Talons Philosophy

An Open Online Highschool Philosophy Course


Philosophers and Super Soakers: Science vs. Philosophy in the Modern Age

“In dismissing philosophy as an antiquated relic of our prescientific past, the scientist is making a very large and dubious assumption: that the abstract methods of philosophy . . . have nothing more to contribute to our developing understanding of the world.”

Robert Pasnau, “Why not just weigh the fish?

During our recent discussions in class, nothing struck me more than the clash between science and philosophy. The idea of an either/or relationship between the two was foreign to me, despite my upbringing as a scientifically minded individual. Previously I had viewed them as two sides of the same coin, one thinking and one doing, the philosopher pondering “Should we?” while the scientist wonders “Can we?”. Though this divide between the fields was new to me, the reason for it was immediately obvious: if philosophy cannot cure cancer or send a human to Mars, what good is it? This begged me to raise the question: Does philosophy have a place in the scientifically driven world of today?

A stereotypical philosopher, languishing in a pit of circular logic.

The hasty answer to this question would be no: if philosophy cannot achieve quantifiable results, then it should be discarded. If you were sick, would you want a doctor trained in medical science or a philosopher by your beside? However, this viewpoint is a short term solution, akin to slapping a bandaid on an injury time and time again instead of dealing with the cause of the problem (in this case, perhaps an awful sense of balance. But I digress.). This “solution” will work for a little while, until eventually the repairs are not cutting it and the whole system must be replaced. This is where philosophy steps in, addressing the human cause of the problem instead of dealing with the results. For example, science may roll out countless drugs for weight loss, but it is philosophy’s job to question whether we should be doing this at all.

Many pieces of post-apocalyptic fiction picture the world in a state of ruin after science has gone too far, unleashing a zombie plague, building hyper-advanced computer AI’s, or creating weapons that could wipe out a continent. In all of these (however unlikely) scenarios, these acclaimed scientists poured their lives into their work, never stepping back and looking upon the potential for wrongdoing and crisis. If every member of our supposed scientific organization had stepped back and thought “Hey, maybe this time travel device/weapon of mass destruction/sentient AI isn’t such a good idea.”, the post-apocalypticalization (totally a word) of the given fictional world would (likely) never have happened in the first place.

Scientific progress has been benefitting our world for hundreds of years, from building the first telescopes to developing vaccines that have saved millions of lives. Scientific progress is constant, reliable, and always moving forward – yet this is its failure. In its haste to cure cancer, plan a mission to Mars, or (again) build a sentient AI, science fails to consider the ramifications of its actions. This is where philosophy steps in, consider outcomes, potential hazards, and the wisdom of continuing down the current path. While philosophy may not make any quantifiable leaps and bounds, it serves as a leash on science for the betterment of humankind. Without philosophy, science would be forever driven by the question “Can we?” instead of “Should we?”



Epistemological Ecology – Mr. J

Learning Never Stops

There is a certain pleasure in being allowed to start things off in a class like #Philosophy12; while others may garner the satisfaction that comes from rising to the challenge of the various assignments and syntheses of ideas, as classroom facilitator my critical tasks have thus far revolved around the outset of the unit. Having hopefully created the conditions for individual and collective learning, I focus my energy around supporting the group’s thinking, whether in daily activities, viewing or reading materials, or engaging in class discussions about the direction and intentions of the unit or task at hand.

I get to learn a lot, just in seeing how the various branches of inquiry manage to reveal the topics at hand, and the perspectives that bring them to our classroom.

But I haven’t yet taken the opportunity to engage directly with the tasks myself, and I was taken with an idea for Epistemology: to state and support a personal proposition about the nature of knowledge, learning, and the justifications we use to frame these ideas. Within the context of the opening class structure, the unit presented a natural opportunity to turn the teaching of the course into a personal engagement with the material. If I could demonstrate an example of the type of learning I would like to see, would the allowance of the space and opportunity for participants to engage with their own individual creation of knowledge bring about an authentic expression of social constructivism?

“All knowledge begins with experience.”

The starting point for my own epistemological proposition centers around a view of our reason as an evolving structure of knowing that shifts with the acquisition of new knowledge (gained through experience). I have more or less directly swiped this from Immanuel Kant, but I have seen these ideas reflected in the foundations of the post-modern era, constructivism, as well as a frequent touchstone in the class’ conversations about knowledge and knowing. A certain amount of our work in the unit was bound to retread at least some of the contribution he has brought to the field, I figure.

But I am nevertheless grounded in the idea that the structure against which our experience of the world is interpreted – our ability to reason – evolves with our experiencing of the world; as it does our sense of what can be known changes in kind, eliciting further questions, and creating new un-knowing. Jonathan said it well in his first of two Epistemology posts: “As we accumulate knowledge over time, I also believe that we develop abilities to gain these different types of knowledge too.

The sage former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld summarized part of this arc memorably in February, 2002:

“[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that, we now know we don’t know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”

“…the limitation of all possible speculative cognition to the mere objects of experience, follows as a necessary result.”

There is something of the snake-eating-its-own-tail that then arises in the compulsion to expand our notions of knowing against an ever-expanding experiential plain. “Essentially, we have proven that no piece of knowledge, whether of reason or of reality, is reliable,” Liam writes in his exploration of Descartes’ Evil Genius theory:”

Really, a more unhelpful and useless conclusion has never been reached. True knowledge, it seems, is nowhere to be found – and because of that, we must accept the flawed, unreliable knowledge that we have and make do with it.

The Double Bind

As I began to explore in my initial post and reflections, the contradiction of pursuing a knowledge that evades alongside our mastery over it reminded me of the concept of the Double Bind, introduced to me a few weeks ago by Gardner Campbell at the Open Education conference in Vancouver. According to wikipedia, 

double bind is an emotionally distressing dilemma in communication in which an individual (or group) receives two or more conflicting messages, in which one message negates the other. This creates a situation in which a successful response to one message results in a failed response to the other (and vice versa), so that the person will be automatically wrong regardless of response.

While the acquisition of knowledge may not be an eitheror scenario as described in the double bind, what I found valuable about Gardner’s characterization of the dilemma was the idea that the double bind can serve as a kind or prison, but also create the conditions for an expansion of awareness (or, cognition) that is the process of meaningful learning I hope some of #philosophy12 is providing for its participants. Again from Wikipedia:

One solution to a double bind is to place the problem in a larger context […] the double bind is contextualized and understood as an impossible no-win scenario so that ways around it can be found.

For my own part, the attempt to characterize and justify my own beliefs about knowledge has been vexing in the manner Bateson predicted as one of the responses to the double bind, wherein objective truth “cannot be reliably known, so all [truth] is treated as trivial or ridiculous.” It is admittedly difficult to engage faithfully in a process that seems fruitless from the outset, and for this I am glad to have waded into this experiment alongside the #Philosophy12 class.

Because it is a confrontation with the double bind that a new paradigm, either for each of us personally or together as a society, and isn’t this what I should be doing as a teacher?

Bateson outlines a Hierarchy of Learning in which Learning III (third in a series of IV) represents an ability to develop a “meta contextual perspective, imagining and shifting contexts of understanding.” Learning III puts the individual into a moment of learning with risk, where “questions become explosive,” Gardner says, as the potential to begin again at the base of the pyramid Jonathan outlines here is something that we are not often keen to explore, but central to the learning process.

And I think that perhaps this is both the source and the solution to the double bind offered in our own rational and experiential development. Learning IV – which would be the change enacted to progress beyond Learning III – Bateson notes, “probably does not occur in any adult living organism on this earth.”

Naturally: once we have solved the initial double bind and reached beyond our present understanding, we are greeted with new incongruities to decipher.

And yet..?

And yet we continue to engage in this process. We continue to yearn for a greater understanding, even while that understanding becomes obscured in the new questions it raises.

“It may be,” Gardner says, “that the evolution of the species represents the emergence of the possibility of Learning IV, as we think together.”

Leaving me again with echos of Kant:

it is plain that the hope of a future life arises from the feeling, which exists in the breast of every man, that the temporal is inadequate to meet and satisfy the demands of his nature.