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GIF Minutes for September 19, 2003

Prepared by Judie McCoyd

Attending: Cheryl, Roland, Paul, Sam, Judie, Corey, Anne

Readings: Return to Reason- S. Toulmin ; Historical Science, experimental science and the scientific method- C. Cleland (from Geology, Nov. 2001)


Update on the teaching certificate program:  the first event was successfully held on Sept. 10, 2003 and the group is actively planning for Catharine Stimpson’s visit on October 29.    She will present publicly from 12-2 at GSSWSR and then meet with campus faculty/ administrators during the day, followed by dinner with some of the GIF group.  She will then meet with the teaching seminar people in the evening (7:30) for further discussion.

Discussions about GIF: The Metaphysical Club  (Menand) was chosen for our first Fall 2003 reading group discussion and will likely continue into the October meeting, with an article suggested by Anne and written by Liu.  The meetings will generally occur mid-month on Friday’s from 1-3 at the GSSWSR.  Planned dates for Fall are October 17, November 14, and December 12

A broad invitation to the graduate student community will go out prior to next meeting.  Discussions ensued re: allowing people from off-campus to join our group and it was decided to keep the group open to all who are interested.

Discussions about whether to keep the teaching certificate group discussions separate from the GIF discussions on the posting board occurred and it was decided to keep it together to maximize participation on the board and will be separated if it becomes too unwieldy in terms of having two separate streams of discussion.

Readings discussion:

            Roland started discussion by asking what relationship stability might have to the notions of certainty/ uncertainty and how this might inform our discussions about the nature of knowledge and “truth.”  Most agreed that when there is more stability in a system, it seems to yield more certainty in knowledge development, however the study of tectonics (sp?) was raised as an example of an understanding that there is never truly stability and that “drift” is a constant.

            Most discussion centered on the phrase “asymmetry of overdetermination” from the Cleland article (attributed to David Lewis) and we felt enamored of the phrase but unsure of the accurate interpretation of its meaning.  Discussion led to consideration of decision-making as a form of potentially “over- or under- determined actions”.  Corey suggested that Toulmin’s use of Aristotle’s concept of phronesis might be useful- the idea that we have multiple explanatory and predictive theories floating in our heads, from which we select and take action (practice).  She further suggested that we need a sense of stability that our concepts are “right enough” to make decisions based upon the theories and used the example of a social worker deciding whether to remove a child from a potentially unsafe home.  She went further to assert that while we need stability to make these types of required decisions, we also need to allow uncertainty in order to build new knowledge.

            Paul and Anne had attended a language group meeting and Paul questioned the notion of stability at all.  He reported a question about whether “aesthetics is selectively adapted” and he asserted that it is a fundamental misunderstanding to ask whether a characteristic is “selected for”.  He claims evolution happens in the future in that adaptations occur providing an opening for something further to happen in the future.  He argues that decisions occur as a result NOT of looking back on “past failed experiments” but looking toward new experiments to create new knowledge and to avoid old situations.  Corey argued that of course knowledge is changing, but that there may need to be a “contingent sense of certainty” in order to be decisive while Paul argued back that “one can be decisive without certainty.”

            Anne moved us to a new focus by asking if the “right” that kept turning up in the previous conversations might mean something further. If the idea of “right” knowledge or decisions needs to be thrown out, maybe the idea of either of those being “wrong” (or failed) would also need to be tossed at that point.   She wondered what criteria are relevant at that point.  Cheryl, also addressing Paul’s idea that decisions/ practice are based on avoiding prior bad examples, questioned whether we don’t have to assume a certain level of creativity on the part of students if all we do is teach the failed examples as Paul had suggested.  Paul and all agreed, but Corey raised the issue of where positive role models fit into this model.  Anne asserted that we all recognize the limited nature of knowledge, but that trying to increase certainty doesn’t mean that we lose the uncertainty that encourages us to keep building new knowledge.

            Roland returned us to the example of decision making and asked why people would then develop new information or try to make a decision that requires them to take new action and he used the straight-forward example of choosing to turn right or left.  He suggested one must have some sort of stable sense of reference.  Judie suggested that what is stable has little to do directly with failed experiments or new experiments in action as much as it has to do with a stable sense of priority of principles.  She cited the Emergence book from last Fall that claimed that in gaming theory, there is a tendency for computer models to turn right, consistently creating certain patterns.  She further suggested that human decisions similarly tend toward the directions of one’s principles.  Paul questioned whether these principles aren’t derived initially from the awareness of failure in prior actions (experiments).  He claimed that humans are the only animal that thinks about their own thinking and that we therefore create reasoning for our decisions, but that it is no more accurate than just flipping a coin- it just has more rationale associated with it. He told the story of agonizing over course scheduling as a freshman and being advised by his father to just flip a coin, and found that it served him well.

            Corey challenged this by wondering if certainty (or relevant criteria) is/are needed in terms of the ability to say “I did the best I could with my knowledge at the time.”  Judie also challenged the coin-flip notion citing her dissertation research where women had to make decisions between concerns for their own future versus that of a delivering a fetus with anomalies- often feeling as if their own well-being was in perfect juxtaposition and balance with the well-being of an anomalous but loved fetus/baby/May-be.  She asserted that these women are trying to prioritize principles as opposed to doing a coin-flip.  Paul claimed that all decisions are really just a form of coin-flipping and tied this to the “asymmetry of over determination” to assert that the future is under- determined while the past is over-determined.

            Sam brought the crime example in the Cleland article to our attention stating that it seemed a poor example for explaining the notion of asymmetry of overdetermination (ie there are many traces to a crime already committed, not committing the crime is the only way of ensuring that no trace is left).  Corey questioned (and most agreed) that it seemed to be merely a new way of saying that hindsight is 20/20.  We discussed the fact that many of these discussion points have multiple built in assumptions, not all of which have been brought to attention.  We ended our time, as usual, with more questions raised, and also with a continued sense of frustration of the implications of a phrase that seems to have a lot of potential, and yet much difficulty in interpretation.            

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