Thursday, June 17, 2010

GKC and Problem-Solving Skills

Having just examined the schedule of topics for this year's Moveable Feast (also known as The Chesterton Conference) I had thought it would be fun to do a series of essays orthogonal to the usual talks on the schedule. You know, instead of "the Mistake about Science" have "the Mistake about Literature" or instead of "the Mistake about Technology" have "the Mistake about Philosophy" - but such bitter sarcasm is not suitable for our use. We have larger things to do here, and should first consider our own mistakes before we take up those of others - whether they are truly mistakes, or just our own flawed interpretations. This is why the Scholastics worked so hard at writing up the arguments of their opponents: it is a very humbling method, and besides you may be surprised. First, sometimes you find that your opponent is right. Second, sometimes you may find that your opponent has formulated his own counterargument for you. It's quite a time-saver. You may wonder whether any of that is Chestertonian. It is, and it shows up in a very strange place... it's something I am still researching, but I keep getting diverted from that particular study. Ahem. Here's the quote:
I really did see myself, and my real self, committing the murder. I didn't actually kill the men by material means; but that's not the point. Any brick or bit of machinery might have killed them by material means. I mean that I thought and thought about how a man might come to be like that, until I realised that I really was like that, in everything except actual final consent to the action. It was once suggested to me by a friend of mine, as a sort of religious exercise. I believe he got it from Pope Leo XIII, who was always rather a hero of mine.
[GKC "The Secret Of Father Brown" in The Secret of Father Brown]

There's far more we could say about Mistakes... in pondering the pleasant little word game called "proof-texting" (I think that is the usual term) I began to see a very interesting way of applying the methods of the Gödel Incompleteness Theorem - well, its style, or maybe its results - to other things like the Faith and Art - yes, even to Literature. But I shall save that for another time. Instead, I'd like to take this rather seething verbal porridge and do something else with it. It may be a good deal less controversial than the sort of thing I've been hinting at - but then again it may be worse. At the least, it is a bit easier to write about, and I think a good deal more humorous.

So... let us begin. what am I talking about when I say "GKC and Problem-Solving Skills"?

Since we are Scholastic in attitude (let us hope) we expect to find a definition of this odd phrase - but that is the one thing that never seems to be presented to us by those who insist on it so vehemently. The one thing that seems clear to me is that whatever a Problem-Solving Skill is, it is nothing like any of the usual subjects I learned in grade school, nor like the famous old Trivium and Quadrivium. Nor does it mean what we mean in computer science about the classical methods for problem-solving. (Yes, doesn't it sound funny to use the term "classical" when referring to computer science?) But then people like to say how the typical grade school student must become "technically competent" - when the most they learn about computers is how to double-click the mouse. I really expected they would begin to learn Automata Theory or at least Boolean Algebra... but I must not get ahead of myself.

No, I am NOT trying to re-write, or even re-tell, Chesterton's argument in What's Wrong With the World. Nor am I trying to rebut the usual nonsense as argued in the so-called graduate schools of education. Rather, I wish to do something else - make a practical suggestion or two, and begin the process of pointing to the real problem-solving skills - which (as Father Brown would say) are "too large to be seen". [See "The Three Tools of Death" in The Innocence of Father Brown]

The first required Skill is to understand the problem - any problem. Does this sound tautological? Well... perhaps - but it is an instance of the "too large to be seen" trait. You might also call it the ostrich-with-its-head-in-the-sand effect. Obviously, if you don't know there is a problem, you can never begin to solve it. If you didn't know there were strange dark lines in the spectrum of the sun, you'd never wonder why they are there... yet that is the modest and dull beginning of the concept of "quantum" - the keystone of modern atomic and nuclear science, and the explanation of many mysteries of chemistry. But there is a more grand truth than that to learn from those dark lines: they tell us the true composition of the sun itself! Yes, there is a message in the light from the sun, as Chesterton noted of Alice Meynell:
She could always find things to think about; even on a sick bed in a darkened room, where the shadow of a bird on the blind was more than the bird itself, she said, because it was a message from the sun.
[GKC Autobiography CW16:269]
But we need not go so far, into science or into space, for an example. If you do not know these very symbols -
- the marvellous and grand Alphabet - you are in a much worse position than Alice Meynell on her sickbed. You cannot get a message at all.

So if the first Skill is Understanding - that is, the first Mental Skill - we immediately have the result that the first Practical Skill must therefore be Reading. Yes, we can extend this concept to the general idea of any form of natural language - speech, Morse, Ann Sullivan's hand-signals, the interesting ideas proposed in "The Noticeable Conduct of Professor Chadd" in GKC's The Club of Queer Trades, and so forth - but since you are READING this, we shall apply synecdoche and let the message of the printed word stand for the whole realm of human communication.

In making our selections - that of Understanding and of Reading - we have made a significant advance upon our topic. In fact, we are really finished. The key to problem-solving - at the very least, the problem solving which anyone can expect from a young child - is simply the mystery of what the Middle Ages called "The Appeal To Authority". Chesterton has a lovely bit on this which we examined at length some time ago...
When your father told you, walking about the garden, that bees stung or that roses smelt sweet, you did not talk of taking the best out of his philosophy. When the bees stung you, you did not call it an entertaining coincidence. When the rose smelt sweet you did not say "My father is a rude, barbaric symbol, enshrining (perhaps unconsciously) the deep delicate truths that flowers smell." No: you believed your father, because you had found him to be a living fountain of facts, a thing that really knew more than you; a thing that would tell you truth to-morrow, as well as to-day. And if this was true of your father, it was even truer of your mother; at least it was true of mine...
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:360]
Ah, but so many people will whine about this - the famous Appeal To Authority - even though they are compelled to abide by it even as they whine - or they would by no means be comprehensible to others. It is the truth lurking in Chesterton's great epigram:
Free speech is a paradox.
[GKC Browning]
But even that will not soothe - because they fear that the Authority people like Chesterton or the far sillier and duller writer you are reading presently mean is THE POPE. No, this does NOT mean every child in grade school must instantly become a Roman Catholic! You need to read it a bit more slowly and think about it. What is the Appeal to Authority? It simply means that the First (and often the Last) form of Problem Solving is GO AND SEE WHAT SOMEONE ELSE DID THE LAST TIME HE HAD SUCH A PROBLEM. And that means "go and read it".

Now, you may already be quite good at reading, even if you most likely haven't yet read enough Chesterton. Indeed, you may need to be re-reading Chesterton. But it's not so much that we should resort to Chesterton as our first authority when we have a problem. (This is what we could call the "Mistake About Chesterton" - alas, some forget that GKC followed Jesus Christ. It's all written up in his book about St. Francis, I won't repeat it here.) But I didn't want to go that deep. Rather, I was thinking of an interesting bit I happened to encounter, which is yet another example of How To Be Chestertonian. You may dispose of all my rantings in today's column, but please do read this bit:
As there is a thing called intensive cultivation, so there ought to be a thing called intensive reading; the reading of a sentence at a time, so as to feel the full weight of the common words we use. It would resemble, more than anything else, the verbal vigilance used in the atrocious task of proofreading, on which I have been engaged for some days; that task in which one must be always on the look-out for the rising sun appearing as a rising bun, and in which the powdered flunkey of romance sent out to call a cab must be watched over to see that he does not call a cat instead. But while the proofreader must be on the lookout for words that make nonsense, the intensive reader should be on the look-out for words that make sense, and seek to extract the real sense of them. If he takes any quite ordinary sentence, such as "Mary had a little lamb," he will find vistas of branching thought in every word. The word "Mary" reveals a forest of legends, creeds, and controversies. The word "had" is the pivot on which Socialism, Capitalism, Syndicalism, and the whole dizzy wheel of our industrial age is perpetually turning. The word "little" opens the bottomless chasms of the philosophic arguments about relativity and differences of degree: as well as suggesting, when taken with its context, the mystery of affectionate diminutives and the love of limited things. At first sight it seems needless to speak of a little lamb, lambs being seldom gigantesque. But the poet talks of a "little" lamb as the patriot talks of a "tight little" island; because we all make a thing little when we want to make much of it. And as for the word "lamb," there really seems to be nothing from hagiology to housekeeping that could not be talked about in connection with it. There is something more in a word than its first derivation or its last definition. There is its value, the power and magic in it; and the learned even more than the unlearned seem to-day to be singularly listless and reckless about the value of words.
[GKC ILN Sept 21 1912 CW29:361-2]
All right - now read it again. Then think about it - and try to use it yourself. (Take a stab at that "Free speech is a paradox" just for the sheer thrill of the effect.) And you thought you understood what reading was all about? Something you learned when you were little, and hardly give a thought to, as you browse through the web-sites and flip through the newspapers and magazines? You may be surprised at how powerful a problem-solving tool it can be... but you need to know more about your tools. (Notice, you are doing it now...)

1 comment:

  1. Chesterton's philosophy of reading (or anything, for that matter) is a breath of fresh air in the post-modern wasteland. Having myself just escaped from graduate school (where I sat through two semesters of "literary" "criticism," hearing about how words have no value in themselves, and that the lead nowhere except to other words endlessly), it is like water in the desert to hear that "[t]here is something more in a word than its first derivation or its last definition. There is its value, the power and magic in it...."

    I am currently working on my thesis; and as revenge against all my literary criticism professors, I am writing on G.K. Chesterton. Perhaps it will help to uneducate them a bit.


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