Archive for June, 2014

What if it were true?

Saturday, June 28th, 2014

Kennan Malik provides a fairly nuanced response to Nicholas Wade’s recent book (advocating the idea of cognitive differences between races), and (of course) I think he is right to join those who condemn the second half of Wade’s book. But despite the nuanced approach he takes to the first half (about the existence of race as a biological concept) I still think Malik falls into the trap of using incompletely convincing arguments to deny even the possibility of things that we all hope are false turning out to actually be true when he comes down in the end against the possibility of defining “race” in biological terms as “plausible but mistaken”.

The problem with saying “those who think that ‘race’ is nothing more than a social construction and those who think it a natural category are both mistaken” is that it presumes to know what *all* of those who think it a natural category actually mean.

There are (probably several) perfectly good scientifically meaningful (and useful) concepts which coincide where applicable with the colloquial socially constructed concept of “race”. I can’t think of any that provides a *complete* classification of humanity into a finite number of subsets but such a classification is not necessary in order for a concept to be useful. Malik has acknowledged one such use in the assignment of medical treatments, and despite the lack (so far) of any convincing evidence it is not inconceivable that there may be statistical links to social propensities and cognitive skills as well. Of course, given our apparent inability to respond appropriately if such links really exist, it may well be inadvisable to look for them, and any claim of their existence would require an especially high standard of proof in order to be taken seriously. In fact, to look for them at all may be harmful and should not be encouraged, and for someone like Wade (who should know better) to claim to have found them on the basis of superficial analysis is just plain evil.

In the meantime though, I think there may well be value in addressing the question of how we should deal with such links in the (perhaps very unlikely) event that they do turn out to exist.

Science and Philosophy

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

Some late comments on Richard Carrier’s blog post re ‘Is Philosophy Stupid?’ raise interesting questions about the relationship of science to philosophy.

While I have always been inclined to share Richard’s view that science (aka “natural philosophy”) is actually a branch of philosophy, I am now tempted to question that identification.

To me a “science” is just any teachable method for making successful testable predictions. Although the predictions may be stochastic in nature, the criterion of testability is intended to restrict attention to predictions of a kind (such as “this needle will point into that range on the scale”) about which it is almost impossible to imagine any sane person questioning whether the predicted outcome actually happened. (Often in practice we use less apparent predictions expressed in terms of theoretical constructs, but in principle everything should be reducible to counting unambiguous objects or events.)

As such, science is a practice which happens to be useful for achieving practical goals, but so is walking and I don’t think anyone would think of walking as a branch of philosophy (even though it might well be a practice that helps clear the mind in support of some kinds of philosophy).

Philosophy is, for me, much harder to define but I think it has to include some beliefs re truth and/or value, and I think there is a subtle difference between making a prediction and claiming that the prediction is “true”.

The belief that scientific predictions do represent a kind of truth is a philosophical position, and the stronger position that there are no others has (by what I consider an offensive abuse of language) been called “scientism”.

By profession I have been a scientist – but by philosophy I am not so sure.

On the other hand, if science does coincide with natural philosophy then what’s left for the philosophy departments is just the non-natural kind (supernatural and unnatural).

Physicists Should Stop Saying Silly Things about Philosophy | Sean Carroll

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

Sean Carroll says that Physicists Should Stop Saying Silly Things about Philosophy, but physicists are not the only culprits.

Some of the best philosophers have been at least as critical of “philosophy” as the most strident of physicists. And some of the seemingly objectionable quotes from physicists come in response to the loud claims by some (often unemployed) philosophers that we “need” their expertise for some reason or other. Although I enjoy and see value in the study of how our understanding of various “deep” questions has evolved (or not) over time, I do not need the advice of a professionally trained philosopher to help me decide even moral questions – let alone issues of natural philosophy. In my opinion, the discipline of philosophy would be better served by an attitude common among my mathematical physics colleagues – namely pride in the belief that what we do is “useless” from a crudely materialist perspective but still of great aesthetic value to those who appreciate it.

P.S. I don’t think it was fair to elide “completely useless” into “uninteresting or unimportant”. And the most famous comment re usefulness was in fact (intentionally) open to a wide range of interpretation since many species of birds would now be extinct but for the interest of ornithologists (even though those birds need neither ornithologists (nor aerodynamicists) in order to actually fly).