Since August, I’ve written two and one half versions of chapter 1 of my thesis. I loved version one, and it came straight from the heart. But as it turns out, writing that way will get you an unpublishable screed rather than some reasonable contribution to the literature.
Version two was significantly toned down, and had a more definite target. I was critiquing the account of ‘generality’ given by Michael Strevens in his 2004 paper (pdf) and 2008 book*. I thought he simply said that the generality of a statement is the number of actual or possible states of a given system that it applies to. I prepared a cutting argument about how ‘number’ of states is a wrong-headed way of thinking about things, because in real-valued systems there are an uncountably infinite number of possible states! And so I hoped to motivate my own view of generality. But as it turned out, I hadn’t read the paper hard enough, and had missed the following:
On the new definition, the degree of abstractness of a model [its degree of generality] is proportional to the number of possible physical systems satisfying the model. More exactly, since a typical model satisfies ranges for one or more real-valued systems, abstractness is proportional to the standard measure (in the mathematical sense) of the set of possible physical systems satisfying the model. (2004, p.170)
Curses! Defining it in terms of measure solved the problem I wanted to raise entirely. It did so in a simple and sexy way. My own solution to this non-existent problem looked clunky and awkward in comparison. It was couched in an ugly and ad-hoc formalism that would probably only ever really make sense to me.
And that’s when it happened. I had a moment of insight into the very heart of academic mediocrity. Having already set aside my work of love, and facing the collapse of my compromise version, I thought to myself:
…maybe if I make the formalism dense enough, no one will notice it’s wrong.
When it sunk in that I had actually thought that, that I had actually felt it, I was struck with equal parts horror and a feeling of liberation. I had, for at least a moment, become the thing I hate most about the academy. But I also knew for a certainty that I would rather walk away from the whole project than accept that state. I quit the academic life for ever that day, for about 20 minutes.
After gathering my wits for a few weeks, and surviving the holiday season, I’m now in the process of writing v.3 of chapter 1. It’s somewhere between v.1 and v.2 in terms of ambition, and it’s going fairly well.
* Strevens, M. (2008), Depth: An Account of Scientific Explanation, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
Strevens, M. (2004), ‘The causal and Unification Approaches to Explanation Unified – Causally’, Noûs 38(1), 154-176.