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Ivory Towers and Crocodiles in the Moat

“The dreams of reason produce monsters.”
Francisco de Goya

The Power Struggle Over Ideas

Is the community of the brainy ones among us more rational than the rest of us? What is the soft underbelly of the think tanks and universities?

Two remarkably revealing assessments for some kind of answer to my questions have come together. One source, The New Yorker of Oct 2, 2006, recently came to hand from a pile of recycled magazines displayed at The Oliver LaFarge Branch of Santa Fe Public Library. The other I discovered as I ranged around the internet searching for who Colin McGinn might be.

The New Yorker gave me “Unstrung: In string theory, beauty is truth, beauty truth. Is that really all we need to know?” by Jim Holt.  (Holt, J. (2006). Unstrung: In string theory, beauty is truth, beauty truth. Is that really all we need to know? The New Yorker, October.)

The internet search brought me to “A Star Philosopher Falls, and a Debate Over Sexism Is Set Off” By Jennifer Schuessler. (Schuessler, J. (2013). A Star Philosopher Falls, and a Debate Over Sexism Is Set Off. The New York Times.)

The latter article concerns the messy matters of professor of philosophy Colin McGinn, who was accused of sexual harassment by his female graduate student at the University of Miami. This resulted in his stepping down from his tenured faculty position. McGinn is making the best of his bad consequences. He wrote in his blog that he is publishing three books.

But McGinn’s fate is not the matter here. Jennifer Schuessler’s article examines the larger academic context of the McGinn affair. She brings to light the sociology of the power structure underneath the commerce of ideas and thinking. Holt’s article does that, too, as we will see below.


Regarding the status of women in philosophy, Schuessler writes:

While the status of women in the sciences has received broad national attention, debate about sexism in philosophy has remained mostly within the confines of academia.
In July, after the sociologist Kieran Healy published a study showing that women made up less than 4 percent of top citations in leading philosophy journals since 1992, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy sent out an e-mail asking contributors to make sure that entries do not cite work by white men on a given topic while ignoring prior contributions by women and other underrepresented groups.
Such ‘citation blindness,’ scholars say, may be less a result of overt discrimination than of implicit bias, a phenomenon that has generated a rich literature in psychology, but that philosophers are only beginning to study.
In an essay on implicit bias in the forthcoming book, What Needs to Change: Women in Philosophy, Ms. [Jennifer] Saul, the chairwoman of the philosophy department at the University of Sheffield in England and the editor of the blog “What Is It Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy?” recalled the terror of overhearing faculty members at Princeton, where she earned her PhD, casually sort graduate students into “smart” versus merely hard-working—or worse, “stupid.”
Women, [Saul] said, are more likely to be categorized as “stupid,” to the detriment of the field as a whole.
Fear of being labeled not smart “is bad for philosophy,” Ms. Saul said. “It makes you not want to take risks.” 

So here, to my disquieted satisfaction, is a revelation of the lack of objectivity and the negative forces of the will to power in the halls of learning.


Next, something of the same kind of negativity in science and research is revealed in Holt’s “Unstrung.” Holt is reporting that string theory has lots of flaws. Writes Holt, “But string theory, in one form or another, has been hanging on inconclusively for more that thirty-five years. Einstein’s own pursuit of a unified theory of physics in the last three decades of his life is often cited as a case study in futility.” 

Holt asks, “Have a thousand string theories done any better?” He, like Schuessler, refers to the sociology of power about ideas:

The usual excuse offered for sticking with what increasingly looks like a failed program is that no one has come up with any better ideas for unifying physics. But [two string theorists] Smolin and Woit have a different explanation, one that can be summed up in the word ‘sociology.’ Both are worried that academic physics has become dangerously like what the social constructivists have long charged it with being: a community that is no more rational or objective than any other group of humans [italics mine].

String theorists dominate the country’s top physics departments. At the Institute for Advanced Study, the director and nearly all of the particle physicists with permanent positions are string theorists. Eight of the nine MacArthur fellowships awarded to particle physicists over the years have gone to string theorists. Since the fall-off in academic hiring in the nineteen-seventies, the average age of tenured physics professors has reached nearly sixty. Every year, around eighty people receive PhDs in particle physics, but only around ten of them can expect to get permanent jobs in the field. In this hyper-competitive environment, the only hope for a young theoretical physicist is to curry favor by solving a set of problems in string theory. “Nowadays,” one established figure in the field has said, “if you’re a hot-shot young string theorist you’ve got it made.”1 

In matters of theoretical metaphysics I only know what writers like Holt tell me. But I get that he posits that the project of particle physics is driven by forces other than conscientiousness. To measure is to change. To measure is always front-loaded with some unconscious prejudices and selectivity of procedures, let alone the will to power.


When it comes to motivation and choice making, do we not have to also factor in the instincts, the unconscious and the will to power? Female philosophers are being neglected, and the physicists who question string theory are being marginalized. Some stakeholders do better than others.

The truth, pure and simple, is not the all-powerful mental aphrodisiac. If anyone knows about “looking deeply,” to use a term of Thich Nhat Hanh, our scholars do. But how many are not looking deeply enough into the politics of their mental pursuits and their socioeconomic force fields? How many of their community are no more rational or objective than any other group of humans? (By the way, how good am I myself at “looking deeply” as I live life?)

Imagine how much more terrible matters are that many of our politicians also do not “look deeply,’ and rule from political opinion rather than science. Indeed, these politicians are anti-science with regard to global climate change, oil drilling, fracking, industrial animal husbandry, evolution and you name it.



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