Tag Archives: philosophy

Some technology food for thought

I’m back from vacation and hopefully will be resuming the kind of blogging pace I had while at ASEE last week. I certainly have a lot to process and share. But right now I want to share just a couple of thoughts from one of the sessions. The speaker was Steven Walk of Old Dominion University, speaking on something called “quantitative technology forecasting” — a sort of data analytics approach to the study of how technology emerges and disperses — as a platform for helping students acquire technological literacy. He made a couple of statements which have had my brain turning them over ever since. These are paraphrased off my hastily-taken notes. First:

Technology is any creation that provides humans with a compelling advantage to sustain that creation.

That would imply that technology is a much larger term than we typically imagine, encompassing such things as law, accounting, even language itself. So are all the typically technological items we think about such as computers, automobiles, and agriculture. The sort of free-market definition here is intriguing, but I wonder, what’s an example of something that is not technology? Would art qualify, since there is no sort of evolutionary “compelling advantage” to sustain artistic efforts (we just do it because we like art)? Can something be technology during one period or history and then, once it’s outlived its compelling advantage, cease to be technology?


Technology is just externalized physiology. All technology arises out of a need for human beings to extend their own bodies.

As someone who views my Macbook Pro along with OmniFocus as a replacement for my brain, I can identify with that. And of course other items are easy to see: cars allow us to move faster and farther than our bodies alone can; telephones allow us to speak with people far away. But what of the other, broader items of “technology”? How is accounting, for example, something which our ancestors created to extend themselves to something their bodies wouldn’t do?



Filed under Technology

Leibniz on 1+1=2

From Kuo & Joe, here’s an interesting article on different philosophers’ views on what it means for 1+1 to equal 2 and how their concept of divinity plays into their ideas. Leibniz’ view seems the most compelling:

When Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, an inventor of the calculus, was asked by one of his students, “Why is one and one always two, and how do we know this?” Leibnitz replied, “One and one equals two is an eternal, immutable truth that would be so whether or not there were things to count or people to count them.” Numbers, numerical relationships, and mathematical laws (such as the law of addition) exist in this abstract realm and are independent of any physical existence. In Leibnitz’s view, numbers are real things that exist in a dimension outside of the physical realm and would exist even if no human existed to recognize them.

I don’t know if the exchange between Leibniz and his student is real or merely apocryphal, but I’d say his view is closest to my own. The article also has summaries on the positions of Bertrand Russell, John Stuart Mill, and John Dewey, all of whom operate from various points on the atheist or rationalist spectrum — and it shows.


Filed under Christianity, Math

Links for Tuesday

  • What’s that smell? It could be the latest in biometrics.
  • At Slashdot, a discussion on combining computer science and philosophy. I think that, in general, there is a lot of really interesting yet uncharted territory in the liberal arts arising from combining computing with [fill in humanities subject here].
  • Circuit City hits Chapter 11. The only reason I’m sorry to hear about this is because I know people who work for Circuit City who might lose their jobs. But that’s the only reason. There used to be a time, when I was a teenager, when going to Circuit City to paw over all the tech stuff was fun and exciting. Now when I go, it’s a game of “dodge the irritating service rep”.
  • Some nice tips on getting the most out of Google Scholar. Especially useful if, like me, you’re in a place that doesn’t have access to a lot of technical journals.
  • Mike at Walking Randomly is finding symbolic integrals that the new version of MATLAB can’t do. This is a really important series he’s doing, and his articles are a great resource for MATLAB users.
  • Speaking of math, here’s Carnival of Mathematics #43.
  • The University of Cincinnati is trying out a market-based approach to its various schools that might levy budget cuts on programs that don’t produce. What a concept! Of course the anti-free market people are running wild in the comments.
  • Finally, make sure you thank an engineer today.

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Filed under Crypto, Engineering, Higher ed, Math, Technology

Simul kids et adults

I’m working on updating some of my professional documents, including my curriculum vitae and my Statement of Teaching Philosophy (SOTP). Both of these are badly out of date; I don’t think I’ve touched either one since I was up for tenure in 2005. That’s too bad, especially the SOTP; it seems like professors ought to be constantly re-examining their core philosophies behind teaching and having a critical look at what really characterizes what they do in the classroom.

The new SOTP is absorbing some flavor of recent developments in my personal life on the faith front. Since joining the Lutheran church, I’ve become more exposed to — and more appreciative of — the concept of holding paradoxical pairs of ideas in tension with each other and having a real truth emerge out of the dialectic between the two. In Lutheran theology, for example, we have the idea of simul justus et peccator — the notion that a Christian is, at the same time, both righteous and a sinner. My teaching philosophy turns out to have some of the same kinds of pairings.

The pair of opposing ideas that struck me as I was brainstorming it out was the following:

  • Teaching is best done when the teacher remembers that each of his students is somebody’s child.
  • Teaching is best done when the teacher remembers that none of his students are children.

(This is being written in the context of undergraduate education. In K-12 the students really are children.)

On the one hand, my teaching changed drastically once I had kids of my own, because getting an up-close look at how kids act, think, and react makes me a lot more sympathetic to them and to their parents. There were times past when I would get extremely upset at students for some kind of (truly) dumb behavior and have some awfully unkind thoughts about them. I can’t say I don’t do that anymore, but it is a lot less frequent and I feel the wrongness of it much more viscerally when it happens. Because those students are somebody’s kids. My girls, as smart as they are, have a long way to go before they can do the kinds of things my students do. Once they get there, I am going to be extremely proud of just about anything they do. The thought of having some priggish college professor ripping into them — even if they deserve it — for something they do or don’t do in class just makes me horrified.

So these days I tend to view my students as products of a long (long!) process of development, having gone through years of trial and risk and hard work on both their parts and their parents’ parts. Yes, students do dumb things and make bad choices and are often ill-prepared. But to even be in the position to do those things implies that they have come a long way, and I guess I “get” this and respect it more than I used to. And my teaching is better when I don’t objectify them. (I’d also argue that their learning is better when they don’t objectify me, but that’s another post.)

On the other hand, I really bristle when we profs refer to college students as “kids”. They aren’t children, not in the developmental sense at least. College students are fledgling adults. They don’t necessarily know how to act like adults (I didn’t, at that age) or even desire to act like adults (I didn’t). But that doesn’t mean that professors absolve them of the very adult world of actions, responsibility, and consequences. Just because those students are young and look like they are just out of high school, it doesn’t mean that we conceive of them as children — taking on their responsibilities, absolving them of the consequences of bad choices, etc. — and thereby teach them that they are children and can be expected to be treated as such.

And the truth that seems to emerge out of the tension between these two ideas is that teaching involves respect at its core. Profs ought to respect students for getting to where they are, and respect their intrinsic value as human beings. (Which is something Christian professors ought to find to be second nature.) But respect also means respect for who those students will be. If we cut students breaks all the time or give second chances when settling for the consequences of a bad choice would make them better-equipped to face the future, then we might be acting nicely towards our students and winning their approval, but that’s a long way from respecting them.


Filed under Christianity, Education, Higher ed, Life in academia, Student culture, Teaching