The Ashtray

(Or the Man Who Denied Reality)

[Amazon Link]

Back in the day, specifically my college days, I read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn. In fact, it's one of the few books from that era that I still have on my shelves (I just looked: yeah, there it is).

You see, Caltech insisted that even us physics geeks had to take one course per term in non-stem fields: history, English, econ, … or philosophy. And even though I didn't (still don't) have the type of brain suited to deep thinking about questions that people have been thinking about for millennia without getting answers, I said: sure, I'll take that philosophy of science course.

So I read Kuhn, and I was far more impressed by his argument than I should have been.

Which was, loosely speaking: during normal, non-revolutionary periods, scientists operate within the dominant paradigm relevant to their research field. For example, Ptolemaic astronomers observed the heavens and hammered their findings into the Ptolemaic geocentric cosmos. With difficulty, of course, but, hey, science is not easy.

But along comes a revolutionary theory with a new paradigm, like Copernicus's, that does a better job of describing reality. (Although the theories, Kuhn said, were 'incommensurable'; you couldn't really refute or support one via appeals to the other.) Then we have a paradigm shift, adherents to the old theory either adapt or die, and the new paradigm establishes its dominance, usually without literal trips to the guillotine.

About the same time I was inordinately impressed by Kuhn, a grad student named Errol Morris was at Princeton, enrolled in the Program in the History and Philosophy of Science, which Kuhn headed. They did not get on. According to Morris, Kuhn was a petty chain-smoking tyrant, forbidding him from attending lectures from other competing philosophers. And things culminated in Kuhn (allegedly) throwing this book's butt-filled titular object at Morris's head during a particularly heated "philosophical" discussion.

So Morris went on to become a famous documentary filmmaker instead of an obscure philosopher. But he still retained an interest, and (I think it's fair to say) kind of a grudge, and this book, safely published two decades after Kuhn's death.

It's a full-throated attack on the Kuhnian viewpoint, which Morris contends is a hopeless denial of human ability to apprehend reality and truth, crushed as we are by the weight of our dominant paradigms, only on occasion to escape, just to be recrushed by the next paradigm we just shifted to. Morris makes his philosophical case for (instead) the pursuit of truth "through reason, through observation, through investigation, through thought, through science".

Morris is a political leftie, and his book is kind of interesting also as a sidelight onto just how radically left academia was back then. He interviews the late Hilary Putnam, once a proud member of the Maoist Progressive Labor Party while a Harvard prof. And Noam Chomsky. And he tells of his arrest while blocking the entrances to the Institute for Defense Analysis near Princeton back in 1972. Et cetera.

If that were all, this book would be pretty grim and tedious. But there's a lot of humor too, some pop culture references. Since he's a filmmaker, Morris knows his flicks: there are long asides discussing particular aspects of Citizen Kane and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. Numerous footnotes, not quite at the volume preferred by David Foster Wallace, but close. (One of the footnotes mentions Morris's fondness for, yes, David Foster Wallace.) And there are lots of offbeat illustrations, about one per page. My personal favorite:

Jean Léon Gerome 1896 La Vérité sortant du puits.JPG

By Jean-Léon Gérôme - Sergey Prokopenko, Public Domain, Link

We don't often do naked ladies here at Pun Salad, but it's art, so it's OK. That's "Truth Coming Out of Her Well". She's pissed.

I've seen a number of reviews that suggest Morris may be overstating his case in his eagerness to trash all things Kuhnian. I am (see what I said about my brain up there) not one to judge. But this is a relentlessly entertaining book, especially if you skim over all the philosophical navel-gazing.