Tuesday, April 20

Substitute teacher: Followup.

scratch & sniff...

The previous post is by no means closed to comments, but I just wanted to report that based on those who've responded so far, the order of interest seems to go something like this:



I put a little break in there as the top five subjects scored very close to one another, while the bottom five definitely trailed.

I think the way these 'lower interest' fields are traditionally taught, as well as portrayed to the public in books and on television (and heaven knows in many films), has contributed to them being viewed as more boring than the upper subjects, when in fact, when one thinks on it, the upper subjects just seem to be more complex, and built of the more fundamental blocks represented by the lower subjects.

Some examples.

Cosmology is really a mix of all of the other subjects in its broadest sense, but most of what we usually mean in science by cosmology (the origin and fate of the universe) is handled by physics and math, perhaps with some philosophy underpinning it all (some scientists prefer not even to speculate on "meaning," such as Edwin Hubble, who was the first to realize that all the galaxies are flying away from one another but being a field scientist through and through, left the theorizing to others), and also a bit of basic chemistry made possible by the initial high-energy physics, which explains the creation of stars and every complex thing, right down to the present. So cosmology is a "compound" subject, but then that is almost a meaningless designation as we can show that the same is true of any discipline you care to name.

History is created by people who act according to psychological, philosophical, and sociological motives, which ultimately reside within their biology (augmented by the post-natal environment), all via natural selection of course. Social anthropology is one way to study that. Physical anthropology is a way to study the actual morphological and physiological rise of humans from earlier ancestors, which is a kind of natural rather than written history but still of interest to those who wish to know our species' past and how we got to be how and where we are today. And technology, which predates humanity as evidenced by the use of stone tools in non-human ancestral hominids, spiked in complexity with an enlarging brain, a newfound capacity for complex speech, and lifeways favoring larger and larger social groups that characterized the development of us moderns. And then again, the pace of invention accelerated quite dramatically with the agricultural revolution, and has followed human history in lock-step all the way to the present. Indeed at times it seems as though technology has become something of an end in itself, and rather than enrich lives, has had an equivocal effect on our happiness, which is probably why it rather took a beating in this poll.

Yet lots of people are very interested in technology and may not even realize it. After all, technology isn't just silicon chips and wires. Sure, anyone wanting to learn how to design and create a website, how to operate a professional digital camera and manipulate the image afterward, to learn a programming language or scripting, master virtual social environments like Facebook, utilize Google's many so-called Web 2.0 services, navigate about within an operating system, put to good use a smartphone or a tablet computer or an ebook reader or even a simple mp3 player... is interested in technology. But steelworkers, potters, textile manufacturers, and automobile companies are all about technology. Services and devices for the disabled often involve new, specialized technology, as does routine medicine more and more. Even a self-professed technophobe wanting to "go green" likely has a vested interest in learning about and installing solar technology and supporting the "right" food technology, maybe fight GM crops, and educate his or herself on the hugely complex subject of ecology, which is influenced by our technological footprint but pulls in a menagerie of intellectual disciplines including biology, geophysics, politics, geology, complexity, emergence, and so on. And math :-)

Because anyone who wants to seriously understand anything about the universe must become conversant with the programming language nature opted for to devise it all - mathematics. Of course, you might disagree with me and our age's conventional wisdom over this, and that would then be a philosophic matter, a field which to my mind envelopes and contains everything else, even religion and other non-rational phenomena. Because not everyone is either capable of being completely rational, or because they choose not to believe that rationalism is the truth or that, perhaps, there is an objective Truth, we cannot just inject a statement that rational thought is at the foundation of all things. Because philosophy deals with the most fundamental backdrop against which all other intellectual pursuits are arrayed, you find that whether you are a rationalist, a religious person, or anyone who has a mind capable of asking questions (which may not  be the same as saying "anyone who is human"), that at the end of every road, at the bottom of every hole dug, you run into philosophy - a sandbox for discussing the true "theories of everything" so much more comprehensive than the unification of four known material forces that physicists talk about. And predictably, there are as many individual philosophies as their are philosophers (or as I like to call them, thinkers).

Mostly I wanted to briefly illustrate how interconnected all learning is, and how it can be combined and split an almost endless number of ways, and how our various academic magisteria receive rather arbitrary labels that probably wouldn't be exactly duplicated by other intelligences in the Universe, even though their recognition of the totality of knowledge out there - independently extant, waiting to be learned - may be very similar to ours. To put it into simpler words, their way of splitting it all up into categories may be totally different than ours, or they may not be "splitters" - cladists - at all. They may always think of every phenomena, however trivial, as part of a grand,  interconnected whole. More radically, their view on the big picture may be nothing like ours at all, in which case there is more than splitting hairs at work - likely some major differences in biology or philosophy between us and them, or even perhaps - gasp! - physics as we understand it is inconsistent universally, or it varies from universe to universe in a larger multiverse structure we may never be able to perceive, or maybe we simply have yet to understand physics' deeper aspects and what we think we understand is like the pebble on Newton's beach, just a nice little superficial, side bit of a much larger and more comprehensive picture (my own hunch).

And just then, I had a serious déjà vu. Whoa.

Don't worry, any little tutorials or lessons on anything I come up with will not drift this much in its exposition (I hope). This isn't to be considered the start of my teaching yet! I'm still just getting a feel for the audience and musing as usual about the nature of knowledge itself, a meta-discipline sometimes called epistemology and a topic which greatly interested the ancient Greeks and much later Descartes, Kant, Hume, and others of the Enlightenment, and which still interests philosophers to this day but almost no one else. I confess it greatly interests me, though, for I view the question of how we understand even the concept of knowledge - what it is exactly, how we acquire it, whether we can ever know if it's true, and whether it contributes to understanding and wisdom or just peels more layers off an infinitely large onion - along with a few other questions (such as, is the world objectively real and rational, or subjective, relative, and irrational?) to be the 'atoms' of philosophy, the axioms upon which we must somehow decide and take a stand if we are to ever discuss anything else with any credibility.

(Enter agnosticism...)

And since philosophers bitterly disagree over the most basic "givens" of what is true and real and what can be known, I don't see how anyone can seriously or meaningfully consider themselves a rationalist, a mystic, or anything else for that matter. So not only am I agnostic in a religious sense - a sense in which I'm very definitely unconvinced to say the least of any sort of personal God or in the validity or truth of any of the major organized religions - on a much deeper level, I'm agnostic about philosophy itself! I can find no way to decide on the philosophical equivalents of the geometer Euclid's "first principles" which he assumed to be obvious to all, and from which he constructed the first systematic geometric proofs. The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution of the United States both basically begin by invoking similar "self-evident" truths, and then take off from there. But as wise as they were, the Founding Fathers sort of missed the boat about Blacks and Women being equal to white men when it came to having equal protection, opportunity, and the right to vote: It took later amendments to accomplish that.

The point is that whenever someone argues from "first principles" or "self-evident truths" or "givens" or "axioms" with a wink round the room that assumes everyone is on the same page, inevitably everyone is not on the same page, and first principles may yet contain more granularity or upon reflection presume even simpler, earlier postulates; self-evident truths presented in a different historical age may not seem so self-evident; and givens and axioms need to be questioned rather than blindly accepted, always. This is my problem with logic, rationality, maths (that 's' is for you, Raelha), and ultimately the scientific method and all its wondrous results: In the very preamble of such grand endeavors there is still an implied leap of faith, for example that the "world" (whatever you may take that to mean) IS rational, that logic DOES hold in all cases, that "our" mathematics ARE universal, and that science, largely accomplished by the philosophical technique of induction (the idea of building a stronger and stronger case for a postulate by actual experimentation, repeatedly and repeatably) is not only a valid way to go about studying that which is around us, but is in fact the ONLY valid way. That's a lot of presumptions or axioms in my book to simply accept on faith.

Therefore in any unquestioned acceptance of what I'll call "a rationalist's axioms" - needed for the whole industry of science and indeed the entire secular Western mode of thought to function - I am truly agnostic. I cannot say that it is a more valid system than Eastern thought, with its holism and infinities and singularities and dismissal of reality as illusion created by the mind and belief in the transcendence of that mind into a metaphysical realm. In one of the most startling interpretations of Western physics, the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, the leading view help by completely straight-faced, very intelligent and decorated physicists is that (in a very real sense), the mind of an observer creates observable reality, which did not exist in a definite state prior to observation. How weird is that? And yet how like, say, Buddhism as well? Are the two so different nowadays?

I cannot say any religions are "definitely wrong," though I put very little stock, as I've said, in the great majority of them - seemingly the more popular the religion the more I tend to see it as a construct of man and his political, machinating mind, a desire for control of the masses, rather than the result of some true epiphany bestowed by the supernatural upon our humble species. And religions such as Young-Earth Christianity are just stupid, and make about as much sense to anyone educated at all (or simply observant of nature) as does a flat earth or geocentric universe or a flying spaghetti monster controlling us from another dimension, or indeed a toaster in orbit around Neptune. It's one of the least plausible "truths" I could have possibly come up with, and I have a pretty good imagination.

Can I prove fossils and rocks radioactively dating to billions of years old were not planted in situ by some impish God as a test of our faith? No, I can't, but I detest the thought of living in a reality governed by such a God and refuse to waste the time I have on this earth even allowing for that surely infinitesimally likely scenario to be true. But what about a living earth (Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis), or even universal consciousness? Multiverses? Endless time in both directions with no creative or destructive moment (both of which seem problematic as it is for many people)? What about faster-than-light travel, or many other speculations which violate current orthodox scientific thinking? No, I cannot and will not rule it out, because I have no good reason to once the logical fallacy of "appeal to authority" (in this case the majority of the scientific establishment) is carefully circumvented.

We are guilty as a species of lending too much credence to experts, and to abdicate the responsibility of thinking for ourselves by simply going along with someone who sounds intelligent and convincing. But history abounds with gross errors by the establishment - in fact, the vast majority of opinions about nature held by humans in our long history have been totally wrong. What makes us think we're finally right this time? The failure of many great scientists to be humble in this aspect astounds me. Nothing changes; scientist (or natural philosophers, alchemists, or whatever guise they trod under) have always exuded and unreasonable confidence that they were on the verge of understanding it all, or at least most of it, and that epiphany for all humanity was at hand. This is as ludicrous as Christians believing some kind of non-Biblical rapture is going to happen within their lifetimes.

For even rationalism (yes, Professor Dawkins), runs afoul of the problem that it cannot prove its own axioms; it simply picks itself up by its bootstraps, as it were, and then leaps forward and says all these self-consistent things. But the whole endeavor depends on you buying into those initial axioms, which to me is a sticking point. More than a sticking point - an impasse I cannot find my way around.

It always is so with me, with regards to everything. Which is why I believe in nothing. I'm not a nihilist who truly believes that everything means "nothing" (careful with those semantics, Eugene!). No, what I mean is that I don't "believe" at all. I don't think I can, ever. I live my life making decisions based on whim or desire or gut feelings I don't truly understand, or even statistical likelihoods based on my own life experiences, and can discuss most topics you'd care to talk bring up, and offer my analysis, but I can never take an ultimate stand (which is what a belief is) on any of it, because how can I truly know? How can anyone? It always comes back to that. I'm an agnostic who can never be convinced of anything because I'm not even sure anything is real. I could wake up right now and my entire life could have been a dream. How can I rule it out? Conscientiously, I cannot. A certain English gentleman once quite liked it when I stated that I don't believe in things, I simply observe. I was happy that as distinguished professor as he is, who's discovered things unknown to biological science and has been interviewed on television and done many great things over his life, seemed delighted with my statement about belief and decided to adopt it for use in his own teaching about science and philosophy (and who knows, maybe even epistemology!)

Thanks for taking this ride with me, those who did. I promise the next thing I post will be some LOLCats or something. Then perhaps we can get down to some educational essays, as a trial, and go from there?


An Gabhar Ban said...

I am going to contemplate this a bit and likely comment further but just felt the urge to say something while I was "in the moment" if you will.
I don't know if you'd consider it a comfort but I followed right along with your train of thought. :) We share many of the same feelings about the world around us, I just can't seem to form it into the written word as well as you do.
One of the reasons I rank philosophy so low is that in my world everyone has their own personal philosophy and after taking a course in college where, upon writing a paper on my views about morality, I was told I was wrong... well, so much for classical philosophy for me!

An Gabhar Ban said...

approximately 4 minutes after posting I just realized I have two more things to say...
1- you do like your lists of 10, I just now realized you gave us ten items to order.
2- perhaps you feel the knowledge we have now is a bit like a fractal..we're on one small part of it with infinite more to learn, both on a larger scale and a much smaller more in depth one as well?

Metamatician said...

What an ignorant comment to tell someone they are wrong about a philosophical, moral, or ethical position. Those things are subjective by nature!

Thanks for reading all the way through and for commenting. Yes, we do seem to see the world similarly. In fact the people I make friends with usually do ;-)

I know there are a ton of typos in the post, and things that need some re-wording; I'm going to fix those right now...


Just saw your second comment.
1) Yes.
2) Yes.

JOVIAN said...

I'd like to hear the story about the professor! sounds interesting.


I agree with all of your points. It is rationally impossible to disagree with a kind of existential agnosticism, though that nonbelief itself is founded upon a logical construct. If you dig down deep enough, ALL conditioned thoughts are merely biological tools, incomplete in that they cannot account for their own existence.


I've spent enough time around scientists in my day, even some good ones, to know that there is always an agenda, always politics involved. How else would they get their grant money to be able to publish their findings and make a living? I'm not making a blanket judgement on the ethics of institutionalized science, but it should be seen for what it mostly is. it is not philosophers doing science. it is scientists doing business.


Good exposition on the interconnectedness of the sciences. Obviously, the labels are there so that everyone isn't required to be a generalist. No 'progress' would be made that way. It's funny how people (often scientists themselves) forget that the labels ARE arbritrary though.


I like algology and nothing else.

Archived Posts

Search The Meta-Plane