Category Archives: Philosophy

To Educate, or Not to Educate? (1/2)

How we should orient education resources and tools in the 21st century. Recently the Boston Review hosted a debate the posed the very question: What is Education for?

Harvard Graduate School professor Danielle Allen, in the lead essay, argues the education should focus on participatory readiness – so a explicit political (lowercase p) mean to create an end where students are properly trained to be civic agents. Allen in a well-argued piece asserts that the current paradigm is vocational training – we equip students to learn skills and in particular technical skills based on hard science; these skills are enough to help ameliorate all sorts of injustices and inequalities in our society and world.

Allen, at her most pointed and simple reminds us that: “We surely need the STEM fields to navigate this new landscape. But if the STEM fields gave us the mass in “mass democracy,” the humanities and social sciences gave us the democracy.” I think is without-a-doubt true. And a brilliant succinct way of tying this dichotomy up with a nice artistic bow. Of course we need STEM but we also need the liberal arts to help us become well-rounded citizens.

Deborah Meier, Senior Scholar at NYU’s Steinhardt School, responds to the initial outing writing that she “sympathizes” with the first argument. She goes a bit further saying that our schools and their obsession with “test scores” has made the lack of civic agency even worse. “Our current educational paradigm barely recognizes, in the most fundamental sense, what being a person is about.”

Debra Satz, Professor of Ethics in Society and Professor of Philosophy at Stanford University, agrees with Allen on principles but just doesn’t think education can do what Allen is asking it to do. “Egalitarian redistributive justice” is not the “first reason that comes to mind” on why we should teach liberal arts. Satz also argues that vocational training updated for the 21st century would, in fact, do what Allen wants which is more resources to schools. “Vocational education arguably requires not only computer science and coding, but also the ability to write, analyze, and communicate; knowledge of foreign cultures and languages; and a greater emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving rather than rote memorization,” asserts Satz. Fair point here, I think.

Jeffrey Aaron Synder, Assistant Professor of Educational Studies at Carleton College, argues that “it’s the economy, stupid.” Preparing students to enter the labor market has always been what the education system is about and with 15% of the country in poverty, this should remain preeminent, according to the professor.

Robert Reich, former labor secretary under Bill Clinton, argues in the same vein that Satz did: what Allen calls for is simply “too much for civic education to bear.” Reich says we should start with bringing civic classes back. This is something I’ve been arguing for for awhile now. We don’t need people majoring in politics in droves; we need people to understand civics and this should be incorporated throughout our entire educational journey regardless of the paradigm debate. Also, citing legendary political scientist Robert Putnam, civic organizations outside schools are important. We should probably stop bowling alone, basically, and reengage with our neighbors.

Carlos Fraenkel, author of Teaching Plato in Palestine, pushes for the Brazilian model: In 2008, “the Brazilian parliament affirmed that philosophy is necessary for democratic citizenship. Now, by law, every student studies philosophy in that country’s high schools.” Not a certain philosophical school, argues Fraenkel, but philosophy of practice; “semantic and logical tools that allow us to argue well and dialectical virtues that allow us to focus on truth-finding rather than on winning an argument.” This is also an idea that I really agree with.

Lelac Almagor, a Charter school English teacher, argues that class matters and that low-income students deserve an elite education. There is no stark dichotomy of STEM vs liberal arts. We need it all. So Almagor is in the same ballpark as Satz here.

Lucas Stanczyk, political scientist, argues that we should listen to what C.E.O’s are saying is the problem: creativity. How do we foster creativity? Liberal arts and not STEM. What is education for, according to Stanczyk: “It is to help people escape a life of vapid consumerism by giving them capacities to appreciate richer pursuits and to produce their own complex meanings.” His arguments are way to all over the place to be cohesive enough to analyze. Although his C.E.O. point is his best.

I’ll be back soon with a 1000 word response to all of this myself; I think about this often and there is much here to chew on.

(Two responses I am leaving without comment (except for this one) because their essays, IMO, were only tangentially related to the original essay and I found them (mostly) irrelevant. Read them here: (1), (2).)

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Free Will Doesn’t Exist – Thats OK

“Promoting determinism is complacent and dangerous.”

As someone who is confident (as one can be) that free will is an illusion, I find this notion that promoting or discussing or disseminating widely that free will is probably most definitely illusory (and a very weak one at that when one begins to be mindful of the possibility) has negative consequences bizarre. I am, for all intents and purposes, a determinist, which, actually proves foundational in my reaction that it’s bizarre to think that all hell breaks loose if people knew.

I accept that free will doesn’t exist, therefore, all of our actions, thoughts, etc. have prior causes. “Nothing can be causa sui – nothing can be the cause of itself,” writes Galen Strawson in an influential paper from 1994 published in Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition.

It’s fairly simple: I’m not going to cheat more or become a serial killer because I know this now. I either have the brain (due to all kinds of factors) of  a serial killer or I do not. I think that I am a better person after understanding the true nature of reality. I am more forgiving of myself, others, and everyone frankly. I am more compassionate; less punitive. Regardless of how I feel, paying attention through the framework that there is no free will makes everything that much more explainable. The world makes so much more sense if you think about it and analyze events as if they were determined (this is different from fatalism as explained in the Atlantic piece.)

How has my life changed since I came to terms with this? Frankly, I love people even more now. I view people through the lens of realizing that the very next words, actions, etc. that they deliver were caused by some prior and it makes me smile: people are cute. I think the notion that if people believe that free will isn’t real, they make worse and more self-indulgent or downright selfish decisions a spurious one. (Yes, I saw the examples in the article; they weren’t convincing or powerful.)

I read the recent Atlantic feature on free will and it was similar to most stories on free will that are honest: free will isn’t real but we shouldn’t tell the masses because anarchy will ensue. Have you looked around? All we have is brutal anarchy in a world without shared rules, norms, or accountability-mechanisms.

I spend a lot of my time thinking about what best explains our actions. There are thousands of scientific models, ideas, studies, philosophical treaties that present all sorts of options. The answer lies on a continuum, of course. However, ideas that stand the test of time, to me, are ideas that have predictive power. The current consensus conception of free will, from Stephen Cave from the above mentioned Atlantic article is thus:

The contemporary scientific image of human behavior is one of neurons firing, causing other neurons to fire, causing our thoughts and deeds, in an unbroken chain that stretches back to our birth and beyond. In principle, we are therefore completely predictable. If we could understand any individual’s brain architecture and chemistry well enough, we could, in theory, predict that individual’s response to any given stimulus with 100 percent accuracy.

This is – more or less – how I see it. I have discovered nothing else with the predictive power like determinism. To me, it’s the most settled belief that I hold. I am open to new info, a new radical understanding of what we know, but as of this writing: I can confidently say that there most definitely is no such thing as free will. Physics, seems not to allow it. Randomness galore – sure, this still gives us no choice here. Luck? Sure. Where is the choice in that? We are products of our genes, our environments, randomness, and prior causes. Galen Strawson, in 1994, wrote an excellent essay on this called “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility,” in which he argues against fatalism. Of course we can change but, “both the particular way in which one is moved to try to change oneself, and the degree of one’s success in one’s attempt at change, will be determined by how one already is as a result of heredity and previous experience. And any further changes that one can bring about only after one has brought about certain initial changes will in turn be determined, via the initial changes, by heredity and previous experience.” This seems to be precisely and undoubtedly correct.

D.I.Y. Hacks, Memory links, and so Forth
Two examples that I go to when discussing or thinking about ways to hack our ability to actively and forcefully aid ourselves in making better, more-informed choices are simple, anecdotal yet, for me, powerful. First, I recall thinking of a particular website (Edge.org) that I prior to that moment have consistently forgotten about when I recommend smart science-based sites to friends. So, one night, I consciously thought of that website and tied it to the red cover of Free Will by Sam Harris which I read a couple of weeks prior to that evening. Now, every time I think of that book, Harris, or that night, my mind automatically goes to that site. I thought: “cool, you can hack that and create memory pathways.” I do this all of the time now and it works – I don’t have a choice if it works or not but correct and consistent practice rewires your brain for sure. More wise inputs will produce more wise and intended outputs.

Second, and finally, I pay close attention to my thoughts, actions; my life: When are my thoughts muddled? When are they the most lucid, clear, and free of disruption? How can I help create better days as opposed to worst days? A specific example: How can I help my chances in recollecting info on X? It’s not that hard. If you read even just a sole book on WWI, (I recommend The Sleepwalkers by Chris Clark) then you can be sure that if someone were to ask you a question about the Great War that you would be likely to pull something out of your head after reading that book. This is common sense (another term that is basically meaningless). You can’t guarantee that you will recollect anything but you sure have a better chance than those who have never read a book about WWI. This example translate to every nook and cranny of life. Because I believe that change demands active and mindful steps and that we don’t have free will I tend to give better more helpful advice to myself and my friends when asked. I don’t just uselessly say: “oh, just try harder. Just believe in yourself.” That’s nonsense. I am more helpful now that I have started to understand how the brain works and that we most likely don’t have free will.

I’ve read Daniel Dennett and others who are scared about the consequences of society if everyone intuitively understood the falseness of free will, I simply don’t share their concern in the outcomes.

I am a much better person and I’m better able to understand myself, friends, possibilities and prospects for the future after losing the illusion of free will.

Don’t be scared; let go – it’s better for us all.