Dyt and Witt

Posted verbatim from Laurie Taylor’s Thinking Allowed newsletter …

Welcome to the Thinking Allowed Newsletter – Doctor Dyt and Wittgenstein

Wednesday 17 December 2008 – http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/factual/thinkingallowed/
Repeat Sunday 21 December 2008

I had a university tutor in psychology who was popularly known as Doctor Dit.  For a couple of terms I assumed along with my fellow students that this was an innocent nickname.  But then one day I was told by a postgraduate that it was really an acronym.  It was not DIT but DYT and the letters stood for Define Your Terms.

It was a very appropriate designation.  Whereas other tutors would positively encourage some debate in their seminars, the man known as DYT would immediately bring any such discussion to a halt by a demand for definitions.  It was not unlike being repeatedly hit over the head ‘Right.  Taylor, what is value of optical illusions in the study of perception?’ ‘Well,’ one would begin, ‘When your eyes are deceived it could be that the deception is the inappropriate application…’ ‘Not so fast, Taylor.  You said ‘deception?’ ‘That’s right’ ‘Define your terms.  Define your terms.’

Over coffee in the basement canteen we’d wonder about the nature of Dyt’s home life.  We’d construct scenarios in which Mrs Dyt turned to him over breakfast coffee one morning and announced her dissatisfaction with the sexual side of their marriage.  ‘We don’t make love any more.’  That would really get Dyt going.  ‘Make love?  Make love?  Define your terms.  Define your terms.’

Now that I look back on my time with Doctor Dyt, I feel more sympathetic to his intellectual crusade.  What he wanted to do was purge the world of all ambiguity and ambivalences.  He envisaged a time when people only used terms with precise definitions, a time when every flower in his intellectual garden would be precisely labelled.

Only when we reached that happy state, when the undergrowth of uncertainty had been cleared away, would we be able to arrive at hard and fast truths about the world.

But, of course, Dr Dyt’s enterprise was doomed to failure.  Words simply won’t sit still and have precise definitions hung around their necks.  Their meaning slips and slides: it is determined as Wittgenstein maintained by their many uses:

“Think of the tools in a toolbox: there is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screwdriver, a rule, a glue-pot, glue, nails and screws.  The functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects.  (And in both cases there are similarities.)  Of course, what confuses us is the uniform appearance of words when we hear them spoken or meet them in script or print.  For their application is not presented to us so clearly.”

I’ve plucked that quotation from the introduction to Key Concepts in Education, a new book by Fred Inglis and Lesley Aers which doesn’t so much offer clear-cut definitions of such familiar educational terms as Assessment, Citizenship, Curriculum, Literacy and Pedagogy, as show how such terms have been variously used by people with different material and philosophical interests.  Dr Dyt would not have approved.

Join me and Fred Inglis at four o’clock today or after the midnight news on Sunday or on our readily down-loadable podcast.

Also in today’s programme. Why the Chinese economic miracle may already be a thing of the past.


NB:Key Concepts in Education by Fred Inglis & Lesley Aers (Sage Publications Ltd – ISBN 9781412903158)

Ah, slippage.

Who Built The Simulation ?

This New Scientist article on the Intelligent Design crowd reinforcing the dualism of mind stuff distinct from material stuff, as part of a theism vs Darwinism debate passed me by in my recent move a couple of months ago.

I’m pretty clearly a physicalist, a non-reductive materialist … both material-stuff and meaning-stuff arising from the same physics, but even the most scientific metaphysics requires its “first-cause” somewhere in the loop, ie even if the loop of existence has no beginning or end it has to “arise” out of something, some causal explanation. I’ve said many times that causation (in general) is the weirdest elusive thing in this whole stack of turtles.

P Z Myers Pharyngula blog on this article was picked-up by David Chalmers in his Fragments. David is one of those undoubtedly “clever” philosophers I’ve never quite “got” what his distinctive point is. As I type this I recall where I got stuck on his “supervenience” angle on causation, in fact reminded of that because as I perused his latest taxonomy of philosophy I couldn’t help noticing that “Causation” was the first entry under metaphysics with many topics under it (OK so C is early in the alphabet) … but I keep coming back to the point, whatever your metaphysics, your logic of causation has a hole in it somewhere … a first (or “necessary” injection of) cause.

David like most people in this debate, me included I guess, are keen to distance any intelligent designer God vs Darwinian explanations of emergence of complexity and design, from any mind-matter dualism debate.

David … a dualist in this regard … seems quite happy with his “Matrix” model … our whole world could be a (computer) simulation idea. Logically it’s as good a way as any to plug the hole in your metaphysics, even if it sounds far-fetched sci-fi, to posit a god-like software programmer .. but that sounds like a pretty intelligent designer to me, and a very weak way to suggest this is not really still about a theist / Darwinist deate too.

Whether you subscribe to a large measure or negligible measure of the intelligent teleological-looking design arising in Darwinian ways or not, there is a always a small measure of first-cause or pre-existence of the matrix itself … even if, as in my current case, that matrix is just the chaotic void pre-existing either mind or matter.

So far as I can see, pragmatism is the only response to this missing link. Reaching for a fantastical sky-hook is only ever a stop-gap, a Jamesian holiday from intellectual effort, even if it is a very long-lived, useful and therefore very valuable stop gap.

[PS – Aside – Distinguishing explanation from causation .. compare with Dennett on distinguishing physical determinism from morally free will.]

Pirsig Memorabilia

Being sold on e-Bay, Nancy Pirsig’s motorcycle jacket.

This leather jacket belongs to the ex-wife of author Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), whose married name was Nancy Pirsig. She is selling it because she doesn’t need it, since she now lives in a warm climate and no longer rides a motorcycle.

It was purchased around the late sixties or early seventies, and worn on many motorcycle trips – day or weekend trips in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

In the photo, taken in the Pirsigs’ St. Paul driveway in the early seventies, you can see Bob Pirsig in the background.

Proceeds from this sale will go into a college fund for Nancy and Bob’s grandson.

The e-Bay seller on Nancy’s behalf is Ted Pirsig, son of Bob & Nancy, father of said grandson.

Up and Coming ?

List from the Beeb. White Lies sound like the pick of the bunch, but Little Boots and Empire of the Sun (feat Luke Steele, ex Perth WA) err … interesting.

Saw local bands Kill Your Darlings and Hallucinations the other night at Cafe Kaos. Both different but good, though incredibly short sets. Hallucinations technically accomplished amplified-acoustic bluesy-folk-rock guitars and vocals with a locomotive rhythm section driving em on, and virtuoso harmonica thrown in. Kill Your Darlings with intro loops and grungey heavy guitar, maximum effect for minimum technique, decent vocals, inventive beats and a really entertaining drummer.