Thursday 1 October 2015

A coherent life

Two days ago I read a long form article in the Atlantic that was just smashing and after the first couple of paragraphs I looked at the author's name - Alison Gopnik - and said Gopnik . . . Gopnik . . . I've heard of her: she must have done something impressive.  But I was really conflating three separate Gopniks:
It turns out that they are all members of the same family. Myrna is an emeritus professor of linguistics at McGill University in Canada and the others are two of her five children. Adam's webpage quotes with approval from Harper Lee's book Go Set a Watchman: "Atticus killed several birds with one stone when he read to his children, and would probably have caused a child psychologist considerable dismay: he read to Jem and Jean-Louise whatever he happened to be reading, and the children grew up possessed of an obscure erudition. They cut their back teeth on military history, Bills to Be Enacted into Laws, True Detective Mysteries,The Code of Alabama, the Bible, and Palgrave's Golden Treasury." That gave me a frisson of recognition because that's a bit like we treated Dau.I and Dau.II when they were educating themselves at home. We took no prisoners when it came to language or ideas: lots of stuff was batted around the kitchen table but we never hauled our wind or talked down to them. And they were not slow to tell me I were talking nonsense. I suspect that's what it was like in the Gopnik household in Montreal: two Professors and a parcel of bright and eager kids reading anything and talking about everything.

Turns out that Alison the firstborn was trained as a philosopher - D.Phil, Oxford under Jerome Bruner.  We have a copy of Bruner's The Process of Education on the shelf where we keep our education, home, important books: "knowing how something is put together is worth a thousand facts about it." As it happens it's Bruner's 100th Birthday today and he's still with us as a Senior Research Fellow at NYU. At college Gopnik read all the philosophers, because she could: it's a field much more limited than, say, science where nobody since Henri PoincarĂ© has been able to read/know everything and he's been dead 100 years. It's a man's world is Philosophy, more so than engineering or physics, and it was really difficult for Gopnik to reconcile her ambition to be a hot-shot philosopher with a genuine and consuming interest in children. It was all too easy to get written off as "a girl" if she was interested in such dull, light-weight creatures who were sporadically incontinent and couldn't spell Kant let alone Teilhard de Chardin.

But Gopnik achieved the reconciliation by morphing from the philosophy of the mind to cognitive psychology and starting to make profound observations and design nifty experiments to open a window on the minds of children. By structuring the investigative situation just-so and being prepared to be surprised, she and her students and colleagues were able to devise hypotheses about such seemingly nebulous concepts as empathy and the sense of self and then test them. The non-verbal responses they elicited from pre-verbal children were reproducible and general. One concept that acquired legs was the idea that these kids were Bayesian in their thought processes: perpetually modifying a series conditional probabilities to get to grips with the world.  Because they know nothing, children are always trying things out to see if some solution will work or such a theory has explanatory power. This has become known as Gopnik's Theory Theory, the idea that kids are constantly developing theories and testing them against reality. A theory is a not a random punt, life is too short and potentially dangerous for that; it is an idea informed by previous experience. When they get to school all that is stopped; in 'science' they are no longer allowed to find stuff out for themselves; they are required to absorb the corpus of knowledge laid down in text books and religiously repeat the experiments [attaching weights to springs and rolling things down inclined planes] that laid down The Laws. If you stop and look with attention, you'll have to accept that children, far from being rather dull and often noisy and demanding, are in fact far more interesting, engaged and thoughtful than almost any adult. Particularly they are generalists not specialists. The process of education seems to be a steady process of knocking the sparkle and inquisitiveness out of us so that we finish up dull, dull, dull and only good for mowing the lawn at the weekends.  Check out Alison Gopnik's TED talk How Babies Think.

Mais revenons a notre Atlantic long-form! One of the philosophers that Gopnik read with empathy and affection in college was David Hume who wrote A Treatise of Human Nature in 1739 before he was 30. Reading it in college in the 1980s, she realised that this was an important contribution to our understanding of ourselves, not least because Hume denied the existence of 'Self'. Re-reading ATOHN after a couple of decades in California, Gopnik realised that Hume seemed to be channeling the Buddha in several of his key ideas. Not since the Name of the Rose has there been such a gripping yarn from the groves of academic philosophy. It's got all the ingredients: old manuscripts, amazing coincidence, some peripheral girl-on-girl, the roots of modern philosophy, diligent research, a left-field computer pioneer and of course the Buddha. Sherlock Holmes would be featuring except that he's dead. But then so is le bon David Hume. Is Cumberbach available for the film?

Alison Gopnik was born on 16th June 1955, an auspicious day with a clatter of scientists who share that birthday, including Barbara McClintock who also had to work hard to succeed in a man's world.

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