Looking for the Logos of Life VII: Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde

The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. By Robert Louis Stevenson. I listened to the wonderful Librivox recording.

At first glance, a story set in nineteenth-century London may seem far afield for a Nearctic traveller. There are two reasons, however, to consider it. First, Stevenson is one of the most accomplished writers I know, whose Travels with a Donkey I intend to post about someday, and whose Treasure Island was THE adventure tale of my childhood. Second there is this passage in the story (which otherwise is too familiar to summarize) about the relation between the lives of our souls and bodies, and this relevant to a search for the logos of life:

“I was so far in my reflections when, as I have said, a side light began to shine upon the subject from the laboratory table. I began to perceive more deeply than it has ever yet been stated, the trembling immateriality, the mistlike transience, of this seemingly so solid body in which we walk attired. Certain agents I found to have the power to shake and pluck back that fleshly vestment, even as a wind might toss the curtains of a pavilion. For two good reasons, I will not enter deeply into this scientific branch of my confession. First, because I have been made to learn that the doom and burthen of our life is bound for ever on man’s shoulders, and when the attempt is made to cast it off, it but returns upon us with more unfamiliar and more awful pressure. Second, because, as my narrative will make, alas! too evident, my discoveries were incomplete. Enough then, that I not only recognized my natural body from the mere aura and effulgence of certain of the powers that made up my spirit, but managed to compound a drug by which these powers should be dethroned from their supremacy, and a second form and countenance substituted, none the less natural to me because they were the expression, and bore the stamp of lower elements in my soul.”

So here we have a dramatic statement of an old thesis about the mind vs body question, which has never ceased to captivate natural philosophers and others. Two very challenging recent papers that seek the logos of conscious, self- directed life through mathematical argument are

Hoffman, D. D., & Prakash, C. (2014). Objects of consciousness. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 577. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00577

Conway, John; Simon Kochen (2006). “The Free Will Theorem”. Foundations of Physics. 36 (10): 1441. arXiv:quant-ph/0604079Freely accessible. Bibcode:2006FoPh…36.1441C. doi:10.1007/s10701-006-9068-6.

At this point all I can say is that I hope someday to get some idea what these authors are talking about. Will the result be enlightening, or could they simply have found new pathways into madness like poor Dr. Jeckyll?

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Assessment and the seeds of learning

“Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” Thoreau

I have taught for forty years at a state institution that started out as a small state college in 1971 and has become, as of 2015, a university, at least in name. For about the past five years, the main thrust of my institution’s curriculum development efforts have been geared towards developing detailed lists of “Essential Learning Outcomes.” These are objectives that are supposed to be evaluated on a three step ordinal scale of “aware, competent, or skilled.” Faculty are being told to develop ELOs for their academic programs and individual courses and to align their assessments to their ELO rubrics (or maybe it’s their assessment rubrics to their ELOs). The goal is to demonstrate that students are learning very specific skills and “competencies” as a direct result of what happened in the classroom, during or immediately after the “activity” took place. This is no way to assess real learning, which is something beyond the reach of techniques based in so-called “learning research.”

The current drive to assess “learning outcomes” is equivalent to demanding that teachers produce fully developed knowledge in the minds of their students immediately. It it like demanding that a gardener show you a fully developed garden of plants, with flowers and fruit, in a day, or at most a few months. Such a garden can only be a hot house full of exotic plants in pots or a heavily tended garden, using every artificial help available. Hothouses and artificial landscapes have no organic connection to the environment in which they are growing. Once the heat, water and fertilizer are are cut off, the plants die.

This botanical metaphor is quite revealing. Just as there are subjects that can be learned quickly and retained if the mind is well prepared (the minds of children are extremely retentive and often not overly cluttered), sometimes the effect of seeding is immediate, and plants take root and begin to grow. More often in teaching, the best that happens is that a few weeds of false opinion are rooted out or at least identified, preparing the mind to receive something true. Teachers of science know that this weeding is essential: students do not understand and retain correct ideas if they continue to harbor false ones that interfere. Most seeds do not germinate right away. Indeed, they often wait years to develop. The teacher must have what Thoreau called “faith in a seed.” In some future circumstance of the student’s life, the environment of the mind may be right for this idea, and then it will develop. Most of the important things we learn in our lives have to develop like natural vegetation, through a process of succession in which different ideas only grow under the circumstances that are suited to them. Because natural communities have a “seed bank,” of dormant seed accumulated over many years, as well as a constant influx of seeds from outside, as one plant dies, another will immediately occupy the spot where it grew. Often many new plants will spring up and compete for the space until one takes over, or a plant that has been waiting, as it were, in the shadow of the current dominant one, will quickly grow up to fill its place.

I the human mind, if it remains active and receptive, old ideas are gradually replaced as the short-lived ones fade and are replaced by those that live longer. These may be new, but more often, I believe the best ones were first encountered earlier in life and have lain dormant, like seeds in the seed bank, or have been waiting in the shadow for us to reject an idea that up to then had been dominant. Gradually, one develops a set of ideas that have stood the test of time and the challenges of surviving in a complex world. If the good ideas are there at the time when circumstances become right for them, they will grow and flourish. All the teacher can do for the minds of his young students is to try to plant ieas of lasting potential value and have faith that they will eventually grow.

I am extremely grateful that I had the benefit of a home and school environment that made me reasonably competent as a reader, a fair master of math up through algebra and geometry, with a little bit of Latin and French, before I went to college. Furthermore, these were taught me in a way that did not kill my enjoyment of learning.

I attended Saint John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland and Santa Fe, New Mexico, as an undergraduate. The core of the all-required curriculum was the seminar, a twice weekly evening class, where for two hours or more around 15-20 students and two tutors discussed a sequence of great books, from Homer and Dante to Darwin and Freud. Discussions began with a question from one of the tutors and then went, slowly or sometimes explosively, around and through the text, following the argument where it led, occasionally being set back on course by the tutors. Some tutors were more active in pushing the question; others preferred to sit back and see what we would come up with. The outcome of a Saint John’s seminar was that, as the etymology of “seminar” implies, seeds would have been planted in the minds of the participants.

Outside of class, we students often wondered what it was we were learning. It was very hard to summarize what any seminar was “about,” and impossible to state in a few words what had been concluded from the reading and discussion. Attrition at Saint John’s was quite high, and a frequent reason was the sense that we were “not getting anywhere.” Math tutorial and laboratories, another major component of the curriculum were subject to similar criticism, as we worked our way through texts like Euclid’s Elements, Newton’s Principia and Maxwell’s Experimental Researches on Electricity. I stayed with the Program to the end and went on to a successful graduate career at Cornell in ecology. I have never regretted my Saint John’s education and still view it as the best undergraduate program in the country.

I did learn a lot of things while at Saint John’s: The rudiments of Greek and some important ideas about geometry and arithmetic, the nature of mathematical proof, etc. I could recollect some of the specific content of the many books I read. But what was really valuable was that the experience made me confident in my ability to understand texts, to dissect arguments and to hold my own in discussion. This preparation of the ground enabled me to breeze through most of what I was required to learn in graduate school and to pass my qualifying exams without difficulty. Even there, though, it was the seeds that were sown, especially while reading many key papers in ecology assigned by my professors, that were most valuable. These came to fruition over my years as a college teacher. There were quite a few subjects, animal physiology for example, which I took and passed with A’s, from which I can recall almost nothing, yet I still have the notebooks and final exams to prove I once knew them very well. I passed the graduate reading exam in German (a particularly dreaded “assessment”) without much sweat. Having, however, no necessity or leisure to read anything in German, I forgot most of it in a matter of months. Short term memory stuffing is easy; long term requires a lot more application, at least for me (and many of my students).

Many of the great books from Saint John’s and benchmark papers from my Cornell years are still part of the courses I teach, both in the Environmental Studies Program and in General Studies. I still lead discussion-based classes. Over the years, I have received some, but not much, support for this approach from colleagues and administrators.

I hear from many of my former students who have gone on to successful careers. Often I am surprised by the places they have ended up. Rarely is the memory I have of how well they did a predictor of how brilliantly they have succeeded. Many an ugly duckling has proved to be a swan. Of course, the love of a subject, if it is a real passion, often grows into a brilliant career, but it is not necessarily the case that those students would have come off well in assessments of their learning at the time. Quite a few were low B and even C students in many of their courses.

Colleges and universities and those that fund them have to learn to deal with the fact that short term assessment is not a good predictor of future success. Changes made in teaching methods and curriculum will not show up until long after the students have gone on. It is far more important to look carefully to the quality of the seed being planted. This can only be done if you have a faculty who are willing to think long and hard about what things are important to include in the curriculum and who are not forced to waste their time developing short term assessments, rubrics and other specious projects that only value pretty but ephemeral flowers.

A Natural Philosopher, Willy Nilly.

This post is a brief musing on parts of Brann, Eva. 2014. Un-Willing. An Inquiry into the Rise of Will’s Power and an Attempt to Undo it. Paul Dry Books. Philadelphia. 367pp. This is a fine book, like all of her writings. It is also worth listening to her discuss it on the podcast, Partially Examined Life. This attempt to summarize her rich argument, based on extensive reading and reflection, cannot do it justice, but it serves my own train of thought.

Not a lot of this was registering with me, possibly as a result of my reading it mainly in bed, just before I was going to sleep. Then I read, probably for the second or third time, chapter XI, section D, Self: Subject. Brann sets up a contrast between two pairs of terms, I/soul and self/subject. I/soul is the ancient pair: I, a being looking on a world by virtue of my soul, which apprehends physical things and immaterial things through faculties such as sensation or intellection. We can abstract or intuit the essential nature of the things that we encounter in this world, and whether it is at bottom purely material or ideal or undefinable, it is still one and the same for all souls. Moreover, souls can act in and upon this world and communicate with other souls.

Since Descartes, the pair Self: Subject has emerged, as the inner life of the mind has become the focus, and what was in some way accepted as a mirror-like reflection of the outer world and even the reflection of the soul itself, open to philosophic examination as the inner landscape of our experience, becomes highly problematic. Descartes asks how a thinking substance can connect to an extended substance with which it has nothing in common. Kant analyzes how the subject makes an orderly world out of an influx of sensation. The modern consensus seems to be that in some way, my self creates a world out of whatever inputs it receives, not passively, but selectively. If this is true of the outer world, the other, it also applies to the inner: self-consciousness becomes a major topic of inquiry.

So my question is this: why does this shift in philosophical perspective seem to occur right at the time, and even coming from the same minds, as the great expansion of objective understanding of the world, in which it is confirmed that through mathematics and experimentation, we can establish laws that govern the appearances? Why, at the very time when we have a clearer, more rigorous grasp of the world we are in, when we can look at it in all its unfolding necessity, are we more doubtful than ever whether there is any truth? No wonder we have culture wars. On one side, we seem to have Baconian science saying, of course we can make our own world, but to do so we have to know the exact and rigorous rules that govern the materials we make it out of. On the other hand, we have philosophers and social scientists telling us that the rules themselves are of our own making.

Plainly this is at work in battles over issues like the definition of marriage. It seems my Catholic friends want to have both fixed nature (God made us man and woman for the fixed purpose of procreation) and a conserved culture (you ought not redefine an institution that has served society for a long time) on their side. The supporters of the expansive definition, that marriage is between any two persons who are of age and not already married to another, argue both that nature, when closely examined, has no such clearly demarcated binary gender, that cultural norms ought to reflect what most people’s views are today and that people ought to be allowed to make of their lives what they want. Thus we have conflicting definitions of liberty: 1. freedom from constraints other than what nature and the law impose, the one from God and the other through a fixed constitutional process, and 2. Justice Kennedy’s opening statement that our freedom is to make ourselves what we wish to become, a “constitutional right to define and express their identity,” like the rule of the abbey in Gargantua: do what you will, or rather, be what you will.

As Miss Brann explains very carefully in her book, this modern view is generally accompanied by a great emphasis on the idea of the will, in both its merely burdensome form (the individual’s need for will power to tame our own willfullness – a paradox) and also its truly pernicious form (under the name of the general will, impelling whole nations to atrocious acts). She recommends that we try to live in a way that sets the will in its place, as the process of formulating rational courses of action and putting them into effect, when circumstances demand that we act decisively. This is in part the view of the great Scholastic, Thomas Aquinas and other medieval thinkers. For the most part, however, she feels we can do without the will, substituting for it a kind of openness to experience accompanied by reflection and the pursuit of a quietly well-ordered existence.

In my excursions into natural philosophy (the old name for biology) I am decidedly in line with the ancients and Bacon, in the sense that I am sure I am discovering, and not inventing the natural world. I gaze upon an ever-changing nature that nevertheless follows fixed laws, which don’t change when I change my ideas. I can get it wrong, but there is truth out there to be discovered. On the other hand, I feel very much that my choice of object of study and the exact questions that I try to answer, are of my own making, though certainly influenced by my society. But even here, the direction of my activity is also influenced by the ancient view, as summed up in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, that the life of contemplation is the best. In that sense, I do not see myself as doing what I will, but as doing what is good.

Amphibious reflections

I have been carrying out a study of wood frogs Rana (Lithobates) sylvatica for a couple of years now on the campus where I work. We’re trapping frogs as they move toward the small vernal pond where they breed, to see how far away from the breeding site they overwinter. Wood frogs are explosive breeders, doing all their mating and egg-laying in a few days in late winter, after the pond thaws. The other night, after checking the traps and releasing the captured frog into the water, we stood on the N side of the pond and listened as the occasional calls began, gradually building up to a full chorus. I reflected that these frogs must have been coming to this pond for thousands of years to put their eggs in this collective womb, where their embryos can grow safely. Late winter after late winter, they have rasped out their certainty that another spring will arrive. The next morning sitting and contemplating, another thought occurred to me.

How is a college like a frog pond? Female frogs bring eggs to put in pond; parents bring students to college. Males come to inseminate eggs. Faculty plant the seeds of learning in the students.

Eggs are not simply passive matter, as Aristotle thought: they contain half the genome and are in many ways already non-genetically programmed to develop along certain lines. Rarely, eggs may develop apomicticly, not accepting any of the genes of the male. Students come already full of opinions, beliefs and predispositions that reflect their culture, social environment and upbringing. Some may refuse to absorb anything new.

Some frog eggs may already be badly damaged goods, burdened with issues that may stunt development and prevent successful growth and metamorphosis. New students can be the same.

Male frogs are intensely competitive, trying to inseminate as many eggs with their own seed as possible. Some faculty want to create exact copies of themselves; whole departments and program can become like this. Luckily, unlike frog eggs, students can undergo multiple fertilizations. The faculty, like the frogs, are driven by eros. As Socrates’ friend Diotima says in Plato’s Symposium, love is the desire to beget immortal beauty, wisdom and human excellence in the soul of another, as it was once conceived in the teacher’s own soul. Like male frogs, faculty love to engage in noisy display at times.

The male frog does not fill the egg up with stuff and shape it into what it is going to become. The male brings another part of the heritage of the frog population, new material that complements and completes what is already there. Good teachers sow ideas and let them complement, complete or rarely overwrite what is already in the student, sometimes supporting, sometimes challenging their beliefs and opinions.

The pond is the womb of the frog embryos, before and after they hatch. It must provide all the nutrition beyond what is in the egg itself, if the tadpole is to metamorphose into a froglet. A good pond contains a rich stock of nutrients and an active ecological community. A good college is an environment for learning. Students are not force-fed predetermined packages of nutrition, but instead forage for themselves in a place that holds a great store of thought from the past, especially recorded works of words and symbols. Unlike tadpoles, the students must learn to read these recorded thoughts and feelings for themselves.

A pond may be polluted, undergo eutrophication from excess nutrients, be invaded by predators or parasites, drained or have its water supply diverted, be filled in with sediment or disrupted by careless small boys or scientists. Like the pond, the college may allow the problems of the outside world to overwhelm it, become over-enriched with amusements, fall prey to ambitious or self-aggrandizing leaders, have its critical resources drained away or diverted, be destroyed to build something else or muddied up in the name of assessment or accountability by people who don’t realize the delicacy and vulnerability of what takes place.  As when ruling a great nation or cooking a small fish, a college must be handled very carefully, and those to whom a college is entrusted have tremendous responsibility.

If all goes well, in a few weeks or months the tadpoles reabsorb their childish tails, put forth their limbs and venture out onto the land to face the challenges of adult life well prepared. Likewise students, if they are well nourished, will leave behind the juvenile stage and enter into the vigor of young adulthood. Unlike frogs, it may be possible for them to return periodically throughout life to the pond to refresh and renew themselves.