Ah, the morass: philosophy! First a not so quick but dirty definition of what I consider it to be. Philosophy is a practice of using rationality, logic and intuition in an attempt to understand what life and the world is all about. In trying to achieve this understanding as in any creative endeavor, intuition is vital. I think that intuition is undervalued and too narrowly understood by many. In an earlier post I’ve talked about the semantic aspect of language as meaning and understanding; and in my opinion intuition is involved whenever one has an “aha” meaning experience. Even in something as seemingly abstract as grasping a logical argument or in dealing with a mathematical expression intuition is what gives one understanding. Intuition intensified is one kind of epiphany, somewhat different than the examples mentioned above, but closely related.
Philosophy attempts to find answers to the mysteries of existence and the basis of knowledge, answers that are rational and logical, but also emotionally satisfying. The epiphanies involved in philosophy concern ideas which are stated in words and therefore by my definition are mystical. The problem with philosophy is that it operates on a deep level where, unlike science, there is no way of testing and repudiating one’s understanding or the understanding of the great philosophers of earlier times. In my opinion this is why philosophy fails to progress in the way science does. Philosophy does seem to enrich itself over time, but the deepest questions in philosophy are perennial and always controversial. A particular example is the question of whether philosophy itself will ever be capable of gaining absolute profound answers to the deepest questions it asks or if the restrictions on philosophical methodology will forever condemn its answers to be relative and controversial. My own opinion is that the latter idea is the case, but that nonetheless philosophy is a valuable and worthwhile discipline. Of course this opinion is itself relative and no doubt controversial. It seems to me, however, that the quest of philosophy is a worthwhile journey whose destination will never be reached, but whose pursuit can be helpful in reaching that profound WORDLESS, satisfying emotional understanding that could be called Western Zen.
Now, a statement about philosophy having been given, it is time for commentary of various kinds. This commentary may extend to several posts. To begin I’ll talk about my background in philosophy and mention several books which are interesting, fairly easy reads, which give a deeper understanding of what I will be talking about, and which have been helpful to me in clarifying my thoughts.
At Stanford University as an undergraduate, after casting around, I ended up by the end of my sophomore year as a math major (1949). I was already more interested in physics than in math, but realized that I needed to approach physics from the theoretical side and studying the formulas and phenomena of physics without a mathematical background would never do for me. Math for me is much easier than physics and since I was academically bone lazy as an undergraduate, math looked as if it would require less work on my part. Math also was very interesting in its own right and I wanted to go much more deeply into the subject than would happen to me as a physics major.
In the course of things as a math major I ended up taking the elementary symbolic logic course in the philosophy department along with philosophy majors and a few other math people. While many of the philosophy majors found the course challenging, for me it was the only easy A I ever got at the university and was a sheer, fun delight. Later I took an advanced logic course and then, becoming curious about philosophy took a regular philosophy course. I do not remember what the particular philosophical subjects were in the course, though it was probably heavy on epistemology and the professor was likely a disciple of Wittgenstein, not necessarily a disciple of his actual teachings, but of his teaching methodology. This methodology consists of actually doing philosophy in the class rather than talking about it and explaining. Those of us who were interested and serious about the course sat in the front row of the class, listened closely and tried to take notes because the professor talked quietly and lowered his voice when stating something important (a behavior similar to that of my favorite physics professor, John Plaskett, later at the University of Virginia). I did well in the course, but now at this distance of time remember nothing of the course’s contents. I did realize, however, that I was really more interested in philosophy that any in other subject, but doubted my ability to actually understand this muddy approach to knowledge. I also realized that a change to philosophy would require a total commitment that I was unwilling to make. Much better for me to stick to math where I had some ability and could get by without too much dedication. Some twelve years later as I received my Ph.D. in physics I similarly resisted a total commitment to physics via a post doc partly because I was more interested in philosophy of science, but felt that I needed to actually practice a science before trying to philosophize about it. Also, I was interested in learning about other areas such as history, literature, psychology, and later economics. I felt that I wanted to understand everything and that a commitment to physics would preclude such.
As a senior at Stanford I took a course in philosophy of science taught by Professor Patrick Suppes (See Wikipedia), who was recommended by fellow students. The course was excellent and clear, and awakened in me an interest in philosophy of science. It also taught me in retrospect that I could have seriously mistaken convictions. In the course Suppes strongly repudiated the concept of “vitalism” in biology: the idea that there is some special attribute of “being alive”, apart from physics and chemistry, needed in order to understand life at a fundamental level. In my ignorance of the research going on at the time in molecular biology (this was before the explication of DNA) I thought vitalism completely reasonable. Conceivably, the final word on vitalism isn’t in, but it is clear that this idea is totally unnecessary for research in the fundamentals of biology and that I had been suckered in by a plausible but mistaken philosophical idea.
After another year at Stanford getting an MS in math I ended up in Pasadena, California working for the Naval Ordinance Test Station, Pasadena Annex. As I joined NOTS in December, 1952, I was subject to the draft, no longer having an exemption as a college student. I had actually been eligible since September, but the draft board in Honolulu was slow to wake up and I didn’t get my notice to report for duty until December. NOTS appealed this notice to the 6th army draft board in Los Angeles and I was granted a reclassification to 3C, an exempt status, for 6 months because of the importance of my job for “national security”. Six months later the local board reclassified me 1A and again the appeal board changed this to 3C. It was clear that this reclassification process was going to continue indefinitely or at least until I was 35 years old, at which age one was no longer subject to the draft. (I turned 24 at about this time.) Although neither the job at NOTS nor life in the LA area was all that unpleasant, I developed the strong feeling that I didn’t want to be stuck in either the job or the area so when the next 1A reclassification occurred, I declined to have any more draft appeals. In July, 1954, I entered the army as a private and reported to Fort Ord, California near Monterey for basic training.
After basic I ended up at Fort Huachuca, Arizona near the Mexican border assigned to a Company as SPP (Scientific and Professional Personnel) whose mission was to apply “modern” (vacuum tube) electronics to Battlefield Surveillance. I will likely later go into more detail about my experiences at Fort Huachuca. For the moment what is of interest was that at the post library I stumbled upon a book about philosophy of science that I found extremely interesting. This book was The Logic of Scientific Discovery by Karl Popper who I had never heard of at the time. Before talking about this book, the seemingly simple “fact” that I read this book in the post library at Fort Huachuca at this time brings up a curious situation, in that the book, written in German in 1934, was not published in English until 1959 and I seemed to have read it in 1955 or 1956. Since I am a hard-core scientific realist, I’m not interested in any “mystic” explanations of this curious fact. Popper himself did the translation of the book during the 1950’s and it is possible that an early preprint made its way to the post library. Another, equally unlikely possibility, is that I read the book later and developed a false memory. My memory that I read it is fairly clear including an image of the place in the library stacks where I stumbled across the book. I didn’t check out the book so read it by going to that place in the shelves from time to time, pulling it out to read. Unfortunately, my mental image does not include the book itself so I have no memory of whether or not it was a solid hard cover edition. Whatever the case it doesn’t really matter when I actually read the book. It was certainly some time fairly early on in my life. What does matter is the “aha” impression it made on me.
An old philosophical problem is how we really confirm a scientific theory. Way back when, David Hume pointed out that logical necessity is ABSENT from our belief that a repeatable, familiar happening will continue to occur. The rising of the sun is the classic example. Actually, in my opinion, a pretty reasonable (as opposed to logical) case can be made in the case of the sun. With the confirmation of a scientific theory a logical case definitely cannot be made and, in fact, it matters. For example, classical Newtonian mechanics was accepted as true, perhaps even in an almost absolute sense, for hundreds of years (1659 – 1905) only to be shown as basically incorrect, only applicable in a limited domain. Hundreds if not thousands or an infinite number of confirmations of the theory were not enough to establish it beyond all doubt. What Popper pointed out was that endless confirmations could not establish a theory, but that a single solid experiment could refute it. I saw instantly that Popper was using a simple logical fact, well known to me from the logic course at Stanford. If A implies B, it isn’t true that B necessarily implies A. The classic example, hemmed in by suitable constraints is, if “it’s raining” then “the pavement is wet.” (I’ve put the simple statements A and B in quotes). Going backwards, “the pavement is wet” therefore “it’s raining” doesn’t work. The lawn sprinklers are wetting the pavement on a clear day. However the syllogism DOES work backward if we use the negation of the statements: not B implies not A, or if “the pavement is dry” then “it is not raining”. Popper elevated this simple logic into an entire book which turned out to be tremendously influential, leading to the idea that scientific theories had to be, in principle, refutable by experiment. The buzz word for Popper is “refutation” instead of confirmation.
It seemed to me that Popper was really on to something. Later after my Ph.D. while teaching physics at Auburn University around 1966, I stumbled onto Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1962. At that time I was delving into the history of quantum mechanics so although I found the book fascinating, I thought Kuhn was belaboring the obvious. Nevertheless, it became clear to me at that time that the history of physics showed that any current theory in physics was subject to destruction on the basis of one solid unexpected experimental finding. Kuhn had fleshed out Popper’s idea by defining “normal science” as proceeding with theoretical and experimental advances from within a “paradigm”, a generally accepted view of what the science’s “reality” was, the open questions within the science and acceptable ways of proceeding experimentally. Historically, a normal science in practice, would stop working as progress didn’t go as it should or as new seemingly unacceptable ideas reared their ugly heads. Something was radically wrong. Then a new paradigm would come into being usually, if not invariably, through the efforts of younger scientists. The science would then live in a “different world” in Kuhn’s words, within a new reality which was incommensurable with the old. Kuhn’s book gave many examples from scientific history to establish his views. The book became a craze not simply among thoughtful scientists and philosophers, but among thinkers in many fields commonly regarded as being outside of science. One could say, in fact, that Kuhn’s view established a new, revolutionary paradigm in the history and philosophy of science.
A few years after reading Kuhn, at a meeting of the Society for Religion in Higher Education in which Barbara was a member, I met Professor John Meagher of the University of Toronto who gave a paper entitled “Towards a Moral Theory of Idioms” which I found tremendously exciting. Meagher applied ideas to language similar to those of Kuhn’s concerning science, about how extended idioms in language form systems which lead to different kinds of reality. Both Kuhn’s and Meagher’s ideas grew out of the later philosophy of Wittgenstein who I had barely heard of at the time. Meagher kindly sent me a preprint of his article which I plan to talk about later.
In 1974 my life at Auburn went to pieces. I had not been successful at physics, partly because I did not publish the one important idea I had had and my marriage to Barbara fell apart. I left Auburn, driving across the country in a Volkswagen beetle to Cottage Grove, Oregon, site of the Cerro Gordo project, dedicated to founding a new kind of village which was to integrate many of the countercultural ideas of the time. During the attempt to get the new village underway, I lived in a community shared house in Cottage Grove. One of my friends at the “Washington Street house” was Fred Ure who had come to Cerro Gordo from the Los Angeles area. Fred had brought his extensive collection of books which became the Cerro Gordo library. Sometime during the next few years while browsing in the library I stumbled across a book, Wittgenstein and Modern Philosophy by Justus Hartnack, translated by Maurice Cranston from the original Danish. The book explicated Wittgenstein’s philosophy in some detail and I was fascinated. Clearly, Wittgenstein’s ideas lay behind those of both Kuhn and Meagher.
At this point I want to think some more before talking about Wittgenstein. Was he the greatest philosopher that ever lived or a total fraud? Or somewhere in between? So it’s time to post this. (to be continued).