Monday, April 22, 2013

Teaching Philosophy

The study of philosophy, or the study of what other people have said that gets categorized under the name 'philosophy', has the potential to leave one feeling a perpetual student. Expertise can be acquired in a so-called "field" of study. Along the way, however, students will have realized their "field" of study looks less like an actual field and more like a narrowly defined section of a bookshelf in a stuffy library. They will have also realized that one never finishes studying philosophy.

It's an interesting thought experiment to put the shoe on the other foot. What if you had to teach philosophy? Where would you start? Any student can give a non-committal answer questions about what they are studying. They are on their way to knowledge, and, in any case, there is too much to capture is a single phrase. On the hand, a teacher lacks such bohemian luxury. They must say something

The first thing I would do is set aside any latent Socratic inclinations. The Ancient Greek philosopher Plato cast his teacher, the famous Socrates, in the role of questioner, leading his conversation partners to the realization of truths they already knew, but had not quite been able to articulate on their own. My approach would include a discussion of a famous philosophical text. We would have never known Socrates, after all, unless Plato of cast him as a character in his philosophical dialogues. Regardless how much talking philosophers do, they are always falling back into texts, each of which is going to preserve a small portion of a tradition of reflection that never quite comes clearly into focus.

More to the point, then, which text would you start with? And let's say, for the sake of argument, it could only be one text. Not one thinker. Not one philosophical school. Not one series of texts. One text.

My choice would be Rene Descartes' Discourse on Method (1637). There are a few reasons why.

First, the text is relatively brief. It contains six chapters in total, all of which can be digested in a single sitting, or over a number of sittings without much difficulty..

Second, the purpose of the text is to take a position on anything in particular, but to introduce the reader into a way of thinking about things. You are invited to follow Descartes on his philosophical journey, to think through why he came to the conclusions that he eventually did.

Third, Descartes' philosophical observations are woven through a personal narrative allowing for historical commentary. That means a teacher can put "flesh" on the bones of the argument, placing arid speculative suggestions in a more recognizable human context.

Fourth, the Discourse contains recognizably contemporary intuitions about the nature of things. It takes the form of a personal narrative. It is playful experimental with the ideas it presents. It wonders about the nature of the human self. And, most importantly, God has been displaced from the center of inquiry. The entire world of human experience is no longer assumed to come from God and return to him. (It still does, of course. Descartes holds God to be the Creator of all things. He is not willing, however, to start with that as the presupposition of his inquiry.)

The basic argument of the Discourse is that all those things Descartes had formerly held to be true he had discovered many reasons to doubt. His experience of violent and destructive discord among different Christian sects during the Thirty Year's War had lead him to seek a more certain basis for knowledge. The revelation of God could not be trusted, as it was mediated by human beings. The same went for the teaching of the schools, by which was meant the abstruse logic-chopping arguments of the late medieval world.

So Descartes resolves to doubt all that can possibly be doubted, and in the process doubts no only what other people have told him, but also what his own eyes and ears "tell" him. He even suggests, for the sake of experiment, it is possible to conceive of oneself existing without a body. After "emptying" his mind of all those doubtful thoughts, Descartes arrives at the one conviction he cannot shake: I think therefore I am--"that is to say, the mind by which I am what I am, is wholly distinct from the body, and is even more easily known than the latter, and is such, that although the latter were not, it would still continue to be all that it is."

All of this is ripe for discussion. Is the format of philosophical dialogue effective in conveying the author's intention? To what extent is one's thinking conditioned by one's lived circumstances? What would it mean to begin one's thinking with God rather than oneself? and vice versa? Is it possible to doubt everything? Can we ever be certain of anything? What might it mean that our minds our completely distinct from our bodies. Does any of this even makes sense?

The closer you look at a text like the Discourse, the more perplexing it becomes. Descartes is perhaps best described as not quite modern enough. Which makes his Discourse the perfect choice to begin teach philosophy.

Does anyone else have other suggestions?

Friday, April 19, 2013

Menial Labour

I am no stranger to what is elsewhere called 'menial' labour. Growing up in rural Ontario, my first jobs were both physical and monotonous. The same tasks had to be performed day in and day out. The jobs were, almost without fail, dirty jobs--especially when I was cleaning things. I was good at these menial jobs. I wasn't great at them. I could perform adequately the tasks required of me, though I was unlikely to perform them expertly or to take much of my own initiative. The sorts of thinking required to see solutions to very rural and/or blue collar problems was not in my possession.

I also have exposure to white collar 'menial' labour. The most recent bit of experience I can cite comes from last night invigilating a chemistry examination. I thought I would try invigilation out this year, so I threw my name into a pool of potential hirees. A single hour and a half training session a week in advance and a 15 minutes pep talk before the exam was supposed to make our tasks straight-forward and obvious. Then a 25+ person team was sent in a number directions, with an examination 'package' in hand, but more or less without support.

Sent to the room with the examination package, complete with examination papers and instructions for their distribution, as well as a half hour to spare, I realized immediately that someone getting paid a lot more than me had failed to assign the necessary second person to the room. Unable to raise my supervisor on the phone, I started prioritizing tasks. The examination 'circulator' eventually made their way to the room that I was in and realized much the same thing. For some reason, though, it was my fault that things weren't getting done the way they were supposed to get done.

A second person was sent to the room, a half hour after the examination had started, which had been delayed by ten minutes. Having been told repeatedly to follow every step on the invigilation instruction sheet, I relished the oppourtunity to cut corners where corners could be cut. It wasn't my fault, you see. I did the best with what I was given. If my best wasn't good enough, don't blame me for doing my best. Blame my superiors for their incompetence.

This most recent experience with white collar 'menial' labour impressed upon me the dreadful impenetrability of bureaucratic structures, in particular that of those in immediate authority above you. The experience also raised some questions, in my mind, about the exercise of authority is so proceeds so differently in a rural and blue collar world from a white collar world (though my observations would also apply to highly structured factory environment).

As I said above, I was a good worker, but not a great worker. Those persons who I worked under, whether that was in farming, landscaping, moving, or construction, seemed to understand as much. I put in long days of work, and only once or twice over the course of a decade remember being belittled for a failure or mistake. More to the point, those persons with whom the responsibility ultimately laid usually went about fixing the mess that I had made without too much complaint. There is a certain inevitably in mistakes, was the guiding sentiment. Try to prevent them, but deal with them as humanely as possible when they do happen.

I was surprised how vigorously my supervisors made it plain to me that their failings were ultimately my responsibility. There is a certain rationale for doing so, of course. In the moment, I am the one who has to perform in order for their program to be put into action. But the bureaucratic structure falls to pieces when those in charge fail to anticipate an obvious problem and also vigorously protest the smallest exercise of independent judgment in the matter. The bosses not only think you are stupid and incompetent. They treat you like it too.

Why the difference between these two sorts of bosses? It may be that what I am describing is merely a function of the size of the organization. But I have to also think it is a consequence of the sorts of materials being worked on. In the rural and blue collared trades, you work with particularly stubborn, resistant, and in every case also non-rational materials. Fields of wheat do not rebel against you, nor skids of lumber and brick talk back at you. Persons assigned to do a specific task, in highly structured, rationalized processes, on the other hand, are expected to comprehend and implement a set of instructions in very short order. They are also instructed not to think for themselves, which, if something should go wrong, has a real potential to allow things to go from bad to worse in a very short order.

So I wonder if facing stubborn non-rational resistance necessarily inculcates a very different sort of response from bosses than does facing the apparent irrationality of menial wage labourer in a highly structured working environment. Why do we expect different from persons than we do from the non-human sorts of materials that we work on? Arguably, human materials are more difficult to shape to our wishes.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Dying With Iain (M.) Banks

The Scottish science fiction writer Iain Banks announced to the world today that he probably only has a few months left to live. Diagnosed with gall bladder cancer a couple of weeks ago, Banks has put his feverish rate of literary output on hold indefinitely, asked his partner of many years if she would do him 'the honour of becoming my widow', and plans to spend the remainder of his days visiting with family, friends, and locations that hold personal meaning. He is not yet decided whether he will pursue chemotherapy treatment to extend briefly what time remains to him.

Banks breathed new life into the high art of hard science fiction, which had known such masters as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, with a series of Culture novels. The better examplars of the genre are defined by a certain cosmic gimmick, setting the stage on which the plot line unfolds. For Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, for example, the discipline of psychohistory, developed by the patriarchal character Hari Seldon, promised to unlock the key to social development. Seldon predicted the decline of the Galactic Empire, and laid foundations for a much more durable successor. The predictive failure of psychohistory to account for an enigmatic figure known as the Mule, a sort of galactic Napoleon, drives the plots of the second and third parts of the trilogy.

The cosmic gimmick driving Bank's Culture novels does not allow for quite so much human participation. The Culture novels form a collection of more or less disconnected narratives set in the same universe. The Culture is a vast civilization governed over by massive artificial intelligences, who keep a human population sprawling across planets, airspheres orbital platforms, shellworlds, and ships spread across a large portion of several galaxies (if my memory serves me correctly). The narratives play out in the vast distance between the finite human mind and, what are for all intents and purposes, practically infinite Minds. Banks has a gift for imagining vast intelligences whose experience of space and time is utterly dissimilar from human perception.

The Culture is a 'post-scarcity' society, in which no citizen lacks for their basic needs. Surrendering the government of human society to the Minds, removing human avarice, error, and whim from the political equation, meant that material equilibrium in society was now possible. Money and personal possessions no longer exist, though material prosperity still allows for the cultivation of privacy. There is a moral seriousness to Bank's storytelling. He doesn't shy away from explore the fiber of a society that has grown fat, complacent, playfully irresponsible, and whose personal bonds are reinforced by an artificial structure. At the same time, the Culture narratives seems to play out like an internal monologue in Banks own head as he explores the logic of his atheist convictions. Many of his characters regard their own existence with a sort of bemused shrug one can well imagine their author shares. A touch of the great stoic Scotsman David Hume exists in Banks--and there would be more, if he weren't so damned Hegelian.

I started reading Banks' work about six years ago, around the same I picked up George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones series. It was his ability to expound on philosophical themes in novel form that prompted me to read as much as his work as I had the time the to spare. Like so many other science fiction authors, Banks rethinks divine transcendence in terms of a future state of affairs, rather than an eternal present, which is the same everywhere, past, present, and future. Divinity, though still exceedingly powerful, is placed under spatio-temporal constraints. In the case of Bank's Minds, they emerge from the depths of human creativity, achieve independent sentience, and are let loose to care for their creators. Granted this only seems like a different form of servitude; but the Minds, particularly the ship-based Minds, seem to take it all in stride and dry humour.

Science fiction writers are usually at their best mocking the old ideas of God and domesticating it to their purposes. I say usually because I am not sure that someone like Robert J. Sawyer actually knows how to do anything more than preach to an atheist choir. Bank's literary engagements succeed, to my mind, on account of his willingness to acknowledge that dethroning the old gods does not eliminate the existential questions for which the old gods provided answers.

Not wanting to sound insensitive, I will be curious to watch the moment when the pen which Banks uses to write this final chapter in his life finally falls from his hands and is taken up by an increasingly vocal atheist elite. Banks' life is likely to be eulogized, his self-sufficient hold on existence, his lust and zest for life, held up as an example for atheists everywhere, much like late Christopher Hitchens' life has been celebrated.

Hagiography is a double-edged sword. When you extol the virtues of mere mortals, they usually end up appearing more mortal and less virtuous. It has very little to do with the person being eulogized, in any case, and more about what s/he has meant or continues to mean for we who live on. But perhaps it best not to speed Banks along his way just yet by thinking on what might be. Some time still remains. And the publication date for one final book has been moved up.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

They Knew Not Dawkins

The Book of Exodus begins with these ominous words: 'Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.' The words signal the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the people of Israel. Joseph had been one of the twelve sons of Jacob (also named Israel). His prudent government had saved Egypt, and by extension the people of Israel, who moved down to Egypt, from seven years of famine. But at the beginning of Exodus, we find Jacob's children in slavery to a king who knew not Joseph.

Now I don't want to make to much of the analogy I am going to draw with the opening lines of Exodus. At least, nothing quite so ominous. But it seems, in the course of four short years of teaching in an Introduction to World Religions class, I have witnessed the coming of a generation of students who do not know Richard Dawkins. The realization caught me by surprise, and got me thinking about what sort of cultural groundswell might be occurring.

Lecturing on Judaism four years ago, I used Dawkins' dismissive reading of the first chapter of Genesis as a counterpoint to what an original reader might have taken away from the text. I countered the Dawkins-take on so-called six-day creationist interpretation by observing that the only real expectation original readers probably took away from the text was that a week had seven days. Not five days, or six days, nor eight days, or ten days. Seven days: six on which people work, like God worked, and one of which they rest, exactly like God rested. Certainly nothing about the scientifically-verifiable beginnings of the universe, which was more or less meaningless at the time. My evidence? That's what is says the original readers were supposed to take away from the Genesis narrative in Exodus 20, otherwise known as the Ten Commandments. Before I gave my pious spiel, however, I asked how many people in the audience knew who Dawkins was. Out of a class of 50 or 60, a full third raised their hands.

When I asked the same question this semester, not one person in 50 raised their hand. A bit taken aback, I think I sputtered through an explanation of who Dawkins was and why he was significant. The life of an atheist, of course, is not exactly on topic in a world religions class. Tying the now irrelevant reference to Dawkins into a short discussion of the shortcoming of six-day creationism, I managed not to look too much the fool.

It seems today students of 18, 19, or 20 years of age did not know Dawkins. As far as popular intellectual discourse goes, it seems like Dawkins is all I've ever known. What changed over such a short period of time? In the broader scheme of things, popular culture has most likely chewed Dawkins up and spit him out. Which will happen to most everyone who courts the public eye for too long. With his one message about the delusions of faith, Dawkins was bound to be effective in short term, but would tire audiences out over the long term.

More tellingly, perhaps, the composition of the world religions class has also changed. My general impression is that the number of Caucasian students has declined in proportion to other ethnic demographics--especially Middle Eastern and Indian.

So the reasons why the popular discourse has shifted away from Dawkins' anti-religious messages may run deeper than mere generational shifts. For the first time in my life, many students come to religious studies are largely innocent of the lengthy 19th and 20th century arguments stemming from the Enlightenment tradition of against religion--specifically Christianity, to be sure, but religion more generally. I have caught myself a number of times using Western atheism as a foil in conversation with student, for example, in comparison to Buddhism or Hinduism, or in comparison to the charge of atheism brought against early Christians. Students are always polite, but I have left conversations wondering whether alluding to Western atheism was the best way to illustrate a point.

Prospects for the future are interesting. My intellectual battles, the intellectual battles of my teachers, and their teachers, and their teacher's teachers, may be nothing more than an antiquarian curiosity to the next generation of students. That's strange to think about. The Christian sub-culture in which I grew up and was educated defined itself over against a secular world, which was in its turn defined by nominal professions of faith and outright skepticism. The Christian sub-culture was animated by the myth of a lost Christendom, a place from which we came and back to which the faithful would have to bring the country, kicking a screaming if necessary. Growing immigrant communities, however, don't carry the same chip on the cultural shoulder that Christian communities do. They do not necessarily have the same suspicion of the secular public square, nor do they see the sort of tensions between religious life and public life that domestic Christian communities have internalized.

Perhaps I shouldn't underestimate the ability of Western academia to thoroughly inoculate the second of third generations in immigrant families against religious beliefs. At the same time, I fairly confident Christian communities will not abandon their suspicion of the secular public square any time soon. These are intellectual potentialities. What about the demographic numbers? Given the growing numbers of immigrants, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that immigrant communities are simply going to choose between one of Caucasian two solitudes.

I wonder, therefore, how debate about the nature of secularity is also going to change in the next few decades. For the last 40 or so years, the North American arm of the debate has increasingly been couched in winner-take-all terms. The character of the debate changes if there's more than one major religious participant (or two, if you count Judaism; or three, if you count Mormonism). The character changes significantly if one of the new participants is not a native Western European tradition.