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Intentions 2 (The Defense, Part 3)

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I have no idea if I have enough time to do t his now.  I’ve only got about an hour and a half before class, and although I write most blog posts sort of off the top of my head–okay, not quite, but that’s a long story–

Anyway, an hour and a half seems a little tight.

Before I get on to where I’m going next, let me interject a little note.

AB opines that I’m looking for “variety,” but variety is not the point–comprehensiveness is. 

When you train your body, you don’t train your biceps and leave your calf muscles to atrophy.  Your body has many different muscle groups, not just one–and yes, they sort of bleed off into each other and into other parts of the body, since what you’re looking at is a single whole.

But each of the parts must be exercised if you are going to be in shape.

Your mind has many different capacities, not just one, and each of them must be exercised if your mind is going to be in shape.   It’s not enough to exercise just one.

But on top of that–you cannot truly understand ANY of these things unless you understand–at least at the basic level–ALL of them.  They all hang together.  Not one of them is independent of the rest.

So let’s get to mathematics.

AB says that people really need to understand statistics, and asks if the liberal arts can give you that.

Well, mathematics is one of the liberal arts, and stats are a form of mathematics–so, yes, the liberal arts (and only the liberal arts) can give you that.

On the level of mental training, the point of studying mathematics is to learn how to deal with abstractions as abstractions.

This is something a great many people have a great deal of trouble learning to do, and if you’re trying to teach them to “think mathematically,” you get a lot of incomprehension–and sometimes worse than incomprehension.

It is, in fact, just remarkable how honest people are being when they say they are “bad at math,” but what they’re actually bad at is not quadratic equations or finding limits.

What they’re bad at is dealing with the world as symbols and functions and operations, rather than as narratives.

Most people think in narratives.   The few of us who think most naturally in abstractions have a very useful skill that the rest of us don’t understand all that well. 

The danger in this is that too many of us who think in narratives approach information that is expressed in and founded on abstractions as if it worked like narratives work. 

And in that way we cause a lot of trouble for ourselves, but also for the people who work in abstractions.

As to whether the best way to go about teaching mathematics in a modern liberal education is the way I was required to do it (two semesters of calculus and one upper level standard math course) or by requiring stats along with calculus or something else–that’s the kind of thing you argue about after you’ve already decided to teach the whole thing anyway.

Which brings us, of course, to what AB really wants to know–what’s the point of teaching the Humanities.

I’m going to go about this part differently than I did the others, because under the label “Humanities” are really several different things that are independently important:  the history of ideas, the history of events, and the use and functions of narrative.

Far from teaching these things because they”re “tradition,” we teach them because they are still vitally important to the way we live now.  In fact, we can’t escape them.

There is science and mathematics, now, only because the Humanities were there first. 

All societies have narrative–more on that later–but not all of them have history and philosophy, and not all the ones that have history and philosophy have the same history and philosophy.

Full-blown scientific civilization developed in exactly one part of the world, and no other part of the world that has not had significant contact with that one has ever developed science at all. 

This is not an accident.  Civilization is like a house.  Physics and chemistry, astronomy and mathematics are the attic.  History and philosophy and literature are the foundation.

Not only are history and philosophy not relevant to day to day life, they’re the only thing that really is relevant.  Whether or not we go on having a scientific civilization or collapse into barbarism like Islam in the 7th century depends on the Humanities–both what we know about them and what we do about them. 

A little while back in these posts, AB noted that if I was saying that surgeons should be allowed to increase their incomes infinitely, most people would need a justification for that.

And I agree.  Most people would.  But why?  Why shouldn’t it be just fine for some people to have everything and everybody else to have nothing, especially if the people with everything earned it? 

If a person has Alzheimer’s Disease and is miserable and in pain–should his doctor put him out of his misery?  Why or why not?  Should his doctor be able to do that if the man left directions, before his dementia, that that was what he wanted?  What if the man left directions that that was never to happen?   Does consent matter?  Why?  Should it?  Why?

What is more important–the pursuit of knowledge wherever it might leave or the moral health of the community?  Who gets to decide what “moral” is?  Can the people who get to decide impose moral practice on the rest of us?  Why or why not?

Is knowledge still a good thing if it leads to the vast majority of people feeling that life is meaningless and without purpose?  How about if it leads to fewer and fewer women having children, so that there are fewer and fewer children, and your society begins to disappear into sucidal demographics?

What if the knowledge we gain is dangerous, if it could lead us to blow up the world or destroy the environment?  Should that be allowed?  And who will be doing the allowing?

Are human beings all one thing together, or are there different breeds with different capabilities?  If there are breeds and some of those breeds are less capable than others, what should we do about that?  Should we keep them alive?  Should we treat them as equals politically and legally?  Should be kill them off for the good of the rest of us, or enslave them for their own?

And how do you know?

Your civilization depends on the answers to questions like these.  They are the same questions that have been asked since the beginning of time by the very earliest writers.  They were answered differently by men and women on three separate occasions:  in classical Greece, in Europe in the Middle Ages, and in Europe and North America during the Enlightenment. 

And from that, you have all those things you call “modern.” 

But you don’t actually know what that is, and since you don’t, when people do things, propose things, go in directions that are likely to destroy the very modernity you think is the only relevant thing–you don’t even know it’s happening.

And you don’t know you don’t know, because you think you DO know–you look at Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and that whole silly folk-Protestant fundamentalist nonsense and go:  there it is!  that’s the danger!

But the danger isn’t there.  It’s in your own camp.  And you don’t know how to recognize it.

And now I’m either going to run to class or it isn’t going to get taught.

So, tomorrow:  Literature, History, and Philosophy.

Then I’ll go on from there to a) what’s in it all for the individual and b) what’s in it for society at large.

Written by janeh

September 20th, 2011 at 11:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Intentions 2 (The Defense, Part 3)'

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  1. reply to ab’s comment of part 1

    Historical dates

    1543 Copernicus proposed heliocentric system

    1609 Kepler 3 laws of planetary motion

    1610 Galileo discovered 4 moons of Jupiter orbiting the planet.

    1687 Newton proposed 3 laws of motion and inverse square law of gravity. Showed that they explain Kepler’s laws.

    1838 Bessel measured stellar parallax (change in position of a star when viewed from different parts of the Earth’s orbit). Considered experimental proof that the earth orbits the sun.


    20 Sep 11 at 8:40 pm

  2. Analogies are often useful heuristic devices, but tend to fail as arguments. One may certainly compare a civilization with a house, but this is more in the realm of metaphor than analogy, and certainly not a basis for argument. Whatever one may arbitrarily choose to call “foundation” or “superstructure”, one has thereby proven nothing of the relationship between them. So the humanities were there first? Venisection was there before antibiotics, too.

    Whatever problems philosophy may be called upon to solve that are intractable to other disciplines, have proven equally intractable to philosophy. In fact, as philosophy has become distinct from science, its scope has dwindled until, by definition, it includes /only/ those questions which cannot be answered. Should prescriptive ethics somehow be placed on a solid footing, it would in the process be subsumed into psychology or some other field, and abandoned as “philosophy” (this has already happened to descriptive ethics). In spite of several thousand years of the most intense scrutiny and debate by philosophers, such questions as, “Should Gramma be put down?” can only be addressed by arbitrary cultural or individual preference.

    Is it possible to understand the modern world without the slightest knowledge of Aristotle? Why, yes, it is. One might lack a full appreciation for how Aristotle’s teachings held humanity back for a thousand years, but I don’t think it’s vital to know about that. Certainly one need not read a single word of Shakespeare or Milton; being able to recognize the occasional reference to “literature” (or obscure historical events) is more a matter of class distinction (or ego). I’d like to see just one assertion by Aristotle (or for that matter Plato or Augustine or Kant) that is not either 1. obvious to any intelligent person 2. inconsequential in the real world 3. a repetition of something already well known to his contemporaries 4. an undefinable, meaningless claim or 5. wrong.


    20 Sep 11 at 8:57 pm

  3. jd: Galileo observed the phases of Venus, which at the very least disproved the Ptolemaic model. One could still construct a model in which the Sun revolved around the Earth and Venus around the Sun, but then one could just as easily devise a model in which the Sun revolved around the Earth and the stars revolved around the Sun. In fact it’s still a physically valid way of looking at it, just not very useful.


    20 Sep 11 at 8:59 pm

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