the sense that questions were welcome.
Nick: Yeah. That's wonderful.
Hasok: The answers may not be fixed. That was the sense I was getting from the HPS people, and I think I felt that that would be intellectually nourishing. And then there's also the personal level of kindness. So Dan Kevles before who taught me at Caltech, when he learned that I was looking into maybe going into HPS, he said, my last summer between junior and senior year, he said: "Look, I'm going up to a conference at Stanford you should come with me. I'll introduce you to this guy called Peter Galison." And that's part of the reason I ended up at Stanford. So this kind of thing I could never have expected from my physics teachers.
Nick: No, no. I mean, this is such an openness, such a willingness to work, to encourage. And it'd be interesting to--- I mean I can't even explain like what is that about the HPS culture. And as you said, there's certainly not everybody's open but quite a few, quite a few are encouraging.
Hasok: But it I think it does have something to do with the fact that in HPS we're continually living on the boundaries of fields. And we're constantly reminded that whatever we consider our normal way of doing things, it's not the only way of doing things.
Nick: That's right. All right so why don't we talk a little bit about your time at Stanford?
Hasok: That was a wonderful time. I was being educated in the so-called Stanford School of Philosophy of Science, although none of us at that time had such a notion but it was a distinctive kind of training.
Nick: For those of us, for those listeners who aren't familiar with the Stanford school, what's the general picture of the way in which one does Philosophy of Science there?
Hasok: Yeah. And I mean the Stanford School is of course retrospective construction, chiefly due to Nancy Cartwright. But this sort of caught on and I think the reason it caught on is that there is something real behind the label which Nancy made up. So I would say one of the most important things about that Stanford way of doing Philosophy of Science is the attention to scientific practice.
And I remember Nancy denouncing some other people who did philosophy; who practice what she called, “no-nothing” philosophy. Meaning, the philosophers concede that we don't need to know anything because we can just think. “We think better than anyone so we don't have to know the facts or the information we just reason some things out.”
And she really was quite scathing about that way of doing philosophy. So we're all taught if we were doing philosophy of science, we've got to go and look at how science is done. And if we were doing philosophy of anything else, we have to look at the practice of whatever that anything else was. So that was one distinctive commitment, if you will. Another related commitment was to take the history of science seriously and that was institutionally practiced as well. So Peter Galison, who was my other main advisor, he was-- I mean, if you had to pigeonhole him in one field, he would be a historian of science yet he had a full appointment in philosophy as well. And we went really between the philosophy corner and the history corner of the main quad at Stanford. Always being taught by people from both sides so that was another distinctive thing.
When we think back to specific philosophical views that the Stanford School had, it was things like anti-reductionism especially pushed by John Dupre, who ended up becoming my main advisor after both Nancy Cartwright and Peter Galison left for other places. And there were ideas like pluralism, although we didn't use that term back then. In retrospect you can see many of these ideas have now become sort of mainstream but back then it seems like rebellious. But much of that came from honestly engaging with the details of practice.
Nick: My next question is in being educated and taught in this version and way of doing Philosophy of Science, how has it impacted the way you have carried on and to do your work and some of your most important works?
Hasok: I think much of my work really did originate in that way of thinking that I learned at Stanford. If anything, I've expanded more in my own way.
Nick: How so?
Hasok: So I mentioned the engagement with history and I think I've probably done the integration of History and Philosophy of Science even more than my own teachers had done.
Nick: Did you do it while in graduate school or was this after?
Hasok: It did begin in graduate school. My PhD is in Philosophy not History. But my PhD thesis ended up being very, very historical. It’s in Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics but not as you know it. I got deeply into analyzing the experimental practices of the early founders of Quantum Physics. And what kind of facts they were producing on what kind of theoretical bases.
And I mean, the immediate thing I notice there was, yeah, there are people who did the pioneering experiments that led theoreticians to invent Quantum Theory. They were doing their experiments completely on the mode of classical mechanics. Because, of course, you don't have Quantum Mechanics yet, so how else are you going to think about these experiments? So I got very deeply immersed in that kind of work which I hadn't expected when I first went in to do Philosophy of Science.
So I mean, the fact is that I was encouraged to go off in this direction. And Stanford had that kind of flexibility as well as the inclination. So in other places I would have been too busy, doing Generals and God knows what to satisfy the general Philosophical demands. But at Stanford I was allowed to go and do what I thought my problem demanded.
Nick: Yeah. So to me, it sounds like your problem demanded some historical investigation and this will be, I think, a nice segue into some of your bigger HPS works. But before we touched on a couple of those, perhaps two of your main works in books. So what is it about these particular problems that demands historical investigation?
Hasok: I guess, in both cases, it was in a way because I couldn't solve my problems just with the tools of philosophy that I went to history. In both cases it involved an epistemological circularity. So let me explain briefly. So in the case of my book, Inventing Temperature, that really started with a very innocent incidental question about how basic types of thermometers are calibrated. So I was thinking about your standard every day kind of mercury thermometer, the ones you calibrate by the freezing and boiling points of water.
So you would put the thing in freezing water see how high the liquid in the thermometer comes up, mark that point 0. You would do the same by plunging it into boiling water, mark the point 100 and then you would divide up the interval equally by distance. And then you would put numbers on the different points of the scale. So exactly halfway between the 0 point and a 100 points would be 50 degrees. But when we do that we're assuming that when the mercury rises to that level, the real temperature is exactly 50 degrees. Generalizing it means that we assume that the expansion of the thermometric fluid is linear with respect to real temperature. But how do we know that that assumption is valid? How do we know that the thermometric fluid expands exactly linearly, with respect to real temperature? Well, you would want to test that hypothesis. But in order to test that hypothesis, you'd have to do experiments in which you take note of how the volume of the liquid changes according to temperature but where do you get the temperature readings to do that experiment before you have actually invented at the moment or that you can trust it? So right there seems to be a tight circularity.
And I thought, okay this is an interesting philosophical problem. I'm going to think hard and solve this problem and I couldn't. And no matter how hard I thought, the problem basically had no solution. So I was about to give up on that and then I thought: "But hang on, they have actually solved this problem in physics."
If you ask the physicist today, the physicist is going to tell you, we actually we know that mercury doesn't expand exactly linearly with respect to temperature. This is how mercury expands and they will give you some complicated function.
Hasok: So the physicists somehow, somewhere in history, solve this problem and at least I should find out how they did it before I give up on this problem. So I started looking at the history, again expecting it would be fairly easy thing to find the answer for and I couldn't. History turns out to be very, very complex and elusive so that's how that project ended up becoming a whole book. And I mean, I was really not expecting to write that as my first book.
I had just come from doing a PhD in Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics, as I mentioned. I was not expecting to write a whole book about temperature in the 18th and 19th centuries. But your work has a way of shaping itself whether you like or not.
Nick: Yeah. Wow. And so was this the time where you were at Cambridge, while you were working on this book?
Hasok: No, this is long before Cambridge. Briefly, my history is undergraduate at Caltech, PhD at Stanford. Then I did postdoc for a year and a half at Harvard, which is the time when I started looking at the temperature case. And then I taught in London at University College London for 15 years. Then in 2010 I came to Cambridge.
Nick: Okay. So this was at the UCL for the most part?
Hasok: This actually it began at Harvard. I was looking for my Post Doc project and then much of the work I did out at UCL.
Nick: So I know Harvard has a fairly pretty strong history of science program. Did you work with folks there? Did that influence your my way of attacking this problem at all?
Hasok: Oh, yeah. Sure. That continued. So I mean the posting I had at Harvard was a pretty peculiar one. I was hired by Gerald Horton, the great historian of physics. But Horton was always in the Physics Department. He had a lot to do with the establishment of History of Science at Harvard but he never actually was paid by the History of Science Department. He had a place in Physics, he had been a student of Percy Bridgman and his position was in Physics. So there I was sitting in the Jefferson physical lab in Physics, I was probably the only person in that whole building who didn't have a Physics degree. And then I hung out a lot in the History of Science department and actually very little at the philosophy department. Except for sitting in graduate seminar taught by Simon Saunders.
But the philosophers mostly had no interest Philosophy of Science at the time except Simon and, I mean Hillary Putnam was still around but not so much working on Philosophy of Science. So, yeah, my main connection there was with History of Science and that did perpetuate my integrated HPS tendencies.
Nick: All right. Yes. One question I have. So for those of you who haven't read the book or who haven't become as familiar with your work, what would you say is one of the most sort of strongest takeaways from inventing temperature that you found perhaps the most surprising result that you came across in your HPS work?
Hasok: Right. Two things really. So overall I was looking for the solution to that circularity problem I mentioned and the answer I found was very, very complicated in terms of the history which I brought up in the first four chapters of my book. The overall philosophical take away from that was, what I ended up calling epistemic iteration and this was really the renunciation of foundationalism. That if we're looking for the firm foundation of knowledge, we're not going to find it. Because there is no such thing and I learned it the hard way.
Nick: That's a tough realization.
Hasok: Yeah. By puzzling through the intricate details of the development of thermometry. But from a little distance, the main takeaway was, look, it was the wrong question to ask to begin with and it's not a circularity that we're stuck in, it’s more of a spiral, going up. So you revisit the same place but at a higher level. To put it less metaphorically, the progress of science is the business of starting with a foundation—it's starting with what you've got and then launching inquiry on that basis. And then you can come back to it and improve it.
But if you're waiting for the perfect starting point, the firm foundation, you'll never get anywhere. Because you'd spend all of your time, all your life, looking for that foundation and not finding it. Some would say that that's what we philosophers do and that's why we never get anywhere. In empirical science what we see in the cases of successful practice is people starting with certain assumptions, certain methods, knowing that they're not perfect. Knowing that they are untested but that's how you get going because there's no other way to get going.
But the wonderful thing about what Peirce noted as the self-correcting nature of science is that you can double back to your beginning point and in light of the investigations you've made 'aha', you can see that wasn't exactly the right way to start and then you can begin again. So that was the main philosophical take away. And then in the course of doing all of that thinking and all of that historical research, I also hatched the idea of what I called Complimentary Science. Which is the idea that historical and philosophical work can actually help us improve scientific knowledge of self and that's a line of work which I'm still continuing to realize.
Nick: Yeah. Could you maybe say a little bit more about that and how the historical knowledge can--I mean, maybe say a little bit more about that?
Hasok: Yes, sure. I mean, there are three aspects that I distinguish in terms of how historical and philosophical work could increase or improve scientific knowledge.
The first one is kind of obvious. It's what I call the critical awareness. This is what we philosophers like to think that by philosophical analysis we understand better how we know things. And you could argue, if you claim to know something but you don't know how to justify it, you don't truly know it. So I think philosophical work can certainly strengthened scientific knowledge in that same way. And what I've learned in the course of doing my historical work is that history is actually a wonderful tool for critical awareness. Because quite often what you find in taking past systems of knowledge seriously, is that you learn about the contingencies; contingency of what you had accepted as simply factual or necessary. So you learn that you can think in this wildly different ways and that teaches you "uh-uh' what I thought were just indisputable items of knowledge are actually things that can be questioned. And then you learn to question them and you learn how they can be and have been justified. And again, I think it's the same kind of payoff as we get from purely philosophical thinking. So that's the first aspect, critical awareness.
The second aspect is what I call, recovery. And this in a way links back to Kuhn's views about scientific revolutions. So I mean there's what we now refer to as “Kuhn loss.” The idea that when there is a revolution, even though we would typically say that the new paradigm is superior in its problem solving ability as Kuhn would have put it, there are items of knowledge that are lost. What the previous paradigm used to do very well, we don't do so well anymore in the new framework. So that's an old idea dating back to Kuhn and I think that is a valid idea. And I think what something that historians can do in going back to study older paradigms is actually to pick up those lost items of knowledge—bring them back.
Hasok: I mean Kuhn was in a way quite okay with losing those items of knowledge and I don't know why he would have just said: "I'm doing History, I'm not doing science."
But I began to feel: "Look, if there are lost items of knowledge why aren't we recovering them?"
Nick: Were there any lost items of knowledge that you recovered in your second book, Is Water H2O?
Hasok: Actually there's more in the first book although I didn't know it at that time. So what struck me most about recovery is actually the experimental aside. So when we talk about scientific revolutions, we often think about the lost ideas, theories, which are no longer entertained. But there are also phenomena--even facts, as you might call them—which get lost and this is what I discovered when I was doing my research about thermometry. So if you look at the first chapter of the Inventing Temperature book, it has a very long section there about people's investigation about the boiling point.
When I was looking at the historical materials from dating roughly from 1770 onward, I kept seeing a lot of reports by the great scientists of the past, saying, “boiling doesn't always happen at the same temperature even if you fix the pressure and even if the water is pure.” And they said things like; "well, the boiling temperature depends on what kind of container you use to boil the water in,” which sounds like nonsense. So what I did in the book was I just reported those. Like a good historian, you want to report what the past scientist said. But I didn't believe this report when I was thinking scientifically.
And then after the book went off to the publisher I thought: "I am really annoyed by this." I mean, for example, here was the great Gay-Lussac in Paris reporting that if you boiled water in a glass container, the temperature was 1.2 degrees higher than if you boiled it in a metallic container. And I thought, how can that be, but first of all but let's consider the source. Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, the guy who was supposed to be the best experimental physicist in all of Europe in his time and at the beginning of the 19th century, would he get that wrong, and why would he lie?
I thought I have to just check this out, how hard can it be to check it out? So I talked to my colleague who was a chemist and I said to him: "Look, I need to boil some water, can I have some lab space?" And he laughed. I explained why I needed to boil water and he said: "Sure, be my guest."
So he gave me the keys to one of the undergraduate teaching labs in the Chemistry Department at UCL and this was the summer of 2004. And he said: "Here, we can give you as much distilled water as you want, here's a Bunsen burner. Go to it."
And I mean, literally, within the first hour I realized that Gay-Lussac was correct. Yeah, and then began a whole summer of water boiling in which I actually managed to confirm most of the quite outrageous sounding reports that these past scientists had recorded. Including the fact that if you take--- so water normally has quite a bit of disordered air in it. And if you take it all out- you can't take it all out- but you can take a lot of it out, if you de-gas the water, as we now say, it has a really hard time boiling. The vapor bubbles don't form so well if there's no dissolved water. If you slowly heat a flask full of de-gassed water, it'll go up to about a 110 degrees centigrade without boiling and then it would explode. And I had read this in a text of 1772 and I was able to reproduce it and I thought: "Wow, they never taught me this," when I was studying physics and I've learned something from a book published in 1772 that the Nobel Prize winning physicist at Caltech never taught me and they probably didn't know it either.
So that was when I got really sucked into this recovery of knowledge from History of Science. So I'm sorry that was quite long.
Nick: No that's a very telling story. I really appreciate you taking the time to elucidate some of these ways in which HPS can contribute to this scientific knowledge. Philosophers of Science usually just focus on the first one. And even so, I don't think they quite distinguished it the way you've done so I appreciate it. So I am on the edge of my seat, what is the 3rd?
Hasok: Well, the third and let me do that briefly because I'm aware of the time passing. The third is what I called extension. So if you have recovered stuff from past science, then it would be unnatural to stop there. So if I discover this phenomena, this weird experiment that I reproduced from the past, then all kinds of variations suggest themselves to me. So what happens if I do this? And at that point I'm departing from history, strictly speaking. Because the past scientist whose works I've been reading, didn't do those variations on the experiments. At that point, some of my historian colleagues say: "But you're not doing History."
And I say: "You're right but in a way I don't care."
I'm extending knowledge and what's wrong with that? So extension is natural a consequence of recovery, I think, and both of these things can also happen in the theoretical realm.
Nick: Yeah. Okay.
Hasok: In the second book I didn't have any amazing experimental recovery. I think I made some theoretical recovery and that was a rather controversial aspect of my second book called, Is Water H2O? Because in the first chapter of that I make a revisionary account of the chemical revolution. In which I argued that the Phlogiston theory really made a lot of sense and as much sense as the oxygen theory Lavoisier So I think that was a good process of recovering the Phlogiston ideas and their cogency.
Nick: Yeah. Well before we get into some of the challenges, why don't we focus on some of your current and/or future work? So what kinds of questions are you thinking about now? What kind of projects are you working on or would like to work on? Yeah, maybe take a few minutes to talk about that.
Hasok: So I have two main ongoing projects and one of them is quite historical. It's a history of the electric batteries starting with the invention of the first one by Volta in the year of 1799 and I take it up to the late 19th century. Basically, really before the discovery of the electron and right up to the coming of the modern ionic theory of Irenaeus. And the reason to, for stopping there is so that we really take an honest view on things without the modern notion of the electron and how we understand everything in terms of the electrons.
And it is quite amazing, first of all, what these 19th century people were able to achieve without having any of our modern notions. So that's in a way humbling because everything from the battery itself to electromagnetism to dynamos and generators and electric light and right down to Maxwellian electrodynamics. All of that was achieved without the notion of the electron or the modern notion of ions so that's quite interesting.
And there were great debates about how to understand these things. And in retrospect, we might say: "Well, they couldn't have had any sense of or understanding of these phenomena and the technologies they were developing."
But the point of view I'm trying to take is: "No, they did have understanding, just not our understanding and they didn't have just one understanding."
I'm distinguishing at least four different systems of practices, as I call them, in this area of science. And they co-existed, they interacted with each other, they formed hybrids, they competed with each other, they attacked each other and in that whole messy process, great work was done. So I am trying to understand that whole complicated process. So that's one of the two main project I'm currently doing.
Nick: Sounds fascinating.
Hasok: Thank you. The other one is a more abstract philosophical project which is focused on revitalizing pragmatism and bringing that into the philosophy of science. And I am especially trying to rework the scientific realism debate in that light.
Nick: So what will this project entail?
Hasok: It's going to be, in a way, it's an overly ambitious project but I'm going to see how far I get. So the basic framing of the project is to take us away from deeply engrained analytic philosopher’s habit of thinking of knowledge in terms of propositions. I'm trying to promote and fill out a more active view of knowledge basically looking at knowledge as ability. So I'm reaching back to Gilbert Ryle's “knowing how”, I'm reaching back to Michael Polanyi's “tacit knowledge,” I'm reaching back to the late Wittgenstein, all kinds of clues there, a lot of existing work point to the direction of thinking of knowledge as an ability to do things and finding the place of propositional knowledge within that and I think pragmatism is the best vehicle. On the whole for doing that kind of thinking.
And I'm also thinking about--oh no, let me come to that later. So the main consequence of that in terms of the regular philosophical debate is that I have to think about how we evaluate knowledge conceived in terms of action and abilities. So if it's propositional, we say: "Well, we want to know whether it's true or not?"
But how exactly do you evaluate actions? Like that becomes a wholly different problem. So I'm trying to develop the notion that I call, operational coherence, with which we can think about the assessment of epistemic activities and their outcomes. And I mean, at the end of the day, I have to rework the pragmatists’ notion of truth and at the same time I think we also need to rethink the very notion of reality. So I don't know if it's going to work.
Nick: I'm excited for this ambitious project. This could be something.
Hasok: In two years we'll see whether I have a manuscript. Well I'm going to have some manuscript, whether it's going to be good is the question.
Nick: I appreciate you sharing a little bit about your current projects and future work, it's certainly exciting and ambitious projects. We're already slightly in the mix of things, I'm enjoying our conversation. Let's keep going for a little bit more, this was—just no big deal. But, yeah, let's come to the final question and perhaps something you mentioned the very beginning of our talk related to, what do you see is the greatest challenge facing Philosophy of Science and perhaps History and Philosophy of science today?
Hasok: Yeah. I think there are three main challenges. One is about that link between Philosophy of Science and History of Science. How do we maintain and develop that link? Because some of the older ways of doing it are no longer seen as viable. For example, the idea that Philosophy is the theory of Science and History of Science, it provides the raw data to test it with. I think that's not quite working out and we have to think of better ways of conceiving that history/philosophy relation.
The second great challenge I think is how we link with scientific practice and also with practicing scientists. And I think the second question is as important as the first, what is the positioning of our discipline with respect to the sciences themselves? And I think that's a big challenge, big headache, as well as a great opportunity for them manage it well.
And the third one I think is the social political relevance of our work. And this has I think undoubtedly become more acute in the age of Trump. When we have people who feel that we have to defend the notion of truth against these attacks on, what do we do with that having been so nuanced and skeptical? Just divided about what we think of such notions as objectivity, reality, etc., and so what kind of stance can we philosophers of science… [inaudible].
So I think those are three big challenges and I wouldn't pretend to have any answers. I mean, there are certain directions of work that I am trying out.
Nick: Yeah. Would you mind sharing if there's in terms of addressing any one or most of those? What is it in your work that you're embodying that may seek to provide some kind of way of addressing those issues?
Hasok: That's going to be an overly long conversation.
Nick: Okay. Maybe a couple bullet points.
Hasok: Yeah. Indicate the general directions. I mean, the 2nd of the current projects I described I think that that's actually going to be very pertinent to that last challenge I mentioned. Because I think the best way to make a workable notion of truth is to deal with it in the pragmatist way that I've indicated. So if we leave the notion of truth, as for example, correspondence to the inaccessible reality, then we're just going to get stuck with skepticism. So if you put up an impossible idea of knowledge, then when science inevitably is seen to fail to meet that then we're going to get the reaction as with climate change deniers, who say: "Well, so scientist don't know anything either and then I'm entitled to my opinion. Because why should I believe the scientists opinion?"
So in order to prevent that kind of reaction, I think we need a notion of truth that is actually practicable. And that's the kind of thing I'm trying to work out.
Regarding the other two challenges, I have devoted a lot of time and energy on maintaining and developing that history of philosophy link. So I have my particular ideas about how that should be done but I think the general lesson is that we need to understand science as something carried out by human beings. As well as human beings in social relation with each other and that is to say, Science has a history. Science is an inherently historical process. And the product of science, scientific knowledge is also going to be inherently historical. Now that that's too quick as the various argument but that's the spirit in which I approach the work.
And I think that kind of stance towards History of Science; that kind of positioning that we can take will also help us address the other turn which is the relation to science itself and the practicing scientist. Because that's one thing we can agree on with the scientist is that we have to respect where science came from and I know most scientists don't think about that in their daily lives. But if you talk to them in the right way, they will acknowledge that what they do is product of the historical process of development and then we can really begin to talk.
Nick: Wow. Well, Hasok, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and filling us in on a number of a really great projects you're working on and your past projects, it's been phenomenal to hear and to listen to you, how you've developed over time, and this sounds like there's a lot of exciting projects to come. Is there anything you'd like to leave our listeners with? Any parting words or plugs for other projects or research programs or anything?
Hasok: Oh no, Nick. I think I've already overstayed my welcome with you.
Nick: Well, thank you for saying it. Yeah, thank you for hanging out with us a little bit longer than we had planned for but it was, it's a real privilege getting to speak with you. Enjoy the rest of your Friday afternoon, evening and we'll be in touch soon.
Hasok: You're very welcome Nick. And thank you for having me on the podcast.
Nick: Thank you, have a good day.