“We are What We Do”: The American Dream and Education

Who are we? At the beginning of many of my classes and activities (from kindergarten to college), my teachers sometimes coerce us to introducing ourselves to others. It usually involves telling others your name and a something you do. You can share that you play a sport, an instrument, or a video game; you can tell others about a hobby or a skill; or you can introduce yourself with your job. We see each other as trumpeters, origami enthusiasts, or accountants. We define ourselves by what we do. Why?

Identity is, of course, not limited to the things that we do. We know who we are by what we look like, personal qualities and traits, memories, and stories. If someone shows you a picture of yourself, you can easily identify it as yourself. If someone asks you about what you did last summer, you can easily recall memories in order to identify the ones that you had done. But could you use impulses of motor control to identify the way you sign your name or throw a dart? We’ve always assumed that the things we do are implicitly contained within our knowledge, and, therefore, constitute who we are. The common link between perception and action has recently been explored very well through cognitive studies. Doing things might just be another part of identity this same way. Though the cognitive studies may serve a foundation for how this phenomena arises, we can explore norms and trends in history to fully understand how we are shaped by what we do.

The criteria and standards for collegiate admission might have influenced us into the norm of action as identity. As the mother prepares her three-year-old daughter for swimming lessons while picking up her middle-school son from science camp, people who dream of success know they need to do things. Academia’s use of extracurriculars as criteria have caused us to identify with those activities more. And our tremendous amount of effort we put into these sports, instruments, or any other activity makes us hold onto those extracurriculars. Regardless of our purpose, the self-identification with the activity may serve as some sort of reward (i.e., I want to call myself a “scientist” in some sense as a result of my scientific research). As a result, we wear our extracurriculars like badges. We introduce ourselves as “Hi I’m so-and-so and I play the violin!” We can achieve this “identification” when we do the things that we do. And we are pressured into activity with the fear that we don’t want to show up to work on Monday to share that you spent your weekend pondering life introspectively instead of doing something.

Land of Opportunity To Do What you Want

Taking pride in what we do might appeal to standards of free will and determinism created by American self-determination. Placing the identity in terms of what we do lends our identity to our own free will while yielding to the determinism of the activity itself. What I mean is that we choose what we do but the activity that we choose still has some predetermined value and meaning. When I tell people I’m a physics major, it appeals to the hard work I’ve put into my undergraduate career while simultaneously appealing to what we collectively, commonly associate with someone who studies physics (i.e., I’m an introverted lunatic who loves mathematics/science etc). Making action part of the identity gives us this power over who we are while conceding some of that influence to what is already established by the activity itself.

Who can deny that, as part of the American Dream, we want everyone to earn the rewards of what they do. We are promised that, as long as we work hard, there’s a chance. We all understand that it’s not possible for everyone to be rich, but it doesn’t stop us from the meritocratic understanding that we are here for the possibility. And, even as big cars and fancy houses are not always achievable, we still hold onto the credo that the hard work and determination will lead to success. These ideals lay the foundation for the beliefs that what makes us who we are is what we do.

College students are certainly no exception to the American Dream’s effects of identity with action. We spend our entire lives building ourselves up with experience as though we instantly become better people because we can simultaneously play a sport, learn a language, volunteer at a local shelter, and do well on tests. As such, we celebrate our value and identity as students as though they were determined by the things we do. We might see the things we do as value in and of themselves rather than as means to obtain the greater value within them. While it is true that one may benefit from taking part in those opportunities, it’s questionable whether or not they should be end goals in and of themselves and whether or not the value is intrinsic or extrinsic. Is this the American dream? Or have we lost sight of the purpose of the college education?

Why did I make this blog? Though my friends love creating profiles for themselves on LinkedIn, Twitter, or any similar social networking site, I preferred to abstain from succumbing my identity to the standards and stringent formats of established profiles. I wanted something that offered more freedom for me to create my own ideas, thoughts, and identity. By creating my own identity from my actions (as opposed to the discussed “action is part of identity”), I like to think it gives me more power in communicating to others. And maybe I can call myself a writer, too. 

Factually Accurate about Factoids

Did you know that Stephen Hawking thinks IQ-swagger is for “losers”? Or that your friends have more friends than you do?

What’s the difference between a rhetorical question and an attention-grabber? We often use a phrase like “Did you know” or something similar (such as “Today I learned”). These cliches, while purely rhetorical and lacking any actual inquiry of whether or not you knew a certain fact, implicitly challenging you to be able to assess your own knowledge and understanding of what you already know. And, by presupposing a factoid with the rhetorical “Did you know?”, we are insinuating that there is something unique and counterintuitive about the factoid. A “fun fact” is, of course, fun, but, like all other forms of discourse, it might have unfortunate implications about the way we perceive the world. For example, the fact that Elvis Presley failed music class reminds us of our lightheartedly unexpected ideals that academic performance doesn’t always translate to success and that “life sucks, but we all move on.” But the unexpectedness of the “fun fact” that there are people in Iran who mourn the victims of 9/11 might say something else. While it definitely is helpful for us to realize that the Iranian people (like most other people) are normal human beings, finding something “unexpected” or “surprising” about this factoid might show an underlying preconceived notion.

By posing a challenge to our current knowledge and understanding of the world (while accompanied by a fact that is pleasing), we are so entertained by trivial curiosity. This explains why so many “clickbait” places on the web imply that there are things we “should know” or that “will surprise us!” In fact, in the 1970’s, the word “factoid” was originally coined as “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper.” For this reason, we can look at the information carried by factoids as evidence of underlying assumptions (such as my example with Iranian mourners) among common folk and everyday thinkers, as opposed to rational reason-based heavyweight information of academia and knowledge. Perhaps our obsession with factoids and trivia over past few decades give us comfort that things can still be “simple” in the confusing world of ever-increasing knowledge and uncertainty. And, since this psuedoknowledge is grounded in unexplored depths of mainstream mass media, we end up with misconceptions and misleading ideas such as “in the Peruvian language there are 1,000 words for potato.” In addition, this shows that, in our everyday language, we have a way of speaking that helps us understand how much we truly understand what we know. Who would have thought that such epistemic virtue could be derived from something as simple as a Snapple fact?” I bet you didn’t know that!

Re-imagining the Self and Freedom from Distraction

Last Thursday, I visited the Ryerson and Burnham Library of the Art Institute of Chicago where I meandered the solitude granted by the bookshelves of cultural theory. Away from the hustle and bustle of crowded exhibits, I sat against a wall with a book on American History sitting in my lap. I savored the academic freedom of choosing what to study from a myriad of books and the personal freedom granted being far from the nature of the city and research lab. But, in the most fundamental sense, what is freedom? I personally greatly enjoy the freedom given to me by virtue of working in a dry lab. Since I perform my entire scientific research on a computer, I am not burdened by the physical limitations of experimental science, and there exist swaths of knowledge only a few keystrokes away. Does having more options and opportunities give us more freedom? Is freedom something that we should strive to achieve at all costs?

I would love to read some of Matthew Crawford’s new book, The World Beyond Your Head, if I didn’t have six other tabs open at the current moment (RescueTime only works to save my sanity so much). Crawford, a fierce critic of distraction culture, draws from philosophical rhetoric of Locke and Descartes to describe the way we, human beings, approach the idea of freedom. I am comforted by Crawford’s argument that technology only has a small responsibility of the reason why we are so enthralled by distraction. As I struggle to find a solace in the bombardment and conformity of information and ideas that prevail through today’s culture, Crawford’s wisdom helps me understand what we, human beings, truly find important from a humanistic point-of-view. Though his arguments are too complicated to be completely explained in the medium of a blog post, one might be interested in learning how the anxiety and worry that our individual autonomy needs to be saved from the clutches of authoritarian tyranny fails to appreciate the individual. Inspired by the advertisements that clutter our urban setting, Crawford chooses to explain social phenomena with heavy, fundamental philosophy.

When he’s not spending his spare time building motorcycles, Crawford explores from gamblers to chefs as he deconstructs the human self from our modern tendencies. Even though it the tendencies and currents of contemporary culture are often too complex and strife with external influences to be analyzed philosophically, Crawford’s reasoning backs up the description of our current society very appropriately. With a BS in physics and a PhD in philosophy, Crawford is one of the few researchers so strong-willed to put a question mark at the end of the most basic assumptions about freedom and opportunity that have been firmly ingrained into the Western mind. We can blame the Enlightenment for our notion that “more opportunities” implies “more freedom.” But should we throw away any idea of Kantian thought in our current work environment? Not so. According to Crawford, even the most elemental workers (such as welders and construction workers) can find a true sense of individuality under the authorities of society. Similarly, my desire to be free, that could possibly be granted by the isolation of a library in an Art Institute, might only be caused by my perceived regulations and limitations by higher-ups.

The modern discourse of the intersection of philosophy and science is strife with controversy and strong opinions, but one famous physicist had some interesting thoughts on individual freedom or, rather, free will. In Einstein’s interpretation of Schopenhauer, he writes:

My Credo[Part I]I do not believe in free will. Schopenhauer’s words: ‘Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wills,’ accompany me in all situations throughout my life and reconcile me with the actions of others, even if they are rather painful to me. This awareness of the lack of free will keeps me from taking myself and my fellow men too seriously as acting and deciding individuals, and from losing my temper.”

(Schopenhauer’s clearer, actual words were: “You can do what you will, but in any given moment of your life you can will only one definite thing and absolutely nothing other than that one thing.” [Du kannst tun was du willst: aber du kannst in jedem gegebenen Augenblick deines Lebens nur ein Bestimmtes wollen und schlechterdings nichts anderes als dieses eine.])

And, in light of this, Einstein formulated his famous discoveries on, well, light. Despite the enticing appeal of a physicist speaking about philosophical ideas that would create the setting for his greatest discovery, we must not be quick to jump to conclusions that questions about free will and human nature can ever be explained by science. However, those people who truly examine the way we approach science and philosophy have an important word on the rest of society. In tune with the philosophical undercurrents of society, Einstein’s reflections on the political events of the mid-20th century would later guide the movements for peace and humanism that, too, result from a relentless desire to be free. Under Einstein’s strong influences on social justice and disdain for the extravagance, we entered an age of insecurity and uncertainty about the future. And, as I lean back in my chair and sip coffee while running genetic analysis software in the comfort of my dry lab, maybe I should be grateful for not being able to do a thing.

The Purpose of Art and the Beauty of Science

I’ve already touched a little bit about how our study of aesthetics may parallel the value we derive from other experiences, including experiences like a college student’s education. From the films on the big screen to Egyptian hieroglyphics (or even the most extreme modern versions of nihilism), art has has caused an insane amount of controversy among philosophers surrounding its purpose and nature. In this article, I’d like to explore the relationship between art and science, and, specifically, how the I’m not sure how much of a parallel there is between theories of art and theories of how we approach science, but I do believe that an exploration of cultural and aesthetic value can help scientists understand what meaning they truly draw from science and, overall, help everyone take steps to determine the value of a college education.

M. C. Escher: dismissed by the art world and venerated by mathematicians

When I visited the Art Institute of Chicago for the first time this past weekend, I was blown away to say the least. Though I found hundreds of amazing works of art stretching from the Medieval to the modern, I preferred to stay in two or three different rooms for hours at a time, absorbing a lower number of paintings in preference to meditating upon the value that the artwork has to offer. I didn’t know what to expect, and, as I am by no means an expert on art or art history, I tenaciously struggled to search for a deeper meaning behind the works. The quiet, everlasting atmosphere that captured moments from any time or place in history certainly said something to me. This was most likely dazzle and glitter that any neophyte without serious training in art or culture would feel. Aesthetics, used in this sense, is not simply a matter of looking at things that are “pretty” or “pleasing to the eye”, but, I believe, a word that is used to describe the ways we perceive things that are beautiful. Some might use “aesthetics” to talk about a sense of pleasure that is derived from artwork or, in general, anything.

What is the purpose of art? Plato believed that it was immoral. Tolstoy believed it communicated feelings between people. Kant believed that art creates intellectual activity. Clive Bell would write that art has the power to carry us away from the woes and trials of mankind to a new land of aesthetic praise in which we find ourselves freed from worry and other human weakness.

The pure mathematician rapt in his studies knows a state of mind which I take to be similar, if not identical. He feels an emotion for his speculations which arises from no perceived relation between them and the lives of men, but springs, inhuman or super-human, from the heart of an abstract science.”

I can faintly remember the first days of my 9th year physics class when I was immediately to mathematics and physics in the way that they could be so practically and fundamentally used to describe the world. Though there is a great amount of beauty in these fields, I don’t believe that this initial appeal had much to do with aesthetics, but, more-so, utilitarian purposes. Even in my Thermodynamics & Statistical Mechanics class this past semester, the other students and I would mostly drive towards finding the most practical solutions for common engineering problems (ie., Carnot Cycles, Debye theory, etc). However, my friends and I would still find the process of reducing complex phenomena of equilibrium, differentiable phase-space diagrams, and work down to a small number of equations and variables.

In addition, the self-checking tendencies of math and physics (for example, setting a derivative equal to zero to identify maxima), allow us to find different value in different methods of studying those areas. Whether or not our state of mind (that Bell describes) is an emotion similar to the one of a museum-goer overcome by van Gogh’s “The Bedroom” might be a question that can be explored through research in neuroscience, but, ultimately, the similarities of aesthetic between science and art shakes the fundamental ideas of what science is. I do not want to be too quick to conclude that the two feelings are the same since human beings feel “pleasure” in many situations (being physically close to a loved one, being economically stable, doing drugs) that may be distant from the values of art and science. And this “pleasure” can often be confused with the feelings we experience when we find something beautiful.

Can art, or this aesthetic value, be beneficial to scientists? We often talk about equations, proofs, experimental designs, or even the materialistic phenomena themselves as having some sort of aesthetic appeal to them. Mathematicians love to use the term “elegant,” and physicists love to explore the underlying beauty and appeal of their science. These ways of looking at science still carry aesthetic value that has not been ultimately reduced to In biology, however, beauty is hardly ever the focus of science. (And, of course, chemists fall somewhere in between). This generalization obviously does not account for many exceptions and individual beautiful findings in biology, however. Some might say that our model of DNA is beautiful because it aligns with the ethos “form follows function.” But how can we know if this biological beauty comes from the way we, human beings, have chosen to model and look at those phenomena or whether Darwinian natural selection has a certain taste in modernism? Perhaps the absurdity of the ideas that nature has a personal taste in the design of DNA or that complicated molecular pathways and networks have some sort of “end-goal” in mind has prevented the study of biology from truly approaching nature in a manner guided by aesthetics.

Einstein, in addition to being a good-looking dude, enjoyed to meditate on the nature of the aesthetic appeal in his work. Though the claim that Einstein’s breakthrough theories of the early 20th century were driven by modernist or similar cultural trends of artwork in Europe is untrue, there is truth in the story of how Einstein’s interpretation Schopenhauer influenced his way of thinking and looking at the world in the years leading up to his monumental formulations. And it would surely be difficult for any scientist to swallow the idea that his/her work and discoveries have only come about through the cultural and artistic ideologies that govern their time period. If we are to allow a sense of artistic value or beauty in the well-reasoned and defended world of science, do we lose objectivity? It seems detrimental to the notion of reason and intelligence that our empirical and true exploration of the universe can have a human element to it. Bell might respond that, before we experience a good work of art, we, whether we are aware of it or not, find something about the work of art to be “right” or that it just has to be the way that it is. Is this sense of “rightness” the same as that which drives science? Then, we must ask ourselves whether science is right because it is the way it is or because we have perceived it this way.

Throughout art and science, let us appreciate what all fields of study have to offer and, hopefully, we can learn to respect the disciplines for what they are before we can too tangled up in the pseudo-intellectual speculation of crossroads (I’m looking at you, evo-psych.)

The Art of Asking a Question

I sat in front of the professor during office hours two days before the midterm exam. As I was flipping through my notes, page after page, I was searching for something that would allow me to ask a question. What were the things that I was at least a little bit “fuzzy” on? What material that we have learned could potentially be on the exam? And how could I create a question? The professor would stare at me with an earnest smile and his hands clasped together on his desk as he waited for a query. 

The peculiar thing about asking a question is that it simultaneous shows what you know and what you don’t know. It would shed light on whether or not you understand the information of a course, but, more importantly, it shows that you are aware of how well you understand the information. I don’t know how much we should  students who ask questions in class are not the ones who are ignorant or stupid, but the ones who are the most cognizant of their own knowledge.

As I sat there in front of my professor with my eyes rested in my poorly-organized sketches of notes and homework problems, I realized that I couldn’t think of a question. The professor suggested that I should come up with a list of questions that night to ask him during the next day. One thing that has made my classes more and more difficult over the years is that professors expect more initiative from students to ensure that they understand the material of the course. It becomes so demanding that professors can most likely tell whether or not students know that they truly understand the material. Throughout my academic journey, I’ve noticed a shift in the responsibility of learning from the teacher to the student. Back in high school, it seemed the responsibility of the teacher to make sure that everyone in the classroom was able to integrate by parts or understand how to write a thesis statement in preparation for the test at the end of the week, but, in my Logic and Philosophy class this past semester, the professor did not give us a “textbook” of material that we would “need to know”, but, rather, present information through lectures that required the students to initiate queries to make sure we understood the information. It forced us to confront the omnipresent fear of asking a question, whether in class or elsewhere.

I think that, when students are too afraid to ask questions, it is due to a social pressure that we worry how others perceive us. Indeed, when one asks a question, he/she definitely doesn’t understand something, so, by doing so, we are revealing our true ignorance. But, in addition to understanding material, we must know if we understand that we know the material. If students were able to recognize that this “ignorance” is what keeps science and research running, maybe we wouldn’t be so afraid to ask questions. 

Myths in Medicine: The Epistemology behind so-called “Conflicts-of-Interest”

As tempting as it may be for one to believe that the medical products industry is free of corruption and that there are no people acting for heinous purposes, it’s difficult for anyone to take a position on issues in the health care industry without extensive knowledge. With the negativity of the discourse and multitude of issues surrounding making sure that we can provide for the health of everyone, it would be very refreshing and relieving for one to believe that all of those are simply results of misinformation and bad statistics.

In “Pharmaphobia” Dr. Thomas Stossel delineates his decades of research and work on studying the so-called “conflict-of-interest” issues in the medical industry. Stossel begins with general statements about how the health care that we receive today is, for better or for worse, much better than it has ever been in the history of forever. The modern medicine Dr. Stossel packs his book full of scientific studies, anecdotes, and policy analysis in his journey through the history of medicine up to the problems we face today. He makes the contrarian claim that there has been a “conflict-of-interest” movement founded on unjustified claims about responsibility of results, exploitation of research, flawed policies, and a number of other lofty subjects. As a result, we end up with unnecessary taxes on products, price controls, misconstrued research data and other causes that thwart medical innovation and progress.

Before we continue to explore these giants problems facing the medical industry, I’d like to take an aside and discuss certain epistemological approaches We tell ourselves to believe what is right and avoid what is wrong. What exactly does this mean though? As the moral value of knowledge lies on the foundation of what is true and what is false, it would be reasonable for us to ask ourselves what right we have to believe things that are true. Taking this a step further, we may posit that, by believing the truth, we are attempting to avoid believing things that are false and to have the most comprehensive set of beliefs as possible.

“The ‘flat earth’ vs. ’round earth’ is not a difference in opinion. It’s a matter of right & wrong.”

Consider two different approaches to solving a murder case. In the first approach, we choose to only use information given to us by evidence. In the second approach, we regard information by evidence as well as that information which we theorize. Which approach should we use? The former gives us a lesser chance of being wrong, as we take fewer risks with what could be true or false. The latter gives a greater chance of knowing more information. One might argue that you should believe something it  true to a certain degree of probability. Maybe there is a certain risk that we can take with the possibility of believing something that is false. But before we can confront knowledge as a microeconomics problem, things get more confusing when we confront paradoxes such as the preface and the lottery. Hopefully it should be more apparent why our right to have knowledge brings about issues upon close inspection. The epistemology in our approach must align with the appropriate rights to knowledge in research, industry, practice, or any other part.

These challenges to our knowledge seem devastating (and they’re only the tip of the iceberg of epistemology), but there are ways for us to try to make sense of things. One may suggest that beliefs about which we confidently believe to be true are different from those beliefs that we believe true during inquiry. This way, there is a certain context to the truth of beliefs that we determine to be true. In other words, when we take for granted that a certain thing is true, then it doesn’t matter whether or not we regard it as true in the context of inquiry. Does it truly make sense to regard a certain belief as true in one context yet false in another? Well, throughout the history of science and medicine we see theories that change time and time again through the self-amending scientific method. Our current models always match existing data and information, and our theories make sense to us at the moment of what is available of scientific research. But, since most theories and models eventually are replaced by bigger, better ones, then it is reasonable to assert that our beliefs are false in the context of inquiry (since there is a very high chance that, someday, they will be disproved), but, as we are confident with the knowledge of those beliefs, we can believe they are true for now.

“principle, that instances, of which we have had no experience, must resemble those, of which we have had experience, and that the course of nature continues always uniformly the same. (Hume “A Treatise of Human Nature” I.III.VI)

Evidence-based approaches to medicine have been criticism by scientists and philosophers, or both, such as Mario Bunge. Bunge would remark that evidence-based medicine “has only strengthened the empiricist tendency to accumulate undigested data and mistrust all theory.” Why should we throw away theory and hypothesis to only limit ourselves to the what may appear more “truthful” as empirical science? It may be appropriate to use the word “skepticism” here not in the sense that we are trying to believe as little information as possible to avoid the risk of believing something that is false, but applying skepticism to our theories of research and regulation in medicine to get a better understanding of the underlying assumptions that govern our lives. Any attempt to circumvent possible motives and purposes by mankind by putting our entire faith into the numbers and graphs given by scientific experiments does not allow the theoretical lead that should guide medical research. And, the more faith we put into developing models that we can use for developing medical products, the greater room we have for skepticism. We need to ask ourselves what are the true causes of the issues we face in medicine. If we don’t correctly identify the proper causes and effects of the issues, then, as Stossel explains, the conflict-of-interest myth will continue like a foggy, intimidating machine that envelopes various sectors of the American public.

Whether or not we call them “conflicts of interest” it is true that there have been dreadful instances in which the truth of science has been shrouded for other motives. When internist Barry Marshall and pathologist Robin Warren were working on a treatment for stomach ulcers, the cure, antibiotics, were cheap and easy to find. But the gastroenterologists had other ideas of the 1980’s had other ideas.

During that year Robin and I wrote the full paper. But everything was rejected. Whenever we presented our stuff to gastroenterologists, we got the same campaign of negativism. I had this discovery that could undermine a $3 billion industry, not just the drugs but the entire field of endoscopy. Every gastroenterologist was doing 20 or 30 patients a week who might have ulcers, and 25 percent of them would. Because it was a recurring disease that you could never cure, the patients kept coming back. And here I was handing it on a platter to the infectious-disease guys.  (source)

Ultimately, the two ended up experimenting on themselves to prove to the world that H. pylori, not stress, spicy foods, or anything else, caused stomach ulcers. More importantly, we see that, even as recent as the 1980’s, there were still causes for disease that we are unable to completely “rule out.” There are also issues between medical journals and doctors themselves in asserting what is actually true and false about diseases and treatments.

What are the best ways for us to dispel the Conflict-of-Interest myth? Maybe it is more appropriate for us to search for evidence of collusion or similar ethical issues in the actions among researchers and practitioners before taking for granted what we may imagine to be the case. But, before we can do that, we must ask ourselves, do we really know anything?

On the Value of a College Education: A Philosophy Professor’s Perspective

Why do we go to college? Surely, we know that spending four years to get a degree should have much more value than just sitting through a few tests and racking up lines on a resume. We oughta learn how to think, for “an undergraduate experience devoted exclusively to career preparation is four years largely wasted.” (Deresiewicz). Are we here to prepare ourselves for a future career? Or do we need ot embrace deeper meanings behind the things that we study? On top of that, what significance does the different approaches to education put forward by professors have on the way that we think and grow as human beings? Recently, I’ve been speaking to a few of my professors about the value of a college education.

Throughout my undergraduate experience, none of my classes have come close to answering these sorts of questions except for my Problems in Ethics course last Fall. The Professor, Wiebke Deimling (currently a Professor of Philosophy at Clark University), covered the theory of emotions as well as ethical topics in art. Most of the course focused on those philosophical problems that drive artwork and literature as well as the rest of society as we learn how draw meaning from ourselves. The topics of emotion, value, and history can be placed in the light of biological sciences, psychology, literature, from the existential to the physical.

During a regular old powerpoint presentation in the class, a few bullet points on a single slide sparked a flurry of questions that would allow me to begin asking the questions of the purpose of a college education to my professors. Specifically, on slide 24 of the powerpoint entitled “21 Gaut and Caroll”, key words “moralism” and “moderate autonomism” juxtaposed the issues of moral and political engagement (post-60’s) and minimalism (pre-60’s), respectively. These words “moralism” and “moderate autonism” describe different ideologies that explain the significance of art. “Moralism” (at least, in its most radical sense) maintains that art must serve a moral purpose. “Autonomism” usually emphasize the aesthetic, as opposed to ethical, value. Though we have seen, time and time again throughout history that works of art can have political and social influence on human beings, it may be surprising to learn that the idea of moral value being relevant to the aesthetic value of a work is enough to ruffle the feathers of quite a few different thinkers (including Leo Tolstoy and Clive Bell). If I am not mistaken, I believe that this schism between the two forms of appreciation of art parallels the distinction between how we are pressured to learn for utilitarian purposes or curiosity’s sake. And, as the powerpoint slide depicted, it seems as though the shift between these two ideologies of art appreciation over the 20th century is similar to the shift in the purpose of our college education.

 

Eschers’s “Relativity”
Hofstadter’s “Godel, Escher, and Bach” relate the worlds of music, art, and mathematics

Recently, I asked Professor Deimling for her opinion on different issues that plague the minds of undergraduates. She explained how the primary goal of a college education should not be to prepare someone for a future career. Not only does it cause us to miss the value of any academic discipline that we encounter, we really couldn’t do something like this. The college administration doesn’t know exactly what will be the best things to know for future careers or be able to do for future careers. Granted, I’m sure we could write out some skills such as being able to learn efficiently, act ethically, think creatively (maybe not all the time, though!), or various other one-liners that flourish networking sites. But the idea that a college education should be geared towards career preparation would never be able to achieve any thing like this.

 

If there are different ways to value art, be it a stunning image that gives an otherworldly feeling or a political message that wakes up a voice of reason, then who isn’t to say that it might parallel our value of education? We must be very careful before drawing too many comparisons between fields that are tangential to one another, and we mustn’t let a the evidence for making claims in one field compensate the need for justification in another. I don’t know whether or not this parallel is superficial or incredibly profound. If we truly listen to ourselves, then a moral purpose may be our primary goal of education that is underlined by a deeper need to search for truth. Pursuing academic disciplines may serve an aesthetic purpose in the same way that art does, and, though we don’t have the answers yet, we can at least free ourselves from the chains that bind us to the prospects of a good life and take a step or two towards the small drops of daylight that enter our cave.

The light at the end of a midterm paper

For now, maybe undergraduates should just stick to cramming for tests and getting free t-shirts until we get better answers. 

Logic and the Crossroads of Philosophy, Mathematics, and Science

Though I’m studying a wide breadth of math, science, and philosophy courses, I never really had much of an interest in the philosophy of science. Every now and then, I would find myself reading up about ethics, linguistics, art history, but even the philosophy of science seemed like irrelevant disputing of semantics and terms that don’t tell us very much. Why should I care whether our scientific knowledge is going through a paradigm shift or some other type of cycle? I once liked to heed to Feynman’s quote “The philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is useful to birds.” However true it may be that the philosophy of science is useful and amazing to study, it never seemed too relevant to me, as a lad interested in the natural sciences and mathematics. I preferred to leave philosophy to philosophy and leave science to science. But, like many stories, this one has a turning point. (insert “meta” joke here)

Among my classes this past semester was an upper-level logic course taught by Dr. David McCarty. From day one of the class, I knew I was in for a wild ride. Imagine a class of 30 students in a small, somewhat-adequately lit room with no windows. The desks sat close to one another with pieces of water and ice on the floor from the snowy walk to class. I looked around to see only a few familiar faces. This desolate atmosphere was only matched by daily quizzes and automatic course failure for tardiness or phone disruption. Keep in mind: this is a logic class. We would teach ourselves how to complete fundamental and rigorous proofs and theorems as though we questioned the reasoning of reasoning itself. And, like all the ironic tendencies of the universe, the course was amazing.

It should not come as a surprise that there were only about 20 students remaining in the course by the end, and it should not be surprising that we struggled a lot. As students, we were forced to ask questions and give answers. There was no spoon-feeding nor hand-holding. It was only questions and answers from the students and professors. Learning logic was a group passion, if there could be such a thing as that. Like a Socratic dialogue that forced us to make something of ourselves, Dr. McCarty lead our winding journey through database models and recursive relations that pushed the boundaries of what could be taught in any course: be it math, science, or philosophy.

(Programs for recursive relations can also explain how rabbit populations increase over time. Just look at how far I’ve come along the way too!)

Anyways, during the last week of the course (as we had all mostly accepted our fate), we explored the history of logic for a bit. Maybe you have noticed that I have been sparing the reader many of the difficult and intricate details of logic and mathematics (so as not to be a bore), but, being at the crossroads of philosophy, mathematics, and science, the lives of various mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers who could study a field that would otherwise seem incredibly trivial to someone really makes you stop and wonder. Perhaps there is more to mathematics than just being a tool for scientists? Is there an aesthetic or an epistemic quality to it? The course allowed me to understand what the natural world really meant to us, human beings. In other words, it was kind of cool.

Last week I began my internship at the University of Chicago. Quite similar to my experience at Cornell University last summer, I’m working on a bioinformatics project at the Conte Center for Computational Neuropsychiatric Genomics. Those are some big words that basically mean I push buttons on a computer and look at numbers until I learn something or other. Mostly I look at the DNA of the brain.

Before I finish, I need to mention that logic doesn’t actually tell you how things work. Unlike the empirical sciences that may have elements of reductionist phenomena (such as how Chemistry can explain biological phenomena or Physics can explain chemical phenomena), logic is truly its own monster. I will (hopefully) write more about actual content of logic and science in upcoming posts. As for the actual reasons why we do things, perhaps those reasons are best left unanswered for now. For Kant once wrote:

“we find that the more a cultivated reason purposely occupies itself with the enjoyment of life and with happiness, so much the further does one get away from true satisfaction;” (4:386 “Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals”)

Finally, I’m proud to announce that I will be writing for the Indiana Daily Student in the Fall. More greatness to come! I promise!

What pre-medical students can learn from the humanities

As I finish writing my final lab report for my Intermediate Physics Lab, the fall semester of my sophomore year comes to a slow, much-needed end. I’ve taken some time to reflect on the impact my classes have had since the beginning of the year. This semester, unlike those of my freshman year, has been markedly different in several ways. For one thing, all my classes were either directed towards my physics or my philosophy degree; none of them were pre-medical requirements. This was a huge breather for me, not because it was less work or I had the chance to be lazy, but because I had more time to develop as a person.

When I took an Introductory Logic course last spring, I leveled up in “Hipster skills” by declaring my second major in Philosophy. Bear in mind that I didn’t know a thing about philosophy. I didn’t know a thing about fancy buzzwords like “existentialism”, “objectivity”, and “postmodernism” that the layman will throw around, and I had never read any philosophy text in my life.

Some park I visited while I was in Waterloo last summer or something.

Fast-forward to the present moment: the end of the fall semester after I had finished my Ethics course. Since the beginning of this class, I have created skills for myself in communication, resourcefulness, and an ever-increasing insight in human behavior and thought. I have started a Medical Ethics Committee and a Bioethics Society to promote the curiosity of ethics. These groups feature (or will feature) student-led discussions, lectures from faculty, opportunities to attend ethics conferences across the country, high school outreach, and a debate-style team to compete in bioethics competitions. I’ve developed a purpose for myself and helped others do the same for themselves through understanding the values of research, ethics, and curiosity in the world. All of this was only possible through my work in philosophy. It’s amazing how much you can learn when you step out of your comfort zone and, in my case, I did so by diving off the deep-end into philosophy.

Unlike the hypothesis-driven, progressive world of science, the humanities help us see each other as human beings capable of morals, emotions, judgements, and values. By understanding how society works from a non-scientific point of view, we are reminded that human beings are not guided by psychological or social phenomena. We are not physical or biochemical problems that are waiting to be solved. We are rational creatures who desire justice and purpose. Some might say that, unlike the sciences, the humanities make you feel more “humane.” I can agree with that.

(Physics equations on the wall from my visit to the Perimeter Institute.)

Though I would advise that humanities courses (like philosophy, history, art, or literature) are very helpful, their effectiveness ultimately depends on whether or not a student can find courses with a meaningful and welcoming atmosphere. I have no desire to sit through a humanities course that is a giant-lecture hall of watching lectures as though you were sitting through a movie with zero interaction.

When I was a freshman, I was incredibly unsure of myself for double-majoring in Physics and Philosophy with a pre-medical track. Though I loved those subjects, I thought it was too unfocused and doubted how they would ever be helpful for a career in medicine. Now, I think my choices have given me more than any other degree program would have, and I’m certainly glad I chose to make those decisions. 

Promoting the discussion of Ethics

The time is 6:30 am.  I’m outside my residence hall, having completed my morning run. I look around me and see faces and lights begin to appear. People in cars and buses slowly move into the empty streets. The chirps of birds and songs of the bugs break the desolate wasteland of the hour before. The dark void of isolation is warm as always. The sun will shine, and the world is mine. In the morning, I tell world that I’ll be there when you wake up. I own the world in everything I do during the day. Time and tide wait for no man because time had better catch up with me. 

As I began my years at Indiana University-Bloomington in the fall of 2013, the spurious curtain of the undergraduate’s desire for achievement and professionalism soon fell before my eyes. I found an atmosphere in which we were told to seek leadership positions and involvement. To the contrary, I stood resolute in my conviction that one does not become a leader before making a difference. I believed that one makes a difference and, through that process, becomes a leader. I knew that, in order to be successful, I had to create my own meaning and not receive it from somewhere else. On top of that, I noticed that neurotic and obsessive pre-medical students weren’t realizing the real beauty of an undergraduate education that comes from the curious pursuit of knowledge. I wanted to create an environment that would give students, especially pre-medical students, this opportunity.

Sometime in the middle of my Introduction to Philosophy class freshman year, I had the idea to create a Medical Ethics Discussion Circle. We would meet as groups to read articles with relevant ethical issues in bioethics, sociopolitical ethics, and other areas that would relate to medicine and health care. This would prepare students for careers in health care, but, more importantly, give them a greater, curious understanding of the world to help them cultivate their own passions. I wanted to create an atmosphere in which students could offer ideas, criticism, discussions, and arguments. On top of that, I plan on inviting other speakers to lead discussions and provide their own perspectives on ethical issues in medicine if we have enough support. (Perhaps it was also fueled by my skeptical nature that lead me to arrive at the conclusions I stated in the previous paragraph.)

When I pitched the idea to MAPS (Minority Association of Pre-medical Students), I was met with with immediate praise, and, with a bit of planning and recruiting, the Medical Ethics Discussion Circle is now under way. I’ve heard a lot of positive feedback already, even thought we’ve had only one meeting so far. I hope that my efforts to promote a love of humanistic causes will help others pursue their goals in life.

The path to making a difference can be lonely and tortuous. But, every now and then I stumble upon moments of satisfaction and glory. I believe that the undergraduate education is a journey, and I hope you enjoy how I share it with you.