Saturday, April 9, 2022

Mark Wilson's "Imitation of Rigor"

Mark Wilson is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, and the author of Physics Avoidance (2017) and Wandering Significance (2006). He has written widely on how our categories for describing the large-scale world around us have progressively evolved, within both science and our ordinary ways of speaking. He also supervises The North American Traditions Collection of Folk Music.

Wilson applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Imitation of Rigor: An Alternative History of Analytic Philosophy, and reported the following:
The Page 99 Test lands us in the middle of a somewhat technical example that nonetheless encapsulates the central morals of the book. To sidestep unnecessary details, I will take the liberty of appropriating a simpler example from another book of mine (the most efficient means of explicating page 99 of The Good Soldier may refer to Ford Madox Ford's collaborations with Conrad). A real-life material such as a steel beam is comprised of a hierarchy of smaller substructures [image left], which progressively emerge into view as we descend to smaller scale lengths. Metaphysical orthodoxy claims that our thinking about such arrangements needs to be governed by an all-inclusive “logic of large and small.” But every practical engineer realizes that this naïve approach leads to an intractable descriptive overload. Recent successes in treating complicated materials have suggested a more flexible approach called “multiscalar modeling” in which the task of dealing with large and small becomes allocated to a hierarchy of simpler submodels that treat the dominant behaviors that normally prevail upon their correlated scale lengths. So, we begin by modeling the beam’s normal stretching behavior on a macroscopic level according to simple Hookean rules. But these standard expectations sometimes fail due to events that originate upon a more minute level (e.g., the dislocation lines visible in our third picture may shift position and render the steel brittle). A multiscalar modeling architecture only attends to these lower scale disruptions when necessary, following a general policy of “don’t scratch where it don’t itch.” This simple division of descriptive labor (which usually requires a long sequence of successive corrections) can reduce a complex problem to a set of manageable tasks.

I then argue that our ordinary thinking is frequently structured by similar expedients without much conscious recognition on our parts that we are doing so. Left undiagnosed, these otherwise beneficial intellectual adjustments frequently serve as significant sources of conceptional confusion due to the fact that seemingly identical terminologies (in our example, the words “force” and “cause”) commonly reappear with subtly altered meanings within the component submodels. Much of my book traces our current misconceptions of “what rigorous methodology in philosophy demands" to a historical misdiagnosis of exactly this kind, in which surface “logic” and axiomatics became unwisely prized as universal conceptual correctives when more supple forms of diagnosis in the spirit of multiscalar modeling are actually wanted.
Learn more about Imitation of Rigor at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue