Friday, March 27, 2015

Skepticism

I have always had a somewhat anti-authoritarian, divergent way of thinking about a variety of subjects. In graduate school I was chastised by a professor for ridiculing some of Aristotle's views in a paper I wrote. Although I didn't study much science or pursue it as a career, I have preserved a level of scientific skepticism throughout my life. For this reason I was delighted to see that Steven Weinberg, the theoretical physicist, also exhibits a healthy skepticism regarding the works of Plato and Aristotle. Within the context of the history of science, he views them as poets rather than as scientists or mathematicians. He sees them as elitists who thought that experimentation and the verification of theories were beneath them. In particular, regarding Aristotle's theory of planetary motion, Weinberg says "We would have to conclude that on his own terms, in working on a problem that interested him, he was being careless or stupid." Weinberg finds the Hellenistic period centered in Alexandria far more productive than the earlier period in Athens, though he admires Plato's writing style.

You will have noticed from some of my previous posts that I frequently question conventional wisdom in a range of topics. For example, I recently brought into doubt Lincoln's competence as president, and I haven't offered much praise for the American literary, academic and intellectual communities. It will also have become apparent that I'm not a fan of capitalism or democracy. American popular culture is hardly even worth discussing.

Over the last year or so I made an effort to reassess my skepticism regarding academic philosophy and concluded that nearly all of it is arbitrary bunk. I see this problem, like many others, mainly in terms of the inherent limitations of human beings. Once a body of work is established in written form and a community of scholars has assembled to discuss it, that work may become immortalized through ritual processes that willfully overlook its inherent lack of significance. A body of work may become a de facto religious text and the focal point of one academic cult or another. This pattern can be seen in the early evolution of modern universities, which began as theological institutions with no special interest in objective analysis. Philosophy used to be called natural philosophy, which included science, but the sciences began to break off from pure philosophy in the nineteenth century, and much of what now remains in philosophy departments, I think, is detritus from accumulated theological reasoning. It is obvious to me that many philosophical questions are best answered by reframing old philosophical concepts in the context of the ongoing scientific study of man, but that idea may be identified as heresy within philosophy departments. Philosophy, like many fields in the humanities, seems to have drifted off into a netherworld run by sentimental adult hobbyists.

In my opinion, much of what passes for normal within academic and commercial environments effectuates an unrecognized injustice to both science and art. For many people science is no fun, because, besides being difficult to learn, it shatters their illusions. In both the humanities and commercial culture, people gladly seek refuge from the hard and potentially disturbing facts of science. They would rather not know that their entire lives are insignificant episodes within the biological froth that has been roiling over the surface of the earth for billions of years. As a fellow human being I have some sympathy for them, yet my conclusion is still that people ought to grow up sooner or later. The corruption of art operates a little differently from that of science. In the case of art, I don't think that good art requires much explanation. Thus, I don't adorn my quotations from Emily Dickinson, Denise Levertov or Patrick Chamoiseau with superfluous comments stating what's good about them. Ideally a genuine work of art speaks for itself. In my view, the academic experts who take it upon themselves to explain to us what is good about a work of art are often the least qualified to describe the ineffable characteristics which are effortlessly recognized by those who are aesthetically aware. If you will pardon my use of a somewhat unfair cliché, those who can't do teach; in this context they teach philosophy, art history, creative writing, poetry, literature and quite a few other subjects. On the commercial end of scientific and artistic marginalization and degradation, one need only recognize that money tends to distort people's motives when their true goal becomes that of selling a product or service.

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