3QD: What you know is a policy to live by

Philosophers are prone to define knowledge as having reasoned one’s way to some true beliefs. The obvious kicker in any such definition is truth; for how am I supposed to determine whether a belief is true? If I already know what is true, why should I bother with some philosopher’s definition of knowledge? What’s the use of this stupid definition anyway? “Hey, I’m just doing my job,” replies the philosopher. “You wanted to know what knowledge is, and I told you. If you want to know how to get it, that’s another story — and for that you’ll have to pay extra!”

If we think of true beliefs as getting things right — really right, like if you asked God about it they would say, “Yep, that’s what I figure too” — then it is indeed difficult to see how we could ever know the truth, and not just because friendly chats with God are so exceedingly rare, but also because we don’t really know what we mean when we say “really right” instead of just saying “right”. The “really” is supposed to add some special oomph to the knowledge, an oomph we by definition can never experience or access: it is the knowledge of what is going on in the world when no one is knowing it, which is like trying to see what your face looks like when no one is looking at you. “Really”, in this context, just means: at a level that is impossible to attain. Trying to get something really right means never knowing for sure whether you in fact have it right.

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Thinking about being stupid

“None of this – being imprecise, not quite understanding the import of what one is saying, not being as secure in one’s knowledge as one wishes or thinks – comes close to being anything like the condition of radical intellectual defect or depletion signalled by stupidity. I will resist the impulse to suggest that this all-or-nothing denunciation of any intellectual debility as stupidity might itself be evidence of stupidity. But it may be evidence of the strange, hypnotic force that the idea of stupidity has, even as one might just as well say that wherever stupidity, as the putatively absolute absence of knowing, is assumed to be, it can never in fact be. Rather, it is something like the imaginary wall against which knowing discourse endlessly bumps up and from which it bounces painlessly back to itself. Stupidity is as much a work of fantasy as knowledge is, acting as it does as the indispensable, imaginary outside to knowledge’s gleaming ­ dream of itself” (Steven Connor, The Madness of Knowledge)

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3QD: Don’t be so sure

[By the way, this is my 50th 3QD essay, by my count. I have encountered many interesting ideas and intelligent and gracious people through the site. It’s been a wonderful partnership.]

Luxuriating in human ignorance was once a classy fad. Overeducated literary types would read Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, and soak themselves in the quite intelligent conclusion that ultimate reality cannot be known by Terran primates, no matter how many words they use. They would dwell on the suspicion that anything these primates conceive will be skewed by social, sexual, economic, and religious preconceptions and biases; that the very idea that there is an ultimate reality, with a definable character, may very well be a superstition forced upon us by so humble a force as grammar; that in an absurd life bounded on all sides by illusion, the very best a Terran primate might do is to at least be honest with itself, and compassionate toward its colleagues, so that we might all get through this thing together.

But classy fads fade. Indeed, one seemingly inviolable law of philosophical thinking is that any forthright declaration of human ignorance will be followed by a systematic explanation of that ignorance, decorated with special terms and diagrams. We just can’t let it go. Aristotle began his Metaphysics with the claim that all men by nature desire to know, and we would be right to quibble a bit: maybe some men do and some men don’t, and maybe some women also desire to know, and some don’t, and perhaps the most sensible thing to say is that many people like to pretend to know — which would have made for a much more promising beginning to his treatise, come to think of it. But we weren’t there, and Aristotle chugged on ahead as a man who desired to know everything except his own limits.

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3QD: Lots Of Things Exist, But You And I Are Not Among Them

Of course, it pays to be cautious when you read philosophers writing about what exists. They are slippery, weaving in and out between “in one sense” and “in another” like clever eels wearing togas. The fact that we can talk about what doesn’t exist has long been a problem for philosophers: for what are we talking about? Surely what doesn’t exist must exist in some sense!

So, of course, in one sense just about anything we can talk about exists: it exists even just as a concept, or a figment, or a thin abstraction, or some ghostly possible being. But, in another sense, when we really get down to it, and wrestle to the ground the protean stuff that really does exist — the stuff that even God would be forced to recognize as existing (that is, if God really did exist) — well, there’s not as much of it. We can talk about more than there is.

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To hell with “culture”

[WARNING: This post reads suspiciously like an old man’s grumping.]

I think that among many of today’s “content generators” there is a supposition that there is a big conversation going on, among many intellectual people, across the globe, about a handful of topics. The model that is assumed is the model of a small community, perhaps like a remote village or a college campus, or even ancient Athens, in which some thoughtful segment of the population gathers together regularly to discuss Important Matters of the Day. Assume that something like this happens in little towns or college campuses (I have never witnessed such a thing, at any place, at any time, on any scale; but maybe I just haven’t been invited). Now scale that conversation up and spread it over the internet, and what you have is the fiction of a culture: that is to say, some virtual community that shares insights, complaints, theories, satires, jokes, and memes about central issues.

I am supposing myself to be contributing to such a big conversation right now. It won’t be the headline of anyone’s newsfeed, but it will count as a contribution to internet culture, one measly tidbit thrown into the grand bubbling cauldron of public opinion.

But I am deceiving myself, just as all such content providers are deceiving themselves. There is no meaningful culture bringing everyone together into a single conversation. There are many, many small conversations happening at any time, and each one (perhaps) is of some high significance to someone, but no single conversation enfolds us all. There are some conversations among Important People about Important Matters of the Day, and these conversations are sometimes judged by some people (and especially the Important People themselves) as being The Crucial Conversations Animating Global Culture — but all of that is mostly horseshit. The fact is that some people think too highly of themselves, and other people become their groupies in the hope of getting themselves noticed as Affiliates to the Important, and pretty soon there are high mandarins of “our” culture which are mainly just overpaid poopy heads with sniveling sycophants at their feet (or, rather, at their feeds). 

In fact, I’m not sure “culture” really means anything. Maybe it did once. The word comes from a farming metaphor, and it is surely true that important developments came along in human history once people moved on from farming crops and raising cattle to farming people, harvesting people’s labor and managing people’s lives in ways that produced strength and profit for a few. Results included big politics, big religion, and culture. Perhaps for some time, each individual could say who they served and to whom they belonged, and that meant something. But nowadays people-farming has become so sophisticated that each of us is being farmed by many entities at once — we serve an indeterminate host of masters — and so it’s nearly impossible to find anyone who can be viewed accurately as belonging to a single “culture”. If you want to know what your “culture” is, list the various ways in which other entities are harvesting your labor (or, equivalently, receiving your credit card payments), and that will tell you everything you need to know about that.

But of course we pretend otherwise. We pretend that we are Beings of Ideas, existing in a flux of concepts which somehow weave together to form an intellectual community, or a culture. By describing that flux we tell ourselves who we are, and as we fight over those ideas we fight over our identities, and perhaps carve out spaces for ourselves in which we may freely develop into autonomous, self-actualized, enlightened beings. But as nice as that sounds, is it really any more meaningful than claiming that by floricating those pampums, we circulate our flimflams, and victuate for our noodles a dicky in which we can clap our sinkums? It seems more meaningful, surely. But see if you can translate the nice phrases into real things you actually do, as opposed to words you tell yourself, or words other people write down for you to read. I’ll wait.

In fact what I see are uncountably many conversations happening all at once, with no significant thing common running through them all. People post memes and photos and insights about Carl Nassib, Billie Eilish, or Pixar’s Luca; they share questions about rules for enemy movement in Gloomhaven, or pictures of their model battleships; they write about clashes in Israel, and artificial intelligence, and melting glaciers; they write about the best refrigerators or glue or electric lawn mowers money can buy; they write fan fictions of their favorite fantasy characters, or opine about the ethics of hairstyles, or judge other people’s tattoos; they write about canceling David Hume, or James Joyce, or the 1619 Project; and on and on and on and on, of course, light years beyond anyone’s imagination. To single out just a few of these — say, Carl Nassib, Israel, and the 1619 Project — and identify them as the hot topics of “our” current cultural conversation is completely arbitrary and without reason, though that is of course what every media channel must do as they attempt to present surfers with a finite list of things they should attend to if they wish to consider themselves “informed”.

But this is a curious notion of being “informed”. It simply means: learning some superficial facts about some random collection of unrelated items someone else is pawning off as significant. Following the latest misadventures of Congress, or the status of Britney Spears’ legal fight over resources, or the appearance of sinkholes in Oklahoma, has the same significance as reading about a model railroad convention in Denver, or the history of the martini, or the meaning behind John Dee’s monadic emblem: it is all just random crap that may or may not grab your attention. The idea that some of it should interest you more than others is a symptom of belief in a reigning culture that in fact does not exist.

So — in case anyone needs to hear such advice — follow what you want to follow, explore whatever engages your own curiosity, and to hell with “culture”. 

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3QD: How To Make Rational Mammals

Suppose you are Father God, or Mother Nature, or Mother God, or Father Nature — doesn’t matter — and you want to raise up a crop of mammals who can reason well about what’s true. At first you think, “No problem! I’ll just ex nihilo some up in a jiffy!” but then you remember that you have resolved to build everything through the painstaking process of evolution by natural selection, which requires small random shifts over time, with every step toward your target resulting in some sort of reproductive advantage for the mammal in question. Okay; this is going to be hard.

Given what you know about reasoning and truth, the mammal is going to have to have access to some way of abstractly representing the world to itself, or language. That in turn will require a community of language users; and that will require a community of beings who fare better through cooperation. This immediately raises the problem of how to evolve beings who are both selfish and social. Selfishness requires cheating whenever you can get away with it, but sociability requires trustworthiness. Striking a workable balance between selfishness and sociability is tricky, but not impossible, as anyone who has worked in corporate knows.

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Kant, Hegel, and how to be enlightened citizens

[Reflections on reading Robert B. Brandom, “Some Pragmatist Themes in Hegel’s Idealism”, in his book Tales of the Mighty Dead (Harvard UP, 2002).]

Both Kant and Hegel were writing in a time of thorough-going Enlightenment. For the most part they had moved beyond many of the basic philosophical tasks that kept the early modern philosophers busy, such as staking out what we can be certain of, distinguishing reality from appearance, working out a system of substances, accidents, and causal powers, charting how far human freedom extends, explaining moral obligation, and setting the foundations of political stability. In the span of time separating Descartes and Kant, a Newtonian and Lockean framework had come to dominate the European intellectual scene, which meant that the foundational questions of science, religion, and politics had largely been settled, at least in general outline. The urgent questions for Kant and Hegel were more institutional in nature: how can our social and political institutions be rational? How is the rationality of institutions connected to the rationality of individuals? Or, to put the big question in burdensome Kantian style, what is necessary for the possibility of Enlightened citizens in Enlightened institutions?

In the context of these concerns, what was important about individual human beings for Kant was their capacity to engage in conversations about what is true. Enlightened citizens do not merely squawk in response to environmental pokes and prods; they make assertions for which they assume responsibility. In asserting a claim, they signify that they accept the consequences of that claim, and are willing to provide justification for the claim. Enlightened citizens, in short, think of themselves as grown ups who can engage in a discourse of reasons, and can responsibly navigate their way through dialogues with other similarly Enlightened citizens, giving reasons to one another and responding to them with further reasons.

But at the same time, of course, Kant knew that humans are animals in the natural world, and so this raises a problem. How can animals in the natural world operate as Enlightened citizens? Or, to return to Kantian jargon again, what is necessary for the possibility of animals operating in such a way? The answer to this question was Kant’s set of Critiques. The overall picture Kant offered in answer to this question was that human animals must be able to plug themselves into a system of concepts and judgments that define the structure of rationality. The situation is analogous to learning a language. French has its own grammar and vocabulary, and when I learn French, I learn how to speak according to its structure. Similarly, according to Kant, human animals somehow become able to think and speak in the language of reason, which has its own grammar and vocabulary. But unlike any particular natural language, the language of reason is precisely what enables us to make objective claims about reality, morality, and justice. The language of reason is necessary for the possibility of our efforts in science, morality, and politics — in any language whatsoever.

Kant offers very little insight about the origins or ontology of this language of reason. His concern is to lay out its structure and justify its use, not explain how it came to be. Perhaps he had good reason to claim that no such explanation is possible for us, since it is itself the language in which all explanation takes place, and so it cannot reach outside itself and tell its own origin story. But this is the task Hegel set for himself, and when we experience the vertigo inherent in his attempt — to account for the origins of the framework by which we provide all possible accounts — we might forgive him for writing such maddeningly torturous prose. His answer has something to do with a grand Idea unfolding its own character over time through human history. In any case, what results from his account is the view that Enlightenment is not the expression of a fixed and unchanging system, but one that evolves as we evolve, discovering for ourselves what counts as good reason. 

And so it is with Hegel that we find the highest optimistic hope in Enlightenment: not that we fully know how to be Enlightened citizens, but that we can get better at it by working at it, in constant dialogue with one another. For Hegel, there is no way we can fail in the grand project, because every local failure shows us what we should have known, or should have been paying attention to. The deepest challenge to such high-flying optimism is that there is in fact no way to structure an advanced society that does not oppress and marginalize people, or require slavery, or flatten out individuality and suppress creativity and authenticity. Those challenges, in short, are the criticisms of Marx, Foucault, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. 

Those criticisms must be seriously considered. But there is a cloud of implausibility hanging over them, I think. If the critics of Enlightenment are right, then it is somehow impossible for us to make better and more just societies through rational discourse. Perhaps we can do so by some other means (like trusting to humanity’s innate sociability, or becoming who we are, or something), or perhaps there is really no such thing as a “more just” society, but in any case, the critics charge that rational discourse of the kind that Kant and Hegel sought to establish and explain is of no help at all. And that seems to me very implausible. Civic life has become more humane and just over recorded history, and I think the sort of rational discourse championed by the Enlightenment has had something to do with that improvement. The suggestion that if we all just stopped trying to engage one another with reasoned arguments, then life would get better, or even get no worse, seems absurd to me.

Still, the critics of Enlightenment rightly point out the various ways humans have screwed up, and can do better. They tell us that we must not allow our concerns for efficient and flexible markets and systems to force us treat human beings as mere means; we must encourage the arts and pursuits of authenticity; we need “outsider critiques” of what our institutions are forcing us to do to one another and to ourselves. In short, the critics can be regarded as critics of the imperfect manifestations of Enlightenment — but not of Enlightenment itself. Any rational discourse must be critical if it is to also be constructive.

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3QD: What is living and what is dead in the Enlightenment?

Talking about “The Enlightenment”, when understood as something like “an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries” (thanks, Wikipedia), is like talking about Batman: do you mean classically heroic comic Batman? or the delightfully campy Adam West Batman? or the Batman of the movies, or of the gloomy Dark Knight era? The Batman one selects will determine what further questions need to be settled, and what scales of evaluation should be used. 

Similarly, the Enlightenment can be seen as a cluster of philosophical values (placed upon individual liberty, human equality, political and scientific progress, and independence from religion), or the ways in which those values helped to form economic institutions (slavery of various forms, global capitalism, and free markets), or as a stand-in term for whatever deep injustice people think has become dominant over the last three centuries (global economic inequalities, political states favoring the wealthy, and enduring white privilege). It is often thought that the Enlightenment is somehow a single thing behind all these things, in the way some of us think there can be a steady “Batman” character behind his various depths and flavors. 

These various flavors of “Enlightenment” are not wholly disconnected. For example, John Locke formulated a system of rights, contracts, and obligations that justified slavery on at least some occasions. The notion of actual human equality was interpreted by colonizers to mean potential human equality, which licensed the brutal process of more civilized nations forcing benighted savages into “more advanced conditions”. Scientific progress seemed to demand that we regard the natural world as a resource to be controlled and consumed, and soon our air became unbreathable. Freedom from religion came to mean that the only considerations that belong in the public sphere are measurements of material loss and gain; so “sin” and “virtue” need not apply.

And so, the criticism goes, the core ideals of Enlightenment lead to an alien and inhuman operating system that maximizes material well being for some, while annihilating any local traditions and values that are not readily uploaded into the system.

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IAI: The self in the cloud

…But these scientists and philosophers are forgetting about locks. Just as keys have the shapes they have because of the locks they fit, people have the selves they have because of the lives they fit. My memories and beliefs are shaped by what I have experienced, but they are also tuned to the people I ordinarily meet, what I take to be their expectations of me, and networks of obligations and responsibilities I negotiate on a daily basis. My attitudes, desires, hopes, and fears are quite fluid, adapting to my circumstances and the attitudes of others around me. I am the particular self I am because of my on-going, changing relationships to people around me, as well as to the culture, economics, and politics of my time and place….

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3QD: Living through lives of others

Observations are laden with theories, or so we are told, and theories are laden with cultures. There’s a good reason for thinking this. Theories, after all, spring out from people’s heads. But people’s heads grow within languages and cultures, along with whatever biological constraints lay at the foundations of our being. So anything coming out of our heads is going to bear the imprint of those complex systems. When you speak, a culture is speaking through you, with your own distinctive garnish.

Eight heads, M. C. Escher (1922)

This plausible observation, however, exists in tension with one of the guiding principles our culture speaks through us. That guiding principle is methodological individualism, or the basic strategy of understanding the big stuff by understanding the little stuff. Society is just people, we observe, and languages are just how these people say what they say. So if we understand the people, we will understand the larger cultures and languages they compose en masse. Better yet, understand the individual brains of these individual people; for certainly anything they do will be issuing from what is inside their heads. Better yet still, understand neurons and their local neighborhoods, for certainly the brain is not doing anything more than they are doing. Keep at it, and pretty soon you’ll just be paying attention only to what the quantum physicists say. And at that point you’re a goner, for sure.

We live in an epoch of nominalism: a general distrust of any explanation that proceeds from the big stuff downward. All causality is a local exchange between concrete individuals; larger patterns result from these, just as — in not a wholly unrelated way — economies exist through the exchanges of rationally self-interested individuals. Our culture is formed around the crucial notion that all social facts rest on the consent of individuals disposing of their individual liberties as their own reasons see fit. As Nietzsche once recognized, as scientists we generously extend these republican ideals to nature as a whole, interpreting it as a state teeming with wayward individuals governed by stern and inviolable laws. What is done in the large is only as real as what is done in the small.

But we just might be oversimplifying things a tad.

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3QD: Science and the Six Canons of Rationality

Philosophy of science, in its early days, dedicated itself to justifying the ways of Science to Man. One might think this was a strange task to set for itself, for it is not as if in the early and middle 20th century there was widespread doubt about the validity of science. True, science had become deeply weird, with Einstein’s relativity and quantum mechanics. And true, there was irrationalism aplenty, culminating in two world wars and the invention of TV dinners. But societies around the world generally did not hold science in ill repute. If anything, technologically advanced cultures celebrated better imaginary futures through the steady march of scientific progress.

So perhaps the more accurate view is that many philosophers were swept up in the science craze along with so many others, and one way philosophers can demonstrate their excitement for something is by providing book-length justifications for it. Thus did it transpire that philosophers inclined toward logical empiricism tried to show how laws of nature were in fact based on nothing more than sense perceptions and logic — neither of which could anyone dispute. Perceptions P1, P2, … Pn, when conjoined with other perceptions and carefully indexed with respect to time, and then validly generalized into a universal proposition through some logical apparatus, lead indubitably to the conclusion that “undisturbed bodies maintain constant velocities” — you know, that sort of thing.

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Twilight of the idols of good writing

For a long time I have thought of my job as mostly a teacher of writing. I teach philosophy too, but most of what I teach in that domain is soon forgotten. What my students will keep with them (or so I tell myself) are enhanced abilities to read, think, and write. These skills, I hope, will continue to be exercised in whatever walks of life my students discover for themselves, because our society needs and values people who can survey complicated situations and describe them clearly and accurately.

Less so nowadays. The internet broadens the public square, and allows many more people to participate in the exchange of ideas (or, failing that, memes). This is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, more participation means a more vibrant and eclectic breeding ground for culture: more diversity, more creativity, more involvement, and more communication, which are all good things. On the other hand, the “moremoremore” tends to drive shorter attention spans and shallower content.

The emblem of both results is Twitter: each day of Twittering would fill up a 10 million page book. Each tweet is limited to only 280 characters, but that has proven to be ample, as the average tweet is only 33 characters (so I learn from a quick Google search). A great many of our social media posts feature a central image, and the verbal component is an accessory or a punchline. Emails are beginning to represent the epic works of popular culture, by contrast – so much text, so few images! – but obviously they are not much to brag about in terms of thoughtfulness, for the most part.

All in all, writing matters less. To my old school way of thinking, this means thinking and reading also matter less. I once heard Jonathan Bennett opine that there are no purely stylistic difficulties; every problem in expression betokens a failure to have thought all the way through what one wants to say. If we are more lax in our expectations for our writing and the writing of others, this means expecting less in thinking and reading. Good writing is mental discipline, and that discipline carries over, or fails to carry over, into all attempts to process content.

Now I am not sure this is a bad thing. Maybe the art of nuanced and disciplined writing has had its day, just as sonnets and lyric poems have had their day. Out with the old. Time moves on, mostly indifferent to tradition, and my grousing about it is purely epiphenomenal. If human culture as a whole is getting by just fine with silly little tweets, what’s the problem? Things change. I don’t intend to be the grumpy old guy in his shed complaining about the demise of the good old days. (And yet, here I am….)

So it may not much matter, but I do think we are at the twilight of the job I have been taking myself to do, namely, teaching writing. I probably have been on the losing side of this issue for some time. I try to coach my students into making a clear plan for what they are going to write, to offer clear signposts along the way, and to write in complete sentences. I ask them to “level up” their prose into a more academic style, mainly because writing more formally forces you to be more precise in what you say. They should use the little words that suggest contrast, or implication, or example. I expect subjects and verbs to agree with each other. It’s pretty standard, orthodox stuff. (Basically, the stuff you see me do here, I try to teach them to do: monkey me, monkey you.) I understand the arguments that there are many ways to write, and that I’m privileging one particular brand of “white establishment” writing. My defense is that students should learn how to write in a great variety of styles, from the homespun to the soaring to the soullessly impersonal; but one such style (one, I have supposed, with bankable career benefits) is the style I’m teaching. My hope has been that the skills I try to impart would help give them advantages in their careers.

But there are signs that I’m falling behind the times. College courses in composition seem to be more about liberating authentic voices than about refraining from comma splices, so I end up encouraging students to use grammarly.com to catch their more obvious mistakes. An increasing number of papers I receive appear to be not typed but dictated into voice recognition software (for that’s the only explanation for some of the bizarre things I read), and presumably someone will soon find a way to integrate that software with grammarly or whatever else so as to mechanically produce decent prose from verbal hash. So, in short, the skills I’m trying to teach can be outsourced to apps. And with regard to the ability to read and think, which are integrally connected to the ability to write (say I), the need for those skills is already waning, as the virality of tweets and the fecundity of meme generation overwhelm the need for insightful explanations. So it goes. More and more, I am training in students the skills needed for hitching up a buggy.

It’s only twilight, so there will still be some utility in teaching good writing for the rest of my working days, most likely. After that, you’re all on your own, which is as it should be and always has been.

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3QD: Monkeys in our treehouse

How we are able to talk — the surprisingly effortless channeling of thoughts into words made available for public consumption — is a startling mystery. The next time you find yourself jabbering, see if you can direct some unemployed part of your mind toward observing just how it is you know what word to put next. Within seven seconds you will find yourself tongue-tied and bewildered as to how you do it. Words come to us, and usually we, like everyone else, do not know exactly what’s coming until we hear it from our own mouths. 

One likely theory is that we have a bunch of monkeys in our treehouse whose job it is to come up with stuff for us to say. They’re a creative bunch and not always keen on relevancy, so there must be some other unit — a panel of straight-faced orangutans, perhaps — that rejects the craziest proposals put forth by the monkeys and shapes what isn’t rejected into something that, for the most part, is not an unreasonable thing to say. The monkeys are enthusiastic but clueless, so they propose a wild array of sayable things; the orangutans tend to be more sensitive to local conditions, and take up the proposals that seem likely to accomplish whatever it is we think we might want to accomplish by making our noises. (Lack of sleep, alcohol, and the presence of someone you’d like to impress all skew the orangutans’ judgment, as is well known.)

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3QD: Science and magic

I think it is fair to say that we usually see science and magic as opposed to one another. In science we make bold hypotheses, subject them to rigorous testing against experience, and tentatively accept whatever survives the testing as true – pending future revisions and challenges, of course. But in magic we just believe what we want to be true, and then we demonstrate irrational exuberance when our beliefs are borne out by experience, and in other cases we explain away the falsifications in one way or another. Science means letting what nature does shape what we believe, while magic means framing our interpretations of experience so that we can keep on believing what feels groovy.

But this belief – that we can clearly distinguish between magic and science – turns out itself to be an instance of framing our interpretations so as to allow us to keep on believing something that makes us feel good. In other words, the relation between magic and science is far more complicated, and magic is not so easily brushed aside.

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Teaching history (and philosophy) of the knowledge of nature and (history of) “the philosophy of science”

I have been teaching university philosophy classes for something like 78 years. (At some point, when you can’t summon the energy to figure out how old you are, and what year something happened, and then do a bit of subtraction, then the point you were going to make can be made just as well by making up an absurdly large number and putting it in the slot.) An intelligent person would already have prepared every standard course they would ever teach, and when the time for that course came around, they would just pop off the lid, reheat, and serve the course once again. But I have never been able to do that. For whatever reason – I think it has to do with having a very limited attention span – did you know imaginary numbers are actually used by engineers in their calculations? – I constantly seem to reinvent a course every time I teach it.

So this coming academic term I am teaching two courses, Epistemology and Philosophy of Science. Epistemology is always a frustrating puzzle for me to solve, and I’m trying to solve it this go-around by writing my own textbook. I’ll probably discuss that on another occasion. Philosophy of Science is a course I have not usually taught, so I have less experience continually reinventing it, which makes it a fresher puzzle. My initial thought was to grab a standard textbook and use it as a sort of master plan, fitting in extra remarks, questions, and tangents along the way.

But as I read the text I grew increasingly antsy and frustrated. Philosophy of science is a large and important subdiscipline within philosophy, and it has attracted some very bright and clever thinkers like Carl Hempel, Karl Popper, Nelson Goodman, Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, Bas van Fraassen, and so on and so forth. But, like nearly every subdomain of contemporary academic philosophy, it has been severely blinkered by refusing to look at anything outside a very narrow reading list; in particular, it has not joined in any serious way with history and the broad array of scholarship contained under the heading of “science studies”. Moreover, it usually has been surprisingly silent about any sort of thinking about nature prior to Copernicus (and, post-Copernicus, the world seems to have been populated by about ten or so figures in science, if you base your guess on philosophers’ discussions).

Such a view of science is willfully ignorant, obviously. At the same time, it is the stuff one should sort of expect to see in an undergraduate class surveying the philosophy of science. But it is willfully ignorant! But it is the stuff. But there are so many other interesting things to know! But it’s what everyone else teaches. But!!!

These frustrating concerns have been wrestling in my head for a few weeks until a sleepless episode a few nights ago in which I realized, for about the one hundred millionth time, that I could do things differently.

What I realized was that the course could consist of two big chunks. The first chunk is what I can call “the history (and philosophy) of knowledge of nature”. This chunk is a very long story about how people have understood nature and how that understanding relates to philosophical subjects like metaphysics, religion, morality, and the meaning of life. We read and think about the pre-Socratics, Aristotle, Plato, some neo-Aristotelians, various figures in the early modern period including philosophers and magic enthusiasts, Darwin, Einstein, and quantum mechanics, and we think about the metaphysics of each view, how it connects to their surrounding culture, and what such a view says about our place in the universe: big picture stuff. Obviously, this chunk could be infinite, as there is so much to explore in it. And I wish I had greater competence to explore more of the so-called “non-western” stuff.

The second chunk is a comparatively shorter story. It concerns the history of an academic subdiscipline that calls itself “the philosophy of science”, which got its start early in the 20th century and continues today. There are important concepts and problems and insights in this subdiscipline, but it has to be framed as a relative newcomer to the historical stage, and just as much conditioned by cultural forces as anything else humans come up with.

This seems to be something I can really get behind. (At least until the next time I teach the course.) Students, I think, are extremely interested in thinking through “big picture” metaphysics, which is exactly what we find in the first chunk of the class. And the content of the second chunk will I think become deeper and more insightful, but at the same time more obviously limited and skewed, by having the broad picture offered by the first chunk serving as a frame of reference. Well: we’ll see how it goes.

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