Monday, July 30, 2012

Reasons of Love & Living a Meaningful Life

Creative Commons (cclark395).
What does it mean to live a meaningful life? Googling for "meaningful life" does turn up material written from the perspective of academic philosophy, but the first hit has to do with "psycho-spiritual lessons" from Jewish mysticism. There are also a variety of pages giving advice on how to get involved with advocacy or how to change personal habits in a goal-oriented way. This may be the area of popular philosophy most neglected by English-speaking philosophers, but it's not neglected by all of them.

A few years ago, Susan Wolf gave a pair of lectures titled: Meaning in Life and Why It Matters. These have recently been put into book form along with some responses. Since the book is overdue locally, I read through a slightly less polished PDF version (and will be quoting from that). Anyway, I warmed up to Wolf's approach pretty fast when I read this bit:
"In offering a conception of meaningfulness, I do not wish to insist that the term is always used in the same way, or that what I have to offer as an analysis of meaningfulness can be substituted for that term in every context. On the other hand, I do believe that much talk of meaning is aimed at capturing the same abstract idea, and that my proposal of what that idea is fits well with many of the uses to which the word is put."
This is a bit like Paul Ziff's treatment of the meaning of "good" — at its most general — as answering to certain interests implied by context. Seemingly different usages of "good" can be understood in this more abstract fashion. Wolf wants give an abstract explanation of meaning-in-life talk that works for specific instances. How does her "conception of meaningfulness" shake out? Before getting into details, it's important to understand what she means by the phrase "reasons of love."

Reasons of Love

Kant sought for moral principles in a kind of rational willpower that didn't depend one bit on consequences or, especially, human desires:
"That an action done from duty derives its moral worth, not from the purpose which is to be attained by it, but from the maxim by which it is determined, and therefore does not depend on the realization of the object of the action, but merely on the principle of volition by which the action has taken place, without regard to any object of desire."
— Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals
Philippa Foot challenged this idea by suggesting that the pursuit of some human desires could be what morality is really all about:
"It will surely be allowed that quite apart from thoughts of duty a man may care about the suffering of others, having a sense of identification with them, and wanting to help if he can. Of course he must want not the reputation of charity, nor even a gratifying role helping others, but, quite simply, their good. If this is what he does care about, then he will be attached to the end proper to the virtue of charity and a comparison with someone acting from an ulterior motive (even a respectable ulterior motive) is out of place."
— Philippa Foot, Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives
Just because I'm following my own desire to help another person doesn't make my action selfish. Our desires can be self-oriented or other-oriented. It's not a stretch to say that a person acting out of other-oriented desires is acting out of love, i.e. acting for reasons of love. This might explain why we don't worry about people (or robots) with poor reasoning as much as we worry about those with excellent reasoning but who lack other-oriented desires.

Does this mean that acting for moral reasons and acting for reasons of love are equivalent? Susan Wolf says no. We can have and pursue desires which aren't particularly self-oriented, but they aren't particularly moral either. These desires might be oriented toward other people (e.g. helping a friend move) or they might be oriented toward impersonal interests (e.g. keeping a garden free of weeds). Wolf's categories look something like this:
My Desires
  • Self-oriented (selfish reasons)
  • Impersonal interest oriented (reasons of love)
  • Other-oriented Non-moral (reasons of love)
  • Other-oriented Moral (moral reasons)
No One's Desires
  • Kant's notion of moral duty (dualistic moral reason)
Wolf admits she is lumping together two categories under the "reasons of love" label, but this is because she wants to emphasize that there are desires (and therefore reasons) which fall outside of the other categories:
"My claim then is that reasons of love – whether of people, ideals or other sorts of objects - have a distinctive and important role in our lives, not to be assimilated to reasons of self-interest or to reasons of morality. Insofar as we fail to recognize and appreciate the legitimacy and value of these reasons, we misunderstand ourselves and our values and distort our concerns."
Maybe you're skeptical. If you have an expansive view of morality, you might want to put both categories of other-oriented desires together. This would imply that, for example, a desire to help a kid learn to read would be both a reason of love and a moral reason. Environmentally minded folks might even want to make impersonal projects like preserving biodiversity a moral issue. Most fundamentally, isn't love itself a moral positive? This is all fine. I understand Wolf to be talking about strong moral imperatives when she talks about morality. We don't expect everyone to personally go out of their way to combat illiteracy or preserve an obscure plant species the way we might expect them to go out of their way to combat hunger or injustice.

The important thing about reasons of love is that they're personal and passionately held. Yours and mine can be quite different, and that's ok. I don't have to love your spouse the way you love your spouse. I don't need to feel the same thrill participating in cosplay culture that you do.

As you may have guessed by now, these personal and passionately held reasons of love are a central figure in Wolf's views on what it means for a life to be meaningful.

Engaging With What We Love
"Essentially, the idea is that a person’s life can be meaningful only if she cares fairly deeply about some things, only if she is gripped, excited, interested, engaged, or as I earlier put it, if she loves something– as opposed to being bored by or alienated from most or all that she does."
This is the first of the two parts of Wolf's "conception of meaningfulness." She's trying to capture the idea of finding your passion and actively pursuing it. This is subjective and can vary a lot from person to person, especially since she's talking about passions which aren't self-oriented desires or universal moral duties. Maybe I have a passion for dance, or writing about philosophy, or competitive video gaming. I don't think Wolf mentions it, but we might put charity causes here which are clearly moral but the particular cause isn't something we expect everyone to be involved with. So organizing and then participating in a breast cancer walk could count as a personal passion for an individual.

All of these things bring us "feelings of fulfillment" that living a merely selfish life or living only for an abstract moral code doesn't seem to provide. What's especially interesting about fulfillment so construed is that what fulfills me may not be the same as what's healthy or comfortable for me, or what makes me happy, or what morality demands. Our reasons of love can be in competition with these other human goods.

Loving What's Worthwhile

The other part of Wolf's "conception of meaningfulness" has to do with a worry that might have come up when you read the last couple of paragraphs: doesn't it matter which passions we pursue? Would a person's life be meaningful if she pursues passions that are pointless? What about passions that are wickedly dangerous to others?

Wolf uses Richard Taylor's thought experiment of Sisyphus fulfilled. Instead of feeling bad about rolling a boulder up a hill forever, this Sisyphus loves rolling the boulder uphill all day every day. Since he is subjectively fulfilled by following his passion, shouldn't we characterize him as living a meaningful life? Wolf writes:
"Something desirable seems missing from his life despite his experience of fulfillment. Since what is missing is not a subjective matter – from the inside, we may assume that Sisyphus’s life is as good as can be – we must look for an objective feature that characterizes what is lacking."
For this objective feature, Wolf appeals to another common way of talking about meaning in life: being involved with something "larger than oneself." Of course this is figurative; it doesn't mean that caring for a physically larger person counts while caring for a physically smaller person would not (otherwise, sorry babies!). Wolf takes it to mean that a person with a meaningful life must be engaged with something that has value beyond or outside the value she herself places on it. If Sisyphus is the only one who esteems boulder rolling, then his love for boulder rolling may make him feel fulfilled but it doesn't give his life meaning in the bigger picture outside of his mind.

This might not sound objective enough to you. Wolf wrestles with this problem too. On the one hand, she wants to be "minimally exclusive" when it comes to defining the kind of objectivity required. On the other hand, she wonders how we could maintain, e.g. that adding an observer who feels fulfilled by watching Sisyphus merrily roll his bounder would suddenly make Sisyphus' life meaningful. How could multiplying subjective valuers create objective value? After a few pages, Wolf concludes:
"Though I believe we have good reason to reject a radically subjective account of value, it is far from clear what a reasonably complete and defensible nonsubjective account will look like. The absence of such an account gives us all the more reason to be tentative in our judgments about what sorts of project deserve inclusion in the class of activities that can contribute to the meaningfulness of a life."
She's inclined to call some activities objectively worthwhile (even if no one else appreciates them) and others not worthwhile (even if lots of people value them), yet she tries hard to avoid the charge of snobbery by admitting it's hard to be sure which is which, or to even apply any certain methods of making such determinations.

Fitting Fulfillment

Putting these two parts together, Wolf sums up her "fitting fulfillment" view like this:
"[M]eaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness, and one is able to do something good or positive about it."


"[M]eaning arises from loving objects worthy of love and engaging with them in a positive way."
Or is that three parts? It's multi-part at any rate. But why would a single concept — meaningfulness — have distinct parts like this? Wolf argues that these parts are intertwined even when we talk in ways that make them seem like separate concerns. In subjectivity, an element of objectivity:
"When someone recommends that you find your passion and go for it, it seems, there is a hope, if not an expectation, lurking in the background, too. The hope is that the passion you find will be an intelligible one, within a certain range. You will not be passionate – at least not for too long – about stone-rolling, or Sudokus, or caring for your goldfish, or making handwritten copies of War and Peace."
And in objectivity, an element of subjectivity:
"[W]hen the recommendation to get involved with something larger than oneself is offered, it is typically offered in the hope, if not the expectation that if one does get so involved, it will make one feel good. The thought is that if one tries it, one will like it, and one will like it in part because of one’s recognition that one is doing something independently valuable."
I'm surprised she didn't include a Yin Yang diagram. While I was reading Wolf's paper, I wanted to say that fulfillment (subjective) and meaning (objective) could simply be treated as separate, peer ideas. Now I'm not so sure. She makes an interesting point about background assumptions when we talk about one idea or the other. Plus, it's a fact that we casually use "meaning" to refer to both aspects. Perhaps we do operate on a two-fold conception of meaning in life.

Human Nature & The Nature of Value

I'm one of those people who gets uncomfortable when the term "objective value" comes up. Means-end value, I understand. Subjective valuing, I understand. But I come up empty when I try to grasp value that is neither means-end nor subjective. I want to collapse Wolf's objective element into one or both of the kinds of value that make sense to me.

So how about this: because intellectually mature humans are social beings by nature, a significant portion of our subjective fulfillment is held hostage by the valuing of others. We crave appreciation, if not for ourselves then at least for our projects or for the results of our projects. I may love tapping piano keys randomly, but if I realize that no one else appreciates or even would appreciate this form of music, my social desires are frustrated. Wolf touches on this idea when she writes about "our need (or wish) not to be alone" and to "see (or try to see) oneself from an external point of view."

What about joyful Sisyphus? If he is fully satisfied because he loves boulder rolling and isn't frustrated even knowing that no one else could share his appreciation for boulder rolling, then — in a sense — he isn't human. He may share my DNA, but his psychology is alien to me. On this view, only subjective value is needed. The constraint on activities we call "meaningful" comes from typical human nature, not from an impersonal source of value.

Now what would be really interesting would be another society (with human DNA or not) that so differs in their valuings that our projects are meaningless to them, and their projects are meaningless to us. This implies neither our lives nor their lives would be meaningful in a sense that transcends all valuers, but I don't understand what it would mean for life to be meaningful in that sense anyway.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Thirty-Four Books in an Hour

On Saturday afternoon, I stopped by the local Barnes & Noble for a book browsing experiment. I had been thinking about ways to learn a little about novels in a short amount of time. I thought: read just the first page. But first pages are often just half pages on the right-hand side. It would be a lot more fair to include the contents of the next two-page spread. So I decided to read the first three pages of as many books as would fit in an hour. What would grab my interest before the second page turn? Could I identify some reasons for hits and misses? Would people give me funny looks?

I picked the bland "Fiction & Literature" section (the etc/misc/non-genre section) that I normally only browse when I have an author in mind. There was an empty chair where the 'I-' authors began, so I grabbed the first book and sat down. Here are the results:
A hyperlink means I wanted to read the fourth page.
  1. Ice-T, Kings of Vice
  2. Conn Iggulden, Emperor: The Gates of Rome
  3. David Ignatius, Body of Lies
  4. David Ignatius, The Increment
  5. Greg Iles, 24 Hours
  6. Greg Iles, Black Cross
  7. Virginia Ironside, No! I Don't Want to Join a Book Club: Diary of a 60th Year
  8. John Irving, The 158-Pound Marriage
  9. John Irving, The Cider House Rules
  10. Susan Isaacs, Any Place I Hang My Hat 
  11. Susan Isaacs, As Husbands Go
  12. Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man
  13. Kazuo Ishiguro, An Artist of the Floating World 
  14. Kazuo Ishiguro, Nocturnes
  15. Andrea Israel & Nancy Garfinkel, The Recipe Club
  16. Uzodinma Iweala, Beasts of No Nation
  17. Jeremy Iversen, Rush
  18. Joshilyn Jackson, Backseat Saints
  19. Joshilyn Jackson, Between, Georgia
  20. Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
  21. Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle 
  22. Kate Jacobs, The Friday Night Knitting Club
  23. Roy Jacobsen, Child Wonder
  24. Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question 
  25. Howard Jacobson, The Mighty Walzer
  26. John Hornor Jacobs, This Dark Earth
  27. Howard Jacobson, No More Mr. Nice Guy
  28. John Jakes, The Bastard
  29. Henry James, The Ambassadors
  30. Syrie James, Dracula, My Love
  31. Ashley JaQuavis, The Trophy Wife
  32. Lola Jaye, Being Lara
  33. Rula Jebreal, Miral
  34. Gary Jennings, Aztec
Harsh, sure, but I wasn't trying to judge what other people might want to keep reading. In an age of so many novels, why not focus on the ones I personally find interesting? What else could literary value be if not the fact that a person, or a lot of people, or a lot of people of a certain type would find a work interesting if they were acquainted with it?

So why did I find some openings interesting and others not so much?

Ice-T's Kings of Vice had excellent atmosphere as it described a man choosing to walk from prison back to his neighborhood, but I wasn't hooked by the fact that the protagonist had been planning something big for when he was paroled. It could just be a robbery. *yawn* If not, I wish Ice-T had hinted at more. Lesson: Put a better lure on the hook.

Greg Iles' Black Cross was almost the same deal, except the cover makes it pretty clear that the something big has to do with Nazis. But, again, there's nothing in the first three pages to put a twist on Nazis.

John Irving's The 158-Pound Marriage piqued my interest because of the extreme gruesomeness of a past event, combined with the narrator's present marriage to the person in the earlier ordeal, combined again with the mysterious title. There's a lot going on here!

Susan Isaacs' Any Place I Hang My Hat tickled my sci-fi fancy. In a world...where weekly magazines of lengthy text-only articles can be popular. Ok, it's not really sci-fi but this at least counts as a fantasy, right?

Kazuo Ishiguro's An Artist Of The Floating World had a definite mystery vibe. The narrator lives in a rich house because of some kind of contest-of-character put on by the previous owners.

Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle was similar. At the top of page 2, "The last time I glanced at the library books on the kitchen shelf they were more than five months overdue and I wondered whether I would have chosen differently if I had known that these were the last books, the ones that would stand forever on our kitchen shelf." Sold.

Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question features a man who constantly and vividly fantasizes about things going wrong. Something has finally, actually gone wrong and I would complain about the vagueness, but the character is interesting enough that it almost wouldn't matter if the something turned out to be mundane to normal people.

What I want out of the first three pages is to see something happen that's interesting on its own yet promises more. Heck, it's the James Bond movie formula. The harder question I've begun wrestling with is: What do I want out of fiction in general? Why spend so much time with the stuff? I would welcome recommendations on the philosophy of literature, preferably from at least the time when novels were a thing. At some point I may need to make selections on behalf of library patrons; it would be nice to have a well-considered foundation for such decisions.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Quote of the Day: Locke on the Meaning of Words

"[M]en talk to one another, and dispute in words, whose meaning is not agreed between them, out of a mistake that the significations of common words are certainly established, and the precise ideas they stand for perfectly known ; and that it is a shame to be ignorant of them. Both which suppositions are false ; no names of complex ideas having so settled determined significations, that they are constantly used for the same precise ideas. Nor is it a shame for a man not to have a certain knowledge of anything, but by the necessary ways of attaining it ; and so it is no discredit not to know what precise idea any sound stands for in another man’s mind, without he declare it to me by some other way than barely using that sound, there being no other way, without such a declaration, certainly to know it. Indeed the necessity of communication by language brings men to an agreement in the signification of common words, within some tolerable latitude, that may serve for ordinary conversation : and so a man cannot be supposed wholly ignorant of the ideas which are annexed to words by common use, in a language familiar to him. But common use being but a very uncertain rule, which reduces itself at last to the ideas of particular men, proves often but a very variable standard."

— John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book III Chapter XI

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

How to Find Books

If you enjoyed The Hunger Games, I bet you'd like The Crimson Labyrinth!
Oh wait. This post isn't about discovering new books; it's about tracking down a particular book so you can actually read it. These are my book hunting tips and tricks. Several ethical levels included.

Tip 1: Cat World! No, Make That: World Cat! lets you search many library catalogs at once. That's sort of cool by itself, but what really makes WorldCat amazing is its location-based searching. Put a zip code, city, or whatever into the Enter your location box to see list of nearby copies of a book.

If there's a nearby copy but it's in a university library, it doesn't hurt to ask for a community card. I picked up Robert Oerter's book The Theory of Almost Everything from a local Christian university and they didn't even charge me for a card like the public university does!

If there doesn't seem to be a nearby copy, don't panic. Many library collections aren't covered by WorldCat, e.g. the whole public library system here. You'll just have to check those online catalogs yourself. Still nothing? Ask a librarian about interlibrary loan.

Tip 2: Shopping Around With Google Books

Google Books has an easily overlooked feature that's great for comparison shopping. Once you've selected a book, look for the All Sellers link. You might have to click on Get this book in print first. This is an especially good way to find low prices on textbooks.

Tip 3: Buy The "Wrong" E-Books

You don't need a Kindle tablet to read Kindle e-books. There's a Kindle app for Windows, OS X, and pretty much any tablet except a Nook. (Even then, you can "root" your Nook to turn it into a general purpose Android tablet.)

There's also a Nook app for all of these platforms, including Kindle.

Tip 4: Save The Future

If you're reluctant to buy e-books because of all the restrictions, check out these publishers of DRM-free e-books. Tech books and sci-fi/fantasy books are frequently available this way.

Tip 5: Starve An Author

Google Books gives free previews of lots of books. Maybe there's enough visible for what you wanted anyway. (Here's an entire short story, for example.) Same goes for Amazon and other e-book sellers.

Now, let's say you found a preview but you need the whole text. Maybe someone put it on the web? Select some unique line of text from the preview and Google it. Avoid popular quotes but do put quotation marks around the excerpt:
"bones jingling in them at every step"
You can use the filetype operator to narrow things down to your preferred format:
"bones jingling in them at every step" filetype:pdf
Or to use Google as a torrent search site:
"moby dick" filetype:torrent
Tip 6: Get Social

Book exchange clubs are a low cost alternative to buying (mostly) fiction that you can't find in the library. There's something special about reading books with a travel history!

Do you have any more tips to share? Please comment.

Monday, July 9, 2012

On "The Ethics of Belief"

In his 1877 essay, The Ethics of Belief, William Clifford claims: "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." The bulk of the essay is concerned with what counts as sufficient evidence, but I'm not going to get into that here. Let's just assume it's clear when a belief is based on sufficient vs. insufficient evidence.

A Sea Tale

What's so ethically wrong about believing something upon insufficient evidence? Clifford begins by telling a story about a shipowner who doubted his ship was safe, but stifled his doubts until he came to sincerely believe it was safe. The ship sank and he received his insurance money. What a jerk! Intuitively, he's guilty of something. But what, exactly? Clifford writes:
"He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts. And although in the end he may have felt so sure about it that he could not think otherwise, yet inasmuch as he had knowingly and willingly worked himself into that frame of mind, he must be held responsible for it."
There's a problem here. Clifford's goal in this essay is to convince us of the wrongness of merely holding a belief without sufficient evidence. A more appropriate story would start with the shipowner believing the ship is seaworthy and then neglect to confirm his belief to some appropriate degree. He would not have "knowingly and willing worked himself into that frame of mind." We could consistently condemn someone for doubt-stifling yet not condemn someone for whom the doubt never arose.

Clifford goes on to say that the shipowner's guilt would not be reduced "one jot" if he stifled his doubts and the ship was — in fact — completely seaworthy. I agree that the shipowner would still be failing to carry out due diligence, but he can't be "guilty of the death of those men" as Clifford had claimed about the original case. This is a terrible story for making Clifford's point because it mixes in guilt for manslaughter, guilt for doubt-stifling, and the whole controversial idea that a person can choose what to believe.


What if the shipowner were convinced that the ship is fine, but checks it anyway to fulfill his professional obligations? Clifford would condemn him for believing the ship is fine before checking it. And even if the confident shipowner checks the ship and finds no problems, Clifford would still(!) condemn him for continuing to believe his ship is fine.
"No man holding a strong belief on one side of a question, or even wishing to hold a belief on one side, can investigate it with such fairness and completeness as if he were really in doubt and unbiased; so that the existence of a belief not founded on fair inquiry unfits a man for the performance of this necessary duty."
Why is being "really in doubt" unbiased, yet it's biased to believe something? Are doubters somehow immune to confirmation bias while believers are not? Can someone loan me a time machine so I can show Clifford the modern denialist movements?


I have to admit this bit is rather poetic:
"No real belief, however trifling and fragmentary it may seem, is ever truly insignificant; it prepares us to receive more of its like, confirms those which resembled it before, and weakens others; and so gradually it lays a stealthy train in our inmost thoughts, which may someday explode into overt action, and leave its stamp upon our character for ever."
So not only are we in a permanent failure state if we already believe something important without sufficient evidence, any "trifling" misheld belief is just as bad. As anti-religious as Clifford is, I feel like he's introducing his own system of everyone's-a-sinner. He actually does use the word "sinful" later on.

Virtue and Vice

We finally see more explicit ethical theory two paragraphs before his oft-quoted conclusion. First, he rejects act consequentialism:
"And, as in other such cases, it is not the risk only which has to be considered; for a bad action is always bad at the time when it is done, no matter what happens afterwards."
He does dabble with justification for his maxim from rule consequentialism.
"Every time we let ourselves believe for unworthy reasons, we weaken our powers of self-control, of doubting, of judicially and fairly weighing evidence. We all suffer severely enough from the maintenance and support of false beliefs and the fatally wrong actions which they lead to, and the evil born when one such belief is entertained is great and wide."
But rule consequentialism might not cover all cases of believing for insufficient reasons. I suspect believing that one's own prescriptions are effective drugs is helpful as a rule, even though doctors sometimes prescribe placebos. Also, stifling doubts about doing something dangerous-but-necessary may increase one's chance of success.

Clifford turns to a form of virtue ethics as his primary justifications for saying it's wrong to hold any belief without sufficient evidence.
"If I steal money from any person, there may be no harm done from the mere transfer of possession; he may not feel the loss, or it may prevent him from using the money badly. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself dishonest. What hurts society is not that it should lose its property, but that it should become a den of thieves, for then it must cease to be society."
So it's not about immediate or far off consequences associated with the loss of money; it's about acting contrary to the kind of beings we are. We're social beings and social beings respect property. Likewise, beliefs held on insufficient evidence may have this or that consequence, but what's really wrong with such beliefs is that they turn us into credulous savages.

Beliefs and Ethical Goals

For Clifford, not falling into intellectual savagery is an ultimate and overriding ethical end. Holding beliefs without sufficient reason is detrimental to that end, so it's always wrong to do so. I don't think most of us would agree because we have other values that are (at least) on the same level as doing our epistemic duty.

I would connect evidence to ethics in a way that's quite significant, even if it isn't as absolute as Clifford's connection. Informally:
  • Beliefs held with sufficient evidence are more likely to be true than beliefs held without sufficient evidence. 
  • Goals are more likely to be achieved when holding relevant true beliefs than relevant false beliefs.
  • Goals are more likely to be achieved when relevant beliefs are held with sufficient evidence.
  • Ethical rightness involves maximizing the likelihood of achieving certain goals.
  • Ethical rightness involves holding relevant beliefs with sufficient evidence.
At any rate, "The Ethics of Belief" is a provocative and fun read...or maybe an infuriating read. I appreciate the way he criticizes Christianity by only criticizing other religions directly. He's sure not a boring writer.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Library School Ramblings

With Summer semester wrapping up, I thought I'd share a few things that have been bugging me from the last year or so of Library Science classes.

Taking Terminology Too Seriously

More than one class has featured a discussion about whether libraries organize (or store) information vs. if this were an important question with an objective answer. Librarians are also interested in the nature of data vs. information and knowledge vs. wisdom. Put this all together, and you have the so-called Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom Hierarchy. There's an assumption that all four of these terms line up neatly and discretely with a similar kind of progress happening between each pair. This means if something is data it would be wrong to refer to it as "information."

Four distinct words must refer to four distinct concepts, right? To some people, throwing these terms around willy-nilly is as horrifying as letting the beet juice touch the mashed potatoes. Please take a minute to skim this article as a perfect example of my gripe:

Yes, how dare those reporters talk about "data loss." That's as absurd as worrying about "landscape loss" when a paper map blows away! Not all DIKW Hierarchy fans define data and information in this way, but this actually makes the situation worse. If you're going to insist these four words have distinct meanings, it shouldn't be so hard to agree on their boundaries, at least roughly. Same goes for the disputes about what-counts-as-what in the Work-Expression-Manifestation-Item model.

The problem comes from taking extremely common, messy words and trying to make them into Library & Information Science terms of art...while denying the artificial nature of this move. If you really want the public to embrace technical definitions, the cleaned-up terminology should (1) be clear within the originating field, and (2) make distinctions that are very useful in general discussions. A great example from Psychology is the now widespread use of "sex" to refer to biology and "gender" to refer to social/cultural dimensions of masculinity and femininity. Meanwhile in library land, I worry that we're causing ourselves more confusion than clarity with these terminology issues.

The Plurality of Truth

One of my teachers likes to say "Truth is plural," usually in the context of seeking out information about an issue from multiple viewpoints. I've heard a similar point made elsewhere, citing the story of the blind men and the elephant. In both cases, I don't think the reason to be open to the arguments and experiences of other people is that truth is plural. Rather, it's that our individual prejudices and limited personal experience make finding the (singular) truth difficult, so we need to learn to listen to a broad range of views, critically evaluate what we hear, and incorporate social knowledge into our own beliefs. I see much of librarianship as being about giving people the tools and promoting the skills to do precisely this.

Blasted Google!

A guest lecturer talked about how disappointing it was to teach a short course on library resources, then still have most students say they use Google first. I've seen this notion of "How do we get students to stop using Google for research?" in several other places since then. It's as if one of the important objectives in information literacy education were:
  • Uses subscription databases before Google
Granted, people who are bad at searching typically type something into Google, scan the first page of hits, and give up if nothing looks promising. But see if you can spot the fallacy:
Bad searchers use Google first.
Bridget uses Google first.
Therefore, Bridget is a bad searcher.
This entire worry is wrong-headed. Sure, Google — and any other web-crawler-based search engine — has important limitations. Web resources lack the kind of systematic metadata found in library and subscription databases. It can be harder to determine who is responsible for web content and when it was written. Two resources on the same subject might use different vocabulary, so keyword searching can easily find one resource and miss the another. Google also misses a lot of content that's locked up behind subscriptions. But it's not like there's some other tool that does what Google does, only better.

Case in point: A few months ago, I did some research about the history of women's rights. I did end up using the fantastic database 19th Century British Library Newspapers, but I found out about certain historical events and the newspaper database by Googling. It was also a real pain to figure out where I could get subscription access.

I would much rather spend energy showing people how to use Google more effectively while, at the same time, promoting specialized search services.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Monthly Picks

On the first day of each month, I will be posting about new papers I've found interesting in Philosophy or Library & Information Science. I'll try to make sure at least one is accessible to everyone.

Green, S. (2011). Morality is not good. Emergent Australasian Philosophers 4(1).
[link] freely accessible