Perspectivalism

By Sean Carroll | July 17, 2005 1:54 am

As an undergraduate I took a delightful course in the Philosophy of Religion from a young lecturer named Tony Godzieba. He was a committed anti-foundationalist, and would discourse passionately on the Hermeneutics of Suspicion — along with Augustine and Aquinas we read Nietzsche and Freud and Ricoeur and had a grand old time.

But Tony had one deeply ingrained habit that used to drive me nuts. He took seriously the idea that there was no neutral vantage point from which we could discuss absolute truths; rather, our lively class discussions were to be thought of as interactions between a variety of perspectives. And he knew that my friend Padi Boyd (who was also taking the class) and I were the astronomy majors in the room. So whenever he would call on either of us, he would (with the best of intentions) inevitably say something like “So now let’s get the natural-science perspective on this.”

Man, that drove me crazy. Putting aside for the moment any disputes between foundationalist and perspectivalist theories of truth, granting that anything I say might necessarily be coming from some perspective, there is still a crucially important difference between my perspective (or that of any other individual scientist) and some abstracted notion of a “natural-science perspective.” When I would argue that St. Anselm’s ontological proof for the existence of God was a load of hooey, I may have been informed by my scientific education, but also by innumerable other influences — random and deliberate, obvious and hidden, justified and irrational. Physical sciences propose crisp mathematical structures in order to model the inner workings of the natural world, but the scientists themselves are human, all too human.

So what we have here is a group blog constructed by some idiosyncratic human beings who also happen to be physicists. Sometimes we’ll talk about science, other times it will be food or literature or whatever moves us — I know I have some incisive things to say about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, for one thing. We’re not a representative collection of scientists, just some engaged individuals curious about our world.

Welcome!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cosmic Variance, Philosophy
  • Pingback: Against all my better judgement… | Cosmic Variance

  • http://world.std.com/~mmcirvin/ Matt McIrvin

    He didn’t believe in a neutral vantage point, but he did believe there was some sort of group vantage point from which you were speaking. This seems unnecessarily reductive in itself, as if he were to ask the only black student in the room what the black perspective was. He wasn’t going all the way with his perspectivalism.

    I took an introductory class on sculpture as an undergrad, and I still believe that my works kept getting graded by the teacher as “too mechanical” because she knew I was a physics major.

  • Jennifer

    Sean you’re engaged!! Fantastic. I knew there was more to all this than a brand new (and very beautiful) blog. One thing, just to let you know, Athena and I are squatting in the comments section of Preposterous Universe. She’s starting a physics-based iChing shop. So the old website is in good hands.

    Congratulations on the new blog, the format is great, getting Clifford to join is great (hi cvj!), and welcome also to the bloggers that I don’t know, Risa, Mark, JoAnne…looking forward to it all….

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  • http://moodeuce.blogspot.com A. G.

    Excellent posting, and where else can you read a blog entry on philrel? I am reminded of my experience TAing philrel. An undergraduate had a breakdown and subsequently was hospitalized, due to severe existential angst brought about by our discussions of the proofs of God’s existence. The professor who led the course told me he would never again teach philrel to undergraduates. That course had 30 or so in it; my daughter took the same course this past year at the same university, and it had close to 500 in it. Go figure.

  • http://pithingcontest.blogspot.com greensmile

    I heard of your effort via Crooked Timber. I wish you long life, long lively discussions, decent ad revenue and a few bright but otherwise normal children!

    Do we have to listen to what you consider interesting or may we, the great unwashed masses and energies put topics on your shiny new anvil?

  • Ijon Tichy

    So, Sean, what is this “neutral vantage point from which we [can] discuss absolute truths”? I think it might be interesting if you explored this question in some future posts.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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