Methodological personalism

Why physicists name their lasers

Re-Assembling Reality #27c, by David A. Palmer and Mike Brownnutt

There are benefits to creating intellectual objects that do not take persons as agents into account. As we discussed in Re-Assembling Reality #26, if I want to model a crowd, I can do it by assuming that people are particles with very simple properties. I don’t include them being hungry, or wanting to get popcorn for their friends, or losing their kids, or flirting with each other, or needing to get home to beat the rush and avoid being scolded by their mother. Including or excluding those things does not make a significant change to the crowd behaviour. I do not from this conclude that humans are not persons, or that they don’t have agency. I just say that their individual choices are irrelevant to my model.

Stadium capacity and crowd simulation with CAST software

If I want to model a light beam, I can do it by assuming the photons are particles with very simple properties. I don’t include them being hungry, or wanting to get popcorn for their friends, or losing their kids, or flirting with each other, or needing to get home to beat the rush and avoid being scolded by their mother … The fact that I can treat photons as lacking personhood or subjectivity tells me almost nothing about a photon’s desires and wishes — and it doesn’t tell me that photons are not persons with desires and wishes.

For pragmatic reasons, science tends to practice “methodological non-personalism”, objectifying humans or photons as particles with very simple properties. This tells us nothing about whether, ontologically, humans or photons are persons. Ironically, the ability to ignore personhood in science does not so much support the idea that humans are not persons, as open the door to the possibility that photons are persons!

In almost all sciences, whether natural sciences or social sciences, research methods require the researcher to hang their own personhood at the door when entering the lab or the field of observation; to put aside any real or imagined personhood of the beings they study; and to construct intellectual objects in which personhood is absent from their models.

Anthropology is an exception: it expects researchers to go into groups “in the field” as “participant observers” — as persons relating to group members as persons — before creating intellectual objects out of their observations. The researcher’s personal relations are essential prerequisites to acquiring the knowledge required to build good intellectual objects. Anthropology practices what we might call “methodological personalism.” Only to a degree, however: some forms of anthropological writing are highly personal in style, but even then, these accounts are ultimately used to create depersonalized theoretical models.

Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss being supervised by an indigenous host during his field research in Brazil, 1940s (Levi-Strauss archive via Radical Philosophy.com)

Methodological debates between anthropologists and social scientists of other disciplines revolve around the degree to which researchers and their human research subjects should treat each other as persons during the research, and to what extent these personal relationships can generate data to be used in constructing impersonal intellectual objects.

The anthropologist claims that, if we want to understand cosplayers (see Re-Assembling Reality #27a), we need to go where they meet, see them on their own terms, get to know and understand their relationships between themselves, and build relationships with them. We need to treat cosplayers as persons, not objects. The first step for making cosplayers into intellectual objects is to understand them as persons.

We can say that the anthropologist practices methodological personalism, while most other disciplines practice methodological non-personalism most of the time. What if we were to open up the debate between methodological personalism and non-personalism to other fields? A methodological personalist might make the following claims in zoology, dendrology, and religious studies:

  • If I want to understand lions in the wild, I need to go where they go, see them on their own terms, get to know and understand their relationships between themselves, and build relationships with them. I treat them as persons, not objects. After understanding lions as persons, I can then turn them into an intellectual object through a zoological report.
  • If I want to understand oak trees, I need to go where they are, see them on their own terms, and build relationships with them… The first step of making oak trees into intellectual objects is to understand them as persons.
  • If I want to understand Ganesh, I need to go where he is enshrined or where he manifests himself, see him on his own terms, and build relationships with him… The first step for making metapersons into intellectual objects is to understand them as persons.
Lord Ganesha playing cricket (Hoparound India via huffpost)

In physics laboratories — which might otherwise be expected to be bastions of methodological non-personalism — it is common to name equipment. And often those names are personal; why would you call a piece of equipment stabilised helium-neon laser #2, when you can call her Margaret. Scientists then often talk (and think) about their equipment as persons. If I want to understand why my laser is misbehaving, I do not only look at some print out and diagnose the problem from afar; I have to sit in the lab with her. I look at her, feel her, listen to her. I talk to her: “Why won’t you lase? What’s the problem? What are you trying to do? Why aren’t you happy in this mode? What’s upsetting you?”

And it doesn’t just stop with lasers. In the ion-trapping experiments at the National Physical Laboratory (where Mike Brownnutt did his PhD) the groups that are able to trap their ions for extended periods name them. And that naming is not simply to say that ion is called ytterbium, but saying that this specific single ytterbium ion is called Britney.)

Is this absurd, or just silly? Perhaps. But maybe there’s more to it. To objectify means to subject the thing to the point of view and manipulations of your epistemic community. To personalise it is to imagine another point of view from your own, and to try to see the world from the perspective of a cosplayer, a lion, an oak tree, Ganesh, a laser, or an atom.

To attempt to do so, of course, raises the question of to what extent, if at all, it is possible to see the world from those points of view. Methodological personalism forces us to imagine a multi-perspectival world, to ask ourselves to what extent radically different perspectives can be known to each other.

This essay and the Re-Assembling Reality Medium series are brought to you by the University of Hong Kong’s Common Core Curriculum Course CCHU9061 Science and Religion: Questioning Truth, Knowledge and Life, with the support of the Faith and Science Collaborative Research Forum and the Asian Religious Connections research cluster of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

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David A. Palmer

David A. Palmer

I’m an anthropologist who’s passionate about exploring different realities. I write about spirituality, religion, and worldmaking.