Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Atheism and poverty yet again

Sigh. It's really bugging me, especially since Mike the Mad Biologist, whom I usually admire, has linked, apparently uncritically, to Chris Arnade's essay, Atheism is an intellectual luxury for the wealthy. So I want to look at the issue in a different way.

Arnade's argument seems to be that religious faith is a comfort to the poorest and most oppressed; atheists oppose religious belief, therefore atheists wish to deny comfort to the poorest. Because we wish to deny comfort to the poor, we are as morally and emotionally stunted as the ultra-wealthy. Arnade's argument is in the same vein as David V. Johnson's article, A Refutation of the Undergraduate Atheists. According to Johnson, atheists argue that the world would be better off if, holding everything else constant, religious belief was removed from society. However, because religious belief is (among other things) a comfort to the poorest, removing religious belief, ceteris paribus*, would entail great suffering. It is therefore wrong to oppose religious belief.

"Everything else being equal," or, "holding all else constant."

I want to make clear that by the "poorest," I don't mean people who don't have a lot of stuff. I mean the people who, for more-or-less economic reasons, simply cannot obtain basic human dignity and social value from secular society. These are people who must turn to illusion to gain the most basic emotional support necessary for human survival.

The problem with Arnade's and Johnson's arguments is that unlike things like food stamps or welfare, religious belief cannot simply be eliminated without changing anything else. There are some problems that can be examined in isolation, such as church-state separation, but the overall issue of religion cannot. There is perhaps some value in performing a ceteris paribus cost-benefit speculation (and arguing that the benefits would outweigh the costs is not to be indifferent to the costs), but such speculation is entirely hypothetical. It is completely impossible to simply excise religion from human culture without changing anything else.

I accept the argument that those who cannot find dignity and value from secular society must by necessity turn to religion. But so what? How does that change my project?

For Arnade's and Johnson's arguments to be relevant, they must show one of two things. First, they could show that atheists really are directly targeting the poorest and trying to undermine their faith without compensation. I don't think anyone can actually do so; I read a lot of atheists, and that direct targeting is just not there. Alternatively, they could show that the actual atheist project indirectly undermines the value of religion for the poorest. But how?

The atheist project rests on four interlocking planks: the intellectual, philosophical, and scientific bankruptcy of religion, state secularism a.k.a. church-state separation, atheists as first-class citizens and moral human beings, and the social delegitmization of religion.

The first three planks of the atheist project are irrelevant; the only relevant plank is the fourth, the social delegitimization of religion. Certainly if religion were immediately and completely socially delegitimized, the poor might suffer. (They might get mad enough to revolt, and gain in secular society what they are denied today and must turn to religious illusion to supply. But that's an argument for another day.) But religion cannot be immediately and completely delegitimized. So instead of noting that the immediate and complete (and impossible) delegitimization might have undesireable consequences, we have to ask, what are the consequences of a gradual and partial (and possible) delegitimization?

There are three kinds of atheist. First, there are "individual" atheists, atheists who really don't care at all about other people's religious beliefs. Second, there are libertarian atheists. These atheists really do not care about (or endorse) the suffering of the poorest. However, these beliefs are not at all connected; they don't care about the poorest just because they don't care about the poorest, not because they are atheists (and vice versa, they are atheists just because they do not believe in any god, not because they don't care about the poorest). Finally, there are liberal, progressive, and radical atheists, atheists who want to eradicate religious belief among the poorest by eliminating poverty. We don't want a world where the poorest are denied the comfort of religion; there are many disagreements about ways and means, but we all want a world where there are no poorest, where everyone can obtain dignity and human value just by being good people. We believe, among other things, that a world that supports the social legitimacy of religion allows for the existence of the poorest; we want a world that does not allow anyone to live in such poverty. We don't want to take away the comfort; we want to take away the need for that comfort. For this we deserve praise, not censure.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Pragmatism, naturalism, and phenomenalism

What follows here is my own understanding of philosophy. I use various terms as convenient labels. Other philosophers have other things to say about the subjects I discuss here; feel free to read them to find out their own thoughts.

To illustrate the fundamentals of philosophy, I'm going to explain my understanding of pragmatism, phenomenalism, scientific naturalism, and utilitarianism. I'm not going to discuss aesthetics; although enough philosophers have written about aesthetics to make it a proper part of philosophy, I personally don't consider it a philosophically important topic.

Before anyone every studies philosophy, or even starts thinking abstractly, we somehow acquire the intuitive concept that there's a "real world" that is "out there," i.e. somehow outside our minds, a "real" world that we discover, not invent, and to which our thoughts do or do not correspond to. As philosophers, we want to explore this intuition. Why do we have it? Which parts of this intuition must be taken on "faith," and which parts have some sort of logical relationship to what is taken on faith? To explore this intuition, I will first create an arbitrary language game called pragmatic scientific naturalism. The rules are interlocking, so to make sense of some rules will require later rules.

The first rule of this language game is called phenomenalism. Phenomenalism (as I define it) states that subjective experiences as experiences are brute facts and strongly properly basic. A brute fact is a foundational fact; it is "true" just by virtue of existing. Strongly properly basic means that the "truth" of a fact is by itself without any mediation sufficient ground or cause to know the fact (and to know we know the fact, and know we know we know, ad infinitum), and that something is not a brute fact is by itself sufficient ground or cause to know that it's not a brute fact. (Weakly properly basic includes only the positive connection. We cannot by definition be ignorant of a strongly properly basic brute fact; we can, however, be ignorant of a weakly properly basic brute fact.) Note that this definition is transitive, and the order is unimportant: that we know a brute fact is "true" is sufficient ground to believe the brute fact is "true."

Phenomenalism says nothing at all directly about any relationship between our experiences and the "real world." Indeed, phenomenalism does not take the "real world" in any sense as a foundational brute fact or as strongly (or even weakly) properly basic. All phenomenalism states is that our subjective experiences as experiences are "true" by definition.

The second rule of this language game is called pragmatism. Pragmatism (as I define it) states that we can think in different ways, and some ways of thinking "do a job" we want done. Pragmatism is weakly properly basic: if something does a job, we can know that it does the job, but we can be ignorant of other ways of thinking that might do the job equally well or better.

Pragmatism says nothing about the metaphysical Truth of a way of thinking; it does not say that because some way of thinking does one job or another that it is therefore True. It just says that we can tell directly that some way of thinking does some particular job.

The first job we're interested in doing is organizing, interpreting, and predicting our experiences. One way of doing that job that we can tell works is to hypothesize the existence of a real world outside our minds with independent "existence" that (somehow) causes some of our subjective experiences, and we can make theories, i.e. connected collections of hypotheses, from which we can deduce statements about our experiences, which we can strongly properly basically relate to our actual experiences. This method works so well that it has actually evolved; we didn't really have to think it up. Our brains just do it for us automatically, but we could, in theory, perform this process consciously with finite minds and no neural pre-processing.

Note that formally, we don't say that there "really is" a real world out there; it's just a useful way of organizing and predicting our experiences; indeed, the two statements are pragmatically indistinguishable, and thus, according to pragmatism, are just two different ways of saying the same thing. If metaphysical uncertainty bothers you, pragmatic scientific naturalism is not for you, but I don't see much alternative than to simply define yourself to be metaphysically True.

tl;dr: Our subjective experiences are obtrusive, and the "real world" is a hypothetical construct that we can tell does the job of explaining, organizing, and predicting our obtrusive subjective experiences.

Fundamentals of philosophy

Philosophy, per Wittgenstein's phrase, a language game: it is something we do with and about language. Philosophy is unique in that the rules of the philosophy language game are (part of) the subject matter of the game. So the "rules" of the philosophy language game are just really a starting point. I will link to few if any actual philosophers here; most of what I'm talking about is common knowledge and common sense, the rest is original.

Our starting rules divide philsophy into five broad categories. The first is epistemology: what it means to say one "knows" something. The second is ontology: what it means to say something "exists." The third is ethics: what it means to say something is "good" or "bad." The fourth is aesthetics: what it means to say something is beautiful. The fifth, and where philosophy gets all self-referential, is metaphysics: what it means to say something "means" something. Note that our starting rules are part of metaphysics, as are the general (but by no means uncontroversial) use of ordinary deductive (syllogistic) and inductive (empirical) reasoning.

I place epistemology before ontology on purpose, although the order is by no means uncontroversial. I think we construct our ontology, our picture of existence, to explain and interpret our knowledge. Others prefer to go the other way: we can talk about what we know only in terms of what exists.

One big problem in philosophy is foundationalism: what gets accepted as true "by default," and what can we do with that foundation. Remember: deductive reasoning requires premises, which are accepted as true "outside" the syllogism. Inductive reasoning requires facts; our inductive reasoning seeks to find the simplest theory that explains the facts. Premises are thus the foundation of a deductive system, and the facts are the foundation of an inductive system. It is perhaps possible to eliminate foundationalism entirely, but these systems quickly become highly weird.

Several distinctions pop up often in philosophical discussions. The first is the objective/subjective distinction. The philosophical canon uses these words inconsistently, so I will disambiguate them explicitly: Objective refers to the "real world outside our minds"; subjective refers to the content of a "mind" irrespective of the "real world." The concept of a "real world outside our minds" requires more elaboration, which I will discuss in more detail later. The concepts of objective and subjective can be expanded: for example, intersubjective refers to something in many minds at once; relationally subjective refers to the interaction between an object in the real world and our minds.

One way the objective/subjective distinction is used ambiguously is to use "objective" to mean consistently determinable. For example, it is consistently determinable that 2+2=4. It is also consistently determinable that if you divide a shape up into an infinite number of pieces in a specific way, you can construct two identical copies of the obect with the same volume as the original. Whether the consistent determinability of a concept implies something about the real world outside our minds requires linking the distinct concepts of consistent determinability and objectivity. In contrast, arbitrary means that any answer will do; for example, I can find broccoli tasty while you can find it disgusting without any contradiction or conflict.

The alert reader will note that I've said nothing about truth. In all my years of studying philosophy, I've never seen a useful definition of the word "truth," and it appears that I can do all the philosophy I want without ever using the word except as a philosophically trivial constant in formal logic.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Psychological comfort

Oh yay, another article about the psychological benefits of religion: A Refutation of the Undergraduate Atheists by David V. Johnson. Let's ignore the fact that Johnson insults both atheists and undergraduates; there are a lot of undergraduates who are smart, capable, and on their way to graduate school. And never mind that Johnson does not cite, much less quote, a single atheist argument; we are to rely entirely on his (insulting) paraphrase. And, finally, we can ignore the circularity of his central argument:
[S]uppose that in the alternative universe, human beings would not have this tendency towards religion. They would not be quite like us. Let us call them "Dawkinsians." They would be like human beings in every respect, including their stupidity, impulsiveness and tribalism, but they would lack any tendency toward forming religious beliefs. They would certainly lack the psychological boon from religion, but they would also somehow not have the need for it. They couldn't all be like David Hume, meeting death without blinking — that would be unfair. (Of course humanity would be better off if everyone were like David Hume!) What would it be like, from the inside, to be a Dawkinsian in a world of fellow Dawkinsians? To be a human-like creature, but to be satisfied with the rational belief that there is no God, no ultimate meaning or goodness to the universe, no life after death, and so on. Would Dawkinsians dread their own deaths? Would they have any capacity for mystical feeling? Would they suffer existential angst? Would they worry about the ultimate grounds of good and evil? If they did, then they would likely be worse off, I submit, than a world of human beings with religion.
In short, a world without religion would lack religion, and religion is good, therefore religion is good. It's amazing that people get paid to write and publish this bullshit.

Instead, let's look at the notion of psychological comfort. What, precisely is religion comforting us against? Is it, as Johnson suggests, "existential angst"? I don't think so. Existential angst and the dread of death are, like atheism, luxuries of the rich. What religion comforts people from, as Chris Arnade notes (from my previous post), is oppression, exploitation, and degradation by other human beings.

Why do we have to lie to people to comfort them? That's condescending, paternalistic, and insulting. Religion is the means that the oppressors use to keep the oppressed from rising up against their oppressor. The "psychological comfort" of religion is actually more important to the oppressors: it allows them to escape the guilt of their crimes against humanity. "Sure we exploit and immiserate the mass of humanity," they might think, "but they're comforted by their delusions of god."

The notion of psychological comfort is nothing but a privileged cop out. We don't need to do anything about the actual exploitation of humanity, so long as we give them the illusion of comfort. That's not just a mistake, that's a crime.

Atheism, a luxury of the wealthy

In The people who challenged my atheism most were drug addicts and prostitutes, Chris Arnade observes that the poorest and most oppresed in society are some of the strongest religious believers. Religious belief, he notes, offers such people the hope and dignity they cannot get from society. From these observations, Arnade concludes that atheists are indifferent to the plight of the poorest. "Who am I," Arnade asks himself rhetorically as an atheist, "to tell them the one thing that gives them hope and allows them to find some beauty in an awful world is inconsistent?" Atheism, while superficially clever, partakes of the selfishness and emotional distance of the wealthy.

Arnade explicitly compares atheism to the privilege of the rich, linking to an earlier story, The wealthy 'make mistakes', the poor go to jail, contrasting the privilege of the rich with the oppression of the poor. Arnade seems to reason that only the wealthy can afford atheism, the wealthy are at best emotionally distant from and indifferent to the plight of the poor, therefore atheists are equally distant and indifferent. Our project, or an inevitable consequence of our project, is to take away the only thing that can give the poorest any hope, without offering anything in return. And we don't care, because we are just as emotionally distant and indifferent as the very wealthy.

While the poorest and most oppressed can rarely afford atheism, atheism is not a characteristic of only the ultra-wealthy, and atheism is distinct from the rationalizations and justifications the capitalist rulers of society. Arnade's comparison is not only odious and offensive, but also untrue. While the most oppressed can rarely afford atheism, atheists include people from all but the very poorest socioeconomic classes, and the religious include people from even the very top classes. Arnade offers no evidence, only guilt by association, showing any connection between non-belief in gods and indifference to the plight of the poor.

The only atheist Arnade references is an unflattering caricature of Richard Dawkins. But neither Dawkins nor any other even moderately prominent atheist makes a project of stripping religious belief from the poorest of the poor. Atheists have long recognized the role of religion for the poorest of society. As Marx famously notes in the introduction to Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people." Those people oppressed by an unjust society, who seek in a delusion some comfort and dignity denied by society, do not directly offend the vast majority of atheists. Atheists struggly against the pervasive religiosity of society, not its presence in one social class. By criticizing atheists, Arnade seems to imply that this pervasive religiosity is necessary to comfort the poorest, that we all must pretend so that those we deny real dignity can maintain its illusion. Atheists have a different perspective: a society that requires a pervasive delusion is a bad society; we should have a society where everyone can find hope and dignity in the real world, not an illusion. No individual can do everything; atheists are just those who attack the delusion directly, while others struggle against the material injustice of society.

Arnade is also actively infected by religious delusion, to the detriment of those he supposedly champions. He sees the addicts and prostitutes as failed people; his central criticism of the wealthy (and therefore atheists) is that wealth has "numbed their understanding of our fallibility." But the poorest are not those who have failed in any meaningful sense. They are oppressed. They are victims of a society that has institutionalized oppression and degradation. Arnade does nothing here but assert his own smug paternalistic superiority masquerading as compassion.

Arnade needs to understand that atheists do nothing but point out that we have constructed a lie to justify and rationalize the oppression and degradation of millions of people. When that lie is exposed, maybe we will be less hesitant to permit the degradation that the lie conceals.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

EdTechnology Ideas

I don't usually advertize here, but a commenter brings EdTechnology Ideas to my attention, which appears to be an open access peer reviewed journal about educational technology with considerable academic support. A look at the site and a quick google doesn't reveal anything obviously dodgy. If you have any feedback on the site, let me know in the comments.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Good and evil

I am attempting here to channel how "conservatives" think. I am not a conservative, so you should not see this post as in any way authoritative. I am trying to be as charitable as I can manage.

I believe that a lot of the kind of thinking I describe here is common to progressives and left-radicals. Deciding whether such commonality is good or bad is left as an exercise for the reader.

The only thing that really matters is good and evil. Everything else is minutia.

The human struggle is, and has always been, a struggle between good and evil. It is not a struggle against nature; it is the struggle between good and evil that exists in men's minds. (I use the gendered term advisedly.)

Material prosperity doesn't really matter. Knowledge doesn't really matter. Progress doesn't really matter. They're all kinda nice, I suppose, but they're not what it's all about. It's all about good and evil.

Good is difficult. Good is uncomfortable and often painful. Good is rare. People don't want to be good.

Evil is easy. Evil is pleasurable. Evil is common. People want to be evil.

The only reason evil does not immediately triumph over good is that good is, well, good. Good has an intrinsic power that evil does not. In any society, however primitive, however corrupt, there will be some men who will choose good, no matter how painful, no matter how difficult, simply because it is good. These men are the architects of civilization.

Good and evil exist in men's minds, thus it is intrinsically social. The fundamental purpose of human society is to be the struggle between good and evil. This point bears repeating: human society is not for the struggle, it is the struggle. The struggle between good and evil is eternal. It cannot be "won" (although it might be possible to be lost). What it means to be a human being is to be a part of the struggle; with apologies to Aristotle, any man who is not part of the struggle is either a beast or a god. Without good and evil, without this struggle, it would mean nothing to be "human"; man would be nothing more than an unusually clever animal.

We are always refining our understanding of good and evil, so there is always some controversy over what exactly is good and evil. Still, it is generally agreed that good has to do with hard work, self-denial, personal responsibility, frugality and saving, sexual continence; evil is laziness, self-indulgence, parasitism, profligacy and debt, and promiscuity. The good looks always to the future; evil always only to the present.

It is not strictly necessary to be religious to understand and endorse the struggle between good and evil. However, most of the world's great religions, especially Christianity, are directly built around the struggle. Not all Christians are conservative, of course, but religion, especially Christianity, is a natural springboard for conservatism.

There are three key social elements to the struggle between good and evil.

First, society must discover good and evil. We cannot see directly into the hearts of men, so we need to look at means and results to discover good and evil. That's why sports are really important. If athletes don't cheat, success in sports is dependent on all of the virtues of conservatism: hard work, self-denial, etc. Cheating in sports is reprehensible not because of pragmatic concerns, but because it corrupts the "good-detecting" function of sports.

Second, society must reward good and punish evil. Again, there is no underlying "reason" to reward good and punish evil; there is always good and evil, and good must be rewarded just because that is what a reward is fundamentally for; evil must be punished because that is what punishment is fundamentally for. Trying to search for a fundamental reason is to miss the point. Like the struggle between good and evil, rewarding good and punishing evil isn't "for" anything; it just is.

Third, society must force most people to be good, because they won't do it on their own. Every individual's life must be guided by society; without such guidance, they would be evil. Even the rulers must be governed; indeed, the moral restrictions on the rulers must be stronger than those on the ruled. When these moral restrictions on the rulers are removed, they become weak and eventually lose their rule.

Some corollaries emerge from the above principles.

First, although the rulers are, to a certain extent, more good than the ruled, the most important criterion of rule is not virtue but strength. The rulers must have the strength to force the ruled to be good. Because virtue is not the defining characteristic of the rulers, it is not really hypocrisy when some ruler is found to be less than perfect. The rulers, just like the ruled, are struggling with good and evil, and their success in that struggle is not foreordained. What is more important to determine when some ruler indulges in evil is whether he has the strength to overcome it, and the strength to enforce the good on the weaker and more evil.

Second, authority is a fundamental element of society: authority is the act of the strong forcing the weak to be good. To argue against authority is not to argue for a different kind of society or civilization; it is to undermine the very essence of society and civilization.

Finally, the status of women presents two specific challenges. First, women have to be forced to bear children. Childbirth is such a difficult, painful, dangerous task that without strong social coercion, only the few, rare women capable of being good for its own sake would have children, and the human race (or a society that does not force women to have children) would become extinct. More importantly, the natural* role of women is to rear children. Girls have to be nurtured to become nurturing women, and boys have to nurtured for a while before they become men and step up to struggle between good and evil. Nurture, however, is antithetical to the adult male struggle between good and evil, so women (with some exceptions), because they are by nature nurturing, cannot fully participate in the struggle between good and evil.

*Not necessarily biological nature; the role of women might be socially constructed. However, the role of women as the bearers and rearers of children is so pervasive and deeply embedded in all civilized cultures that it might as well be biological.

What conservatives fear about liberals is not that they think liberals have different ideas about what is good and what is evil, it is that liberals abandon the struggle between good and evil. They want to make the rulers decadent and weak so that they cannot perform their primary job of making weaker people, who are more prone to evil, act and be good. Liberals do not argue for a different kind of society, they wish to undermine what it means to be a society, a society of human beings at least. They say they want a society of gods, but men cannot be gods; all we will get is a society of beasts, living in the moment, with no thought for the future. Elite and common alike will abandon the struggle between good and evil, beinging a society of parasites and hosts, all equally morally bereft.

It is precisely because conservatives are trying to uphold the fudamental nature of society that social mores that seem silly and irrelevant to liberals take on such importance to conservatives. Any corruption of the soul makes more corruption easier; steal a dollar and it's much easier to steal the next \$10, \$100, and so on. To say, "It's only a dollar," is to miss the point completely: the amount doesn't matter; the principle matters.

If you don't understand good and evil, and the every-day, every-second struggle as the foundation of society, you don't understand conservatives.

5 Facts About Being Poor (From a Rich Person)

5 Facts About Being Poor (From a Rich Person)
  • #5. Poor People Can't Hear What You're Saying
  • #4. Being Poor Is Probably a Lot of Fun
  • #3. Poor People Have Everything Rich People Have, Just Smaller
  • #2. Poor People Are Idiots
  • #1. Poor People Get Really Mad About Things Rich People Say

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Academic Choice theory

Blacklisted Economics Professor Found Dead: NC Publishes His Last Letter:

. . . Public Choice is the pathbreaking theory that demystified the decisions of politicians, showing that they act rationally in order to maximize their own economic benefits.
Soon after receiving tenure, it occurred to me that we were being profoundly inconsistent. While we had correctly criticized the previous mainstream view that politics involved benevolent efforts to serve the common good, we had failed to apply the same rigor to the community of academic economists. As a result, we were modeling both economic and political actors as self-interested utility-maximizing agents, while continuing to see economics professors as idealistic pursuers of truth. I decided to correct this oversight by developing my theory of Academic Choice, in which economists are theorized as rational agents who continually seek to maximize their future earnings potential.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

I'm "bad" at math

I have a confession to make: I'm "bad" at math. My math professors seem to disagree; I've received A's in all my math classes so far, including my math-heavy economics classes. I'm probably not going to get an A in my latest math class, but that has more to do with the fact that my personal life is very weird right now, and that I'm not going to pursue math as math any farther. (I'll still do math in economics, though.)

The thing is, I'm "bad" at math, but I'm good at doing things I'm "bad" at. I should probably explain what I mean here.

To be "good" at something is to fully internalize the fundamental mental tools of a discipline to the point where the conscious mind can simply take the tools for granted.

For example, I'm "good" at expository writing. Although I'm always making refinements and improvements, I have fully internalized the fundamental tools of grammar, punctuation, and spelling, as well as paragraph and larger-unit organization. I don't have to consciously think about any of these elements; most of the major cognitive work has been moved to my subconscious. When I have an idea, it just "appears" in my conscious mind in properly constructed sentences and paragraphs. My subconscious is not perfect, and I do of course still have to think consciously about writing, but 90% of the work happens in my subconscious. Internalizing these low-level tools is not sufficient to be "good" at writing, and it is possible to write well without these tools, but internalizing the tools makes writing well consistently and frequently easier and more enjoyable. I can spend almost all of my time thinking about the subject matter, rather than the presentation, and when I think about presentation, I can focus on "higher-level" tasks rather than struggling to make sure each sentence is grammatically correct. Similarly, I'm "good" at computer programming, and I've internalized the fundamental syntax and organization of computer programming, freeing my mind to think about "higher level" work.

(Note that my dry, abstract, and somewhat dense style is by design. I write what I like to read.)

My facility with writing is not a matter of "talent" or innate ability, except to the extent, I think, that I "innately" enjoy reading and writing. Basically, because I enjoy the subject matter, I enjoy practicing to gain these low-level skills. I don't have to "force" myself to read or write, and I don't have to "force" myself to write computer programs.

In contrast, I'm not "good" at math because I haven't internalized the fundamental mental tool of mathematics, which is ordinary algebra. I consciously know algebra, but I haven't internalized it. I could, I suppose, but unlike writing and computer programming, I don't innately enjoy algebra. When I get a difficult algebraic problem, I have to force myself to solve it, and if I can use a crutch, like a computer-aided algebra system, I will do so without hesitation.

I don't fully agree with Doron Zeilberger; I don't think mathematicians should let computers do all of the algebra (including the "algebra" of integrals) precisely because so much of higher math seems to involve "creative" algebra: seeing the "hidden" algebraic relationships necessary to solve complex problems; Seeing these "hidden" relationships requires internalizing the low-level algebraic mechanics. In writing, "seeing" how to express a complex thought requires internalizing the low-level mechanics of grammar. (Again, you can express a complex thought without internalizing the low-level mechanics of grammar, but it's much more difficult to do so: you can't just "see" the correct expression.)

I'm good at doing things I'm bad at because 90% of most interesting endeavors is seeing patterns, and I'm "good" at seeing patterns, precisely because I enjoy looking for patterns and practice a lot. I can do most anything that isn't pure "muscle memory," precisely because I'm good at picking up on the patterns within a field. But if I don't enjoy actually acquiring the muscle memory, my progress is limited: I won't practice. I'm not a big fan of "discipline," practicing things I don't enjoy doing for the sake of internalizing the fundamentals. I'd rather spend my time practicing things I actually do enjoy.

I'm just finished Calculus III (multivariate calculus), and I'm done with math as math. Calc III, at least as I've been taught, is 1% generally interesting patterns, 2% patterns interesting to physicists, and 97% grinding out algebra. I'm not really complaining; Calc III is the gateway to a math degree (and most STEM degrees), and intensively practicing algebra enough to internalize it is absolutely necessary. You need to either really enjoy doing algebra, or have enough discipline to practice it anyway. But I have neither enjoyment nor sufficient discipline to continue.

I wouldn't change that math majors really should practice algebra continuously; they need it. Still, there are a couple of things I wouldn't mind seeing in math instruction.

First, it would be awesome to have a math track for people who don't do math as math; focusing on the higher-level patterns in math which are (even if the underlying algebra is tedious) amazingly interesting, beautiful, and incredibly useful. A lot of different fields, including economics (and, to some extent, political science), can use a lot of higher math without having to actually grok the math as math.

The second thing I'd like to change is how math is taught in economics. Just as a political scientist, not to mention a ratical revolutionary communist, the pretense that economics is not a normative discipline is ridiculous. To uphold the pretense, economics has retreated into math; "economists" just prove mathematical theorems that they suspect might have some tenuous relevance to how people produce, distribute, and consume goods and services. I have been advised many times that if I want to get a Ph.D. in economics, it's nearly useless to study undergraduate economics; top grad schools would rather have candidates who are great mathematicians who know little to nothing about economics than people with a deep understanding of economics with less than the most excellent mathematical skill. I have just enough discipline to master enough math to get a Master's in economics, but I can think of few endeavors I would find more boring and pointless than to do what passes for economics at the Ph.D. level. If I'm offending any of my current or future professors or advisors, oh well; they will have to console themselves that they are at least ensuring that a future political scientist and theorist with not be completely ignorant of the structure of capitalist economics.

I'm not saying that economics should not use a lot of math. Math is an extremely useful language for talking about the world. I am saying, however, that unlike mathematicians, and perhaps unlike physical scientists, economists do not need to be "good" at math. Being "good" at math is, I think, useful for purely descriptive fields, but economics is normative (and anyone who tells you differently is trying to sell you something). All the problems in economics that I find interesting are not about finding new ways of describing the world in rigorous mathematics, they are about looking at how our social relations interact and intersect with real economic behavior (producing, distributing, and consuming real goods and services). (Hence I'm more-or-less a "Marxist.") Math is useful, but not fundamental. It's more important to be "good" at economics, to internalize thinking about real economic behavior, than to be "good" at math.

But the world isn't as I wish it to be. Fortunately, there's enough wiggle room in the system that I can educate myself in what I want to learn while still doing what academia wants me to do to gain the credentials that I need.

ETA: I've since improved my math.

Monday, December 02, 2013

On the teaching of philosophy

I came to academia in a somewhat roundabout fashion. I used to work in the computer business as a software engineer. While working, I got involved in the atheist/theist debate at a relatively intellectual level, at the Internet Infidels Discussion Board. Talking about arguments for the existence of god(s) led relatively naturally into the philosophy, because many canonical philosophers have discussed the topic, and the modes of discourse is very similar. As a computer programmer, I think I have gained some modicum of skill at logical reasoning and argumentation. Some years later, I left the computer business (I was pushed out, to some extent, but I didn't have to be pushed hard) and entered academia as an undergraduate student. For several years, I was considering studying philosophy, but by the time I actually became a student, philosophy was completely off the table. Indeed, despite that I would have been well-prepared, I very carefully avoided taking any actual philosophy classes. The reason for excluding philosophy has everything to do with how I observed professional philosophers, i.e. people with Ph.D.s in philsophy who were academic faculty, practiced philosophy.

Recently, Jonathan Wolff, a professor of philosophy, wrote about sexism in academic philosopy: How can we end the male domination of philosophy?. I'm not going to comment on the gender implications specifically, but Wolff makes an important observation about how philosophy is practiced:
Instruction in philosophy often consists of being reprimanded for mistakes so small you need a magnifying glass to see them. At its worst, philosophy is something you do against an opponent. Your job is to take the most mean-minded interpretation you can of the other person's view and show its absurdity. And repeat until submission. Certainly the method has the merits of encouraging precision, but at the same time it is highly off-putting for those who do not overflow with self-confidence.
In Against (most) aggression in philosophy, Chris Bertram mostly agrees, noting that
the default mode for philosophical discussion leads far too often to destructive Q&A sessions that aim at destroying the opponent and bolstering the amour propre of the aggressor. Where the aim is victory, then all kinds of rhetorical moves can prove effective: there’s no reason to think that truth will emerge as a by-product. . . . [A] lot of conduct in philosophy goes well beyond the robust and forthright and tips into the straightforwardly arseholish.
In Speech-and-Debate vs. The Agon of Authenticity: How Least Badly To Fight, in Philosophy?, John Holbo seems to disagree; according to Holbo, the idea of philosophy as do-anything-to-win intellectual combat is just "teaching philosophy at its worst," presumably atypical and the product of just "a few assholes." My experience, however, more closely reflects Wolff and Bertram's view: asshole philosophy seems not sparse but pervasive.

My sample is small and indirect. As noted above, I have never taken an academic philosophy class. My experiences consist entirely of talking to a few professional academic philosophers on blogs and message boards. My experiences should not be taken as representative of the profession as a whole. I am not seeking any redress; I am very happy with my current disciplines of political science and economics. I am, however, a reasonably intelligent, literate person with an interest in the philosophyt who has been literally driven away by its practitioners. Worse, I was driven away by academic philosophers I mostly agree with: pro-science atheists and humanists. (I'm not going to let a Christian drive me away from anything except religion.) Make of this post what you will.

I won't belabor examples; I will simply confirm that Wolff and Bertram's descriptions are not just typical of my experience, but without significant exception. I have had many productive discussions about philosophy with other amateurs, but I have never had a productive discussion about philosophy with a professional, from undergraduate students to tenured professors. Either I agree with them completely (which is unproductive), or at best, I am subject to, as Wolff notes, the immediate descent into the most uncharitable, often perverse, interpretation of my position. At worst, I often get the argument from authority; as I do not have a Ph.D. in philosophy, I am simply unqualified to have any position at all on anything philosophers consider withing their subject matter.

I am not lacking self-confidence. I find the asshole approach to intellectual discussion off-putting not because it undermines my fragile self-confidence, but because I find it a gigantic waste of time. I know how to fight, and when I really do consider my opponents to be not just mistaken but bad or hopelessly naive, as I usually do when discussing religious apologetics, I am happy to fight. But when I am trying to figure out what's true, I have no interest whatsoever in fighting. When discussing philosophy with professionals, I struggle to make myself understood by people who appear committed to not understanding me at all cost. To really understand the truth, I believce I have to make myself vulnerable, because I want to correct my own mistakes. Not only is there no reason to believe that combat is the best way to get to the truth, there's reason to believe it definitely impedes the search for truth.

I should reiterate: I am in no real position to critique the entire establishment of academic philosophy. I am not an insider, and I do not have the empirical data to draw any real conclusions as an outsider. All I can do is say that because of the very behavior that Wolff and Bertram describe, one potential student and practitioner has been driven away. If this result is by design, then academic philosophers can take my experience that they are achieving their purpose. If not, well, I guess it's up to them how to respond.