IQI cools off

04Aug08

There was a semi-yearly IQI get together last night at Johnny P’s. As usual, the ping pong and swimming pool basketball competitions were intense. 

One conversation revolved around comparing marginalized subjects in various fields: Farah speaking of non-western texts in political philosophy and John talking about Garrett Lisi and Lee Smolin in physics. In retrospect, I think there was some “talking past each other” of these two experts.

I think Farah was saying that understanding philosophical texts requires an understanding of different cultures, customs, and ways of thinking which are neglected by experts in the field (all trained in the west), and remedying this deficiency will take serious introspection.

John, on the other hand, was suggesting that in physics, marginalization is quite different and less severe. I thought he was saying: any marginalized person or topic could be understood and appreciated by an “established” expert in an afternoon, and eventually will be if it really is worthwhile (though it may take a little extra time for someone outside of the mainstream to get the right person’s attention). And, furthermore, it is the responsibility of outsider to make a clear, compelling case in “mainstream” terminology.

In the case of non-western texts, the point is that the basis for understanding is fundamentally different, and you can’t expect the value of those texts to be translated into the preferred academic language which already includes an inherited western bias, nor understood by someone who is unaware of those biases.

I guess it’s a classic argument over how much subjective human perspective guides two different fields. Did the experts portray their respective fields accurately?

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One Response to “IQI cools off”

  1. I’m not as sure that I agree with John entirely. As an example which I talk about, Lee Smolin is a proponent of loop quantum gravity as an alternative approach to quantum gravity to string theory. Now trying to understand loop quantum gravity is more than an afternoon’s activity — it’s probably months or even years till one has a deep enough understanding to talk about its prospects as an alternative.

    Perhaps there is still a difference here between the physical sciences and non-Western philosophy: a physicist can easily know and say that they do not understand, say, loop quantum gravity, and that they are therefore ill-equipped to judge some claims made within that mathematical framework. On the other hand, I could easily see philosophers refusing to admit that there is any gap in their understanding when it comes to reading non-Western sources — it’s much harder to definitely establish that there is a substantial difference in background.


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