Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Philosophy: The Root of All

This may be my favorite XKCD comic ever. Not embedding because you'll want to see the rollover.

Filosophy Festival = Fun

From the Telegraph, via 3 Quarks Daily--an announcement of a philosophical festival in Wales.

Says the organizer, Hilary Lawson:
I'm interested in philosophy because it's about understanding the world and our lives. When we started the festival three years ago, philosophy was more likely to appear in Monty Python. It was a laughable matter, it was technical and analytical – not about our lives. Our aim is to overturn the current intellectually conservative environment, where ideas and philosophy are not valued or taken seriously. Our goal is to create an open, vibrant, intellectual culture which combines innovative thought with rich experience.
The festival partners philosophical debates with film, poetry, music, and fun. Yes, there is professional philosophy--and then there is philosophy. The world needs both, and it's likely that professionals could use more philosophy in their lives, too. (Just none of that metaphysics.)

The poet Ruth Padel says of the festival
Poetry and philosophy matter in everybody's lives.
This reminds me of a scene in Examined Life when Cornel West says that anyone can be a philosopher and that it doesn't take fancy schooling, but that it's not easy, either, and requires great courage. (Clip is here, with that passage right at the start.)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Adaptation to a changing climate in Chicago

In my academic life, there is much discussion of adaptation to climate change, often in the terms of a moral imperative to protect the disadvantaged and poor and to consider assisted colonization (or assisted migration) for desirable plant and animal species which are unable to migrate to a new environment quickly enough to keep up with rapid climate change.

There is less awareness of the necessity of climate adaptation in society at large. We more often hear about global warming in a context of trying to slow it down (mitigation), with less attention paid to how we will cope with the inevitable changes already underway. Except for insurance companies, which seem to be paying close attention!

Yesterday the NYTimes reported on how Chicago is working to get ahead of the curve, taking predicted climate change into account in its urban planning. Fifty years from now, Chicago's seasons and climate may be much more like Alabama's! Having experienced frigid Chicago winters, I'm wondering what it would be like to have such long, dark nights without the cold and snow.

Some of Chicago's actions include:
  • new street tree plantings are species from more southern ecosystems, eliminating the native white oak in favor of sweet gum.
  • more street trees in business districts to help control run-off water and to cool the air.
  • light-colored permeable pavers in parking and bike lanes to control run-off, to channel water to street plantings, and to lower the temperature.
  • rubbery additives to pavement assist with expansion and contraction due to extremely hot and cold seasons.
  • investing in air conditioners for public schools.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Philosophical language and the gender norm

The surprising encounter with the accusation that someone who fails to articulate disagreement is a 'wuss' has heightened my sense of gender normativity in language over the last few days. (This is public radio, not Howard Stern!) I'm happy to see that I'm not the only one who sees gender bullying played through language games.

Reading essays in Paul Horwich's Truth, Meaning, Reality (2010), he writes in "A World without Isms":
Of course it was wishful thinking for me to have suggested in my title that this could spell the end of all 'isms'. For there was bound to be one for the very point of view that I'm recommending. "A bloodless quietism" is how Crispin Wright has labeled it—"the bland perspective of a variety of assertoric 'language games', each governed by its own internal standards of acceptability, each sustaining a metaphysically emasculated notion of truth, each unqualified for anything of more interest or importance." Well, Crispin, sorry for being so anemic, boring, and effeminate...
This move allows the unconscious (and unthinking) sexism to be its own insult.

Friday, May 20, 2011

What does 'Wuss' Mean?

I sometimes download and archive podcasts but find that I don't listen to them as often as I intend. But then something will strike my fancy. And that's how I came to listen recently to a Philosophy Talk podcast dated 12/5/10.

The topic is "Disagreement" and the interview is with Jennifer Lackey of Northwestern, a social epistemologist who examines testimony as a source of knowledge. The topic is a fascinating one, and the sort of thing that I would encourage my students to think about.

But I got caught on this piece of dialogue:
"What should I do in the face of disagreement? Should I change my opinion just because you disagree? If I change my opinion just because you disagree, that seems kind of wussy. On the other hand, if I don't at least reconsider, that seems kind of arrogant. So what should I do: be wussy or arrogant? chuckle"

Lackey: nervous laughter
Why the chuckle and the nervous laughter?

Could it be because 'wuss' is a not-quite-polite word to use here? What does 'wuss' mean, anyway, and what is its origin?

I've always thought of 'wuss' as one of those words that is like the phrases 'that sucks' and 'it really blows.' They've become part of the vernacular, but we are marginally aware of their sexual origin. You wouldn't say it to your mother-in-law. At best, isn't it like substituting 'witch' for 'bitch'? The meaning is the same, and the substitute doesn't eliminate the sexist nature of the insult, or does it?

I looked up the origins of 'wuss' and found much speculation but no authoritative origin. Suggestive, though. It means 'wimp' and comes from the expression 'pussy-wussy,' meaning 'sissy.' It became popularized in the US in the 1980's. Strangely, some seem to say that 'sissy' does not have a sexual reference, and that 'pussy' in this context refers not to women's anatomy but to men who act timid, subservient, weak, and ineffectual and in this way are like women.

Either way, the term is a way of insulting a man by calling him either gay or feminine, and it plays either directly or indirectly off the slang word 'pussy.' I wonder what Jennifer Lackey, philosopher of language, thought at the time of the interview. The word gets additional power, of course, by being directed at a woman by a man, and in the context of a male-dominated profession.

I checked my instincts by asking a few of my colleagues. Some guys said that it's just a slang word, not too polite, meant to be insulting, but basically harmless. Some guys said it was insulting to gays. But women said it was sexist: "Oh, that's a way of saying 'pussy' without saying 'pussy'."

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Molyneux and Puzzles of Vision, Part II

I recently wrote about Molyneux's problem (2 posts ago, see the long quote from John Locke).

It's still on my mind, and by a stroke of luck I'm reading Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Chapter 2 is on seeing, and a passage addresses Molyneux's problem explicitly, recounting something she had read about the effect of cataract surgery on children and adults who had never before seen. Her summary reaches to the emotional impact of first sight, its wonders and its frustrations:
I chanced on a wonderful book by Marius von Senden, called Space and Sight. . . . For the newly sighted, vision is pure sensation unencumbered by meaning: "The girl went through the experience that we all go through and forget, the moment we are born. She saw, but it did not mean anything but a lot of different kinds of brightness." . . . In general the newly sighted see the world as a dazzle of color-patches. They are pleased by the sensation of color, and learn quickly to name the colors, but the rest of seeing is tormentingly difficult. . . . The mental effort involved . . . proves overwhelming for many patients. It oppresses them to realize, if they ever do at all, the tremendous size of the world, which they had previously conceived of as something touchingly manageable. . . . A disheartening number of them refuse to use their new vision, continuing to go over objects with their tongues, and lapsing into apathy and despair. . . . On the other hand, many newly sighted people speak well of the world, and teach us how dull is our own vision.
The full passage--almost 10 pages--is worth seeking out. After reading about the experience of newly discovered vision, Dillard experiments with her own sense of sight, trying to see space as flat colored patches rather than as already-interpreted spatial objects.
When the doctor took her bandages off and led her into the garden, the girl who was no longer blind saw "the tree with the lights in it." It was for this tree I searched through the peach orchards of summer, in the forests of fall and down winter and spring for years. Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The lights of the fire abated, but I'm still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had my whole life been a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. I have since only rarely seen the tree with the lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.
Photo: Beatrice Murch

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Major in Philosophy, Not Business

Not for the first time, a business blog lauds the skills of humanities majors over business majors, referencing this original post from Harvard Business Review.

The argument is precisely what we tell our majors to expect about how their degree will set them apart (and it's also the reason why assessment is so tricky in the humanities!):
Any great work of art — whether literary, philosophical, psychological or visual — challenges a humanist to be curious, to ask open-ended questions, see the big picture. This kind of thinking is just what you need if you are facing a murky future or dealing with tricky, incipient problems.
Humanities majors, these business leaders seem surprised to learn, spend their time in college practicing these general-purpose and adaptable skills:
  • thinking carefully about situations which involve complexity and ambiguity
  • creative problem-solving
  • clear writing and sophisticated oral presentation skills
  • understanding the subjective perspective of other people.
I would add to that list one more essential skill:
  • thinking for oneself and developing the courage to speak one's thoughts

Not only do business colleges encourage lock-step thinking, but their rigor has come under scrutiny by educational and sociological researchers who look at things such as average earning potential, exit exams, and time spent studying. One of the authors of Academically Adrift writes:
We found that students concentrating in business related coursework were the least likely to report spending time studying and preparing for class. If one considers simply hours spent studying alone, undergraduates concentrating in business coursework invest less than one hour a day in such pursuits. Given such modest investments in academic activities, it is not surprising that business students show the lowest gains on measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Molyneux's Problem: Can the Blind Know How Shapes Look by Touch Alone?

In my modern philosophy class, we recently read this excerpt from John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book II, Ch. 9:

To which purpose I shall here insert a problem of that very ingenious and studious promoter of real knowledge, the learned and worthy Mr. Molyneux, which he was pleased to send me in a letter some months since; and it is this:- "Suppose a man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his touch to distinguish between a cube and a sphere of the same metal, and nighly of the same bigness, so as to tell, when he felt one and the other, which is the cube, which the sphere. Suppose then the cube and sphere placed on a table, and the blind man be made to see: quaere, whether by his sight, before he touched them, he could now distinguish and tell which is the globe, which the cube?" To which the acute and judicious proposer answers, "Not. For, though he has obtained the experience of how a globe, how a cube affects his touch, yet he has not yet obtained the experience, that what affects his touch so or so, must affect his sight so or so; or that a protuberant angle in the cube, that pressed his hand unequally, shall appear to his eye as it does in the cube."- I agree with this thinking gentleman, whom I am proud to call my friend, in his answer to this problem; and am of opinion that the blind man, at first sight, would not be able with certainty to say which was the globe, which the cube, whilst he only saw them; though he could unerringly name them by his touch, and certainly distinguish them by the difference of their figures felt.

But this has remained a philosophical riddle for over 300 years--until a couple of weeks ago, when a study was published in Nature: Neuroscience. This new study confirms the intuitions of Locke and Molyneux, who were in the minority at their time--other philosophers thought that a blind person would immediately be able to make use of restored sight.

The study worked with 5 subjects in resource-poor countries who had been born with severe cataracts or correctible corneal disorders but who had not been treated. The subjects were old enough (8 years or older) to have language skills and be able to interact with the researchers. Within just a couple days of corrective surgery, the subjects were not able to correlate the sight of Lego shapes with shapes they could feel but not see. However, within days to weeks, they were able to make the correlations--showing that experience is needed but that learning progresses rapidly. NYT article here.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Exploring scientific frontiers

A student in my modern philosophy class gave me the link to this video after we talked about some of the scientific advances made in the 17th and 18th centuries, and particularly how the discovery of microscopic life in water (protists) inspired the thought that there were "worlds" within in this world of which humans were unaware.

Likewise, if I were an aspiring physicist, I would be vulnerable to the excitement this video conveys about discoveries in particle physics and cosmology.

Dark Matters from PHD Comics on Vimeo.