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.


  1. Makes sense to me. I admire the decision. I'm sure it wasn't easy to make. But it doesn't always make sense to continue in such a broken corrupted system. The state of "education" today is really frustrating!

    I'm glad you and Emily had the idea for you to do this blog. I enjoy hearing your thoughts and experiences! =)

  2. You have a pretty unique perspective, and alot of thoughts to share. I sense a successful book or two in your future. Thanks for sharing your fascinating story!

  3. It's been my pleasure sharing the story. It's a relief to get it off my chest.

    Some people have asked me if my blog is ending here. Not at all! I have more to share, so stay tuned.