Instrumentalism and transformative research
Sabine Hossenfelder has a thought provoking posting about what she calls transformative research. I wrote a comment bringing in a concept that has helped in my attempts to understand what went wrong in the basic philosophy underlying our collapsing techno-civilization and what might be the basic reason for the deep stagnation in theoretical physics and lack of progress even at the level of fundamentals at some other branches of science such as theoretical biology and theoretical neuro-science. I attach my comment below.
thank you for a nice analysis. I have pondered a lot about the possibility of supporting transformative research.
It would be wonderful if transformative research could be somehow identified, supported, and even induced by some actions. I am skeptic about the possibility of this kind of control. Conservatism characterizes academic environment but maybe at deeper level this conservatism derives from the basic character of science that I would call instrumentalism, seeing the external world as an instrument to achieve goals.
Instrumentalism permeates every corner of science. For researchers the specialization is an instrument for building a career with a good social status. Scientific institutions in turn use scientists as instruments and drive them to work like mad in the hope of getting the ultimate recognition. Our technology is manipulation of Nature seen as a passive storage of various resources to be harnessed. Global economy has become the tool of large scale venturers to achieve personal profits using the latest information technology for their purposes. Instrumentalism is the key ideology of our technological civilization born in industrial revolution and probably living its last decades before the final collapse caused by instrumentalism taken to extreme.
Even the well-intentioned idea that it might be possible to fasten the progress of science by some mechanisms encouraging transformative research could be seen as one aspect of instrumentalism.
I see transformative research as the spiritual aspect of science. Whatever spiritual is, it is not instrumental and is also beyond control. When I enjoy the beauty of sunrise I just experience: I am not planning how to make money by arranging guided tours for those who want to pay for experiencing the sunrise and perhaps buy a drink to enhance the experience. Transformative research cannot be controlled. Transformative research is initiated by an non-predictable spark of genius which just occurs. What follows is mostly hard work and is indeed rather predictable process. I however find it hard to believe that academic community would identify some-one doing this kind of hard work as a transformative researcher deserving support: the labeling as academic village fool is a more probable reaction;-). Our luck is that the support is un-necessary. Transformative idea creates so immense motivation that the only manner that academic world can stop the process is by killing the transformative researcher;-).
Addition: An example of transformative research is the work of Vladimir Voevodsky in Motivic Homotopy Theory. Voevodsky has given a wonderful lecture understandable even to a layman like me. He represents the basic ideas of homotopy reducing the construction of zeroth homotopy groups counting the disjoint components of space - something very concrete - for a hierarchy of spaces obtained as space, loop space associated with it (not quite so concrete thing;-), loop space associated with that, and so on... Then he notices that the zeroth homotopy group can be expressed in terms of purely categorical notions, and then applies the resulting formalism to what he calls algebraic systems where the basic notions have very different content. Beautiful!