Here is video of the final 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) of today's Liege-Bastogne-Liege classic. The winner, Alejandro Valverde of Spain, covered the 157.2 miles in 6:14:20, which is an average speed of 25.19 miles per hour. Just watching the cyclists going around the wet corners at high speed made me nervous.
Despite what you may have heard or read, and despite what some misguided philosophers (such as W. V. O. Quine) say, philosophy and science are fundamentally different activities. They differ in kind, not merely in degree. (In other words, they are not "continuous.") Their concepts, methods, aims, and subject matter differ. Science is a first-order discipline which takes as its subject matter either the natural world (the natural sciences, such as geology, chemistry, biology, and physics) or human behavior and institutions (the human or social sciences, such as economics, political science, linguistics, and sociology). Philosophy is a second-order discipline which takes as its subject matter first-order disciplines such as science (or first-order professions such as law and medicine).
Just look at the radically different training philosophers and scientists receive. Philosophers are trained in conceptual analysis, argumentation, criticism, interpretation, and synthesis. If scientists are trained in these activities at all, it is in passing. Nothing I have just said implies that philosophers and scientists can't work together. Indeed, they can and should. Depending on how you want to look at it, either philosophers are above scientists, looking down on and supervising their work, or below scientists, clearing the conceptual ground for them (to use John Locke's delightful image of the "underlabourer"). Here is philosopher Tim Maudlin's essay on the topic. Key paragraphs:
Philosophers strive for conceptual clarity. Their training instills certain habits of thought—sensitivity to ambiguity, precision of expression, attention to theoretical detail—that are essential for understanding what a mathematical formalism might suggest about the actual world. Philosophers also learn to spot the gaps and elisions in everyday arguments. These gaps provide entry points for conceptual wedges: nooks where overlooked alternatives can take root and grow. The “shut up and calculate” ethos does not promote this critical attitude toward arguments; philosophy does.
What philosophy offers to science, then, is not mystical ideas but meticulous method. Philosophical skepticism focuses attention on the conceptual weak points in theories and in arguments. It encourages exploration of alternative explanations and new theoretical approaches. Philosophers obsess over subtle ambiguities of language and over what follows from what. When the foundations of a discipline are secure this may be counter-productive: just get on with the job to be done! But where secure foundations (or new foundations) are needed, critical scrutiny can suggest the way forward. The search for ways to marry quantum theory with general relativity would surely benefit from precisely articulated accounts of the foundational concepts of these theories, even if only to suggest what must be altered or abandoned.
Exactly right and beautifully put.
Addendum: The image in this post (click to enlarge) is a drawing by my former student, Jonathan Hubbell. Jonathan was one of the best students I've had in my 26 years at the University of Texas at Arlington, and could easily have gone on to a career in philosophy, but, with my support and encouragement, decided to indulge his passion for art. I am very proud of him. Here is his website.
Readers discuss a column by Nicholas Kristof touting the benefits of a liberal arts education.
To the Editor:
Re “Starving for Wisdom” (column, April 16): Nicholas Kristof disputes the claim that a liberal arts education has no value. He justifies study of the humanities on the ground that it promotes communication skills highly rewarded in the labor market and produces enlightened public policy decisions. Further, reading literature fosters emotional intelligence, thereby fostering those social interactions that promote happiness.
Children should not be encouraged to listen to Bach because it will improve their test scores, or urged to study history to avoid the errors of the past—a futile effort in any case. The intrinsic value of art, music, literature and anthropology needs no warrant from other spheres of life. The purpose of studying history, for example, is not to make us clever for next time, but wise forever.
RICHARD NEUGEBAUER New York
The writer is an associate professor of clinical epidemiology at Columbia University.
To the Editor:
I agree 100 percent with Nicholas Kristof’s comments about the value of a liberal arts education. Critical thinking, oral and written communication, interpersonal skills and an appreciation of different cultures are all important in today’s job market. However, at the liberal arts college where I taught computer science for almost 30 years, that was not an issue. Our science majors eagerly signed up for classes in the social sciences, humanities and fine arts. Of far greater concern were anthropology, theater, classics and women’s studies students who completely avoided science and math courses, taking only the barest minimum, such as “Physics for Poets.”
Without a solid grounding in quantitative thinking, these students will be as unprepared for life and work in the 21st century as the engineer with no understanding of history, philosophy or literature. We should be as ashamed by the presence of innumeracy in our society as we are by illiteracy.
G. MICHAEL SCHNEIDER Minneapolis
The writer is professor emeritus of mathematics and computer science at Macalester College.
To the Editor:
A piece of advice for aspiring scientists and engineers: Develop a solid grounding in the humanities. Don’t avoid classes that require writing or involve speaking. You will write papers to publish in academic journals. You will write proposals when applying for grants and funding. You will give seminars and conference presentations. You will teach students in lectures and train researchers in labs.
Thinking critically and logically through an argument, supporting it with evidence and documented references, and clearly communicating it are as critical to being a scientist as gathering and analyzing data are.
ANDREW L. CHANG Palo Alto, Calif.
The writer is a chemist and synthetic biologist.
To the Editor:
I applaud Nicholas Kristof for identifying economics as a core discipline for understanding many of the problems societies face today and the need for economists to have more than technical training. The more serious problem, however, is with humanities majors.
My experience in teaching economics is that in the last few decades humanities students never take an economics course; this includes history, political science and sociology majors who study topics that have a very direct economic context.
Devoid of an understanding of economic analysis, too many of these students rely on moral judgments and inflated notions of victimization to inform their policy viewpoints. Racial, environmental and labor market policies are not addressed in balanced, nuanced ways but in absolutist moral terms.
If we want liberal arts majors to be citizens capable of making informed public policy decisions, then they must take economics courses; if not, too many will be literate but ill-informed citizens.
ROBERT CHERRY Brooklyn
The writer is a professor of economics at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.
To the Editor:
Nicholas Kristof writes that “liberal arts equip students with communications and interpersonal skills,” implying that technical courses do not.
Science and engineering students do their homework and lab assignments in groups, and often join collaborative teams in research labs. In college, I learned much more about communication by doing experiments, designing software and solving physics problems—all in groups—than I did by talking past my classmates in philosophy and history discussion sections, or by sitting alone writing essays.
STEPHEN SERENE New York
To the Editor:
Nicholas Kristof begins by quoting E. O. Wilson’s observation that “we are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom.” T. S. Eliot offered a similar formulation of the relationship between wisdom and information in his poem “Choruses From ‘The Rock’”:
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
Mr. Kristof’s point that knowledge of great literature cultivates the wisdom necessary to sustain our essential humanity finds its perfect embodiment in Eliot’s lines.
Given that this is National Poetry Month, it seems appropriate to quote two more poets. As Ezra Pound put it, “Literature is news that stays news,” and as Octavio Paz cautioned us, “If human beings forget poetry, they will forget themselves.”
WILLIAM WADSWORTH Brooklyn
The writer is director of academic administration of the creative writing program, Columbia University School of the Arts.
Frampton (1975). I've always loved this song. I heard it today during my bike ride and thought it would be easy to learn on my acoustic guitar, but I can't figure out the chords. Nothing I've found so far on the Internet helps. I'll keep trying. I'm nothing if not stubborn.
Readers of this blog know that I'm hard (some would say unreasonably or even pathologically hard) on Felix Hernandez. I'm hard on him for three reasons. First, he has never won 20 games. That is still the standard of excellence for pitchers, especially with a 162-game season. Second, he has never been in the playoffs. Great players lead their teams to victory, not just by their on-the-field performances, but by their willpower, leadership, and inspiration. Third, he rarely finishes games he starts. To show that I am a man of honor, integrity, and principle, let me be the first to congratulate Felix for his performance yesterday. He pitched a complete game shutout against the Minnesota Twins, walking nobody and giving up only five hits. This is the sort of thing great pitchers (such as Jack Morris) used to do. If Felix hopes to become a great pitcher, he needs to do this (the complete-game part) regularly, not just once or twice a season. Bravo!
Re “Europe’s Duty on Migrants” (editorial, April 21): While it may be convenient to place responsibility for migrants created by the Arab Spring and North African political instability on the European Union, it shirks a responsibility that should also be borne by more distant countries. A migrant airlift could decompress the disaster facing a few Mediterranean countries overwhelmed by refugees seeking their shores.
America and other countries do not deserve a pass as your editorial spells out “Europe’s Duty” to the rushing tide of refugees.
Del Mar, Calif.
Note from KBJ: How many of these "migrants" will you be taking into your home and neighborhood, Mr Shapiro? If the answer is none, then shut your mouth.
Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana has it exactly right when he notes that “we would not compel a priest, minister or rabbi to violate his conscience and perform a same-sex wedding ceremony.” Marriage, as he defines it here, is a rite that creates a union, from within the faith-based world of these religious leaders.
But the governor has it exactly wrong when he implies that protecting the “deeply held religious convictions” of artisans and business owners is the same. None of these “musicians, caterers, photographers and others” perform marriage. Providing a commercial service connected with the wedding does not bring about the marriage, but merely enhances the quality of its celebration.
We should do all we can to protect liberty of conscience. We should also make clear that offering a service in a commercial market, rather than facilitating a religious rite, does nothing to limit, impinge or corrupt that liberty.
NEIL J. LISS Salem, Ore.
Note from KBJ: There's more at stake than freedom of religion. There's also freedom of expression. If I am required by law to affirm something I disbelieve, my First Amendment right is violated. Freedom of expression includes freedom not to be made to express. Let's apply this idea to the case of homosexual "marriage." If I bake and decorate wedding cakes for a living, then I may not be forced to express, either in, on, or though the cake, views I reject (for whatever reason, including reasons of religious conviction). The same is true of photographers, painters, and caterers, all of whom express themselves through their work.
The eminent philosopher Colin McGinn has some fun at Brian Leiter's expense. Those of us who have been abused by Leiter (who, in case you don't know, uses his widely read blog to attack people he dislikes) make the mistake of taking him seriously. He is the opposite of a serious person. He is a buffoon. He needs to be mocked, ridiculed, made fun of, and generally treated like the laughingstock that he is. Every day, in everything he writes, he beclowns himself.