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.