Thursday, December 06, 2007

Unabated Curiosity

In my childhood home, staunchly standing in the living room, were two cherry-stained, Ethan Allen bookshelves. A mish-mash of books co-habitated on the shelves, except for two sections of chocolate-brown, leather-bound World Book Encyclopedias with gold lettering, which resided in their own shelves, high and lofty in the shelf hierarchy.

I would sit down and leaf through the volumes one letter at a time, learning all kinds of interesting things. I learned what the state capitals, trees and birds were. I taught myself the alphabet in sign language. I read up on astrology, learning that I was a Capricorn, my older brother was a Sagittarius, my mom was a Leo, and my younger brother a Gemini. not everything I learned was of the utmost importance, but I still was fascinated by everything I could read about.

Here I am, soon to be 34, and I am no different. I can chase down intellectual rabbit trails for hours, getting lost in Wikipedia, science blogs, and history articles as I cross reference terms I don't know and thinkers whose names appear together, trying to see the connections and understand how concepts take root.

I love it. I really should have been a researcher of some sort. Maybe in my next phase of life.

Last night I spent at least an hour and half following a trail from an article about crows, to an 18th century British philosopher, to an environmental belief/policy, and finally to a theologian. I guess all questions eventually wind up at God's feet.

Here's my stream of consciousness web track:

First I was here reading about crows and their life spans in the city compared to crows in the wild. I came across the term Malthusian Earth, which I didn't know, leading to the Google Altar of Knowledge. Not finding an exact reference to it, I clicked on a link to Thomas Malthus, confident that he probably had something to do with it.

Reading through that article made me realize that Darwin's concept of evolution had been greatly influenced and formed by Malthus, who was his senior by 43 years. Malthus proposed that the humans had to necessarily be wiped out by famine, war, and disease in order to have a balanced population and not overpopulate the land. He fought against poor laws in England as a way to reduce poverty. If poor people can't feed themselves and perish, then there is no poverty.

I makes me wince to even think about it.

While reading through the article, a familiar thought occurred to me about the number of British thinkers, philosophers, and scientific atheists there are . What is it about Britain that produces these types of thinkers? Wondering if it was all in my head, I searched for the term "British rationalists" hoping to come across an article or news story.

I encountered this site, which didn't really address my point, but gave a list of important philosophers and movements. I spied the name Karl Barth and remembered that I had meant to look up more information about him based on a comment I had encountered a while back. I was off on another tangent.

Reading about Barth, and appreciating where he was coming from, led me to follow the links to neo-Orthodoxy and Soren Kierkegaard so that I could more fully understand the issues raised in the article.

I finally realized that it was late and I had to get to bed.

I was tired, but satisfied.

Now I want to buy a set of encyclopedias for the boys in the hopes that they'll satisfy their curiosity in the same way I always did.

Of course, once I visited World Book's site and realized that a set costs about $750, that hope was somewhat diminished.


Lifewish said...

Malthus proposed that the humans had to necessarily be wiped out by famine, war, and disease in order to have a balanced population and not overpopulate the land.

This may be uncomfortably close to the truth. I remember reading a survey (can't find it now) that showed a strong correlation between wars in Africa and population density. The wars were acting as a population control - once an area could no longer provide food for all its occupants, the slightest excuse could lead to open conflict.

He fought against poor laws in England as a way to reduce poverty. If poor people can't feed themselves and perish, then there is no poverty.

Hume's is/ought problem says that there's no way of reasoning logically from a statement about how things are to a statement about what you should do about it. For there to be an "ought" in the conclusion of an argument, there has to be an "ought" in one of the premises.

In this case, Malthus has managed to get from a statement about how the world is ("population outstrips available resources") to a statement about how it should be ("we ought to let the poor die off"). Even without seeing his logic, we can therefore infer that he's talking out of his ass, or at least that his conclusion is only one of many possibilities.

For example, in the case of Africa, a more constructive solution would be to fund women's education programmes. Education tends to greatly reduce a society's birthrate in the long term, so this could permanently reduce the population pressure, eliminating the impetus to war.

I guess what I'm getting at is: speaking as a British rationalist, please don't take this guy as a representative sample.

terri said...

Lifewish...that wasn't really my point. The rabbit trails I follow was my main premise.

I never really got to investigating the whole British Rationalist thing because I was off on another tangent before I spent more time thinking about it.

What's your take? Does Britian seem more likely to produce a certain "type" of thinker?

Lifewish said...

I'm not entirely sure. The humanist movement over here has been quietly incubating for a couple of centuries now, so we tend to get more David Attenborough types - distinguished elder scientists who are rationalists. I get the impression that, in America, "rationalism" is a philosophy that appeals mostly to radicals.

Malthus was probably a product of the corresponding phase in Britain. The thing about radicals is that, once they've broken with the establishment in one respect, they quite often go the whole hog and end up holding an array of unusual views. For example, Bertrand Russell's thoughts on sexual liberation were... non-standard, shall we say.

I think that's settled down a bit over the last century - the scariest we've got at the moment is Dawkins, whose sole crime is that he's overly passionate about demolishing fluffy thinking.

I know what you mean about rabbit trails - I came across that Is/Ought wikipedia article during a similar research frenzy :) The internet makes that sort of intellectual butterflying far too easy.