Posts tagged ‘reification’

December 2, 2011

What isn’t a computer!?!

by Lucas Wilkins

Carrying on the great jellymatter tradition of expressing a similar opinion under a contrary title, here’s my response to James’ post about brains and computers.


Before I begin, here’s the etymology of the word computer from

1640s, “one who calculates,” agent noun from compute. Meaning “calculating machine” (of any type) is from 1897; in modern use, “programmable digital electronic computer” (1945; theoretical from 1937, as Turing machine). ENIAC (1946) usually is considered the first. Computer literacy is recorded from 1970; an attempt to establish computerate (adj., on model of literate) in this sense in the early 1980s didn’t catch on. Computerese “the jargon of programmers” is from 1960, as are computerize and computerization.

November 13, 2011

The reification of reproductive skew…

by Lucas Wilkins

I thought that I would revisit reification. It’s been a while since the original discussion and I’ve had this almost written for ages.

I think all of us here at jellymatter agreed that Gould’s reification was not the same as reification as usually used in philosophy: Gould’s reification is sociological, whereas the philosophical term refers to a mistake in thinking (more specifically a category error). This is not to say the two are unrelated. I came across the following passage by Kant which to me summed up exactly what I considered to be happening in Gould’s reification. This bit is about the huge academic effort put into investigating ontological proofs of the existence God – an undoubtedly reified entity:

August 1, 2011

The difference between reification and a scientific hypothesis

by James Thorniley

In fact, what Gould has mistaken for “reification” is neither more nor less than the common practice in every science of hypothesizing explanatory models or theories to account for the observed relationships within a given domain. Well-known examples include the heliocentric theory of planetary motion, the Bohr atom, the electromagnetic field, the kinetic theory of gases, gravitation, quarks, Mendelian genes, mass, velocity, and so forth. None of these constructs exists as a palpable entity occupying physical space.

Arthur Jensen

I’ve been thinking more about this idea of reification, that I brought up in my last post. I was originally going to respond to the slightly confusing discussion that got going about it, but I didn’t want to hijack a thread by going on about Spearman’s g again.

So as I understand it one argument against this reification idea, is that everything in science is “reified”. In a way, if you are willing to go to slightly absurd sounding extremes, your concept of there being a coffee cup in front of you may be a reification, because you can’t prove a coffee cup is physically there just from the photons hitting your eyes. Arthur Jensen’s reply to Gould, which I’ve quoted above, sort of makes this point. Spearman said that g may be the result of a “mental energy”, but according to Jensen this is just a scientific hypothesis, and therefore valid. The heliocentric model of the solar system that most of us accept as pretty basic science could also be said to be a reification. Even if the planets are physically there, the model of the planets is no more a physical thing than Spearman’s g.

When I try to think about this problem I have to admit that the whole reification notion is a bit confusing if you try and get philosophical about it. I think essentially it comes down to the fact that actual scientific hypotheses make testable predictions, which after some time (in human history) get investigated and a consistent theory gets worked out. The hypothesis that “Spearman’s g is a result of some kind of energy in your brain” doesn’t, which is what makes it so silly.

July 17, 2011

Reification: just because a thing has a name, doesn’t mean it is a thing

by James Thorniley

Science does not rely on investigators being unbiased “automatons.” Instead, it relies on methods that limit the ability of the investigator’s admittedly inevitable biases to skew the results.

So says a paper by J. E. Lewis et al in which they claim Steven Jay Gould was wrong when he said early 19th century craniometrist Samuel George Morton “finagled” his data to match his own racist preconceptions. They had another look at the data, and actually remeasured some of Morton’s skulls, and claim that Morton’s reported results actually fit his racial bias less than a fully accurate study would have.

Depressingly a number of modern day internet racists seem picked up on the headline message “Gould was wrong” and assumed that means the paper supports racial theories about intelligence or other differences. The paper doesn’t support any such ideas, and that’s not the subject of this post. It’s just worth pointing that out.

What this paper is about is whether scientists’ personal biases influence the results they get. This isn’t about whether Morton was “right” in a scientific sense, because everyone agrees he wasn’t. It’s about whether he made the right conclusions based on the evidence available to him. It’s a historical question – modern anthropology has essentially nothing to do with this.


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