About Rationally Speaking


Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Dark Side of the Enlightenment

by Massimo Pigliucci

People who identify with the various versions of the skeptic / atheist / rationalist / freethinking movement(s) hold up the Enlightenment, the famous “Age of Reason,” to be the pinnacle of human civilization, as well as a model for future progress. Richard Dawkins famously said that he considers himself a son of the Enlightenment, and my favorite philosopher of all time, David Hume (Aristotle and Bertrand Russell complete my personal pantheon) was a prominent exponent of the Scottish Enlightenment — not to mention the source of the famous Sagan dictum, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” (Hume’s version, in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, was “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence”).

There are good reasons to admire the Enlightenment as a cultural movement. It was a reaction to (and rejection of) centuries of religious wars in Europe, it featured a call for the use of reason and the popular spreading of knowledge (just think of the famous Encyclopédie curated by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert), and was propelled by some of the foremost intellectual figures of all time (it’s a long list, which includes: Spinoza, Locke, Voltaire, Newton, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and many others, aside from the above mentioned Hume, Diderot and d’Alembert).

Yet, as John Fleming reminds us in his somewhat idiosyncratic The Dark Side of the Enlightenment: Wizards, Alchemists, and Spiritual Seekers in the Age of Reason, this was also the time of movements like that of the Convulsionists (a religious movement preaching celibacy and the Second Coming), of secret societies like the Rosicruceans and the Freemasons, and occult figures such as the Count Alessandro Cagliostro. So when you proudly declare yourself to be a son of the Enlightenment you should be historically savvy as well as careful in specifying which aspects of the Enlightenment you are referring to.

The point made by Fleming is not simply that during the Enlightenment there were contradictory social forces at play, some progressive (as we might call them), some reactionary. That is true of pretty much any time and place in human history, though perhaps rarely in such a dramatic form as the case at hand. Rather, Fleming is underlining the fact that people like Cagliostro, who dealt in alchemy and other occult practices, thought of himself as doing the same sort of thing that the philosophes were advocating: using reason and science to further knowledge and solve human problems. And let’s not forget, of course, that major thinkers like Newton spent just as much time doing what we recognize as legitimate (indeed, revolutionary!) physics as he did carrying out alchemical experiments or pouring over Biblical texts in search of hidden meanings.

In fact, in an important sense, one can see the Enlightenment as a major bifurcation point in the divergence of (what later we began to think of as) science from pseudoscience. That is the last time I can think of when the contrast between figures like Newton and Cagliostro made sense at all. The equivalent comparison today would be, say, Stephen Hawking and Deepak Chopra (and I’m paying a huge compliment to Chopra by comparing him with Cagliostro!). The two couldn’t be any further apart, with Chopra clearly dealing in snake oil and Hawking who wouldn’t think for a second of wasting time in the pursuit of some of the more occult stuff that Newton was so fascinated by.

I recently wrote about Maarten Boudry’s pseudoscience “black hole” (Steve Novella also commented on it), the idea that once a notion slides into pseudoscientific territory it cannot emerge beyond the event horizon of rationality (to slightly modify Steve’s apt phrase). Perhaps there is such a thing as a well defined historical event horizon, marked by the Enlightenment (and the immediately preceding Scientific Revolution), which began to irreversibly shape our concepts of science and pseudoscience so that physics, biology and the like would definitely belong to the first, while notions such as alchemy, numerology, and so forth definitely fall into the second — with pretty much no hope at this point of any of these fields crossing categories.

This way of looking at things (which is left, unfortunately, largely unexplored by Fleming’s book, as it turns out to be a patchwork of interesting, but ultimately disconnected, mini-biographies of peoples and movements) helps our understanding of the science-pseudoscience demarcation problem. The demarcation line, as is well known, is both fuzzy and changing through time, but is arguably becoming sharper because of scientific progress.

Take biology, for instance. As a proto-scientific field arguably it goes back at least to Aristotle and his field work observing the shapes of mollusk shells on the island of Lesbo. But it was then plagued on and off by a number of quasi- or downright pseudo-scientific notions, all the way up to the natural theology of the early 19th century. Even after the Darwinian revolution, vague notions such as vitalism still reared their ugly heads from time to time, and it is only with the triumphs of genetic first and molecular biology later that biology has come into its own and has pretty much permanently expunged non-mechanistic notions from its research programs. Similar historical paths can be traced for physics and chemistry, of course.

Science didn’t really become recognizably such until the Scientific Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries, and the process has unfolded at a different pace for different disciplines, with psychology, for instance, coming into its own only during the second part of the 20th century. Indeed, psychology is yet another good example of how the process of becoming a science seems to also imply a sharper definition (and increasingly forceful rejection) of related pseudoscientific notions. Freudian and other types of psychoanalysis — as important as they were at the beginning of the 20th century for the emancipation of psychology from philosophy — are justly considered pseudoscientific nowadays, though a surprising number of practitioners still cling to them. This doesn’t seem to me to be very different from where alchemy and physics were at the time of the Enlightenment.


The bottom line is that human knowledge makes progress in haphazard and patchy ways, at a different pace for different disciplines, and with plenty of gray areas that may literally take centuries to sort themselves out into black and white (or at least less gray). So reading about the history of science and rationality, and especially about the crucial period of the Age of Reason, is not only a way to get a better sense of the struggle, but also provides a humbling lesson in how difficult it is sometimes to sort the wheat from the chaff. If Newton couldn’t, are you so darn confident that you can?

76 comments:

  1. I really like your last sentence. How confident can we be that what we regard as science today, won't be regarded as pseudoscience in 200-300 years?

    I've been doing some reading lately in the history of science, and I'm struck by the fact that many of the people who ultimately turned out to be wrong had fairly good reasons for their beliefs. Many of them seemed to go astray by making what, to them, seemed like self evident assumptions. It makes me wonder what assumptions we're making today that we, perhaps, don't even realize are assumptions.

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    1. Agreed, great thought provoking last sentence.

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    2. The young specialist in English Lit, having quoted me, went on to lecture me severely on the fact that in every century people have thought they understood the universe at last, and in every century they were proved to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about our modern "knowledge" is that it is wrong. The young man then quoted with approval what Socrates had said on learning that the Delphic oracle had proclaimed him the wisest man in Greece. "If I am the wisest man," said Socrates, "it is because I alone know that I know nothing." the implication was that I was very foolish because I was under the impression I knew a great deal.

      My answer to him was, "John, when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together."
      --- Isaac Asimov

      Does that help?

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    3. Thanks Alex SL. I'd forgotten about that Asimov quote. Good point. However, I'm still prepared to think we might have hidden assumptions on dark energy, dark matter, quantum gravity, etc.

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    4. Certainly we humans will always make mistakes. But some of what has been commented here, not least the last sentence of the blog post itself, make it sound too much as if we are never getting any better at all...

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  2. String theory and supersymmetry could be the alchemy of the late 20th, early 21st century. Or not.

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  3. @ Massimo

    > Even after the Darwinian revolution, vague notions such as vitalism still reared their ugly heads from time to time, and it is only with the triumphs of genetic first and molecular biology later that biology has come into its own and has pretty much permanently expunged non-mechanistic notions from its research programs. Similar historical paths can be traced for physics and chemistry, of course.
    <

    This is not exactly true. Darwinian evolution is not strictly mechanistic. It involves random variation working in tandem with natural section. The "random" in "random variation" is non-mechanistic aspect of evolution. And we know this is not pseudo-randomness, but true randomness. Why? Because genetic mutations are directly-linked to quantum events.

    "Quantum effects are directly related to mutations. Therefore, indeterminism originating in the subatomic world can impact genetic variability. Despite a colossal gap between the subatomic world and organismal level the connections between them are real."(source: pg. 37, "Genetics and Randomness" by Anatoly Ruvinsky - Professor of Genetics at the University of New England in Australia)

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    1. @ Alastair

      "Because genetic mutations are directly-linked to quantum events."

      Do we know this? Is there scientific evidence that has established it? Just wondering.

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    2. @ selfawarepatterns

      > Do we know this? Is there scientific evidence that has established it? Just wondering. <

      I just cited a professor of genetics that we do.

      "Four classes of mutations are (1) spontaneous mutations (molecular decay), (2) mutations due to error prone replication by-pass of naturally occurring DNA damage (also called error prone translesion synthesis), (3) errors introduced during DNA repair, and (4) induced mutations caused by mutagens." (source: Wikipedia Mutation)

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    3. Thanks Alastair. I saw the quote, but it didn't include his rationale. It's not clear to me that the Wikipedia snippet answers the question though.

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    4. @ selfawarepatterns.com

      > Thanks Alastair. I saw the quote, but it didn't include his rationale. It's not clear to me that the Wikipedia snippet answers the question though. <

      Radioactive decay is a random process.

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    5. I had to look up "mechanistic". I thought that because that there was a theory called 'quantum mechanics' that a "mechanism" could now have randomness ( like a quantum computer)

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    6. @Alastair Paisley
      If the randomness is from quantum events, it's still mechanistic. It's not called quantum MECHANICS for nothing.

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    7. @ Philip & David

      Quantum mechanics is somewhat of a misnomer. Because there is clearly an aspect of quantum theory that holds that nature is fundamentally indeterminate (without physical cause). (There is no physical mechanism for a truly random event by definition. A paradigm shift has taken place in science due to quantum physics. It is no longer believed, by the majority of physicists, that we live in a mechanistic, clockwork universe.)

      "Mechanism (philosophy), a theory that all natural phenomena can be explained by physical causes" (source: Wikipedia: Mechanism)

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    8. Interesting discussion!

      I'm not aware of any strictly proven cases of quantum effects of randomness on genetics, the link you provided seem to only point to a biologists making the claim but not actual studies or evidence for that claim based in science. It's an interesting conceptual idea but seems premature to make the claim to such specific situations.

      It also doesn't seem to require quantum effects for us to consider randomness, random events into the picture in many different ways (i.e. chaotic systems). Adding quantum seems to be a way of trying to seem important and cool to be able to include physics into your work.

      Finally, for mechanism thinking, I'm not so sure that wiki definition is what most physicists consider mechanism to mean. I agree that most physics don't hold the classic mechanics view but most physicists I know personally and people I've seen online (Sean Carroll) still hold mechanistic views of science. I certainly don't think there are many physicist hold that something does not have a "physical cause", which would imply there are other types of causes, just not physical ones.

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    9. @ Imad

      > I'm not aware of any strictly proven cases of quantum effects of randomness on genetics, the link you provided seem to only point to a biologists making the claim but not actual studies or evidence for that claim based in science. It's an interesting conceptual idea but seems premature to make the claim to such specific situations. <

      "The evidence for the basis of mutations in quantum indeterminism...lies in no one experiment or piece of evidence, but rather in the convergence of various lines of evidence." (source: pg. 845, "Quantum Biochemistry" by Crif F. Matta)

      > It also doesn't seem to require quantum effects for us to consider randomness, random events into the picture in many different ways (i.e. chaotic systems). Adding quantum seems to be a way of trying to seem important and cool to be able to include physics into your work. <

      Chaotic systems are actually deterministic systems.

      "This happens even though these [chaotic] systems are deterministic, meaning that their future behavior is fully determined by their initial conditions, with no random elements involved.[2]" (source: Wikipedia: Chaos theory)

      "I certainly don't think there are many physicist hold that something does not have a "physical cause", which would imply there are other types of causes, just not physical ones."

      Quantum indeterminism is part and parcel of the standard interpretation (or Copehagen interpretation) of QM.

      "According to this [the Copenhagen] interpretation, the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics is not a temporary feature which will eventually be replaced by a deterministic theory, but instead must be considered a final renunciation of the classical idea of "causality"" (source: Wikipedia: Quantum mechanics)

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  4. "I am willing you should call this the Age of Frivolity as you do, and would not object if you had named it the Age of Folly, Vice, Frenzy, Brutality, Daemons, Buonaparte, Tom Paine, or the Age of the Burning Brand from Bottomless Pit, or anything but the Age of Reason." - John Adams.

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  5. If Newton couldn’t, are you so darn confident that you can?

    Maybe it helps to stand on the shoulders of giants?

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    1. Giants which have grown even higher since Newton's time.

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  6. Hi Massimo,

    I don't see why alchemy is pseudoscience. What's the difference between alchemy and chemistry? It seems to be essentially the same to me, it's just that we call "alchemy" all those historical experiments and hypotheses that didn't work out, while we call "chemistry" those that did. But making and testing untrue hypotheses are all part of the scientific process, so I see no reason whatsoever to sneer at Newton for his interest in alchemy (not that I think you are, by the way).

    I agree with you that certain of the beliefs we cling to these days will in future be regarded as pseudoscience. In particular, I think your biological naturalism, comparing consciousness to photosynthesis, is a good example.

    But no doubt you think the same of The Computational Theory of Mind, so that still doesn't get us anywhere :)

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    1. @ DM

      > In particular, I think your biological naturalism, comparing consciousness to photosynthesis, is a good example. <

      Just FYI. "Photosynthesis works 'by quantum computing'"

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    2. Also:
      http://m.technologyreview.com/view/522016/quantum-light-harvesting-hints-at-entirely-new-form-of-computing/

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    3. Are either of those positions even science? I thought they were philosophical positions.

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    4. @Louis

      Good question. Arguable either way I'd say. The claims do have some empirical content, and there are active research programs which make certain assumptions either way. I do think Massimo expects biological naturalism to ultimately prove to be a fruitful avenue for scientific research.

      But yes, as they apply purely to phenomenal consciousness and not to empirical results I can see why they might be regarded as philosophical.

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    5. @Alastair
      I think we've already had this discussion. I don't really regard that as quantum computing, in that photosynthesis is not really an information processing task. I think what is going on is no more quantum computing than dropping a ball is performing a computation of newtonian mechanics.

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    6. @ DM

      > I think we've already had this discussion. <

      Yes, we have. And I am simply reminding you of that fact.

      > I don't really regard that as quantum computing, in that photosynthesis is not really an information processing task. <

      It is common knowledge - at least for anyone with a layman's understanding of contemporary physics - that nature is fundamentally dualistic - the well-known wave/particle duality. The particle aspect is the physical "stuff" (the hardware if you will). The wave aspect is the nonphysical aspect (the information and the software).

      "Particle talk refers to hardware: physical stuff such as electrons. By contrast, the wave function that attaches to an electron encodes what we know about the system. The wave is not a wave of ‘stuff,’ it is an information wave. Since information and ‘stuff’ refer to two different conceptual levels, quantum mechanics seems to imply a duality of levels akin to mind-brain duality." (source: pg. 8, "The Physics of Downward Causation" by physicist Paul Davies, reprinted on pp. 44-45, "The Re-Emergence of Emergence" edited by Philip Clayton and Paul Davies)

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    7. @ Louis Burke

      > Are either of those positions even science? I thought they were philosophical positions. <

      I cited an article from "Chemistry World" - a professional publication of the "The Royal Society of Chemistry."

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    8. @Alastair

      Louis wasn't addressing you. He was talking about biological naturalism vs computational theory of mind.

      I think wave/particle duality is a separate issue to whether physical processes are intrinsically computational in the sense that a computer program is.

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    9. @ DM

      > Louis wasn't addressing you. He was talking about biological naturalism vs computational theory of mind. <

      Okay. I misinterpeted his post.

      > I think wave/particle duality is a separate issue to whether physical processes are intrinsically computational in the sense that a computer program is. <

      The "wave" in the "wave/particle" duality is a wave of information. It's definitely germane to the subject of a computational universe. (If you believe that the entire natural process is a computational process, then you have to be very specific as to what constitutes the fundamental constituents of information - the bits. The definition of information in your scheme appears to be very arbitrary.)

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  7. 'Pseudoscience' is good word for use in journalism and polemics and casual discussion, but I wonder whether it is just too vague and emotionally charged to be of much use philosophically.

    It implies a mimicking of science, but not necessarily a conscious or deliberate mimicking designed to deceive. Perspectives are all-important and, as Massimo points out here, historical perspectives are impossible to pin down in any precise or clearcut way.

    The fact that the word 'pseudoscience' has a strong emotional element and implies a slightly aggressive, mocking stance vis-à-vis the target practice or discipline is also a potential problem, in my opinion.

    In serious or scholarly contexts, we can always criticize unscientific practices perfectly well, can we not, without using the term 'pseudoscience' at all? And if we want to say that these practices mimic standard science we can say that explicitly (rather than implicitly via the word 'pseudoscience').

    And the fact that we would have one less set of demarcation problems to deal with would be an added bonus.

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    1. Theorists who hypothesize the dozens of new hypothetical particles (there 's one called the 'wino') might be doing a bit of pseudoscience, right. That's one reason I don't think the term is very useful.

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    2. I largely agree with you, Mark. "Pseudoscience" is a very fuzzy word, and its value is largely polemical, but it's also useful for summing up a negative view of a theory in one word. However, in philosophy we usually have time to say more specifically what we mean, and the more specific we can be the better. For example, if what we want to say is that the theory in question has little or no epistemic merit, it would be clearer to say that in so many words. And that's the question that generally matters most to us.

      "And the fact that we would have one less set of demarcation problems to deal with would be an added bonus."

      Yes, but I would say more generally that we should focus much less on "demarcation". The word "demarcation" suggests the drawing of lines, or formulating of rules for dividing things into categories. Most of the distinctions philosophers want to make are too fuzzy for the drawing of the sorts of neat lines that are suggested by the word "demarcation". Take, for example, the distinction between good science and bad science, or more generally between those claims we should accept and those we should reject. There are certainly some broad things we can say about epistemic merit. We can, for example, talk about inference to the best explanation, and what makes a good explanation. We can come up with useful statistical methods. And so on. But we cannot come up with an overall formula for telling us which theories to accept. Even statistical methods cannot do the whole job on their own. Good judgement is needed, and good judgement cannot be reduced to a formula.

      I think the quest for demarcation criteria is largely driven by a reluctance to accept the primary role of judgement in such distinctions. We want a formula that we can use to prove our judgement is the right one.

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    3. P.S. I think the word "pseudoscience" is particularly problematic when applied to the past, e.g. to Newton's alchemy. A belief that has no epistemic merit today (given our current state of knowledge) may have been more reasonable in the past. I think that if we talk of epistemic merit or good reasons for belief, we are more likely (than if we talk of pseudoscience) to think about whether we are making such judgements relative to the current state of knowledge, or relative to the state of knowledge at the past time.

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  8. Snake Oil?

    The tree of knowledge.
    Have you eaten from the physics tree of science yet, the tree that found its own measure of nature to be uncertain or only probable at best? Have you swallowed the fruit and become a gambler in their game of dice too? Have you been sold on the scientific snake oil of chance? Have you fallen into the spell yet of quantum mechanics, fallen into the dizzying black holes or rabbit holes of today’s science? If so, can you tell me how deep into uncertainty has science taken you, how deep does science go? Does it go deeper than Higgs or god particles, farther than strings and multiverses, deeper than their own equations? Is it possible to escape once you have fallen in? Is there any way out? Can science escape the gravitation pull of its own smoke and mirrors? And while you are in there can you tell me: Is science the best at calling a kettle black or does black really matter, is a black hole black? And lastly or rather firstly, can you tell me, did the big bang make any sound or is that theory just another pseudo hole of a dud too? =

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  9. Two asides:

    1) If you haven't read The Soul Made Flesh by Carl Zimmer you would probably find it interesting. For one thing it describes how the Siege of Oxford during the English Civil War drove together groups who would not normally mingle, e.g., alchemists & others; and how this provided mush helpful cross-fertilization.

    2) nit pick: in your 4th para, underlying should be underlining

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  10. Alastair,

    > This is not exactly true. Darwinian evolution is not strictly mechanistic. It involves random variation working in tandem with natural section. The "random" in "random variation" is non-mechanistic aspect of evolution. <

    Wrong (as others have already pointed out). Mutations are random with respect to fitness outcome, but they are a mechanism (based on specific molecular changes) by way of which new variation originates. You are confusing mechanism with determinism.

    DM,

    > I don't see why alchemy is pseudoscience. What's the difference between alchemy and chemistry? <

    You may not be familiar with the history of alchemy then. It is a mix of quasi-scientific notions (which eventually did lead to chemistry) and completely made up mystical / metaphysical principles. The latter part is what makes it a pseudoscience. And I wasn’t “sneering” at Newton. At the time it was hard to know better. I would, however, sneer at any contemporary chemist who would do the sort of things Newton was doing.

    > I think your biological naturalism, comparing consciousness to photosynthesis, is a good example. But no doubt you think the same of The Computational Theory of Mind <

    You are entirely incorrect, on both counts. I think the CT is wrong, or at the very least incomplete. But it ins’t pseudoscience. No more than the aether theory was pseudoscience (it wasn’t).

    Alex,

    > Maybe it helps to stand on the shoulders of giants? <

    Indeed. Though, as you may know, Newton apparently uttered that phrase not out of humility (he was certainly not a humble man!), but to make fun of one of his competitors, who was short in stature.

    > Does that help? <

    Not at all. You seem to have taken the message of my post to somehow favor epistemic relativism. Since you are a long time reader of this blog, you really ought to have known better, my friend.

    > some of what has been commented here, not least the last sentence of the blog post itself, make it sound too much as if we are never getting any better at all… <

    I have no idea how you reached that conclusion. So for you learning from history and becoming slightly more humble is the same as giving in to total epistemic relativism? C’mon, man.

    Mark,

    > 'Pseudoscience' is good word for use in journalism and polemics and casual discussion, but I wonder whether it is just too vague and emotionally charged to be of much use philosophically. <

    That was one of Larry Laudan’s complaints about the demarcation problem, in his famous 1983 paper. But my collaborators and I (in the new Philosophy of Pseudoscience book) claim that he was wrong. Of course it is a value judgment, but so is declaring a notion irrational, and I don’t think any philosopher (or scientist) would (or should) shy away from using that term. The real question is whether it is properly or not.

    > It implies a mimicking of science, but not necessarily a conscious or deliberate mimicking designed to deceive. <

    That’s for psychologists to find out. From a philosophical perspective it doesn’t matter. Unintentional crap is just as crappy as intentional one.

    > In serious or scholarly contexts, we can always criticize unscientific practices perfectly well, can we not, without using the term 'pseudoscience' at all? <

    That’s giving too much to the likes of, say Deepak Chopra and Jenny McCarthy. Those are not scholarly debates, so words like irrational and pseudoscientific are perfectly appropriate.

    Richard,

    > I think the word "pseudoscience" is particularly problematic when applied to the past, e.g. to Newton's alchemy. A belief that has no epistemic merit today (given our current state of knowledge) may have been more reasonable in the past. <

    Actually, that was one of my points: sometimes one really needs a historical perspective to arrive at a judgment, like in the case of alchemy. In other cases (anti-vax movement) one doesn’t need to wait more than a few months…

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    1. @ Massimo

      > Wrong (as others have already pointed out). Mutations are random with respect to fitness outcome, but they are a mechanism (based on specific molecular changes) by way of which new variation originates. You are confusing mechanism with determinism. <

      Genetic mutations are directly related to quantum events. And quantum events themselves are indeterminate - indeterminate in the sense that they are physically uncaused. (I have already cited numerous sources to support that claim.)

      Also, I'm not confusing mechanism with determinism. The mechanistic worldview does presuppose determinism. (If you argue otherwise, then you are simply "moving the goal posts.") But the converse does not necessarily hold true. Determinism does not necessarily presuppose a mechanistic worldview. (The difference between the two rests on the difference between external causation and internal causation.)

      "Mechanism (philosophy), a theory that all natural phenomena can be explained by physical causes" (source: Wikipedia: Mechanism)

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    2. Hi Massimo,

      >You may not be familiar with the history of alchemy then.<

      Absolutely true.

      >It is a mix of quasi-scientific notions (which eventually did lead to chemistry) and completely made up mystical / metaphysical principles.<

      But isn't it all too easy for us to distinguish the quasi-science from the made-up metaphysical with the benefit of hindsight? I'm not so sure the difference would have been clear at the time.

      >And I wasn’t “sneering” at Newton.<

      I know, and I even said as much! But you did seem to be defending him against those who might sneer, so I was just saying I can't see how sneering could be justified at all.

      >You are entirely incorrect, on both counts. I think the CT is wrong, or at the very least incomplete. But it ins’t pseudoscience.<

      Then I can only applaud your open-mindedness!

      It's not really that I think that biological naturalism *is* pseudoscience, it's that I think it will come to be regarded as pseudoscience in future. This parallels how you view alchemy as pseudoscience from this "future" vantage point while I'm not so convinced that Newton was engaging in pseudoscience (admittedly not knowing much of the history).

      I honestly can't see any way of making biological naturalism coherent without ultimately ending up with something akin to vitalism. I understand that's not at all how you see it, but I don't understand how it is you do see it. I'd love to be able to have a long detailed discussion on the topic with a biological naturalist so as to better understand your position.

      But if it does reduce to something like vitalism (not that I expect you to concede that it might), then it's probably a good candidate for a contemporary viewpoint that will in future be regarded as pseudoscience.

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    3. Please stop citing wikipedia articles on philosophy to a practicing philosopher. You are not contributing by doing this

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    4. @ Dan

      > Please stop citing wikipedia articles on philosophy to a practicing philosopher. You are not contributing by doing this. <

      Who the heck are you? Massimo's watchdog?

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    5. Suppose I have a robot (is that a machine?) that communicates with HotBits (WiFi connection) and it takes a byte to make a decision:

      www.fourmilab.ch/cgi-bin/Hotbits?nbytes=1&fmt=c

      returns

      unsigned char hotBits[1] = {
      141
      };

      ("Reload" to take another byte.)

      Is my robot no longer mechanistic since it is feeding off quantumly-genetrated numbers, or its actions now physically uncaused (or is it nonphysically caused)?

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    6. Alastair,

      I think you are wrong about the causation of quantum events, they are not uncaused, quantum mechanics is unable to describe the singular triggering of the event (and that is only in this sense that the occurrence of event is not determined in time, not really that there are no causes).

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    7. @ Philip

      > Is my robot no longer mechanistic since it is feeding off quantumly-genetrated numbers, or its actions now physically uncaused (or is it nonphysically caused)? <

      There is no physical mechanism that can explain a truly random event. Why? Because a truly random event doesn't have a physical cause by definition.

      Merriam-Webster defines "ndeterminism" as "a theory that the will is free and that deliberate choice and actions are not determined by or predictable from antecedent causes" and "a theory that holds that not every event has a cause."

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    8. @ Vasco

      > I think you are wrong about the causation of quantum events, they are not uncaused, quantum mechanics is unable to describe the singular triggering of the event (and that is only in this sense that the occurrence of event is not determined in time, not really that there are no causes). <

      I believe I'm right. Quantum indeterminism is part and parcel of the standard interpretation of QM - the interpretation that is accepted by the majority of physicists.

      By the way, "indeterminism" doesn't necessarily mean that there aren't any causes whatsoever. It only implies that "not every event has a cause."


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    9. @Alastair
      You just proved my robot has free will!

      Delete
    10. @ Philip

      > You just proved my robot has free will! <

      I do believe there is a connection between consciousness and the measurement problem. But this should not be misconstrued to mean that your robot is sentient.

      Delete
  11. What about the unconsciousness of the Enlightenment? There were very adventurous thinkers who rethought the relations between the West and the rest. And those who reproduced old prejudices and power relations in new, albeit non-traditional arguments. Does the civil war and continent-wide turmoil in the wake of the French Revolution not count as a black mark against philosophes? Newton be praised, but what about Spencer's misguided attempts to depict social relations as a vast mechanism. That misled social thought throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. How quickly the criticism of religious and social authorities turned into Comte's tripartite schema for view history: from religion to metaphysics to positive science. And Massimo, did enlightened political discourse lead to the unification of Italy? It needed a Garibalidi as well as a Settembrini or a Cavour. I don't know if the advances of the Enlightenment that I enjoy could have come without social turmoil and the use of force in addition to sweet reason and civilized dialogue. This isn't to buy into well-worn anti-Enlightenment prejudices. But 18th and 19th century liberals were able to be forthright about the turmoil it would bring to established order. I don't think 21st century liberals should forget that turmoil.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Alastair,

    > Genetic mutations are directly related to quantum events. And quantum events themselves are indeterminate - indeterminate in the sense that they are physically uncaused. <

    By that reckoning everything that happens in the universe is uncaused, a position that any scientist would reject. Genetic mutations are well understood at the physical-chemical levels, without having to bring in quantum events. But even if you wish to do so, again, we are still well within what scientists and philosophers of science count as mechanisms — Wikipedia citations notwithstanding.

    > The mechanistic worldview does presuppose determinism. <

    No. If (and it is still is an IF) the universe is explained by quantum mechanics, and q.m. events are inherently random, then we have a mechanistic worldview (that of physics) based on fundamentally indeterministic phenomena.

    > Determinism does not necessarily presuppose a mechanistic worldview. <

    Actually, I think it does. Could you give me a scenario in which that is not the case? Aside from divine causation, of course.

    > "Mechanism (philosophy), a theory that all natural phenomena can be explained by physical causes” <

    Precisely: mutations are *explained* by physical-chemical and quantum events.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. @ Massimo

      > By that reckoning everything that happens in the universe is uncaused, a position that any scientist would reject. <

      I have never argued that "everything that happens in the universe is uncaused" (despite your attempt to twist and distort my previous response). What I have argued is that "quantum events themselves are indeterminate - indeterminate in the sense that they are physically uncaused." (I stand by that statement - a statement I have already backed up with documentation.)

      > No. If (and it is still is an IF) the universe is explained by quantum mechanics, and q.m. events are inherently random, then we have a mechanistic worldview (that of physics) based on fundamentally indeterministic phenomena <

      The idea that we live in a mechanistic,clockwork universe has been completely dismantled by quantum mechanics (and the theory of relativity). (I'm surprised to learn that a professional philosopher of science would argue otherwise.)

      > Actually, I think it does. Could you give me a scenario in which that is not the case? Aside from divine causation, of course. <

      The "holistic and organismic worldview" as opposed to the "reductionistic and mechanistic worldview." (For example, Bohm's "implicate and explicate order" presupposes a holistic and organismic view of nature, not a reductionistic and mechanistic one. It should also be noted that the "Bohmian interpretation of QM" is a deterministic one.)

      > Precisely: mutations are *explained* by physical-chemical and quantum events. <

      The bottom line is that you cannot furnish us with the physical mechanism for an event that has no physical cause. (A truly random event has no physical cause. In fact, a truly random event is a mystical event; it's mystical in the sense that the pseudo-skeptic/atheistic materialist employs the term - as something so mysterious that it defies all attempts at physical explanation.)

      Delete
  13. DM,

    > isn't it all too easy for us to distinguish the quasi-science from the made-up metaphysical with the benefit of hindsight? <

    That was precisely one of the points of the post: sometimes (not always!) you need a historical perspective to make the judgment. Which is why one can’t blame Newton for his interest in alchemy, but can certainly dismiss any modern alchemist (if there is such thing).

    > It's not really that I think that biological naturalism *is* pseudoscience, it's that I think it will come to be regarded as pseudoscience in future <

    It shouldn’t. It is based on the best science we have, and it does not make outlandish and unjustified metaphysical assumptions. If it turns out to be wrong then it should be abandoned as a wrong scientific answer to a question, just like aether. The difference with alchemy is that its bases were highly questionable from the beginning, even though Newton didn’t realize it. I chalk that not to Newton’s stupidity or naiveté, but to the fact that he was operating at a point in time in which science itself was making a transition from proto-discipline to full fledged area of inquiry.

    > I honestly can't see any way of making biological naturalism coherent without ultimately ending up with something akin to vitalism. <

    Well, I tried to explain this before, and I am now inclined to think this is your (ideological?) limitation. The example of life vs non-life ought to have convinced you: life is not substrate independent (it requires not just an arrangement of parts and a degree of complexity, but certain materials to work, because of the constraints imposed by chemistry), so why should any characteristic of life, such as consciousness?

    Erik,

    > Does the civil war and continent-wide turmoil in the wake of the French Revolution not count as a black mark against philosophes? <

    Does it? I’m not aware of any of the philosophes arguing for the violent purges of the revolution, and indeed some of them died under the guillotine.

    > Newton be praised, but what about Spencer's misguided attempts to depict social relations as a vast mechanism. <

    We are now squarely into Victorian England, not the Enlightenment.

    > did enlightened political discourse lead to the unification of Italy? It needed a Garibaldi as well as a Settembrini or a Cavour. <

    (You forgot Mazzini.) But all those people were in fact inspired by the sort of ideals pushed by the Enlightenment, as were the founding fathers of the United States.

    > I don't know if the advances of the Enlightenment that I enjoy could have come without social turmoil and the use of force in addition to sweet reason and civilized dialogue. <

    I don’t know either, but if the former were absolutely necessary than I don’t see why one should blame the Enlightenment thinkers, rather than the stubborn resistance of the ancient regime.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Hi Massimo,

    Ok, so would you say that Newton was not practicing pseudoscience, but to practice science as he did in the modern day would indeed constitute pseudoscience? If so, I would probably agree with you.

    >Well, I tried to explain this before, and I am now inclined to think this is your (ideological?) limitation. <

    It could be. In any case your explanation did not make sense to me. It's hard for me to know if the fault was with me or with you, but it leaves me wanting more dialogue on the subject.

    >life is not substrate independent<

    I don't actually agree with this. I think I would call life any system of self-replicating, evolving patterns. One substrate might be biological chemistry. Another might be von Neumann machines. Another might be virtual organisms in a computer simulation.

    I don't expect you to accept these as examples of life, but I think that's simply because you have a definition of life that arbitrarily excludes them. In the same way, if you define consciousness arbitrarily as a property of biological brains, then of course only biological brains can be conscious.

    ReplyDelete
  15. @ Alastair "who the heck are you...?"

    It is exactly this attitude that prevents me from participating on this blog. Who i am is irrelevant and you know this, you just haven't any other response to my critique. Surely you could do better

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. @ Dan

      I will cite Wikipedia as I please. And if you have problem with that, then I suggest you keep it to yourself. (No one's forcing you to read my posts.)

      Delete
    2. It is a bit tiresome though. If you don't care, that's fine. Just letting you know.

      Delete
    3. @ DM

      > It is a bit tiresome though. If you don't care, that's fine. Just letting you know. <

      I make no apologies for supporting my claims. But I do understand why many of my detractors have a problem with it. Supported claims are problematic for those who disagree with them.

      Delete
    4. @Alastair
      That's not generally the reason it's tiresome. Your argument kind of gets lost amidst all the citations sometimes.

      Delete
    5. @ DM

      > That's not generally the reason it's tiresome. Your argument kind of gets lost amidst all the citations sometimes. <

      That's exactly the reason why people find my citations annoying. It's called "denial" - "a psychological defense mechanism postulated by Sigmund Freud, in which a person is faced with a fact that is too uncomfortable to accept and rejects it instead, insisting that it is not true despite what may be overwhelming evidence."

      And if you truly believe that my argument got lost in the above citation, then I would have to seriously question your reading comprehension skills.

      Delete
    6. @Alastair

      Actually, that's a perfect illustration of the problem. Thanks for making my point for me.

      I know what denial means. Everybody else reading this knows what denial means. Your citation lends no weight to your proposition that I and others are in denial. Instead it's a patronising and transparent effort to make your position seem more authoritative than it actually is.

      It's grating and this annoyance distracts and detracts from whatever point you are trying to make.

      Of course clarifying terms and providing citations is worthwhile when used appropriately. For example, I agreed with you that Massimo was not distinguishing between the naturalistic fallacy and the appeal to nature as he might.

      But that doesn't mean every term has to have its definition spelled out in every sentence you write.

      But hey, if you don't care that it's irritating and unnecessary, knock yourself out.

      Delete
    7. @ DM

      > It's grating and this annoyance distracts and detracts from whatever point you are trying to make <

      I deliberately intended it to be annoying. It's called
      "sarcasm." Evidently, it served its purpose. Given the circumstances, I felt it was more than justified.

      Delete
    8. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
    9. @ DM (entire post dated Nov30 2.08pm)

      Thank you for taking over my point on Alastair's bitter & detrimental style of citation/argument. I am a long-time reader (almost from inception) and will have to remain that way until I learn the patience required to deal with him

      @ Alastair

      You might find this useful. Please note there is no need to engage me over this (if you don't find it useful, I don't need to hear about it.)

      http://briandbuckley.com/2013/07/18/winning-arguments-and-losing-the-truth/

      Delete
  16. If there is a Dark Side of the Enlightenment, one cannot leave out the Tea Party. It's econo-libertarian wing claims the Age of Reason as its inspiration. It even has a magazine named "Reason" to prove it.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Great post - think of the "Age of Reason" as a time when humanity made a turn, or a course correction, but did not exactly commit our gods to Hume's flames. Same with today. As we turn towards a world dominated by the advent of information from the sea of information science to a muddled philosophical puddle claiming reality as social, informational, and entirely observer-dependent, we do progress.

    The only extraordinary evidence I can see us discovering on this front would be a finding pointing to, well, gods. For example, if we found strong correlation between weather metrics, stock prices, and sports scores, something real close to 1, what else could you say but that some other intelligence has set a table in some way. But we haven't discovered anything like this.

    The other extraordinary evidence would be a theory of time that removes unidirectional time flow. When we consider that an 'event' may be a function of forces moving in competing directions, and when we can successfully remove elements of chance from current theories, then will have also made progress. I think so far we have been given enough signs (in terms of both theories and open questions) to give credence to the viability of dramatic changes in understanding of time and information flows but no payoff.

    So at my American Thanksgiving table this year were 3 Catholics (roughly 1.25 practicing) - 1 unaffiliated hard-core vegan - let's call her religion Gaian, 5 Jews (also 1.25 practicing) and 1 Jehovah's Witness. With me somewhere between non-practicing Jew, Gaian, and my independent observer status as a "informational polytheist" Because we live in an age of reason, the topic of religion did not come up, except for a couple of murmurs about atheists by the J.W. to a C.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Also about how The Enlightenment (the bad side) gave us the Tea Party, Cato Institute, and the Republican's anti-spending agenda:

    But those in power believed it was true that markets would prosper with minimal state intervention—a belief that fueled decades of deregulation, which in turn paved the way for the financial meltdown. All the ostensibly level-headed talk about getting our financial house in order, Blyth says, is in fact a cover for the true intentions of austerity’s proponents: weakening the state, shrinking the government, and eliminating sovereign debt at all costs. In Austerity, Blyth locates the origins of this type of thinking in such early thinkers as Locke, Hume, and Smith: “Saving is a virtue, spending is a vice,” he writes. “Hence countries that save must be doing the right thing, while spenders must be storing up trouble.”

    brownalumnimagazine.com/content/view/3553/32

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    Replies
    1. Are you arguing Enlightenment -> Whigs -> Tea Party?

      Delete
    2. Well, Cato Instutute would argue just that: "We are more likely to find allies and converts among those who value reason, happiness, individualism, and progress than among those whose values are premodern or postmodern. It was the Enlightenment that gave us liberty as a moral ideal and a practical system. The culture of modernity is still liberty's natural home."
      The Party of Modernity

      Delete
  19. DM,

    > I don't actually agree with this. I think I would call life any system of self-replicating, evolving patterns. <

    That’s because you are not a biologist. At any rate, my point wasn’t that life (or consciousness) is limited to a specific substrate, only that it isn’t substrate-independent. The two are different, of course.

    > I think that's simply because you have a definition of life that arbitrarily excludes them <

    Or you have a definition of life that arbitrarily includes them…

    Alastair,

    > I have never argued that "everything that happens in the universe is uncaused” <

    No, you didn’t. But you don’t seem to understand the implications of what you said. This thread started because you objected to my labeling of the theory of evolution as mechanistic, on grounds that mutations are quantum events and quantum events are uncaused. Leaving aside the technicalities — on which you are incorrect — the same reasoning implies that everything that happens in the universe is uncaused, since everything in the universe can ultimately depends on the quantum level.

    What you are hitting on, without realizing it, I think is Ladyman and Ross’ (see several posts on RS) contention that the concept of causality does work for the special sciences (i.e., everything but fundamental physics), but not for fundamental physics. Why this is, and how exactly, then, the special sciences are connected to fundamental physics is a genuine philosophical and scientific issue. But it doesn’t make evolutionary theory non mechanistic.

    > The idea that we live in a mechanistic,clockwork universe has been completely dismantled by quantum mechanics <

    Thanks for the lesson in History of Science 101, but I think I knew that. Again, “mechanistic” simply refers to the existence of causal mechanisms, not to a clockwork universe (which is one kind of mechanistic explanation, but not the only one).

    > I'm surprised to learn that a professional philosopher of science would argue otherwise. <

    Just like I’m surprised that an apparently bright fellow like you insists in willfully misread what a professional philosopher of science keeps trying to very patiently explain. And this is not a sarcastic sentence.

    Philip,

    > The Enlightenment (the bad side) gave us the Tea Party, Cato Institute, and the Republican's anti-spending agenda <

    No, I really don’t think we can blame the Tea Party on Voltaire and friends, regardless of what the bozos at the Enterprise Institute may go around declaring.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. >That’s because you are not a biologist.<

      No, it's because we need to consider what "life" could mean outside the context of biological chemistry, since you ask whether it could exist on other substrates.

      For example, just for the purposes of conversation, let's use this definition from a Google search:

      "the condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death."

      Now, if we use that definition literally, life is not substrate independent, because the definition states explicitly that life is defined as something not exhibited by inorganic matter. So, to use that definition would not be very interesting: life is substrate-dependent only because that's how we define it.

      But if we take away that (I would say arbitrary) restriction, we find that everything else listed could in principle be realized on other substrates. As such, I don't think your argument by analogy to life defeats the substrate independence of consciousness.

      >At any rate, my point wasn’t that life (or consciousness) is limited to a specific substrate, only that it isn’t substrate-independent. <

      But nobody is saying that all substrates can do any task. Nobody is claiming that a jar of gas or a block of wood is going to support a sentient intelligence. Your interpretation of substrate independent is a straw man.

      As long as some process can be achieved with a variety of quite different physical substrates, then it's substrate independent, and the particular substrate used is not vital to understanding the more essential, abstract character of the process being understood.

      For example, evolution is certainly substrate independent because we can abstract our understanding of evolution in the biological context and apply it to other fields such as the design of electronic circuits. My claim is that consciousness and intelligence is substrate independent in this way.

      Does that make more sense to you now?

      >> I think that's simply because you have a definition of life that arbitrarily excludes them <

      Or you have a definition of life that arbitrarily includes them…<

      Since you seem to agree that our disagreement on the substrate independence of life is definitional, do you think the same might be true of mind? Is it perhaps the case that it is only your definition of "mind" that precludes non-biological substrates, (or, in your view, mine that allows it)?

      Delete
    2. @ Massimo

      > Leaving aside the technicalities — on which you are incorrect —
      the same reasoning implies that everything that happens in the universe is uncaused, since everything in the universe can ultimately depends on the quantum level. <

      I'm not exactly sure as to what incorrect technicalities you are referring to, but I do agree that everything in the universe ultimately reduces to quantum events - physically uncaused events. That, in and of itself, completely dismantles the mechanistic and the materialistic worldview (materialism is inextricably-linked with mechanism). That being said, this should not be misconstrued to mean that I am proposing that there is no physical causation whatsoever.

      > What you are hitting on, without realizing it, I think is Ladyman and Ross’ (see several posts on RS) contention that the concept of causality does work for the special sciences (i.e., everything but fundamental physics), but not for fundamental physics. Why this is, and how exactly, then, the special sciences are connected to fundamental physics is a genuine philosophical and scientific issue. But it doesn’t make evolutionary theory non mechanistic. <

      It seems to me that you are implying that indeterminism is restricted to the microlevel while determinism still prevails on the macrolevel. If this is your argument, then I disagree. Chaos theory (which is a deterministic theory) ensures us that quantum events will be amplified on the macrolevel.

      > Again, “mechanistic” simply refers to the existence of causal mechanisms, not to a clockwork universe (which is one kind of mechanistic explanation, but not the only one). <

      I agree that "mechanistic" refers to the existence of causal mechanisms. My point is that there isn't any causal mechanism for a truly random event such as a quantum event. (The term "clockwork" is simply a metaphor for a mechanical device that was prevalent at the time of Newton. Physicists today would be more inclined to invoke the metaphor of a computer. In fact, some might even argue that the universe is literally a computer. The point is that those who embrace the mechanical philosophy view the world as a kind of machine - hence the term.

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    3. @Massimo - I still think the 'Ayn Rand'-ists have been successful in basing and branding themselves in (the limitations of) The Enlightenment. They have certainly been successful in completely taking over the Republican Party.

      @Alistair - The universe us not a conventional (digital) computer, but an unconventional (quantum) computer, as Seth Lloyd points out (in his book, The Programmable Universe, that says the conventional view is wrong).

      Delete
    4. @ Philip

      I am aware that Lloyd believes "the universe is a quantum computer" and that everything "is a manifestation of the universe's quantum computation" - pg. 55, "Programming the Universe" by Seth Lloyd

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    5. @Alistair - You might be interested in:
      A Universe Programmed with Strings of Qubits
      Philip Gibbs
      arxiv.org/abs/1106.3029
      If a consistent formulation of string theory constructed from quantum bits can be found, it may be possible to understand the vast landscape of possibilities better and reverse engineer the program that codes our universe.

      Delete
  20. One question about the Enlightenment in education, Massimo. Are you students able to connect local ideas to the scientific, mathematic, and philosophical moves of the 17th and 18th c. enlighteners? Or do they see Jefferson and Franklin as "founding fathers" first and inheritors of Enlightenment second?

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    Replies
    1. Well, I don't teach history, but I'm guessing definitely the second.

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    2. I was just wondering about any Enlightenment-related ideas that came up in a critical thinking class or among undergrads. As an outsider I am struck by the ways Americans treat the ideas of the Founders treated as revelations rather than as ideas more or less tied to contemporaneous movements. It's just odd to see the products of Enlightenment treated as unquestionable dogmas. Romantic anti-Enlightenment thought has experienced a weird resurrection in some varieties of Continental thought. I am just struck by the ways in which the inheritors of revolutionary but humane Enlightenment refashion their founding documents and ideas as tools for stifling inquiry and critique.

      Delete

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