Religion on the road to pragmatism 
I am teaching American philosophy again, for the first time in almost a decade. I assigned some articles which I didn't assign last time, making me notice what I take to be a shift in Willam James' thought which I hadn't noticed before.*

In 'The Will to Believe' (1896), James characterizes the religious hypothesis as the claim that the best things are the more eternal things and that we are better off believing them so.

Two years later, James gives a lecture at Berkeley which considers similar questions.** I assigned it this time through, because it's the first place where the term 'pragmatism' is introduced.

In the Berkeley lecture, James considers religion of the focus-on-the-eternal sense but poses the worry that abstract religion is too concerned with the infinite and the abstract. His reply is to concede this and claim, instead, that genuine religion is realized in particular lived experience. He writes:
Did such a conglomeration of abstract general terms give really the gist of our knowledge of the Deity, divinity-schools might indeed continue to flourish, but religion, vital religion, would have taken its flight from this world. What keeps religion going is something else than abstract definitions and systems of logically concatenated adjectives, and something different from faculties of theology and their professors. All these things are after-effects, secondary accretions upon a mass of concrete religious experiences, connecting themselves with feeling and conduct that renew themselves in saecula saeculorum in the lives of humble private men. If you ask what these experiences are, they are conversations with the unseen, voices and visions, responses to prayer, changes of heart, deliverances from fear, inflowings of help, assurances of support, whenever certain persons set their own internal attitude in certain appropriate ways.

This shift in focus points toward the enquiry which is presented a few years later as The Varieties of Religious Experience (1901-2). But the two conceptions of religion are offered alongside one another in the Berkeley lecture.

In 1906, James delivers the Pragmatism lectures. I've never paid much attention to the first lecture, because it is merely an advertisement for pragmatism rather than an explanation of it. He poses the distinction between tough-minded and tender-minded temperaments, and he claims that we pick philosophical conceptions which fit our temperaments.

Yet there is also an extended discussion of the failings of religion. Considering the tragedy of a man who commits suicide because he cannot support his family, James writes:
[W]hile... thinkers are unveiling Reality and the Absolute and explaining away evil and pain, this is the condition of the only beings known to us anywhere in the universe... What these people experience is Reality.

Here James seems to flatfootedly reject the value of religion which gestures to the infinite, insisting on the religion instead which is realized in particularities.

So it seems to me that there may be a shift in the ten year period from `The Will to Believe' to Pragmatism. It coincides with James' popularization and working-through of pragmatism as a method.


* This is probably well-marked in the secondary literature somewhere, but I don't have enough of a grasp on the literature about James to say where.
** Published as 'Philosophical Conceptions And Practical Results'.

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Pop, pop science 
The science news that my friends link to on Facebook is a mixed bag. Some of it's interesting, but lots of it is either junk or uncritical hype around new results.

There's some great science stuff on YouTube, however.

One great series is the Periodic Table of Videos, filmed by Brady Haran and hosted by Martyn Poliakoff. In addition to interesting tidbits of chemsitry, they put together a playlist which provides a guide to all the elements. Although I've been a fan for a while, this post was prompted by a recent video in which Sir Poliakoff expressed what philosophers would call realism about the periodic table. "What we're interested in is what nature is like," he says, "not how easy it is to draw."

While I'm at it, I'll also recommend Smarter Every Day. The host, Destin Sandlin, is an engineer who does some simple experiments but also finds experts on cool things to interview. His ecclectic interests include archery, animals, space, and what stuff looks like in slow motion. From his most recent video, I learned about devil facial tumor disease and the plight of the Tasmanian devil. Some YouTube slow-motion videos are just staged to be as spectacular, but Destin sets them up to illustrate the process he's filming; his video about tatooing, for example.

A few students from my summer course commented that they'd have preferred to have videos rather than so much reading. Although I don't think that I could use these videos to accomplish anything I use texts for, I do wonder if I could use them to warm students to a topic or get them to reflect on the popularization of science.

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paratodo x 
A while ago, I was contacted by José Gascón about translating forall x. The open license already gave him permission, but he reached out anyway.

A few days ago, he sent me paratodo x. Because of the spacing of the title, I read this as "paradox" at first. Then I had an uncanny moment of not knowing what that "t" was doing in the middle of the word. Finally, I sorted out what I was looking at.

I think this is a cool resource, so I posted a copy at the UAlbany institutional archive. The LaTeX source files are included, so the Spanish edition can take on a life of its own.

Link: paratodo x: Una Introducción a la Lógica Formal

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On-line course post mortem 
I just finished teaching my Understanding Science course as a four-week on-line course. My goal was to figure out what's involved in on-line teaching.

The level of student engagement in the course resulted from an alchemy of summertime, the on-line context, and the compression of a semester of material into four weeks. Since this was my first time both for teaching on-line and for teaching during the summer, I can't entirely separate these. There were students who had trouble logging on because they were traveling, however, and of course they simply couldn't have been traveling if the course had met face-to-face every day. Still and all, we covered almost as much material as I cover in a regular semester, and it all went pretty well.

I had an end of course survey which asked my usual questions: Which modules were indispensable, such that I should definitely include them next time? Which modules should I jettison in favor of something else?

For each prompt, I let them check as few or as many items as they pleased.

The results were somewhat surprising.

The module with the most up votes was Who counts as a scientist? (+15 to -1) I have them read about AIDS science in the 1980s, when activists disrupted drug trials, and I ask them to consider who were the experts in that situation. It's a topic I added to the face-to-face course a few years ago almost as an afterthought. A surprise hit.

The modules on gender and science also got a large number of up votes. We talked about underrepresentation of women in science (+13 to -0), the problem of invisibility (+12 to -0), and ways in which thinking about gender can change the content of science itself (+11 to -0). I was worried that some students might act as chauvinist trolls in the discussion forums, but that didn't happen. The discussions were some of the best in the whole course.

Two topics had as many down votes as up votes (+5 to -5). In both cases, I think it was because people didn't like the reading. For the module on scientific observation, they read Trevor Pinch's analysis of experiments to detect solar neutrinos. The science is somewhat abstruse. For the module on causal inference, they read Stephen Jay Gould on the history of IQ testing. It's history, so the text is just longer than most of the other readings.

Both of those topics are important, and students seemed to understand them after doing the work. So the down votes for each don't make me think I should cut them from the course.

Although the net vote was in favor, there were actually more down votes for the chapter of Mill's On Liberty (+8 to -6). As a surprising contrast, they were of one mind about Peirce's "The Fixation of Belief" (+10 to -0).

In general, students did a good job of engaging and discussing the material by scientists, historians, and sociologists. They had more trouble with the articles written by philosophers. I think that this is because reading philosophy is a distinct skill.

Scientists, historians, and sociologists tend either to present facts or argue for some conclusion. Those two voices are pretty easy to distinguish, and both involve advocacy for a claim that the author thinks the reader ought to believe.

Contrawise, philosophers don't just state a thesis and explain it. Instead, they state a thesis, make an argument for it, consider objections to their argument, provide rebuttals to the objections, and so on. The objections are things they write but don't ultimately mean to endorse. The rebuttals are things they write but only care about with respect to the objections. Sorting all that out is hard work.

What I do in a face-to-face class is try to help students sort it out, to help them navigate the text. I'm not sure what to offer as a substitute for that on-line.

I turned in grades today, so I can set it down for a while. But there were enough points at which I thought "Oh, I know what I should do next time" that I'm sure I'll teach this on-line again.

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Kind of published 
My paper Kind of Borrowed, Kind of Blue has been accepted at the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. It's a philosophical reflection on the 2014 note-for-note remake of "Kind of Blue" by the combo Mostly Other People Do the Killing.

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