Upcoming Talk: “How Understanding Human Beings Differs from Understanding the Natural World”

Stephen Grimm

Stephen Grimm

Stephen Grimm, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University

Tuesday, Nov. 4, 4:30pm  » Willard Smith Library, Vaughan Literature Building

Abstract: When we try to understand the natural world, we often appeal to things like causes or mechanisms or laws. But what happens when we try to understand other people? Do we need to appeal to something different—perhaps to notions like values or goods? I will consider a few ways in which philosophers have claimed that there is something distinctive when it comes to understanding human beings, and argue that these attempts have fallen short in various respects. I will then offer my own view about how understanding human beings differs from understanding the natural world.

Professor Grimm specializes in epistemology, the philosophy of science, and value theory. Since July of 2013 he has led a three-year $4.5 million dollar project — The Varieties of Understanding project — on the nature of understanding, supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, with additional support from the Henry Luce Foundation. The project examines the various ways in which human beings understand the world, how these ways of understanding might be improved, and how they might be combined to produce an integrated understanding of the world. This is the project which funds our work on the Production of Public Understanding of Science.

Recap of Catherine Elgin’s Visit

[Our Research Assistants will be writing up profiles of visiting speakers’ visits. First up: Julia profiles Catherine Elgin’s visit. — M&J]

Elgin lecture

Catherine Elgin’s lecture; for more photos from her visit, click here.

On October 2nd and 3rd, philosopher and Harvard professor of education, Catherine Elgin came to speak about understanding and knowledge, explaining their relation to science and art. On her first afternoon, she held a public talk entitled “Making an Example of it” on the idea of exemplification in art and science, demonstrating how our understanding can benefit from fictional representations. Exemplification in this sense highlights certain defining features of a system or object in order to describe, in a more targeted manner, an essential component or process that is taking place. Would making use of exemplifications generate the right degree of understanding when communicating our science to the public? Should we be aiming to produce understanding via examples and representations rather than taking a more straightforward route?

According to Elgin, using examples is extremely beneficial and widely practiced as a method of producing understanding. She began by describing that art exemplifies by exaggerating certain values or characteristics of the subject of its representation. Shakespeare’s Macbeth, as a well-known work of literary art, gives us an understanding of the corruption of power and violence by exemplifying those traits in characters throughout the play. Arguing against the notion that science is strictly factual, Elgin advocated that like art, science often advances our understanding through examples and models. Oftentimes, we use representations of systems in science that appropriately exaggerate our area of focus, such as frictionless surfaces. These frictionless systems, as Elgin pointed out, are models that are not true and do not claim to be true. However, by highlighting the basic properties of Newtonian mechanics, students in introductory physics courses are able to develop an understanding of its fundamental properties.

Another example Elgin provided was the fictional aspects of the ideal gas law, PV=nRT. Used commonly throughout science, this idealization of gasses assumes that particles are dimensionless spheres that are not subject to friction or mutual attraction. Similarly, pictorial diagrams and thought experiments in science do not offer us knowledge in that they do not aim to provide us with truths about the science. Elgin believed that instead, the understanding that is gained from these fictions is reminiscent of the aesthetic understanding of art. If we are able to suspend disbelief and accept scientific models as idealizations, as Elgin pointed out, we will advance our understanding of these concepts.

On Friday afternoon, I had the pleasure of driving Elgin back to the Williamsport airport, allowing for a stimulating follow-up conversations regarding her visit. Most notably, was our conversation about different types of understanding. Elgin told me about her recent inquiry about the different derivations of the Pythagorean theorem, bringing into question what method is best. Does the means by which we acquire the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of mathematical and scientific processes contribute to our overall degree of understanding? Or do multiple pathways all leading up to the same end result contribute equally to our interpretations of these processes? These questions, along with many others asked throughout Elgin’s time at Bucknell, remained up in the air after her much appreciated visit to Lewisburg.

Fall Semester Colloquia Update

We’re planning three exciting colloquia in the fall semester.

First, Catherine Elgin (Harvard) will speak on Thursday, Oct. 2. The title of her talk is “Making an Example of It” in Academic West 108. Here’s her abstract:

I will argue that thinking with things often involves taking them to exemplify some of their features. Rather than being mere things, as exemplars, they function as symbols that highlight features and afford epistemic access to them.

Second, Stephen Grimm (Fordham) will speak on Tuesday, Nov. 4 on “How Understanding Human Beings Differs from Understanding the Natural World” in the Willard–Smith Library (Vaughan Lit 125):

When we try to understand the natural world, we often appeal to things like causes or mechanisms or laws. But what happens when we try to understand other people? Do we need to appeal to something different—perhaps to notions like values or goods? I will consider a few ways in which philosophers have claimed that there is something distinctive when it comes to understanding human beings, and argue that these attempts have fallen short in various respects. I will then offer my own view about how understanding human beings differs from understanding the natural world.

Finally, Gary Hardcastle (Bloomsburg) will speak on Thursday, Nov. 20. on “(Really) Recovering Understanding: James B. Conant’s Theory of Understanding and Its Contemporary Relevance” in Academic West 108:

Focusing upon his 1947 On Understanding Science: An Historical Approach (the published form of his 1946 Terry Lectures), this talk recounts James B. Conant’s theory of understanding, as well as the social, political, and pedagogical projects Conant associated with it. In 1946 Conant had been the President of Harvard University for ten years; he had served as the Chairman of the National Defense Research Committee during WWII, overseeing the Manhattan Project; he had, with Vannevar Bush, laid the foundation for what would be America’s National Science Foundation; and he had brought into being a model of post-war university education, a vision distilled in 1945’s General Education in a Free Society, aka the Harvard “Red Book.” These achievements brought Conant to regard understanding as vitally important to human survival, and they brought him to articulate a theory of understanding and its transmission, a project he would continue for the rest of his life. Though Conant’s thinking about understanding was acutely tuned WWII and the ensuing Cold War, his questions are just those that have motivated a resurgence of interest in understanding in the (heretofore somewhat insulated) fields of epistemology and philosophy of science: “Why,” Conant asks, “should any but a relatively few experts need to understand science,” and what, for that matter, does it mean, to “understand science”? Moreover, Conant’s answers to these questions illuminate some contemporary debates (or so I’ll argue).