P H I L O S O P H Y P A T H W A Y S ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 159
20th January 2011
I. 'Knowledge Acquisition as a Memory Renewal Process' by Georgios
II. 'Is It Possible to Be Pathologically Good?' by Max Malikow
III. 'Kuhnian Normal Science and the Problem of the Small Handful' by
Sim-Hui Tee and Mohd Hazim Shah
On Monday it was my 60th birthday. I really didn't expect that I
would be still involved with the same project, Pathways to
Philosophy, which I launched fifteen years ago last October. Much of
its success has been due to the ideas of others which I have
gratefully taken up, as well as the ongoing efforts of students and
colleagues all over the world. I would like to say a hearty 'thank
you' to you all.
To celebrate, I am offering free life membership of the International
Society for Philosophers, worth 15 GBP, to readers of Philosophy
Pathways or Philosophy for Business who have not yet
joined the Society. Now is your chance! All you need to do is
complete the application form at http://www.isfp.co.uk/membership.html
and put in the Comments box, 'Philosophy Pathways subscriber'. The
offer deadline is 31st January. There is a similar offer on the
Pathways main page www.philosophypathways.com.
In this issue, Georgios Pentzaropoulos offers the fruit of his
research funded by the University of Athens, into the nature of human
memory and knowledge acquisition. Using as his model the distinction
in computer technology between real memory and virtual memory, he
argues for a view of knowledge acquisition according to which new
information is perceived as knowledge if and only if it decreases the
entropy (increases the order and systematicity) of previously acquired
This view, which has more to do with logic and methodology than any
assumed correlation between the brain and computers at the physical
level (such as the hypothesis that the brain runs a 'program' the way
computers do) has the consequence that there is, or must be, an innate
conservatism in the way we handle new situations or new 'data'. The
other two contributors to this issue, although dealing with what
appear on the surface very different topics nicely illustrate this
Max Malikow looks at extreme cases of self-sacrificing behaviour that
some would be tempted to call 'pathological'. Are they really so, or
does that merely reflect our pre-conceived notions of what it is to
behave 'normally'? How do you set about convincing someone that your
seemingly erratic behaviour has a point and a purpose?
Sim-Hui Tee and Mohd Hazim Shah focus their attention on the question
why is it that when scientific theories are tested, at any one time
there appear to be only a small handful of potential competitors,
none of which differ fundamentally in their guiding assumptions from
the theory under test. The answer comes from what Thomas Kuhn calls
'normal science' which, depending as it does on consensus amongst the
scientific community, is naturally conservative.
I. 'KNOWLEDGE ACQUISITION AS A MEMORY RENEWAL PROCESS' BY GEORGIOS
The human brain is constantly exposed to new information. As a
result, much of our knowledge is gained via perception. Our
continuous interaction with the environment confirms Aristotle's
thesis that we desire to acquire new knowledge. At any time, the
brain is capable of selecting what it needs, store its content, and
then retrieve it for later use. Memory is an important part of this
learning process as it involves brain's neuronal circuitry. But
exactly how we remember is still largely unknown. Leading experts in
neuroscience have recently questioned the commonly accepted idea of a
memory being widely distributed across the brain. They are also trying
to find a link between short-term memory and the creation of a
long-term memory. EU-funded research has also shown that the
hippocampus inside the brain's limbic system plays a major role in
memorizing recent events.
Knowledge acquisition is a central subject in epistemology. We
examine this subject by treating the human brain as a neural network
with a two-level memory hierarchy. We are especially interested in
the case where the short-term memory becomes full: this necessitates
renewal of its content, which also involves the long-term memory. Our
guides here are: (i) the notions of memory and perception from
epistemology, and (ii) certain results from computer technology and
We conclude that short-term memory has to be regularly renewed in
order to keep its recent information. What is not needed immediately
is stored in the long-term memory awaiting any subsequent recalls.
This renewal process guarantees brain's responsiveness to
intellectual challenges such as making decisions. Finally, we note
that any knowledge gained is valuable only if the information from
which it is derived reduces uncertainty.
Epistemologists make the distinction between ability and
propositional knowledge. The former, or know-how knowledge, is a
practical kind of knowledge that is very useful to have. Today, much
emphasis is given to this knowledge, as practical skills become very
important in our information society. Propositional knowledge, on the
other hand, is more complex and requires the examination of a
proposition, that is of a sentence stating a case which can be true
or false. In this paper we consider both types of knowledge.
In epistemology truth and belief are considered as two basic
requirements for acquiring knowledge. The problem of defining
knowledge in terms of the above two requirements began with Plato's
view in the Theaetetus that knowledge is true belief plus a
logos, or else certification by reason. (Logos is also a
common word in modern Greek that appears frequently in everyday
conversations.) The fleeting nature of mere true belief was
accurately identified by Plato, who argued that knowledge is more
stable because it is not easily lost. As already stated, much of our
knowledge is gained via perception. Innate ideas, on the other hand,
are defined as inborn, not the product of experience. We do not
examine here the controversy over their existence. Similarly, we
avoid the issues raised by rationalists and their empiricist
Our aim is to examine how sensory knowledge is acquired and managed
We begin with a view originally expressed by Democritus that
emphasizes rather strongly the value of sensory knowledge. Following
is our rough translation of the Greek text into English. Democritus
once coined a dialogue between the senses (aestheses) and intuition
(noesis). The senses say:
Poor intuition, now that you have got from us all the
information about the world around you, are you now trying
to deny our offer? If you emerge as a winner from this
dispute, your victory will be your disaster.
For readers who would prefer the original version of the above text,
in both ancient and modern Greek, the electronic pages created by
F.K. Voros are a very good source.
Although the view expressed above is not wholly embraced here, it
nevertheless forms a basis for discussing knowledge acquisition via
the senses. Our starting point is the so-called tabula rasa, a
well-known term that literally means a blank tablet. This term is
attributed to John Locke, one of the best known British empiricists.
Locke believed that the mind at birth is like a blank tablet or slate
on which nothing is yet written. Therefore, at this initial state, the
mind has no information. The problem now is this. The tabula is
constantly exposed to the outside world, which keeps feeding it with
new information. In the course of time, the tabula is likely to
become full unless we assume that it has infinite capacity. But is
such an assumption realistic given the nature of human brain? Our
earlier brief discussion on brain and memory suggests that memory as
whole can be very large, but not infinite, despite brain's extensive
In computer science, knowledge and memory are defined in somewhat
different terms than those used in epistemology. Let us look at this
definition of knowledge. 'Knowledge: the objects, concepts and
relationships that are assumed to exist in some area of
interest'. Knowledge differs from data or information, two key
concepts in computer terminology, in the sense that new knowledge may
be created from existing knowledge by logical inference. Information
is the result of applying some kind of processing to this (raw) data,
giving it meaning in a particular context. The following example
illustrates this point.
(a) The numerical pattern 1234567.89 is (raw) data.
(b) The statement 'Your balance has jumped 8087% to $1234567.89' is
(c) The customer's thought 'Nobody owes me that much money' is
(d) The customer's next thought 'I'd better talk to the bank manager'
Following this discussion we can now write our first conclusion:
C1. Data (raw) ==> Processing ==> Information
Note that wisdom has been excluded from this conclusion as it
concerns a higher state of mind along with other human properties.
More than that, wisdom may never be achieved, at least according to
Pythagoras, who thought of himself not as wise but only a friend of
wisdom. Nevertheless, the example illustrates that, if knowledge
is a prerequisite to wisdom, then we will always want more data and
information. But there is also another way of looking into this.
First, data on its own has no meaning: it becomes meaningful only
when interpreted by a data processing system. In our case, this
system is the brain's neuronal circuitry. Second, knowledge gained
through the senses can sometimes be deceiving, which may lead to
wrong decisions. Therefore, information gained through data
processing should always be held up for inspection before making any
decision. The existence of errors of this sort reminds us that, while
we depend upon our senses for much of our knowledge, the possibility
always remains that our faculties can lead us into forming false
beliefs. We now turn our attention to the structure and operation
The meaning given to the memory as tabula rasa, noted in the
previous section, appears to be incorrect. In ancient Rome people
used tabulae covered by wax on their surface and the text was
inscribed on the wax by a sharp pointer. When the text so inscribed
was considered to be of no further value, or perhaps undesirable, the
wax layer was erased, and the tabula was ready to accept a new text on
its clean surface. The Latin word for the verb erase is
radere. Therefore, the term tabula rasa actually
means an erasable tablet. This ancient practice of writing and
re-writing on the same medium continued through the middle ages,
because media such as papyrus were too expensive to be used only
once. The result was a series of over-written scripts inscribed on
the same medium. This technique really bears no difference with the
modern practice of writing and re-writing on a computer hard disk or
other electromagnetic medium. The same also applies to optical media
such as compact disks and solid-state devices like random access
We are now almost ready to write our second conclusion; but, first we
need to review certain aspects relating to computer-operated memories.
In computer technology, a distinction is often made between main
memory (MM) and virtual memory (VM). Let it be noted that the word
'virtual' does not mean something non-existent; it means a very large
memory surrounding main memory. The latter is also called physical
memory, which adds to the confusion. VM, unlike main memory, is
always stable: it retains its content even when electrical power is
switched off. This is because VM is a specific area of the system's
disk, which is stable by construction. MM is divided into frames of
equal size. VM is organized in blocks called pages. Each page fits
exactly into one frame. When the processor needs information to carry
out its tasks, it first looks into MM. It does so because main memory
is physically closer to the processor and thus time is saved for the
transfer. If the page is found in MM, the transfer takes place
immediately. Otherwise, the page must first be located in VM and
brought into the main memory. The processor then fetches it from MM.
This two-step procedure is much slower than a direct fetch from main
memory. Whenever the VM is activated, the system produces a page
fault to indicate that the page required was not initially found in
Returning to our earlier discussion, we note that MM is like a
short-term memory, i.e. like a tabula rasa in the sense of an
erasable tablet. MM contains recent information and it might
correspond to the brain's hippocampus. As already noted, this small
part of the brain (paleocortex) is responsible for holding
information about recent events. VM could also be seen as a very
large tabula rasa, such as database containing billions of
records. Such very large databases form the infrastructure of today's
digital libraries. Of course, such digital libraries are sources of
knowledge. Our second conclusion is thus as follows:
C2. Short-term memory = random-access main memory (MM).
Long-term memory = logically-structured virtual memory (VM).
Again, in computer technology, we need a criterion by which only
the 'right' pages in virtual memory are selected and then brought
into main memory. Of the many criteria examined by the experts, the
best result gives the so-called criterion of temporal locality of
reference. By best result we mean that which minimizes the appearance
of page faults. Locality of reference is an observed and measured
quality of computer programs. Temporal means 'in time'. Thus, a page
of information just needed by the processor will, with all
probability, relate to another page 'close' to it, i.e. one used
immediately before it. The algorithm implementing the concept of
temporal locality is known as Least Recently Used (LRU). We now
recall that MM, as a short-term memory, has finite capacity.
Therefore, the continuous accumulation of pages would result in
'overflow', which is why page renewal is necessary.
With respect to the human memory, LRU might be considered as a
logical function embedded into the brain's neural network circuitry.
The processor itself could be thought of as being analogous to the
entire circuitry, which contains all neurons and their synapses.
Finally, a brief remark regarding VM. This memory, although very
large with respect to MM, also cannot be infinite because of the
physical limitations of human memory. But we can think of VM as
'appearing' infinite because we can store as much information as we
please without worrying about space availability. Space in VM is
purely logical and pages in VM have their own logical addresses.
These addresses are then 'mapped' onto the physical addresses of main
memory whenever page renewal is necessary. Following is our third
C3. Knowledge acquisition = information renewal in
short-term memory aided by algorithmic functions based on the
principle of temporal locality.
According to our first conclusion (C1), information is a prerequisite
for knowledge. In everyday life, information is commonly associated
with order. Lack of order brings about uncertainty, a sense of
randomness, and sometimes chaos. In physics as well as in information
theory the entropy of a closed system is defined as a measure
of the system's intrinsic uncertainty. The presence of a feedback
mechanism often observed in closed systems contributes to greater
entropy. That is the reason why in many performance evaluation
studies entropy is described by an objective function that deserves
minimization. Entropy comes from an ancient Greek word, which means a
tendency to move inwards, into the kernel of a system. We can
practically think of a 'system' as anything with a logical structure,
e.g. a memory. Thus, the amount of information stored in memory (MM or
VM), as well as its internal organization, is an index of how well we
can understand that information. Such an understanding always reduces
uncertainty in systems. Following the above discussion we can now
state our fourth and final conclusion:
C4. Knowledge can be considered valuable only if the information
from which it is derived reduces uncertainty.
Knowledge satisfying the above criterion might be used with more
confidence to support new logical actions such as hypotheses or
predictions. Knowledge based on reduced uncertainty will thus be more
stable than knowledge gained by chance. Therefore, stable knowledge
may be a useful basis for decision-making especially in our knowledge
economy and society. As the combined forces of globalization and
digital convergence now make new information widely available, the
art of acquiring stable knowledge becomes more important than ever
1. 'All men by nature desire to know' in Aristotle's Metaphysics.
2. See R. Menzel in RTD Info, Special Issue on Science and Memory
(Brussels: European Commission, April 2005), p. 25,
3. See E. Moser, Ibid., pp. 28-29. For more information see also:
nappy project at the Centre for Biology of Memory, Trondheim, Norway,
4. See 'epistemology' in The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy,
Edited by Simon Blackburn, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
5. Ibid., under 'innate ideas'.
6. See www.voros.gr under
'Philosophy of life according to Democritus' (in Greek).
7. See The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, op. cit., under
8. See 'knowledge' in www.foldoc.org, Imperial
College, University of London.
9. Ibid., under 'information'.
10. Friend (philo) plus wisdom (sophos) equals friend
of wisdom, i.e. philosopher.
11. See Duncan Pritchard, What is this Thing Called Knowledge?
(London: Routledge, 2008), p. 78.
12. See The Pocket Oxford Latin Dictionary, Edited by James
Morwood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
13. See 'entropy' in The Oxford Dictionary of English, Edited
by Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson (Oxford: Oxford University
14. Greek prefix (en-) plus (trope). The result is the
complex word entropy.
(c) G.C. Pentzaropoulos 2011
Associate Professor (ICT)
Mathematics and Information Technology Unit
Department of Economics
University of Athens
The present work was supported by Grant No. 70/4/4733 awarded by
the Research Committee of the University of Athens, Greece
II. 'IS IT POSSIBLE TO BE PATHOLOGICALLY GOOD?' BY MAX MALIKOW
But I could have told you Vincent, this world
was never meant for one as beautiful as you.
- Don McLean
Common wisdom teaches anything too good to be true isn't, but
the same cannot be said about anything too bad. When Richard
Kuklinski was asked how many murders he committed, 'The Ice Man'
hesitated before settling on an estimate of 230. This astonishing
number and Kuklinski's reflection that he killed without a tinge of
emotion mark him as pathologically bad, if not evil. If it is
possible to be pathologically bad, is it also possible to be
pathologically good? In this article Zell Kravinsky, Simone Weil, and
Albert Schweitzer are considered to pursue the possibility of
benevolent behavior so extreme that it indicates a mental illness.
The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual does not have the category pathological altruism or
anything resembling it. Nevertheless, can altruism be expressed to a
degree that it is symptomatic of a psychological disorder rather than
an expression of sheer human decency? Perhaps interest in the
possibility that extreme kindness suggests a mental illness arises
from an internal conflict. On the one hand we believe our lives to be
our own and are entitled to live for ourselves. Simultaneously, a
voice within speaks to us about the needs of others and our
obligation to them. That voice informs us the resources we enjoy
spending on self-gratification come from grace (unmerited favor) and
constitute the test of which Mother Teresa spoke when she posited
that we are indebted to the poor because they provide us with an
opportunity to prove we are as charitable as we claim. In Nick
Hornby's novel, How to Be Good, a wife finds her husband's
extreme kindness so discomforting she contemplates divorcing him
A century ago William James expressed his conviction that
philosophy's great challenge was to refute the assertion of its
detractors who claimed since 'philosophy bakes no bread' it is a
frivolous discipline (1907, 83). A century later, Timothy Luke
Johnson asserted the purpose of studying philosophy is not to 'think
well' but to 'live well' (2007). How will an answer to the question
of the possibility of pathological goodness buttress James'
conviction that engagement in philosophy is a pragmatic endeavor and
support Johnson's belief that philosophy's raison d'etre is to
contribute to living well? The answer is that the issues of charity
and self-sacrifice can generate guilt if the questions how much
charity and how much sacrifice are unanswered. Any effort
to mitigate guilt and contribute to living well is as practical as
baking bread. Out of this conviction the possibility of
pathological goodness is worthy of consideration.
Zell Kravinski once sought goodness through prayer. 'I used to pray
to God to be good. I used to fantasize about a pill that I could take
that would make me good. Then I realized it's putting the cart before
the horse. First, you do the good deed' (Fagone, 2006). In the wake
of his existential epiphany it is indisputable that Kravinsky has
sought goodness through charity. He has donated a kidney to a
stranger and expressed a willingness to donate the one remaining.
'What if someone needed it who could produce more good than me?'
(Strom, 2003). Kravinsky believes, 'To withhold a kidney from someone
who would otherwise die means valuing one's own life at 4,000 times
that of a stranger' (Singer, 2006). He arrived at that figure from
the survivor ratio of donors who undergo the procedure (4,000 to 1).
It cannot be said that were he better educated he would not be so
organically philanthropic. He has earned two Ph.Ds, one in rhetoric
and a second in English literature, and nearly accomplished a third
in cultural anthropology.
To say Kravinsky lives charitably is an understatement. He has
donated $45,000,000 to various causes, including the largest donation
ever made to the Center for Diseases Control ($6.2 million). It cannot
be said that Kravinsky should see a mental health professional. He
lives with one, his wife Emily is a psychiatrist. Notwithstanding, a
family friend offered this observation of Kravinsky's benevolent
actions: 'Sometimes there's a slightly pathological element to them'
(Singer, 2006). Paul Find, Professor of Psychiatry at Temple
University, opined: 'If he does (make a second kidney donation) then
there's something really wrong. And, if I was his wife, I'd have him
committed' (Singer, 2006). And if altruism's most vehement critic,
the philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand, had known Zell Kravinski, she
would have challenged his philosophy, if not his sanity:
If a man accepts the ethics of altruism, he suffers the
following consequences (in proportion to the degree of his
acceptance): (1) Lack of self-esteem -- since his first
concern in the realm of values is not how to live his life,
but how to sacrifice it. (2) Lack of respect for others --
since he regards mankind as a herd of doomed beggars crying
for someone's help (1961, 49).
Is Zell Kravinsky pathologically benevolent? The renown psychiatrist
Thomas Szasz would say no from the premise that behaviors
cannot be 'sick.'
Strictly speaking, disease or illness can only affect the
body; hence, there can be no mental illness. 'Mental
illness' is a metaphor. Minds can be 'sick' only in the
sense that jokes are 'sick' or economies are 'sick'
In The Myth of Mental Illness Dr. Szasz argues when
individuals are diagnosed as mentally ill solely on the basis of
their behavior the diagnosis cannot be justified. He believes the
absence of a standard of human behavior makes it impossible to speak
of any behavior as 'sick.' Szasz does believe behavior is criminal
when it is not in conformity to the law; but does not believe any
illegal behavior constitutes mental illness:
Psychiatric expert testimony (is) mendacity masquerading as
medicine (1973, 40)... There can be no humane penology so
long as punishment masquerades as 'correction.' No person
or group has the right to correct a human being; only God
Szasz, who eschews most psychiatric labels, would be quick to point
out that mental health professionals do not include
pathological benevolence or anything approximating it among
their 415 psychiatric conditions. In contrast, the DSM-IV includes
personality disorders that imply an individual's pathological
badness toward others (antisocial personality disorder,
borderline personality disorder, and narcissistic personality
G.K. Chesterton observed, 'Art, like morality, requires drawing a
line someplace' (2010, 839). Line drawing also applies to
distinguishing normal from abnormal behavior, but who decides where
to place this line and how this decision should be made? Why is the
benevolence of Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa worthy of a Nobel
prize and Zell Kravinski's altruism suggestive of a mental illness?
To be consistent, his mental health cannot be questioned without also
questioning the psychological well-being of Jesus Christ who taught,
'Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his
friends' and then proceeded to do exactly that (John 15:13). Kravinsky
maintains, 'The only cure for the disease of wealth is to spend money'
(Singer, 2006). This view is reminiscent of Jesus' instruction to the
wealthy man who asked: 'Good teacher, what must I do to inherit
eternal life' (Luke 18:18)? Jesus responded, 'Sell everything you
have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then
come follow me' (Luke 18:22). Unlike that rich man, Zell Kravinsky has
divested himself of his wealth.
Why does Zell Kravinsky's sacrificial benevolence raise a suspicion
of psychological disorder while the extraordinary altruism of Mother
Teresa is deemed worthy of candidacy for sainthood? Perhaps it is
because mundane kindness is easily recognized and appreciated as
simple human decency and the sacrificial calling of Mother Teresa has
the endorsement of a religious order and Nobel committee. In contrast,
Kravinsky's unique altruism is relatively unknown, having been
publicized only in feature stories characterizing his generosity as
eccentric, if not bizarre. Perhaps it is his self-orchestrated,
self-destruction that provokes dubiety concerning his mental health.
The eminent psychologist Kay Jamison's opening pages of her memoir,
An Unquiet Mind, describe a heroic jet pilot's decision to
stay with his failing plane in order to guide it away from a
schoolyard full of children at play and into a mountainside where it
crashed and exploded. Years later, Jamison reflected:
Over the next few days (after the crash) it became clear
from the release of the young pilot's final message to the
control tower before he died, that he knew he could save
his own life by bailing out. He also knew, however, that by
doing so he risked that his unaccompanied plane would fall
onto the playground and kill those of us who were there.
The dead plot became a hero, transformed into a scorchingly
vivid, completely impossible ideal for what was meant by the
concept of duty... The memory of the crash came back to me
many times over the years, as a reminder both of how one
aspires after and needs such ideals, and of how killingly
difficult it is to achieve them (1996, 12-13).
In circumstances not of his making the pilot chose the lives of
others over his own and died in the line of duty. In contrast,
Kravinsky is seeking out opportunities for distributing his assets
and, if he could have his way, sacrificing his health and quality of
life. He rationalizes this with a utilitarian argument: 'No one
should have a second car until everyone has one. And no one should
have two kidneys until everyone has one' (Strom, 2003). However, the
guiding principle of utilitarianism is not simply the greatest
good for the most number but the greatest good for the most
number of involved parties. Kravinsky's charity to unknown others
is at the expense of those known to him -- his wife and children. In
Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud postulated
indiscriminate love is a love of little worth:
... readiness for a universal love of mankind and the world
represents the highest standpoint which man can reach... I
should like to bring forward my two main objections to this
view. A love that does not discriminate seems to me to
forfeit a part of its own value, by doing an injustice to
its own object; and secondly, not all men are worthy of
love (1989, 66).
Simone Weil is as difficult to classify as she is to characterize.
Three-quarters of a century after her death she is variously referred
to as a philosopher, social activist, philanthropist, Marxist,
religious seeker, and Christian mystic. T.S. Eliot remembered her as
'a woman of genius, of a kind of genius akin to that of saints'
(Liukkonen, 2010). Born in 1909 into a privileged family in Paris,
she mastered Greek by age twelve and Sanskrit shortly thereafter as
part of her unrelenting determination to study and understand the
world she inhabited. Weil placed first in the entrance examination to
the prestigious Ecole Normal Superieure in Paris. (Another embryonic
genius, Simone de Beauvior, who would later distinguish herself as an
existential philosopher and metaphysical novelist, placed second.)
Weil displayed uncommon sensitivity to the plight of others as early
as age six when she refused sugar in sympathy with French soldiers
fighting on the Western Front in World War I. At sixteen she
identified with the working class and declared herself a Bolshevist
and trade unionist. She frequently shared her salary with the
unemployed. In 1934, in spite of her frail health, she took a leave
of absence from teaching philosophy to work in a factory to intensify
her protest of the exploitation of laborers. Weil disdained the ivory
tower refuge of the academy, believing a life isolated from manual
labor and its suffering would disable her for meaningful teaching and
writing. In this vein she wrote: 'The intelligent man who is proud of
his intelligence is like the condemned man who is proud of his cell'
(Liukkonen, 2008). Her death at age thirty-four was attributed to a
combination of tuberculosis, refusal of medical treatment, and
physical neglect that included periods of starvation during political
Her spiritual journey accelerated six years before her death when in
Italy in the same church in which Saint Francis of Assisi prayed, she
had a spiritual encounter. This experience had the life-changing
effect described by William James in The Varieties of Religious
Experience (1902). Previous to her epiphany, Weil's world view
was secular and agnostic, if not atheistic. Following this
experience, she measured life from a sacred, theological perspective.
This radical reorientation fit James' characterization of an authentic
religious conversion as an experience originating outside of the
individual. He maintained religious conversions are not a mere
reworking of ideas already held. If such were the case, the
experience simply would be an intellectual exercise. Rather, the
psychology of religious conversion requires the introduction and
embracing of ideas totally foreign to the one receiving them.
Mother Teresa's calling occurred in the context of a religious
tradition (Roman Catholic) that includes the possibility of personal
direction from revelation (calling). A purely psychological
interpretation of Weil's conversion might explain it as the
culmination of her frustration with the ineffectiveness of social and
political institutions in significantly alleviating human suffering.
Her conclusion, 'From human beings, no help can be expected,' implies
her disillusionment with Marxism and suggests her realization that a
radically different means for change was required (Liukkonen, 2008).
In David Foster Wallace's insightful meditation, This Is
Water, he speaks of the unconscious error of incorrectly
explaining phenomena in terms of existing presuppositions when the
correct explanation might require reconsidering a previously rejected
possibility (2009). Perhaps the explanation for Simone Weil's
conversion is not secular and psychological but is to be found in the
world view she once dismissed. Perhaps, like Mother Teresa, she heard
a voice from the spiritual realm that had the effect of redirecting
her. It may have been the same voice heard by Albert Schweitzer.
Just as Mother Teresa has served a generation of baby-boomers as a
paradigm of self-sacrificial human service, Albert Schweitzer did the
same for the previous generation. The son of a Lutheran pastor, he
distinguished himself throughout Europe as a musician and theological
scholar by the age of twenty-eight. In 1896 he reflected on what he
considered his life of privilege and made a decision about his future.
One brilliant summer morning at Gunsbach, during the
Whitsuntide holidays -- it was in 1896 -- as I awoke, the
thought came to me that I must not accept this good fortune
as a matter of course, but must give something in return...
What the character of my future activities would be was not
yet clear to me. I left it to chance to guide me. Only one
thing was certain, that it must be direct human service,
however inconspicuous its sphere (Schweitzer, 1933, 82).
'From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and
from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be
asked' (Luke 12:48). With these words Jesus commissioned his
disciples. Schweitzer's gratitude for what he had received accounts
for his resolution to spend the balance of his life giving. After
committing himself to hands-on human service he became aware of the
need for a physician in equatorial Africa. Upon learning of this
need, he entered medical school at the University of Strasbourg in
1905 and graduated in 1912. He explained his determination to serve
as a physician in terms of its contrast to his life as a scholar: 'I
wanted to be a doctor that I might be able to work without having to
talk because for years I have been giving myself out in words (1933,
Dr. Schweitzer's compassion and reverence for life encompassed all
living things. He believed, 'A man is truly ethical only when he
obeys the compulsion to help all life he is able to assist, and
shrinks from injuring anything that lives' (1933, 235). An adherent
to the Hindu principle of 'nonviolence to all living things'
(ahimsa), he admitted to ambivalence when choosing human life
over that of a virus or tumor, for even they are life forms.
I rejoice over the new remedies for sleeping sickness,
which enable me to preserve life, where once I could only
witness the progress of a painful disease. But every time I
put the germs that cause the disease under the microscope I
cannot but reflect that I have to sacrifice this life in
order to save another... every day the responsibility to
sacrifice one life for another caused me pain. Standing, as
all living beings are, before this dilemma of the will to
live, man is constantly forced to preserve his life and
life in general only at the cost of other life. If he has
been touched by the ethic of Reverence for Life, he injures
and destroys life only under a necessity he cannot avoid,
and never from thoughtlessness (1933, 236).
Does Schweitzer's philosophical consistency constitute an obsession
with life worthy of designation as a mental illness? He performed
surgery neither annoyed nor distracted by flies flitting about the
operating room. Rare? Yes. Extreme? Of course. Sick? If so, why? Dr.
Szasz would insist the absence of a universal understanding of how
people ought to behave means Schweitzer is unlike most people
and even eccentric, but not mentally ill. Freud, were he aware of
Schweitzer's unrestricted admiration for life, would question his
philosophy if not his mental health. As previously stated, 'A love
that does not discriminate... (forfeits) a part of its own value, by
doing an injustice to its object... '(1989, p. 66).
This essay began with a question: Is it possible to be
pathologically good? Alternatively stated, is there a degree
of benevolence that can be explained only as a manifestation of
mental illness? To this point, Zell Kravinsky, Simone Weil, and
Albert Schweitzer have been considered. Each is renowned for a life
of altruism. On what basis might it be concluded that the noteworthy
life of any or all of them is attributable to a psychological
The altruistic lives of these individuals, while extraordinary, are
not identical. The sacrifices of Kravinsky and Schweitzer provided
benefits for others. The same cannot be said of Weil's self-denial.
Except for the few unemployed recipients of Weil's money and those
students who may have been inspired by her compassion, her lifestyle
provided no tangible advantage for others. Further, her asceticism
deprived her family of a daughter and sister. Weil's neglect of her
well-being is reminiscent of Dostoevsky's Lise in The Brothers
[Lise] unlocked the door, opened it a little, put her
finger in the crack, and slammed the door as hard as she
could. Ten seconds later she released her hand, went slowly
to the chair, sat down, and looked intently at her
blackened, swollen finger and the blood that was oozing out
from under the nail. Her lip quivered.
'I'm a vile, vile, vile, despicable creature,' she
whispered. (1970, 703).
Like Lise, Weil's self-inflicted suffering had no effect beyond
Zell Kravinsky also gave at the expense of his family. In addition to
depriving his wife and children of great wealth, he was prepared to
deprive his family of a husband and father. (The question of whether
millions of dollars would have provided a better life for them is not
at issue. The reality is that he decided to remove this advantage from
his family and distribute it to others.) Only Schweitzer's benevolence
came at no cost to his family.
In contrast to the quasi-martyrdom of Kravinsky and Weil, Schweitzer
committed himself to living for others and served fifty-two years in
Africa. Even Ayn Rand would have recognized this difference and
characterized Kravinsky and Weil as concerned with how to die rather
than how to live (1961, 49).
Since pathological goodness is not to be found in the DSM-IV,
extreme altruism technically cannot be a mental illness. Further, as
Dr. Szasz correctly maintains, there is no universally accepted
standard for human behavior. Hence, there is no line to be drawn
between laudable and pathological benevolence. However, the
differences between the altruism of Albert Schweitzer and that of
Zell Kravinsky and Simone Weil cannot be disregarded. This is not to
declare Kravinsky and Weil mentally ill. It is to say that their
benevolence is enigmatic. Perhaps the explanation for the
suspiciousness of their extreme goodness is their failure to convince
others of their calling. Concerning such persuasion, Szasz believes:
If we can define and experience our desire as our duty --
then our happiness or our lack of it shall depend on
whether we can persuade others that such is the case. In
proportion as we succeed in persuading them, we can become
accredited as moral leaders: Tolstoy and Gandhi were
eminently successful at this. In proportion as we fail in
persuading them, we become defined as mad fanatics
Chesterton, G.K. recovered from www.quote/quotes/839 on
Dostoevsky, F. (1970). The brothers Karamazov, translated A.H.
(New York: Bantam, 1970).
Fagone, J. Philadelphia Magazine. 5/15/2006.
Freud, S. (1989). Civilization and its discontents. New York:
W.W. Norton and
Hornby, N. (2001). How to be good. New York: Riverhead Books.
James, W. (1907). 'The present dilemma of philosophy.'
Pragmatism. New York: Longman Green and Company.
________ (1902) Varieties of religious experience. New York:
Jamison, K. (1996). An unquiet mind: A memoir of moods and
madness. New York: Random House, Inc.
Johnson, T.L. (2007). The Teaching Company. Chantilly, VA.
Liukkonen, P. and Pesonen, A. Creative Commons. recovered from
Rand (1961). The virtue of selfishness. New York: Penguin
Schweitzer, A. (1933). Out of my life and thought. Baltimore,
MD: Johns Hopkins
Singer, P. (2006). 'What should a billionaire give?' New York Times
Strom (2003) 'Donor wants to give until it hurts.' New York Times
News Service. 08/17/2003.
Szasz, T. (1973). The Second Sin. Garden City, New York:
Wallace, D. (2009). This is water. New York: Little, Brown,
(c) Max Malikow 2011
III. 'KUHNIAN NORMAL SCIENCE AND THE PROBLEM OF THE SMALL HANDFUL' BY
SIM-HUI TEE AND MOHD HAZIM SHAH
The problem of the 'small handful' was raised by Arthur Fine in
The Natural Ontological Attitude (Fine 1984). It was raised
against realist account of methodological success of scientific
theories. At any time in a given scientific area, claimed Fine, there
exists only a limited (small handful) number of alternative theories
or hypotheses as potential candidates. These alternatives display
resemblance in their theoretical outlook in which the well-confirmed
features of their predecessors are preserved. Realists are
accountable to answer three questions posed by the problem of the
small handful: 'why small, why narrowly related, and why does it
work' (Fine 1984, 89). These questions address the fact that the
accepted theories in a specific field are always small in number and
The small handful of alternative theories are conservative in term of
their explanation and prediction, for they are closely related to the
successful predecessor theories, while deviating in the less
confirmed features which were not entailed by the predecessors. The
family resemblance of these alternatives does not allow them to
deviate at the major issue in the field of study. Realists justify
such conservativeness of small handful of alternative theories by
resorting to the notion of approximate truth. Realists hold that the
narrow relation among alternative theories is defined by approximate
truth that underlies the theories. The correspondence between theory
and reality sets a high threshold for the candidate theory. However,
the realist justification fails to provide any 'independent evidence
for the relation of approximate truth itself' (Fine 1984, 88), thus
the realist defense for family resemblance of alternative theories
has no ground. This failure leads to the failure to answer why only a
small handful of alternative theories exist.
This paper aims at elucidating Kuhnian normal science from the
perspective of the problem of the small handful. The focus is placed
on the first two questions about the available alternative theories
in normal science: why small, and why narrowly related.
The main reason that Kuhnian normal science can be discussed from the
perspective of the problem of the small handful is its intellectually
uncreative and uninteresting nature. Normal science 'often suppresses
fundamental novelties' (Kuhn 1970b, 5). Genuine creativity is not the
norm in theory formulation and experimentation. Besides, Kuhn holds
that theory replacement and displacement do not happen in normal
science (Kuhn 1970a). Theory testing in normal science is not testing
of theories, that is, the fundamental doctrine of a theory is not
subject to test. For Kuhn, theory testing is part of puzzle-solving
activity, in which the practitioners' capability of research is
tested instead of the theory itself (Kuhn 1970b). The puzzle-solving
nature of normal science, which is governed by the one and only
paradigm, constitutes a limited number of alternative theories. This
small handful of alternative theories is necessarily narrowly
related, as they are defined by the (only one) governing paradigm. A
large part of the theoretical contents is preserved across the
alternative theories, both parallel and successive, in the course of
the normal science.
Now the question is: does Kuhnian normal science have a substantial
ground in addressing the question of smallness and narrowness of
Fine claims that an instrumentalist has a substantial ground in
addressing the question of smallness and narrowness, for the
constraints posed by the empirical evidence confine the range of the
available alternative theories (Fine 1984, 89). This claim holds for
Kuhnian normal science as well, though it is a non-instrumentalist
approach. In addition, Fine maintains that the alternative theories
are narrowly related in which it is a natural consequence of the
shared scientific practice in the scientific circle.
Moreover, the common apprenticeship of scientists working
in the same area certainly has the effect of narrowing down
the range of options by channeling thought into the commonly
accepted categories. (Fine 1984, 89)
Notably, Fine's statement on the social aspect of scientific research
has a Kuhnian flavour. Working in Kuhnian period of normal science, a
scientist is always found in the common apprenticeship with his
peers. This common apprenticeship is determined by the ruling
paradigm. Science students learn a paradigm-legitimate set of
problem-solution, methodology, and laboratory protocols. This
problem-solution serves as a direction of the research. Scientists
learn this standard problem-solution and they are expected to create
new knowledge within the boundaries established by the paradigm.
Paradigm provides a 'conceptual box' (Kuhn 1970b, 5) in which the
scientists 'force nature into' (Kuhn 1970b, 5). Without the governing
paradigm, scientists proceed nowhere in their research.
Kuhnian paradigm and normal science suggest a delimited research
direction and puzzle-solving activity. A delimited range of
scientific research, however, gives no clue of the size of the
puzzle-solving domain. To show that the period of normal science
necessarily leads to a small handful of alternative theories, the
puzzle-solving domain need not be specific and narrow. Kuhn does not
deny that the puzzle-solving domain could be very wide and rich with
problem sets. Furthermore, Kuhn does not even suggest that a paradigm
that governs a normal science must be narrow in disciplinary direction.
The salient characteristic for normal science to produce a small
handful of narrowly related alternative theories is its homogenous
nature in the puzzle-solving activity, direction, and content. The
homogeneity of puzzle-solving is inherited from the homogeneity of
the paradigm. Such homogeneity is unavoidable, as it warrants the
consistency of a paradigm. It is this homogeneity of paradigm that
makes the scientific communication and activity possible. Scientists
working in a common paradigm thus share the same understanding,
commitments, and beliefs in scientific practice.
The homogeneity of paradigm, which in turn forms a homogenous period
of normal science, delimits the puzzle-solving domain. The domain of
possible candidate alternative theories is narrowed by the
homogeneity of the puzzle-solving domain. Hence, the number of
legitimate alternative theories is small and narrowly related in term
of homogeneity. For scientists are not permitted by the paradigm to
arbitrarily create as many alternative theories as they want. It is
in this sense, somewhat, lightening the accusation of relativism
against Kuhnian philosophy.
A set of small and narrowly-related alternative theories that is
presented by a delimited puzzle-solving domain is further supported
by the fact that there is no clear-cut application of a paradigm
across a defined range of phenomena.
Often a paradigm developed for one set of phenomena is
ambiguous in its application to other closely related ones.
Then experiments are necessary to choose among the
alternative ways of applying the paradigm to the new area
of interest. (Kuhn 1970b, 29)
Note that whenever the ambiguity of the paradigm application arises,
Kuhn does not suggest a resolution by widening the domain of
puzzle-solving. Instead, he urges the scientists to use an
alternative way of applying the paradigm to account for the new
phenomena, which can be accomplished in the experimental design. Kuhn
has illustrated this with an example:
For example, the paradigm applications of the caloric
theory were to heating and cooling by mixtures and by
change of state. But heat could be released or absorbed in
many other ways -- e.g., by chemical combination, by friction,
and by compression or absorption of a gas-and to each of
these other phenomena the theory could be applied in
several ways. (Kuhn 1970b, 29)
Within the paradigm, caloric theory in this case, the puzzle-solving
domain provides legitimate explanation for the observed experimental
results, though the application of the paradigm across phenomena has
an ambiguous outlook initially. The experiments that arise from the
paradigm 'exploited it [paradigm] in the design of experiments and in
the interpretation of results' (Kuhn 1970b, 29). The homogeneity of a
paradigm, and normal science, suffices to account for the problem of
the small handful raised by Fine. For in normal science, 'everything
but the most esoteric detail of the result is known in advance' (Kuhn
Fine, Arthur. 1984. The Natural Ontological Attitude. In Leplin
Jarrett (ed) Scientific Realism. California: University of
California Press. Pp 83-107.
Kuhn, Thomas. 1970a. Logic of Discovery or Psychology of Research? In
Lakatos I and Musgrave A (ed). Criticism and the Growth of
Knowledge. London: Cambridge University Press. Pp 1-24.
Kuhn, Thomas. 1970b. The Structure of Scientific Revolution.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
(c) Sim-Hui Tee and Mohd Hazim Shah 2011
Persiaran Multimedia, Cyberjaya
Mohd Hazim Shah
Faculty of Science,
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