Forrest Cameranesi: Geek of all Trades

On Academics, Education, and the Institutions of Knowledge

The philosophy of academics (or academic philosophy, but not just in the sense of philosophy as practiced in academia) is not, so far as I am aware, a field that has heretofore been studied as a subject unto itself, but rather only piecemeal in other fields including epistemology, the philosophy of education, and the philosophy of religion. But I intend to address it here as a subject unto itself, as an analogue to political philosophy (or the philosophy of politics): where that field is concerned with governance and the social institutions of justice, especially as they relate to the prescriptive authorities called states, this field as I characterize it is concerned with education and the social institutions of knowledge, especially as they relate to the descriptive authorities that I would broadly characterize as religions.

As should already be clear from my previous essays on belief and especially against dogmatism, I am broadly against the validity of any supposed epistemic authority, and so against the epistemic legitimacy of any religion, where that term is understood to mean some institute that claims such authority. This position is generally called freethought. But such freethought does not mean that I am against all or necessarily any of the descriptive claims issued forth by such institutions, only that I am against them being taken as authoritative simply for being issued by such institutions.

On Research

Just because I am against any such institution being taken as epistemically authoritative does not mean that I am against all social institutions seeking to promote knowledge. I am very much in favor of a widespread, global collaborative process of many individuals sharing their insights into the nature of reality, checking each other's findings, and collating the resulting consensus together into the closest thing to an authoritative understanding of reality that it is possible to create, for the reference of others who have not undertaken such exhaustive research themselves.

The proviso is simply that that resulting product should always be understood to be a work in progress, always open to question and revision, though it should in time become more and more hardened such that questions to which it does not already have answers become more and more difficult to find, and so large revisions to it become more and more difficult to make. This is essentially the process of peer review already widely in use in contemporary academia, and I don't claim to be putting forth much if anything new here in that regard, merely documenting the structure of a process of which I approve, for completeness of my philosophy.

The process proceeds in three broad phases:

  • In the first phase, in what are called primary sources of knowledge, researchers publish detailed accounts of the observations that they have made, including especially the circumstances under which they were made, such as the setup of an experiment if a controlled experiment was done, or other important contextual information if an observation was made in the field, so that others can later attempt to replicate those circumstances and see if they observe the same phenomena; and these primary sources can also share the conclusions their authors draw from their observations.
  • In the second phase, in what are called secondary sources, groups of other researchers review and comment on the quality of that original research in media such as journals, republishing the original research that they find worthy in the process.
  • In the third phase, still others gauge the consensus opinion held between those secondary sources on what can somewhat reliably, though of course alway still tentatively, be said about what is real, and publish those conclusions in more accessible summary works called tertiary sources, such as textbooks and encyclopedias.

These reference works are thus the closest things to epistemically authoritative texts that are possible, the reasonable substitute for authoritative religious texts traditionally taken as infallible fonts of knowledge; though these tertiary sources are not to be taken so infallibly, but understood as merely the best findings about reality that are as yet available, the theories that have survived not only the empirical testing of some individual researcher, but also the heavy criticism of everyone else participating in this endeavor throughout the world.

On Testing

Aside from that multi-tiered process of research just described to produce an alternative to traditional holy texts, an entirely different but valuable social role that religious education has but secular education largely seems to be lacking is that of what we might call the "pastor". Apart from its religious meaning, that is a Latin word roughly equivalent to the English word "shepherd", with etymological roots relating to nourishing and protecting. So by that word in this context I mean a generally smart and knowledgeable person who is well-versed in the "authoritative" texts – a religion's holy book in the traditional role, but the tertiary reference books in the secularized version – to whom laypeople can come if they have individual questions about what is real, or to whom parties in a dispute about that can come for mediation and adjudication.

The answers given by such a person should not to be taken on their own personal authority, but on the "authority", such as it is, of the entire global process leading to the production of the reference works to which the pastor refers for their answers. Such pastors should be free to choose the reference works that they find best to use in this process, and individuals or disputing parties coming to them for answers or mediation should be free to choose pastors that they find best to use for their purposes, including for the reason of their choice of reference works. Furthermore, the reference works should not be taken by the pastors as infallible, and in each case it should be possible in principle – though increasingly more difficult in practice over time – to successfully challenge the claims of the reference works, and in doing so force a revision to them.

In this way the entire process remains technically non-authoritative, with lay people merely choosing to invest those who they judge to be smarter and more knowledgeable than themselves with a transient semblance of authority to help them better figure out what to think for themselves, or to settle arguments that they cannot settle between themselves. (How to resolve cases where different parties to the same dispute appeal to different pastors for mediation is addressed later in this essay.)

On Teaching

Still aside from that reactive pastor role, I hold that it is also important to have, as many societies already do, more proactive roles of teachers and public educators. The role of the teacher, as distinct from the pastor, is to actively guide their students to believe things that are probably true, according to those same reference works like textbooks, rather than merely to be there to answer questions and settle arguments as they come up. The teacher provides the students with answers to questions they hadn't even thought to ask yet, and in doing so hopefully helps to prevent arguments from coming up between them in the first place.

To keep this teacher role from becoming too authoritative, though, to keep it from becoming mere indoctrination of one person by another, I think it's important to maintain a separation of the educational roles of teaching, testing, and research, much as in governance it is important to maintain a separation of powers between the executives, judiciary, and legislature. A teacher should not be teaching to texts that they wrote themselves, nor testing their own students on how well they have learned what the teacher wanted them to learn; and neither should the one doing the testing be the author of the text against which the students are tested.

Rather, the text should be a result of the global research process detailed earlier in this essay; accordance with it should be tested by someone like the pastor role described above, someone well-versed in that text; and the teaching of that text to the students should be done by a separate party, teaching to the same text as the person who will later test them, but independent of that testing. In this way the teacher cannot, upon doing their own testing, simply pass those students who they find saying things the teacher approves of and fail those who disagree, but must correctly teach an independent text that someone else, also independent of the authorship of that text, will test them against; and in this way no person involved in the education can exercise unbridled epistemic authority over their students.

Another teacher-like role, but even more proactive still, is that of public educator, who rather than guiding only those students who come to them seeking education – that being still a reactive process in a way – instead looks out over the public discourse and speaks out against falsehoods where they see them, as well as spreading true information to those who may not necessarily be looking for it. Newspapers and the like fall into this category as well as more individual agents. This begins to veer dangerously close to the public educator asserting their own epistemic authority over others, and to make sure that it does not come to that, this process must wind up turning to an independent, mutually agreed-upon "pastor" figure to settle the resulting argument, by reference to still-more-independent reference works that are the product of the global research project detailed earlier in this essay.

But I think that it is important to have such public educators going out and contesting falsehoods in the public discourse, making sure there is an argument about them and they don't just go unchallenged, even as dangerously close to authoritarianism as that might veer, because freethought is by its very anti-authoritarian nature paradoxically vulnerable to small pockets of epistemic authority arising out of the power vacuum, and if that instability goes completely unchecked, it can easily threaten to destroy the freethinking discourse entirely and collapse it into a new, epistemically authoritarian regime; a religion in effect, even if not in name.

On Irreligious Education

In the absence of good education of the general populace, all manner of little "cults", for lack of a better word, easily spring up. By that I mean small groups of kooks and cranks and quacks each with their own strange dogmas, their own quirky views on what they find to be profound hidden truths that they think everyone else is either just too stupid to wise up to, or else are being actively suppressed by those who want to hide those truths from the public.

Meanwhile, those with greater knowledge see those supposed truths for the falsehoods that they are, and can show them to be such, if only the others could be engaged in a legitimately rational discourse. But instead, these groups use irrational means of persuasion to to ensnare others who do not know better into their little cults; and left unchecked, these can easily become actual full-blown religions, their quirky little forms of ignorance becoming widespread, socially-acceptable ignorance, that can appropriate the veneer of epistemic authority and force their ignorance on others under the guise of knowledge.

Checking the spread of such ignorance by challenging it in the public discourse is the role of the public educator. The need for that role would be lessened if more people would actively seek out education from teachers or pastors as I have described them above, but not everyone will seek out their own education and so some people will continue to spread ignorance – and even those who do seek out their own education may still accidentally spread ignorance – and in that event, there need to be public educators to stand against that. But that then veers awfully close to proposing effectively another "religion" to counter the growth of others.

I think there is perhaps an irresolvable paradox here, in that a public discourse abhors a power vacuum and so the only way to keep religions, institutions claiming epistemic authority, at bay, is in effect to have one strong enough to do so already in place. But I think there is still hope for freedom of thought, in that not all religions are equally authoritarian: even within religions as more normally and narrowly characterized, some have their dogma handed down through strict decisions and hierarchies, while others more democratically decide what they as a community believe. I think that the best that we can hope for, something that we have perhaps come remarkably close to realizing in the educational systems of some contemporary societies, is a "religion", or rather an academic system, that enshrines the principles of freethought, and is structured in a way consistent with those principles.

Such a system of freethinking education is somewhat analogous to how, in my essay on the mind, I held that "mind" in one sense is present in all matter, and neither something beyond matter that imposes itself upon matter, nor something that spontaneously arises from certain configurations of matter, but nevertheless can be refined by certain configurations of matter; and proper mind per se requires such configurations of matter and doesn't exist in just any random amalgam of matter, but nevertheless still consists of nothing above or beyond simply refined arrangements of the same fundamental "mind" omnipresent in all matter.

So too, here I hold epistemic "authority" to be present in all people, and neither something beyond people that imposes itself upon people, nor something that spontaneously arises from certain configurations of people, but nevertheless can be refined by certain configurations of people; and proper education requires such configurations of people and doesn't exist in just any random amalgam of people, but nevertheless still consists of nothing above or beyond simply refined arrangements of the same fundamental authority omnipresent in all people.

The ideal form of such a system of education would, I think, see the pastor role described above as the central figure, to whom laypeople come as students with questions and arguments to be resolved. Those pastors then turn, on the one hand, to the authors of tertiary sources for their knowledge, who in turn turn to authors of secondary sources, who in turn turn to the authors of primary sources; while on the other hand the pastors turn to teachers and to public educators to better inform those laypeople coming to them as students.

When there is an argument between two people who cannot mutually agree on one pastor to resolve their conflict, they can each call upon their own separate pastors to step in and resolve the argument between themselves. If need be, if they cannot reach an agreement even with their greater knowledge than their students, those pastors can turn to yet another mutually agreed upon pastor to resolve the resulting conflict between them, or else escalate further on, until at some point the argument is escalated to some parties who can work out an agreement on the matter between them, or to some mutually agreed upon arbiter who can decide the matter, and in either case then pass the decision back down the chain; unless, in the worse case scenario, an irreconcilable rift in the public discourse is discovered, in which case there is no perfect solution regardless of the system of education we have in place.

On Proselytism

Maintaining a generally equal level of information between all the members of society is of utmost importance to making sure that such a freethinking educational system can continue to function properly, because if some people have so much more information than others, they have the ability to persuade those others to believe whatever they believe (without those others having the informational resources to properly criticize what they are told), and so begin to wield effective epistemic authority which can then easily grow into a proper religion. Because of this interdependence between liberty of thought and equal access to information, freethinking education requires what we might call a proselytizing approach to information distribution: when new information is discovered, that news must somehow become widespread, and not remain only known to those who discovered it and those closest to them.

This does not necessarily mean preaching a dogma, demanding that everyone must adopt the new findings; that would obviously be a religion, and so not freethinking. "Proselytizing" as I mean it here means only that the populace cannot be divided into those who have access to the information and those who don't. In contrast, such a division of society into those who know the important information and those who don't is what is called in religious studies "mysterianism", which many ancient religions practiced, having the greatest supposed "truths" known only to the innermost circle, with everyone else in the religion dependent on them for guidance.

Medieval European Christianity had shades of this as well with their holy text being available only in Latin and so incomprehensible to most of the congregation, making them dependent on their priests for an interpretation of the text; and newer religions like Scientology and some Wiccan traditions once again go back to a fully mysterian model as well. Even in the generally freethinking educational system that dominates in the western world today, limited public access to research journals creates exactly the kind of wall between those who have access to information and those who don't that freethought cannot flourish in.

Freethought definitionally cannot survive alongside mysterianism, as those who held privileged access to information would merely become in effect the new religious leaders, with nobody else able to double-check and properly criticize them. Similarly, truly open proselytization, in the sense that I mean it here, cannot in practice survive alongside a religion, as whoever leads the religion controls all the information that is allowed to be disseminated, and can silence as heretical any ideas that threaten their epistemic authority (as pre-modern examples of religions silencing scientific research clearly show).

Academic Spectrum

Despite the interdependency of liberty of thought and equal distribution of information described above, there is a history of both freethinking individuals secreting away the results of their research, and of course of religious proselytization, epitomized especially in Abrahamic religions like Christianity and Islam. By considering liberty of thought and equal distribution of information independently, we can create a two-dimensional spectrum of academic systems, on which such different approaches and my own position can be located. I do not actually advocate for absolute liberty of thought or absolutely equal distribution of information, but rather hold what I view to be a centrist position on both topics.

In one corner of this spectrum are the ancient mystery religions, and newer religions like Scientology that revive that mysterian approach. In another are the more familiar modern proselytizing religions. In a third corner are the freethinking researchers who withhold the information they discover from free public access, including both the likes of medieval alchemists secretly investigating ways to turn lead into gold, and the likes of modern trade-secret corporate research, and paywalled, limited-access research journals. In the last corner far opposite mystery religions would be positions that are so in favor of freedom of thought that they would oppose even non-religious education or even personal critical argument, opting for a complete "agree to disagree" attitude, and so in favor of distribution of information that they have no respect for the privacy of information that is not relevant to the public discourse.

I consider my position centrally located on this spectrum, respecting privacy and education while opposing mystery and religion.

Progressive-Conservative Spectrum

This academic spectrum is analogous to two-dimensional political spectrums that juxtapose an axis of political authority or liberty against an axis of the equality or hierarchy of wealth distribution. I will address such a political spectrum in my later essay on governance, wherein I will also discuss the relationship of the terms "conservative", "moderate", and "progressive" to such a spectrum. My view is that those terms to not refer to one of the axes of such a two-dimensional spectrum, but rather form a third axis entirely, one not about where on that two-dimension spectrum one's ideal system would fall, but how one approaches change toward their goal, wherever on the spectrum it should be. Those terms are equally applicable to a third dimension to this academic spectrum here.

In this topic as in that, I hold that the proper referent of "conservative" is someone who is cautious about change, if not completely opposed to it. Conversely I hold that the proper referent of "progressive" is someone who pushes for some change, if not complete change. And I hold that the proper referent of "moderate" is someone who is both conservative and progressive, pushing for some change, but cautious change. Those progressives who are not moderate, pushing for complete change, are properly called "radicals", and those conservatives who are not moderate, completely opposing all change, are properly called "reactionaries".

I consider myself not only a true centrist on the full spectrum described above, but also a moderate in this sense of conservatively progressive, neither radical nor reactionary. I do not view either change or stasis as inherently superior to the other, for both creation and destruction are kinds of change, and both preservation and suppression are forms of stasis, suppression negating creation just as preservation negates destruction; and it's not even inherently superior to create and preserve than to suppress and destroy, for inferior things can be created or preserved, in the process destroying and suppressing superior things, in which case it would be superior to suppress or destroy those inferior things so as to preserve and create superior ones. I support either change or stasis as they foster superior results, neither unilaterally over the other.

On Pragmatic Compromise

Despite the utopian ideals detailed above, I recognize also that we should not let perfect be the enemy of good, and that the choice should not be between either a perfectly functioning freethinking educational system or no educational system at all, leaving in the latter case a power vacuum for the worse kinds of religions to spring up unopposed. So it seems reasonable to me that there be in place a slightly-less-ideal, less freethinking, but for the same reason more stable system of education in place already in case the ideal one should fail; say something comparable to the most democratic of religions, proselytizing a dogma of what is most commonly and generally believed.

It should wherever possible allow the ideal freethinking solution to function and stay out of its way, and only step in to ameliorate the gravest failures that would otherwise result in a collapse to something even worse than such a democratic dogma. It may in turn be prudent to have more than just this one tier of such failsafe in place, to ensure that wherever a better system of education fails, it fails only to the next-best alternative, rather than failing immediately to the worst alternative; say a Pope-like figure elected through direct democratic vote, empowered only to re-establish a functional democratic religion, which in turn is empowered only to re-establish functional freethinking education.

I think that this kind of evolution from mystery religions toward freethinking proselytism is itself a natural progression of rational educational systems looking to preserve themselves. Authoritarianism and hierarchy may form the default form of religion, but such a religion will survive longer if it asks its congregation what they believe, and shares with them the knowledge it has accumulated, naturally inclining such authoritarian, hierarchical religions to evolve a layer of freedom and openness. Such a populist religion can then most easily appease the most people in its congregation if it simply lets them interpret their religion how they think best, and lets them exchange their own reasons for those interpretations instead of trying to do so itself, adding a layer of freethought.

Thus, the lazy selfish epistemic authority, acting in its own self-interest, naturally devolves epistemic power to its congregation; and a lazy selfish congregation, acting in its own self-interest, naturally devolves epistemic power toward more freethinking ideals; though I don't expect that this process would naturally result in the complete abolition of religion on its own.

A social discourse may in that way find itself over time sliding up and down the scale between the worst authoritarian dogma and the best freethought, depending on how well its participants manage to operate within the different possible educational systems along that scale. Because in the end, it is inherently impossible to force a people to think freely. How good of an educational system a society will support ultimately depends entirely on how much the people of that society genuinely value knowledge, because that educational system is made of people, and it is ultimately their collective pursuit of knowledge that determines how well-educated their society can be.

How exactly to help contribute toward getting enough people to pursue knowledge, reality, and truth more generally, will be the topic of a later essay, on enlightenment.

Continue to the next essay, A Note On Ethics.