Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Knowledge and Skill: the intersection of science, philosophy and common sense


Can you become a great martial artist without breaking a sweat?  In this classic scene from the 1999 sci-fi film, The Matrix, Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) seems to learn Kung Fu by having the information uploaded directly to his brain.

If you cannot view the video, here's what we see:  Computer monitors show simple, 3D images of a brain and a martial arts position.  The computer is plugged into Neo, who is strapped to a chair with his eyes closed.  Neo opens his eyes with a noticable exhale, blinks, turns to Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne), and says, "I know Kung Fu."  Morpheus leans in, intrigued, and replies, "Show me."

Morpheus is not clearly convinced.  Perhaps he is not sure the upload was successful.  Or maybe Morpheus believes that the upload was successful, but that it was only part of the learning process.  The skill has not really been attained until it has been demonstrated.

It doesn't matter what Morpheus thought.  The question is, what should we think?  Could Neo become a Kung Fu master without ever demonstrating the ability?

To be a great martial artist is to have great skill and knowledge, but these might not be the same thing.   So perhaps there are two distinct questions we could ask.  The original question was:  Does Neo know Kung Fu before he demonstrates it?  The second question is:  Is Neo skilled at Kung Fu before he demonstrates it?

Since this is science fiction, perhaps the most respectable answer to these questions is maybe. However, I will argue that the best available answer to both questions is probably not.  Even if our answer is not definitive, exploring the questions could help us sort out some confusions in our understanding of skill and knowledge.  In particular, I will try to sort out some confusions at the intersection of three areas of discourse:  common sense, cognitive science and epistemology.  In the process, I will critically consider some recent attempts to do the same.


The first step is to consider ways of distinguishing between skills and knowledge.  For example, it is obvious that Neo cannot be skilled at Kung Fu if he does not know Kung Fu, but there may be ways he can know it without being skilled at it.

In common sense, a person can know about Kung Fu without knowing it in the sense required for mastery of a skill.  One can read books about Kung Fu, for example, and learn all about the different moves and principles behind it, but if one does not learn how to perform the moves and apply the principles in practice, then we would say they lack the know how.  This is the common distinction between practical and theoretical knowledge.  Theoretical knowledge of a skill is what you know by reading books about a skill.  Practical knowledge is knowledge demonstrated in the exercise of a skill.

The practical/theoretical distinction can be misleading and deserves closer inspection.  After all, we expect experts to be able to apply the principles we can read about in books.  So their practical knowledge can include the theoretical principles contained in books.  Furthermore, we might suppose that every aspect of Kung Fu can be subject to theoretical analysis:  Any part of the Kung Fu master's skill can be the subject of theoretical interests.  It might therefore look like practical knowledge contains theoretical knowledge while theoretical knowledge contains practical knowledge, and there is nothing which limits one with respect to the other.  In that case, we should think of them as the same.  However, this is a mistake.  All we have seen is that a person can have both practical and theoretical knowledge of the same aspects of a skill.  That does not mean the practical knowledge and theoretical knowledge are the same.  They just have the same object.  Practical knowledge and theoretical knowledge are different ways of knowing the same thing.

If you understand the principles of Kung Fu theoretically, but not practically, it means you can talk about Kung Fu, and even analyze Kung Fu, without being able to demonstrate them in practice.  If you understand the principles practically, but not theoretically, it means you can demonstrate them without being able to talk about them, or without being able to analyze them as such.  A Kung Fu master has exemplary practical knowledge of Kung Fu, but can be more limited with respect to theory.  Conversely, a great teacher has exemplary theoretical knowledge, but can be more limited with respect to practice.

For the present purposes, it doesn't matter if Neo's upload gives him much theoretical knowledge of Kung Fu.  When Neo says, "I know Kung Fu," Morpheus wants a demonstration of practical knowledge.  He does not invite a discussion of its principles.  Thus, the original question can be rephrased:  Does Neo have practical knowledge of Kung Fu before he has demonstrated it?  

The more general question is:  Can a person gain practical knowledge of a skill without actually practicing the skill?


Cognitive scientists talk about skill in terms of procedural memory (also called "unconscious" or "implicit" memory).  This is in contrast to declarative (i.e., "conscious" or "explicit") memory.  The idea is that bodily movements are learned differently than intellectual functions.  Factual knowledge--knowledge which underlies conscious reflection, theoretical analysis and discourse--is neurologically distinct from motor skills. Scientists recognize that declarative and procedural knowledge work together.  For example, in a 2010 paper, Shumita Roy and Norman W. Park argue that tool use depends on declarative as well as procedural knowledge.

This approach has been criticized in a paper by Jason Stanley (Department of Philosophy, Yale) and  John W. Krakauer (Department of Neurology and Neuroscience, Johns Hopkins) published earlier this year in a journal of neuroscience, Frontiers.   (They present their argument in a slightly more accessible format in this New York Times column.) According to Stanley and Krakauer, scientists have been looking at the relationship between knowledge and skill the wrong way.  They argue that there are cultural prejudices at play which have led to scientific confusion.

Stanley and Krakauer want to use concepts and arguments from epistemology to sort out perceived problems in cognitive neuroscience.  They claim that their results have implications for our common sense understanding of the distinction between practical and theoretical knowledge.  One of their ideas is that practical knowledge is every bit as intellectual as theoretical knowledge.  They deny that there is any basis for the distinction between practical and theoretical knowledge at all, if we are to understand that distinction as a difference between two kinds of knowledge.  They reject the idea that motor skill is just procedural knowledge, and deny that so-called procedural knowledge is knowledge at all.  They say that motor skill depends on knowledge and other factors which sustain practical ability.

A substantial part of their argument is about vocabulary.  They do not like the way cognitive scientists use the words "knowledge" and "skill."  They argue that epistemology offers a more conceptually grounded and reasonable vocabulary.  However, they are not only talking about vocabulary.  They also claim to be challenging some cultural prejudices about intellectual capacities.  They suggest that the dominant paradigm leads scientists to unfairly devalue some kinds of knowledge (for example, the knowledge required for mastery of sports) and unfairly elevate other kinds of knowledge (namely, the knowledge more generally associated with academia, such as knowledge which relies on the precise acquisition of specialized speech patterns.)  People with book smarts are no more intellectual than star athletes, they say, and it is only a cultural prejudice which accounts for the popular contrary opinion.  All knowledge is intellectual, they say, and so they call themselves Intellectualists.

I suppose there is a popular prejudice against the intellectual capacities of athletes, though it has been challenged many times and from many quarters over the years. I'm not sure how widespread it is.  More importantly, I am suspicious of the idea that it has had such dire effects on cognitive science.


Let's consider Neo's situation in a little more detail.  I will retain the vocabulary from cognitive science for the time being (keeping Stanley and Krakauer's reservations in mind).  Neo's upload affects his procedural and declarative memory.  If this were otherwise, then Morpheus would not ask him for a demonstration at all.  Neo is expected to demonstrate some competence at martial arts, and not merely demonstrate the ability to talk about or analyze it.  However, Neo's muscles and joints are not in shape yet.  Practice does not just train the brain.  It trains the body.  So we should not expect Neo to perform at a master level until he has practiced a bit.  By demonstrating his knowledge, he gets in shape.  By getting in shape, he improves his practical ability.

So we have  three elements to consider:  knowledge, skill and practical ability.  These may be three distinct elements, or perhaps they are different ways of talking about the same thing.

On one view (or family of views), which I'll call Intellectualism, Neo's upload can provide him with all of the knowledge required for Kung Fu, even though he does not have the practical ability.  The assumption is that he knows Kung Fu by virtue of the information in his brain.  We can further distinguish between two versions of this view.  According to one version, Neo's skill does not improve upon demonstration of his ability.  Knowledge and skill are identical, and not dependent upon practical ability.  Let's call this thesis Strong Intellectualism.  According to the other version, Neo's skill does improve upon demonstration of his ability . Let's call this thesis Weak Intellectualism.  According to Strong Intellectualism, knowledge is sufficient for mastery of a skill.  According to Weak Intellectualism, knowledge is not sufficient for mastery of a skill.  The Weak Intellectualist says skill is a combination of knowledge plus practical ability. Yet the Weak and Strong Intellectualists agree that mastery of a skill does not require knowledge gained through practice.  The Weak Intellectualist does think practice is necessary, but not to improve knowledge--only to improve skill.

Against Intellectualism, there is the view that the practical abilities gained through the demonstration of Kung Fu are necessary to give Neo the knowledge sufficient to be skilled at the craft.  On the Anti-Intellectualist view, the upload can only reliably give Neo some of the knowledge required for the skill, and the demonstration is necessary to supply him with additional knowledge.


I favor Anti-Intellectualism.  Before I make a positive argument for it, however, I will point out some problems with Stanley and Krakauer's argument for Intellectualism. Stanley and Krakauer are Weak Intellectualists.  They recognize the empirical evidence for so-called "procedural knowledge," and they recognize that this is required for skill.  Yet, they deny that this is knowledge.  They claim it is a non-propositional component of a skill.  Since it is non-propositional, it cannot be knowledge.  This follows from their explicit assumption that knowledge is, minimally, a relation with propositional content, though they do not say what that entails.

The idea of propositions underlies much philosophical work since Frege, Russell & Wittgenstein, but its meaning remains controversial and vague.  On some readings, propositions are possible worlds.  On others, they are structured components of worlds.  On others, they are whatever can be true or false.  All of these interpretations remain problematic.  While the concept of propositions is often taken for granted in many philosophical discussions, its foundations and coherence remain heavily questioned.  If they were publishing in a philosophy journal, we should not be surprised that Stanley and Krakauer do not give a definition of what "propositional content" entails.  However, they are publishing in a neuroscience journal.  When a problematic and controversial philosophical concept is used to criticize the interpretation of scientific experiments in a scientific journal, we should pause and wonder what is going on.

Let's look at how this plays out in their New York Times article.  They quote Suzanne Corkin, a neuroscientist writing in a newspaper article for The Guardian, as follows:

Henry was not capable of learning new information, though his knowledge of past events — the Wall Street Crash, Pearl Harbor and so on — was clear. Only a very few tiny details of TV programmes he watched repetitively ever stuck. He could, however, learn and retain new motor skills, which led to important understanding of the difference between conscious memory and unconscious. The latter category would include learning how to play tennis or ride a bicycle, or even play the piano — things that the brain encodes and transmits to the muscles through conditioning, memories which we come to think of as intuitive.
Here's how I would interpret the main points of this passage:  Henry (aka H.M.) was impaired with respect to his declarative memory.  Yet, H.M. could improve his motor skills.  Here is how Stanley and Krakauer interpret the passage from Corkin:
According to [Corkin], H.M. was able to “learn and retain new motor skills” (and even improve). Examples of such learning are “how to play tennis or ride a bicycle.” H.M. is therefore taken to show that motor skills, a paradigm example of which is tennis, are not the employment of knowledge.
Did Corkin really say that the exercise of motor skills is not an employment of knowledge?  Stanley and Krakauer will surely acknowledge that scientists are apt to say that it is "procedural knowledge," but they claim that this is a contradiction in terms.  They say that it is not really knowledge, because it has no propositional content.  But what is propositional content?  They haven't said.  Can procedural knowledge have propositional content?  I think Corkin can be ambivalent about the answer to that question, since it does not seem to have any empirical basis in the first place.  Corkin is not saying that motor skills are not an employment of knowledge.  She's saying they're not an employment of declarative knowledge.  But tennis, for example, surely requires both procedural and declarative knowledge.  (It would be extremely uncharitable to take Corkin to mean that a person could learn how to play tennis without being conscious, or without having any conscious memories of the sport.)  Tennis is not a motor skill, strictly speaking, but a skill which involves both motor skills (procedural knowledge) and intellectual skills (declarative knowledge). And there is no scientific reason to think that either of these are (or are not) propositional, because we have no empirical understanding of what that even means.  So why do Stanley and Krakauer claim that procedural knowledge is not really knowledge?

Stanley and Krakauer's argument relies on the claim that procedural knowledge is not propositional knowledge, because it is not knowledge of facts. But they have no coherent argument for this.  They point out that procedural knowledge is defined in opposition to declarative knowledge, where "declarative knowledge" is defined as explicit knowledge of facts; however, they reject the category of "declarative knowledge" as being too poorly defined.  They insist instead that knowledge does not have to be explicit or capable of articulation.  Therefore, the fact that procedural memory is not declarative knowledge does not mean that procedural memory is not knowledge in Stanley and Krakauer's sense of "knowledge."  Instead of claiming that procedural knowledge is not knowledge, they could just as easily claim that it is implicit knowledge of facts.  They have no reason to claim that procedural memory is not propositional knowledge.

Let's look at how Stanley and Krakauer respond to another neuroscientific development.  They criticizie Roy and Park, who we have already seen have distinguished between tool use and motor skills.  They say that Roy and Park's conclusion is bizarre and confused.  Stanley and Krakauer want motor skill to be associated with both procedural and declarative memory, remember.  They want to upset the whole procedural/declarative distinction.  Here's how Stanley and Krakauer criticize Roy and Park:
the obvious alternative — that motor skill, like any other cognitive task, requires knowledge. Perhaps patients with H.M.’s condition can acquire one part of what is required for skill, but not other parts. If so, then neuroscientists have made an overly hasty identification of a noncognitive component of motor skill with the category of motor skill itself. This identification overlooks the knowledge component of anything that common sense classifies as a motor skill, like tennis.
The argument is this:  Why claim that D.M. has all the right motor skills?  Why not claim that what he's missing--the declarative memories he cannot retain--are also motor skills?  They say that neuroscientists are mistaking one aspect of motor skill (which scientists call "procedural memory") for the whole.  It rather seems that they are conflating the common-sense notion of skills (many of which include both declarative and procedural knowledge) with the scientific notion of motor skills (which are limited to procedural knowledge).

This might just be a terminological dispute, but Stanley and Krakauer claim to be proposing a radical shift in the way scientists go about framing and interpreting their experiments.  This, however, is not so clear.  Their argument is that there is a cultural prejudice at work and that it is leading to social inequity. They write, "A skilled archer knows what to do to initiate the activity; this is in part why she can decide to do that activity. Still, we are not supposed to call LeBron James a “genius” because cultural biases have infected science without the moderating input of the humanities."

Is that really so?  There is no evidence that any of the scientists Stanley and Krakauer have cited would argue that LeBron James, or any other athlete, should not be considered a genius.  There's no evidence that their scientific arguments support the prejudiced view that people with highly developed practical skills are less intelligent than people with "book smarts."  Stanley and Krakauer's argument is that this anti-practical bias is based on the mistaken idea that procedural knowledge does not require intelligence, and that declarative knowledge is the only true sign of intelligence.  Perhaps many people do hold such a view, but it is hard to see how Corkin or Roy and Park can be found guilty of supporting it.

Stanley and Krakauer have not shown evidence of any significant prejudice or confusion in the scientific literature.  They have only introduced a problematic vocabulary from epistemology and effectively confused the science of skill.  If Stanley and Krakauer's paper and Times article demonstrate anything, it may just be that we should not confuse the vocabularies of cognitive science and epistemology.

None of this counts as an argument against Intellectualism, though it does undermine Stanley and Krakauer's argument for it.  Now I will turn to a more general argument against Intellectualism.


Neo, like everybody else, has a neurologically encoded representation of his own body.  Neuroscientists discuss such representations when they explain, for example, the perception of phantom limbs.  When our self-representation does not match the physical reality of our body, strange things happen.  We can hallucinate in alarming ways.

Prior to the upload, Neo's physical body is not used to the motions of Kung Fu.  His self-representation is not that of a Kung Fu master.  After the upload, he thinks of himself as a Kung Fu master, though the only thing that has changed is his brain.  The body that his brain represents has not changed.  The question, then, is this:  Is his subconscious, neurological self-representation that of a Kung Fu Master?  If it is, then it does not match the reality of his body.  The cognitive content of his self-representation would be false.  We should expect this to have alarming consequences for Neo.  He would not act the way he thinks he should.  He might find it very difficult to stand up, let alone perform martial arts.

For the upload to work, Neo's self-representation cannot be markedly different from what it was before.  When Neo begins to demonstrate his know how, his body changes and, in turn, his self-representation changes as well.  In this way, his procedural memory develops.  Only by practicing Kung Fu can Neo develop an internal representation of his body which is consistent with the way his body actually moves when he does Kung Fu.  Only after he has done it can we say he knows how to do it.  Only then does he have the knowledge.  And only then does he have the skill.  Since he gains the knowledge at the same time, and by virtue of the same processes, we can say (along with the Strong Intellectualist) that knowledge is sufficient for skill.  Unlike the Strong and Weak Intellectualists, however, we have empirical evidence suggesting that practical ability is also part of knowledge.

Stanley and Krakauer might insist that Neo is not gaining new knowledge by developing his procedural memories in this way.  However, that seems very counter-intuitive.  Neo is developing new representational structures in the form of memories which engender new, reliable behaviors.  That seems to be just the sort of thing people mean when they talk about knowledge.  Perhaps there is some specialized sense of "knowledge" which discounts procedural memory, but Stanley and Krakauer have not given a coherent argument to that effect.  Common sense and cognitive science seem to agree that procedural memory counts as knowledge, and the example of Neo learning Kung Fu demonstrates why.  By developing his practical abilities, Neo learns.  Learning implies knowledge.

I have not taken a position on whether or not procedural memory is propositional.  I have only claimed that it is knowledge, according to common sense and cognitive science.  If it is non-propositional knowledge, so be it.  If it is propositional knowledge, so be it.  I don't see any need to take a position on that issue.  Until the notion of "propositional content" has some empirical significance, it should not influence the scientific study of skill.  It is enough to observe that there are empirically sound reasons for distinguishing between procedural and declarative memory, and we have every reason to think of these as varieties of knowledge.  Skills rely on both to varying degrees.


So, can Neo become a master of Kung Fu by upload alone?  Since this is science fiction, perhaps we should stick with "maybe," but based on what we know, I think the most plausible answer is no.  Morpheus was right to ask for a demonstration, though perhaps not for the reason he thought.  If my analysis is accurate, then Neo could not know how he could do Kung Fu unless he had reliable and accurate procedural memories of doing Kung Fu.  He could not have the skill or the knowledge until he performed.

Stanley and Krakauer disagree, but their argument is based on a conflation of vocabularies.  They want us to believe that knowing how to do martial arts is just part of the skill (perhaps it is the part that can be learned discursively, though I don't think they're clear on this).  The other part of the skill, which relies on procedural memory, is not knowledge at all.  Yet, they do not offer a coherent argument for this position.  Procedural memory appears to be a part of knowledge or even a distinct a kind of knowledge, propositional or not.

I agree with Stanley and Krakauer that athletics and academics are both capable of demonstrating intelligence.  I do not think a great scientist is necessarily smarter than a great athlete.  However, I think they may be smarter along different dimensions, and it makes sense to consider one physical and the other intellectual.  The reach of intellectual intelligence is probably wider than the reach of physical intelligence.  It is true that both physical and intellectual intelligence are involved in both athletics and academics.  However, the types of skills required of an academic are not entirely contained in the skills required of an athlete, and vice versa.  There may not be a clear distinction between intellectual and physical skills--they may blend together, but they are distinct sets.  Also, I wouldn't assume that all skills are either intellectual or physical.  Some can be both, others can be neither.  Furthermore, there can be biological (and that includes developmental) reasons why some people are better at some skills than at others.

In the end, we should not be convinced by Stanley and Krakauer's argument against the distinction between practical and theoretical knowledge, or between intellectual and non-intellectual pursuits.  While athletics certainly requires intelligence, and while it can certainly involve intellectual pursuits (studying strategy, for example), the term "intellectual" is useful for indicating a different skill set.  Stanley and Krakauer should recognize that some athletes are more learned when it comes to strategy, while others are more skilled when it comes to execution.  Strategy is considered more intellectual, because it can be learned discursively--through spoken and written language.  Strategy depends more on declarative memory, whereas execution depends more on procedural memory--on the movement of the body.  Thus, a person can have advanced theoretical knowledge of a sport or martial art without having the knowledge required to execute it with any skill.  The practical and the theoretical are two different relations to the same things.  Furthermore, practical ability is part of knowledge.  We do not have skills without practical ability, and we do not have the knowledge required for the mastery of a skill without having mastery of the skill itself.  For that reason, we should reject both Weak and Strong Intellectualism.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

TED Talks: Rhetoric And Dialectic

The more I look, the more I find evidence that TED is propaganda.  It uses factually misleading yet emotionally persuasive and motivational speeches to sell the idea that creative geniuses are changing the world for the better.  It sells itself as a conveyor of knowledge and as access to the world of the intellectual elite.  Here is how TED presents itself (the bold is from their own Website):

TED conferences bring together the world's most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes or less). On, we make the best talks and performances from TED and partners available to the world, for free. . . . Our mission: Spreading ideas. We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and, ultimately, the world. So we're building a clearinghouse of free knowledge from the world's most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other.
It's right there:  TED should be appreciated, because it freely shares the ideas of the world's intellectual and professional elite, ideas which have the power to change society and make the world a better place.  TED's audience?  Curious souls.

I like that TED promotes engagement between its audience members.  However, we can't assume that any online discussion forum is actually going to promote critical thinking and the spread of knowledge.  Many online forums are more like echo chambers, where dissenting or challenging voices are drowned out, if not shouted down.  I haven't explored TED's online community yet.  What is important to note, however--what is central to my thesis--is that TED Talks do not promote critical thinking.  They are prime examples of the art of rhetoric, and not dialectic.

Of course, you cannot expect a speaker to engage in dialogue with its audience.  Public speaking is not, generally, in dialogue form.  And I'm not criticizing public speaking as such.  When I contrast rhetoric and dialectic, I'm talking about two different approaches to the spread of ideas.  With rhetoric, the goal is to persuade the audience, manipulating their emotions in order to change their thinking.  With dialectic, the goal is to challenge the audience, forcing them to question their assumptions and recognize the unwanted consequences of their reasoning.

The distinction between rhetoric and dialectic drives one of Plato's dialogues, called Gorgias.  Gorgias was a real man who lived to be over a hundred years old in ancient Greece.  He was quite wealthy and powerful, making money by teaching the rich and powerful how to practice the art of rhetoric.  Socrates, as is well known, didn't live quite so long and didn't make much money.  But he did also try to teach people his art:  the art of dialectic, of challenging people's assumptions about what they know and leading people to recognize that what they think they know has uncomfortable consequences.

The dialogue is often interpreted as making an argument for both rhetoric and dialectic.  Dialectic is unpleasant and unwelcome in most people's lives.  People respond more favorably to rhetoric.  And yet, Plato argues, rhetoric without dialectic is blind.  The art of persuasion must be led by critical thought, or else it will lead nowhere.  And so, in the dialogue, Socrates argues that Gorgias cannot possibly teach his students how to be good and just.  He can only teach them how to manipulate people's emotions.  And this is dangerous, Socrates says, because he can trick people into thinking that they are being taught what is good and just.  When our emotions are manipulated, we think something good and just is happening.  We are tricked into thinking we have found what is good, when in fact we've just found what is pleasant.

This is what TED Talks do:  They give the audience an uplifting emotional experience and they make the audience believe that it is coming from the intellectual elite.  TED's intended audience is not stupid.  They know they are being emotionally manipulated.  But, they think, this is rhetoric informed by dialectic; it is emotional manipulation that we can trust, because it is coming from people who have the credentials, knowledge and experience to know what is right.

When we look at TED Talks, it is very hard (maybe impossible) to find evidence of dialectic. Instead of challenging audience's assumptions and engaging their critical faculties, TED promotes a pseudo-intellectual cult of personality.

Pseudo-intellectualism is the tendency to act with an unjustified air of intellectual authority. A pseudo-intellectual cult of personality, then, is a social movement in which a relatively small number of individuals use mass media to gain power over others by falsely selling themselves as intellectual giants and by leading their audience to act out of a false sense of their own knowledge.

TED speakers are, in some respects, elite members of society. They hold high positions in corporations and industry. They teach at top universities, or at least they have degrees from top universities. They publish widely read books and articles. They have all the formal qualifications, but that does not make one a creative genius. Academic and professional success are not indisputable signs of intellectual superiority.

Now, one might ask, what is the harm in having very smart, educated, successful people share a little bit of their knowledge and experience with the rest of the world?  It is entertaining, uplifting and at least a little bit educational, isn't it?

Obviously it is entertaining and uplifting.  The question I'm raising is about the educational content.  If I am right, then TED Talks systematically mislead people into putting their faith in the wrong hands.  They provide some informational content, but it is generally misleading.  TED says their goal is to spread ideas, though the one idea they seem to be spreading most of all is that TED speakers have the power to change the world for the better.  That idea is not based on fact.  It is a wish that the audience buys into.  And it is supported by the fact that the speakers are so successful.  The assumption that TED relies on is that, if you are successful, you are doing something right.

The loyal TED audience will defend TED Talks on the grounds that these are highly successful, intelligent individuals who have proven themselves in the workplace.  The ideas they are sharing must be valuable, because they come from the world of great intellectual and professional success.  And yet, it's all rhetoric, not dialectic.  The path these successful individuals are selling is the path which puts blind faith in highly successful individuals.  TED's audience believes in the speakers because they are told to, and because the speakers manipulate their emotions in fulfilling ways.  They are misled into thinking they have received knowledge which can make the world a better place. They are supported in their belief in the power of the individual to effect change.  They may therefore be motivated to work a bit harder at their job, or in their creative pursuits.  But what they are not motivated to do is think critically about their assumptions or engage with TED's ideas in a challenging way.  They are not motivated to challenge the speakers' points of view, or the social structures which put those speakers on the stage and give them authority in the first place.

Of course, many people who watch TED Talks do respond critically to them.  I'm not saying everyone who watches and likes TED Talks is incapable of critical thought.  I'm saying that the talks do not promote critical thought, and are not designed to.  They are designed to promote the one idea that TED champions:  the idea that the institutionally-sanctioned intellectual elite are making the world a better place.  Anything that challenges that idea is unwelcome.  And any manipulation of facts and emotions is welcome, so long as it promotes that one basic idea.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

TED Talks: Deb Roy's "The Birth Of A Word"

I've recently voiced the thesis that TED Talks are aimed at pseudo-intellectuals and promote a pseudo-intellectual culture.  They do not inform so much as they persuade people into following a cult of personality.  I'm not saying they aren't informative at all. They can be, but I think the information is generally misleading and at the expense of a particular, emotionally driven agenda.  However, I have not seen a majority of the many, many TED talks that are out there.  I don't want to jump to any conclusions, so I'm only offering this idea as a hypothesis.  To make a stronger argument about TED Talks in general, a lot more Talks would have to be analyzed.  (It is also important to look at how TED Talks are planned, organized and promoted, but I'll save that for another day).

I know some people who claim to watch TED Talks because they offer a brief, entertaining glimpse into the future of science and technology.  I question how accurate that glimpse really is, and if that is what really draws people to TED.  What they get, I think, is less information and more an emotionally rewarding, inspirational experience.  It is not surprising that presents their list of the 15 most popular TED Talks thus:

Feel like getting inspired, motivated or just looking for a feel-good cry? Then look no further. There's no better way to start your day than with a fresh cup of coffee and a nice TED talk to make you feel ready to take on your day. . . . we've rounded up 15 of the most inspirational, tear-jerking and downright beautiful TED talks out there. So sit back, relax and get ready to listen to some of the most courageous and fascinating people in the world.
My hypothesis is that the emotional rewards are really the point of TED Talks, and that the dissemination of information is ultimately misleading--and misleading in a systematic way, a way which reinforces the audience's belief in the power of creative individuals to effect social change.

I've only had time to watch one of the Talks on mashable's list:  Deb Roy's "The birth of a word."

I chose this one because the topic appealed to me. I did not know what to expect, and I was surprised at just how terrifying it was.  It fully supports my hypothesis:  the emotional appeal is very strong, while the information content is very misleading.

Deb Roy presents himself as a loving father who is proud of his home recordings--recordings, he assures us, which will be cherished by his son, and by his son's children, and on and on.  And he is proud to share them with the audience, too.  When the audience hears his son say "water" for the first time, they give Roy a round of applause.

Roy claims to have discovered new ways of thinking about language acquisition.  However, none of the ideas he mentions (feedback, social behaviour) are new.  He also makes the misleading claim that he has been able to isolate a linear verbal learning trajectory:  how his son learned to say "water."  However, all he has done is edited various sounds together to present the illusion of a learning trajectory.  There is no demonstration of any scientific discovery or advancement.  And yet, the audience breaks into applause when they finally hear the word, "water."  It is an emotionally satisfying moment which is apparently meant to sell the idea that some great scientific breakthrough is on the horizon.

The fact is, Roy's research into language acquisition has not yielded any actual results, and there are good reasons to think it will not.  The first problem is that his study's only subject is his son, so we cannot expect unbiased results which could be reliably generalized.  The second is that he is not observing language acquisition "in the wild," as he puts it, because he has transformed his house into a laboratory in which none of the participants (except the subject) are blind.  Third, any attempt to perform this kind of study "in the wild" would raise enormous privacy issues.

While Roy presents himself as a father who loves to share his home recordings, he does not mention any difficulties in balancing his roles as father and scientist.  But we have to pause and consider the fact that he and his wife have put the first years of their child's life under a microscope.  Their interactions with their child have been deliberately aimed at studying how he learns language.  It is no wonder that their child was an early language user, is it?  They have spoken to their child knowing it was being recorded for later analysis.  And they spent countless hours going over those recordings, studying them not as parents, but as scientists.  What kind of effects might this have on their relationship with their child, and on their child's development?  Will their son grow up happy to have this incomprehensible mountain of data from his childhood?  Will he really be so happy to share it with his children, as Roy supposes?  It is certainly possible, but I think one or two psychologists might be useful in making sure it turns out for the better.  I'm not jumping to any conclusions about anyone's parenting skills, mind you.  I am just pointing out the dangers of turning childhood into an experiment.  More importantly, I'm pointing out the fact that Roy does not point it out.  The audience is not invited to consider any of the dangers that might be associated with his research.  After all, that would detract from the emotional appeal.

Perhaps more than language acquisition, this talk is about data imaging.  In fact, there is virtually nothing on display in this talk except nifty data imaging techniques.  These pretty images sell the promise of new ways of understanding social data.  Roy does not present any new ways of understanding social data, but he acts as if he's made great discoveries.  He presents old ideas as if they were fresh off the vine; as if nobody knew that language acquisition was tied to social behavior; as if nobody knew that critics connected large audiences to entertainment content.

New technology is certainly making it much, much easier to manipulate and interpret vast amounts of social data.  While that is true, Roy wants us to believe that this is somehow going to make all our lives better.  Yet, he does not offer any evidence that any of this is going to improve anybody's lives.  Now that the world has recoiled in shock at Edward Snowden's revelations, people are much more aware of the dangers of this sort of technology.  But again, Roy does not even suggest the potential for any such danger.

An honest, well-rounded discussion of these topics would at least touch on the possible dangers and limitations of Roy's research and the tools he is championing.  It would not rely on emotional appeals to mislead the audience into thinking that all is well in the land of science and technology, and it would not misinform the audience about achievements and discoveries.  If the goal of TED Talks is to give an honest, well-rounded discussion of its topics, then this one is pretty bad.  However, if the goal is to give an emotionally satisfying, one-sided discussion which sells the idea that the creative genius can change society for the better, then this talk is stellar.  As propaganda, it works.  Unfortunately, it promotes pseudo-intellectualism by promoting a cult of personality in which the intellectual elite are worshiped without critical thought.

Further Reflections on "Gravity" [with Spoilers]

In my review of Alfonso Cuaron's film, Gravity, I offered an interpretation of the film's symbolism.  My main idea is that the film is an argument for personal religion.  There are several features of the film that strongly suggest this interpretation, and I didn't mention all of them in my last post.  Even though I didn't enjoy the film, I think it's worth analyzing to try to see how this message is communicated and also to consider how it might resonate with people without them consciously realizing what the message is about.

First, let's look at some things Cuaron has said about Gravity:

The film was a metaphor of rebirth; literally, at the end, she goes from a fetal position [earlier in the film, when she floats after undressing in the space station], then in the water [shot at Lake Powell, Arizona, with significant postproduction alterations to make it green and lush and butterfly-filled], to come out, crawl, go on her knees, and then stand on her two feet and walk again. You know, it was a bit polemic at some point with some people, with a kind of jaded, more mainstream thing, people saying, “But how do we know that she is going to be fine? How do we know that she is getting safely home? How do we know that she is not going to be kidnapped?” I said, “I don’t care, she is walking now!” I want to believe that if she survived what she survived … she’s equipped to deal with adversities. One film that I love that is in many ways a model — not all the time but many times, and by no means am I comparing the film to this film — but A Man Escaped by Robert Bresson. And that escape film becomes this film where the walls are the metaphysical walls.
There are three points I want to stress:  First, Cuaron set out to make a movie about a rebirth, which is a spiritual concept.  Second, the outcome of the rebirth is that the protagonist is now equipped to deal with adversity.  Third, the main obstacles facing the protagonist are metaphysical, not physical.  The protagonist's return to earth (to a grounded, upright position, tall against the sky) symbolizes the overcoming of metaphysical obstacles to find the necessary spiritual strength to be a successful and powerful individual. It is, in effect, a motivational film.  (That's mainly why I didn't enjoy it, incidentally.  I don't like motivational speakers.)  And it is motivational in a way that explicitly uses religious icons and ideas, including the idea of an afterlife.  This all supports my thesis, which is that the film is an argument for personal religion which romanticizes self-sufficiency and the power of personal determination.

The film opens with written words communicating the idea that life is impossible in space.  Space is the antagonist in this film.  It represents the spiritual emptiness that Ryan (Sandra Bullock) lives in after her four-year old daughter died.  As the film develops, we see many beautiful shots of Earth.  We don't see any shots of the moon or any beautiful, seductive shots of other celestial objects.  We hardly see any shots of events in space without Earth prominently featured in the background.  When we do see characters in space without Earth in the background, it is at key moments when the abyss is threatening to engulf them.

The only beautiful or safe object in space is Earth, though Earth never seems to be in space.  We never see any shots of Earth completely surrounded by space.  Earth seems bigger than space, which it pushes out of the screen.  In this movie, Earth is not really in space at all.  It is opposed to space.  It is teeming with life, love, beauty, warmth and comfort.  And yet, Ryan is incapable of recognizing or even acknowledging it.  Matt (George Clooney) mentions it several times, but Ryan never takes notice.  She prefers the quiet of empty space.  She prefers lifelessness.

As the story begins, Ryan is quickly characterized as a scientific genius.  She knows how to take care of her ship, one step ahead of ground control. And yet, she's not healthy.  She's weak and should probably not be working.  (Interestingly, her physical health never becomes an issue later, when she is struggling for survival.  Perhaps her physical ailment at the beginning of the story is just meant to give us a sense of her spiritual weakness.  Once she starts overcoming her metaphysical problems, her physical health is no longer a factor.)  She is so focused on her work, she doesn't want to stop until she's finished, even though she's been warned about incoming debris.  This suggests that she does not have her priorities straight, she's not practical-minded.  She's not, we might say, grounded.

Ryan is characterized in contrast to Matt, who is anything but engaged in his work.  He is enjoying a space joyride, trying to set a record for the longest spacewalk.  He is more interested in telling personal anecdotes, setting records and enjoying the view of Earth than he is in doing anything resembling scientific work. The only work he does in the film is help get Ryan focused on what she needs to do to survive.  He is a spiritual guide more than anything else.

When the debris finally hits and her struggle begins, Ryan's character is fully revealed:  She is incapable of acting.  She almost can't even breathe.  Matt guides her, makes decisions for her, stabilizes her a little, but her struggle is not merely to survive.  She is struggling to learn how to deal with adversity.  She is learning how to fight for her life.  When Matt is pulled away from her, we don't mourn his death.  It is not an emotionally devastating moment.  Matt isn't even upset about it.  All we feel is fear for Ryan, because now she's alone, with nobody to guide her.  And remember, as Cuaron said, her obstacles are not physical, they are metaphysical.   She is not just struggling for her life. She is finding a sense of joy in life, perhaps the fullest she has ever experienced.  Ultimately, she finds strength in the joyful thought of Matt and her daughter waiting for her in Heaven.

I am sure that not everyone who likes this story believes in an afterlife.  I imagine those who don't kind of wish they did, though.  And I'm betting they all believe in the power of religious belief to ground people, to help them overcome adversity, giving them the strength to take control of their lives.  That is the argument the film makes:  If you have the right spiritual attitude, if you overcome the metaphysical barriers which keep you empty, lifeless and alone, then you can be a powerful, strong, self-actualized individual.  It's an argument for individualism, but also for personal religion. Gravity is the force of your own spiritual strength which keeps you standing, ready to fight.  Earth is whatever metaphysical truth makes that possible, what many people call "God."

This is not all explicitly stated in the film, but it's all pretty clear.  As Cuaron says, " I think [the studios] have been jaded too much about the need [for audiences] to be reassured, and overexplained in things. Man, I give more credit for audiences."

Update:  Oh, and about the religious icons.  On the American ship, we see Marvin the Martian, an iconic cartoon character who is bent on destroying the Earth.  That could be a symbol of spiritual bankruptcy.  On the International Space Station, a Catholic icon.  On the Chinese Space Station, a Buddha.  Interesting trajectory:  from spiritual bankruptcy to Catholicism to Buddhism to . . . Earth.  Maybe there's no specific trajectory intended, but the use of the icons seems significant.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Gravity is about finding God

At, there's a review of the film Gravity that claims it's a "plea for science," but I think that reviewer is cherry-picking and ignoring important details.  There are some big clues that the movie is, in fact, a plea for religion.


In the middle of the film, Ryan (Sandra Bullock) complains that nobody has ever taught her how to pray.  Then she does pray (to her fallen comrade), hoping that her daughter is in Heaven waiting for her.  This is after she finds a renewed appreciation for life.  She is now ready to act, live or die.  A leap of faith.  And what does she say after she acts?  "I hate space."

The contrast between space and earth is always looming in this film.  While space is empty, desolate, lonely and meaningless, earth is warm, friendly, meaningful and hospitable.  Earth is always in the background, beautiful (as Ryan is often told, though she never acknowledges or notices it), but far away. Space is where Bullock resides, where she went after her daughter died.  Space is where she goes for quiet, away from humanity.  When she gets to her lowest and coldest, she is touched by a small dose of life and love (through a random radio connection).  She cries, but since she's never learned how to pray (as she explains), she gives up.  But then, somehow, she is awakened and she is inspired to take that leap of faith.  And so she prays and confidently expresses her disdain for space:  for being away from God.

Her leap of faith, her reaching out to God, leads her to earth--or, rather, to the pull of earth.  The film is called "Gravity," after all.  It is the force of gravity that ultimately saves her.  But she is saved only because she made a leap of faith.  We can equate the two:  her leap of faith brought her closer to God just as it brought her closer to earth.  Earth symbolizes God, and so gravity symbolizes religion.  The leap of faith brought her to religion, and thus to God; to gravity, and thus to earth.  This is even clearer when she finally gets to earth and says, to the ground, "Thank you."  Is she speaking to the earth or to God?  Or is she thanking gravity, religion, for grounding her?  Perhaps it is all of the above.  Through her thanks she finds the strength to stand.  And so the film ends, with her on her feet, grounded, standing tall against the sky--taller than ever before with religion to see her way forward.

One Catholic priest commented in response to that review:

As a Catholic I saw in the movie the Communion of Saints. In her darkest hour, she bemoans that she has no one to pray for her and that she didn't know how to pray for herself. Then she is visited by George Clooneys now dead character. Later she prays to Clooneys character to reach out to her child. And in the Russian craft there is an icon of St. Christopher (patron of travelers) carrying Jesus across a stream paralleling how Clooney carried her "across a dangerous passage." The final scene was both birth and baptism (which is a rebirth).
This makes sense to me.  I don't think the film is saying that God is everywhere.  I don't think the film is embracing science, exactly, either.  Science takes Ryan into space, away from God.  God is on earth, where mankind belongs.  So the film could be saying that science is dangerous, that science takes us away from our true path.

Anyway, I didn't like the movie.  I thought it was boring, annoying, disrespectful to basic physics and marred by bad, often hokey, dialogue. (The only really annoying thing that was disrespectful to physics, for me, was that there was nothing at all pulling George Clooney away from Bullock, and so there was no need for him to untether himself.)  It felt a lot like watching a motivational religious speaker, actually, but with much better special effects and cinematography. At least Sandra Bullock was believable. (Clooney, not so much.)

Also, I was offended by the way they characterized the different nationalities.  The American ship gets a Marvin the Martian.  The Russian ship gets a chess piece.  The Chinese, a ping pong paddle.  Talk about stereotypes!  Ping pong in space?  That would be entertaining to watch.  (And by the way, why was the computer on the Russian ship flashing the word "Fire"?  Don't they have a Russian word for that?)

But a lot of people think it's a great story.  That's probably because it is so enthusiastically motivational.  (Which reminds me how annoyed I was at how over-the-top the music and sound effects sometimes were, though they were occasionally quite effective).  It's all about overcoming great odds, finding faith, and doing it on your own, standing tall.  A very American story.

Update:  Here's a review from a Catholic publication that's worth checking out: Faith in Space: A Review of "Gravity".

Also check out my Further Reflections on "Gravity".

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Learning From History: Interpreting Godwin's Law

Godwin's Law seems as old as the Internet itself.  It's the principle that, given enough time, any online discussion will inevitably lead to some mention of Hitler or the Nazis.  Today, however, some people take Godwin's statement as a prescription:  Don't mention Hitler or Nazis in an online discussion (unless you're discussing something specifically to do with Hitler and the Nazis).

I recall once, a year or two ago, I made a comparison between Ayn Rand and the Nazis on a friend's Facebook wall.  I think the analogy was that Ayn Rand is to capitalism what the Nazis were to nationalism.  My point, which I made explicitly clear, was that you cannot criticize capitalism by criticizing Ayn Rand, just as you cannot criticize nationalism by criticizing the Nazis.  (Edit: Actually, I think I phrased it this way:  Defending capitalism by defending Ayn Rand is like defending nationalism by defending the Nazis.  But the point is the same.)  I think it's a fair point.  One could draw the analogy a little deeper:  Ayn Rand's version of capitalism is extreme, irrational and even sociopathic.  The Nazi's version of nationalism was also extreme, irrational and sociopathic.  That's probably about as far as the analogy goes, but I think it's a legitimate one.  However, somebody responded,  "Godwin violation," and my post was immediately deleted. The implication was that I had broken some rule of conduct, as if any mention of the Nazis was unacceptable.  Of course, the reality is that I did not violate Godwin's Law.  I helped confirm it!

What makes Godwin's Law worth our attention is the fact that people do sometimes use Nazi analogies to demonize people.  Nazi analogies are often not only intellectually bankrupt, but meant to provoke emotions instead of furthering understanding through civil debate.  And so we have a "law" that states what we've come to expect:  That the more irrational and heated a discussion gets, the more likely people will use Nazi analogies.  However, this does not mean that any and every use of Nazi analogies is irrational or intellectually bankrupt.  It does not mean we should be afraid to make comparisons to Nazis and Hitler.  And it does not mean we should criticize people just for making such analogies.

In my last post, I made a comparison between TED propaganda and Mein Kampf.  I was careful to give this some context.  As I explained in my post, I teach Nazi propaganda in a class and I compare it to other forms of propaganda.  I do not do this to demonize anybody, but to help my students understand propaganda and how it works.  In my post, I explained that I do not think TED is promoting dictatorship.  I think it was clear that I was not calling TED followers "Nazis."  I explained that I was just making the comparison because it has historical validity and it can help us better understand how TED propaganda works.  And yet, one of my Facebook friends said that I was woefully wrong for making the Nazi comparison, and that my post was "worthy of Godwin."

What I did not explain, but perhaps I should have, is that when I teach Nazi propaganda, I try to be as charitable as possible.  I do not try to demonize Hitler or the Nazis.  I try to instruct my students in the principle of charity, as well, to make them responsible interpreters.  Here's what I tell them (in writing) when we are analyzing Mein Kampf:

To be a responsible interpreter, we must also try to understand how the text was intended to be read. We are not reading the text in its original context, or even in its original language, but that should not stop us. Assuming the translation is accurate (or accurate enough), we should try to imagine how the original text might have been interpreted in Germany when Hitler rose to power. This means we have to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes. We have to empathize, to see and feel from somebody else’s point of view. It’s important to practice doing this, because it is not always easy to do—especially when the shoes we are trying to step into are ugly, uncomfortable or just the wrong size. But even then, we should try to wear the shoes as well as possible—what I mean is, we should try to be charitable.

The principle of charity states that, whenever we are reading or listening to a text, we should try to imagine that the person who is speaking (or writing) is as intelligent and reasonable as possible. We should not assume that they are stupid or crazy. We should try to give them the benefit of the doubt whenever possible, and try to interpret their words in the best way possible. We should not assume that anyone who liked the book was stupid, evil or ignorant. We should not assume that everybody who followed Hitler was crazy or irrational. That would be very uncharitable. The principle of charity says that we should do our very best—as hard as it may be—to think of how this book may have given an intelligent, reasonable and educated person something to believe in.
The principle of charity can be very difficult to apply, especially with a book like this. It is very easy to jump to conclusions and criticize people when they seem to be stupid or ignorant. It is hard to be charitable when we want to criticize a person or a group of people, and it is especially hard when we are talking about something as terrifying and terrible as war and genocide. However, we would not be responsible interpreters if we did not at least try. This does not mean we have to think that Hitler was right, or that anybody was right to follow him. It only means that we should not assume that Hitler and his followers were stupid, ignorant or crazy. If we approach the book with that kind of attitude, we will not learn very much at all. (We may finally decide that all Nazis were stupid, ignorant and/or crazy, but we should only come to that conclusion after eliminating every other possibility.)
I try to remember that people are sensitive to the topic, which is why I cushioned my comparison between TED and Mein Kampf  in so many ways.  But it seems that people still have the wrong idea about Godwin's Law.  They still think that any Nazi comparison is wrong just because it is a Nazi comparison, regardless of what validity the point might contain.  This attitude only cripples our ability to learn from history.

Sometimes mention of Hitler and the Nazis is offensive, irrational and intellectually bankrupt.  Sometimes it isn't. If we're going to learn from history, we have to learn to tell the difference.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

TED Propaganda and Pseudo-Intellectualism

Author Thomas Frank has written a critical commentary on TED and the literature of creativity.  His thesis is that the literature and TED are engaging in propaganda, selling their audience (identified as the professional-managerial class) the false idea that their own creativity is the source of their financial success and power.  I'm not convinced by Frank's argument, but I think there is something in what he is saying.  However, I also think he gets something very wrong.

I've been thinking a lot about propaganda lately, since I'm currently teaching it as part of my IB English: Language and Literature course.  In my class, we focus on Nazi propaganda (especially an extract from chapter three of Mein Kampf) and Walt Disney war propaganda cartoons from 1943, such as "Reason and Emotion."

As I explain to my students, the Mein Kampf extract and "Reason and Emotion" used many of the same rhetorical strategies (flattery and ridicule, in particular) in order to give their audiences hope and encourage loyalty.  Of course there were political ends.  In the case of Mein Kampf, it was support of the Nazi party and Hitler's dictatorship.  In the case of "Reason and Emotion," it was support of the war effort against Hitler.  In both cases, the propagada's stated purpose was to encourage people to think independently, with reason, and not to be led by their emotions or fooled by the press.  And yet, in both cases, the propaganda's actual message was that people should be led by particular emotions (patriotism in one case, nationalism in the other; and fear in both cases) and that those who did not support their side of the war were irrational, emotionally unstable, dangerous and, ultimately, manipulated by the press.  Both Mein Kampf and "Reason and Emotion" silenced whoever opposed their political aims.

Propaganda does not always silence the opposition, but it does always serve a particular social or political agenda.  According to Thomas Frank, TED talks and the literature on creativity have an economic agenda:  to prop up the professional-managerial class, to help them believe that their power and success is deserved and rooted in their own creativity.  The problem is, I don't think propaganda is generally about helping the powerful justify their own power to themselves. Power only needs to be justified to the people who don't have it.

I am not familiar with the popular literature on creativity, and Frank does not give enough details for me to discuss.  However, I have seen a number of TED talks (never in person, mind you) and I've always felt there was something phony and pandering about them.  Speaking only about TED, then, I think the draw is more a form of wish-fulfillment for pseudo-intellectuals. I presume the class of pseudo-intellectuals intersects a lot with the professional-managerial class, but I don't think the TED audience is limited to the professional-managerial class.  So here's my first thesis:  TED talks systematically give pseudo-intellectuals something to believe in: the power of the creative genius to bring about social change.

The audience is flattered into believing that they, too, are (or can be) part of the change: by appreciating and supporting x, y and z.  They are led to be able to talk about x, y and z only as a pseudo-intellectual, of course.  They are not able to offer a critical analysis of x, y and z, and they are not inclined to.  So they intuitively recognize that they are not the creative genius that they worship.  On the other hand, they are given license to celebrate in their own creativity, however limited it is.  (And if they realize they are not very creative at all, then they feel good in at least being able to recognize that they should be more creative.)  The audience feels special because they are given the chance to recognize and (to a limited extent) identify with such greatness, and support the change it heralds.

Hitler did something similar in Mein Kampf. He went on and on about the nobility and power of the creative genius. It was the need for such a leader, he said, which made dictatorship necessary.  I'm not saying TED is setting us up for a dictatorship.  That would be silly.  My main point in making the comparison to Mein Kampf is to show that this idea is not new.  The idea of the creative genius has a strong history of being used to manipulate people.  TED sells hope in the creative genius to people who are afraid they do not have power to effect change.  It gives people something to believe in--something far less dangerous than dictatorship, perhaps, but still something we should think critically about:  the role of the intellectual in society.

The American intellectual has a privileged position in American society, but it is a culture that values personality over rigor.  (I've commented on this previously with respect to Sam Harris, who has also pandered to pseudo-intellectuals with a TED talk.  See here and here.)  Intellectual honesty and integrity are sacrificed for the sake of cult.  The result is that the most successful public "intellectuals" are, in fact, pseudo-intellectuals.

I doubt that we could analyze TED talks and find a consistent set of economic or political values being espoused.  I rather think that TED promotes something else:  loyalty to the cult of personality which sustains America's pseudo-intellectual climate.

Also see:

Here are a couple more criticisms of TED that are worth checking out:  one, two.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Two Kinds Of Knowledge In Plato's Gorgias

Provoked by some Facebook posts by Jason Stanley (Yale) and an ensuing discussion with Jason and Michael Morris (Sussex), I've been arguing for a certain interpretation of Plato's distinction between medicine and cookery, or, more generally, between crafts and knacks.  By "crafts" we might take Plato to mean arts or skills, or perhaps even what today would be called "sciences."  The difficult question concerns what Plato means by "knacks," and whether or not they entail a particular kind of knowledge.

In Gorgias (463a), Socrates refers to knacks as parts of flattery, which he calls "the habit of a bold and ready wit, which knows how to manage mankind."  In another translation, flattery is defined as "a shrewd, gallant spirit which has a natural bent for clever dealing with mankind."  Both translations indicate that flattery entails knowledge: either it is knowledge how to manage mankind, or it is whatever knowledge is required for clever dealings with mankind.  (Cleverness is a variety of intelligence, and philosophers of my and Jason Stanley's ilk will argue that intelligence always entails knowledge.)  This is concrete and direct evidence that Plato thought flattery entailed knowledge.  While Jason Stanley does not think this passage is sufficient to prove that Plato thought knacks entailed knowledge, he has not attempted to give us an alternate reading of the passage.

Instead of countering my interpretation of 463a, Jason drew my attention to two other passages in Gorgias.  First, on page 464, Socrates says cookery (one part of flattery) "assumes the form of medicine, and pretends to know what foods are best for the body."  Clearly, then, cookery entails a certain ignorance.  Shortly before that, Socrates also says that flattery "divides herself" into parts (such as cookery) by mere speculation or guesswork, and not according to knowledge of her principles.  The implication is that flattery does not know the nature of her own principles.  Cookery, for example, does not proceed by a knowledge of reasons or principles, but by some other means.  Thus, I responded that while Plato is clearly drawing our attention to a lack of knowledge, it is not necessarily a lack of knowledge simpliciter.  It is rather a lack of knowledge of reasons/principles.  The implication is that knacks entail knowledge without knowledge of reasons/principles.

The same argument applies to the second passage Jason drew to my attention, on page 465.  Here Socrates says that flattery "aims at pleasure without any thought of the best. An art I do not call it, but only an experience, because it is unable to explain or to give a reason of the nature of its own applications. And I do not call any irrational thing an art."  In another translation, it reads: "it aims at the pleasant and ignores the best; and I say it is not an art, but a habitude, since it has no account to give of the real nature of the things it applies, and so cannot tell the cause of any of them. I refuse to give the name of art to anything that is irrational."  This is perfectly consistent with what I have already said:  flatteries, such as cookery, are ignorant of their reasons and principles, but attempt to please people through repetition of habits.  The learning and repetition of a habit surely entails knowledge.

However, Jason Stanley and Michael Morris are not convinced.  Their main point of contention has to do with how we should translate the Greek word "stochazetai," which is translated in the two versions above as "aims."  They prefer another translation (found in the Dodds version). Instead of flattery "aiming" at what is pleasant, they say flattery "guesses at" what is pleasant.  Perhaps that is a better translation, perhaps not.  I'm not convinced one way or the other.  (Michael's argument for "guesses at" is that it is consistent with the contrast Plato is drawing between knacks and knowledge; but this only begs the question, since I am questioning that any such contrast is being made.)  But it doesn't matter which translation we choose.  What matters is that both translations are consistent with my argument.

Flattery does not proceed according to knowledge of its ends.  It does not entail the application of reasons which could explain or justify its procedures.  And so, in a sense, cookery is ignorant of pleasure.  Cookery does not proceed by drawing conclusions about pleasure from reasons.  It does not pursue knowledge of pleasure at all.  It "guesses at" pleasure, but only in the sense that it hopes to produce pleasure without having reasons/principles which could explain or justify its procedure.  Thus, I wrote:

even if we do interpret it as "guesses at pleasure" or "guesses at what is pleasant," it still seems that knacks can entail a sort of knowledge. Namely, knowledge of how to carry out a habit which guesses at pleasure without knowing (from reasons) how to bring pleasure about. And Plato does repeatedly refer to knacks as habits, and as involving routine and recollection, and even "knowing how to manage mankind."
I see no evidence at all that Plato regards knacks (and flattery in general) as entailing a complete lack of knowledge.  The evidence rather suggests that knacks entail a lack of knowledge of a particular sort:  knowledge of reasons/principles which could explain/justify their procedures.

In my most recent comment to Jason, I strengthened my argument as follows:
a brief argument should make the case for my reading even more persuasive. Socrates notes that there is a difference between "having learned" and "having believed," and this is meant to illustrate the difference between knowledge and belief. Wouldn't Socrates allow that one can learn how to cook? If so, that implies that cooking entails knowledge. What makes it merely a knack, then, is in how the learning occurs: by repeating what has already been done. This is opposed to learning crafts: In crafts, learning occurs through instruction based on principles/reasons. So we have two kinds of knowledge: one involves mere habit, based on recollection; the other involves the application of reasons. 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

What a theological noncognitivist can say

Imagine a community called Storyville, where there are no religious institutions per se, but where various stories are circulated which we would call "religious."  Let's say these are stories from the Bible, such as the story of Job.  In Storyville, the questions might arise:  Are these stories based on facts?  Do they represent some features of the world or our history?  Does the character of Job represent a real person who lived some time in the past?  Does the character of God represent a real person who lived in the past?

A denizen of Storyville might respond, "Job may have been a real person, but what sort of person could God have been?  I don't think God sounds like a person at all.  Is God supposed to represent some abstract quality or force of nature?  Maybe God is supposed to be both:  a person, but also some other kind of force of nature, or some quality inherent in nature.  It doesn't seem to make sense, but it's just a story, so it doesn't matter."

This denizen of Storyville is only talking about whether or not a character in a story is supposed to represent something (or things), and what sorts of things that character might be intended to represent.  They do not have a coherent idea of what the character is supposed to represent, if it supposed to represent anything at all.  All they have are ideas about what it may or may not represent.  And those ideas are coherent:  For it is coherent to talk about people, forces of nature and qualities inherent in the natural world.

Nothing our denizen of Storyville has said contradicts the view known as theological noncognitivism, which is the view that theological language has no cognitive content--that is, that theological concepts do not denote anything at all (not even possible objects) and have no logical sense (which does not stop theology from having emotional appeal and other forms of currency).  Thus, I suppose that this denizen could be a theological noncognitivist.

Now let another denizen of Storyville comment:  "I think God exists.  God is real, and not just a fictional character."  Theology has thus surfaced.

The first denizen responds with skepticism:  "What sort of being is God, then?  Is God a person and a quality inherent in nature?  How does that even make sense?"

"I don't know, but I feel it in my heart that he exists.  Don't you believe in God?"  Religion has thus entered Storyville through a social pressure to adopt theological language.

Now the first denizen is annoyed.  "How can I believe in God when I don't even know what sort of thing God is supposed to be?  Without a coherent definition of "God," I can't believe in God."  Our first denizen sounds very ignostic.

"Ah, so then you can't say you don't believe in God, either."

Our skeptic responds, "Sort of.  It's true that I can't say I have any beliefs about God if I don't know what God is supposed to be.  But I certainly don't believe I have any beliefs about anything called God.  Hmm.  Maybe I do.  Is God that bushel of strawberries over there?  If that's God, then I certainly do have beliefs about him.  I believe he's yummy!  But since I don't know if the character of God is supposed to represent that bushel of strawberries, I don't know whether or not I think God is yummy."  

"So you can't say anything about God at all, right?" 

"Well, I can say that God, as a character in a story, may or may not be meant to represent some real quality or aspect of nature, or some person.  And I can say that I don't believe it does represent anything at all.  But if there really is something it represents, if there really is something real called God:  I still have no idea what that's supposed to be.  It seems incoherent to me.  I don't think there's really anything there to talk about at all.  I think it's just a story.  God doesn't exist."

So my view is this.  Our skeptical denizen of Storyville, who ends by denying the existence of God, is a theological noncognitivist.  Even though the word "God" is used, the theological noncognitivist denies that the word "God" has a coherent meaning, apart from naming a character in some stories.  This does not prevent the theological noncognitivist from talking about that character or what that character might (or might not) represent.  It does not prevent the theological noncognitivist from denying that the character represents anything at all.  Theological noncognitivists can be strong skeptics about the truth of Biblical stories without assuming that the word "God" in those stories is coherently defined.  The last line, "God doesn't exist," just means that the word "God" names a character in some stories, and not a real entity or property of the world.  I think a theological noncognitivist can say that.

(See Theological Noncognitivism, Redux for a more thorough discussion of my point of view.)

Saturday, August 24, 2013

50 Great Myths About Atheism

Russell Blackford and Udo Sch√ľklenk's latest, 50 Great Myths About Atheism, is now available for your Kindle.  Since the school year is just about to start, I doubt I'll have a chance to read it any time soon.  But it looks rather good.  I'd love to hear what others have to say about it.

P.S.  I noticed that the Amazon page does not list the authors.  That seems rather criminal to me.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Affleckted

afflecktion [ah-flek-shun]
(of a movie) a condition in which the probability of causing distress and/or disappointment in audiences is significantly increased due to the presence of Ben Affleck.

It's official.  Ben Affleck will be Batman in the sequel to Man of Steel.  It's not that I don't like Ben Affleck.  I think he's fine in slimmer, lighter roles.  But I don't expect him to do wonders as the Caped Crusader.  I don't think he can convey the depth and complexity that Batman requires.  (I'm not sure there's a difference between depth and complexity in this context.  Maybe they're the same.  Or not.  Whatever.)

I didn't see Man Of Steel and I don't intend to. (Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan?  No, thanks.) And I've had enough Batman for a long while.  So I was not planning on seeing Batman vs. Superman, anyway.  But if Nolan wasn't producing, if they had a different director and most importantly, if they had somebody else to play Batman. . . if they had Nathan Fillion, say . . . well, then I'd be psyched.

You may be asking:  If I don't care so much about Batman vs. Superman, why did I bother coming up with this neologism and posting about it?  Because of Argo, that's why.  I'm still annoyed about Argo.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Intentionality Without Phenomenal Content?

David Chalmers is famous for, among other things, claiming that zombies are conceivable.  Not movie zombies, but zombies of a different sort.  These zombies are beings which are physically and functionally identical to human beings, but which lack a certain kind of conscious experience.  They lack the "what it is like" that is said to characterize our experiences.  Another way of putting it:  They lack phenomenal consciousness.

According to Chalmers, zombies act just like us, and that means they talk about things just the way we do.  They therefore have intentionality.  Their behaviours are about things.  It follows that, if zombies are conceivable (i.e., conceptually coherent) then there are intentional states that lack phenomenal content.

This seems like a difficult position to hold.  My intuition is that all intentional states have phenomenal content.  I wonder what arguments have been made one way or the other.  The conceivability of zombies depends on whether or not there can be intentional states without phenomenal content.  Therefore, it would be begging the question to appeal to zombies in an argument for intentional states without phenomenal content.

Edit:  It might be argued that artifacts like clocks and other mindless machines have intentionality without phenomenal content.  What these artifacts have, however, is derived intentionality.  They exhibit the intentionality of beings with phenomenal consciousness.  They do not have intentional states, but express the intentional states of their makers/users.

Another edit:  It occurs to me that, if it is conceivable that all intentional states have phenomenal content, then it is conceivable that zombies are inconceivable.  I'm not sure if that is important, but it sounds like it might be.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Musical Interlude: Prokofiev's Precipitato, take 2

Had to take a break from end-of-school-year things to record another version of this today. It's still not perfect, but it's much, much better than the one I recorded last week.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Musical Interlude: Prokofiev

Here's me playing the Precipitato from Prokofiev's seventh piano sonata.  [Update:  Here's a much, much better version of me playing this piece.]  The performance is far from perfect, but it's the best I can do for now. Maybe one day I'll get a better video of myself playing it, but I don't have the time to be a perfectionist about it right now and I have this odd urge to get something of my Prokofiev playing online.  For now, I hope this is enjoyable for some.

I doubt I'll spend much time on the rest of the seventh sonata any time soon.  My favorite Prokofiev sonata is his eighth, which I've also been working on a little, but it'll be a long time before I can record it with any confidence.  I don't practice regularly, and have only been playing again for about a year after taking a very, very long break (of about eight years).  Interestingly, I'm much better at improvisation now, whereas my classical playing isn't quite back to where it was when I stopped in 2004, but it's getting there.

Of course, I'll never play Prokofiev nearly as well as Emil Gilels or Sviatoslav Richter.  Listening to them makes me wonder why I bother trying at all.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Musical Interlude: Rustling Leaves

A new piano improvisation entitled "Rustling Leaves."

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Philosophy and Religion

A lot of people conflate philosophy and religion.  In their devotion to science and rationality, they criticize both philosophy and religion as useless nonsense.  One of the most common criticisms of philosophy is that virtually no substantial progress has ever been made on any issue of philosophical importance.  Another common criticism is that philosophical problems have no discernible consequences for our lives:  It doesn't matter how you respond to them, whether you ignore them or whatever, because they are figments of our imagination and of no practical importance.  On these grounds, it is believed that philosophy and religion are more or less the same.  Sure, philosophers might sometimes give us important tools or insights, just as religious leaders might sometimes give us important moral insights or works of art.  But these came despite the philosophical or religious devotion, and not because of it.  At least, that's what a lot of people believe.

I'm not going to say anything about religion in this post.  Whether or not religion is nonsense and impractical is not at issue.  My belief is that the meaning and value of philosophy is entirely independent of the meaning and value of religion.

The association between philosophy and religion does not just occur in some obscure corners of the blogosphere.  On the contrary, it is manifest in the organization of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS).  The AAAS currently has close to 6,000 members (including almost a thousand foreign honorary members).  They list their members according to area of specialization.  It is very hard to determine how many members are professional philosophers, however, because they do not have their own section.  Instead, they are listed under "Philosophy and Religious Studies."  If you want to know how many professional philosophers are members of the AAAS, you cannot tell by looking at their list of members or their statistics.  You have to go through the list of "Philosophy and Religious Studies" members and Google each one to find their area of expertise.

With 189 members, Philosophy and Religious Studies is one of the smallest sections of the AAAS.  The only smaller sections are Literature (158 members), Computer Science (143), Social and Developmental Psychology and Education (120) and Public Affairs, Journalism and Communications (158).   In contrast, there are over one thousand members representing the Biological Sciences alone.  I'm not primarily concerned with the relatively small number of Philosophy Professors in the AAAS, however.  (I don't even know how small that number is, since I haven't tried to count them.)  I'm more concerned with the fact that the AAAS does not make a practical distinction between religion and philosophy.  

The AAAS is not alone.  Many accredited universities do not have a Philosophy Department.  They have a Philosophy and Religious Studies Department.  It seems that many professionals in the field believe that Philosophy and Religious Studies should be linked.  We can assume, however, that most philosophers would disagree.  While there are presumably a good number of philosophers out there who enjoy the association between philosophy and religion, it is safe to assume that most (perhaps all) of them are philosophers of religion.

This means that the harshest critics of philosophy share something in common with philosophers of religion and other theologically-minded professionals:  They all think philosophy deserves to be intimately associated with religion.  Theologically-minded defenders of philosophy think so because they value philosophy as a way of exploring, promoting and defending religious thought and practice.  Scientifically-minded critics of philosophy do so because they see philosophy as a way of exploring, promoting and defending nonsense.  Of course, they see religious thought and practice as nonsense, so their reasoning is not all that different from the theologically-minded.

Philosophers (especially those of us who are not theologically-minded, which is the large majority) are confronted with a problem.  We feel a lot of pressure to defend philosophy against the two criticisms I mentioned at the outset (i.e., that philosophy does not make progress and that philosophy is impractical and disconnected from reality).  Most recently, David Chalmers, one of the newest members of AAAS and a Philosophy Professor at New York University (as well as Australian National University), has recently given a talk about the discipline--specifically, about whether we should be optimistic or pessimistic about progress in philosophy.  He says that philosophers have made a great deal of progress, and there has been significant convergence towards the truth over the years, but that it is not as much as we might like.  He is optimistic about the future of the discipline, at least, but asks us to consider reasons why progress in philosophy is so slow.

I wonder if Professor Chalmers is optimistic enough.  Research can and should be done documenting the degree of progress and convergence that has occurred in philosophy.  I think there might be more convergence than we commonly assume.  When we look at the intellectual landscape without rigor or method, we might focus more on our particular interests, and these are generally defined by their opposition to competing views.  We may thus tend to notice our differences more than our commonalities.  This could create a bias in our perception, so that we fail to notice all the fundamental ways our philosophical thinking has converged.  A rigorous, systematic study of developments in philosophy over the centuries could help fight such a bias and therefore be of great value.  A comparative analysis of developments in Philosophy and Religious Studies would also be useful, to fight the tendency to conflate the two disciplines.  Perhaps such research could help overcome the prejudices against philosophy and its practitioners.

Edit: It occurs to me that convergence may not be a necessary criterion for progress in philosophy. While a lack of convergence may warrant attention in its own right, I would question the assumption that convergence has anything to do with philosophical progress.  Unlike in the physical sciences, whose various fields are united by shared methodologies, philosophy is methodologically opaque.  You can be in a philosophical field without feeling clearly bound by all of the basic methodological principles shared by others in that field.  It's not that philosophers don't share any methodological principles.  They share many, and rigorously so.  But many aren't shared, and those that are might be less determinate than those in the physical sciences.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Ball State continued: My Letter to Higher Learning Commission

Here is the letter I am sending to the Executive Office at Higher Learning Commission, the agency responsible for Ball State University's accreditation.  (See here for background.)  It would be wonderful if university professors with good standing were to send similar letters.

Subject: Ball State University's Accreditation

To Whom It May Concern,

I am writing to you because Higher Learning Commission is currently in the process of determining whether or not Ball State University will receive accreditation for another ten years.  Please consider the following concern when making this important decision.

In April of this year, some undergraduate courses at Ball State University came under public scrutiny.  HONR 296 "Inquiries in Physical Sciences" and ASTR 151 "The Universe and You," both taught by Assistant Professor Eric Hedin, satisfy parts of the university's core requirements.  HONR 296 is one of three Honors Science Courses which satisfy the Honors Science requirement for students in the Honors College.  ASTR 151 (which is also sometimes called "The Boundaries of Science") satisfies a Tier 2 Core Curriculum requirement in the Natural Sciences.  The syllabuses and reading lists for ASTR 151 and HONR 296 are very similar, and they show a strong bias towards Intelligent Design and Christian apologetics.  Furthermore, these courses focus entirely on theology, cosmology, evolutionary biology, the philosophy of science and the study of human consciousness.  Yet, Professor Hedin has no competence in any of these fields.  It is reasonable to conclude that these courses, as taught by Professor Hedin, do not fairly represent the values, methods, findings and competences of contemporary science.

As part of their "Vision and Mission" statement, Ball State writes:

"We promote habits of mind that will enable our graduates to value and appreciate the arts, sciences, and humanities. . . . As civic and professional leaders, we value civic engagement with the larger communities of which we are a part and are dedicated to preparing civic and professional leaders for the future. We accept our individual and institutional responsibilities to improve the economic vitality and quality of life in the greater society we serve." 
However, a Ball State University graduate will have a hard time learning to value and appreciate the sciences if their scientific literacy depends on HONR 296 or ASTR 151 with Professor Hedin.  If Ball State wants to prepare civic and professional leaders for the future, and improve the economic vitality and quality of life, they must make sure that their students possess an adequate level of scientific literacy.  This cannot be achieved if their core science requirements present a heavily skewed and intellectually dubious vision of contemporary science.  To maintain the integrity of the university in relation to its own mission statement, Ball State should not allow HONR 296 and ASTR 151 to satisfy core requirements--at least as these courses are currently taught by Professor Hedin.

As the institution responsible for Ball State's accreditation, Higher Learning Commission is in a unique position to take a stand against this affront to scientific literacy and academic integrity.  Please help improve the state of science education by taking a stand on this issue.  Tell Ball State University that, in order to receive full accreditation, they must only allow students to satisfy core requirements with courses that respect the fields they purport to teach.

Respectfully yours,
Jason Streitfeld
International Baccalaureate Teacher
Szczecin, Poland