Teaching the Metaphysics of Physics, A History Boy, 08/03/2017

I’m a big nerd and I sometimes read Nietzsche for fun. If you’ve seen any of the archives in my blog or any other writing before, you know I’m a big nerd. So I cracked open my epub of Human, All Too Human a little while ago, and I read something that brought back some sad memories.

Here’s the passage, from among the first aphorisms of the book.
“That is why there is in all philosophies so much high-flying metaphysics and such a dread of the explanations offered by physics, which seem so modest and insignificant; for the significance of knowledge for life has to appear as great as it possibly can. Here lies the antagonism between the individual regions of science and philosophy. The latter wants, as art does, to bestow on life and action the greatest possible profundity and significance; in the former one seeks knowledge and nothing further – and does in fact acquire it.”
I don’t want to talk about the context and ideas Nietzsche himself was confronting when he wrote this in 1880. I want to talk about an idea for a course I had a few years ago, because this paragraph set off a bitter memory.

Nietzsche's work has been influential and
inspiring to me, but he can be such a
downer sometimes.
The year after I finished my doctorate, I was still looking for work as a university teacher. My own department at McMaster posted two per-course positions. One was a third-level course in the theory of knowledge that my colleague P landed without a problem – it was literally his exact area of research expertise.

I applied to teach the fourth-level seminar on metaphysics. It had previously been a very doctrinaire course on the problem of freedom and determinism, but the university let that professor go the previous summer. So the department was looking for a new direction.

I applied, and came up with a proposal for a course that challenged students to think about philosophy’s right to get metaphysical in the first place. It combined metaphysical thinking with philosophy of science a little, but in a way that encouraged creativity. And in the fairly small class size of a senior-level seminar, we could have gotten really deep with it.

My course would have revolved around the question of what metaphysics can do for science. Metaphysics debates in academic philosophy journals revolved around questions like what universal terms like ‘blue’ refer to, or whether objects were bundles of universals or had an underlying property-less substrate.

But if you went to a physicist with any of these questions, he’d laugh in your face because they make no sense. The really important questions in physics revolve around things like Bell’s Theorem in quantum mechanics, which implies that spacetime literally isn't contiguous in some contexts.

I also wanted to talk about ideas in the intensive sciences like hydrodynamics, ecology, and other fields dominated by nonlinear mathematics because of their unintuitive implications about the nature of reality. And I wanted to contrast this with orthodox approaches to metaphysics that relied almost exclusively on intuitive logical reasoning.

We would have read Tim Maudlin’s Quantum Non-Locality and Relativity: Metaphysical Intimations of Modern Physics, Henri Bergson’s The Creative Mind, and Manuel DeLanda’s Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. Alongside short readings from David Hume, Bertrand Russell, contemporary analytic metaphysicians, Aristotle, Lucretius, and McMaster’s own Head of the Bertrand Russell Research Centre Nicolas Griffin.

The experiments that gave Bell's Theorem its real-
world example are complicated, but here's basically
what they mean. An electron doesn't get a specific
spin until it interacts with an energy field that sets
it. If you launch two electrons from the same
source in opposite directions, they'll still end up
with complementary spin – even though
information about each other's spin would have
to travel faster than light to reach the other. Their
states are entangled without local causal interaction.
That's not literally faster-than-light communication.
It's something much weirder: a demonstration that
contiguous local space is our false intuition.
But the department had already hired one of the previous year’s doctoral grads. And a Rochester-based professor with a couple of years’ more teaching experience had applied for the metaphysics seminar.

Later that winter, I saw his course outline from an undergrad friend of mine who was taking the course. He found it hideous, and he was right to. It was literally just a survey course in the standard canon of Western philosophy’s metaphysics. Twelve great philosophers in as many weeks. A week on Plato. On Aristotle. On Hegel. On Bradley.

There was no time to explore any problem in depth. Barely any time to do anything but get the most basic and mainstream account possible of a thinker whose ideas about the nature of reality produced commentary and reflection for literally centuries.

Even the professors who hired him later admitted that he was a mistake, turning a course far below the complexity level the curriculum required. But he had the most teaching experience of anyone who applied. So they hired him.

Since I was sent into these memories from reading Nietzsche, I find it ironic – or maybe fitting – that I still feel a little resentful over these events.

It was a very personal rejection, because I knew everyone who had made the decision. I’d worked with them for the previous five years. It was the start of a year of rejection from entry-level positions across the region – rejections in favour of people who had already been working, who had more seniority – that effectively killed my career in university teaching.

I was never able to build the teaching experience that would have made me competitive in the university teaching market. I haven’t worked in a university since Winter 2013.

Today, I feel like I can achieve more as a professional writer and communicator working on books and films on the side, than I ever could have strapped into the grind of university-based humanities scholarship. But that achievement is still all potential, all in the future.

Because it’s taken me four years to get from my old career bottoming out to my new one finally getting some momentum. Those have been four stressful, painful, difficult years. If I didn’t have my GF with me for most of that time, I honestly can’t say if I’d have had the strength to haul myself out of where I’d fallen. It's taken me quite a while – thanks to depression, bad luck, having to deal with crap bosses or low paying work – to get my shit back together.

And if that academic career had actually worked out, I never would have met her. And I don’t think I’d be able to accept life without her.

Even on a smaller scale of thinking, I still feel a sense of regret. That would have been a fucking great course. And I was a fucking good philosophy teacher.

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