Bio

I was since my childhood interested in natural history and since my teens in philosophy and history of science. At age fourteen I had an intense mystical experience of unity with all living things. At Mt. Hermon School Garland Allen, who later became an historian of genetics, was a very young biology teacher. I started majoring in zoology at Yale. In the summer after first year I went to the research station high in the Rocky Mountains doing research for Frederick Remington on butterflies, a subject in which I had been interested since age three. While there I took a biostatistics course with Richard Lewontin covered for the first two weeks by Paul Ehrlich, before both of them became a leading evolutionist and leading ecologist, respectively. I foolishly never took advantage of my very early contacts with Allen, Lewontin, and Ehrlich.

Later I became involved in advanced organic and physical chemistry courses and did a summer after sophomore year in New Haven doing research for cooling nuclear power plants. Ironically, my Freshman biology research involved what would later be called sociobiology, and my sophomore chemistry research involved nuclear power reactors. I became very critical of both later. Junior year I did research in psychology on Land’s theory of color vision. Especially because of my organic chemistry lab I decided my lab skills were lacking and switched to philosophy. My roommates did perfect labs, while I once had to depend on smell to identify cyanide when my chromatograph was botched.

At Yale three non-course books I stayed up all night reading Northrop’s Meeting of East and West, Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Northrop was in his last year at Yale, and Polanyi visited and gave his Tacit Dimension lectures, and I had breakfast with him, missing and flunking my symbolic logic midterm. I couldn’t accept his invitation to his faculty talk the previous night because I was involved in a secret society initiation ceremony. Polanyi had a hangover at our breakfast, unfortunately, and discussed whether a computer could have a headache.

At the University of Texas at Austin I did a great deal of reading in the classics in the history of philosophy, but also took two graduate courses in zoology (biochemical genetics, and biological clocks) and three undergraduate courses in math, as well as a semester of Greek. (Lyndon Johnson’s daughter was initially in the Greek course, but after a call from the president to the chair of the classics department a special section with the least able students was set up show she could shine in it.)

I was discouraged when I received a D in point set topology, but months later learned my D tied for second highest grade in the class (behind the one B and no As given) and the teacher had flunked most of the math major graduate students, and was banned from the teaching that course again. (He was a good lecturer, but a somewhat hard grader.)

At first I focused on philosophy of brain science, working with George Gentry, a cranky student of George Herbert Mead, who had been a minor league baseball player, a fire warden, and at the time I knew him ran a shrimp boat in the summer, and who became so alienated from the philosophy department, when the chair refused to order books on neuroscience and philosophy (as irrelevant and unphilosophical) that he shifted for a while to psychology to train monkeys for the space program. Ironically decades later cognitive science and neurophilosophy became all the vogue, but it was after he died.

When Gentry retired, I wished to work with Robert Palter, who was arriving the next year. While travelling in Europe the summer before entering I had read Paul Lorenzen’s book on metamathematics in German and was delighted to learn that the next year both Lorenzen and Palter were teaching at Texas. I had been interested in Whitehead’s philosophy of relativity theory since I stumbled on a fifty cent copy of Science and the Modern World  in a drugstore at age fifteen.

My dissertation ended up being on the debate about the scientific status of C Wright Mills' power elite theory in relation to debates about falsifiability and the Duhemian argument. A little paper I wrote on the topic still gets numerous views.

Initially, at the University of New Hampshire I taught logic and philosophy of science, but also various history of philosophy courses.

During the mid-sixties because of the Vietnam War and the African American movement, and murders by right-wing movements in Texas I was led to involvement with Marxism. I taught a course on Lukacs at a "Free University" at Texas and wrote a long piece on Chinese foreign policy that was still circulating at Texas (anonymously, as my name was not on it. During the 1970 strike at UNH I also taught a free university course on contemporary China.

Several years after the JFK assassination, at the time of which I had little interest, I learned that when I had checked in with the Austin TX draft board the September I arrived in Texas, that a person claiming to be Lee Harvey Oswald, but not him, had been there the same day requesting an honorable status discharge status, which he lacked. The real Oswald was in Mexico City at the time.

At the end of the 1960s because of a symposium on the early Marx, a Yugoslavian (now Croatian) speaker invited me and a colleague to the Marxist Humanist summer school on the island of Korcula in the Adriatic. There Ernst Bloch, Marcuse, Habermas (who replaced Marcuse disappointing me not knowing who he was) and many other European Marxists were present as well as numerous veterans of the 1968 student rebellion. At this meeting and during the 1970 strike at UNH were only times I felt at home.

Another topic in the 1970s, related to my earlier biological interest was catastrophe theory. While in Canterbury I came upon it in an article in Waddington’s theoretical biology and began to study geometrical topology, differential dynamics and related topics over the next decade. I wrote to the mathematician Fowler who had translated some of Thom’s stuff (later turning to the history of early Greek mathematics) and later to theoretical biologist Robert Rosen. I had since undergraduate days been interested in the idea of a mathematical, geometrical, theory of embryology, which catastrophe theory claimed to be. While on a drive down the California coast, at Santa Cruz I talked to Guckenheimer (who had reviewed Thom and who was an office neighbor of Ralph Abraham) about the theory. When I was an undergraduate physics courses never mentioned the 3-body problem, perhaps because it would make physics seem less all-powerful. I only heard about it in a casual aside by a German physicist who was recruiting students for a European summer school and wondered if undecidability results were related to it. Later I found out many had speculated about this.

While on sabbatical in Canterbury England I got the idea among others that the four formulations of Newtonian mechanics correspond fairly closely to Aristotle’s four causes. In the Much later I gave a paper on this in Thessaloniki.

In 1977 I attended a Workshop on Human Nature organized in Colorado Springs by Marjorie Grene. I focused mainly on the talks concerning biological evolution. These were given by Bill Wimsatt, Steve Gould, Richard Levins, and David Hull. I later had contact with Levins, whome I had written inviting a paper for a proposed journal that didn't evern get published. I later gave a commentary on Gould at the Boston Colloqium. While at the conference I visited Gothic Colorado biological research station and Crested Butte where I had spent the summer doing butterfly evolution research in 1959. Crested Butte was then an almost deserted ghost town, but by 1977 had become an affluent Yuppie ski resort.

In the mid-1970s a friend from Yale and Texas suggested that I engage in the sociobiology debate, as I had some background in evolutionary and behavioral biology. I gave a piece on Marxist theory of human nature versus sociobiological ones. Marx Wartofsky was shown the paper found on the floor of a meeting hall with no name on it, tracked me down, and asked me to co-edit with an anthropologist, Tony Leeds, a journal issue on sociobiology. I joined the Sociobiology Study Group of Science for the People. I helped organize several symposia held at Harvard on sociobiology and on the Margaret Mead/Derek Freeman debate. Later, when the group morphed into the Genetic Screening group I helped with two symposia for journalists on press coverage of genetic medicine.

Also, in the 1970s I became interested in debates about hermeticism in the history of early modern science as well as in Chinese traditional thought about nature as presented by Joseph Needham and others, and in German Romantic natural philosophy and claims about its influence on figures such as Oersted and Faraday. After great delay, caused by a bad marriage, but broken by Christy Hammer, who had me dictate much of the book to her, while working at her own dissertation and holding a full-time job. I wrote a book detailing these three non-atomistic, holistic influences on the history of magnetism up to Maxwell. It fell between several stools, too New Age sounding for traditional historians of science, and too technical and pedantic for most New Agers.

In the late 1970s there was a purge in the UNH philosophy department in reaction to the 1960s, with the dean Spitz newly converted to neo-conservatism blocking Paul Brockelman from being unanimously elected chair, and a senior member Asher Moore took charge. (Moore had been in Lindbergh’s “America First” before Pearl Harbor.) Moore, though he respected me intellectually was very hostile, I became alienated from the philosophy department and hung around with the mainly Marxist and institutionalist economics instructors. The chair asked me to teach a graduate course in history of economic thought focusing on social context of the theories and philosophy of science concerning the status of the theories. I graded the history of economic comprehensives the next year. I also was on some seven economics dissertation committees. (I was also on some seven sociology, seven psychology dissertation committees, and a history dissertation committee.) I co-delivered with a then economics graduate student Bernard Gauci a paper at a Boston economics conference during this period, applying Lakatos’s research programmed characterizations to neo-Keynesian and rational expectations models of monetary economics.

During the early nineties with the personal computer there were numerous listservs, in a number of which I participated. I learned in the Boston Globe that on a sociologists’ list called scifraud the conservative embryologist Paul Gross was trashing the posts (even correcting spelling). I felt sorry for them and thought as someone who knew some science I could defend them against Gross. I posted my own suspicions of fraud by the twin studies media star Bouchard. A supporter of Bouchard advocated that he sue me. Anyhow, Gross fobbed me off on his sidekick Norman Levitt, a topologist at Rutgers. I spent quite a bit of time arguing with Gross. Sometimes, given my own interest in topology, I would ask him questions about math or string theory (He was a big fan of Ed Witten.) Levitt would then turn from an aggressive math teacher into a kindly math teacher. I was also active on sociology of science listservs. Levitt hinted to me about the Sokal e hoax just before it happened. I became involved in the huge debate about the Sokal hoax. Though I thought both postmodernists and troglodyte science warriors were wrong, I felt politically (like my former teacher Richard Lewontin) that the Science Warriors were worse. I found an error of Sokal’s in the history of physics and posted about it. Andrew Ross of SocialText invited me to write an article for it. It appeared in an issue alongside of an article on Mexican wrestling.

In the fallout of the sociology debate I was invited by Bob Young, whose trajectory led from Bunker Hunt playmate in Texas to Marxist historian of biology, to psychoanalysis] to write for his Science as Culture journal on the basis of some of my listserv posts. I wrote a very preliminary draft just to show him my progress, but he posted it, mis-spellings, glitches, and all on his huge website. This article got tremendous coverage, unfortunately mostly in the cruder web version.

While in England Lakatos died. Lakatos liked my student George Ballester, but Watkins hated him for some reason, so Ballester transferred to Oxford under Harré, became involved with a wealthy debutant, separated from his wife, but later fled the fast lane, went to a job in Papua New Guinea, became manic in the high temperatures, and returned to New Hampshire after many strange and funny adventures worthy of comedy novel. (In a local bar on return he recounted some of his encounters with fundamentalist Christian New Guinea native students who threatened to kill and eat him if he flunked them, and other such events, and the woman listening, not believing he had even been to New Guinea, assumed this was the biggest pickup line of bull she had ever heard.)

I read that on Lakatos’ obituary in the Times that he had studied with Lukacs. A light immediately dawned to me how Imre Lakatos had surreptitiously used his Lukacsian Marxism disguised as Popper’s philosophy of science. I later wrote two articles on Lakatos, one concerning Lakatos’ mentor being Lukacs and Paul Feyerabend’s mentor being Bertold Brecht and their philosophy of science debates mirroring the Brecht/Lukacs debate in aesthetics. The other article compared the influences of Marxism and the Hungarian mathematical heuristics tradition on Lakatos’ philosophy of mathematics. I some ways my first article predated even native Hungarian writers on the Lukacs influence on Lakatos, despite my not knowing a word of Hungarian.

Beginning in 1975 I had noticed that there was less student interest in philosophy of science than there had been, but there was a shift toward practical technology. I started a philosophy of technology course. I used various textbooks over the years but was dissatisfied with them all. My colleague Bob Scharff and I discussed the lack of philosophy of science and of classic philosophical sources in the topic oriented and very contemporary sourced anthologies. We made our own, which has been used not only in philosophy, but in other humanities. And engineering.

Out of my courses, with help of the same Blackwell editor, I put together handouts from my course as the basis of a short, comprehensive introduction to the philosophy of technology. This work has been amazingly successful, getting many hundreds of citations in all sorts of fields. Since the book is elementary, there are few in professional philosophy, but hundreds in computer and information science and hundreds more in education. It also has been translated into at least four languages. I only found out that the Iranian Defense Industries issued a translation in Farsi from a Facebook friend in Iran. It is the only elementary book that surveys the application of various schools of philosophy to technology, ranging from Plato to Kant, Hegel, and Marx, and among modern schools, logical empiricism, phenomenology, hermeneutics, postmodernism, and many others, as well as anthropological and cross-cultural investigations. Before our anthology and my survey, philosophy of technology texts generally focused on specific ethical problems of particular technologies, such as nuclear power or biotechnology. They did not tackle more general philosophical issues. Since ours’ appeared, another anthology appeared which basically copies most of the selections in ours.

My interest in and teaching of both traditional Chinese thought and earlier in Maoism led on my retirement to an invitation (arranged by my kind colleague Paul McNamara) from the Confucius Institute to visit and give talks in Chengdu China. Later, the head of the UNH Confucius Institute kindly asked me to substitute in two different years when the invited speaker was unable to come, to give talks at the Institute.

Must recently i was invited to give a presentation at the IEEE conference on "Norbert Wiener in the Twenty-First Century" held at Anna University in India and by Zoom. My paper is on Norbert Wiener, Continuism nad Social Implications." 

But I digress. (A student told me recently I was guilty of falling into an infinite digression.)