I’ve noticed that when I arrive at a reading group or seminar, I often bring vague, ill-directed questions with me. If I’m comfortable enough in the group, I go ahead and ask them anyway, to see what I get in return. This Monday, I attended a group reading Samir Okasha’s new book in philosophy of biology and more or less started off discussion between me and a few other graduate students by opening with a broadside: Okasha’s theory about how natural selection occurs on multiple levels of biology (cells, organisms, populations, etc) is incomplete because it is ambiguous regarding causation. The actual question doesn’t matter so much as what came of it.
The first response I received were blank stares. My friend T., ever precise in his reading, tried to locate where in the chapter I had a concern. My question was vague enough I didn’t even have a particular part of the text in mind. (!) In short order, the topic went nowhere, and other students brought up their concerns. After meandering through theories of emergence and a particular example of natural selection in the text, we landed at causation again and I asserted myself, rephrasing my problem in a new way. Again, it gained nothing more than silent assent — a weak form of agreement for sure.
What happened the third time, and which often happens for me, is that only after pursuing the same problem for close to an hour in a number of different ways, at last it lands at an insight. Here, we discovered that Okasha did not discuss causation because he presumed the reality of multiple levels of selection simply because that’s what biologists did and he had no desire to question them. So no deep causal analysis was needed, and that’s why it struck me as vague, incomplete. While not earth-shaking, the insight was important to me and several others in the group: we understood better what Okasha was about in writing the book.
The funny pattern, which has almost become a method for me, is that it’s often the case one seizes hold of an intuition, no more than a feeling of irritation or confusion or bafflement, and although it makes no sense at first, in the company of smart, considerate people it almost always flowers into valuable insight. The faith required is to follow it all the way, to refuse to abandon it despite appearing stubborn or unreasonable during the discussion session. Only because of the discussion along the way, seemingly irrelevant to any of the ways I had tried to put my problem, did I find the words and common understanding to make meaning. The tools to articulate my irritation emerged out of the discussion without intention or design, a little miracle of coincidence that appears so often in my life.