Saturday, September 11, 2010

Example 1: The Academic Community

I brought up a few small examples in the general post, but here’s a more in depth analysis of the issues of throwing out schools of thought within academia.

Let’s talk about disciplines of thought. Are you a math/science person or a history/English person? Divergent or convergent thinking? One answer or many? Black and white or shades of gray? The dichotomies abound, and you have to pick a side. Again, some of these are elucidating and important. Where would we be if the rationalists hadn’t furiously debated the empiricists? But just as importantly, we now know that they were both wrong, and that in fact, their positions, modified to be in line with modern thought, aren’t really in opposition at all.

When we talk about free will, for example, philosophy is obviously important. What does it mean to be free? How does this relate to consciousness? How does it affect choice and our understanding of the universe? When determinism comes up, physics inevitably does as well, whether the universe is being modeled as a game of pool, or the action potentials across the axons of the neurons in our brains. Stephen Pinker and Daniel Dennett then come in and remind us of the great importance of biology, not in terms of cells or motor proteins, but in evolution and the way that past successes and failures shape the way we do or do not make choices and perceive the world now. The social sciences then can tell us a great deal about what it means to be human in terms of universals, and then, finally, the humanities show us the great scope of what an overly large brain can create, in art and literature and the rest.

Seems unproblematic. Obviously, the existence of an evolutionary explanation in no way necessarily implies anything about meaningfulness or goodness or badness or how we should try to structure our society these days. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Stephen Pinker, in his book How the Mind Works, wastes a great deal of time bitching about the academic feminists and the Marxists and the café intellectuals and the social scientists. God, they’re all such post-structuralist, postmodernist, constructivists. They hate science, they’re ruining everything. But, to be fair, there are indeed intrinsic problems. Science has been fraught with pseudo-scientifically justified racism, ethically questionable studies and poorly done analyses of non-WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich democracies) societies. Nonetheless, it has advanced our understanding of the universe far beyond any armchair analysis has ever done or ever could do (Einsteinian thought experiments included). And while I could go into an analysis of what each “side” (they’re not really that easily separated or compared) has historically gotten right, the fact is it doesn’t matter. The facts do. Whatever is true, is true, and any discussion of what is right or what should be needs to start with what is.

There’s certainly room for improvement. Instead of working assiduously and transparently to understand the world and society and people on a variety of levels and tolerating dissent as it comes up, these different types of academics seem to hate each other. So perhaps we need to restructure the fields we have at our disposal, make sure we’re not committing any category mistakes, be clear and transparent about the assumptions under which we’re operating and ensure, above all else, that our moral claims stay separate from our truth claims and our truth claims are based on solid evidence. That makes all disciplines more flexible, more adaptable and more likely to be right. It allows the feminists and constructivists (who, by the way, Pinker, are not just looking for legal equality or individual empowerment or specifics of that sort. This is social change we’re talking about) to note that it’s been shown that people are exquisitely sensitive to context in terms of the way they see themselves and others and the way they behave. From that empirical basis, they can criticize prevalent racism and sexism and genderization in the media or in our commercial lives. It also allows others trying to effect social change to frame it in a way that, while non-utopian, may be more effective, such as looking closely at in-group and out-group formation rather than trying to eliminate difference or utilizing incentives instead of good will.

So everyone stays on their own turf, understanding and being clear about their own assumptions. That creates a specialized intellectual world that provides a myriad of ways through which to analyze the world. Nonetheless, they learn from each other, not in arguments and axioms, although those might translate, but in the findings that they reach, so that truth can grow as it is shared.

If only, if only.

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