Saturday, March 27, 2010

Three Easy Pieces

1. Lamarck may have been right after all. It's starting to look like acquired characteristics can be passed on to one's offspring. But it's not quite as radical as it sounds: apparently, experiences have some effect on which genes are unlocked and which are not, and they are passed on in this form to descendants. Since the genes that express the acquired characteristic were there before the trait was acquired, in unlocked form, it's not a pure Lamarckism. But it's still pretty interesting.

2. I (Jim S.) strongly suspect global warming is true, so I've been very frustrated by the unethical conduct of so many climate scientists since it makes it difficult to take them at their word. So when I learned an island had disappeared and scientists were blaming it on global warming and rising sea levels, I thought, "Aha! Proof!" But then my less gracious self thought, "Wait a minute, the article says the island is close to the mainland. Wouldn't the nearby coastline have been greatly altered if the sea level had risen enough to cover an entire island?" I can't find anything addressing that point. But when I do a Google search on the island in question (New Moore Island or South Talpatti Island, depending on who you're talking to), I discovered that the island only appeared 40 years ago. Well, if it only formed recently, maybe it wasn't exactly stable, so it's disappearance wouldn't be due to rising sea levels. But that wouldn't bring in the funding.

3. First Things has a great essay on religion in science-fiction, which mentions Quodlibeteer Michael Flynn among others. In a similar case, Michael Weingrad, a professor of Jewish studies, wrote an outstanding essay on the dearth of fantasy literature written from a Jewish perspective entitled "Why There Is No Jewish Narnia". He received some criticism, which Elliot sums up at Claw of the Conciliator, and which prompted Weingrad to write an excellent follow-up essay.

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Templeton Bogeyman

The U.S National Academy of Sciences has agreed to rent out their lecture hall for the announcement of the 2010 Templeton Prize; cue much throwing of toys out of prams across the Dawkinisia-sphere. Richard Dawkins writes:

This is exactly the kind of thing Templeton is ceaselessly angling for – recognition among real scientists – and they use their money shamelessly to satisfy their doomed craving for scientific respectability.

They tried it on with the Royal Society of London, and they seem to have found a compliant Quisling in the current President, Martin Rees, who, though not religious himself, is a fervent 'believer in belief'. Fortunately, enough Fellows made a stink about it to ensure that the Royal will not flirt with Templeton in future. Now Templeton are apparently trying the same trick with the US National Academy. If you know any officers, or elected members, of the Academy, please write in protest.

Incidentally, look at the fatuous request in capital letters in the middle of the announcement: "If you guess the winner, please honor a strict embargo (you can't tell anyone) until 11.00 am on Thursday March 25th 2010." Embargo a guess? It is one thing to put an embargo on privileged information, but embargo a GUESS? Well, I suppose that is just another indication of the way a faith-head's mind works. Their whole world-view, after all, is founded on an inability to distinguish evidence from an ill-informed guess.

Well, let's all guess away to our heart's content. Which leading scientist has done the most to betray science in favour of his imaginary friend? You can rule out the people they'd privately like to honor (such as Intelligent Design "theorists") because that would go against the official policy of courting respectability among scientists. Nowadays they target genuinely good scientists (like Freeman Dyson, winner of the 2000 Templeton Prize), whose subversion provides more bang for the (mega)buck than primarily religious figures who happen also to be scientists.

Jerry Coyne on ‘Why Evolution is True’ wrote:

This is an outrage, of course, and shame on the National Academy for its implicit endorsement of religion. If they say, “Well, we rent our space to anybody,” then I look forward to seeing an adult film festival at the NAS. (speaking of which, he also posted this entertaining video)

I’m guessing that this year’s winner, based on the location, will be Francis Collins. Dear readers, do post your guess, and we’ll see how close we get. Runners-up may be Kenneth Miller, Karen Armstrong, John Haught, and Robert Wright.

I’ll go with Sir John T. Houghton as they haven’t yet appointed a climate scientist. Judging by past winners Conway Morris is too young, ditto Martin Nowak. Francis Collins is too high profile. Prof. Ernan McMullin could be an outside bet, but the last couple of winners weren’t particularly well known.

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Mind and Physicalism

I think Jaegwon Kim is the clearest contemporary expositor of philosophy of mind, not to mention one of its most important contributors. If you're interested in this subject at all, I highly recommend his books. For one thing, he really exposes the difficulties in accounting for the properties of the mind in physicalistic terms.

For example, in Philosophy of Mind and Physicalism, or Something Near Enough he discusses the problem of qualia. These are basically the first person experience of things, the "what it is like" to have a particular experience or be a particular entity (a bat, say). So when you experience pain, the qualia is not the firing of C-fibers, it's not the nerve endings, it's not your response to move away from whatever is causing it. The qualia is the pain, the "this hurts" experience. The difficulty in explaining qualia as physical properties is notorious, so much so that some philosophers feel it necessary to deny their existence (I guess the thinking is, if your philosophy conflicts with reality, the problem must be in the latter). The problem of qualia really opens the floodgates to the problems of explaining consciousness in general in terms of physical phenomena and processes.

Another example is where Kim discusses the difficulties in reconciling the causal closure of the physical with mental causation. Mental causation is simply the idea that the mind can cause a physical event (for example, that I can decide to pick up a pencil). But if the physical realm is causally closed, we are led to the problem of causal exclusion. In Mind in a Physical World: An Essay on the Mind-Body Problem and Mental Causation, he writes,

To acknowledge mental event m (occurring at t) as a cause of physical event p but deny that p has a physical cause at t would be a clear violation of the causal closure of the physical domain, a relapse into Cartesian interactionist dualism which mixes physical and nonphysical events in a single causal chain. But to acknowledge that p has also a physical cause, p*, at t is to invite the question: Given that p has a physical cause p*, what causal work is left for m to contribute? The physical cause therefore threatens to exclude, and preempt, the mental cause. This is the problem of causal exclusion. The antireductive physicalist who wants to remain a mental realist, therefore, must give an account of how the mental cause and the physical cause of one and the same event are related to each other. ... Thus the problem of causal exclusion is to answer this question: Given that every physical event that has a cause has a physical cause, how is a mental cause also possible?

Yet another example comes from a passage in Philosophy of Mind where Kim gives some detail about Donald Davidson's anomalous monism, as can be found in his collection, Essays on Actions and Events (which is on my to-read list). The point is that rational processes must follow different rules than (mere) physical processes, and so the former cannot be reduced to the latter.

A crucial premise of Davidson's argument is the thesis that the ascription of intentional states, like beliefs and desires, is regulated by certain principles of rationality, principles to ensure that the total set of such states ascribed to a subject will be as rational and coherent as possible. This is why, for example, we refrain from attributing to a person flatly and obviously contradictory beliefs -- even when the sentences uttered have the surface logical form of a contradiction. When someone replies, "Well, I do and don't" when asked, "Do you like Ross Perot?" we do not take her to be expressing a literally contradictory belief, the belief that she both likes and does not like Perot; rather, we take her to be saying something like "I like some aspects of Perot (say, his economic agenda), but I don't like certain other aspects (say, his international policy)." If she were to insist: "No, I don't mean that; I really both do and don't like Perot, period," we wouldn't know what to make of her utterance; perhaps her "and" doesn't mean what the English "and" means. We cast about for some consistent interpretation of her meaning because an interpreter of a person's speech and mental states is under the mandate that an acceptable interpretation must make her come out with a consistent and reasonably coherent set of beliefs -- as coherent and rational as evidence permits. When we fail to come up with a consistent interpretation, we are likely to blame our unsuccessful interpretive efforts rather than accuse our subject of harboring explicitly inconsistent beliefs. We also attribute to a subject beliefs that are obvious logical consequences of beliefs already attributed to him. For example, if we have ascribed to a person the belief that Boston is less than 50 miles from Providence, we would, and should, ascribe to him the belief that Boston is less than 60 miles from Providence, the belief that Boston is less than 70 miles from Providence, and countless others. We do not need independent evidence for these further belief attributions; if we are not prepared to attribute any one of these further beliefs, we should be prepared to withdraw the original belief attribution as well. Our concept of belief does not allow us to say that someone believes that Boston is within 50 miles of Providence but doesn't believe that it is within 70 miles of Providence -- unless we are able to give an intelligible explanation of how this could happen in the particular case involved. This principle, which requires that the set of beliefs be "closed" under obvious logical entailment, goes beyond the simple requirement of consistency in a person's belief system; it requires the belief system to be coherent as a whole -- it must in some sense hang together, without unexplained gaps. In any case, Davidson's thesis is that the requirement of rationality and coherence is of the essence of the mental -- that is, it is constitutive of the mental in the sense that it is exactly what makes the mental mental.

But it is clear that the physical domain is subject to no such requirement; as Davidson says, the principle of rationality and coherence has "no echo" in physical theory. But suppose that we have laws connecting beliefs with brain states; in particular, suppose we have laws that specify a neural substrate for each of our beliefs -- a series of laws of the form "N occurs to a person at t if and only if B occurs to that person at t," where N is a neural state and B is a belief with a particular content (e.g., the belief that there are birches in your yard). If such laws were available, we could attribute beliefs to a subject, one by one, independently of the constraints of the rationality principle. For in order to determine whether she has a certain belief B, all we need to do would be to ascertain whether B's neural substrate N is present in her; there would be no need to check whether this belief makes sense in the context of her other beliefs or even what other beliefs she has. In short, we could read her beliefs off her brain. Thus, neurophysiology would preempt the rationality principle, and the practice of belief attribution would no longer need to be regulated by the rationality principle. By being connected by law with neural state N, belief B becomes hostage to the constraints of physical theory. On Davidson's view, as we saw, the rationality principle is constitutive of mentality, and beliefs that have escaped its jurisdiction can no longer be considered mental states. If, therefore, belief is to retain its identity and integrity as a mental phenomenon, its attribution must be regulated by the rationality principle and hence cannot be connected by law to a physical substrate.

I've mentioned three issues: the problem of qualia, the problem of mental causation, and the dichotomy between rational processes and physical processes. The difficulty in each case is reconciling some property of the mind with physicalism. One might be tempted to say, with Kim, that we can have Physicalism, or Something Near Enough; the fact that we have a few threads that are left hanging doesn't put the physicalist project in jeopardy. But the "hanging threads" metaphor implies that the threads are on the periphery. These three examples, however, are at the center of the cloth, touching, in some way, every other thread. If one of these threads were removed, the whole thing would unravel.

Next up is Kim's Supervenience and Mind. Wish me luck.

Now forgive me for getting on my hobby horse, but the problem of mental causation and the distinction between rational and physical processes sound strikingly similar to what C. S. Lewis argued a half century earlier. In "Bulverism", he claims that rationality cannot be explained by mere brute physical causality; it requires a "special kind of cause called “a reason.”". Similarly, in the third chapter of Miracles, he points out that there is a difference between a mental event being caused and being grounded. Specifically, it is the difference between it having a non-rational cause (i.e. a physical cause) and having a rational cause. For human rationality to be valid, we have to assume that at least some of our beliefs are rationally caused.

To be caused is not to be proved. Wishful thinkings, prejudices, and the delusions of madness, are all caused, but they are ungrounded. Indeed to be caused is so different from being proved that we behave in disputation as if they were mutually exclusive. The mere existence of causes for a belief is popularly treated as raising a presumption that it is groundless, and the most popular way of discrediting a person's opinions is to explain them causally -- "You say that because (Cause and Effect) you are a capitalist, or a hypochondriac, or a mere man, or only a woman." The implication is that if causes fully account for a belief, then, since causes work inevitably, the belief would have had to arise whether it had grounds or not. We need not, it is felt, consider grounds for something which can be fully explained without them.

But even if grounds do exist, what exactly have they got to do with the actual occurrence of the belief as a psychological event? If it is an event it must be caused. It must in fact be simply one link in a causal chain which stretches back to the beginning and forward to the end of time. How could such a trifle as lack of logical grounds prevent the belief's occurrence or how could the existence of grounds promote it?

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Friday, March 12, 2010

Great Moments in Rube Goldberg Machines

Here's a commercial from several years ago for Honda Accord, called "Cog". It took over 600 takes.

Here's the new video for "This Too Shall Pass" by OK Go, the same band behind that treadmill video. Via Michael Flynn.

And here, in three parts, is the film "Der Lauf der Dinge" (The Way Things Go). You can tell that it's not all one shot, but it's still pretty incredible.

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Friday, March 05, 2010

Giant Rock Vs Volcanos - Round Two

By the looks of it another great scientific row is brewing. Last year I posted on reports by scientists that the extinction of the (non avian) dinosaurs was primarily caused by volcanic eruptions rather than a giant asteroid as previously claimed. As you might imagine, this was pretty controversial and now a review paper authored by a dream team of 41 researchers from 12 nations has appeared defending the original theory; in fact it goes as far as to say that the science is effectively settled. Much of it is a simple restatement of the original hypothesis but it does attempt to counter a number of the claims made by Gerta Keller and her team. As you might expect the ‘giant rock sceptics’ aren’t convinced.

"It's the same old story from them," says Norman MacLeod of the Natural History Museum in London, referring to the team that wrote the new paper. "The authors conveniently forget to mention critical data."

….MacLeod and another prominent doubter, Gerta Keller of Princeton University, don't dispute that a colossal space rock hit the Earth roughly 65 million years ago. And whether or not that led to the demise of the dinosaurs, new research is painting an increasingly detailed picture of the hellish conditions after the asteroid's arrival. The authors of the new study say that more than 60 percent of species went extinct, including most dinosaurs. MacLeod, though, says that dinosaurs were in decline for millions of years before the asteroid hit. He also wonders why, if the asteroid strike was such a doomsday event, some classes of species survived and even thrived. Keller questions even more basic claims, such as the dating of the asteroid strike. She argues that the Chicxulub rock hammered Earth hundreds of thousands of years before the mass extinctions shown in the fossil record. Just such arguments -- and media coverage of them -- are what prompted the scientists to publish their new paper, Goldin says.

After ignoring Keller and other skeptics for many years, the pro-crater forces got so frustrated that they decided to put all the evidence together.
"It is almost impossible to change the skeptics' minds," Goldin concedes. "But we hope we can communicate to the scientific community and the public that this impact-induced environmental catastrophe did happen."

I have to say I’m a giant space rock man myself, but I think there is a little of the ‘grandstanding’ about releasing a paper of ‘consensus science’ with no new findings and trying to present it as the final word. As Guardian user Arbuthnott says:

Let's hope that this is not a model for our ongoing treatment of AGW:

* Multiple competing theories, which appear to shuffle in prominence according to fashion (global warming has recently become popular for many or all of the other major extinction events and is a strong contender for this one)

* Reputable panel works for 20 years to come up with a definitive "consensus view", which now favours the "nuclear winter" mechanism for the extinction event

* An important competing claimed explanation published with considerable fanfare immediately beforehand, based on global warming from lava outflows

* By its conclusion (I have not read the report)), the published "official" solution appears to ignore the "double" iridium layer phenomenon, and "Shiva"

* Without the apparently slightly later impact of "Shiva", the crater of which is visible in the ocean off what is now Mumbai, India, there is a problem of timing, in that the dinosaurs appear to have been slow on the uptake and died as much as several hundred thousand years after the Chicxulub impact.
Still, I am glad that all this is now officially settled and we can go back to worrying about other things.

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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

An Exchange in the Times continued....

Following on from the last thread (which has now developed into a fascinating discussion on morality), the Times has published my letter in reply to Bryan Hammersley (lightly edited).

For some reason, the subeditor has added a headline "Why do we have to have stereotypes when talking about different genres of music and cultural tastes?" This question remains unanswered...

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Tuesday, March 02, 2010

An Exchange in the Times

Following on from my recent post here is an exchange of letters from the Times which shows how pertinent these issues are today.

Why the Ancient Greeks were wrong about morality

Chief Rabbi - Jonathan Sacks

Do you have to be religious to be moral? Was Dostoevsky right when he said, If God does not exist, all is permitted? Clearly the answer is No. You don’t have to be religious to fight for justice, practise compassion, care about the poor and homeless or jump into the sea to save a drowning child. My doctoral supervisor, the late Sir Bernard Williams, was a committed atheist. He was also one of the most reflective writers on morality in our time.

Yet there were great minds who were less sure. Voltaire did not believe in God but he wanted his butler to do so because he thought he would then be robbed less. Rousseau, hardly a saint, thought that a nation needed a religion if it was to accept laws and policies directed at the long term future. Without it, people would insist on immediate gain, to their eventual cost. George Washington in his Farewell Address said “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion . . . Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

Were they wrong? Yes in one sense, no in another. Individuals don’t need to believe in God to be moral. But morality is more than individual choices. Like language it is the result of social practice, honed and refined over many centuries. The West was shaped by what nowadays we call the Judeo-Christian tradition. Lose that and we will not cease to be moral, but we will be moral in a different way.
Consider what moves people today: the environment, hunger and disease in third world countries, and the growing gap between rich and poor.

These are noble causes: nothing should be allowed to detract from that. They speak to our altruism. They move us to make sacrifices for the sake of others. That is one of the distinguishing features of our age. Our moral horizons have widened. Our conscience has gone global. All this is worthy of admiration and respect.
But they have in common the fact that they are political. They are the kind of issues that can only ultimately be solved by governments and international agreements. They have little to do with the kind of behaviour that was once the primary concern of morality: the way we relate to others, how we form bonds of loyalty and love, how we consecrate marriage and the family, and how we fulfil our responsibilities as parents, employees, neighbours and citizens. Morality was about private life.

It said that without personal virtue, we cannot create a society of grace.
Nowadays the very concept of personal ethics has become problematic in one domain after another. Why shouldn’t a businessman or banker pay himself the highest salary he can get away with? Why shouldn’t teenagers treat sex as a game so long as they take proper precautions? Why shouldn’t the media be sensationalist if it sells papers, programmes and films? Why should we treat life as sacred if abortion and euthanasia are what people want? Even Bernard Williams came to call morality a “peculiar institution.” Things that once made sense – duty, obligation, self-restraint, the distinction between what we desire to do and what we ought to do – to many people now make no sense at all. This does not mean that people are less ethical than they were, but it does mean that we have adopted an entirely different ethical system from the one people used to have.

What we have today is not the religious ethic of Judaism and Christianity but the civic ethic of the ancient Greeks. For the Greeks, the political was all. What you did in your private life was up to you. Sexual life was the pursuit of desire. Abortion and euthanasia were freely practised. The Greeks produced much of the greatest art and architecture, philosophy and drama, the world has ever known. What they did not produce was a society capable of surviving.
The Athens of Socrates and Plato was glorious, but extraordinarily short-lived. By now, by contrast, Christianity has survived for two millennia, Judaism for four. The Judeo-Christian ethic is not the only way of being moral; but it is the only system that has endured. If we lose the Judeo-Christian ethic, we will lose the greatest system ever devised for building a society on personal virtue and covenantal responsibility, on righteousness and humility, forgiveness and love.

Greek Morality

Bryan Hammersley London N6

Sir, The Chief Rabbi denigrates the moral philosophy of the Ancient Greeks in extolling the allegedly superior virtues of Judaeo-Christian ethics (“Why the Ancient Greeks were wrong about morality”, Faith, Feb 27). He states that “for the Greeks, the political was all. What you did in your private life was up to you.” I expect some Greeks thought in this way, as they would in all societies. It is absurd to imply that they all held this view. Plato, for example, was frequently concerned with the personal conduct of the individual. Sextus the Pythagorean wrote: “Wish that you may be able to benefit your enemies.” How was this merely political?

Lord Sacks describes the Athens of Socrates and Plato as “extraordinarily short-lived”, implying that, unlike Judaeo-Christianity, its ideas had no staying power. Greek civilisation continued through the Roman Empire, until it was violently destroyed by the Christians in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. For instance, the famous library in the Serapeum at Alexandria, which is believed to have contained half a million books, was destroyed on the orders of Theodosius the First, a Christian Roman emperor, as part of his empire-wide destruction of all things pagan.
The Christian religion was imposed by force on the populations of Europe over very many centuries, so it is hardly surprising that it continues to have many adherents. Many works of Greek philosophy were destroyed in Europe and are only available now because they were retained in the Islamic world. They continue nevertheless to be admired.

I think it's worth pointing out at this juncture that to house half a million papyrus rolls would require forty kilometres of shelving. Accordingly Mr Hammersley's next task should be to work out why the enormous structure required isn't mentioned in any account of the Serapeum and hasn't turned up in any excavations of the site (after he has finished objecting to his local hospital's planning application of course). He is however right to bring to the fore, the especially relevant teachings of Sextus. This stoic advised that those who found it difficult to practice celibacy should castrate themselves, extolling them to 'cast away every part of the body that misleads you to a lack of self control, since it is better for you to live without the part in self control than to live with it to your peril'. If only this message had got through to Tiger Woods, Ashley Cole and John Terry.

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