Ty Branch is a PhD student at the University of Waterloo, Canada, researching the philosophy of science communication.
I spoke to Ty to learn about her public philosophical experiences, including working as a philosopher-in-residence/field philosopher in an architecture firm and in a big data analytics organisation.
Ciaran: Hi Ty, so to start could you tell me a bit about your philosophical background?
Ty: Well, I guess I should start by saying that my undergrad was not in Philosophy but that I fell into philosophy after completing my undergraduate degree in Biochemistry and a minor in Psychology (from the University of Ottawa). Although I love science, I wasn’t keen on spending all my time in the lab, I found the work tedious, but I think the most limiting thing is that it didn’t let me explore the bigger, fundamental questions I was more interested in. It was analysing one protein and how it folds and that's neat, but I just wasn't compelled. So after my undergrad I went and worked in museums and science centres, which is a really great way to do, and talk, about science without having to be behind the lab bench. I started working behind the scenes doing research on the medical artefacts collection at the Canada Science and Technology Museum, which was super because obviously a big portion of "ye olde" medicine is really uncomfortable. For instance, it took a long time to come up with Germ Theory so everything before that can be graphic to look through!
But it was great and my curator there said, "Well, if you're interested in this stuff you should do the History and Philosophy of Science at [the University of] Toronto", and I said, "What is the 'History and Philosophy of Science' ?" I had had no exposure to it at all in my undergraduate degree. So I went and I did my Masters there and thought I was going to be a historian, but realised that I wanted to engage with science in a way that was actively working on current problems, as opposed to analysing the reasons for things past. I'm sure that does a small disservice to history to say the least, but philosophy just won me over. I continued working with different science collections while in Toronto, doing the philosophy of science, and looking a lot at biological systems. I followed that with another degree in science communication (Laurentian University) in conjunction with a science centre called Science North. It was really informative and got me questioning why we communicate science the way we do - and from there I really started doing my work in the philosophy of science communication, which is what I do now at the University of Waterloo.
Ciaran: So, how did your work in architecture enter into all of this? You were a philosopher-in-residence, yes?
Teresa: Yes, that was my official title and I was pretty adamant about that being the title. I wanted it to recognise that I was coming into this environment as a philosopher and not a consultant. The project occurred about three years ago. I was in Waterloo and they had a Nuit Blanche one night, where the streets shut down and the artists take over. The Waterloo region is this really unique area with a disturbingly high number of PhD's, partially because there's Google's biggest R&D office in Canada located there, a theoretical physics institute, and two universities within this tiny region of just over 500,000 people. So it's lots of really creative, weird, and special people in this very small space creating a crucible of interesting ideas. I came across this one fellow during the evening of Nuit Blanche who was a professor at the University of Waterloo and I mentioned my interest in theories of emergence. I'd written my Masters on theories of emergence and how we differentiate between weak emergence and strong emergence. I was particularly critical of strong emergence, which I criticised for being an emergence of the gaps, much like a god of the gaps, in that the more we find out about the world the more the unknown is going to minimise and turn out to be perhaps, nothing special at all.
In any case, we were talking and he mentioned a colleague of his who had their own architecture firm in Toronto (Philip Beesley Architects Inc.), who was very artistic, and who was making what he described as "near-living" architectural environments, where they were creating flora or rather, replicating flora out of what they called ‘chevrons’; tiny plastic pieces they were custom cutting to not only mimic the aesthetics of plants but also their interactions. In the end, it was almost as if the robotic flora had root systems that allowed individual plant modules to communicate with one another. There would be signalling between the multiple plant pods, and they also interacted with people as they walked into the environment. If you came too close to a ‘leaf’ it would flutter at you and set off a chain reaction that would cause another one to flutter, and when I looked at the patterns of these connected networks that would emerge as a result, they seemed in some ways unpredictable from the starting set of possibilities. While I was there we were discussing these ideas, like at what point can you say that normal, organic plants are intelligent but then for robotic plants, at some point could they be intelligent as well? As well as what that means for our interactions with plants, both robotic and organic, going into the future.
Ciaran: When I came across this project of yours it was particularly interesting to me because of the application. I think people's first thoughts often are, or at least the depiction has generally been, that the relevance of someone coming into a space to do something in the capacity of a thinker - and I agree about that distinction you made, away from it just being like a consultant - I think the picture's generally been, well, they come in to deal with...
Teresa: "Problem X". Like, whatever it is that we need to solve and don't have the expertise.
Ciaran: Right, definitely. In an almost technocratic sense. What’s interesting is that, despite me knowing very little about plant life or architecture, the relevance of your role there seems very apparent to me. People often, wittingly or otherwise, carry some conception about what it means to be doing philosophy. They might have a more detailed conception of what they think philosophy is, because it’s a question they’ll have probably come across a little bit more, but they are less likely perhaps to have asked or have been asked, "What does it mean for you to be doing philosophy?" Engagement in public philosophy can bring this up more so, however. Did this particular experience affect your idea of what it meant to be doing philosophy?
Teresa: I think in this experience I was very pleasantly surprised to find - and I can only speak for myself but I think it goes beyond me - that you can philosophise quite naturally without necessarily having the technical language to do so. I came to that conclusion because of the conversations I had with the team in that workspace. I was there day-in day-out, I had my own desk (in their workspace), I ate with them, so not only did we become colleagues but we also became people who could talk about issues over lunch that went beyond, "Okay what do we need this robot to do by six o'clock or else we're gonna get in trouble". For example, even though they didn't have the language to say, "I have a justified true belief that blah, blah, blah", they still regularly said things such as, "Well, I have good reason for thinking that...". In moments like that I took so much pleasure in saying, "Oh, that's really interesting that you say you have good reason to believe this, because in philosophy we call that ‘justified true belief’…” and then a discussion about epistemology would start from there.
It made philosophy accessible in a way that I think they hadn't experienced before which contributed to my work being even more enjoyable, both as a communicator and as a philosopher. There is a joy in philosophising with people who perhaps don't realise they're consciously doing it, but you also then discover new ways of bringing philosophy to the world, without the use of technical language, to make philosophy more accessible. I saw evidence of that again in a more recent project. We would do some thought experiments at lunch at times, and it was just lovely for me; I think - and this is so philosophical - that redoing these thought experiments was so fun and frustrating! It made me realise that half of philosophy is like, "Urghh, this doesn't quite work the way it should, this is weird, this counterexample throws everything off" and so I think they really went on to utilise thought experiments in some of the programs that they were working on.
Ciaran: I hadn't considered that before. You were saying earlier, you're not in these environments to consult as such, like "We've got to fix this problem by Tuesday and have the report written up" and everything. You were enjoying it because that's an environment you were used to, one in which there’s a mixture of inquiring and exploring but also an endless frustration that’s inherent to philosophy, though it’s a good kind. Am I characterising it correctly?
Teresa: Yeah, it's the productive kind of frustration that has you exploring alternative solutions, right? Once you are able to ask, "Oh wait, why is this sticky?" (sticky is the word I usually use when counterexamples show up); or to ask it another way, why doesn't the solution flow more naturally (or clearly) - it helps me narrow down to what that issue actually is. I found those I was working with at the architecture firm ended up questioning their methods and goals much more as a result. One example I can think of is we had to do an installation for a display in Washington, and we we're trying to figure out, "Okay, so if we're gonna build a mini-exhibit how are we gonna do that? What wires are we gonna use to hang these things?" It started very technical and then eventually evolved into, "Well, what's the experience we want people to have? What's more important, the technical sophistication of the installation, or the experimental/sensational experience of being in the exhibit space with the robotic flora?" These, I found, to be interesting questions and questions that they might have taken for granted, which I thought were really fun to elucidate. I'd ask them, "What is a more meaningful experience: one where you have all the facts, or one where you left with an impression?"
Ciaran: I think this idea of introducing what is ostensibly a frustrating experience for people is interesting. I mean, you made that sound like it all happened very quickly and they immediately came round to it; "Actually, you know what, we're really pleased you're questioning this!" When you were saying about being in the office as well it's funny, because that's often taken as the disvalue of the activity, the stereotypical ‘head in the clouds’ picture of philosophising. So you flipped it around and showed them that, in fact, that's the biggest benefit.
Teresa: There's something satisfying about doing that critical thinking well that I think defines philosophy.
Ciaran: I saw a quote you gave to Mitacs, the organisation who helped developed the placement with the architecture firm, which feels relevant here. You said, "There's something to being in these spaces and working on these problems with the intention of communicating your experience that you can't read in a book". This notion of a distinct value to that environment is interesting. What did you feel you got in that space you couldn't have got just from reading a book?
Teresa: What, to me, was the biggest value was the range of issues, problems, interesting phenomena, that I could tackle that I think has to be minimised for a textbook. A book has to be clear, it has to be focused, it can only have so many chapters. So, when you look at philosophy in that way, it only looks like there's so many issues, and in a limited graduate career you can only look at so many, whereas if you do philosophy "in the field" the problems that we could decide to tackle are really enormous. I also love that they intersect in ways that you can't see when you're doing textbook philosophy, and that interaction I thought made it so much richer and therefore so much more satisfying when progress was made.
Ciaran: Speaking to people who have done philosophy in different educational environments - in schools, or in prisons, for example - in those situations the whole set up is still pedagogical and the space itself can come in in interesting ways but typically less so, I've found. By contrast, the space at hand in other kinds of public philosophical work can really come through, which it appears to have done in your experience.
What I thought was interesting in your case as well is that it brought out philosophical features of daily life that aren’t typically noted as much in discussions of public philosophy. For example, when you described the exhibition earlier, you spoke about how you were talking about the role of experience, the sensational element for visitors and so on. There'll be political, legal, social and moral dimensions to that, I'm sure, but I think it brings in much more to the fore, maybe... I don't know. Were there far more distinctly metaphysical, epistemological and phenomenological questions?
Teresa: Yeah, so I think you've got that right there. It's because at the intersection of art, philosophy, and science, ethics can be discussed (and how ethics relates to science in the context of human interaction with AI) but much further down the line, especially in architecture as it relates to both laypeople and technical experts. Similarly, a lot of my interest in talking about values and science now isn't necessarily in terms of values from an ethical perspective - if they come out, they come out - but when I'm in the field I'm usually there to criticise methodology and the values just sort of fall out, though much later on in the process. That's effectively what happened in this big data project I've been involved in more recently. I was there to look at methodology, so we talked about methodology and that was really interesting, but then at some point values just fell out of the work we were doing and I thought that was a fairly natural, uncoerced, approach to take.
Ciaran: So, what did this more recent project involve exactly?
Teresa: So, it was with a research group called Zenith (part of INRIA) in the south of France (during the winter months in Canada, conveniently!) I was there as, once again, a philosopher-in-residence, just to see, you know, the methodological approaches they were taking, if there was anything philosophically interesting in there, without deciding definitively what my philosophical agenda would be before arriving. It was really heavy I'd have to say, it was extremely shocking even; more shocking I'd say than the first experience, and I was there about the same amount of time.
Ciaran: So, we should come on to that difference between the two, but perhaps to follow your process a bit, assuming here the moral aspects came down the line somewhat, I'd be interested to start with your initial focus on methodology. 'Big data' became such a buzzword for a few years so I'm not expecting you to go into that per se, I'm more interested to know about how you carried out your process there. Could you give a snapshot of what you were sort of doing in practice? Were you sitting down having meetings? Were you observing people? How did it function? And - sorry to load even more questions in, but just because you mentioned this before the interview and it seems apt here - you've expressed your interest in 'field philosophy', which is not something that a lot of people have come across, but would you describe what you were doing in France as field philosophy?
Teresa: So, I think I've always done field philosophy, because… Maybe it's just my approach to thinking about the world, but it seems weird to go into a new environment that you are unfamiliar with intimately, and just expect to find this type of evidence for this or that type of philosophy there. You can certainly say, “Yeah, there's probably a greater likelihood that if I go into a hospital I’m going to find ethical conundrums in relation to medicine”. Sure, that's possible, but I like going into environments and seeing what's there without too many philosophical preconceptions. So, that's what I mean when I say 'field philosophy': I'm going in to see what's most philosophically interesting in that space, not necessarily enforce my own agenda.
Compared to the first field philosophy/philosopher-in-residence experience I did at the architecture firm, this second one with the data scientists had much more structure. Partially, the reason for that is the organisation was very different (a private firm versus a nationally recognised lab). One was in Canada and one was international, one was with a big research conglomerate from a different country so the justification for being a researcher (especially as a humanities scholar) in that space was much more rigorous. It was also very tricky to get funding for this project because, usually what MITACS does is fund undergraduate and graduate scientists to go work in science labs. Having a humanities scholar work in a science lab, is often met with "Woah, woah woah, if you're not doing ethics, what's the point?" So there was a little pushback on that which really forced me to find a way to state what my methodology was going to be. But, I was really lucky stumble on some work coming out of Arizona State University by Erik Fisher. They came up with this idea of the ‘STIR Protocol’ which is a way for humanities scholars to interact and engage with scientists in the lab. I adopted that methodology and modified it quite a bit.
Effectively, in order to STIR, what you do is sit down with scientist X once a week for about an hour and discuss four things: what is that they're doing, why is it important, how could they do it differently, and who would care. You can do that for a little while and get some interesting results, but at some point you get to know people and it becomes almost unnatural to follow this very rigorous pattern because, well, we’ll have already answered these questions to some degree, right? So it just leads into a colloquial conversation and I think that's where the most philosophically interesting topics came up. That's the difference between the two methodologies used in the architecture firm and the big data analytics laboratory: In the architecture firm, I flowed from question to question without a 4-point structure, conversing out of curiosity. For example, I would ask, "So what are we working on today? How are we gonna put this up? Are we sure we want to make this of that clear material? Hmm... That seems a little unnatural, if were imitating plants that seems impersonal and cold, no? Is that gonna be receptive to people? Or are they going to be alienated by it?" Whereas, in the big data analytics laboratory I followed the STIR protocol at the beginning, asking, repeatedly, “So what are you working on? What is the issue you are trying to solve? Are there other alternatives to how the problem could be solved? Who might care?”. So the two experiences had... just different styles, I think.
"If you do philosophy "in the field" the problems that [you] could decide to tackle are really enormous. I also love that they intersect in ways that you can't see when you're doing textbook philosophy"
Ciaran: I'm interested in this move from the structured protocol to the colloquial conversations, in terms of what you can anticipate. You're going in without an agenda, but you do have these core philosophical interests in philosophy of science and science communication, yet up could come anything, so it's a kind of philosophical thinking on your feet, right? You might pick up on things that need to be philosophically explored that you hadn't anticipated. The protocol gives you some guidance but at the same time if you don't want to prejudice what you're going to be exploring, you've got to be almost kind of philosophically attuned to all the things that may pop up. I'm thinking of what you said right at the start, which is that textbook philosophy is like, "Here's your epistemology”, but then when you're philosophising with people out in the world, it's all coming at to you at once. Is that a tension that you have felt?
Teresa: So, this aspect of tension in terms of balancing my personal values with those of the scientists, and that of the process was probably the most difficult part of the experience in the big data lab. I say that because in philosophy, when we construct examples of what we want to prove we're arguing, we don't always take real world instances because those are messy and the agents won't act in ways we'd like them to. So when you try and philosophise on your feet, it's really tricky. I think the example that I have that speaks best to that, and part of why the experience was so haunting but also extremely rewarding, came towards the end of my four months there. I was working with a colleague who I'd been talking with since the beginning and we had a rapport. We were discussing about what they do and they were like, "You know, I don't see it, I don't see where the philosophy is in my work. I just do big data analytics, I analyse the data". So I wrote 'I analyse data' on the white board nearby, and we talked about it word by word, first I asked “what is ‘data’?” And the response was, “Well, it's a bunch of numbers or relationships”, and we did the same for 'analyse', and then we got to the word ‘I’ and they said, “Okay, I do ‘I’". So I ask, "What do you do differently from another data analyst?" And they replied, "Well, nothing. I just follow the protocol". So I asked what conferences they go to, what papers they read, and they replied, “I don't read papers by women…".
Teresa: Yep. And my face did what yours just did!
Ciaran: They phrased it in that way as well?
Teresa: The complete sentence was: "I don't read papers by women... but I’m not sexist". So I think I just, you know, kind of blankly stared because my work is in values in science and science communication, and although I talk about values, I read about values, this was the first time really coming face-to-face with it so bluntly in science, and the experience of that was like no other. That's where this tension came into play, because I had a choice, I could sit there and be sort of philosophically neutral (as per the initial STIR protocol) and say "Okay", but it's not who I am as a philosopher. So I asked them why. They told me that their supervisor had asked them to teach a kind of coding to four Masters students who were women and, unfortunately, they were chatty during the class, and so since then, that person felt like these women in particular represented a larger group of people who didn't know what they were doing when it came to data analytics. So I replied, "Okay, so I'm a woman, would you read my work?" and they said, "Well, of course I'd read your work, I mean you do good work.” So I asked them if they would read the co-director of this laboratory's work, because she identifies as a woman, and then their face kind of dropped and they went "Oh..."
The realisation that they had potentially missed out on valuable research hit them. Then I explained to them that if they really wanted to do the best big data analytics work that they could (which was their goal and what they said they valued), leaving out this subset of research could be detrimental. Then I could see that it just really hit them, all on once, and it was an emotional and heated exchange that was really difficult to have. There's no philosophy book that tells you how to handle that, the STIR protocol doesn't outline what to do, but that's a part of what philosophising on the fly is like - you're dealing with people.
Ciaran: Christ, well that's a shame, I can see why it was a haunting experience to say the least.
Teresa: Well, they read work by women now, or so they tell me, so maybe something good does come out of it. It's hard to do because it's so intellectually and emotionally draining, but I wouldn't take it back.
Ciaran: From talking to other people doing quite different public philosophical work, there is this feature all the same. Indeed, there's something quite obvious about it, right? Of course those emotional dimensions are going to crop up in ways that, well, they may sometimes, but they may be less likely to in a strictly academic environment. But this is the first time I've heard someone talk about it from this perspective of thinking on your feet. Someone I spoke to recently touched on the emotional and personal challenge of public philosophical work, but less how this can present a challenge to how one thinks about philosophical practice itself; they still separated it somewhat. I find the way you've articulated it really interesting and very useful, where it's a kind of thinking on your feet but it's also recognising, as you said, that you can approach this in a kind of neutral philosophical way, but you are also a person doing this and in this environment - this extra academic environment - maybe you’re at liberty to respond differently.
For these last questions I wanted to move beyond your particular experiences somewhat. A couple trends motivated these interviews: one is this push for more public philosophy and then at the same time there's a trend of, at least in much of Europe and in North America, this sense that there has been a decline in the public sphere. The latter comes about perhaps from people trusting institutions less, or the press being in decline, or from people being increasingly atomised, perhaps. With both of these trends, of course, I'm not suggesting they are being described entirely accurately, or truly reflect reality, and I'm always intrigued to see if people have read this differently.
What I've found interesting about these, though, if we grant that they have been going on, is that they've been going on at the same time and they're relatively independent things. I think it's interesting that you've got this sense in certain areas that people think we need to do more to kind of rejuvenate the public sphere, at the same time as a portion of people, more broadly in the arts and humanities, saying we we want to do more to regarding this. There are some negative reasons for this, you know certain market forces which are pushing people to feel they need to have a certain kind of "impact", but also a positive sense that they can do more and that they should do more. So I'm always interested to ask people whether these kind of background social trends were there when they started to engage in these projects.
Teresa: Nope! Really it was all a case of, "Oh, this architecture firm makes plants? Robot plants? I'm in!" I think it's the reason why a lot of people go into philosophy, they're just curious. For me, it was "Why do we present things in a science museum in this way? It looks like science just revealed itself, there are no people behind this science and apparently this version of science isn't for everyone". Same thing with big data. I knew very little about big data before and was just curious about what, behind these numbers, was there.
Ciaran: So, it was more about curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake?
Teresa: It's something like knowledge for the sake of knowledge but sourced differently. It’s not just the tangential knowledge that we're randomly curious about, but situated knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Maybe I'll explore that more...
Ciaran: I'd not thought of that possibility. When people talk about the situatedness thing, and this comes up when people talk field philosophy, the goal is very much defined by the... Well, one thing when people talk about it is, "What's the role of the stakeholders here?" If I'm working in this community and the knowledge is for them, to an extent, and they play a role in the knowledge production and so on. But what if it's in the field just for its own sake?
So, up until this point my questions have been premised somewhat on you as "the philosopher". But I'm also interested in how these experiences have affected you yourself. A couple people have told me that their public philosophy work has made them better listeners, for example.
Teresa: I think they have justified my going into Philosophy and I know that's pretty serious but... You know, when you're in the thick of it and you're reading paper, after paper, after paper and your eyes are blurry and your writing and you're wondering, "Why am I doing this?" When you go out there and you actually engage in philosophy with others in the real world, it's so satisfying. It's so good to put that critical thinking into use in the real world, it makes it feel worthwhile.
Ciaran: You were saying much earlier one of the things you really liked about working in the architecture firm was this good, ultimately productive kind of frustration that you can get with philosophy. It sounded like part of the joy there was that, as with any kind of good philosophical conversation, there was a kind of frustration that was shared. Alongside making the work of a degree feel worthwhile, have these experiences enriched your enjoyment of philosophising perhaps?
Teresa: Maybe I'll clarify a little bit then in terms of those 'enjoyable frustrations'. I think it was useful for me because when we were in these frustrating situations, I had the tools to be able to pick it apart and say, "Okay, what are we really talking about here?” to try and work through this problem. Years of reading papers will help you do that. It doesn't do everything but it will help you try and narrow down to what the actual issue is. It's a whole different step to be able to communicate that with non-philosophers, but at least philosophy can provide some of the tools to assess what is happening. Being able to successfully do some field philosophy work was also helpful in going back to reading papers, because it was like, "Okay, if I could do it in person and see what was actually important in the implications, I should be able to do it when writing too. If I take away this philosophical language, what's actually the issue here?"
Ciaran: Was there anything that you felt that we haven't touched on or that you want to emphasise or say anything additional about?
Teresa: The only thing I would say is to encourage philosophers, even if they go into the academy, to do something in the field. Even if, you know, you're tenure track and it's comfortable, try it. Try philosophising outside of the academy. I've never come across anyone whose regretted it. This will help you see what's out there. Just don't be afraid to try.
Ciaran: Inspiring words to end on, thanks Ty!