Sunday, June 15, 2008

Bruce, here, teaches logical positivism. And is also in charge of the sheep dip.

[Subject line explained here if anyone reading this is really that un-learned in geek culture.]

Poking around the Moldbugsphere led me to Australian philosopher David Stove's anti-philosophy paper What is Wrong With Our Thoughts?, which I'd read before but enjoyed revisiting. His thesis is that the thinking of philosophers, from Plato onward, has been horribly broken, and he attempts to get at just what that brokenness consists of. Stove despairs of answering this question, but it seems rather straightforward to me, in that all of his examples consist essentially of reifying some abstraction and then going on about it at great length. I suppose this may be idealism in philosophy-speak, although Stove apparently doesn't think that covers it adequately.

The problem is, reifying abstractions is also important in thought that goes right, and there is no real method for telling the difference. The experimental method and Occam's razor help, but only in some cases.

A number of the writers he attacks are ones that I see some value in (Foucault, Blake, Freud). Foucault is an interesting case -- I encountered him in grad school, where I read him and a few other difficult continental writers. This was at a technical school where such stuff was definitely not on the curriculum, and routinely dismissed as nonsense. I found it interesting and challenging to try to wrap my head around this very foreign style of thinking, but it required a certain technique, which consisted of: assuming that the text is not nonsense and is true of something, and then trying to imagine what that something could be. The result, when this worked, was like getting a new worldview in which reality had been factored in a different way than usual -- instead of, say, the material forces that science and evolution, we find people driven by things like Foucault's networks of power or Bordieu's habitus.

I didn't feel that my thought was too endangered by this exercise because I could never really animate these ideas for any great length of time. In the bad thinking that Stove talks about, the abstract ideas have become the most powerful forces in the universe.

Stove lists 40 made-up examples of "thought going wrong", and claims he could generate hundreds more:
Here, then, are examples of forty different ways in which thought can go irretrievably wrong, of which we can identify only the first two.

1 Between 1960 and 1970 there were three US presidents named Johnson.

2 Between 1960 and 1970 there were three US presidents named Johnson, and it is not the case that between 1960 and 1970 there were three US presidents named Johnson.

3 God is three persons in one substance, and one of these persons is Jesus, which is the lamb that was slain even from the foundations of the world.

4 Three lies between two and four only by a particular act of the Divine Will.

5 Three lies between two and four by a moral and spiritual necessity inherent in the nature of numbers.

6 Three lies between two and four by a natural and physical necessity inherent in the nature of numbers.

7 Three lies between two and four only by a convention which mathematicians have adopted.

8 There is an integer between two and four, but it is not three, and its true name and nature are not to be revealed.

9 There is no number three.

10 Three is the only number.

11 Three is the highest number.

12 Three is a large number.

13 Three is a lucky number.

14 The sum of three and two is a little greater than eight.

15 Three is a real object all right: you are not thinking of nothing when you think of three.

16 Three is a real material object.

17 Three is a real spiritual object.

18 Three is an incomplete object, only now coming into existence.

19 Three is not an object at all, but an essence; not a thing, but a thought; not a particular, but a universal.

20 Three is a universal all right, but it exists only, and it exists fully, in each actual triple.

21 Actual triples possess threeness only contingently, approximately, and changeably, but three itself possesses threeness necessarily, exactly, and immutably.

22 The number three is only a mental construct after all, a convenience of thought.

23 The proposition that 3 is the fifth root of 243 is a tautology, just like 'An oculist is an eye-doctor.'

24 The number three is that whole of which the parts are all and only the actual inscriptions of the numerals, 'three' or `3'.

25 Five is of the same substance as three, co-eternal with three, very three of three: it is only in their attributes that three and five are different.

26 The tie which unites the number three to its properties (such as primeness) is inexplicable.

27 The number three is nothing more than the sum of its properties and relations.

28 The number three is neither an idle Platonic universal, nor a blank Lockean substratum; it is a concrete and specific energy in things, and can be detected at work in such observable processes as combustion.

29 Three is a positive integer, and the probability of a positive integer being even is ½, so the probability of three being even is ½.

Contrary to Stove, it seems pretty easy to identify what is wrong in some of these (8, 10, 11, 12, 14, 26, and 29 can be analyzed and disproved as straight mathematics, which does have a nosology).

Another group seems like possibly-defensible propositions in the philosophy of mathematics (4, 5, 6, 7, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 27, 28). You could say that in at least some of these something has "gone wrong", but not in all, and they circle around a genuine puzzle, namely, what is the actual status of mathematical objects? There is no agreed-upon common-sense answer to this, so the philosophical attempts to grapple with the issue don't seem entirely misguided (my own efforts are here).

Stove's own thought seemed to go very wrong on a regular basis. His last book was an attack on "Darwinism", and he published this embarassing piece on women's intellectual capacity:
Women university students, although hardly any of them have given birth, are uniformly present in smaller numbers (proportionately) than men, at any above-average level of intellectual performance. At least, this is the case in any branch of university work which is very intellectually-demanding.
Oops!: MIT...[has] women making up 44 percent of the undergraduate population in the last academic year (compared with 57 percent at colleges nationwide).

Hm, Cosma got here first, unsurprisingly, also here. And here's another critque from a right-wing philosophe.

And here's a quote from Stove that sums up my stance on blogging:
This will remind you of a saying of G. E. Moore, which disgusted many people, that he was led to philosophize only by the maddening things that other philosophers said; and it may strike you as a shamefully small and negative idea of philosophy's highest possible achievement. But let it be as small and negative as you like: it is still more than any philosopher ever has achieved.


TGGP said...

Stove's attack on Darwinism was indeed pretty ridiculous, and gave more evidence for his own point about the idiocy of philosophers.

While women may make up the majority of students of college campuses now, he gave some qualifiers about the kinds of fields and the degree to which they are intellectually demanding that resonates even in the present with the Larry Summers affair.

For some unintentional laughs at philosophy, check out this via the Fourth Checkraise. Speaking of that blog and women's issues, I saw this from there indicting feminism for ignoring the misery of capitalism to be interesting.

mtraven said...

Not sure what the overall stats are, but women are making frightening inroads at MIT, and they aren't doing it by majoring in underwater basket-weaving.

goatchowder said...

And five is right out.

(Sorry again, can't resist, and you came so close with the Bruce thing...)