Saturday, December 6, 2014

Intellectual Blunders

Although in some ways I may have been suited to an academic career, there were factors that worked against it that have become clearer to me over time. The most obvious was that my study habits weren't particularly good until I was about halfway through college. Slightly less obvious at the time was my innate skepticism of the merits of prevailing views in subjects that are not intrinsically precise. For example, if an idea came up in a philosophy class that I thought was either too vague to be of much use or just plain wrong, but we had to examine it because so-and-so said it was important, my natural tendency was to look at philosophers sociologically. Eventually I began to see the philosophy department sociologically, with many prevailing ideas, whether good or bad, in place simply because they suited the faculty members collectively in ways that had nothing to do with their merit. Most of the subjects in a liberal arts program are not exact, and the same pattern could be observed in them.

The deeper I delved into philosophy, the more unsatisfactory it seemed. Philosophy in the U.S. has centered on the analytic tradition that took shape early in the twentieth century specifically at Trinity College, Cambridge, where G.E. Moore explored the foundations of ethics, Bertrand Russell explored the foundations of mathematics, and Ludwig Wittgenstein continued Russell's work in mathematical logic. The goal was to escape idealism and metaphysics, which had been popular up until that time, and place philosophy on more rigorous footing like that of the sciences. Ironically, little of the work from that period has any relevance today. Moore's book, Principia Ethica, is now seen more as a model for philosophical writing style than as a valuable exposition on ethics. Russell's Principia Mathematica is only narrowly relevant in formal logic and has been ignored by mathematicians since the work of Kurt Gödel. Wittgenstein repudiated most of his early work when he set off on ordinary language philosophy later in his career. Nevertheless, the analytic style is still in vogue as far as I know. My view is that philosophy lost its way at about that time. As the sciences became more specialized and more exact, the need for scientists to be natural philosophers, as they used to be called, declined, and the role of stand-alone philosophy has remained unclear. But that hasn't stopped academic philosophers from trying to carve out a niche for themselves and engage in turf wars with other disciplines. I'm not sure how this will be resolved, but I don't regret leaving the field. Today, many scientists hold philosophers in low regard, and I can see why. I may be wrong, but I get the impression that most of what goes on in philosophy departments these days is a waste of time.

My skepticism about academic philosophy has alerted me to conditions and people in other academic fields when noticeable mistakes are made and perpetuated by leaders in the field. An interesting one that I came across is the case of Louis Agassiz. He was one of the leading scientists of the nineteenth century and taught at Harvard. He did important work in biology and was the first to propose and find evidence for an ice age in geological history. In addition, he was one of the first popular science writers and became well known throughout the world. So far so good, but beyond these contributions he totally rejected Darwinism and the theory of evolution and was himself a creationist. He was also a proponent of polygenism, the theory that each race has a separate origin, which led to the subsequent accusation that he was a racist. In short, by the time of his death in 1873 he was completely out of step with modern science and a relic of the past. Some of his questionable writings are still in vogue and circulated by creationists in support of their views.

I am currently in the process of reading How Not to Be Wrong, by the mathematician Jordan Ellenberg. The book provides informal explanations of how math works in a variety of contexts that come up in your life and contains numerous humorous anecdotes to make his points. One that I found particularly interesting was about the psychologist B.F. Skinner. Apparently in college Skinner wanted to be a novelist, wrote sonnets and took no psychology courses. After college he attended the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and gave Robert Frost several of his short stories to read. Frost wrote back "All that makes a writer is the ability to write strongly and directly from some unaccountable and almost invincible personal prejudice....I take it that everybody has the prejudice and spends some time feeling for it to speak and write from. But most people end as they begin by acting out the prejudices of other people." Actually, this sounds like pretty good advice to me. Skinner then moved into his parents' attic and attempted to write, but he made little headway and finally gave up. He later wrote "A violent reaction against all things literary was setting in....I had failed as a writer because I had nothing important to say, but I could not accept that explanation. It was literature which must be at fault....Literature must be demolished."

When Skinner later became a psychology professor, he devised an experiment to show that Shakespeare had no particular skill at alliteration in his sonnets, a process which he thought could be produced randomly. He wrote "Proof that there is a process responsible for alliterative patterning can only be obtained through a statistical analysis of initial consonants in a reasonably large sample." He sought to show that the first letter of one word of a sonnet has no effect on other words in the same line. Using 100 sonnets as data, he concluded that "In spite of the seeming richness of alliteration in the sonnets, there is no significant evidence of a process of alliteration in the behavior of the poet to which any serious attention should be given. So far as this aspect of poetry is concerned, Shakespeare might as well have drawn words out of a hat." Of course, Ellenberg, the mathematician, goes on to demolish Skinner's argument: "A statistical study that's not refined enough to detect a phenomenon of the expected size is called underpowered—the equivalent of looking at planets with binoculars." The detail was there, but the data was insufficient to show it. Apparently Skinner had an ax to grind with Shakespeare, and that had clouded his thinking.

Skinner, like the philosophers mentioned, was attempting to increase exactitude in his field. He later became known as a radical behaviorist. I sympathize with his desire to make the field more scientific, because earlier pioneers such as Freud and Jung were not really scientists. While they did have insights into human nature, it is hard to see how anyone ever took concepts such as the id, the ego, the superego, the collective unconscious or archetypes very seriously. Long ago I read several of Jung's books, and I now see him as a crank/mystic, not as a scientist at all. Skinner goes overboard in the opposite direction, and is of little or no use on some of the more subtle aspects of human existence. Even so, I agree with his emphasis on studying behavior and his association of all mental activity with the brain rather than with a soul or some other unknowable force. Apparently he has been stereotyped somewhat by his critics, but a lot of his work has held up and can still be seen in fields such as behavioral economics and in the use of positive and negative reinforcements in various therapies and child rearing.

There are, no doubt, many bad ideas still floating around in academia—more than I could ever know. Fortunately I have never had to deal with Jacques Derrida or Jacques Lacan. When I was in college there were no such things as women's studies or gender studies. There was no Ph.D. in disaster ethics. Even so, I see no reason to eliminate most "soft" subjects from academic curricula. There will always be a place for the study of the arts and other fuzzy humanistic subjects. One caveat is that problems emerge when the humanities attempt to reinvent themselves as sciences. Unfortunately, in a capitalistic society there is more money to be made through the sciences, and the humanities are likely to decline in importance as fields of study under the current status quo.

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