“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.

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.

On the Nature of Things

August 29, 2008

I was looking for a reference in Lucretius’ epic philosophical poem, On the Nature of Things, as I prepared my classes for the fall school start up. Lucretius, and his muse, Epicurus, expect materialism to inspire confidence. No longer need we fear death, those two say, because where we are, death is not. That is, when we are dead, there will be no consciousness to register the fact, so, as Bobby McFerrin sang some 2,000 years later, “Don’t worry. Be happy.”

My own brush with mortality leads me to believe otherwise; Death and I once spent an intimate and exceedingly unpleasant moment together in the shadow of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. We may argue endlessly about whether this near-death experience was in fact real or merely some hallucination, brought to life, as many tell me, by my Western Christian prejudices about dying and the afterlife. If I am deluded, then my delusion is complete, for although I cannot offer any conventional proof that things happened as I claim they did, they are the surest things I lay claim to knowing. But never mind here, let us just register that this happened.

Notwithstanding my own experience then, it is hard to take inspiration from or to find confidence in a way of thinking that emboldens me to pursue nothing. If it is true, Lucretius’ story frees me from ultimate fears, and being mortal I feel most gratified to anything that can do that; but whether or not it is true, the story does not free me for anything in particular, or at least nothing of particular importance. Being good to one another and living by modest means is a very fine way to go about the world; and no doubt it seemed especially fine to a Roman in the violent years of the waning Republic. But I cannot help thinking that cows also live modestly and benignly, if not exactly kindly. Not many people have jumped out of an airplane and had the misfortune of parachuting into a pasture full of happy cows. But those who have will tell you that you can yell “Cow! Cow! Watch out!” until you’re blue in the face but the cows will not budge one step. They will look left and right rather stupidly and go back to jawing cud; it just doesn’t occur to them that something of consequence might come down from above.

Of course, all may indeed be the blind destiny of matter. We may quite properly look to the grass at our feet instead of the stars over our heads for meaning. But at this moment I do not want to consider the relation of materialism to the truth. My objections here are psychological. The road marked by materialism is far more contracted than the narrow path to the Kingdom of Heaven. The Roman Catholic Church can say sorry to Galileo and still be a church, but Lucretius cannot say sorry to God without his whole world coming undone. And for Plato’s philosopher kings, 40 years of the most intensive study will neither enliven life’s journey nor take them anywhere else but to a bleak dissolution. Materialism’s grey philosophy leaves out first causes and instead deals only with simple or efficient causes and thus succumbs to all the deadening effects of mere efficiency. Ironically, what is missing from Lucretius’ poem is poetry—and hope, initiative, inquisitiveness, striving, resolution…all that is human.

First Things

August 23, 2008

Not surprisingly, since Descartes threw away our theories of everything, we find it slippery going when it comes to our discussion of these two ideas: metaphysics and education. We seem unable to imagine that religion, for example, may indeed speak a truth, and we seem unable to get our heads out of the clouds when we talk education; and that because we have no philosophy either to draw our eyes heavenward or to give us something firm on which to stand. Says G. K. Chesterton, everything matters except our theory of everything:

We are more and more to discuss details in art, politics, literature.  A man’s opinion on tramcars matters; his opinion on Botticelli matters; his opinion on all things does not matter.  He may turn over and explore a million objects, but he must not find that strange object, the universe […] (Heretics).

Now, it is one problem that philosophies, first principles, metaphysics, faiths, beliefs—for now let us use these interchangeably—are not taught in schools, generally speaking. Philosophy is rarely taught in high schools, let alone the middle years. Religions may be taught here and there, but only as historical phenomena, or in comparative studies, not as sources of truth. Probably such philosophies cannot be taught for what they are, except in denominational schools, simply because they are beyond the competency of most teachers; depending on how we see the relationship between schools and family, first principles may be beyond the jurisdiction of most schools, too. Certainly, in any case, no single set of principles could be taught over another in a pluralistic society, not in state-run schools anyway. But, it is another, much bigger problem that first principles are not taught to matter, whatever they might be.

In Canada, they are not taught to matter because we falsely believe that the way around the problem of promoting, or proselytizing, is to say nothing. An entrenched political correctness effectively neuters the teaching of metaphysics, as it does with most discussions in the public square. Beliefs are regarded as, well, mere beliefs, akin to tastes, and exclusively private possessions without play in the public domain, except so far as the right to hold them is constitutionally protected. However, this supposed neutrality of Canadian authorities, such as the Charter, the courts and the various political jurisdictions, cannot be securely held for long. As Thomas Nagel says, there is no view from nowhere, and our refusal to acknowledge one kind of thinking amounts to affirmation of another. What appears as neutrality is really a bias toward secularism—a misunderstood secularism.

We should note that our understanding should be of what faith claims belong in the discussion, not whether they should be there or not. If we each had a philosophy, a real and substantial one, we could have a real and substantial talk about education—or any other matter—instead of inconclusive chatter about grade inflation or where our country ranks on standardized math exams or methodologies; for we can only disagree in a meaningful way about really big ideas. People do not seriously argue that red cars are better than blue cars, but they do seriously disagree about whether we should drive cars at all. First principles matter. First principles govern all we do. We may do “in the name of God” or in the name of the almighty dollar, but in either case we are doing because we believe in something that we do not empirically prove: that God exists or that God does not exist. Even the coldest science rests on metaphysical assumptions; that matter exists, for example, or that we can trust our senses. So we may speak, without distortion, of both religious and secular faiths. Aldous Huxley brings us to the point:

It is impossible to live without a metaphysic. The choice that is given us is not between some kind of metaphysic and no metaphysic; it is always between a good metaphysic and a bad metaphysic, a metaphysic that corresponds reasonably closely with observed and inferred reality and one that doesn’t (Ends and Means).

While we can make a solid case that teaching particular religious or metaphysical views over others is beyond the competency and jurisdiction of public schools, as I said earlier, it is not outside the purvey of schools to tell students that they should search for one. Neither is it beyond the scope of public schools to provide the tools for evaluating metaphysical claims, just as they give tools for evaluating scientific claims. At the very least we need to redress the implicit bias toward scientism in contemporary education. If faith—a belief in one metaphysic or another—is this primary fact of life, then we do disservice to children if we characterize the human project as an argument between faith and fact, as we have since Galileo.