Evolution and the acquisition of knowledge

March 29, 2009

This is sort of a piggyback on the last post in the sense that I’m posting again on evolution; it is actually a mere coincidence that I would write some musings on evolution and cognitive shortcuts (especially after a long break), only to be confronted by the idea of evolution yet again the following day in the last place I would generally hope to hear about it: my church.

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On cognitive shortcuts

March 28, 2009

Okay, the hiatus is over – sort of. This won’t indicate any sort of regular posting, but I have a subject that I think fits best under this banner rather that my Docere Est Discere blog (even though it deals in a very broad sense with education).

In my interim as a student teacher – which is coming to a close in the next few weeks – I have tried to stay apprised of what is happening with the blogs that I have been following for quite some time (many of which are on this site’s blogroll). One of those which I have come to enjoy greatly is Ed Brayton’s Dispatches from the Culture Wars, which I find interesting and enlightening on a number of topics (despite disagreeing personally with Brayton on a number of matters).

Recently, Brayton wrote about Chris Mooney ripping George Will apart for his uninformed and flawed piece on global warming in the Washington Post (both pieces were printed in the Post, actually), and in discussing the issue, he brought up the idea of cognitive shortcuts:

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A contradiction in terms?

May 24, 2008

I’ve been using the handle “Christian Cynic” for about four years now (which I did not steal from this Christian cynic, I promise), and I’ve heard plenty of things about a supposed contradiction between Christianity and cynicism. I’ve responded before (although that piece is lost in the æther of the Internet, an artifact of when I long ago had the domain thechristiancynic.com), but I happened to find something more direct (all bolding mine):

It is hardly too much to say that men believe in us as Christians only so long as they believe that we are kind: only so long as they do not know that we are bitter, and retaliative, and alert to take offense, and cruel in misjudgment. When the veil is lifted and they know the facts, they have finished with us, and our profession of religion is but the minister of bitterness in them. Kindness is a beautiful thing in any man: it is an imperative necessity in a Christian. A Christian cynic is a contradiction in terms. You know what I mean: if I add that of course a Christian man is to have his opinion of unworthy conduct like other people, and that he also has the right to entertain righteous indignation against evil—you know that in saying that I am but echoing words that rise within you as self-defense against the sword of self-accusation. For you and I in practice, brethren, know quite well the difference between indignation against evil and bitterness against persons we dislike. (“Bitterness,” sermon by G.A. Johnston Ross, pub. in The University of Chicago Press; available through JSTOR)

I almost feel that a subtle wink to the audience would have been in order after the last statement.

And this isn’t the only sermon to rail away at Christian cynicism:

Cynics live in a cold, lonely and unproductive world.

And a “Christian cynic” is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.

    A Christ-follower cannot remain a cynic.

I do not mean that a Christian can’t become cynical, but I do mean they should not remain that way.

Lovely image, isn’t it?

Fortunately for me (and others who self-identify this way – and there are more than a few I’ve found), these things need not apply to individuals who consider themselves cynics.

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May 9, 2008

After seeing this post (and corresponding image), a thought occurred to me: the problem with Wikipedia is not merely that the information contained within is any less reliable than “closed” encyclopedias* but that the process is totally transparent. It might be claimed that the methodology itself is flawed, but that seems implausible: the main difference is that traditional encyclopedias exercise editorial power before publication, whereas Wikipedia exercises it throughout the publication process (because all content is public, even content which has been removed but remains in history as proof that someone tried to publish such-and-such content). The process of editing is entirely transparent to everyone, which has resulted in some interesting observations about the politicization of the editorial process. (Is anyone really surprised?)

Granted, I don’t know that I consider Wikipedia reliable – I definitely won’t allow my future students to use it as a primary source, although I will probably tell them that it is good to consider as a compendium of information that should be verified through other means – but I think that transparency is in many ways a good thing, not merely because of the unorthodox authorship of the encyclopedia but also because it’s good for others (especially students, I think) to see the process by which information is deemed accurate and reputable (and hence, knowledge). If it’s ugly and full of complications, then all the better for our view of knowledge, not worse: we’ll start to get the idea that knowledge, like many things, is fundamentally a struggle between competing individuals. Such empirical information is invaluable to the critical mind.

*Linguistic observation: Encyclopedia is one of those odd words which has a plural ending (sing. -pedium) but which is never conjugated as a plural, as some would have us do even when words like media which often function as singulars rather than plural.

Are prima facie beliefs reasonable?

February 2, 2008

We live in a world that is not what it seems.

Before you think that I’ve gone off the deep end and started espousing wacky theories like Manichean-style dualism or the 9/11 Truth movement, let me be clearer about what I’m proposing: I think that we live in a world where purely prima facie beliefs – things we believe because they appear to be so “at face value” – are not inherently reasonable to hold.

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“Didn’t your mother ever teach you not to know that way?”

December 14, 2007

Just added to the blogroll is the blog of Baylor philo prof Alexander Pruss, who recently posted an incredibly interesting entry with the name Epistemic norms are a species of moral norms. As a teacher, I can appreciate the spirit of this post.

Quick summary: There is something about imperatives directed at how we acquire reliable knowledge that puts them in the category of moral norms. When I say (to use one of Pruss’ examples), “Don’t accept the testimony of unreliable witnesses,” I must be giving you that imperative for a reason or it is relatively useless (like Pruss’ conditional “If you don’t raise your right arm, at most one of your arms will be raised”). The reason that underlies epistemic imperatives is “Knowledge is good to have,” and that is at base a moral injunction.

In the comments, it is pointed out to Pruss that this idea of knowledge being at least intrinsically good (often with obvious extrinsic goods) somewhat begs the question. But I think that this argument is at least highly plausible for the average person because knowledge is seen as something worth having for the sake of having it. For the person who does not accept this, it will be a hard argument to win because the idea is somewhat based on values as well as pragmatic considerations (e.g. it’s been much better for society to have more knowledge about the universe because it has helped us find better ways to live).

This idea has profound implications for education. For one, I feel very strongly that educators need to value knowledge and learning (at base knowledge acquisition, which is not limited to mere propositional fact). The loss of that value is in my estimation the reason for declining attitudes toward liberal education, and teachers ought to promote learning of any kind, whether it is stats from a baseball card, how to change a tire, or the names and DNA codon arrangements of amino acids. Secondly, it is the loss of this value that presents such a dramatic obstacles even for teachers who do value education as intrinsically valuable; for the students must also share that value. To that end, one might say that a teacher’s primary goal is as value-inculcator: to cultivate prosperous students as well as well-adjusted citizens and individuals.

What I am setting forth is essentially a humanistic requisite for teachers: If you want to be a good teacher, you must do your best to model and espouse sound moral values. Being a good person isn’t just about doing your part for society and your community; it is also about doing your part for yourself and doing everything you can to learn about the world we live in. Everything else about teaching is secondary, from lesson planning to discipline. If you don’t try to convince your students to love learning, to get a test of knowledge and make them hunger for it the rest of their lives, then there is a significant part of the job that you simply haven’t gotten. Who knows? Maybe this attitude really would transform the way our students think, act, and live.

The chronology of epistemology: two vices

August 16, 2007

Aristotle, in his various ethical works, propounded a view of virtue that placed it as the mean between two extremes; courage, for instance, was the balance between cowardice and foolhardiness. In classically influenced Western thought, this has been taken broadly as the maxim “Everything in moderation.” I think this is a good rule of thumb, and rationality, in my estimation, is concerned with finding reasonable balances in thought. I wish to speak of one such balance now by looking at some extreme views in the area of epistemology – how we attain knowledge.

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