24 July 2010

Maniacs in the Fourth Dimension, by Kilgore Trout

Filed under: Fiction — ktismatics @ 3:47 pm

“It was about people whose mental diseases couldn’t be treated because the causes of the diseases were all in the fourth dimension, and three-dimensional Earthling doctors couldn’t see those causes at all or even imagine them. One thing Trout said that Rosewater liked very much was that there really were vampires and werewolves and goblins and angels and so on, but that they were in the fourth dimension. So was William Blake, Rosewater’s favorite poet, according to Trout. So were heaven and hell.”

– Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

19 July 2010

Shave & a Haircut

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:21 am

12 July 2010

Loose Onto-Scientific Ends

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 6:34 pm

Rather than either writing separate posts here or comments elsewhere, I’m making a few brief observations about issues that arose in our extended recent engagement with Pete here at Ktismatics and in his ongoing debate with Levi. Most of my issues are scientific rather than metaphysical.

1.  I agree with Pete that science, considered as a collective endeavor of discovery, progresses incrementally toward increasing objectivity, continually (and sometimes radically) purifying its methods of investigation and thereby its findings from subjective and intersubjective biases. Nevertheless, the topics subjected to objectifying purification of science aren’t always selected based on the greatest potential for increasing objective knowledge. Money and power often decide what is going to be studied, how it will be studied, and to whom the results will be made known. Often these “impure” forces are intentionally hidden from view or unintentionally ignored, even by the scientists themselves.

2.  Levi asserts that every object exceeds the actual state it happens to manifest at any given time and place. I can’t believe that for Levi the “real water” inside a closed container is solid and liquid and gas at the same time, and the “real me” isn’t only here or there but everywhere at once. Levi doesn’t typically equate the object’s excess with all the potential other states in the object’s repertoire that it isn’t currently manifesting. Rather, he says the object has a “virtual proper being,” a dynamic capacity that generates its potential and actual states. I agree. Levi insists, though, that no object ever directly encounters the virtual proper being of another object; rather, an object only encounters the qualities made manifest in the states the other object assumes. I don’t believe this is true. Science doesn’t just document the states that water occupies and the conditions under which it occupies them. Rather, science investigates the “virtual proper being” of water — its molecular structure, covalent bonds, potential energy, vibrations, and so on that cause it to manifest itself in various states.

3.  Almost always the states which an object assumes or the properties it manifests are a joint function of the object’s virtual proper being, its interactions with other objects, and the energy forces operating on them. The solid/liquid/gaseous state of the water in the container is a function of the molecular structure of water, the pressure inside the container, and the heat inside the container. To me this suggests that reality isn’t composed exclusively of objects, but of objects and the energy forces and fields in which they’re embedded.

4.  As others have observed, it seems bizarre to contend that objects never directly encounter each other. It’s argued that objects encounter one another only inside some composite object that includes both objects. So when two billiard balls collide, they form a two-ball system in which the two balls affect one another’s movements. A simpler explanation — one you might find in a middle-school science text — is that the two objects directly interact, affecting each other by a transfer of energy. The trajectories and speeds of the two balls are changed, but the energy is conserved, as are the sums of the angular momenta of the two balls. In all sorts of inter-object “translations,” science goes about its business of clarifying what stays the same, what changes, how, and why.

5.  On the conflation of epistemology and ontology, if you’re going to make a statement about what things are, you’re still making a statement. What claims are you making in this statement, and on what grounds do you justify them? Of course not all objects are subjects, and not all interactions between objects involve one of them trying to understand the other. But ontological claims are produced by subjects claiming to understand other objects. An ontologist’s stated understandings are specific manifestations of his/her virtual proper being interacting with the objects and energy forces to be understood. What is it about the ontologist that generates his/her particular ontological understandings of the world? What is the relationship between the ontologist’s statements about the world and the aspects of the world referenced in those statements? Answering this sort of question is a kind of epistemological investigation that can’t be waived off.

6.  Scientific knowledge is “produced” in the sense that scientists perform work to produce their systematic observations of the world, the analyses of their observations, and the statements in which they embed the knowledge they’ve discovered. But scientific statements refer to features in the world that aren’t created by the scientist. “The water in the jar is frozen” is a statement produced by the speaker; the jar, the water, and the frozen state already existed prior to the production of the statement. A microscope produces a magnified image of an object, but it’s still an image of the object. A yardstick might be used to produce a quantitative measurement of an object, but it’s still etc. etc. Granted, knowledge about an object isn’t identical to the object itself. And the cumulative body of knowledge is increased and refined and preserved over time, and that takes work. But not all work produces things; some kinds of work disassemble things, sort things, discover things, describe things. To insist that scientific investigation produces knowledge is to conflate ontology with epistemology, creation with discovery. It’s also a strong form of correlationism, denying the existence of real objects independent of the observer, such that observation creates the things it observes.

There are probably other loose ends I’d like to lay out on the table, even if I can’t tie them up into neat little bows. Maybe I’ll add new ones to the list as I think of them. But I think I’m going to stop writing new posts for awhile. I feel like I’ve been blogging my ass off for the past 2+ months, generally to excellent effect as far as I’m concerned. I’ve put on my empirical hat for the first time in years and it still fits pretty well, and it’s been oddly satisfying to be among the few who wear this sort of hat around these parts. I could surely keep up the blogging pace, since my interest hasn’t really flagged. But I’ve got a novel to write, and I want to immerse myself in that mindset, that alternate reality, for awhile.

11 July 2010

Probably Won’t Watch the Cup Final

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 12:30 pm

I know that it’s Spain versus the Netherlands, but that’s about all I know about it. As far as I can recall I’ve never played the game. It seems to work a lot like hockey, but with penalty shots instead of a penalty box. I could probably get into it as a spectator sport, but I’d rather not. I believe that I’ve watched extended portions of only two soccer games in my life. Recently I tuned in the US-Ghana match after the Americans had tied the score. The announcers kept telling me what an exciting game it was, but to me it just looked like an extended exercise in collective frustration punctuated by one brilliant individual move executed by one of the Ghanians.

I also watched the second half of the 2006 World Cup final, France versus Italy. I didn’t even realize that that was the most recent championship game until Italy was eliminated in the first round a couple of weeks ago. Reigning champions ousted, said the news story. So I looked it up and, sure enough, the Cup is contested only every four years. Who knew?

Four years ago we were living in Antibes, which is a town on the southern coast of France about 50 miles from the Italian border. All the cafés in the old town had set up televisions outside so the al-fresco diners could enjoy the game, and big crowds of flâneurs stopped to watch as well. A lot of Italians take weekend jaunts into France, so the crowd in Antibes wasn’t entirely behind Les Bleus. Had this been an American scene, everybody would have been getting drunk and rowdy. Instead it was the usual subdued and affable soirée scene, with people sipping their wine rather than swilling it down, but nevertheless intensely engaged in watching the game. At one of the cafés a drunken young French mec was standing next to the tv set directing obscene remarks and gestures toward the referees and the Italian players, but it was all in good fun. When Zidane performed his notorious head-butt and got ejected near the end of the game, the crowd murmured among themselves more puzzled than incensed. The tie-breaking free kicks seemed like kind of a let-down after the intense play, in which France was clearly the superior team, except for that great Italian goalkeeper.

When Italy finally prevailed a few of the Italians cheered but mostly the French either wandered off or continued their after-dinner conversations. The mood was a sort of fatigued melancholy tempered by the easy camaraderie of the weekend nighttime promenade. By now it was pretty late so I walked home. Through the early morning hours I heard the occasional Italian celebratory car honking its way through the streets. No riots, no burning cars, no drunken hooligans throwing bottles. Maybe things were different on the Italian side of the border.


UPDATE: By the time I first thought about checking the score, the game was over. ¡Viva España! — I suppose.

6 July 2010

Free College for Everyone!

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 5:40 pm

Yesterday I came across this table showing that, between 1975 and 2007, the percentage of all US college faculty members who are tenured or tenure-track declined from 45% to 25%, while part-timers increased from 24% to 41%. This is a trend of which I’ve been made aware by several bloggers, including Shahar, who put up a post today citing these same statistics. What surprised me is that the total number of faculty jobs increased by 116% over that same 33-year interval. According to this Dept. of Education source, the number of college students increased by only 63% over that time period. What the heck? Have colleges been massively over-hiring for the last few decades?

Of course we have to take into consideration the fact that so many of these faculty jobs are part-time adjunct positions. How big is the “part” in part time? I have no ready access to the relevant data, but let’s assume that on average the adjuncts teach a half-time course load. Grad student teachers are included in the statistics too: assume that they teach quarter-time. So now, recalculating based on those adjustments, the total number of faculty FTEs increased 94% from 1975 to 2007. That’s still disproportionately high relative to student enrollment increases.

Here’s a thing: Looking at full-timers only — tenured, tenure-track, and non-tenure-track — the number of faculty jobs increased by 56% from 1975 to 2007. This is only slightly below the 63% growth rate for student enrollment. Suppose the colleges made up for the gap with adjuncts: they’d have had 356K of them on the payroll in 2007, each working an average of half-time. In fact the number of 2007 part-timers was 685K. By implication, the American college system could be operating at a teacher-to-student level proportionate to 1975 by eliminating 320K part-time faculty jobs.

Let’s assume that an adjunct earns an average of $15K per year teaching college courses. Multiply that figure by 320K redundancies and the American colleges would have saved $4.8 billion in 2007. There were about 14.8 million FTE college students that year, so the savings would have been $324 per student. Even if we tack on the usual university-imposed 100% markup for overhead that’s not much savings, considering that colleges charge around $15K per student per year.

Now about those full-time faculty jobs: According to Table 13 in this AAUP report, full-time college faculty earn an average annual salary of $80K; factor in the benefits and the total compensation package comes to $103K per year. That’s pretty good dough, placing it in the top quarter of US jobs earnings-wise. And according to Table A from the same source, the pay has gotten considerably better over the years: since 1980, full-time college faculty salaries have increased 38% faster than the American cost of living. Suppose, then, that instead of getting rid of 320K half-time faculty at $15K each, the colleges eliminated 160K full-time faculty at $100K each. Now the savings would be $16 billion. Again, double that figure for overhead markup, and it’s a price reduction of over $2,100 per student per year.

So why have faculty jobs increased so much faster than the increase in college student enrollment over the past 35 years? Smaller class sizes? It’s worth noting that empirical studies consistently show that increasing class size has no measurable effect on student learning. Maybe offering more variety in course offerings means attracting more students overall but fewer students per class. Smaller teaching loads for full-timers? More professors on grant money buying their way out of teaching? More professors moving up to administrative jobs? The academicians’ guild making room for the newly-minted PhDs coming out of the pipeline every year, even if it means part-time work for crappy pay and no benefits?

How about this:

(1)  Go back to 1975 staffing levels — this would increase class sizes by an average of 63%.
(2)  Make all faculty jobs full-time, tenure track positions.
(3)  Set the average faculty compensation package at $80K per year.

Under this scenario the savings would be around $4800 per student per year, without incurring measurably adverse effects on student learning. In the US the government pays about $7K per public university student per year, so tuition would drop to $2K per year. I suspect we could find at least another $2K’s worth of administrative fat to trim. It’s a tuition-free university education for everyone!

5 July 2010

Propositional versus Experiential Realism

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 5:34 am

In his recent post on The World and the Real, Pete Wolfendale of Deontologistics summarizes certain key themes which he elaborates in greater detail in his “Essay on Transcendental Realism” (PDF link embedded in Pete’s post). He begins by asserting that only sapient beings can achieve a progressively more accurate understanding of reality. A sapient being is self-aware: it recognizes that it makes mistakes in its perceptions or beliefs about the world, and consequently that the world might be something other than the sapient being’s subjective experience of it. A sapient being is also self-corrective: it can take deliberate steps to compensate for its perceptual limitations or interpretive mistakes in understanding the world, thereby incrementally closing the gap between subjective understanding and objective reality. Guided by mutually honored norms of objectivity and rationality, we self-aware and self-correcting beings can work together toward achieving a progressively more accurate understanding of the world. This normative, rational pursuit of objectivity takes the form of an ever-growing set of propositions or truth claims about reality. These propositions are continually subjected to a work of purification that replaces misperceived and erroneous truth claims with more and more accurate ones.

Pete says that, in doing ontology, grasping the epistemological basis for how we come to know the world is more foundational than the structure and content of the world itself:

“The important point is that Brandom is right to claim that our understanding of truth is more primitive than our understanding of existence. Our understanding of true claims (or ‘facts’) is more primitive than our understanding of things (objects or entities).”

A truth claim is a proposition that makes reference to purported facts about the world, which in turn make reference to things in the world. The sequence by which we understand any proposition is: semantic meaning of the proposition → understanding of how the nouns and verbs and adjectives in the proposition are interconnected → understanding of the proposition’s truth claims about the interconnections among objects and properties and forces in the world. Or as Pete says:

“Just as there is the pointing, the direction pointed in, and the thing pointed at, in representation there is the act of representing (assertion), the content of representation (proposition), and the object represented (things within the world, and in the limit, the world itself).

So if you tell me “The cat is on the mat,” I have to understand how this sentence hangs together as a meaningful bit of language, then how “cat” and “mat” and “on” fit together syntactically in this sentence, then I follow the trajectory of the linguistic “pointing” out to how the actual cat and mat in the world are positioned relative to each other. Okay, I can see the sequence here in linguistic processing. But why would Brandom — and Pete — assert that, for humans, understanding semantics is “more primitive” than understanding the world? Pete further claims this:

“Our representation of the world as a whole is just the totality of propositions that we take to be true.”

According to this (debatable) formulation, presumably we have a large and interconnected set of propositions about the world stored in memory, which we then retrieve as needed. It’s obvious that the world itself isn’t made up of propositions; rather, says Pete, our representation consists of a set of linguistic pointers to things in the world. Our access to the world, both individually and in conversation, is mediated by propositions about the world. Presumably, then, we can’t make sense of the things in the world without first retrieving from our mental representations those propositions that point to the things in the world.

What makes Pete a realist is his assertion that propositions and the words from which they’re composed really do point to corresponding things in the world, rather than just pointing to other words and propositions inside the representational-linguistic matrix. So when people talk about the world they really are talking about the world. From my standpoint Pete’s interpretation of the relationship between language and reality is a big improvement over Saussurian structuralism, where words point only to other words inside the representational-linguistic matrix, and over Lacanian post-structuralism, where language cuts us off from direct access to the real. On the other hand, in Pete’s formulation language still precedes and mediates our access to the real.

Pete’s theory is embedded in and responsive to the philosophical traditions in ontology and epistemology. I’m more familiar with the empirical psychological literature. The main issue I’d like to address is Brandom’s assertion that “our understanding of truth is more primitive than our understanding of existence,” that propositions about reality precede and mediate our engagement with reality. Briefly, I’d like to point to some empirical evidence to the contrary.

*   *   *

All non-human primates and many other mammal species make use of non-linguistic representation of the world. For example, they remember where the best sources of food are found, they can take detours and shortcuts navigating through their territories, they follow the movements of objects even when completely occluded behind other objects (“object permanence” in Piagetian parlance), they categorize objects based on perceptual similarities, they predict the behavior of conspecifics based on emotional state or direction of locomotion, they use strategies to compete with groupmates for resources. Non-human primates in their natural habitats invent tools, learn important behaviors from their mothers, and understand kinship and dominance relationships among conspecifics that don’t involve themselves. They can be taught by humans to make same-different categorizations of objects; e.g., to distinguish between pairs of objects that are identical to each other from those that are different from each other. However, it takes many repeated trials for mature chimpanzees to learn this skill. By contrast, even very young children can make these object categorizations with ease. Similarly, two-year-old children can infer cause-effect relations between objects in the world; e.g., they understand immediately that an object being pushed through a horizontal tube with a hole in the bottom of it will fall through the hole. Adult chimpanzees, by contrast, don’t get it and must learn through extensive trial and error.

It seems then, based on a wide variety of evidence, that direct representation of the world is more “primitive” than, as well as a likely precondition for, propositional representation of the world. Similarly, non-representational direct responses to the world — e.g., sunflower blossoms that follow the sun’s arc across the sky — are more primitive stepping-stones toward representation. Representation allows the organism to respond to features of the world that aren’t immediately present to the organism; language further extends representational non-immediacy to greater levels of abstraction. And, without going into empirical evidence on the nature of cognitive representation in the human brain, I think that there are distinct advantages of retaining the direct representational content and structures on which linguistic representations are developmentally predicated. Understanding what things in the world are like, what sorts of features they might exhibit, how they can interconnect, how they might work together in cause-effect chains: this sort of general knowledge about the world can be of invaluable aid in coming to grips with new experiences and in formulating propositions for describing our discoveries to others.

Empirical studies of infant language development also cast doubt on Brandom’s assertion of the primacy of propositional truths about reality. The body of evidence strongly supports a developmental sequence that goes like this: (1) following someone else’s pointing at an object in the world; (2) pointing in order to attract another’s attention to something; (3) understanding that someone else’s spoken word corresponds to the object being pointed at; (4) understanding the spoken word and looking toward the object corresponding to that word; (5) speaking the word corresponding to the object being pointed at; (6)  speaking the word referring to the object without pointing at it. Empirical evidence thus supports the inference that, in infant humans, achieving joint intersubjective attention toward specific objects in the world precedes the ability to understand or to use linguistic representations for thinking about and pointing to objects.

In sum, I don’t believe that the empirical evidence support’s Brandom’s — or at least my understanding of Brandom’s — assertion that, for humans, truth propositions about the world precede direct understanding of the world. The sequence by which an adult human understands a proposition — verbal representation, words “pointing” into the world, object pointed to —  doesn’t correspond to the developmental sequence, either in individuals or in the species, of acquiring the requisite knowledge for understanding propositions. Experiential encounters with the real precede and give shape to propositional descriptions of the real.

I think I’ll stop here, and follow up with a separate post addressing Pete’s insistence on the importance of sapience and the norm of objectivity in moving toward a more accurate understanding of the world.  UPDATE: I think we handled it in the discussion on this post.

2 July 2010

Turtles Can Fly by Ghobadi, 2004

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 11:50 am

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