A few weeks ago a good friend turned me on to this series by Errol Morris, “The Ashtray”. I’ve collated the 5 parts here: 1) The Ultimatum, 2) Shifting Paradigms, 3) Hippasus of Metapontum, 4) The Author of the “Quixote”, and 5) This Contest of Interpretation. The same Errol Morris who made The Fog of War and Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control.
It’s a good read. Morris approaches the essays with a documentarian’s eye for the drama of the mundane and snippets of dialog with an array of pertinent personages. Morris cuts right to the chase, explaining the obscure title of the series in the first paragraph.
It was April, 1972. The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N. J. The home in the 1950s of Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel. Thomas Kuhn, the author of “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” and the father of the paradigm shift, threw an ashtray at my head.
Apparently, Kuhn was a bit peeved that his student (Morris) would dare attend a lecture by Saul Kripke. Morris reworks the incident throughout The Ashtray, weaving it through Pythagorean myth and legend concerning an alleged murder of Hippasus of Metapontum to illuminate his interpretation of why Kuhn became so stuck on his own notion of incommensurable paradigms in science. All the while tempting the reader to consider whether Kuhn really meant what we have come to believe his words mean, or whether Kuhn ended up defending the interpretation of others.
In some ways, Morris’ experience mirrors my own brush with Thomas Kuhn’s writing, albeit with far more drama and many more discussions with serious people than my life can muster. I don’t know what Kripke said at that lecture (Morris did attend), but he could have sat in on a biology lecture and found similar evidence that the whole “truth is relative” meme is utter BS. Even in the late ‘60s evolutionists understood that life on Earth preceded the emergence of humans and human cognition (whatever that is), a fact that is (truly) incommensurable with the concept of relative truths, which strongly implies that in the absence of a human to construct a paradigm no reality exists. I never did finish reading that book by T. Kuhn. Morris finds his way to the same realization, by way of Kripke, by the end of part 5.
So often the value of a broad-based education such as provided by liberal arts and public land grant Universities is cast in terms of broadening the perspective of the scientists and engineers, but Morris’ adventures in education offer a different example. Had he spent a little more time in the lab (chemistry or biology) and a little less trying to please the petulant narcissism of his philosophy professor, perhaps he’d have ditched Kuhn with far less hand-wringing. (Of course, he might not have made Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, so there’s a downside perhaps).
Which brings me back to Kripke. And to “Naming and Necessity.” Why is Kripke relevant to any of this? I believe it is because his work is an attempt to create new links — between words and things and between the present and the past. Although he is rarely described in this way, he is among other things, a philosopher of history. We can believe strange things about the past, but we can still refer to things in the past.  There is an objective reality. There is objective truth. And there is objective history.  The beliefs of 6th century B.C.E. mathematicians might be inaccessible to us (or at least, difficult for us to understand), but when Hippasus or one of his contemporaries refer to √2, they are referring to the same thing we are.  (References defined at link).
I’m thankful I never had to deal with such philosophers as Kuhn and their ashtrays. Relatively early on I could see that the process of science was very much like an asymptote, always approaching objective reality but forever held back by human subjective interpretation. For example, its not so much that the Lewis Structures are not commensurable with Molecular Orbital Theory, its that the newer model of chemical bond formation is applicable to more known molecules than the previous “paradigm”. Neither theory completely defines the objective reality of molecules, but each helps some of us to figure out ways to arrange the molecules into “useful” materials with which other humans make new tools and technologies.