Thursday, March 8, 2012

My Final Thoughts on Modern Philosophy

Over the past month I have been listened to a lecture series called Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida, given by Lawrence Cahoone through The Teaching Company.  I took it for two reasons.  One is that I didn't know much about modern philosophy and I wanted to learn.  The other is that I really wanted to know what postmodernism referred to, because I heard it all the time but couldn't decipher it.

I cannot imagine a better lecturer on this topical than Dr. Cahoone.  His best qualities is his knowledge of how to explain things to an educated person who isn't well educated in philosophy.  At every difficult subject he stops to repeat, rephrase, reinforce, but not in excess.

In this final blog entry regarding philosophy (though more quotes will be coming) I had intended to compare modern philosophy to quantum physics.  Both seem empty, in that philosophy seems to run in circles in an obsession about definitions—in fact, I'm almost convinced all philosophical arguments arise due to inconsistencies about the definition of the "true" world—and quantum physics seems to be about a world which only exists in probability.  Also, knowledge of modern philosophy or quantum physics is unnecessary, as I can get through my day without worrying about the definition of "definition" and the world feels more like Einstein's relativistic world than a quantum world.  Still, one can marvel at the genius of their authors, and admire their pursuit of this "truth" they claim to exist (or not exist).  I choose to do both.

At the last minute, though, I changed my outlook on what I had learned.  I read an article in the recent The New Yorker by Jonah Lehrer concerning the biology of altruism, describing the intellectual debate E.O. Wilson endured and continues to endure.  This fight largely concerns whether inclusive fitness theory is the best theory to explain altruism, and I was astounded at how different the article seemed now that I had listened to Cahoone's lecturescompared to how it would have seemed without the lectures.  The work by Quine (see previous post) was especially influential.

For I was able to see how Wilson and other biologists were not really arguing in a very scientific way—or according to Quine, they debated the only way science can deliberate.  Instead of arguing whether certain predictions of the theory were accurate, it was an argument over whether the entire inclusive fitness theory was right or wrong.  It also seemed apparent that there was no separation between conjectures about sense data (read: observation) or definitions used by the theory.  It better resembled a theological argument over who was the correct prophet.  In fact, theoretical biologist Robert May described it as a cult, not a science.

Due to Cahoone's remarkable lectures, this scientific deficiency did not bother me.  It didn't even shock me.  That is because it is naive to believe the search for meaningful truth to be carried out using the quixotic scientific method.  It is naive because we are human and cannot tell what it means to not be human, and thus we cannot see whatever human fallacies exist.  And thus, identifying our scientific fallacies is incredibly difficult.  Frankly, I'm surprised we ever learned the law of gravity.  That may sound confusing.  It would to me too—had I not purchased these lectures.

Thank you Lawrence Cahoone.

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