“Wikipedia has evolved a radically different set of epistemological standards,” says Simson L. Garfinkel’s story in MIT’s Technology Review, Wikipedia and the Meaning of Truth: Why the online encyclopedia’s epistemology should worry those who care about traditional notions of accuracy.

…standards that aren’t especially surprising given that the site is rooted in a Web-based community, but that should concern those of us who are interested in traditional notions of truth and accuracy. On Wikipedia, objective truth isn’t all that important, actually. What makes a fact or statement fit for inclusion is that it appeared in some other publication–ideally, one that is in English and is available free online. “The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth,” states Wikipedia’s official policy on the subject.

We ought to be talking a lot more about our understanding of truth in general, not . Not incidentally, I think this sort of philosophical talk, which can be had even with quite young children, is sadly missing in most schools.

But, let’s put aside for a moment the question of Wikipedia’s reliability, though it’s a good question, for sure.

There is nothing radically different about Wikipedia’s conception of the truth, not as Garfinkel describes it anyway. Wikipedia’s conception of truth is a very old one. There was a time before objective truth. You might say it was pre-Scientific Revolution, or pre-Descartes, or even pre-Strato (do you trust the link?), but there was a time. You get a good picture of it in the scenes in the Rainbow Inn in George Eliot’s Silas Marner. For better or worse, for centuries, what was true was what people said was true; it was, as Garfinkel says of the modern Wikipedia, “the consensus view of a subject.”

Before anyone can say, “Well, thank heavens we’ve moved beyond that,” let me say that one of chief errors of science is to think that anyone with a subjective view can’t be trusted. C. S. Lewis wrote an insightful and lovely short essay, Meditation in a Toolshed, in which he says we can look at things, that is objectively, as a scientist does. And we can look along things, that is we can look at them subjectively.

As soon as you have grasped this simple distinction, it raises a question. You get one experience of a thing when you look along it and another when you look at it. Which is the “true” or “valid” experience? Which tells you most about the thing? And you can hardly ask that question without noticing that for the last fifty years or so everyone has been taking the answer for granted. It has been assumed without discussion that if you want the true account of religion you must go, not to religious people, but to anthropologists; that if you want the true account of sexual love you must go, not to lovers, but to psychologists; that if you want to understand some “ideology” (such as medieval chivalry or the nineteenth-century idea of a “gentleman”), you must listen not to those who lived inside it, but to sociologists.

There is nothing that makes looking at intrinsicly better than looking along, says Lewis. We need both points of view. Perhaps Wikipedia tries to combines these. That may be new to our eyes, but it’s hardly radical. In any event, the problem is not Wikpedia’s, but our own understanding of truth and epistemology. If we feel disoriented, it’s not because Wikipedia is radically different. It comes because we no longer give people the sort of epistemological compass–a good grounding in philosophy–in school.

Woolf at My Door

October 19, 2008

I have not gone in much for feminist polemics. Indeed, I have generally treated them as any bigot treats anyone or anything other than his own kind. That’s an embarrassing admission, but not one for which I am at all inclined to apologize, if I am at all honest. If the various feminine authors feel slighted or even abused by me, it is because those authors have not earned my sympathy or affection, and that in turn occurs because they have written mainly grievances or pleadings. Even the sober Mary Wollstonecraft (The Vindications: The Rights of Men & The Rights of Woman), I felt, thought too much of her sex; and “[…] anything written with that conscious bias is doomed to death,” says Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own. She is right. She is also right that the looking glass of womanhood has made me feel twice the man I really am, which, in a second embarrassing confession, I have enjoyed immensely and completely without warrant.

So, here I stand, dressed in my best vanity and fine ego, wanting nothing more at this moment than to invite Woolf to a dinner of partridges and port, which she says she would fancy, and both of which I can do rather well. The temptation is to call this a peace offering. The desire is to have some of that “profound, subtle and subterranean glow which is the rich yellow flame of rational discourse.” I was going to say manly discourse. The cause is that she has seduced me with her complete indifference, her offer not of a white feather nor of a red feather, but of no feather at all—I feel like a schoolboy deliberately trying to shock my teacher, who is much too adept to be baited. The reasons are two:

I do not so much want to write like Woolf; her voice is feminine and strange to me. But I do want to think or see more like she does, with a finer, clearer sense of Truth. My habit is to say “This is the way things are.” I speak too consciously, Woolf would tell me. Her habit is to show the way things are. To paraphrase Socrates: better (and harder) to refute the truth, for Woolf, or Wollstonecraft, or Brad are easily refuted. Woolf handles the contentious issue of gender with a courageous disinterest that is difficult to attack, even in Three Guineas, which is the a more political book.

Secondly, Woolf’s delivery seems the way to reinvigorate the so-called naked public square, Richard John Neuhaus’s central metaphor for the morally empty forum of public discussion. Neuhaus contends that moderns erroneously believe we can have a neutral discussion of politics. One is supposed to check one’s values, one’s maleness or femaleness, for example, at the entrance to the square, as if they were hats and coats. This is, of course, impossible. The best short definition of politics is given to us by Aristotle. Politics, he said, is free people deliberating the question, How ought we to order our life together? The “ought” in that definition indicates that politics is essentially a moral enterprise, not a neutral one. I am impressed, pleased, but not surprised that it is a woman, Woolf, who shows men like me how to speak with moral integrity again. She has a disinterested voice, but never a disembodied or neutral one and, thank Heaven, never a masculine one.

However good they are, web 2.0 technologies are still immature. Watch the editors of Opening Up Education, John Seely Brown, Toru Iiyoshi and Vijay Kumar, speak about the impact and implications of emerging technologies and you’ll see what I mean.

Part 2

Part 3

Now, if as it appears, the model of education is changing from one of pedagogy-as-knowledge-transfer to socially constructed knowledge, then it seems to me certain social skills–storytelling and critical discourse–are more important than ever. Otherwise, the opportunity to get together with people from all over the globe is wasted. Recently we’ve begun experimenting with web 2.0 technologies such as wikis, IM, Google Apps at my school. The students quickly master the technologies. They can learn to edit a wiki page without being taught. But they see these things as toys. Teaching them how to use the technology is easy–and will get easier as the technology develops. Teaching them how to think and how to tell a compelling story is, as it ever was and ever will be, immensely more challenging–and immensely more fun.

I can’t think of any more practical tool for the job than philosophy. (It may be a few years away yet, but I think we’ll soon realized what a mistake it was to drop it from the general curriculum so long ago. For a savage critique of Canadian education, read Hilda Neatby’s So Little for the Mind: An Indictment of Canadian Education. Written in 1953 is still largely holds true today.) We’ve been teaching practical reasoning and philosophy to middle school students at Island Pacific School for 14 years. The syllabus covers some formal logic, the structure of argument and fallacies, ethics and a survey of Western philosophy. But we’re an independent school and have more flexibility than any public school.

But the program needs work. I need a better look at non-Western philosophies, among other things. And I need to connect it to storytelling.  I do not mean to novel structure, or those zig-zagging plot diagrams. I’m interested in how you teach what a story is, what it does and in why we have stories at all. “Storytelling is one of the few human traits that are truly universal across culture and through all of known history,” says Scientific American has a rather cold account of campfire tales. Richard Rorty says the best answers to our philosophical questions will be found in stories. Interestingly, when I ask my students to tell me their stories, they can’t. “How I spent my summer holidays” just doesn’t cut it. At best that would make a chapter. Even so, but they never write their adventures as if they were chapters. Students often write pedantically, not because they can’t write well, but because they can’t tell stories well. They have no sense of their own lives being part of a narrative, much less any sense of humanity having a narrative. Granted, there is probably something developmental involved here; I think you need meta-cognition before you can write your own story. But I don’t see in any curricula anywhere trying to coax real storytelling out of students at any age. Neither do I see any requiring students to memorize and tell stories. The best place to learn how this will be in something else we tossed out long ago, to our shame: Canadian First Nations culture. Their’s is a living model of socially constructed knowledge passed on through storytelling.

I’m glad to see web technologies develop. But I’d like to see concurrent development of philosophy and of storytelling in language/literature curricula in grade school curricula. Without those two, Learning 2.0 just doesn’t add up.

We Think, Therefore We Are

October 5, 2008

Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0: an excellent paper on opening up education, or OUE, by John Seely Brown, Visiting Scholar and Advisor to the Provost at the University of Southern California (USC) and Independent Co-Chairman of a New Deloitte Research Center, and Richard P. Adler, Research Affiliate at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto and Principal of People & Technology, a research and consulting firm in Cupertino, California.

I quite like the distinction Brown and Adler make between the Cartesian and what they call the social view of learning:

One of the promises of the social learning model–not often talked about–is that it moves us away from the deadening effects of reductionism that I spoke about in my last post. So far as schools have followed the Cartesian model Brown and Adler describe, they’ve shut off a great deal of important conversation about what we each and collectively believe about the nature of things. Philosophically speaking, the modern world sees fundamental metaphysical matters as relative: you have your world view and I have mine. But, contemporary thought says that even if it was to grant that such talk is about absolutes, it is not clearly and distinctly knowable in an empirical, or Cartesian, way and therefore falls outside any profitable discussion. Faith claims are like flavours of ice cream in this sense. Psychologically speaking, the modern world sees any transferring of what it deems mere opinion as proselytising or indoctrination. Thus, the very structure of modern pedagogy inhibits robust discussion of the very things that move us most deeply, as I said in my August 23, ’08 post “First Things.” Moreover, the structure of modern pedagogy says such discussions are unimportant.

On the other hand, a social view of learning might reawaken intelligent conversation about first things, or faith claims or metaphysics–whatever we want to call those frames of reference that shape all we say and do. First of all, it is about dialogue, which is something structurally different from the essentially one-way communication in the Cartesian model. In dialogue, we seek one of two things: the truth, if it can be known; and if it can’t, which is more often the case, a better understanding of the problem. We come to these by comparing our views with those of others. That simply can’t be done in the Cartesian model.

Dizzy Over Descartes

October 4, 2008

If the Discourse on Method (read it here) made me dizzy and giddy as a schoolboy, it is because in the fabulous few pages of part four of his book, Descartes turns the world right on its head. A reductionist might say he did it in just the three words (in Latin, five in English) of the cogito. From “I think” I can know “I am” and from there I can know I have a soul and from that I can know God. Not only can I know God, but I can know Him more clearly and distinctly than I can know anything else. And it is this first rule of Descartes’ method—never to accept anything as true unless it is known clearly and distinctly—that upsets the whole of Christendom. Very few people have the greatness to bend history itself, as Robert Kennedy said, but our Frenchman is one of them.

After all the excitement, however, I cannot help but to return to my thoughts about Lucretius (August 29, 08). Cartesian reductionism does not seem so different from Epicurean atomism in its deadening effect on my spirit. But even the prosaic Lucretius thought it important to think about reality. Descartes thought it more important to think about thinking. When he says “I think, therefore I am” he still believes in God, but he makes Him transcendent to thought.  He hives off theological questions. Had he left them to theologians that would have been fine, but the first rule of his method cuts short any rational discussion of the mystery of being. That is, we cannot accept mystery because by definition it cannot be known clearly and distinctly–Descartes conditions for claiming knowledge. This is not immediately obvious in the Discourse, but I don’t think Descartes hoped to fool Catholic censors; he knew they were too clever to be tricked. I suspect he was carried away by his enthusiasm, in the way the modern scientist will split an atom to see what is inside even at the risk of blowing up the world. The upshot is that theology becomes superfluous, if not superstitious talk; and I am left with an inadequate account of my being and, worse, no means to make a better one.

A second, unintended consequence arises. When he removed religion, that is our theories of everything, Descartes created an epistemological vacuum and human nature did what every nature does with a vacuum. Since Descartes, it let science slide into that part of understanding that was once occupied by theology. (Take at look at the Temple of Science in Wired). Ironically, this is the very place from which Descartes saw—and saw rightly—it needed to be extricated. Now, however, moderns act like the old instrumentalists: New theories—or old ones such as Catholicism—can be discussed so long as they do not question the authority of science on matters of ultimate truths. This is Galileo and his friend-turned-persecutor, Cardinal Barbarini, inverted.