Archive for August, 2011

Quantum Diaries

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

Triumph’s Byron Jennings at Quantum Diaries overstates the case for experiment as the only source of truth.

What on earth does he mean by saying that Euclidean Geometry “turned out not to be true”? And for that matter doesn’t all of mathematics (or any other system of complex tautology) provide examples of what anyone bound by logic would call truth which is independent of experience? In the same vein, I think Hume’s approach to miracles is to deny them by definition since the “laws of nature” (which I am sure he made no claim of actually knowing) are by definition compact summaries of whatever is universally true about reality and so must “explain” miracles if these are “real”. (Yes it’s a tautology, but so is anything else we can be “sure” of.)

Of course one could say that the “laws” of logic are themselves only true insofar as supported by experience, and I would agree with that.  But in accepting that level of uncertainty I think I am actually in a very small minority. So for most people there are indeed truths that don’t depend on experience.

Absolute Ethics

Monday, August 29th, 2011

Joel Marks ‘Confessions of an Ex-Moralist’ came to me via Jean Kazez.

Another attempt to “derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’ ” is provided by CamelsWithHammers who identifies “goodness” with “effectiveness” at enhancing the “function” of a being. But his use of the word “function” (rather than something more neutral such as “effect) seems to beg the question by implying value before deducing it.

And in cases where the function of a being is not unique,the goal of enhancing the effectiveness with which a function is performed raises the question of how to weight the competing interests of different functions of the same being.

As an example of this, consider your case of the river.It is effective at several competing functions – transport of precipitated water back to the ocean, carving valleys, filling other valleys and deltas with silt, providing habitat for birds and fishes, etc,etc,etc. Now ask whether drilling a tunnel to bypass a long sweep of the river around a massif (which enhances the water flow at expense of carving), or building a dam (which enhances bird habitat at the expense of some kinds of fishes) is “good for” the river. How can you answer these questions without imposing some relative value on the different functions? And from where can you find that relative value except in your own preferences? (or appeal to authority, the choice of which is really just another expression of personal preference)?

Learning by Trial-and-Error

Monday, August 29th, 2011

Steve Jobs is one example of the general principle that learning and problem solving occurs most efficiently via a process of successive approximation or error-and-correction. I know that, for me, the solution of a math problem generally proceeds this way, and I suspect that, for those who are less successful, the problem is less with capacity for generating ideas than with lack of willingness, first to take the risk of being found wrong, and then of accepting one’s wrongness and abandoning a false idea.

The Lesson of Adam and Eve

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

Sean Carroll of the Cosmic Variance blog at Discover Magazine claims that the “Fall” of Adam and Eve is “a terrible lesson on which to found a system of belief”

On the contrary, it is a wonderful “lesson on which to found a system of belief” because its flexibility of interpretation demonstrates to any with eyes to see the vacuity of the entire concept of a “system of belief”.

In fact, the religion Carroll claims to want want – and just about anything else anyone else might want as well – is a legitimate interpretation of judaeo-christian mythology. So long as we don’t confuse the search for truth with the claim to have found it, then the search for truth and defiance of authority are not in conflict with the idea of the “forbidden fruit” being “knowledge of good and evil”. The only justified claimant to such knowledge is identified as “God” (who probably does not exist), and to claim his authority, ie to “take his name in vain”, is not only presented as the fundamental source of human suffering, but is also explicitly forbidden in another of the Hebrew books and is also a recurring theme in the Aramic/Greek books where “Jesus” frequently rails against religious “authority” and proclaims “judge not lest ye be judged”.

What is the True Essence of Humanity?

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

In this post at Discover Magazine (referencing a New Yorker article on Svante Pääbo), Razib Khan suggests that “Perhaps the difference between Neandertals and behaviorally modern humans was less about large between group differences in individual level traits, and more about the fact than Neandertals simply lacked the leadership cadre which behaviorally modern humans possessed“.

One of the other commenters beat me to it, but I too am inclined to suggest that perhaps what distinguishes “humanity” (from eg the apparently more cranially endowed Neandertals) is the “capacity” for suppressing one’s own intellect and immediate interests in favour of some socially determined doctrine and leadership. Perhaps this does lead to greater reproductive success for individuals who can affiliate with such groups, and perhaps those of us who are too “bright” to be fully “human” might then be well advised under most circumstances to mimic the general dimmness rather than fail the test of credulity and get pruned as  defectors from the common interest.

Why do you believe in God?

Monday, August 8th, 2011

This series from the New Statesman may (or may not) provide some of the insight I have been looking for into why intelligent decent people can adopt traditional-sounding religious positions. The answers I have been able to get from personal friends are generally not persuasive and it seems that to get something more satisfactory would require a level of probing that would feel unduly intrusive.

Does Philosophy Matter?

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

Stanley Fish suggests that philosophical questions such as that of Moral Relativism vs Moral Absolutism are essentially irrelevant in practical terms. Though I might agree with Fish’s take on philosophy about many other examples, this in particular is one where I do not.  In fact I think that one’s position on that issue colours the attitude with which we approach the law – especially criminal law – and that a position of moral absolutism leads to an approach that I find offensive and which I suspect is counterproductive.

Another philosophical issue which impacts the law and how we apply it  is that of Free Will.  Primitive notions of responsibility can lead to application of punishment where it will do no good, and when doubts about the extent of our freedom arise, having founded the rationale for punishment on them can lead to a dangerous leniency which results from finding just about anything excusable. It would be helpful perhaps to identify “responsibility” just with what its etymology implies – namely the level of appropriate response to an offense – and to choose the response on the basis of what future effects it may have – in terms of restraining the offender, discouraging others from acting similarly, and mollifying the victims (all to be balanced against whatever pain or other harm that response causes to the offender).

This really does matter because bogus “philosophical” arguments do seem to be capable of persuading people to adopt legal positions that they would not otherwise have accepted.