Ups and Downs: Progress and Stagnation

by , under Me, Newest thoughts, Ups and Downs

I’ve always wanted a PhD, but I’ve never had a concept of what that means. Well, I know it stands for “Doctor of Philosophy,” but you don’t become a doctor or a philosopher when you get it…


“the completion of a Ph.D. is a requirement for employment as a university professor.”

I thought I could be a professor; I like teaching and lecturing. Unfortunately, I don’t like the associated research load and constant scramble for funding. I find it very confusing that people get paid so poorly when they only teach. But it actually makes sense when you examine what a professor actually does.

To profess means:

“to claim openly but often falsely that one has a quality or feeling.”

Essentially, a professor loudly lies about feelings. Their job is to tell you that their words are truth, while simultaneously proclaiming truth to be a lie. It catches students in a contradictory loop, whereby you need to learn from the teacher, but their job is to get you to think for yourself. It’s like saying, “don’t listen to me right now”, or “don’t think about a cat” — In order to instruct you what not to do, they’ve made you do it! But this paradoxical instruction is exactly what effective learning looks like. As I’ve said many times before, this paradox  lies at the center of eightstep me.

But all this aside, I think what stopped me from pursuing the occupation (or even completing my PhD) is what I see as a strong orientational imbalance within the discipline of science. Many scientists do their jobs solely because they enjoy science! It is a wonderful career that allows you to help people, work with brilliant minds, and constantly learn. However, money doesn’t flow in at the proclamation of “fun!”

At its core, science is really about progress — strong falsifiable hypotheses supported by repeatably verifiable evidence leads to unbelievable and unpredictable long-term gains (think medicine, computers, space travel, etc.). I could take this whole post to give examples towards this point, but money talks, and individual researchers can receive millions of dollars a year.

The problem here is that progress fits nicely into the recent Up>Down schema which I have been cultivating over the last few posts. As a brief refresher, orientational metaphors are extremely pervasive in our cognition. We can’t help but see up as greater than down, which is evidenced by language such as — you’re an upstanding guy vs. why do you look so downtrodden? However, it is vitally important to be aware of the power of down, as there can be no balance if you unconsciously favor yang over yin. Awareness of our biases allows us to overcome them.

So here is the problem I see with science (and our society as a whole): progress is perceived as the ultimate goal. We favor growth over all else, even if it isn’t healthy or required. But the negative stigma of ‘stagnation’ is just as unnecessary as the stigma placed on vulnerability, discomfort, disorder, and death. There can be no sound without silence, no growth without rest, and no antinodes without nodes. Stagnation is just as important as progress.

All things come in cycles — right foot, left foot; sunrise, sunset; breathe in, breathe out. For science to have laser-like focus on producing progress is like holding your breath to try and live longer. We are building towers to the sky to try and find our selves on the ground.

Someone like Sigmund Freud might say that my distaste for building towers to the sky is an outward expression of repressed shame  at my masculine sexuality. And I can’t argue with that sentiment. But I’d like to clarify that I am not upset with progress, rather, I recognize the need for rest to punctuate growth — a balance of progress and stagnation. 

A career as a researcher allows you to constantly learn, but you dig yourself into a deep hole of knowledge. I’ve heard it described as related disciplines digging from the same starting point with differing angles — eventually if you dig too far along your path you’ll lose sight of the shared space.

As a scientist you get to work with brilliant people, but you’re forced to be highly critical of most ideas. While my graduate program was filled with collaboration, a necessary part of peer-review and grant funding is competition and destruction, rather than co-operation and affirmation.

Many people pursue science to help humanity, but you can only overtly claim to help those with ‘disabilities.’ You can’t get funding for the sake of ‘helping humanity,’ there needs to be some specific problem you plan to address. If your personal reason for doing research is to uncover the mechanisms underlying human happiness you need to profess a desire to cure depression.

But I don’t want to profess — I want to be truthful, vulnerable, and aware of my weakness.

Finding stagnation within motion is an invitation to balance.

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