International Society for Philosophers

International Society for Philosophers

Wisdom begins with wonder

PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS                   ISSN 2043-0728


Issue number 159 20th January 2011


I. 'Knowledge Acquisition as a Memory Renewal Process' by Georgios Constantine Pentzaropoulos

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 https:--- 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

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 information.

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 principle.

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.

Geoffrey Klempner




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.[1] 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.[2] EU-funded research has also shown that the hippocampus inside the brain's limbic system plays a major role in memorizing recent events.[3]

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 information theory.

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.[4] (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.[5] We do not examine here the controversy over their existence. Similarly, we avoid the issues raised by rationalists and their empiricist opponents.

Our aim is to examine how sensory knowledge is acquired and managed in memory.

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.[6]

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.[7] 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 neuronal circuitry.


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'.[8] 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.[9]

(a) The numerical pattern 1234567.89 is (raw) data. (b) The statement 'Your balance has jumped 8087% to $1234567.89' is information. (c) The customer's thought 'Nobody owes me that much money' is knowledge. (d) The customer's next thought 'I'd better talk to the bank manager' is wisdom.

Following this discussion we can now write our first conclusion:

C1. Data (raw) ==> Processing ==> Information ==> Knowledge.

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.[10] 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.[11] We now turn our attention to the structure and operation of memory.

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.[12] 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 memories.

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 MM.

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 conclusion:

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.[13] 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.[14] 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 before.


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, HREF="">

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 under 'Philosophy of life according to Democritus' (in Greek).

7. See The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, op. cit., under 'tabula rasa'.

8. See 'knowledge' in, 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 Press, 2005).

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 GREECE

The present work was supported by Grant No. 70/4/4733 awarded by the Research Committee of the University of Athens, Greece



     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 (2001).

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 Kravinsky

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'
     (1973, 267).

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
     does (42-43).

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 disorder).

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

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 protests.

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.

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, 82).'

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).

The Question

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 disorder?

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 Karamazov:

     [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 herself.

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
     (1973, 48).


Chesterton, G.K. recovered from www.quote/quotes/839 on 10/21/2010.

Dostoevsky, F. (1970). The brothers Karamazov, translated A.H. MacAndrew
(New York: Bantam, 1970).

Fagone, J. Philadelphia Magazine. 5/15/2006.

Freud, S. (1989). Civilization and its discontents. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

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: Touchstone Publishers.

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 kaupunginkipjasto. 10/22/2010.

Rand (1961). The virtue of selfishness. New York: Penguin Books.

Schweitzer, A. (1933). Out of my life and thought. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Singer, P. (2006). 'What should a billionaire give?' New York Times Magazine. 12/17/2006.

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: Anchor Books.

Wallace, D. (2009). This is water. New York: Little, Brown, and Company.

(c) Max Malikow 2011




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 closely related.

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 alternative theories?

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 1970b, 35).


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


Sim-Hui Tee Multimedia University Persiaran Multimedia, Cyberjaya Selangor

Mohd Hazim Shah Faculty of Science, Universiti Malaya Kuala Lumpur MALAYSIA

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