Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Higher Standards

One aspect of my job that is particularly satisfying is the opportunity to work with some of the best students at Ohio University. I serve as the Director of Studies in Philosophy for Ohio University's prestigious Honors Tutorial College (HTC), a highly selective institution that accepts roughly 50-60 new students per year (out of a total enrollment at Ohio University of nearly 20,000). These students must score very well on either the SAT or the ACT and they must have very good grades in high school; they must also show significant promise for academic success at the college level. In short, they're a bunch of smartypants.

The incoming freshmen in the Honors Tutorial College are required to take a course called the "Freshman Seminar", which is intended to introduce them to the rigors of life in an academically selective institution like the HTC. Usually a leading instructor from the university community is chosen to lead the seminar; this fall it will be lead by Jeffrey St. John, an associate professor of "communications studies" here at Ohio University and serving next year as "Faculty Fellow" in the HTC. Recently, faculty were contacted by Ann Fidler, Dean of the HTC and St. John, who requested "help" with the freshman seminar. They wrote, in part:
We want to begin the year by persuading our incoming students that college is a new intellectual experience requiring new ways of thinking. In particular, we would like to introduce the idea that many of their professors grapple with certain questions or problems in their respective fields of study for which there are no firm, final answers. (For example, in the field of rhetoric the question "To what extent is public knowledge rhetorically generated?" has been the subject of almost continuous debate since the days of Plato-- with no definite answer anywhere in sight. In legal history, we are always bumping up against the question "to what degree is the law autonomous?"--but are no nearer to any firm conclusions about this than we were when the witenagemot was all the rage.)
Now, I'm all for teaching students about "new intellectual experiences" and helping youngsters to acquire "new ways of thinking". Those kinds of buzz words are just jargonics for "getting a good education". No problem there. But take a closer look at the precise nature of what is being proposed here.

The thesis that is being put forward is:
[R] Certain questions or problems have no firm, final answers.
Now, that seems to me to be almost trivially true. When two people argue over what is "more beautiful", Bach's B minor Mass or Beethoven's Missa Sollemnis, surely each of them will offer all sorts of reasons in defense of the superiority of the one over the other but just as surely neither will be able to persuade the other and, arguably, there is no "correct" answer in a case such as that. Or, to take a more prosaic example, two parents might differ with regard to what is the best name for their new baby girl. Each, for example, might favor naming her after a grandmother, but they might disagree over which grandmother ought to be so commemorated. Each parent will have his or her particular reasons for favoring one over the other, but again, it seems at least plausible that there is no "firm, final answer" to the question: "Who ought to be commemorated by having a granddaughter named after her?"

These are questions, in short, that involve personal, subjective values and preferences, and in many such cases it seems that the notion of a "firm, final answer" is irrelevant. Indeed, it may even be something of a category mistake to suggest that there could be a "firm, final answer" to such questions.

Well, let's return to our Freshman Seminar once again. Fidler wrote that she wants the seminar to "persuad[e] our incoming students" that there may be certain kinds of questions in certain fields of study for which there are no "firm, final answers". OK, what kind of reasoning will she use to "persuade" our new freshman of this thesis, thesis [R] above? Well, let's have a look at her own "examples":
[1] In the field of rhetoric the question "To what extent is public knowledge rhetorically generated?" has been the subject of almost continuous debate since the days of Plato.

[2] In legal history, we are always bumping up against the question "to what degree is the law autonomous?"--but are no nearer to any firm conclusions about this than we were when the witenagemot was all the rage.
In short, we may summarize examples [1] and [2] under the general rubric:
[I] Certain questions appear intractable, because experts have argued long and irreconcilably about them over many years.
Now, let's bear in mind that the freshman who are coming in to this seminar are supposed to be really smart. They are, after all, an elite group, usually in the upper 1% or 2% of their graduating class. What if I were permitted to address this seminar and make the following argument to them:
I have many friends who claim to have been to a place called "Australia". Some of them come back and tell me, "Hey, Australia's a great place: delicious beer, beautiful people, fabulous weather--it's like heaven on earth!" But others of them come back and tell me "Man, Australia sucks: crappy beer, ugly people, insufferably hot, humid weather--it's like hell on earth!" Suppose this goes on for several years: I continually get conflicting reports about Australia from these alleged "experts" who have all "been there", or so they claim. So, quite naturally, I draw the only reasonable inference available: there is no such place as Australia.
I submit to you that if these freshman are as smart as we think they are, they are going to see what a silly argument that is right from the start. Or, to put it another way, if they don't see what a silly argument it is, that in itself ought to be a sufficient reason for excluding them from the HTC.

And yet the Dean of the HTC is proposing to base a fundamental discussion in the Freshman Seminar on just that supposition: the supposition that extended, apparently intractable disagreement among experts is in and of itself some kind of valid evidence in favor of the thesis that no "firm final answer" exists. Possibly all she means is that thoughtful, intelligent people disagree about certain issues even when a great deal of evidence has been amassed, but that point seems too banal to impose on these exceptionally bright, intelligent students in the allegedly elite group that is the HTC. Plus it's not what she said.

And I think there may be additional reasons for thinking that Fidler and St. John intend the thesis in just the sense I have attributed to it. Thesis [R] may be nicknamed the Relativism Thesis, because it is very similar to an argument that sometimes gets made in freshman level philosophy courses about moral relativism:
There are no firm, final answers to questions such as "Is abortion right or wrong", "Is polygamy right or wrong", and other such normative questions, because people have been arguing about such things for millennia and we are no closer to having a consensus about such things now than we were millennia ago.
The Relativism Thesis seems plausible, at least to freshmen, because it really is difficult to imagine there being an answer out there to a question that has been debated for so long. With so many smart and clever people out there looking for the answer, why haven't we been able to find it? Surely the answer is simple: Because the answer doesn't exist!

The similarity of [R] to the music and baby-nomenclature examples, however, is only superficial. In each of those cases, as I explained above, a subjective preference is at the heart of the question, and it seems at least plausible that subjective preferences are entirely private, hence it doesn't even make sense to ask whether one is "correct" relative to some other one. But in the cases of [1] and [2] above, however, the matter is different. Take [1], for example: the question at issue seems to be at least partly empirical: to what extent is public knowledge rhetorically generated. Clearly much will depend here upon such things as: what sort of "measurement" are we talking about when we ask "to what extent"; what is meant by the expression "public knowledge", or by the expression "rhetoric"; and who counts as the appropriate "expert" in this domain of discourse? But in spite of all this vagueness, it still is not a question of subjective preferences, but of what a certain measurable quantity is supposed to be. (Possibly the example is just poorly worded: perhaps all that is really meant by the question is nothing more than "Why do people in the field of "communication studies" argue so much?" But that is another matter.)

In the case of [2] there is the same vagueness as to terms, but the question is still not one of subjective preferences, but of to what degree is the law autonomous? We need to know, among other things, by what "degrees" such things can be measured, what "autonomy" means in this context, and, again, who the "experts" are, but presumably if the question means something more serious and interesting than just "Can you believe what windbags legal scholars are" then the question has some kind of non-arbitrary answer, whether or not anybody has found it yet.

It is easy to confuse methodological uncertainty in such cases with genuine aporia. Take the case of moral relativism. Because most folks tend to be what one might term "folk relativists" about many moral questions, they often simply assume that there are no "firm, final answers" to moral questions, and then interpret the intractability of moral problems as evidence or even proof of what they have already assumed. In other words, there is a very strong temptation to beg the question in this kind of context.

I once gave an example of [R] to a class that substituted the argument about "the beginning of life" in place of morality generally. It went like this:
People have been arguing for years over the question, At what point does human life begin, but they have never been able to come to anything like a consensus on the issue: some say conception, some say "quickening", some say third trimester, some say birth, etc. Hence it follows that there is no point at which human life begins.
Now, you have to be very careful here: the argument does not say that there is such a point; it says that "it follows" from the fact of disagreement that there is no such point. But that does not follow, even if it happens to be true that there is no such point. However, ask yourself whether it makes any sense to say that there is no point at which human life begins, and then ask yourself whether there was ever a time at which you did not exist, and you will quickly see what a stupid thesis we have on our hands.

It is true that people have argued for millennia over what the best moral standards are, but the fact that they have never been able to come to anything like a consensus on the issue does not entail that there are no objective moral standards out there. The history of science teaches us, if it teaches us nothing else, that answers can be elusive even when they are "out there", so to speak. Indeed, the history of science is nothing more than the history of failed, refuted theories about the world. One might as well say "People have been arguing for millennia over whether there is life on other planets, hence, because people can't reach a consensus on the issue, we may infer that there is no answer to this question." Huh? It seems as though there either is, or is not, life on other planets. There is a "firm, final answer" to the question, we just don't know what it is--yet. At the point in time at which Newton proposed his theory of universal gravitation, someone might have remarked "Oh, these physicists are always arguing about such things! Aristotle said that everything moves towards the earth, now Newton says everything with mass moves towards other things with mass! Will it never end? Obviously there is no answer to such a question!"

Science is often seen as somehow the "opposite" of the humanities in its "firm, final answer" finding capacity. Maybe it's just the humanities where there are no "firm, final answers". But science is littered with failed hypotheses and intractable arguments. We can learn from the history of science, however, because one thing that stands out in that history is the fact that what is sometimes needed, when a question appears intractable, is not a throwing up of the hands and a declaration that no answer exists, but rather a new approach, a new methodology, indeed, a new way of looking at the world. Teaching students that they need to abandon their presuppositions, their biases, their a priori certainties and try to see the world in a new way seems to me to be precisely what a good education sets out to do. As Fidler herself put it: "We want to begin the year by persuading our incoming students that college is a new intellectual experience requiring new ways of thinking." It would be an abandoning of that mission to teach them "Whenever you have a hard time finding an answer to a question, you may infer that the answer to your question does not exist."

It seems to me that we run a risk of doing our incoming freshmen a disservice if we pretend to take the mere fact of disagreement as counting in favor of thesis [R]. Logically it is about as bass-ackwards as a methodological principle could be, and we manifestly do not want to "persuade" our freshmen to see the world in that way. Or at least I don't: the moral relativists out there might have other ideas, which, I suspect, is part of the problem to begin with. Many academics are also folk moral relativists, without even realizing it, and this a priori methodological stance informs most of what they do, even in their own domain of discourse. So much for "diversity", but that is old news in academia.

The good news is that, when I told a few of my own HTC students about the proposed seminar topic, they mostly laughed. One of them said "Man, that's pretty stupid", which is maybe not the most articulate response in the world but it sums things up rather nicely. If we want to hold HTC students to higher--indeed, the highest--standards, we'd better start abiding by those standards ourselves. We can begin by putting a little more thought--elementary, coherent thought--into the courses that we design and the questions that we ponder.

5 comments:

Joe said...

When read as a metaphysical argument (an argument about what is "out there," as you say), Dean Fidler's argument is clearly quite weak, as you show by way of a nice argument from analogy. But, when read instead as an epistemic argument (an argument about what is knowable), Dean Fidler's argument has a bit more promise. It's at least not obvious to me why we can't conclude that many questions have "no firm, final answers" on the basis of widespread and apprarently intractable disagreement among the experts. In fact, many philosophers over the years have been quite sympathetic to this very line of argumentation. (Granted, they are philosophers who you aren't particularly fond of -- e.g., Hume, Wittgenstein, and more recently Steve Stich. But that shouldn't matter, as I'm so far just trying to establish the rather weak claim that we can't dismiss Dean Fidler's argument, given an epistemic reading, on the same grounds that we can dismiss it, given a metaphysical reading.)

But is this argument, when read epistemically, a strong one? It would seem to me that it just might be. If you have a group of friends who have been to Australia and say that it is heaven on earth, and you have another group of friends who have been to Australia and say it is hell on earth, then, assuming this is the only evidence you have on the matter, you can reasonably withhold belief about whether or not Australia exists. But, if you regard the issue of whether or not Austalia exists as an important one, you would be obliged to take in more evidence on the matter, at least until you are able to come to a firm conclusion. And you would be so obliged even if your conclusion would not (epistemically) constitute a "firm, final answer." (You could, after all, be a brain in a vat that is being fed evidence for the non-existence of Australia by evil aboriginal neuroscientists.)

And I think this really serves to highlight Dean Fidler's point. By impressing upon students the epistemic problems involved in issues they presumably already regard as important, you are providing them with intellectual motivation to continually seek out new evidence -- to not simply be satisfied with the first plausible answers that are presented to them in their introductory tutorial. And that's certainly a worthwhile goal of the Freshman Seminar, don't you think?

Scott Carson said...

Hi Joe

Thanks for reading & commenting.

If only the thesis had been as modest as the one you are defending. If they had said, "When such massive disagreement exists, we have reason to infer that there is no agreement among the experts on this subject, and we may never know what the final answer to the question is." But that is not the thesis that is being put forward. The thesis is not that the answer will never be known, but that it doesn't exist, that such questions have no final answers. The thesis, in other words, is explicitly framed as a metaphysical thesis.

However, I will say that I don't doubt for a minute that you are right about the epistemic point, when put your way: if my only evidence were so inconclusive, I would indeed be warranted in, as you put it, withholding belief about what Australia is like. But that's not what [R] is about. According to [R], I am warranted in inferring that Australia doesn't even exist. But you are right: At most I have warrant for being in doubt as to whether Australia exists; but I certainly have no warrant whatsoever for inferring that there is no answer to the question whether Australia exists, which is what the seminar topic is claiming! Australia either exists or it does not exist--the answer is "out there", whether or not we can know that answer.

For this reason some would suggest that my analogy is not a good one. But there are enough other examples that one could call upon to make the same point, I think, whether it be the existence of God (gee, they've been arguing about that one for ever--there must not be any firm, final answer to that question either: he both exists and he doesn't exist!) or any other question about the objective existence and potential knowability of something.

The other point I would like to emphasize is that it really is not good to introduce the freshman to this problem in this way, any more than it would be a good idea to teach budding scientists that, when a problem gets tough, you thereby have evidence that there's no solution to the problem.

Science, in particular, but education in general (at least in my opinion) should always start from the assumption that questions can be answered, even when the answers are extremely difficult to find. It seems to me that it would be an abrogation of scientific responsibility to assert, entirely without warrant, that no answer exists just because I couldn't find it and nobody else could either.

This is not necessarily to adopt a kind of "no hidden variables" approach to all questions of any kind: as I admitted in my post, I'm perfectly happy to admit that some questions really don't have "firm, final answers", and possibly some of those questions aren't even subjective ones. But it's quite wrong, in my view, to teach the obviously fallacious argument form being deployed here as though it were somehow valid reasoning, whether metaphysically or epistemically.

This is quite important, because of course it would be quite silly to make metaphysical claims even when epistemically we are quite certain of our answers. This is one of the oldest lessons available in the history of the philosophy of science, after all. So my argument, if it has any merit at all, must have precisely the same merit, if not more, when understood epistemically as when understood metaphysically.

As for brains in vats, well, you already know how I feel about those. You'll be happy to hear, however, that I just taught "Where Am I?" to my 101 class. It was an exercise in humility. And restraint.

Apollodorus said...

Your arguments are pretty good, as usual, but I suspect that you've grasped an uncharitable interpretation of Dean Fidler's point and are running around beating it up to no real purpose. Of course, it may be that you've interpreted her correctly. After all, you read the whole e-mail, and you know her better than I do, though she was my dean (for the record, I didn't even have an ACT or an SAT score; but we already knew that my presence in the HTC was an inexplicable mystery). I seriously doubt, though, that what she wants to do is to persuade students that there aren't any answers to a certain set of questions because smart people have argued about them for a long time without coming to any agreement. It seems to me that she wants to make a rather more limited point, one that you may have missed because it just seems so incredibly obvious to you as a philosopher and an intelligent person: there are a wide range of questions to which there are no firm and obvious answers which are apparent to all rational and intelligent inquirers. You're right to point out that the natural sciences are in precisely the same boat as the humanities in this regard, but I think you only strengthen Dean Fidler's point, as I understand it at least.

Maybe it would be easier to understand her point if we understand what she wants to avoid. As I understand her, she wants to avoid giving students the impression that they get from virtually all of their classes in the natural and social sciences, and quite a few of their humanities courses, namely, that the people who work in these fields have applied their extraordinary intelligence to a set of problems and come up with some answers which it is the students' job to learn. I won't claim that pedagogy of that sort is never appropriate, but I do know that it is what I got in all of the natural science courses I took, and plenty of the social science and humanities courses, too. Virtually none of the courses I took outside of philosophy and classics presented their subjects as the active and dynamic areas of inquiry that they actually are. None of those courses tried to get students to engage in the same process of inquiry for themselves, either, except in some very mechanical ways. It's as though you taught philosophy 101 by noting that yes, people have argued in favor of libertarianism, incompatibilism, and compatibilism, and you'll have to memorize their names for the test, but Daniel Dennet has figured out free will, and you should be able to summarize his theory in special detail.

Pedagogy of that sort seems to me to reinforce, rather than to create, a naive sense of the easiness and transparency of knowledge. One of the reasons that relativism strikes so many 18 year olds as easy and obvious is that they imagine precisely what you take Dean Fidler to be claiming, that any knowledge-claim to which an intelligent and informed objection can be raised must fall outside the realm of knowledge altogether. They assume that questions with answers can be answered to the complete satisfaction of all rational inquirers. Maybe it takes genius to figure out the answer, but once genius has done its work, everybody can agree.

Maybe I'm being excessively charitable, but I really don't think that Dean Fidler believes what you think she does. Maybe she does; if she does, then what you've said in response is perfectly appropriate. But if she did believe that, then it would be hard to see why she would believe that we should keep asking these questions. I know her well enough to know that she is intelligent. I'm unwilling, then, to interpret her in a way that makes her a plain idiot. It seems rather more likely that she wants to counteract the naivete about knowledge that I mentioned by avoiding the kind of pedagogy I've described. You, of course, like most philosophy professors, already try to do that. Maybe that's why you've assumed that she must have had something more subtle in mind.

Scott Carson said...

Apollodorus

Well, that certain is a very charitable reading of the problem! Thanks for reading & the comment.

It may be that you are right, however, I will note that I made almost precisely the same argument that I made in my post to the group of faculty to whom the initial email was sent, and Fidler not only made no attempt to correct my interpretation of the thesis, she actually said some things indicating that I was mistaken to think there was anything wrong with the thesis as I interpreted it. Either she just doesn't care what I think about the thesis, or she interprets it the way I assert she does. Neither alternative makes her look very good, in my view, but it's not my job to judge her in that sense; I was only trying to help out with the structure of the freshman seminar.

On the broader, methodological point you raise, I will say this. I don't see that there is a huge difference, in terms of pedagogical usefulness, in teaching students that sometimes brainiacs don't agree on things and teaching them that sometimes there are no answers to the really big questions. Both may be true in some cases, but the cases in which they are true are trivial and uninteresting. That's why I emphasized what I take to be the bigger and more challenging thesis: there are times when genuine progress (whether that means "finding a firm, final answer" or not!) requires us to change ourselves by changing our perspective or even our most deeply held convictions.

Even that is trite if not trivial, since it's a point that Socrates made 2400 years ago. Still, some people seem to forget the point, others seem to think that they thought of it all on their own. Either way, one wishes that there could be better clarity of thinking in certain circles, principally those circles that make a lot of noise about priding themselves on the quality of their thinking.

Apollodorus said...

Well, that doesn't thrill me, I admit. I'm not too interested in judging her either, but I would find it problematic if the Dean of the Honors Tutorial College were to believe that disagreement among experts entails the non-existence of any 'final' answer. I'm sympathetic with Joe's point that the epistemological version of that idea is more respectable, and I can't see any reason why disagreement among experts shouldn't lead us to be suspicious that the metaphysical version of the thesis is true. Determining that, however, requires looking at the particular case at hand. I imagine that, if pressed, Dean Fidler might restrict her claim to the epistemological version. I hope so, at least.

It's funny to think that many Straussians have a similar approach to pedagogy; the point is to ponder the permanent political problems, the problems to which there is no ultimately satisfactory solution. That approach strikes me as superior to some notable alternatives, but it does seem to have become something of a dogma and an excuse for intellectual laziness and political quietism. Or so my experience with a number of Straussian-educated undergraduates would suggest. Ultimately, though, most of the Straussians with whom I'm familiar seem to think that the whole enterprise can lead us away from mistakes and lead us to understanding of what is better and worse in politics. I'm not sure that Dean Fidler's stated goal would manage even that, if she really does mean what you say.