I get questions regularly about the bizarre nature of contemporary physics. I am sure practicing physicists with PhDs get these more regularly than I, yet I occupy an interesting and rare position in the academic disciplinary landscape: I’ve studied science, particularly physics, into the graduate level, and I am actively developing my expertise in the history and philosophy of science, particularly physics, as well as being a lifelong student of more traditional philosophy (e.g., analytic, contemporary, and Eastern). The question most regularly asked of late has been: What are physicists talking about with all of this “non-verifiable” theory; it sounds like philosophy? By this, they mean the fact that there is this apparent post-empirical turn, and the lack of requirement of empirical data to substantiate proposed theory. I’d like to spend some length explaining my thoughts on this, including a suggestion to all practicing scientists, regardless of discipline.
“My humanity is one of incessant self-overcoming.”
The Seven Circles of Chess Hell is a chess training regimen developed by Michael de la Maza, an MIT alumnus, laid out in his book Rapid Chess Improvement. I’ll briefly describe the program and then talk about my experience with it and future intentions.
A Reflection on the Introduction of Josh Waitzkin’s “The Art of Learning” and the State of Academic Philosophy
I was rereading Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning the other day, and it resonated with me much more so than when I read it in 2007. I suspect part of this has to do with the fact that I was studying physics at the time, and, by now, I’ve spent quite a bit of time in philosophy departments and at workshops/conferences/get-togethers with graduate students in philosophy. In the introduction, in addition to recounting some of his experiences as a young chess sensation —perpetually the highest rated chess player in his age group from the very beginning—, he talks about his experiences in Columbia University’s philosophy department from his days as an undergraduate student. His discussion includes the frustration of having to deal with philosophers (i.e., philosophy professors) who constantly deride certain ideas, take on a smug countenance when presented with difficult to verbalize ideas, and switch to a mode of think that is anything like serious whenever faced with an idea that is not easily resolvable in focus, especially vague terms, terms that are moderately or extremely mystical, Eastern in philosophical disposition, and so on. Waitzkin says, ‘Whenever I had an idea, I would test it against some brilliant professor who usually disagreed with my conclusions. Academic minds tend to be impatient with abstract language— when I spoke of intuition, one philosophy professor rolled her eyes and told me the term had no meaning’ (p. xvi). This is the thing that bothers me about the circles I have roamed in, to this point, and maybe things are different in different departments, but I my experience corresponds to this. The student of philosophy very quickly learns what cannot be said around the tenured professors. Admirably, and no doubt partly due to his undergraduate naivety and partly due to his willfull nature, Waitzkin didn’t seem to go down without a fight when such instances arose.
I have not competed in a USCF chess tournament in over four years. In fact, I have not studied chess in over four years. Grad school has a way of stymying such pursuits. Nonetheless, despite not having studied or played much more than an occasional blitz game (five minutes on each player’s clock), I am finding through chess tests, assessments, and online ratings that I might be as much as 400 points stronger than my last official USCF rating, which is 1567 with a 1608 peak. To give the casual reader some sense of how absurd that 400-point jump in strength is for an adult player —especially for one who has not studied in that period—, most adult players struggle to gain 50 points a year with significant study (e.g., two 3-hr. trips to the chess club and 5 hours of study per week of tactics, openings, master-annotated games, and endgames). I’ve had friends struggle to gain a total of 100 points over a few years. Intrigued by this increase in strength, and stimulated by my love of the game, I have decided to compete at the 2015 World Chess Open chess tournament in Arlington, Virginia.
The discipline of philosophy is something to be held inviolate; the classroom likewise. One might be inclined to ask, what is the function of teaching provocative material to an introductory level philosophy class? There wouldn’t be, if the material didn’t have philosophical import. If the material does have philosophical import, then why chose, at the very least, something that is provocative? One important quality that philosophy is supposed to instill in intellectual thought, itself, is a dispassionate nature, whether in judgment or analysis. Continue reading
I get many search queries that hit my website, and loads of questions, pertaining to how long it takes to read the Great Books of the Western World (GBWW), edited by Mortimer Adler. Of course, there’s no strict answer to this question, but I can give some perspective. I think, for the average working layperson, reading the set within ten years is more than reasonable. A couple such plans may be found by clicking here and here. In fact, another plan puts the duration at seven years, and this might be the outright reasonable timeframe for the average working (and more or less disciplined) layperson. Continue reading
A little bit unusual for my blog, I am posting a personal update, which may interest various people for various reasons. This next year should be a rather interesting year in my intellectual development: I have taken a post as adjunct professor of philosophy at one of the United States’ largest community college, the Community College of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh, PA —a seven-campus college. I will be at the main campus, the Allegheny Campus. Since Indiana University’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science doesn’t grant undergraduate degrees, teaching assignments for graduate students are scarce with so few in-department undergraduate courses, especially for grads in their first two years, I felt it important that I find and take on, at the very least, a one-year appointment as a lecturer, hence the desire to take on an adjunct professorship. Teaching is an important part of the academician’s craft as a whole. Continue reading
Between Feynman in Babylon and Metaphysics: What the Mathematical Process and the History of Science Can Tell Us Philosophically about the Education Process
Since I have spent the summer studying mathematics at Harvard University with Jameel Al-Aidroos (Ph.D Berkeley), expect that my next few posts, or at least some of them, will be on topics related to mathematics. I want to take some time, in this blog post, to look at where mathematical thought fits into some of my understandings of I have gleaned from studying the history of science. The upshot of the historical, philosophical, and mathematical content and musings will be pedagogical, just to give the reader some idea of where I am going. An important thing to understand, before reading this post, is the distinction between pure and applied mathematics. “Pure mathematics,” as opposed to “applied mathematics,” is, in its essence, math for its own sake, entirely apart from possible applications. In many cases, pure mathematics initially has no known application. Additionally, pure mathematics deals with abstract entities that have been detached from particular entities —and this will prove to be important to what I will say later.
The subject of this blog post might as well be catalogued as being among those things that scientists say that makes my head explode. In this case, sitting in the Bloomington Starbucks across from Sample Gates about a month ago, I heard a cognitive science (currently dissertating) PhD candidate say something to the effect: “It’s raw data, so there is no possibility of it being biased.” He was talking to a colleague, defending against some onslaught presented by a journal article, the title of which I didn’t catch. What I want to emphasize is the erroneous thinking of this student, who has since this time successfully defended his PhD thesis. I shake my head at this kind of lack of understanding so many scientists have of their own field and the general nature of science. Particularly egregious was his follow-up comments, which asserted that biasing cannot be added to unbiased data without it being extreme and obvious to all, as if the heavens would open and Zeus would callout, “biased!,” if such were to happen. I’ll only deal with the first statement that I paraphrased above.