Thursday, May 19, 2005

It has been said that man is a rational animal.

“I wish to propose for the reader’s favourable consideration a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true.” Bertrand Russell
(From “Introduction: On the Value of Scepticism”, Sceptical Essays [London: Allen & Unwin, 1928])

Yesterday was Bertrand Russell's birthday. In my opinion Russell was one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century. His writings encompassed nearly every facet of philosophy and he approached philosophy with little regard for the ridicule he recieved in response to many of his views. In fact, he was imprisoned for his anti-war stance during WWI. As well as being a great philosopher Russell was a master mathematician, a Nobel Laureate in Literature (he never wrote fiction but the story is they wanted to recognize him for his contributions in academia as well as his extensive humanitarian efforts), and a great humanitarian. I attribute my own passion for philosophy, in great part, to reading Russell early on in my academic career.

Russell had a very clear, elegant, and understandable writing style and I encourage anyone interested to read his work (given the broad range of topics covered by his writings I can almost guarantee you will find something that suits your own personal interests). Agree with him or not, Russell's ideas are always well stated and always thought provoking.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Finally, someone who understands

Ok, so the title is a little misleading. Plenty of people understand why I have chosen to structure my education the way I have (BA in Philosophy/Psychology, MA in Psychology, PhD in Philosophy, at least that is the plan as it stands right now), but I had never actually met anyone who had not only followed a similar path but for surprisingly similar reasons. I guess I should explain a little. At some point during my initial degree in philosophy I became extremely interested in Philosophy of Mind which led ultimately to a great interest in Cognitive Psychology.

My idea was this, in order to take a legitimate stab at the problems of Philosophy of Mind (consciousness, mind/body interaction, etc.) it would be necessary to have at least a basic knowledge and understanding of the current research in psychology, neurophysiology, etc. But the more I delved into psychology I came to the conclusion that many of the problems associated with determining the nature of the mind were not so much rooted in psychology itself but were more fundamental to the actual structure of the research being done. They were problems that fell squarely in the realm of the Philosophy of Science. It was (and is) my belief that in order to overcome many of the hurdles associated with Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Psychology it will be necessary to evaluate such things as the ways in which we describe the elements of the mind. In other words, the vocabulary and structure of our hypotheses must be conducive to answering the questions at hand. Of course, at this point I have no idea what this entails, specifically, but I certainly have some ideas and hunches as to what some of the solutions may be.

So back to my story. A few days ago I was at my favorite local coffee shop, Milagro Coffee y Espresso, discussing Christian Theology with another person sitting at a table near me. At one point I was trying to recall the name of the professor under whom I had studied Philosophy of Religion (it was Dr. Burnett, but for some reason it was escaping me at that moment). In the middle of this an elderly man walked up to us, having overheard our discussion, and asked if we studied Philosophy at NMSU. I told him that, in fact, I have a BA in Philosophy from NMSU.

He then proceeded to name various philosophy professors in an attempt to help me remember my professor's name (he obviously had some direct association with the department). He then asked me if it might have been Professor Alan Keaton. I told him I was not familiar with Dr. Keaton and that he must have been before my time. He then extended his hand and introduced himself, Dr. Alan Keaton, retired NMSU Philosophy Professor. I asked what he had researched and written about and he said mainly Philosophy of Science but that he had also been interested in Philosophy of Mind and Cognition. He then asked what my interests were and so I launched into the speel above. He thought it was interesting, especially since he himself had obtained an MA in Psychology before proceeding with his PhD. We had a wonderful discussion about philosophy, psychology, politics, and science. He also gave me a reading list that he thought would help me with my project. He then gave me his phone number and offered to discuss any problems or ideas I might have about the readings, to be a mentor of sorts.

Of the books he suggested most of them were simply to help me in philosophy and science in general, but one of the books he suggested that I read immediately. It was "Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain", by Antonio Damasio. In it Damasio argues that while people typically think of emotions as clouding our ability to reason, reasoning, especially in social situations, does not occur independently of emotions or feelings but that, in fact, these are all intimately related. His theory has many interesting implications about psychology and even ethics as far as I can tell. (I will discuss all of this in a later post when I am more than a mere four chapters into the book).

At various times I have questioned whether I was actually pursuing a viable path in terms of my educational and research interests. I guess it was just a confidence builder to know that someone with Dr. Keaton's background, experience, and knowledge took enough interest in my proposed research interests to offer to guide me and help me see my project through.