19 March 2011

Morris and Kuhn and Wittgentsein

From 6 March to 10 March, Errol Morris (documentary film director of Thin Blue Line, Fog of War, and others) published a five part sequence on the New York Times opinionator blog about Thomas Kuhn and many related topics. (Link.) It sucked up my attention for a good couple of hours and got me to thinking about many problems which may not be solvable.

The biggest issue is an ideal which is often termed absolute knowledge, but which most of us amateur philosophers just call: Reality. Kuhn famously wrote in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that we ought to be skeptical whether any such thing will ever exist. The most relevant quotation:

"Does it really help to imagine that there is some one full, objective, true account of nature and that the proper measure of scientific achievement is the extent to which it brings us closer to that ultimate goal?" (p 170 in the second editition, U. Chicago Press, 1970).

Since I am only an amateur philosopher about 25% of the time, and my day job is as a physicist, it is impossible for me to run counter to the norms of my entire tribe and not say this question is ridiculous. Of course it helps. That is exactly what we do. We have a lot of things wrong; but it is less and less over time. Progress is unequivocal and together we proceed toward an ultimate "one, full, objective true account of nature" like an asymptote approaches its bounding line.

Kuhn is not here to defend himself, so to be honest I will point out here that it is a little abusive to pull a sentence out of its 200 pages of context and mock the author. Kuhn was highly educated in the science subjects which he wrote about, and there is definitely some subtle point in that book which may justify a close reading. I have not yet found it, but then again I have not yet read it very closely. I only read it one time for a class. One of the conclusions I have drawn from scanning the pages over the last few days is that I will put Kuhn's book on my short stack of books to be read closely and urgently. He has much material in there on Newton and Galileo and Dalton and these are very interesting topics, and the little I have read in the last few days looks great. I will be interested to see what I can make of this popular book.

Morris was a (failed) graduate student of Kuhn's, so his opinionator blog sequence was quite personal. He included a number of nuggets which added up to a fabulous stew pot full of stuff. Here are the highlights from my notes:

On the big question, Kuhn's from above on Reality, Morris doesn't tell us much. He replies with the cliche if you don't believe in reality go jump out a tenth floor window.

There are a couple of great personal anecdotes. The "theme" anecdote about Kuhn throwing an ashtray full of cigarette butts at Morris's head is entertaining. A much better one is the story about how he was arrested at a Vietnam protest and climbed out of the fourth-floor holding cell window and never got booked. He went back to the microfiche of the Princeton campus newspaper to find his name listed amongst the arrested students to document the gratifying fact he was on the right side during the war.

He has some fascinating information on the Pythagoreans:

1.) We know virtually nothing factual about the Pythagoreans. Our best single source is Iamblichus, who lived 800 years after. Whether Pythagorus was a scholar or more of a religious cult leader or something in between is not known.

2.) The Pythagorean Theorem was common knowledge to mathematicians in the Sumerian Civilization hundreds of years before Pythagorus.

3.) A (probably) legendary figure is Hippasus of Metapontum. Legend has it that he proved the irrationality of the square root of two and was executed by the Pythagoreans to punish him for this sacrilege.

As good as all this information is, I was puzzled as to how this detracted from Kuhn's thesis.

This is the first instance I have seen where the name Wittgenstein and the term "Gestalt flip" were located in the same paragraph. Wittgenstein wrote about the duck-rabbit in Philosophical Investigations before it was commonly called a Gestalt-flip.

An old and favorite puzzle of mine. Morris makes much of the Kripke argument about naming with the example of the goldfish and he even shows a picture of a goldfish. Now the puzzle is this: goldfish are at the very least orange and often red; they are never yellow and they are certainly never golden. Why do they call them goldfish? I first asked my mom this when I was around seven years old and neither she nor anyone else has ever been able to answer this question for me.

There is a feature about progress which makes it ambiguous at times, and I cannot put my finger on it, but I can give a real life example of what I am writing about. Perhaps this is related to Kuhn's thesis; if I take anything like this from my careful reading of his book I will be much more sympathetic to his argument. I have a colleague who has an advanced degree in Astrophysics. He is one of the world's leading authorities on the S-P orbital transition spectral line in the sodium atom as it shows up on earth instruments arriving here from all over the universe of space and time. A very bright guy. Based on a number of casual (and admittedly sneaky) conversations I have managed to learn that he can look up in a clear sky and identify the Big Dipper and Orion and just about nothing else.

If you had a time travel machine and could assemble a dozen Sumerian priest-astronomers and put them together with a dozen modern members of the Astronomy faculties of Cambridge and Stanford and MIT, under a clear night sky, who do you think knows more facts they could list out in a ninety minute examination period about what is up there? I would bet a lot of money on those guys from Sumer.

Lastly, I have some data which might be useful to some. Kuhn's book is now $13.00 list price from the University of Chicago Press. My copy which I purchased in 1980 was three dollars. Roughly two price doublings in 30 years; you can put that in your spreadsheet if you are keeping a personal Consumer Price Indicator inflation index rate.

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About Craig

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Houston, Texas, United States
I have been living in the lovely neighborhood of Spring Branch in the great city of Houston since late in 2005. I started out with the idea of making this blog about my life in this neighborhood. That did not last long. Right now I am posting every five days on the alternating topics of literature, philosophy, psychology, and metaphysics. This project has been ongoing since July 27, 2010 and I believe it will continue for at least a few more months.