Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Education, Logic, and Values: Part III

This may be my last post for a while.  With Emily's due date coming up (June 9 -- or perhaps June 2, according to a recent ultrasound) and with our big move and my summer job with CTY ... I don't have much spare time these days.

In this post, I'll just try to wrap up the loose ends from my last one ...  The question was:  how do you teach logic using modern textbooks without indoctrinating your students with the relativistic notion of value that modern curricula encourage?  How do you respect a diversity of views among your students without making them believe that values can be chosen arbitrarily?

Imagine sending your child to school and having him or her learn that it is okay to admire Hitler, that racism is a valid point of view, or that murder -- though criticized by many -- might be an acceptable way to resolve conflicts depending on your chosen system of values.  You would be justifiably angry.  Fortunately, our educational system doesn't have this problem -- any teacher in their right mind will stress that Hitler was a bad man, racism is unacceptable, and murder is wrong.  In other words, objective value is already taught in our schools, and we unanimously agree that this is the right thing to do.

As I see it, the problem with teaching modern logic is of the same kind, if less obvious.

You might be thinking, wait now -- but isn't logic a value-free subject? 
Hardly.  For example, Confucius' teachings include the following analects:

"True virtue rarely goes with artful speech and insinuating looks."

"The higher type of person is catholic in his sympathy and free from party bias; the lower type is biased an unsympathetic."

"The wise man does not esteem a person more highly because of what he says, neither does he undervalue what is said because of the person who says it."
Confucius (551 BC – 479 BC)

These are only a few examples of the sorts of values taught not only in logic but also in philosophy and religion.  There are dozens of more relevant sayings in the Confucian Analects, all of which are relevant to the search for truth, unbiasedness, and objectivity. 

So, even though logic teaches unbiasedness, this unbiasedness is itself a virtue, which means that logic does teach values, including Truth, Honesty, Sincerity, and Justice.  There is no contradiction here -- logic does not teach unbiasedness in everything, but only in the process of determining the truth.

The question that remained for me was this:  how do I teach my students these virtues in an explicit way without confusing them?  If I start talking about Confucius and honesty and sincerity on the first day, they're going to have no idea how any of it is connected, for example, to the mathematical symbolism of logic. 

Why not just play it safe and teach the usual curriculum, however flawed?  Obviously, I'll be teaching these kids before they have a chance to form their character for good -- so not everything is at stake.  On the other hand, it is common for former students at the Io Institute to say that II changed their lives forever, inspiring them to choose their future careers and so forth.  It should also be kept in mind that I will have a single group of kids for 7 hours a day, 5 days a week for 3 weeks.  This means it will be approximately an entire college semester's worth of material.  So I do think I have a fairly large responsibility to my students.

As I contemplated this I ran across the following analect in Confucius:

"Let a pupil join with you in self-cultivation before you let him approach the general truths of philosophy, but let him approach these general truths before he is allowed to form his character for good. He should have formed his character for good before he is allowed to make exceptions to a general rule."

Here was the whole thing in a nutshell.  I'll discuss this analect one phrase at a time.

"Let a pupil join with you in self-cultivation before you let him approach the general truths of philosophy ..."

Before I can teach my students any general principles of virtue, I must allow them to cultivate these virtues by practice.  This is true in any discipline.  Before you can learn the deepest laws of nature in physics, for example, you must learn how to problem-solve and develop your physical intuition.  It will take years of practice in creative writing before a novelist can explain to you the secrets to writing great literature.  So the plan I've come up with for my logic course is to focus on logical problem-solving to begin with.  You would think that this would be common practice, but it is not anymore -- logic now generally follows the tendency of modern mathematics education to teach by means of "exercises" and to label real problems "story problems." 

I was a math tutor for a time, and it was my job to fix the brains of poor students that had been led seriously astray by this way of teaching.  For example, I had one college student who could solve problems like "If you have 65 dollars and you pay Ted 38 dollars, how much is left?" and could do the symbolic problem 65 - 38 = ? but had no idea that he was doing the same thing in both cases!  Math education is a whole different subject that I could rant about -- but I'll leave that for another time.  For now I just want to explain why I'm done teaching my II students primarily by means of symbolic "exercises."  Intead, I'll start by giving them puzzles, riddles, and paradoxes (I'm actually using "What is the name of this book?: The riddle of Dracula and other logical puzzles" by Raymond M Smullyan as one of my texts this year).  And to further distance myself from the notion of mechanical exercises and drills, I'm going to make sure that a few of the puzzles I offer them will be unsolvable.  It will be their choice what to work on, and I'll be sure not to let them waste too much time on unsolvable problems, but I think it will do them a world of good to have a little practice the hardest lesson in logic:  how to tell when you're stumped.  Logic is just as much about moving on and accepting your ignorance as it is about applying the principles of reason.

"... but let him approach these general truths before he is allowed to form his character for good."

Then after we've had plenty of class discussion, debate, and paper-writing on these puzzles and paradoxes, I'm hoping the students will have had enough experience with logical controversy that we can move on to discuss more general principles, rules, and (yes) values that logicians hold to.  This is also where I'll be discussing the limitations of logic, both theoretical and practical. (Smullyan has a nice discussion of Godel's Theorem for the layman in his book -- simple enough to be understandable but also rigorous enough to be meaningful.)

"He should have formed his character for good before he is allowed to make exceptions to a general rule."

Finally, I'll try to avoid the twin perils of either (a) teaching my students to avoid all controversial topics -- a strategy that destroys values be skirting around their existence or (b) plunging right into philosophical debates over the objectivity of values and the relativity of truth -- a strategy that asks the students to fly before they can walk.  Instead, the focus will be on how logicians can maintain their objectivity even when tackling controversial subjects such as the existence of God or global warming.  Rather than shy away from these topics, I'll encourage my students (around the third week) to tackle them in as honest and independent a way as possible. 

Anyway -- this is solution I've come up with over the past few weeks.  Of course, things never work out in practice as they do in theory -- I'm sure to learn as much or more than my students over the two three-week sessions I'll be teaching this summer ...

Meanwhile, it's farewell for the next few months.  Thanks to everyone for following my blog so far, and hopefully I'll have time again next September to share some more thoughts!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Education, Logic, and Values: Part II

My plans for the Io Institute course on logic I'm teaching this summer are coming together.  It was one of Confucius's Analects that finally snapped me out of my abstractions, and led me to outline a practical plan.

The dilemma I've been facing is this.  During all of my years of education, including 9 years of university schooling, I was led seriously astray.  I was made to believe that the rational progress of society is the ultimate purpose of thought and life, and that the rest is mere gibberish and sentimentality.  Certain people reading this blog may want to argue that I've been wrong to reject this doctrine -- but that is beside the point.  The point is, rationality and progress are values themselves.  So shouldn't they be left out of public education?  Or is it even possible to leave values out of learning?

As these questions were haunting me, I stumbled across a passage in John Michael Greer's The Ecotechnic Future discussing the tendency of modern society to "sanitize" everything -- to favor dead mechanism over dirty biology.  He suggested two of C.S. Lewis's writings on the subject:  a set of lectures called The Abolition of Man and a novel called That Hideous Strength.  I've finished the first and as of today I'm most of the way through the second.  These writings, it turns out, go much, much deeper than the biology/mechanism duality, directly grappling with modern Western society's odd hang-ups concerning values and reason.  In essence, Lewis argues that our obsession with sterilization has led us to try to sterilize the mind itself, as if we could scrub away all traces of value-judgement.

I highly recommend both of these books. Lewis's The Abolition of Man is especially concise and insightful.  (There's an online version -- just Google it.  It's short for a book.)

The problem Lewis is discussing may sound abstract, but it is actually very concrete.  "The practical result of education in the spirit of The Green Book," Lewis says concerning a textbook he discusses, "must be the destruction of the society which accepts it."

I don't think Lewis is exaggerating here, but I'd rather not belabor the point.  Whether or not we are in a "declining" civilization, it seems to me that our society has stumbled much further down the path that Lewis declared a dead end back in 1947.  This should be clear if we look at a couple of examples from Lewis's book.  In the following example he discusses a passage from the English textbook he happens to despise (The Green Book mentioned above):

In their second chapter Gaius and Titius [Lewis's pseudonym for the authors] quote the well-known story of Coleridge at the waterfall.  You remember that there were two tourists present: that one called it 'sublime' and the other 'pretty': and that Coleridge mentally endorsed the first judgement and rejected the second with disgust.  Gaius and Titius comment as follows: 'When the man said That is sublime, he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall. . . . Actually . . . he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings.  What he was saying was really I have feelings associated in my mind with the word "Sublime," or shortly, I have sublime feelings.'  Here are a good many deep questions settled in a pretty summary fashion. ... They add: 'This confusion is continually present in language as we use it.  We appear to be saying something very important about something:  and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings' (The Abolition of Man, p. 1-2).

Lewis goes on to criticize these authors for downplaying the importance of emotion wholesale.  From this passage and others like it, he argues that children are being increasingly taught that feelings and subjectivity have little or no role to play in writing, literature, or (consequently) life.  He then goes on to say that without any notion of the "Sublime" or that which is higher, our children will be left without any way to connect their reason to their passions, that is, to know what sorts of emotions are more noble than others.

At first it struck me that many of the problems Lewis finds with the textbooks of his time had been largely corrected since.  I don't remember ever being told in school that emotions or values had no place in my writing or in literature.  In fact, we were taught strategies for recognizing emotive language, as well as metaphorical language (another literary device that was poo-pooed by many in Lewis's day). But then it struck me that this is pretty much all I remember from my English and literature courses in high school and college -- literary devices.  Metaphor and simile, and later "voice" and "modernism."  If I had encountered it in high school, the upshot of the story about Coleridge might have been that "sublime" is used in a hyperbole, and that Coleridge approves because it is more poetic.  In college, the point might have been to argue that Coleridge's reverence for nature marks him as a romantic, or, more "interestingly," the idea might be to do a meta-analysis and ask whether C.S. Lewis's defence of Coleridge commits him to any part of the "project" of "romanticism."  Nowhere in any of this would we have been encouraged to believe that Coleridge's judgment was necessarily in the right.  On the contrary, we would have been encouraged to analyze and dissect the story, and then (at best) to decide for ourselves what we thought about it.  Chances are the instructor would have treated Coleridge's "romantic" views as quaint. 

For even stronger reasons, few professors today would endorse C.S. Lewis's view that there are objective values that should be honored in education.  The very notion of "objective value" is currently doubted by most academic philosophers in the West.  If this doesn't seem strange to you, it's probably because you were born after 1950 in the United States or Europe.  At almost any other time or place you almost certainly would have been taught that there are sacred values that you should always honor and defend.  The reason for this is that throughout recorded history, religion has almost always gone hand-in-hand with education, helping to connect everything that is learned within an coherent and fully-fledged world-view and system of values.  In today's world, where every subject is supposed to be taught so that it is compatible with any system of values, this does not seem to be possible.

But what has made our culture so unusual in this way?  That's a good question ...

... to be continued ...

Read Part III

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Education, Logic, and Values: Part I

It's been one of those weeks when dozens of ideas occur to me every day, but I just don't have the time to write them all down.  I've talked about writing another section in my new book, and about reviewing a book I've been reading.  Over the course of the week I've also considered writing about logic and values, education, flaws in the idea of civilization, and so on.

So you may have to bear with me here.  The one idea that has obsessed me most over the past week is this: that modern education has perhaps gone seriously astray.  I'm talking about the system as a whole -- which is based on the bizarre idea that the best way to educate our young is to have them sit through dozens of disconnected courses on various topics (algebra, history, etc.) without giving them any idea of how or whether they connect to one another.  We provide no context, no worldview, no set of over-arching values or purpose.  Of course, this is unavoidable because teaching values at school would be teaching religion, and that is supposed to be up to the parents.

To make these doubts more concrete, let me explain some of my own difficulties in the teaching I've been doing. Over the past couple of summers I've been teaching at a summer camp for gifted kids.  My first summer I tought nuclear physics. Last summer, and this coming summer, I've been teaching logic.  The idea is to teach college-level material to junior-high kids who seem to be ready for it, hopefully catapulting them into an even more spectacular academic career.

Overall, I think it's a good program, and I've had mostly good experiences -- despite how exhausting the work is.  To avoid making it sound like I'm criticizing any specific program, let's call this summer camp the Io Institute (or II).

Though I enjoyed teaching Nuclear Physics the first year, and the kids learned a lot, I went home with a vague feeling of dissatisfaction, as if I hadn't really done any of them any good.  Perhaps it was because I was leading them into a field -- physics -- that I myself have found empty of human significance.  When I was asked to come back the next summer, I gave this feeling some more thought, and came to the conclusion that I could do these kids much more good if I taught them something philosophy- or humanities-related.  So I sent in another application and requested a change of subject.

As a result, I taught "Logic: Rules of Reason" last year.  This course seemed perfect for me, because I was allowed to split the curriculum 50-50 between mathematical logic and "informal logic," which is the art of reading and writing philosophical argumentation.  In other words, the course is 50% math, 50% philosophy.  What course would have the freedom to be more broad-ranging and well-rounded than this?

My initial course plan was perhaps a bit over-enthusiastic.  It included Taoist writings, theology, and a number of philosophers more poetic than logical.  But once I entered the daily grind of teaching, these are the first materials to be skipped when we fell behind.  It was just too difficult to integrate them and explain their logical significance to my 13-to-15-year-old students.  The best I was able to do was explore "the limits of logic," bringing in the writings of Lewis Carroll, Plato, and Wittgenstein.  In discussing how many philosophers have tried and failed to make logic encompass all of thought, I was at least able to convey that logic was not the end-all and be-all of subjects (as most of them seemed to assume at first).  In fact, if anything perhaps I went too far in the other direction.  At times students would ask me "well then what is this math even useful for?"  When I explained that computer programmers and mathematicians still find logic to be useful sometimes, it didn't seem to do much to raise their spirits.  I shouldn't have been surprised, given that on the first day when I asked them what they hoped to do with logic, most of them responded by saying "I hope it will help me make my big life decisions," or "I'd like to use it to find a job that will make good money."  Formal logic will certainly not do much for you in these departments, and our society should be ashamed for teaching our children otherwise (for example, through fictional heroes like Spock and Sherlock Holmes).  Sure, it pays to be rational and to be able to think rationally, but there is no more a mathematical formula for rationality than there is for "agility" or "kindness."  Philosophy has already proven this through centuries of failing to find a mathematical logic that would solve most of its problems, or even its most serious ones.

This summer I'll be teaching logic again.  Ideally, if the money weren't so important, I'd strike out on my own and offer my services as a private mentor and tutor.  By interacting with the parents directly, and the child one-on-one, I could get a better idea of what is wanted and needed to get the child on the right track towards a well-rounded education.  At the Io Institute, the tuition for one student is about the same as the amount one teacher gets paid.  However, there are an average of 15 students per teacher! 

This means that, if I charged half-price, I could work one-on-one with two students, each for 3 hours a day, have more spare time for myself, and probably teach the students more!  This actually occurred to me last summer, but I'm still considering how I might put such a plan into action ...

As it is, I'm stuck in Io's framework for now.  I'm still trying to figure out how to teach these kids logic and philosophy without ruining their taste for truly edifying reading, such as literature or religion. 

Nevertheless, by the end of the second session last year, I felt like I had had some success.  Because I fostered an open environment, there were a number of students who did their final projects on theology or the history of philosophy.  Now I don't want to give the impression that I pushed anyone into these topics -- in fact there were a number of students who did projects defending science or evolution from religious critiques.  The interesting thing was that I actually avoided all these topics in the curriculum to prevent any controversy -- it was the students' own interests that led them to work in these areas.  And I strove to push them not toward one position or another in these debates, but toward developing logical arguments in their writing.

Despite these few successes, I still feel like I'm swimming against the tide.  To give you an idea, last year they gave me a number of syllabi from previous logic instructors.  Almost every syllabus featured topics like, "The Logical Unsoundness of the Existential Proof for God," or "Intelligent Design as Pseudo-Science."  While I agree that God cannot be logically proven, and that Intelligent Design has serious scientific flaws, focusing on all these ways in which science has won against religion tends to foster the impression that our civilization is progressively moving away from religion and towards a scientific worldview.  It leads to an overall degradation in our children's taste for topics such as morality and ethics.  This has been going on for over a century now in academic learning, and in my view it has been devastating for our culture as a whole.

I'm not the first to point this out.  If you're interested in reading something by someone who noticed this trend more than 60 years ago, I suggest reading The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis. 

I'm currently in the process of reading this and about a dozen other books ... when I do I'll come back and write Part II ...  (Incidentally, it was Our Ecotechnic Future that suggested The Abolition of Man -- another important book that I'll be discussing once I finish it.)

Read Part II

Friday, April 8, 2011

Adventures in Philosophy School, Finale

The decision to back down and not defend my manuscript against Professor Plum's criticisms was a difficult one.  I wanted to be brave and defend my views, especially because I didn't feel that his main criticisms were justified.  But the overall reaction to my manuscript convinced me that it would be a long hard struggle to get it accepted.  As I weighed this decision, I realized that the manuscript did not contain the views that I most wanted to express.  It was merely an attempt to destroy the progressive viewpoint.  In other words, it was merely a work of nihilism.

When I realized this, I also realized that it would be absurd to suddenly propose a third dissertation topic.  Were I to write a dissertation on what really interests me, it would be something more like my blogs.  But that would be even less scholarly than the manuscript I showed them.

So I recalled my original reason for returning, namely, to get a job, and I decided that a conservative dissertation would be best.  I began to look forward again to writing a dry dissertation on the evolution of the steam engine.

Still, I was burning to express myself in some other way.  For years now I had been on a lonely intellectual path, without any outlet for the ideas that had been influencing my life so profoundly.  My goal had never been to write something technical for a few elite professionals, but to inspire others to philosophize in the way that writers like Plato, Emerson, Kierkegaard, or Augustine had inspired me.  These sorts of writings are never published in professional journals, and professional philosophers are not the right people to learn such philosophy from.

What I needed most was to be able to express myself to the people that matter to me.  That's when I had the idea for this blog.  Emily liked the idea, because she thought it might relieve my frustration.  Her encouragement and suggestions along the way have been invaluable.

Now, after working on these blogs for about 6 months, I feel more fulfilled than after 9 years of writing "A" papers for professors.  My time as a student has been important to me, but academia can only take you so far.

To come back to the story of my adventures and misadventures in philosophy school, I was saying that my plan to write a conservative dissertation did not turn out to be as easy as I had thought.  The reasons for this are interesting, I think, because they show that my disagreement with the faculty really is substantial, and hinges on basic questions of value.

At the end of the fall semester of 2010, I e-mailed Professor Plaid my 20-page paper for his course, telling him that he should consider this paper a rough-draft proposal for a dissertation topic.

The paper argued that science can be thought of as an evolutionary process, involving blind mutation and natural selection.  This is not a new idea in the philosophy of science, it turns out, which allowed me to narrow my focus to the question of blindness, and argue using brief examples from the history of the steam engine, thermodynamics, chemistry, and astronomy.

He gave me an A- on the paper, complaining that I was not fair to my main opponent (Philip Kitcher, die-hard rationalist and author of "The Advancement of Science").  But he reassured me that my contributions to class discussion were exemplary and that my paper had more comments on it than anyone else's in the class.  He gave me an A for the course, which encouraged me.

But when I came back from break and asked him to be my advisor, he expressed some stronger doubts.  He claimed that my proposal merely assumed from the outset that the evolutionary viewpoint on science was the most interesting.  What he wanted from me was an argument that this was a fruitful project that would have philosophical payoffs.

I responded that the payoff of this work would be better confirmation of the evolutionary view of human culture.  Normally, science is taken as a progressive force in human evolution, and therefore as a non-evolutionary process.  I told him that this question should have broad appeal for anthropologists and social scientists.

But he would not relent.  He told me the same thing that I was told three years ago when I proposed my emergence project:  that I needed to first immerse myself in the existing philosophical literature, find a question or problem that was posed by this literature, and then address that problem.  He mentioned mainstream literature, such as Kuhn, Laudan, Kitcher, and Lakatos, as opposed to the evolutionary philosophers I had been reading, who tend to be on the fringe.

So, abiding by my new rule of playing by the rules, I agreed to attempt this.

The question of scientific progress is indeed discussed by Kuhn, Laudan, Kitcher, and Lakatos, but not in the same way that I wanted to discuss it.  For these writers, the most important question is whether science is converging toward the "One True" picture of reality.  Some argue there is no one true science (the "relativists"), and others argue that there is (the "realists").   For me, the most interesting question was whether science was improving the human condition -- the question of societal progress. 

I scoured the writings of Kuhn, Laudan, Kitcher, and Lakatos, looking for some discussion of the question of societal progress, or at least some acknowledgment of its existence.

Thomas Kuhn, by the way, is the author of the famous book "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions."  If you've ever heard the terms "paradigm," "paradigm-shift," or "incommensurability," there's a good chance you are referring to concepts he helped develop back in the 1960's to understand scientific revolutions.  But when I reread his book, I found no discussion at all of the effects that science has had on our society or culture.  The strange thing is, Kuhn's final and most controversial conclusion is that science does not, in fact, show any progress toward better and better theories. 

To make matters worse, philosophy of science has followed in Kuhn's footsteps for the last fifty years.  It no longer even considers the question of how science is to be judged successful, aside from the question of whether it is true.  It does not ask the question of why we should do science -- only how it should be done.  In other words, for decades philosophy has simply assumed that science is always worthwhile, as long as it is true.

But this assumption, as I see it, is absurd.  There are plenty of scientific facts that are just not interesting.  What's the half-life of copernicium-277? (1.1 milli-seconds.)  What's the largest crater on Mercury? (Caloris Basin is 800 miles in diameter.) What organism has the longer genome, the canopy plant or the marbled lungfish?  (The canopy plant, just barely.)  But who cares?  Not all scientific questions are necessarily worth the effort.

When pressed on this point a philosopher of science is likely to get technical with you.  He or she will say something like, "But science is about finding useful, explanatory generalities, like the law of gravity, not simply facts."  But it's easy to play the same game with generalities:

What do you get (in general) when you combine 17,088,080,083 objects with 93,287,496,584 objects?  The answer is easily calculated, and very general.  It doesn't matter what kinds of objects you use, you always get the same result.  You can't argue that this is a rare occurrence, since given the number of particles in the entire universe (10^80), it is in fact very likely that dust particles consisting of just this many atoms have combined before. (I calculate that it's occurred at LEAST 10^40 or 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times in the last few centuries, somewhere in the universe.)

And you can't argue that this fact is not explanatory without bringing in human concerns. It explains why we have certain larger dust particles with exactly  110,375,576,667 atoms in them.  This in turn explains the mass of these objects, etc. 

I could carry on this absurd dialogue, but that would miss the point.  My point is that values have to enter the question somewhere.  That fact that science is objective doesn't mean that human values don't apply.  It would be like arguing that calculators are all priceless because they employ perfect logic.

These are all thoughts that have occurred to me countless times since I lost interest in theoretical physics eight years ago.  My challenge has been to explain them to people who have devoted their entire lives to the study of objectivity. 

So where did this leave me last January, as I struggled to explain why the question of societal progress is an interesting one?  Professor Plaid had challenged me to locate my project within the tradition of mainstream philosophy of science.  In the case of scientific progress that meant the writings of Kuhn, Lakatos, Laudan, Kitcher, and a few others.  As it turned out, of these only Philip Kitcher had come close to asking the questions I wanted to ask -- in his recent book, "Science, Truth, and Democracy."

I'm not going to go into much detail on this book, because frankly I didn't find it that interesting.  Kitcher does bring up the question of the societal value of science, but only in the context of a number of dry, overly academic debates.  He discusses questions like:  if there were a genetic test that could tell you if you had a deadly disease, but there was no known cure, should you have the test done?  Or:  is it worthwhile to spend billions of dollars to test the validity of string theory?  Nowhere does he discuss actually important questions like:  does technological progress destroy the environment?  Or:  does a culture of pure technology deaden the human spirit? 

In short, I had investigated all the literature Professor Plaid had suggested, and come up empty.  But now I felt that I was past the point of no return.  I had already changed projects three times.  I was going to stand my ground on this one, and explain why the demands he was making were impossible.

When I entered his office for our meeting (it was two or three months ago now) I was extremely nervous.  Professor Plaid rarely backs down on anything.  He was known for it.  But the buck had to stop somewhere, and I was tired of bouncing around from one office to the next.

I walked in with a detailed five-point argument prepared and in my mind.  I began by explaining why I didn't find the question of whether there was "One True Science" relevant.  Though this was the main issue debated among Kuhn, Lakatos, and the rest, it ignored the real reasons that science was considered to progress, namely, its value to society.  This meant, I argued, that social issues and questions of value would need to come into play in my dissertation.

After this initial speech he was silent for a long time.  My heart pounded, and it seemed an eternity.  The room was absolutely quiet for at least a minute, if not three.

Professor Plaid finally responded that we must first get clear on what rationality is, before we can address the wider social questions.  (Implied in this response was the idea that without an account of scientific Truth, we do not yet know what rationality is, which is our main goal as philosophers.)

"You expect me to explain rationality before I can talk about the value of science?" I asked incredulously.  "But philosophy has been stumped by the question of rationality for over 2000 years!"

There was another long pause, this time somewhat shorter.

"I wouldn't repeat that opinion to anyone else on the faculty," was his ominous response.

I made another attempt to explain my dilemma.  I pointed out that values were in fact being discussed in philosophy, even by rationalists like Kitcher.  I said that I realized that it wasn't a usual topic for discussion in our department, and that I was ready to leave the department if it was the only way to think and write about these things.  I said that degrees and honors meant nothing to me, that what I really cared about was a sincere pursuit of truth.  (Though perhaps I put it less eloquently.)

At this point he did his best to encourage me to stay.  He told me that I had made a substantial contribution to his seminar in the fall, and that I had demonstrated an excellent understanding of the literature.

I exhaled.

But as the conversation went on, he seemed to lose steam, and kept coming back to the same demands that all the professors were repeating, namely, to read everything that had already been written on my chosen topic, to find a question being debated, and then to come up with a novel approach to that question.  I was frustrated because we'd come full circle.  I had tried to explain why this wasn't working for me, and now I wasn't sure what more to say.  I asked him what he suggested I read.  He told me that it sounded like I was leaning toward a position of "Normative Naturalism" and that both Kitcher and Laudan had written papers defending a similar view.  He also said that a number of 19th-century philosophers of science had also defended the value of science in terms of its benefits to society.  He named some famous names I had heard before -- Herschell, Whewell, John Stuart Mill, and Charles Babbage.  I promised to take a look at his suggestions, and the meeting ended.

As I investigated his suggestions, I was once again disappointed.  "Normative Naturalism" turned out to be a narrow philosophical position with little connection to wider concerns.  And while I enjoyed my brief foray into 19th-century philosophy of science, I knew that it would be hopeless to base a project on answering questions that had been dropped over a hundred years ago.  That would only draw the same reaction, another demand to immerse myself in a "mainstream" debate, which generally implies "recent."

Perhaps I still could have done this.  Perhaps I could have written a dissertation on a topic for which I had no passion.  But I could not see myself doing this, and the thought of spending years on such a project made me uneasy.

So I gave up.  It was not easy for me, as Emily can tell you.  But I finally realized that academia is not for me.  It is hard enough to write a book that is clear, understandable, important, and interesting without also having to meet all the nitpicky demands of a professor who has never been interested in the same sorts of questions.

Perhaps somewhere out there I could find a professor to work with.  But even if I finally thought I had found one, all the effort might turn out to be in vain once again.  Besides, I've found out that I'd much rather express my ideas for the benefit of people who really matter to me, and not just an isolated community of scholars.

Hopefully you understand now why I've resigned.  I don't regret my experiences, but I'm ready to move on.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Adventures in Philosophy School, Part VI

"Most people in our society take progress for granted. Both scientists and laypeople generally assume that the human condition is improving, and will continue to improve. But there are some salient reasons to doubt this. The population is still growing, and resources are dwindling. Most of the world remains in dire poverty. The most disconcerting fact is also one of the most famous -- it would take seven planet earths to support the world population if everyone were to adopt the way of life of the richest countries (Nielsen, 2006, p. 32). This fact alone shows that it is nonsense when Western society is flaunted as an example of the possibility of progress. (See also Sen, 1999; Sachs, 2005; Easterly, 2006; Clark, 2007; and Moyo, 2009.).

"In evolutionary biology, the idea of progress is no longer taken seriously (cf. Van Valen, 1973; Gould, 1996; Ruse, 1996). Since organisms invariably compete for resources, evolution is ultimately an 'arms race' in which there are no permanent victories or advances. In this essay, I will argue that no population subject to resource constraints can experience a permanent improvement in fitness. The argument I will present appears to be general enough to apply to human culture as well."

                                                 -beginning of my manuscript,
                                                  "Progress, Regress, and Evolution"

The first couple of weeks of last November were a rough time for me.  I had just sent my manuscript, a several hundred page argument against progress, to three members of faculty, asking them if it might make a suitable dissertation.  By the end of the week, Professor Q had said he would not recommend sending it to any external readers, Professor Cigar had complained about my lack of page numbers, and Professor Plum had sent a long, harsh, and -- I felt -- unjustified critique.  Over the weekend I tried to cool off, deciding that I would send my response to Plum Monday.

Over the weekend I mulled things over.  I had expected Professor Plum to be the most interested, but apparently he didn't find it a worthy project.  I would have liked him to read the whole thing and then decide, but I wasn't prepared for long, hard battle it would take to get my work accepted chapter by chapter.  By the time Monday came I had decided to back down. Emily supported this decision, pointing out that I was already a wreck over this thing -- hardly sleeping -- and that any more of this drama probably wouldn't be good for me.

However, before I could write an email Monday, I received another message from Professor Plum.  He told me that his computer had crashed Friday when he was sending me his response, and wondered whether I had received it.  And in case I hadn't received it, he sent another brief evaluation of my work.

But the tone of this evaluation was much different.  Though he again stated that it was "not a scholarly work" he said that "maybe" it could serve as a dissertation and that he would like to meet about it soon.  He restated some of his earlier doubts, but in much more tentative terms.  He said that he thought Professor Plaid would be the best person to work with on this project, since he was interested in the problem of scientific progress.

My spirits were buoyed by this more positive feedback.  Detecting a desire to forget about the things said in the earlier email, I lied in my response and said that it must have been lost because I had received nothing on Friday.  I hoped that this lie would smooth things over and give us a fresh start.  We planned a meeting for the following Monday.  I sent another copy of the manuscript to Professor Plaid, this time with a more relaxed cover letter and much looser deadline.

But my raised spirits only lasted for a couple more days.  Professor Cigar started sending me emails complaining that "parts of the manuscript are confusing," without providing any more substantial feedback.  Professor Q remained silent.  I started worrying that Professor Plum's second email had been more about sparing my feelings than expressing any genuine interest.  I also started doubting again that there would be any way to have this huge and ambitious project judged fairly.  The manuscript touched on big issues -- such as the meaning of life, the fate of civilization, and the possibility of improving the human condition.  I worried that it would seem even more ambitious the more they read and that the same nitpicky problems Plum had described would come up no matter what.  When I looked at the detailed comments that Plum had resent, it only confirmed these doubts.  He was still just as critical of my arguments as before, and for all the same reasons. 

By the end of the week I was losing sleep again.  I told Emily I had had enough, but she did her best to raise my spirits, telling me to wait for my face-to-face meeting with Plum to raise any further concerns.  Obviously email correspondence wasn't the best way to work things out.  I agreed.

I was nervous when Monday rolled around, but optimistic that I would be able to explain things so that Plum and I would at least be on the same page.

Five minutes before the scheduled meeting, I walked into the HPS office on the 10th floor, only to find Plum's door closed.  I told the secretary why I was there, and she said that Plum hadn't shown up for his seminar that morning, calling in sick. 

I was disappointed.  It was very strange that Plum had not at least tried to contact me.  And the secretary's somewhat confused way of responding indicated that Plum hadn't even let her know he would be canceling his appointments.

On the way out of the building I fortuitously ran into Professor Pipe.  I had TA'd for him my second year of grad school, and had gone out for drinks with him on a dozen different occasions over the years.  We had always gotten along well, though our academic interests were quite different.  He had retired months earlier, though, so could no longer act as a dissertation advisor.  When he asked me how I was doing I couldn't help but explain what was bothering me.  He invited me into his office and we had a nice chat that helped put things in perspective for me.

When I explained to Professor Pipe what my manuscript was about, he expressed a great deal of support, saying that he believed that I was in much richer and more fruitful territory than I had been in my studies on emergence.  He even said that he thought Professor Plum was the best choice for being my advisor.  But he also warned that this "is not the time to compose your symphony, Sam.  You will have time for that later." 

Pipe asked me a little more about my manuscript.  As I tried to explain, he asked me whether the thing I was after was "human nature."  I said yes, you might say that was the thing that interested me.  He had certainly come closer to the mark than anyone else in the department.  He mentioned that he believed that Nietzsche was actually a very important philosopher, and even had some old philosophical articles to suggest. 

All in all, it was a good conversation.  I left the office in somewhat better spirits, despite having missed Plum. 

As I rode the bus home, I wished that years earlier, before Pipe retired, that maybe I could have worked with him.  But that probably wouldn't have solved the problem either -- Pipe might have been willing to advise a dissertation on Nietzsche, but it would have been near impossible to form an unbiased committee from the remaining faculty.  Pipe was in the minority, a fading remnant of the days when philosophy as whole had been more free-spirited.  In fact, the next two oldest members of the department, Professors Plaid and Cigar, have tended to be at the top of my list of possible advisers, for this very reason.  They seemed to be the most broad-minded of the faculty, if also among the most critical.

In any case, I waited another week for any further responses, so that I wouldn't preempt the deadlines I had given.  When I receive none, I sent out another e-mail to Plum, Plaid, Cigar, and Q, explaining that I had decided to set aside my manuscript for now and simply work on a more conventional dissertation.  I never did manage to meet up with Plum.

So I returned to my original project -- the evolution of the steam engine.  I had given my book a shot, but apparently now wasn't the time.  I figured that if I pursued a purely scholarly project, unnecessary controversy could be avoided, and I could finally just get my Ph.D. and leave. 

Unfortunately, things didn't turn out to be so simple.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Adventures in Philosophy School, Part V

I turned in my official unofficial letter of resignation last wednesday. My academic life is over.  What a relief!  What this means is that I am now free to tell the story of my adventures in philosophy school after they resumed last fall. 

Let me start by saying that I harbor no resentment or bad feelings toward the department, which I've studied with now for five years.  They've been generous in funding me, and reasonably patient.  My conflict is with academia in general, not with any particular department or branch of study.

I left off the story with my 2-year leave of absence, during which I wrote a manuscript of about 200 pages arguing that the theories of Malthus and Darwin prove that societal progress is impossible in the long run.  At the same time, I had a number of mystical experiences that convinced me that a kind of unquantifiable spiritual progress, on the other hand, is possible.

In January of 2010, I let the deparment know that I wanted to return in the fall.  That spring, I made a last push to finish my manuscript so that I might present it as a possible dissertation.

But the project refused to come together nicely. It was simply too big.  I had written hundreds of pages, but I didn't feel that I yet had a core argument strong enough to make the radical point I was trying to make.  After a sleepless week of desperate revisions last April, I finally put the project aside and started thinking about a smaller, more conventional dissertation topic to pursue when I returned.

There were plenty of loose ends in my manuscript that seemed to me would make interesting dissertation topics.  The most promising was my research into the development of the steam engine, as an example of Darwinian technological evolution.  So I spent a few weeks last spring reading up on evolutionary histories of science and technology, as well as the history of mechanical engineering.  Perhaps it wasn't the most conventional topic, but it seemed to me to be a promising avenue of scholarship.

That summer I spent working, and last fall Emily and I finally (after six months of impatient waiting) tied the knot.  I mean it when I say it was the best day of our lives -- when we arrived in Pittsburgh I was beaming and optimistic.  It didn't take me long to convince a handful of professors that my project on evolutionary history of science would be a good one.  I promised to finish a prospectus as soon as possible.

But it didn't take long for old tensions to begin to rise again.  Thinking back on it, it was largely my fault.  The professor who was most excited about my project, call him "Professor Z," is a relatively new professor specializing in history.  At first I wanted my project to be historical in focus, and so he was in the running for being my advisor.  A couple of the other professors advised me to change my focus to the philosophy of science, since I was planning to look for a job in the philosophy department.  I should've ignored this advice, but instead I sent Professor Z an email letting him know that I would like him on my committee, but that I would need a more philosophical advisor.

This left Professor Cigar and Professor Plaid in the running for my advisor.  While I worked on making this decision, and putting together a proposal, one night I had a dream and I was suddenly thrown into an anxious depression.  This was late October, early November of 2010.

In my dream I was trapped in a vast, rickety wooden clockwork, stretching throughout a dim library.  The library was filled with men, all of whom looked identical:  they were dressed like students but with gray hair, each with the same faint smile, humming an eerie chant.  Each one desperately wanted to say something, but they couldn't stretch out to touch the person closest to them, because the wooden framework kept them separate, and it was so fragile that everyone feared to disturb it.  Instead, they simply swayed along with it, smiling their eerie smile and humming their eerie chant.

I woke up in a cold sweat.  Suddenly I was filled with the fear that I was slipping back into my old pattern, that I was sacrificing the truth to build a career with an institution that would slowly squeeze the life out of me.  Was I once again making too many sacrifices?  Would I again be caught on an endlessly digressive path, this time in evolutionary history rather than emergence?  Would I be cursed to never be able to say what I wanted to say?

The choice I made during the following couple of weeks was pivotal.  It was psychologically painful, but now that I look back on it, necessary.  If it hadn't been for Emily's support, I'm not sure that I would have made it through unscathed.  But I had to work my way through it, one way or another, or else it would have eaten me up inside forever.

The night of the dream I was up for several hours, brooding.  I thought about my manuscript.  I had worked on it for the better part of two years, reading over 10,000 pages of books and articles, and typing up four different drafts, each over 200 pages long.  Moreover, I knew I had something to say.  No book is perfect.  No argument is airtight.  I had to give myself a chance.  Going over the supposed "holes" in my argument in my mind, I finally decided that they were the result of a clumsy presentation.  I suddenly came to think that by streamlining my manuscript, deleting whole passages and even chapters, the best parts of the argument would shine through and I would have something good, and perhaps even (I told myself) revolutionary.

I spent the next four days making quick revisions to the manuscript I had almost completed six months earlier.  Unfortunately, the revisions were hurried.  I was worried that if I wasted too much time on the manuscript, and then discovered that it wouldn't work out, then the semester would be over and I would have nothing to show for it.  I was already behind in the program -- this was my fifth year and I still didn't have a proposal ready for my dissertation.  I decided that I would just quickly polish up what I had written, and show it to a few of the professors just to see what they would think.  Hopefully they could help me decide if it was worth working on.  If so, perhaps I could graduate much sooner than expected.  If not, then no big loss -- I could return to my work on the evolution of steam engines.

Deciding who to show it to was a bit of a nightmare.  At first I was inclined to pick just one professor.  But the manuscript was so unconventional, that I knew I would want at least a second and third opinion.  Secondly, I wanted at least three professors to have a chance to read it before perhaps being biased against it by whomever the first reader had been. 

To make matters worse, no one professor seemed to have the right interests or sympathies to help me with this project.  Professor Plum was interested in evolution, but would probably resist my application of evolutionary laws to society.  Professor Plaid was also interested in evolution, but rejected the possibility of group selection wholesale.  Professor Cigar's interests in evolution were relatively shallow, but he was fairly open-minded and interested in social science and the big picture.  Professor Spectacle was not interested in socio-historical questions.  Professor Z would love the radicalness of my new ideas, but didn't have the expertise in evolutionary theory to properly defend them to the rest of the faculty.  Professor Q was very interested in cultural evolution, but primarily from a psycho-social point of view, rather than a historical one.

After hours of agonizing deliberation, I settled on Professor Plum, Professor Q, and Professor Cigar.  I was not entirely comfortable with my decision, but I knew that no decision would be easy.

I wrote a cover letter of maybe about 750 words, trying to explain that this was a work in progress, that I knew that it was unconventional, but that I believed strongly in its importance.  I explained that my views drew heavily on anthropology, and asked if they would be willing to help me get in contact with an outside reader in evolutionary anthropology.  I even suggested several eminent professors whose books I had studied.  I knew that the department had connections, and I didn't think it an unreasonable thing to ask.

At risk of sounding too pushy, I also gave them a deadline to respond.  I explained that if this project didn't work out, I would need to know as soon as possible so that I could return to my prospectus and finish it on time.

I don't even remember if I slept on this letter before I sent it.  I think I was probably too impatient and losing too much sleep already.  I comforted myself with the thought that these professors were reasonable people, and would be understanding and helpful.

When I say that the response I finally received was neither understanding nor helpful, I do not mean to imply that these professors are, in fact, unreasonable people.  Thinking back on it, it was largely my fault for making so many demands in such a hurried way.

Here's what happened.  After a day or two I received some emails from these professors explaining that they could not possibly read the entire manuscript by the deadline I had given them (10 days hence).  Surprised that they had misread me this way, I responded and told them that all I wanted them to do was skim it so they could tell me if it would be an appropriate dissertation topic.  I told them that if they read the first 20 or 30 pages, that would probably be enough.  I then "extended" my deadline by another week.  That day I also received a disheartening comment by Professor Q that the outside readers I had suggested "wouldn't have enough time" to read my manuscript, as if they were simply too busy and distinguished to bother with my work. 

Then, a mere 4 or 5 days after sending him the manuscript, Professor Plum (who had originally complained loudest about the 10 day deadline) responded with a lengthy email and comments on the first 25 pages of the manuscript.

I was devastated, because the email was very blunt and mostly negative.  It said the manuscript was "not a scholarly work" and was much too broad to be a dissertation.  It raised half a dozen technical complaints about its use of evolutionary theory and the definitions it employed.  I don't remember half of what it said, because, honestly, I found his comments to be absurdly nitpicky.  He offered no counter-views or counter-arguments to my overall picture, and most of the criticisms were based on his own controversial views.  For example, most biologists accept Lewontin's conditions as sufficient for evolution.  But this professor complained because I had ignored his own little-known objections to this view.  As I see it, it would have made for a much less convincing argument if I had employed Plum's framework, which is accepted by only a minority of biologists!  And to answer Plum's objection to the majority opinion would have taken at least another 40 pages, which would have tripled the length of the argument Plum was criticizing!  This is only one example of the nitpickiness of Plum's critique.

I didn't know what to do or say.  I decided to wait a couple of days to cool off.

And then I received another email from Professor Plum, having a much different tone ...

(to be continued...)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Sun and the Wind

I heard this fable as a child and it has always stuck in my mind.  I think it is especially relevant to what I've been writing about on this blog.

The Sun and the Wind were chatting one autumn day, and the Wind started boasting about how great he was.

"I am much more powerful than you are, Sun," he said.  "Sure, you can make things a little brighter, but I can pick things up and move them around.  I bet you could not lift so much as a single leaf."

"You are mistaken, Wind.  I am more powerful than you think.  I accept your wager ... See that man down there, in the jacket?  Whoever can pull that jacket from his back wins."

"Ha.  That is nothing.  I've uprooted trees.  I accept your wager."

"You can go first," said the Sun.

So the Wind started blowing.  At first the man was caught off guard, and his jacket almost slipped off, but he quickly wrapped it around himself, zipped it up, and buttoned it.

"You haven't seen what I can do yet," said the Wind.  He blew harder and harder, until the man ducked his head and curled up.  No luck yet.

The wind blew still harder.  A tree nearby was uprooted.  When the man saw this, he ran and took cover in a little cave.

"Ah well," said the Wind.  "Bad luck.  But I doubt if you can do better, especially now that he is hiding."

"Just watch," said the Sun.  Gradually, he started to shine.  When the man saw that the weather had cleared, he came out of his cave and started on his way.  But as the Sun grew brighter and brighter, the man started to pant and sweat, first unbuttoning his jacket, then unzipping it, and finally taking it off.

"You see?" said the Sun.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Barbarism of Reflection

For the past couple of weeks I've been content to leave my story where it was -- my personal re-conciliation with Fate in late 2009.  Since that time I've found happiness for the first time in my life.  Almost immediately -- like magic -- I met a wonderful person to spend the rest of my life with.  I started thinking less about unanswerable questions, and more about how to improve my own life.  I took up guitar, I started preparing for economic decline, and I sought a spiritual center through meditation and prayer.  If I had to sum up this change, I would have to describe it as a new search for simplicity.

The main reason I've felt like I needed to share these personal details, was to help other people avoid taking some of the same endless detours that might have ended up consuming my entire life.  When I call myself a "recovered philosopher" I mean just that.  Philosophy is not all bad, but it can easily become a kind of sickness if pure thinking is allowed to run unchecked.  You might think I'm exaggerating when I say this, but it's a real, tangible danger, and I know because I've experienced it firsthand.  The good news is, it's easily avoided -- simply by being at peace.

From the Tao-Te-Ching, ch. 47:

"Without going out his door
he knows the whole world.
Without looking out his window
he knows the Way of Heaven.
The farther people go
the less people know,
therefore the sage knows without moving,
names without seeing,
succeeds without trying."

The Eastern religions have developed this idea to its fullest extent.  In Buddhism, emptying the mind and meditating is seen as the most important way to gain insight.  The Buddha himself is thought to have achieved enlightenment while meditating under the Bodhi tree. 

There was an ancient proverb in China, "He who learns but does not think, is lost."  Confucius responded, "He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger."  In other words, to doubt everything is as great a danger as to doubt nothing.  To have thoughts and doubts for their own sake is pointless -- eventually they must teach you something about life.

By cultivating a peaceful center in one's life, one has fewer worries and can spend more time getting things done.  Then, the thoughts and doubts that do arise tend to lead you to important insights.  Why?  Because thoughts that lead nowhere can be freely discarded, and you can get back to what is important.

Living simply does not necessarily mean sitting under a tree all day.  As human beings, citizens, and family members, most of us have obligations and responsibilities.  Not even the Buddha taught an annihilation of all effort -- instead he taught the Middle Way, which means performing one's tasks in the world without attachment.

Paul said (1 Thessalonians 4:11),

"Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands ... so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody."

Ecclesiastes has many interesting passages about the futility of ambition.  It seems to describe Buddha's Middle Way perfectly in this passage (4:5-6):

"The fool folds his hands and ruins himself.
Better one handful with tranquility
than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind."

Ecclesiastes 7:16-18:

"Do not be overrighteous,
neither be overwise --
why destroy yourself?
Do not be overwicked,
and do not be a fool --
why die before your time?
It is good to grasp the one
and not let go of the other.
The man who fears God will avoid all extremes."

Unfortunately, modern Western society has done a poor job of following this advice.  In place of the doctrine of the Middle Way we find the doctrine of Progress, the idea that all poverty can be cured through scientific advance.  Purpose and meaning are taken out of the hands of the individual and placed in the hands of the History of Civilization.  Instead of telling people to work with their hands and achieve self-sufficiency, as Paul did, we are educated to find "jobs" with corporations whose sole purpose is to accumulate wealth.

Modern society teaches us to strive after knowledge, wealth, and societal progress, despite the fact that everyone knows by heart the saying from Jesus' sermon on the mount: "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth."

The accumulation of wisdom can be as dangerous as the accumulation of wealth.  "Philosophy" is Greek for "love of wisdom," and as such it can be a force for either good or evil.  If it leads you to contemplate higher things such as love of your fellow human and God, then it can heal you.  But if you begin to value knowledge above even love, it can lead you astray.  You can find numerous passages in the Bible warning against such foolish wisdom:

Proverbs 14:6: "The mocker seeks wisdom and finds none, but knowledge comes easily to the discerning."

Isaiah 29:14: "Therefore once more I will astound these people
with wonder upon wonder;
the wisdom of the wise will perish,
the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish."

Jeremiah 9:23-24: "Let not the wise men boast of his wisdom
or the strong man boast of his strength
or the rich man boast of his riches,
but let him who boasts boast about this:
that he understands and knows me,
that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness,
justice, and righteousness on earth,
for in these I delight,"
declares the Lord.

Matthew 11:19 (spoken by Jesus): "But wisdom is proved right by her action."

Matthew 13:54-55: "' Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?' they asked.  'Isn't this the carpenter's son?'"

Corinthians 1:20-21: "Where is the wise men?  Where is the scholar?  Where is the philosopher of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?"

This last passage was written by Paul some years after the death of Jesus, almost exactly 2000 years ago.  At the time, the great Greek philosophers -- Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates -- had been dead and buried for centuries.  Their writings lived on, and the Greek academies of learning were still bustling with scholars and would-be philosophers.  Stoic and epicurean philosophies were widespread, preaching rationality and atheism.  But in the end none of these proved satisfying either to the common man or to the intellectual.  St. Augustine, living another three or four centuries after Christ, when Roman and Greek civilization was at its height and the reputation of an intellectual was largely determined by the size of his library, describes his own entanglement with pure reason in his still widely read book, Confessions ("At Carthage"):

"My discipline as a student drew praise, and I thought I could excell as a litigator in the courts.  The more my work was praised, the better I became at it.  Such is human blindness, that we glory in our sightless condition.  I was proud of my standing as first in my class in the school of rhetoric.  I swelled with arrogance.
    "Confused as I was and living with such people, I studied the great books of rhetoric and dreamed of being an eminent orator.  Fame was the goal of my detestable vanity, for I rejoiced in human conceit.
    "During my studies, I happened upon a book of Cicero.  Almost everyone admires his discourses, although not his heart.  This book, Hortensius, is an exhortation to philosophy.  It changed my attitudes and turned me to pray to You, O Lord, with new goals and desires.  Cicero taught me that every vain hope is worthless.  Suddenly I burned with an intense desire to find wisdom that had eternal value.
    "How my heart burned then, my God.  I yearned to climb from materialism to find You.  For wisdom is found with You, and the love of wisdom is 'philosophy,' as it is called in Greek.  With philosophy that book inflamed me.
    "Some use philosophy to seduce by disguising error with long words and subtle arguments and honorable sounding names.  Almost all who misused philosophy in Cicero's day and before are censured in that book. ... 'See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ' [Colossians 2:8].
    "I resolved then to bend my mind to the holy Scriptures, that I might see what they contained.  But lo, I saw in it something that is not understood by the proud, nor laid open to children.  Its basic words can be understood by the lowly, but in its recesses are mysteries lofty and veiled.
    "In my worldly mind, I could not enter into this passageway because I could not bend my head low enough to crawl in.  For I did not feel then about Scripture what I can say now about it.  Its language seemed unworthy to be compared to the stateliness of Tully [Cicero].
    "So I was influenced by men of similar pride, who delight in carnal babble.  Their mouths were snares of the Devil, for the mixed in syllables of praise to Your name and to our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, our Comforter.  ... [B]ut they had no truth in their hearts.
    "Inwardly the marrow of my soul panted for You when they looked into their many huge books and found various profundities that seemed to echo You to me."

When Rome fell, 99% of these huge books were lost.  What was left were the books that people really cared about, such as Plato, Aristotle, the Bible, and Augustine's Confessions.  Not even Cicero's critical Hortensius survived.  Instead, as with most other books, the scribes neglected to copy it and the paper it was written on merely disintegrated with age. 

It's laughable to think that modern thinking prides itself in its progress when it is really making all the same arrogant mistakes that were rampant in Roman times.

One of the most popular debates in professional philosophy these days is the question of "rationality."  Are humans rational?  Can we become more rational?   What does it mean to be rational?  Is true rationality even possible? 

You're probably thinking, "It depends on what you mean by 'rational.'"  Well, that's the problem.  Different people might mean different things by the word.  To make things more confusing, most philosophers realize that this is a problem.  But they excuse themselves by saying something like, "We're just trying to analyze the meaning of the term 'rational,'", or "We're just trying to figure out what 'rational' should mean.'"  Meanwhile, hundreds of papers are published on the topic every year, and though they all introduce some new insight on the meaning of the word, most of these insights are forgotten over time and little agreement is ever reached.

Most Analytic philosophers would probably argue that a certain kind of rationality -- scientific rationality -- is responsible for human progress and our "modern" standard of living.  One of the main tasks of philosophy is supposedly to explain scientific rationality.  But this project dates back at least to Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), and has generated more controversy than it has resolved.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
"I have found a way of guarding against
all  those  errors  that  have  hitherto  set 
reason against itself"(Critique, p. A xii).

Kant argued in his famous book (The Critique of Pure Reason) that by recognizing certain ultimate limitations on reason, philosophers would finally have a logic or method that would allow them to prove whether a belief was true, false, or unknowable.  Kant believed that this would finally put philosophy on solid ground, just as Isaac Newton had put physics on solid ground with his mathematical theory of gravity.  Though Kant's theory of reason was very long and complex, it was eventually hailed as a work of genius and became famous.

But things did not work out as Kant intended.  Certain doubts about his theory proved difficult to dispell.  Because Kant had argued that ultimate reality was forever beyond the limitations of human reason, he was labeled as an Idealist -- one who does not believe in the existence of the outside world.  Kant denied the charge, but the damage was done, and to this day many philosophers still describe his views in this way.  The beauty of the whole thing is that Kant's book is so complex that not even the experts on it can understand it well enough to agree whether or not he really was an Idealist.

Nevertheless, Kant had a huge influence, and he opened the way for the next great event in Western philosophy, namely, Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit (1807).  It may not be obvious to most philosophers today, but no other single work has had as profound an effect on the debates currently in vogue in philosophy.  How do I know this?  Because it gave rise to a particularly notorious school of philosophy known as Hegelianism, which had it's heyday in the mid-1800's, but lasted well into the 20th century.  To see why this brand of philosophy was so notorious, one only needs to open Hegel's book to any random page (which I am doing right now):
G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831)

"To help bring philosophy closer to the
form of Science, to the goal where it can
lay aside the title 'love of knowing' and
be actual knowing -- that is what I have
set myself to do" (Phenom., p. 3).

"313.  If now the outer shape could express the inner individuality only in so far as that shape is neither an organ nor an action, hence only insofar as it is a passive whole, it would behave as an existent Thing, which passively received the inner as an alien element into its passive existence, and thereby became a sign of it -- an external contingent expression whose actual aspect lacked any meaning of its own -- a language whose sounds and sound-combinations are not the real thing itself, but are linked with that by sheer caprice and are contingent in relation to it."

I just now had to read that three or four times to get even some minimal impression.  I'm guessing he's talking about something similar to inner vs. outer beauty here.  Perhaps you get the picture of how obscure Hegel's books are.  Of course, it's not entirely fair to judge work this way.  So how about we start at the beginning of his book, the "Preface," and give him a chance to explain himself:

"1. It is customary to preface to work with an explanation of the author's aim, why he wrote the book, and the relationship in which he believes it to stand to other earlier or contemporary treatises on the same subject.  In the case of a philosophical work, however, such an explanation seems not only superfluous but, in view of the nature of the subject matter, even inappropriate and misleading.  For whatever might appropriately be said about philosophy in a preface -- say a historical statement of the main drift and the point of view, the general content and results, a string of random assertions and assurances about truth -- none of this can be accepted as the way in which to expound philosophical truth."

But why not?  Why can't you just tell us what your goal is?  Why should we read your book?  Without clearly answering these questions he goes on, in paragraph 2, to argue that it would be pointless to "attempt to define how a philosophical work is supposed to be connected with other [philosophical] efforts" because this tends to introduce false dichotomies and a tendency to expect "a given philosophical system to be either accepted or rejected."  In paragraph 3 he argues that he can't simply tell you his aims and conclusions, because the content of philosophy is supposed to be in its unfolding.  So far I actually find it easy to see the attraction of his ideas.  He seems to be painting a picture of a more organic kind of thinking.

But from here on out the going gets extremely rocky.  Here are paragraphs 4 and 5.  See if you can make sense of this, if you dare (or just skim it if you want):

   "4. Culture and its laborious emergence from the immediacy of substantial life must always begin by getting acquainted with general principles and points of view, so as at first to work up to a general conception of the real issue, as well as learning to support and refute the general conception with reasons; then to apprehend the rich and concrete abundance of life by differential classification; and finally to give accurate instruction and pass serious judgment upon it.  From its very beginning, culture must leave room for the earnestness of life and its concrete richness; this leads the way to an experience of the real issue.  And even when the real issue has been penetrated to its depths by serious speculative effort, this kind of knowing and judging will still retain its appropriate place in ordinary conversation.
   "5. The true shape in which truth exists can only be the scientific system of such truth.  To help bring philosophy closer to the form of Science, to the goal where it can lay aside the title 'love of knowing' and be actual knowing -- that is what I have set myself to do.  The inner necessity that knowing should be Science lies in its nature, and only the systematic exposition of philosophy itself provides it.  But the external necessity, so far as it is grasped in a general way, setting aside accidental matters of person and motivation, is the same as the inner, or in other words it lies in the shape in which time sets forth the sequential existence of its moments.  To show that now is the time for philosophy to be raised to the status of a Science would therefore be the only true justification of any effort that has the same, for to do so would demonstrate the necessity of the aim, would indeed at the same time be the accomplishing of it."

I wouldn't go so far as to say that Hegel can be outright dismissed as nonsense.  The best I can do is admit that I cannot understand him.  The translation that I own and that appears here is by A.V. Miller and is 493 pages long.  I've carefully read up to page 335 and I can only say that I have the foggiest of notions what he is trying to say.  I've even taken a graduate level seminar on Kant, and delved into other philosophical literature from the same period.  This has helped, but only marginally.

Let's give Hegel the benefit of the doubt and say that his system of thought may be coherent and true but is just very complex and sophisticated, or at least alien to our current ways of thinking.  (Poor English translations may also be to blame -- a problem for Kant as well.)  My point is that, even then, Hegelianism came to be seen by most philosophers as a fruitless enterprise by the early 20th century.  It seemed to produce nothing but incoherent babble that was only comprehensible to those who had spent their lives mastering it.  The most important consequence of the controversy over Hegel was the rise of Positivism in the 1920s and 30s.  The basic idea behind Positivism was the philosophy had to rid itself of meaningless Hegelian "metaphysics," which was polluted by undefined terms like "Absolute Reason" or "self-identical Universality" and model itself on the sciences, which had made great progress since the time of Galileo and Newton.

The mascot of the positivists was a young genius by the name of Wittgenstein who famously uttered, "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."  They took this doctrine seriously, and attempted to banish all unanswerable questions and unclear terms from philosophy.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)
"This  book  deals  with  the  problems  of
philosophy,  and  shows,  I  believe  that
the reason why these problems are posed
is  that  the  logic  of  our  language  is
misunderstood" (Tractatus, p. 3).

History was repeating itself.  Hegel's philosophy had been presented as an extension of Kant's, and Kant's philosophy was supposed to finally rid us of questions that can't be answered and allow philosophers to finally reach agreement on what can and cannot be known.

The positivists knew this.  So what made them think that things would be different this time around?  It was the development of modern, mathematical logic.  To them, it seemed that mathematics was the source of modern progress.  Centuries earlier, Newton had mathematized physics, and since then physics and chemistry had made tremendous advances, advances that led to steam engines, telegraphs, and airplanes.  Bertrand Russell said,

"In science men have discovered an activity of the very highest value in which they are no longer, as in art, dependent for progress upon the appearance of continually greater genius, for in science the successors stand upon the shoulders of their predecessors; where one man of supreme genius has invented a method, a thousand lesser men can apply it"  (from his essay, "The Place of Science in a Liberal Education," 1913).

The positivists sought to make philosophy like science so it could also progress.  To them, this meant developing logic to the point where all philosophical language could be made precise.  Once this task was done, philosophers and scientists could always agree on what is or is not known.

This utopian project has not yet succeeded.  By the 1960s and 70s, most philosophers had given up on positivism in this strong form.  But many of the ideals of positivism live on to this day in Analytic philosophy, especially in the idea that philosophy is most successful when it is modeled after science and mathematics. 

So far, I've described three failed attempts to develop an ultimate system of thought:  Kantianism (late 1700's and early 1800's), Hegelianism (1800's), and Positivism (early 1900's).  But these are only a few examples.  You had Cartesianism in the 1600's (based on Descartes' Meditations), Leibniz's famous attempt (see his Art of Discovery, 1685), Spinozism in the 1700's (based on Spinoza's Ethics), Husserl's Phenomenology in the early 1900's (see Edmund Husserl's Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy), and the Artificial Intelligence movement of the late 1900's (see Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach, considered by some to be the "Bible" of the movement). All these attempts have one, somewhat comic, thing in common:  their goal is to develop a science of knowledge (you might say a science of science) that is true and ultimate and would form the basis of all rational thinking.

The absurdity of this goal should be clear if you think about what it really means.  To date, philosophy has been the study of those really difficult questions that seem important but which no one has yet solved, especially after centuries of trying.  The limits of human knowledge, the nature of reality, and the meaning of life are perennial philosophical topics.  To claim to have solved all these problems, or even just to be able to solve all these problems, is pure arrogance.

The question bothering you now might be: how have such brilliant minds been led so far astray again and again?  I don't pretend to know the answer to this question.  But let me try to explain how I've come to peace with it.  Let's assume that I thought that I did know the answer to this question, that I thought I had found a way to explain what it is that has been leading philosophers astray for all these centuries.  So what I do, then, is I go and I write a book explaining why philosophy has been so confused, and how future philosophers can avoid taking themselves down dead end roads of thought.  And let's also assume that I'm really good at writing books, and at sounding profound, so I show this book to my fellow philosophers, and they tell me that it's brilliant and that I should publish it.  So I go and publish it, and I'm hailed as the new genius of philosophy, who's demonstrated how philosophers can avoid trying to solve problems that are unsolvable.  The result of this might be that a new philosophical school rises up, perhaps called "Unsolvabilism," that tries to use my method for avoiding unsolvable problems.

But behold!  The story I just told has already occurred!  It's the story of Kant, Hegel, Wittgenstein, and the rest! 

So what does it mean?  Nothing.  It just means that the human mind has its limits, and when it tries to surpass these limits, it is liable to get confused.  The easiest way I've found to solve the problems of philosophy is simply to ignore them.  As long as you can find a way to go about living your everyday life, and solving the mundane problems that face you as they come, you'll be okay.  It's not that thinking is a bad thing, or isn't sometimes useful or needed, but that it is usually not very fruitful to allow it to become a goal in itself.

Paul wrote to his "son in the faith" Timothy (1 Timothy 1:3-7),

"As I urged you when I went to Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you many command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies.  These promote controversies rather than God's work -- which is by faith.  The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.  Some have wandered away from these and turned to meaningless talk.  They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm."

In this passage Paul is referring to controversies within an early Christian congregation.  But I think this lesson can be applied more generally.  Debates over the reality of myths and superstitions, over metaphysical questions, and over points of history are not always bad, but if they take over our lives, then they can cause us to forget what is really important.

Tao Te Ching, ch. 48:

"Those who seek learning gain every day.
Those who seek the Way lose every day,
they lose and they lose
until they find nothing to do.
Nothing to do means nothing not done.
Whoever rules the world isn't busy.
If someone is busy
he can't rule the world."

Post Script

"Barbarism of reflection" is a term introduced by Giambattista Vico, an 18th-century historian who also introduced the idea of cyclical history -- that civilizations rise and fall and go through certain rhythmic stages of development.  For him, the final stage of civilization before it collapses is called the human age (coming after the divine age and the heroic age), and is characterized by "barbarism of reflection" as opposed to the "barbarism of sense" that prevails in the first, or divine, age.  There is something very insightful about this idea, I think, given that both the late Roman Empire, and late Western civilization, have been characterized by the proliferation of books and speculative philosophical ideas.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

New book section

I've just posted a new book section on my blog Philosophy, Ecology, and Spirituality.

"I.1.2. The Atomic Elements"

(That is, Part I, Chapter 1, Section 2)

In this post I describe why our universe's chemistry is so interesting and creative.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Current Crisis

I strongly suggest reading this article to get an idea of the current world economic situation:

And here's a very telling video interview:

Sorry for the lack of posts -- it's been a crazy week.  More posts are coming soon, I promise!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Adventures in Philosophy School, Part IV

In my last post, I explained how my "emergence" project started back in 2007. As a grad student in the History and Philosophy of Science, I started to think that philosophy had become so distracted by science, that it had forgotten about the bigger picture almost completely. As I read all the great philosophers of the past -- such as Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Nietzsche -- I found that they all very explicitly criticized the sort of narrow scholarship that I was finding in modern philosophy. They all looked for ways to break out of mere argumentation, and discuss things that matter. This was the sort of task that I saw ahead for myself.

I saw "emergence" as the first step. Emergence is the idea that complex things have properties that can't be reduced to the motions of atoms. I thought that if I could show that biology and the social sciences could not be reduced to physics, then it might leave room for art, literature, and old-fashioned philosophy as well. My theory of emergence was supposed to show that pure physics could never encompass the rest of science, because new "laws of nature" would arise in complex systems (such as molecules and organisms). After discovering that the mathematics I had developed for my theory had already been discovered and published by someone else, I decided that my dissertation would be about the wider philosophical implications of emergence.

But this landed me in pretty weird territory. Where was I going with all of this? What would my conclusion be? That physics is not quite as great as we thought it was?

So I asked myself, "Where did philosophy make its wrong turn?" The answer I came to was that it happened back in the 20s and 30s with a movement called "Logical Positivism." The logical positivists -- the most famous of which was Bertrand Russell -- had been extremely impressed with advances in physics, mathematics, and technology, and quite fed up with the obscure metaphysics of the Hegelians (the ruling party of philosophical scholars). They argued that old debates over God, morality, society, and values had all gone nowhere in hundreds of years, and that philosophy should imitate the methods of science, so that it could achieve similar progress. Science had given us cars, planes, and computing machines. Metaphysics had only given us incomprehensible arguments. Clearly (Bertrand Russell and others argued) science had gotten something right.

The writings of this group proved enormously popular among scientists, intellectuals, and the majority of philosophers in the United States. Over time, this way of seeing things became dominant. The task of philosophy was now to uncover the principles of logic that underlie the success of science. After a couple of decades of trying to develop this master system of logic, it became clear that the task was impossible or at least premature. Logical positivism eventually died (sometime in the 60s or 70s) -- but the goal of understanding science lived on as "Analytic Philosophy," based on the faith that the rational principles underlying the success of science could still be discovered.

All I had accomplished with my theory of emergence, at best, was to show that a certain proposed principle of science -- "reduction" -- was no good. But it seemed to me that I might prove still more. If there were no laws of nature that were universally applicable, then perhaps there were no laws of reason that were universally applicable.

Here's what I mean when I say I was in weird territory. My idea was basically that the whole of Analytic Philosophy was off track. This idea was by no means unheard of, and in fact there had been dozens of philosophers that had argued against positivism and analytic philosophy over the last 80 years, including Ludwig Wittgenstein, Michael Polanyi, and Richard Rorty -- all famous names. The problem was that all of these thinkers had been forced to the fringes of the Analytic tradition.

In December of 2007, the faculty asked me for a progress report on my research, including a sketch of what I was envisioning for my dissertation, so they could evaluate my performance in the program so far. Overestimating their confidence in my abilities, and underestimating the extent of their concern, I was completely honest about my interests. I mentioned Wittgenstein, Polanyi, and Rorty (all of which are usually considered off limits) and tried to explain that I wanted to make some of their ideas more precise.

Their reaction was not happy. They did their best to make logical mincemeat out of what I had written -- something that I had written not to be an argument at all, but merely a rough sketch. In meeting after meeting they told me that my progress was too slow and that I simply had to start going through the motions to finish my dissertation. They told me that I should just follow the formula: read everything written on my topic in the last 50 years, summarize it in about 50 pages, and then try to demonstrate that I had a solution to the problem. The impression I got was that it was not permitted to think "outside" of the analytic tradition.

At first I decided to follow their advice. After all, I was only a graduate student. I could work on these wider issues as a professor. So for a time I buckled down, and started to grind through. I worked on this throughout the winter and spring of 2008, reading everything I could get my hands on about reduction and emergence.

Once I had thoroughly understood the literature, I was extremely disappointed with the picture that seemed to emerge. The most reasonable arguments for emergence have been made back in the 20s by a philosopher called Samuel Alexander. He had even used the argument that it would be impossible to use physics to calculate everything in practice, even if it could be done in theory. He talked about how complexes could emerge, and give rise to new laws. He explained it all using common sense, and he even argued that it rendered logical positivism utter nonsense.

His arguments had never been adequately answered, in my view. This still could have made for an interesting dissertation, but the real problem at this point was that I no longer cared. It seemed like I could spend the rest of my life arguing over reduction and emergence, which from my point of view were merely stepping stones to what was really important, namely, reviving the old spirit of philosophy that was neither dogmatic nor overly logical, but which sought to face directly the biggest problems facing humankind. It did not seem to me that I was on the right track to accomplishing this.

In fact, I was fed up and wanted to try a new way of life entirely. I decided to take a two-year leave of absence to see if I could find a different path that would give me more time to read and think about the things that I cared about.

This was in the spring of 2008. For the next two years, I was no longer in Philosophy School, but out on my own.

Interlude: Adventures as a God-seeking Hermit

During my four years as a grad student I had managed to save up several thousand dollars. This was enough money that I was able to spend much of my two years living on my own, unemployed, reading, thinking, and writing for most of the day. Summer 2008 I was with my parents in Hyrum, Utah; August 2008 - June 2009 I lived in a studio apartment by myself in Logan, UT; Summer 2009 I lived in Rhode Island (teaching nerd camp) visited New York, and ended up in Santa Cruz, where I lived unemployed until January 2010, when I returned to my parent's house, broke, and met my future wife, Emily.

In all this time I didn't spend five minutes thinking about reduction or emergence. Analytic philosophy in general only took up maybe 5% of my time. My perspective widened, and I reveled in my freedom. I thought mostly about civilization, society, progress, evolution, and utopia. My main obsession for the first year of my break was to find a way to prove that progress and utopia were impossible. It seemed to me that this was the surest way to finally cure philosophy of its obsession with science.

What I failed to realize at first was that this project would bring me no better satisfaction than emergence had. You would still be left with the question: so what? So what if science isn't so great? What do we replace it with? So what if there's no progress? What are we supposed to strive for?

I spent a lot of time looking for philosophers other than Nietzsche or Lao Tzu that could help me. I delved into Montaigne, Lichtenberg, Paul Valerie, and Thomas Carlisle. They were all worth reading, but none of them brought me the satisfaction I was looking for. In every case they questioned pure science, but they never had anything to replace it with. Over and over they made the point that science was mechanical, dead, and without life, vitality, or purpose. But then where does one find life, vitality, and purpose? These things are obviously essential to a satisfying life, but nobody seemed to know what they were.

In these philosophers from centuries ago, I had found a group of fellow sufferers. We'd all been searching for a spirited way of life, but lacked any way to explain what this really meant. Nietzsche called science "despiritualizing," and Carlisle lamented its lack of "sweetness and light."

I myself wrote voluminous notes on this ineffable thing, which I referred to as "vitality" or "spirit." But whenever I went back over these notes they struck me as vapid and unilluminating. The best way I could express it was to say that life must be lived energetically, perhaps even violently, fighting with tooth-and-claw the way animals do in the jungle. I justified this view to myself by appealing to Darwin's theory of evolution, and the fact that modern society had made people into sheltered cowards. Stories from long ago of knights fighting for honor -- I told myself that this was the long lost ideal that was missing.

This was far from satisfying, because there I was, a hermit living on rice and omelettes, spending my days on long walks in the cold contemplating the meaning of life. I was nowhere near the ideal of barbaric living that I supposedly held, and yet deep down I felt that my life was closer to being truly spiritual than ever before.

At times, I was tempted to think that I had finally grasped what spirit was. I would be on a walk, and I would think of one of my hero philosophers who had gone mad trying to discover it. For moment it would seem like I saw what they had been trying to say. But the next moment I would be seized by inexplicable horror, deep anxiety, and racing thoughts. Usually the only way to fight down this anxiety would be to remind myself that the universe is far too complex to be comprehended by any finite mortal, like myself. My nervous breakdown from college would come back to me, and I would back away from these thoughts, afraid of being burned again.