Saturday, February 20, 2010

Weinburg Inspires Sailer to Flaunt Ignorance

The link has been sitting in my bookmarks for a while, taunting me. (And will remain there, as it's also useful.) I think the taunting is ultimately why I'm writing this post up, because as per the blog name, I should accept that most people are going to be ignorant of philosophy most of the time. I don't really think that there's much point in doing much more than pointing out that ignorance renders your opinion meaningless, and that the ignorant soul should study some philosophy if that bothers them. I would also warn that doing it properly is an incredible time sink.

Except there's a bit of paradox, as philosophy shows a clear trickle-down effect, where professional thoughts show up all unreferenced in the layman. Being totally without a philosophy is impossible, which means the total ignorance one can have on building suspension bridges doesn't obtain. I think that means I should say, "Ignorant of the philosophicalness of their philosophy," which captures both the ineptitude and the disdain.

There's a clear thread of anti-philosophy sentiment among the parts of the intelligentsia that consider themselves hard-headed.[1] A good bite-sized example is Feynman's quoted position. The people I meet express similar disdain when I ask them. I understand it even shows up in blog titles. Similarly, the other side is feeling some pressure.

Naturally, I feel I must rise to the defence, at least when the detractor is eloquent.

"Is there a more prestigious job title than "philosopher"?"
I'm going to go with 'yes' for $600, Jim. While I'm sure this was true recently, I've personally seen lots of screeds against the idea, and a whopping zero like the opposite. I'd write one myself, except that I think status should follow from your results, not your job or associations.
"Yet, in what other profession has more brainpower made less progress?"
This does tidily sum up the essay, which makes it an excellent introduction.
"But the only value Weinberg ever found in reading philosophers was when they refuted other philosophers who had clouded his mind."
I don't believe philosophy is immune to Sturgeon's second. Admittedly, I don't do much reading of philosophers either. Quickly glancing[2] over Kant's wikipedia yielded the thought "This guy's considered great and influential? All this is obvious!" Except I shortly realized that that's what influential means. His thought has influenced mine, all unawares.

Setting aside Sturgeon, and the fact that Weinberg probably owes a great deal of his ideas to philosophers, there's still a good reason for Weinberg's perception that doesn't actually impugn philosophy at all. Weinberg gets one thing right; appreciating advanced philosophy, like appreciating advanced mathematics, takes training in the subject, and as such they're comparable. The constructs are programs which run on wetware, which means you have to install in your person the prerequisite libraries before they're meaningful. So...when did Weinberg install the philosophy libraries? The math he'd already done, as it's necessary to learn physics. The result is that Weinberg's statement, and by extension Sailer's, declares ignorance of philosophy, not the uselessness of it.
"Even the most esoteric math has helped him describe the cosmos. But the only value Weinberg ever found in reading philosophers was when they refuted other philosophers who had clouded his mind."
"My math-based job is helped by more math! But, this subject in which I have no training is totally useless to me!" In addition, I can't use lathes to create chairs. As above, while you can sit on a chair without even knowing lathes exist, philosophy has no such helpful external aides.
"While engineers or farmers or bartenders have all learned a trick or two over the years, philosophers mostly either rehash the same old mistakes or dream up new ones that are even more ridiculous."
My ignorance hypothesis covers this neatly. Even if, having defeated ignorance, you still don't much care for classical philosophy, Anglosphere civilization still owes an enormous amount to one type of philosophy, Christian theology. For example, the vaunted egalitarianism is straight out of the Bible, which you can verify by noting its utter absence from non-Christian civilizations. It is one of the reasons African civilizations aren't resistant to democracy. That humans outside the tribe are people is not a belief that has major traction, worldwide.
"To this day, most philosophers suffer from Plato's disease: the assumption that reality fundamentally consists of abstract essences best described by words or geometry."
Even Plato is on record for attacking the idea of Forms. Ignorance leads to strawmen.
"(In truth, reality is largely a probabilistic affair best described by statistics.)"
So...Sailer thinks that even physics isn't quite sure what physics is? I won't deny our knowledge is often best described statistically.
"Today's postmodern philosophers[...]"
You can stop right there. I haven't seen a respected postmodern apologia. You know, ever. They're defeated, and it's only a matter of time before their lack of proponents means their influence wanes even among the laymen.
"You have to be as eminent a philosopher as Rorty to believe that the category of "the female" is a mere social convention."
Okay. Can you prove that it isn't? Otherwise, that's just your opinion, your prejudice. (And yes, I can.) As a matter of fact, philosophy often involves the cessation of belief in things that seem obvious, because 'it's obvious' is not an argument. All must be proven - one way, or the other. Though it does appear that this skill is tightly correlated with traits that add up to roughly 'eminent philosopher.'

As I re-read that, I think Rorty actually means, "the category "female" is a meaningless category." He wants to make a point that treating women differently is unjust, or something along those lines. Almost all categories are 'mere' social convention - arbitrary and subjective. Even bowls. But, an entity being a member of 'bowl' is greatly meaningful, and far more meaningful is being part of the category 'woman.'
Frankly, if you have to deny a woman's femininity to prove that treating her badly is unjust, there's something wrong with you.

"Fortunately, one school of philosophy has actually taught us some valuable lessons over the centuries: the anti-abstract British tradition of Roger Bacon, Francis Bacon and David Hume, with its emphasis on realism, common sense and the scientific method."

Yawn. One day, people will stop having an orgasm every time they mention 'the scientific method,' that fuzzy beast. Perhaps they'll even start referencing actual particulars with actual meaning. I'll greatly enjoy these as I sail around in my moon-yacht
First problem with this sentence; as far as there's such a thing as the scientific method, it's a result of epistemology. Second, Hume is already highly respected, while I've never seen Rorty referenced without making fun of him, to the point that I barely feel the need to join in. Final problem, "Philosophers who hold my philosophy are awesome, and the rest suck!" It's a form of Dunning-Kruger to fail to recognize craftmanship when the craft on display isn't one you personally have use for.

"Stove simply shreds his fellow philosophers. He turns his flamethrower on those "absolutely effortless pseudo-discoveries that philosophers make, and on which their fame rests." For instance, "Plato's discovery of 'universals' went as follows: 'It is possible for something to be a certain way and for something else to be the same way. So, there are universals!' (Tumultuous applause, which lasts 2,400 years.)""

Stove was pretty cool. I'm not going to directly address the issues in the last sentence.

Universals are commonly used by scientists. Linnaean taxonomy, for example, groups multiple organisms under a single universal name, and then ascribes properties to the category, not individuals. The universal electronness of electrons is universally accepted. The questions that must be answered by philosophical history are; did Plato just write down what was already commonly known, or in fact is it commonly known because Plato wrote it down? Even were Plato simply justifying common knowledge, isn't that in itself valuable? Even if Plato were just writing down common knowledge, isn't that valuable if no one else had done so before?

Admittedly it would be pretty ironic if the task of writing down common sense naturally falls to philosophers. Though this gives me an idea; writing down common sense is an ideal task for philosophy apprentices. First, it gives a record of things that historians and archaeologists often lament as going unrecorded. Second, it helps the master find all the arrogant idiocies the apprentice absorbed growing up, and so can correct them more adroitly. Why, the master may even find a few they'd missed in themselves.

"While his reasoning is impressive, it is also in the Grand Tradition of Western Philosophy: namely, almost 100% fact-free. (Elsewhere, Stove readily admits that philosophers "have no more knowledge of any matter that could serve as the premises of their reasonings than the next man has.")"

I'm not sure how widespread is the knowledge that philosophy isn't supposed to deal with facts. The actual work of philosophy is in finding meaning using logic. It is not necessary for the meaning to actually match anything in the real world for it to be true, and thus good philosophy. As a matter of preference, I try to stick to ontologies that have a shot at being human meaningful, but matching the logical roots to actual data is not philosophical work, even if a philosopher does it.

"But even worse than ignoring statistical data, philosophers seldom understand statistical logic. In this case, for example, while the IQs of men and women are equal on average, men's IQ's are more variable. Thus, as any woman could testify, there are more really stupid men. But, there are also far more male geniuses."

Bias: Sailer is awfully enamoured with statistics. ("Plumbing most important job to civilization, says plumber.") Yes, understanding statistics is important enough to understanding the world that you can tell that our society doesn't offer liberal educations because statistics isn't included.[3], [4] However, as per my previous paragraph, it is indeed an issue when philosophers don't understand statistical logic, unless they intend to dodge the field entirely. On the other hand, Sturgeon's second. Further, philosophers are not exactly alone in ignorance of statistical logic. Actual statisticians are often bad at it, let alone anyone else.

"Stove flagrantly exhibits philosophers' worst trait -- emphasizing verbal abstractions over statistical tendencies -- when he ill-advisedly attacks the grandest offshoot of his own school of British empiricism, Darwinism, which he calls a "mere festering mass of errors.""

"I disagree with you, therefore, you're committing errors." I'm still not sure exactly what Sailer means by his 'verbal, abstract essences.' I'd like to make a good-faith check that his criticism doesn't apply to me, but I can't.

"Philosophers of the world, get real! You have nothing to lose but your irrelevance."
The idea that philosophy is useless is itself a philosophy. It's a thread of analytical philosophy in particular:
"Analytic philosophers are in revolt against the grand manner of traditional philosophy which claimed much and (in their view) established nothing."
Seem familiar? Of course it's a bit worse than that. Socrates faced the exact same issue with the Sophists, the term philosophy created expressly to mock the Sophists and distance the new studies from them. It comes as no surprise to me that many philosophers have followed in the footsteps of the Sophists. The problem with the Sophists was never their tradition, customs, or incentive structure, but the fact that thinking professionally about logic, epistemology, and ontology comes with occupational hazards, such as arrogance and sophistry.

Indeed, what are screeds like Sailer's doing but replaying the Sophist drama once again, with 'philosophers' now taking the part of arrogant politickers and the 'scientists' the upstart asker of questions? It makes me wonder how much of the Sophist's reputation is deserved and how much was because Socrates won the smear campaign.

This brings me to my wild tangent.

"Mediterranean peoples such as Jews and Italians, who have been drinking wine for 10,000 years, have evolved impressive genetic and cultural defences against becoming alcoholics. In contrast, Northern Europeans, who first obtained alcohol only a few millennia ago, haven't fully adapted genetically to alcohol yet, and thus must often turn to cruder cultural responses like teetotalling, prohibition and the Betty Ford Clinic. Finally, those racial groups unfortunate enough not to taste alcohol and other sugar-based products until the last few centuries, such as the First Nations peoples of Canada and the Australian Aborigines, are currently being devastated by alcoholism, tooth decay and diabetes."

The Internet is the same. Specifically, comment sections. As technology has marched on, we seem to be progressively finding methods of communication further and further removed from the face-to-face. However, of those methods, only letters have developed conventions far different from those of face-to-face, producing the communication equivalent of tooth decay and diabetes. So, in a few centuries or millennia, I predict we'll have had time to adapt to this new technology. Until then, accept as inevitable the decay of your comment section into "FIRST!" semiliterate babbling, gay jokes, and spew from the fellow travellers of neonazis. At least, without drastic measures ("teetotalling") which most find do more harm than good.

[1] I don't care whether they're actually hard-headed; rather this self-evaluation looks to me to mark the group with good precision.

[2] I wanted a survey to try to direct my search. Eventually I concluded that osmosis is strong enough that if I've missed anything, reinventing the wheel is faster than trying to find it in places like Critique of Pure Reason.

[3] Also, things like how much life insurance you need. Here's the calculation: your income, times the years until your dependents aren't, plus your debts. What this means is that if you die the day your insurance goes through, your dependents will have the benefit of your support until they no longer need it, and won't be responsible for your debts. Also, buy term. It's ridiculously cheap, and isn't a ponzi scheme. Difficult, eh? Can you think of a class or two you'd have liked to replace with something useful, like life insurance?

[4] Unless you make the effort to specifically seek out statistics, and then you get the full technical details, instead of being taught to understand the stuff. No, I don't need to actually perform regression analysis or power transformations, nor do I need to memorize Bayes' formula, because I never need to actually perform these calculations. But I do need to understand what they mean and what they're about.


D12 said...

I read the whole blog entry and I gotta say I feel lost about the main purpose of it, although I gotta say I don't know anything about that Sailer guy and what is it you disagree with him.
Even if I didn't get it all, I loved your comparison of current philosophy/positivist establishment and the Sophist's position at Socrates time. I must say it really feels that way when I compare some of my unpopular philosophical positions with the status-quo.
The scientific method is actual the versatile idol of Scientism, the way the engrand themselves above the other "spurious" knowledge. When you read the first chapters on Popper's "The Logic of Scientific Discovery" it is as clear as day. The actual logic the positivists were using to explain knowledge were as flawed as a child's belief in Santa Claus. And logic was not discovered by the scientific method, whatever that is.
I actually read Descartes on the scientific method and it is essentially so simple as to be obviously what everyone that was advancing in life was doing exactly that, he just put it in writing with a style extremely simple and advanced for his time. Remember that most literature those days were poetry. So Descartes was remarkable because he wrote the same way he would explain his ideas in the day's vernacular. People felt imediatly attracted to that intimacy and clearness.

"The first was never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgment than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.

The second, to divide each of the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible, and as might be necessary for its adequate solution.

The third, to conduct my thoughts in such order that, by commencing with objects the simplest and easiest to know, I might ascend by little and little, and, as it were, step by step, to the knowledge of the more complex; assigning in thought a certain order even to those objects which in their own nature do not stand in a relation of antecedence and sequence.

And the last, in every case to make enumerations so complete, and reviews so general, that I might be assured that nothing was omitted."
-Descartes, Discourse on the Method

Alrenous said...

"I read the whole blog entry and I gotta say I feel lost about the main purpose of it,"

Yeah, so am I, really. I wrote it partially trying to find the thread, because I think there's something there, but it doesn't seem to have worked.

I wonder if that means Sailer's original piece lacks focus as well, substituting an illusion.

"assigning in thought a certain order even to those objects which in their own nature do not stand in a relation of antecedence and sequence."

Like I haven't read Kant, I haven't read Descartes. (I've been messing around with the Cogito a lot lately.) It's really pleasant to watch him be on the ball.

Physics of course really doesn't care which entity comes before another, but in the mind, it is incredibly helpful to place logic into a hierarchy.