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The changing face of scholarship

Pierre Bourdieu at an unemployed demonstration in front of ‘Sciences Politiques’ and ‘Normale Superieure’ schools in Paris, France on January 16, 1998.

Like most things in life, the idea of scholarship has many meanings. Many people are delighted and proud to receive advanced degrees. In some way it tells them and others that they are “smart,” worthy” and not just part of the crowd.

But when looked at another way, isn’t this an elitist view? And is it realistic or mostly a social construction, relative to our point in history?

If these questions sound unusual, consider the thinkers Pierre Bourdieu, Karl Marx and Max Weber. These and other sociologists maintain that two central functions of social institutions are to  legitimize and reproduce themselves.

Perhaps a slightly jaded view, some see universities as places of knowledge dissemination that, by virtue of what they are, tend to justify high tuition fees and not a few uninspiring, second and third-rate instructors. As part of the legitimization and reproduction process, universities must produce a quota of scholarly publications, many of which wouldn’t survive in the free market. And because university textbooks are often required for assignments and exams, students feel pressured into paying wildly inflated prices for these books if they want to get good grades.

The other side of the argument is that universities are specialized training centers, making tailor made textbooks necessary (and costly) by virtue of their relatively low circulation. Just as a detailed jet engine repair manual may never be a bestseller but is necessary for the airline mechanic, university textbooks in the Humanities are needed for the trade of “critical thinking.”

Glasgow University via Flickr

In fields like history and religious studies, students – some of whom might not realize they are, in part, consumers of education – are implicitly or explicitly lead to believe that a knowledge of original languages is linked to scholarly legitimacy and coherent thinking. This fallacy is often overlooked by those dazzled by a phalanx of references in non-English languages. And it is easy to find utterly shoddy articles which, perhaps, in part try to impress students and colleagues with a slew of references in different languages.

A postmodernist might argue that scholars should be just as concerned with recent language theory instead of conforming to the age-old tradition of upholding proficiency in languages as an emblem of scholarly legitimacy.

Further to Bourdieu’s claim that most scholarship doesn’t exist in isolation but takes place in institutions laden with cultural connotations (by virtue of their being accredited as universities and colleges), one might ask: What are these places really like? How do they really function? How effective are they? And how meaningfully do they connect with other social institutions and practices?

Historically, centers of so-called higher education and their resident scholars take various forms. From the Confucian courts, the Old Academies of Plato and Aristotle, the ashrams of Sankara and Gorakhnath, the early Oxford and Cambridge, the University at Salamanca, the Renaissance University of Padua, the New Florentine Academy, to today’s Visva-Bharati and other unique centers around the world, the definition of “quality education” is not fixed to one ideal.

Connections among pedagogy, language, societal legitimacy and, last but not least, morality are well summed up by Confucius, who in The Analects says:

A gentleman would be ashamed should his deeds not match his words.

A woman photographs a giant silicone sculpture of the ancient and famous chinese philosopher Confucius made by the Chinese artist Zhang Huan at the Rockbund Art museum on December 13, 2011 in Shanghai, China.

Related » Digital Scanning, Equal Rights, History, Individual Rights, Sociology

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Science

David Hume's statements on ethics foreshadowed...

David Hume (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Science [Latin scientia = knowledge] (revised Aug 17 2016)

Hard and Soft

Science has, at the very least, two meanings. The first meaning is most commonly found in the natural and physical sciences. In these so-called “hard” sciences, science develops laws and theories from the systematic observation of nature.

These laws and theories, according to most definitions, may be supported or disproved. This is made possible by the fact that, once published, scientific results become public. As public knowledge, new findings (and the theories derived from them) are subject to peer review and, when appropriate, replication.

The other meaning of science is far more opaque, usually cropping up in the so-called “soft” social sciences.

Political science, sociology and psychoanalysis, for instance, rely on theories. But these theories often depend on selective, scant or questionable empirical research. And they tend to use correlational or multivariate instead of causal experimental designs.

Correlational studies merely tell us that, in certain circumstances, two variables of interest occur together in some degree of statistical probability, whereas multivariate designs look at any number of variables and attempt to determine their probability of occurring together.

Most agree that no definitive causality can be claimed with either correlational or multivatiate designs.  However, this is some debate on this issue. Many agree that causality cannot be demonstrated in the social sciences. But we can point to the reality of “strong” and “weak” correlations—hence the important offshoot of science, statistics and probability.

Critiques of Science

Theological

English: Science icon from Nuvola icon theme f...

Science icon from Nuvola icon theme for KDE 3.x. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Theological critiques of science have two branches. On the one hand, some theologians warn against adopting a false moral neutrality that some scientists apparently advocate. This debate usually makes headlines whenever stories about abortion or same sex marriage arise.

The other branch relates to the theological claim that conventional science cannot account for nor predict revealed, infused or illuminated forms of knowledge. And to complicate matters, some theologians say theology, itself, is a science. And not only that. It is the “noblest” science.¹

Philosophical

Without getting too deep, it is important to take a step back and question some of the assumptions that science rests upon or, perhaps, implies. This is what philosophers tend to do.² For example, they ask does our world always operate in a uniform and predictable manner?

Critics also maintain that science cannot explain everything. Human experiences like love, free will, morality and identity are somewhat mysterious. We might be able to trace brain patterns, chemical interactions and response times in a lab. But this is only looking from one perspective, and from the outside.

And most would agree that correlational and multivariate studies in any branch of science do not adequately explain why things happen. We often hear the word “link” in scientific reporting. For instance, “Scientists Find Link Between Dopamine and Obesity.” But this does not tell us what causes what.

“It’s possible that obese people have fewer dopamine receptors because their brains are trying to compensate for having chronically high dopamine levels, which are triggered by chronic overeating,” says Wang. “However, it’s also possible that these people have low numbers of dopamine receptors to begin with, making them more vulnerable to addictive behaviors including compulsive food intake.”³

Other critiques highlight the role of human bias, usually called experimental or experimentor bias. In a nutshell, human bias influences the selection, observation, interpretation, analysis and presentation of data.

Also important is Karl Popper’s argument that scientific truth claims can only be disproved, never proved.4

English: The OWNER of this passport picture of...

The OWNER of this passport picture of Willard Van Orman Quine is Dr. Douglas Quine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sociological

Sociological critiques of science do not ignore philosophical issues but tend to focus on the role of social power in shaping, legitimizing and reproducing scientific truth claims within the broader context of a given society’s sense of normality.

Some writers, like Broad and Wade, report cases where scientific credentials have been forged and results fabricated.5 And some cultural theorists, particularly postmodern, see science as just another conceptual game, fiction, strategy, agenda, or discourse posing as truth.

From this it’s clear that science is far more complicated than what the media usually portrays. But the word “science” still has power to sway the masses, a power arguably out of sync with the realities of its complexity.

If we apply just some of these well-known critiques to recent trends about Climate Change, a virtual hailstorm of criticism will likely descend. In a sense, science really has become the new religion. Simply use your mind to question data selection, application, interpretation and presentation and you might not be labelled a “heretic” as in the Middle Ages. No, in the 21st century, you will probably be called a “denyer,” a term which ironically rests on (weakly scientific) psychoanalytic assumptions relating to a theory of “denial.”6

Anima and Animus – from concepts developed by Dr. Carl Jung, who tried to integrate psychology and spirituality (via Pinterest)

Depth and Transpersonal Psychology

Contemporary depth and transpersonal psychologists and those hoping to integrate science, religion and spirituality say a new form of science, beyond immediate biological, behavioral, psychological, social and environmental factors, is required to better account for the workings of the psyche in relation to the universe and God.

Some preliminary attempts at integration have been made. But the process is still in the germinal phase. Considering the vastness and mystery of life, the universe and beyond, this is not surprising. What is surprising is how dogmatic groups in possession of social power can sway the masses into thinking they have everything figured out. To me, this is not only ludicrous. But sometimes dangerous.7

¹ Recently TVO did a segment where two believing American scientists talk about science and religion. There’s no great depth here, and some of the statements wouldn’t wash in Canada, which arguably in matters of world faith and multiculturalism is several decades ahead of the USA. But it’s worth watching. http://tvo.org/video/programs/the-agenda-with-steve-paikin/scientists-on-religion

² David Hume goes so far as to critique the entire idea of causality. I think Hume’s critique is quite convincing, to the extent that it seems reasonable to say that most everything comes down to belief instead of knowledge.

³ Scientists Find Link Between Dopamine and Obesity in Brookhaven National Laboratory, February 1, 2001 » http://www.bnl.gov/bnlweb/pubaf/pr/2001/bnlpr020101.htm.

4 Perhaps a bit too detailed for the bulk of this entry, Willard Quine says empiricism (which science rests upon) contains “two dogmas.” One dogma is the distinction often made between Kant‘s analytic and synthetic propositions. In the simplest terms these are, respectively, intellectual constructs understood to be true in themselves vs. intellectual constructs taken to be true by virtue of how they relate to the world. Quine’s second dogma is reductionism, the belief that naming and meaning are the same.

5 Betrayers of the Truth, 1982. And more recent examples of outright fraud in science:

Sir John Houghton speaking at a climate change...

Sir John Houghton speaking at a climate change conference in 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

6 Global Warming activists/alarmists also overlook the reality that scientific research in support of the prevailing global political agenda have a much better chance of getting funding than those that question the data collection and interpretation behind it. This does not represent a scientific attitude, one that wants to get at truth. Rather, it’s yet another example of societal power-players hoping to reinforce whatever views they find important, and for whatever reasons they may really have.

In psychiatry, for example, some doctors prescribe medications (arguably a legitimizing term for drugs) without really knowing whether they are doing more harm than good. See https://epages.wordpress.com/2015/12/21/the-human-side-of-science

Related » Archaeology, Aristotle, Chakras, Emic-Etic, Fundamentalism, Galileo Galilei, Ideal Types, Myth, Particle-Wave Duality, Phenomenology, Postmodernism, Poststructuralism, Saint-Simon (Comte Henri de), Scientism, Semiology

 


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Agnosticism

Agnosticism

Agnosticism (Photo credit: Pensiero)

In the strongest sense of the term, agnosticism refers to the belief that we can never know if God, the afterlife, or heaven and hell exist because all human experiences, including internal ones, are apparently subjective.

By way of contrast, so-called weak agnosticism maintains a “maybe, maybe not” position that, until some kind of definitive proof comes along, neither denies nor affirms God, the afterlife, heaven and hell.

The word was coined from the Greek (a = not, not with) + (Gnosis = knowledge) by the 19th-century British scientist Thomas H. Huxley. Huxley’s original use of the term referred to only being able to gain knowledge of the so-called empirical world.

More recently, the idea of agnosticism has undergone some philosophical refinement, as outlined at Wikipedia:

Agnostic atheism
The view of those who do not believe in the existence of any deity, but do not claim to know if a deity does or does not exist.
Agnostic theism
The view of those who do not claim to know of the existence of any deity, but still believe in such an existence.
Apathetic or pragmatic agnosticism
The view that there is no proof of either the existence or nonexistence of any deity, but since any deity that may exist appears unconcerned for the universe or the welfare of its inhabitants, the question is largely academic.
Strong agnosticism (also called “hard”, “closed”, “strict”, or “permanent agnosticism”)
The view that the question of the existence or nonexistence of a deity or deities, and the nature of ultimate reality is unknowable by reason of our natural inability to verify any experience with anything but another subjective experience. A strong agnostic would say, “I cannot know whether a deity exists or not, and neither can you.”
Weak agnosticism (also called “soft”, “open”, “empirical”, or “temporal agnosticism”)
The view that the existence or nonexistence of any deities is currently unknown but is not necessarily unknowable; therefore, one will withhold judgment until evidence, if any, becomes available. A weak agnostic would say, “I don’t know whether any deities exist or not, but maybe one day, if there is evidence, we can find something out.”†

Related Posts » Atheism, Idealism, Theism

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† http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnosticism


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Infused Knowledge

John the Baptist baptizing Christ

John the Baptist baptizing Christ via Wikipedia

Infused knowledge is a form of knowledge proposed mostly by theologians. It often refers to the direct or imprinted knowledge that Jesus Christ possessed, but the term may apply to anyone. King Solomon, for example, apparently had infused knowledge.

However, most Christians believe that people other than Christ possess far less infused knowledge than that which their savior enjoyed. Even a great herald like John the Baptist, for example, proclaims that “the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal” (John 1:27).

The outstanding Catholic scholar, Fr. John Hardon, defines infused knowledge this way:

The gift of natural (secular) and supernatural (spiritual) knowledge miraculously conferred by God. Thought by some to have been possessed by Adam and Eve, who came into existence in an adult state and were to be the first teachers of the human race.¹

¹ Source: http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/dictionary/index.cfm?id=34207


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Locke, John

Title page for the fourth edition of John Lock...

Title page for the fourth edition of John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding via Wikipedia

John Locke (1632-1704) was a British philosopher who had a profound influence on the school of empiricism.

Locke believed the human infant enters the world with a tabula rasa (i.e. a blank slate). Accordingly, we inherit nothing more than physical characteristics and a basic sense of goodness. This makes the mind free and equal among different individuals.

Although this may seem somewhat speculative today, Locke, himself, argued against abstract speculation in favor of recognizing the limits of knowledge through direct experience.

For Locke, we can only know about an object’s “primary qualities” of size, shape and motion. These qualities exist independently of perception. We can never know anything about an object’s “secondary qualities” of color, taste, smell, warmth, texture and sound because these are products of the object’s interaction with our senses–i.e. qualities that don’t inhere to the object itself.

Locke’s pragmatism didn’t close him off to the possibility of God’s existence. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) he argued for the “reasonableness” of the idea of God.

Related Posts » Unconscious, William of Ockham, Deism, Enlightenment, Lévi-Strauss (Claude)


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Meno

An Arabic manuscript from the 13th century dep...

An Arabic manuscript from the 13th century depicting Socrates (Soqrāt) in discussion with his pupils...via Wikipedia

The Meno is Plato‘s celebrated dialogue in which his theory of knowledge as “recollection” is forwarded.

Plato believed in reincarnation and the idea that individuals possess an all-knowing, immortal soul. According to Plato, the trauma of being born causes amnesia and we forget all that we knew prior to a given birth.

Plato says learning is “remembering” things we already know about, at the level of the soul if not at the level of immediate consciousness.

In the Meno, Socrates is a literary figure who represents Plato’s perspective. Plato’s Socrates does not necessarily say what Socrates, himself, would have said.

Plato’s Socrates asks a slave boy a series of geometrical questions without telling him the final answer. Because the slave boy eventually gets the correct answer without Socrates giving it away, Socrates concludes that the slave boy must have already known the answer in his own soul.

Some philosophical commentators object that Socrates essentially lead the slave boy down the proverbial garden path, prodding the boy toward the desired answer with leading questions.

Would the slave boy have found the correct answer without Socrates (a) knowing what it was and (b) leading him towards it? If we answer “no” to (a) and (b), then knowledge arguably cannot be mere recollection because it depends on someone else, who already knows, to lead another person toward that knowledge.

This leads to a kind of chicken and egg problem. How could the very first person to exist, assuming there was a single first being, attain knowledge without a guide?

Others say that Socrates didn’t have knowledge of the answer, but simply a correct belief because he begins the dialogue by saying that the only thing he knows is that he doesn’t know anything for certain. But to this one could reply that Socrates (i.e. Plato) still had a definite philosophical bias at the outset of the dialogue.

Related to these issues, Plato makes the useful distinction between:

  • Having a belief that happens to be true

versus

  • Definitely knowing that one has gained the truth

Another objection to the Meno‘s theory of knowledge is that knowledge of geometry differs from other types of knowledge, such as knowledge of ethics. Can we generalize a specific example from geometry to claim that all forms of knowledge are instances of recollection?

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