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.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Massimo's Picks!

* Three new books about humans as social animals. Apparently, none of them too good.

* The complexities of the relationship between immigration and cultural identity (of both the immigrants and the "natives").

* Ross Douthat criticizes Jerry Coyne's metaphysics, and rightly so, unfortunately.

* The rich think they are superior. How convenient.

* Alex Rosenberg on the humanities (but not philosophy) shooting themselves in the foot.

* From Obamacare to truly social-democratic medicine?

* Has the (massive) online education "revolution" already at a stand still?

* Some much needed reassessment of TED.

* Can you be too intelligent for your own good? Apparently, yes.

* What it's really like to work on the drones program.

* New study exposes acupuncture as pseudoscience. Again.

* Kant and the morality of sexbots.

45 comments:

  1. Seems to me that both Douthat and Coyne are unconscious of the computer scientists who work in the field of machine consciousness.

    see International Journal of Machine Consciousness

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  2. With respect to the three books, the reviewer seems to give good reviews of the first two books, esp. Greene's, and is harsher on Nussbaum's book.

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  3. I quiet like the post about the ethics of sex robots, a development I believe is inevitable, and its relevance to (simulated) pornography.

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    1. I was thinking of the moral problems involved with (future) conscious sexual robots when they have a level of self-awareness to consent or refuse.

      "The challenge for a conscious machine has many consequences not only in computer science and robotics but also in different research fields such as neuroscience, ethics, and art."
      www.worldscientific.com/doi/abs/10.1142/S1793843013010014

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  4. Douthat's column is about " why reasonable people might doubt the scientific-materialist worldview." There is no "the" scientific-materialist worldview. All versions rest on the repudiation of the supernatural. So, no, reasonable people do not believe in religion, just as reasonable people do not believe in astrology.

    I think there are only two arguments in this column. One is "if under materialist premises the actual agent is quite possibly a fiction, then who exactly is this I who" does anything good and moral. The "I" of course is whole person, from skin all the way into the marrow and viscera and brain, and everything it does, sleeping, eating, drinking, mating, speaking, creating historical fictions it calls memories, etc. The way the question is phrased presumes that Douthat's version of a genuine self is a genuine concept, both coherent and supported by lowly empirical evidence. Wailing that nothing matters if there is no supernatural self is not an argument.

    The second argument is "The point that critics make against eliminative-materialism, which Coyne seems not to grasp, is that it makes a kind of hard-and-fast moral realism logically impossible..." is I think fallacious: Claiming there are undesirable consequences to an argument does not refute it. I'm not sure that it is even true that eliminative-materialism is logically incompatible with "hard-and-fast" moral realism, unless the honest argument is that "God said so" is the foundation of real morality. Even if so, it is not at all clear how Douthat can presume that an historically developed or situational moral realism isn't preferable. It might even be the case that some aspects of life are or should be amoral in the sense that moral discourse is simply irrelevant.

    I suppose the point is that Douthat has advanced the standard philosophical critique. Is this really supposed to reflect favorably on philosophy? Douthat is a professional propagandist, selling justifications for conservatism. I must suggest that his mentality is compatible with philosophy because philosophy on the whole also is apologetic.

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  5. I'm highly confused Massimo. Why is it that if something like identity and conciousness where to be explained it suddenly becomes an illusion(whatever that means)? Just because I'm a result of natural selection, why would that make me(explained me) less real? My answer would be diseased thinking and bad philosophy and both Jerry and Douthat are guilty.

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  6. On the lighter side, may I suggest: http://aeon.co/magazine/altered-states/is-marijuana-withdrawal-a-real-thing/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A%20AeonMagazineEssays%20%28Aeon%20Magazine%20Essays%29

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  7. Coyne is wacky. He espouses a hard materialist and deterministic worldview (i.e. we have absolutely no volition to do anything; it's all an illusion) and then will go off on rants about the choices people make. In his worldview, Douthat had no choice but to write the column he wrote. And yet, Coyne can't resist criticizing people who don't think EXACTLY like him. He usually ignores or bans people from his blog who challenge him on these contradictory positions. He seems to be a very unhappy person.

    Certainly, there's no evidence that our minds are anything other than elementary particles and fields but if you want to take the ultimate step of saying that every action a person made was the result of the initial conditions of the Big Bang + quantum randomness, perhaps you stop arguing with people over the choices they had no control over.

    And Douthat is just another religious columnist who hasn't yet come to terms with his own irrationality. They're both extremists.

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    1. How do you define volition?

      I think these issues are largely semantic, Coyne is largely arguing against the older concepts of free will and not volition in a biological sense. I think he said something along those lines in the naturalist workshop Massimo was a part of as well.

      Volition towards choices can be perfectly compatible with determinism, it's simply describing the actions of an organism when multiple options were available. A large portion of biology and psychology are dedicated to how the complex interactions of genetics and environment result in those actions. If someone is going to argue that there is something beyond those genetics and environmental variables, I think they would have to explain what that is and I think that is what Coyne is essentially arguing.

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    2. Jerry seems pretty happy to me - boots, food and cats - what more could you ask?

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    3. Well, if hard determinism is true, then of course Coyne can't resist criticizing people! He's not wacky at all, he has no choice but to write what he does. But that's OK, because in that case, you had no choice but to call him wacky, and I had no choice but to say you're wrong, & etc.

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  8. Massimo, I Tweeted Douthat saying that you could easily "take him down"!

    The books? "Social" looked stupid when I saw it at the library. Pass. "Moral Tribes"? By the end of this year, "tribalism" will be officialy overused.

    Great piece from the Stone, including use of words on "immigrant" vs "expatriate."

    Sadly, Obamacare may have made true national health care harder, not easier, to pass into law than it was before Jan. 20, 2009.

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  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  10. If someone is agnostic on the question of acupuncture, is it rational for them to change their view based on a study with n=23?

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  11. S Johnson,

    > There is no "the" scientific-materialist worldview. <

    Meaning that there is more than one version? Agreed. Mine, for instance, differs from Coyne’s.

    > The "I" of course is whole person, from skin all the way into the marrow and viscera and brain, and everything it does, sleeping, eating, drinking, mating, speaking, creating historical fictions it calls memories <

    Well, maybe. But that’s definitely not what Coyne says. And Douthat is right that Coyne needs to provide a coherent account of his metaphysics. This, of course, is quite logically independent from the fact that Douthat account of his own metaphysics is even more incoherent than Coyne’s.

    > The way the question is phrased presumes that Douthat's version of a genuine self is a genuine concept, both coherent and supported by lowly empirical evidence. <

    No, I don’t think you are reading Douthat charitably here. He is simply asking for Coyne’s metaphysics, he’s not really providing or defending his own. (Of course he does the latter implicitly, but as I said, the two issues are logically distinct.)

    > Claiming there are undesirable consequences to an argument does not refute it. I'm not sure that it is even true that eliminative-materialism is logically incompatible with "hard-and-fast" moral realism <

    Well, I’m not sure either, but the question makes perfect sense, and — again — I don’t think Coyne has a detailed account to provide. I do have a very strong suspicion that eliminative materialism is incompatible with moral realism though, and I would like to see Jerry explaining exactly why he doesn’t think so.

    > I suppose the point is that Douthat has advanced the standard philosophical critique. Is this really supposed to reflect favorably on philosophy? <

    Ah, here we go with the usual “is this all philosophy can do?” I’m beginning to find it a bit tiresome, frankly. No, professional philosophers can do a lot better than Douthat, but that puts Coyne into even more dire straits, so why doesn’t he start by coherently answering Douthat? You know, start slow, then make your way to the big league…

    Luois,

    > Why is it that if something like identity and conciousness where to be explained it suddenly becomes an illusion (whatever that means)? <

    It doesn’t, though Coyne (and Harris, and several others) seem to think it does.

    Aaron,

    > [Coyne] espouses a hard materialist and deterministic worldview (i.e. we have absolutely no volition to do anything; it's all an illusion) and then will go off on rants about the choices people make. <

    Right. Which I find just as puzzling and irritating as Douthat does. Though the similarity between me and him ends there.

    > perhaps you stop arguing with people over the choices they had no control over. <

    But he can’t. You see, his determination to argue was also set at the moment of the Big Bang…

    Imad,

    > I think these issues are largely semantic, Coyne is largely arguing against the older concepts of free will and not volition in a biological sense. <

    I’m a little puzzled when people say that “it’s just semantic.” First off, semantics is important: that’s how we understand each other. Second, once we clear the semantic hurdles we still need Coyne to provide us with a sound metaphysical account that harmonizes his views on free will, determinism and morality. He hasn’t provided one, and his attempts at doing so are so muddled that even an amateur like Douthat can poke gigantic holes in them.

    > Volition towards choices can be perfectly compatible with determinism, it's simply describing the actions of an organism when multiple options were available. <

    Sure, but then it makes no sense to talk of morality, right and wrong. As Kant famously put it, ought implies can. If one cannot genuinely control his actions (because they were determined at the Big Bang) then in what sense are we talking about that person, or those actions, as moral or immoral?

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    1. >> I’m a little puzzled when people say that “it’s just semantic.” First off, semantics is important: that’s how we understand each other. Second, once we clear the semantic hurdles we still need Coyne to provide us with a sound metaphysical account that harmonizes his views on free will, determinism and morality. He hasn’t provided one, and his attempts at doing so are so muddled that even an amateur like Douthat can poke gigantic holes in them.<<

      I think semantics are important too, especially to clarify and make sure we understand each other. I was trying to point out the fact that I think what Coyne believes (but perhaps does not express it well) is not necessarily the full rejection of volition but rather rejection of the traditional notion of free will. I think that’s a perfectly legitimate position to have, the traditional concept of free will is incoherent as far as I can see.

      >> Sure, but then it makes no sense to talk of morality, right and wrong. As Kant famously put it, ought implies can. If one cannot genuinely control his actions (because they were determined at the Big Bang) then in what sense are we talking about that person, or those actions, as moral or immoral?<<

      Well I was under the impression that compatibilist don’t find any logical inconsistencies with determinism and free will. I must admit I have not read up enough the compatibilist position to really have a fully informed opinion but at least that’s a popular idea in the field but even compatibilist are probably not talking about traditional free will concept.

      And even if your not a compatibilist, it still wouldn’t necessarily follow that the view is wrong because it makes no sense to talk about morality in the incompatibilist point of view. That simply means we have to determine which is right of the two, I don’t see morality as such an obvious fact that anything that disagrees with it must be false.

      I personally probably lean toward as compatibilist view but I’m curious though Massimo, do you believe there is a choice outside of environmental and genetic influences? And if so, what is that aspect that allows us to go beyond environment and genetics?

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    2. Hi Massimo,

      >I’m a little puzzled when people say that “it’s just semantic.” <

      And I'm a little puzzled when you say this! This has come up before and I would encourage you to reconsider your position.

      Nobody is saying that clarifying semantics is not vital for productive conversation.

      But when two people disagree, it seems to me that there are two distinct possibilities. One is that they have a genuine, factual disagreement, where their mental models of reality are different, and the other case is that they have the same mental model but they are using different language to describe it.

      When it is realised that only the language is different, then in some respects the argument is over. It's "just semantics". There may be a separate discussion on which language is preferable, but no factual disagreement about reality remains.

      So, can we lay to rest the argument that there is something wrong with saying a disagreement is "just semantic"? This is a meaningful observation which can be vital in resolving a disagreement.

      Maybe you'd be happier if we omitted the word "just"?

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    3. But he can’t. You see, his determination to argue was also set at the moment of the Big Bang…
      I hear this many times it always seems to be a poor gotcha- lets consider the time frame from the big bang to the moment just before life started on earth . If we exclude possible randomness , was everything pre determined ?(think of what all this entails)? If so then its hardly that much more incredible if someones determination to argue was set from the big bang too ...

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  12. Ben,

    > If someone is agnostic on the question of acupuncture, is it rational for them to change their view based on a study with n=23? <

    It is not reasonable to be agnostic about acupuncture anymore, if it ever was. And this study is yet another nail in the coffin, not *the* nail.

    Francisco,

    > An off-topic question <

    I don’t actually recall the details you are referring to (and I never listen to my podcasts), but my best would be the episode with historian Tim Alborn (#27), or perhaps the one (also about history) with biologist Peter Turchin (#3).

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  13. Massimo -

    Maybe agnostic isn't the right word; let me rephrase. Two months ago, you wrote the following:

    "it is not at all clear, as yet, whether acupuncture has additional effects above and beyond the placebo. But if it does, then it should certainly be used in some clinical practice"

    I read this as your assigning some likelihood that acupuncture will be shown to have positive effects. Does the new n=23 study adjust your view?

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  14. "But he can’t. You see, his determination to argue was also set at the moment of the Big Bang…"

    Truth and wit, Massimo. Mind if I use this myself?

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    1. I read another great point against determinism last week; it stumbles over the same infinite regress issue as does the old first cause argument for the existence of god.

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  15. Massimo, I was wondering if you agree with me on a problem in Coyne's remarks on free will. Mereological nihilism, if I understand correctly, is the stance that only point particles and physical laws really exist, and all else is illusion. In a very grindingly literal sense this is true, but no thought would be possible if we tried to understand only particles and laws on an individual level, so we have to understand things in a "higher order" way. So far is obvious, I think. In turn, discussing higher order phenomena like mental representations it is necessary to deal in abstractions that are not strictly speaking physically existent, and that ideas such as "choice," "will," and so on are such concepts. This is nothing special about philosophy, though; all fields other than physics deal with abstractions like "objectivity," "algorithm," "destruction," and so on. Biology too. I have never heard Jerry harp on how a "genus" or a "phylum" is an illusion, even though they are abstractions which are not encoded in the laws of physics. In turn, believing that a higher level phenomenon "exists" is local to the higher representation in which it is being used and does not constitute a denial that at a lower-level, what exists is just particles. For example, believing that Whitman was a poet does not constitute a denial that in a literal sense he was just a blob of point particles. What's more, the individual particles involved in some abstraction don't have to have qualities of that abstraction; a phylum doesn't have to contain any of a mysterious eau-de-phyla, or phyla-atoms. In this way, believing something is "free" or that someone made a "choice" does not have to imply that any part of his brain is free or has a choice, any more than one has to believe that a marmoset is made of individual marmoset-particles. Coyne then has been too ungenerous in thinking that the more abstract psychological concepts like freedom or choice have to be reflected in freedom or choice at the level of particles, because the abstract concepts in any field other than physics are always in certain senses detached from or looser than the grindingly literal truths of physics.

    Sorry for the grinding and drawn-out explanation, but I just wanted to make sure I was being clear.

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  16. I can only assume that the 'rightly so' refers to the self-contradiction between considering the self to be an illusion and talking about human agency and purposes because with that one single exception everything written by Douthat is nonsense.

    The thing is, if one reads between the lines, it becomes clear that Coyne and many others arguing the same are unwitting, unconscious compatibilists, and that they similarly do not actually believe that the self is an illusion. They are compatibilists in practice who dislike to use the terms free will and choice, quite obviously because they wrongly think that the accepted meaning of free will is a supernatural one. They are realists who, in actual practice, consider the self to be body (his reply to Douthat makes that abundantly clear) while at the same time using the sentence 'the self is an illusion', probably because they wrongly think that the accepted meaning of self is 'soul'. They believe in human agency in practice (as clearly visible in Coyne's lines cited by Douthat) but disavow that word because they strangely believe that the accepted meaning of agency is the body being steered by a soul.

    In that sense, it is all really merely semantics because Coyne's views differ not a iota from those of any other naturalist except on whether to use this or that term. It is regrettable that so much controversy and confusion results from irrational aversions to certain terms or the failure to acknowledge their real meaning.

    ---

    As for online education, I have never understood how that is supposed to work. Anything except a purely mathematical or philosophical education needs hands-on, practical elements, even things like history or linguistics, and certainly areas like mine. This was always going to be merely a cost cutting measure, and to be honest I never understood why education is considered to be an expensive undertaking. Mostly you need buildings and a virtually constant percentage of your workforce on teacher salaries, everything else is negligible in terms of money. And let's be honest, generally the salaries aren't that generous either compared to business.

    I can only assume that the perception of education being expensive is based on a decreasing willingness to pay taxes, an increase in administrative overhead and waste on CEO type salaries for top level positions, and prestige projects like uni sports and unnecessarily luxurious student accommodation. (The latter two are not relevant in my home country.)

    ---

    Are TED talks really a thing that anybody cares about? I have never heard of them except here and on Gin and Tacos. To me, they have about the same relevance as whether Angelina Jolie has her neck tattooed or not.

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  17. @Massimo, is it just me, or the tone of these Massimo's Picks read... a bit negative? sarcastic? I mean, I've read your lists before, but your remarks are different in tone. Just wondering.

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  18. Massimo said: "Sure, but then it makes no sense to talk of morality, right and wrong. As Kant famously put it, ought implies can. If one cannot genuinely control his actions (because they were determined at the Big Bang) then in what sense are we talking about that person, or those actions, as moral or immoral?"

    Even though we may arrive to the conclusion that there's no such thing as free will (in the sense that every choice is determined by the interaction of the environment, the mind's history and its current state), our brains can't really shake off the perception of being able to choose.

    It's like the perception of solid objects as we feel them. We know by Physics that most space between atoms is empty, and what makes us feel them as solid are really subatomic forces. We're not touching matter, we just feel the repulsion force. But we feel like we are touching matter, we can't help it.

    So, it doesn't really matter, most of us won't turn into existentialist zombies after learning there's no free will. I don't think many people can really sink into the feeling of "there's no free will" for too long, as any feeling in that regard dispells easily. The way our brain works does that.

    About the meaninglessness of morals and such, it might be so outside our minds in the world of pure physics. But within our minds it is important, not because it's intrinsically so, but because we have an evolved sense of right and wrong : in a similar sense that we have the ability of interpreting solid objects, even if they're mostly empty, we have the ability of perceiving something as "right" or "wrong" even if in the physical world those words are empty. It may be unsatisfactory, but the answer is just "we can't help it".

    Because really, if we can't justify the existence of morals and ethics outside our heads (morals disappear without sentient beings that are able to feel about them), then the only justification we need to justify morals and their discussion is "because we feel like it".

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  19. contrarian,

    > I read this as your assigning some likelihood that acupuncture will be shown to have positive effects. Does the new n=23 study adjust your view? <

    Ah, makes sense. No, what happened was that the publication of this study prompted me to look at the overall picture (i.e., cumulative findings so far) and to revise my priors.

    Thomas,

    > Truth and wit, Massimo. Mind if I use this myself? <

    By all means… ;-)

    Imad,

    > I was trying to point out the fact that I think what Coyne believes (but perhaps does not express it well) is not necessarily the full rejection of volition but rather rejection of the traditional notion of free will. <

    Well, perhaps. But when I talked to him about volition he didn’t seem convinced. He really doesn’t seem to have a metaphysically well worked out alternative, which I think is problematic, though he would probably simply scoff at the very mention of the word “metaphysics.”

    > the traditional concept of free will is incoherent as far as I can see. <

    Yes, which is why I prefer the use of the term volition, which is the one adopted by cognitive scientists as well.

    > Well I was under the impression that compatibilist don’t find any logical inconsistencies with determinism and free will. <

    True, the issue is whether one finds logical inconsistencies with the compatibilist approach. Or, as in my case, whether one has the sneaky suspicion that compatibilists give up too much while pretending they don’t.

    > I don’t see morality as such an obvious fact that anything that disagrees with it must be false. <

    Well, I have come closer and closer to think that morality simply can’t be done away with. But regardless, Douthat criticism of Coyne applies even if we agree that morality can be eliminated, since Coyne apparently doesn’t think so (he keeps using moral language all over the place).

    > Massimo, do you believe there is a choice outside of environmental and genetic influences? <

    Not if you put it that broadly, but notice you use the word “influences,” not “determination.” Anyway, my own view on this is evolving, and even if I don’t have an answer that doesn’t excuse Coyne’s sloppy thinking. He either owes us a coherent answer or an admission that he doesn’t have one. Scorn won’t do.

    Joseph,

    > This is nothing special about philosophy, though; all fields other than physics deal with abstractions like "objectivity," "algorithm," "destruction," and so on. Biology too. <

    Correct, check out my posts about Ladyman and Ross’ structural realism, they make a very similar point.

    > believing something is "free" or that someone made a "choice" does not have to imply that any part of his brain is free or has a choice, any more than one has to believe that a marmoset is made of individual marmoset-particles <

    Correct. The real question is whether the whole organism has (emergent) properties that are not characteristic of its constituent parts. In my mind, this is blindingly obvious. But the crucial point to be settled is whether these emergent properties are epistemic (i.e., we just don’t known enough about the parts to understand the whole) or ontological. I am agnostic on this, with a slight tendency toward the ontological position. Jerry is vehemently epistemic, which creates problems of incoherence for his position vis-a-vis morality.

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    1. Massimo, as you've seen on a previous post of yours, that's a big argument I have against compatibilism -- it gives up too much in its attempt to be "compatible" while not expecting determinism to move a step.

      I suspect that, apart from the issue of "who" is doing the volitioning (I know that you're still not favorable to subselves or similar takes on aspects of consciousness), we're not totally apart.

      Per your response to Imad, I saw the same about psychological issues, calling them something like "influences." Because I think the nature-nurture analogy from human development is another way of presenting what I've tried to get at. Some event may have 50 percent influence of psychological tendencies from past events in my life, but be 50 percent "something like free will," or "volitional," to use your term. Another event may be 20-80 and a third may be 80-20.

      That said, I think, at some point, some years down the road, we'll be better off if we junk a lot of current language not just about will, but about consciousness in general, and start over.

      That last comment of yours illustrates part of why; To the degree that cognitive science will at some day shine light on the mind that it hasn't yet, we'll see just how bad current paucity of knowledge has muddied some of our linguistic knowledge.

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  20. Alex,

    > I can only assume that the 'rightly so' refers to the self-contradiction between considering the self to be an illusion and talking about human agency and purposes because with that one single exception everything written by Douthat is nonsense. <

    Actually, I found very little nonsense in Douthat’s column. And that’s because he only limited himself to point out the contradictions and lacunae inherent in Coyne’s position, not to defend his own metaphysics, which, I hope you know, I do think is nonsense on stilts.

    > They are compatibilists in practice who dislike to use the terms free will and choice, quite obviously because they wrongly think that the accepted meaning of free will is a supernatural one. <

    That’s exactly right, I think.

    > In that sense, it is all really merely semantics because Coyne's views differ not a iota from those of any other naturalist except on whether to use this or that term. <

    Yup, I wish someone explained that to Jerry.

    butthead,

    > Even though we may arrive to the conclusion that there's no such thing as free will (in the sense that every choice is determined by the interaction of the environment, the mind's history and its current state), our brains can't really shake off the perception of being able to choose. <

    Well, perhaps, but someone as sophisticated as Jerry ought to then bite the bullet and change his language accordingly.

    > It's like the perception of solid objects as we feel them. We know by Physics that most space between atoms is empty, and what makes us feel them as solid are really subatomic forces. <

    Good analogy, though I actually think it can be used the other way: we do “touch” matter, if by touch we mean interacting with force fields. Ladyman and Ross are clear that when people say that “physics shows that tables and chairs are illusions” they don’t know what they are talking about, ontologically speaking.

    > if we can't justify the existence of morals and ethics outside our heads (morals disappear without sentient beings that are able to feel about them), then the only justification we need to justify morals and their discussion is "because we feel like it". <

    Not necessarily. If you are not a mathematical Platonist, for instance, you would argue that mathematical objects are a product of our minds, but they are not *arbitrary* products, the Pythagorean theorem is true in a strongest sense than, say, a fashion statement.

    > is it just me, or the tone of these Massimo's Picks read... a bit negative? sarcastic? I mean, I've read your lists before, but your remarks are different in tone. Just wondering. <

    It varies with my mood and the content of the articles, no particular trend I can discern.

    DM,

    > Maybe you'd be happier if we omitted the word "just"? <

    Yes, please!

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  21. I'm kind of annoyed by Rosenberg's article on the humanities. While he does indeed have more than a few good points there are two, unfortunately widespread, faults in his article:


    1) His analysis of the humanities' faults is a straw-man based more on what he doesn't like in the humanities rather than an analysis of what makes them uninteresting for prospective students.
    2) He has a simplistic understanding of what the humanities do and what their aims are.

    Let's go in order.

    1) It is a known fact that the humanities in continental Europe are not suffering any crisis (in some cases, like in Italy, they are doing too well) despite not being significantly different from those in the United States. In fact the problems Rosenberg points out are often patently false or gross exaggerations. It would take little empirical research to realize how the canon is still incredibly healthy and thoroughly taught in colleges (contrary to the general hysteria of certain columnists worried that we are not teaching Shakespeare anymore). Also one does not need a lot of historical knowledge to know that analytic philosophy till not that long ago was very iconoclastic towards the history of philosophy.
    Also it is a gross exaggeration that colleges don't offer seminars that teach the basics of writing and languages. Those courses are not only offered more than in Europe (where they rarely are) but also often are completely ignored by students who prefer an easy A in a historical survey class to a difficult grammar heavy writing class.

    Thus I believe that the reason for the crisis of the humanities lies not in the problems above-mentioned but is largely environmental. It is not so much that the humanities abandoned their traditional calling but that society at large has abandoned the values espoused by them. It is not surprising that in a time which values speed, efficiency and connectivity a discipline that deals with slowness, the superfluous and loneliness (and with a very poor return on investment) is hugely unpopular.

    This leads to the next point:

    2) Rosenberg continues that the humanities are in the business of moving us emotionally. The question that then arises is why students should make an effort to learn to be moved by difficult works rather than by any work of entertainment. Naturally the reason for the study of the arts should reside elsewhere, and that is, in my opinion, in developing a sophistication (the ability to make connections and distinctions) in the fruition of cultural artifacts (which include works of philosophy and popular science). Yet what can follow again is the question of the utility of this sophistication in a society that does not compensate it. Books like "Proust was a Neuroscientist" (incidentally Lehrer majored in neuroscience with Kandel), with their impressive sales, show how much the lack of sophistication is rewarded. Similarly the same mixture of grandiose claims and half-examined ideas is what has decreed the success of many critics of the humanities.

    In conclusion what I'm trying to point out is that the crisis of the humanities is much deeper than simply the poor management of a couple of departments. Many of the worse distortions, from the overt-politicization to the misguided criticism of science, often were born out of a reaction to deeper societal trends that tried to devalue the humanities. And if this is true unfortunately the solution is not as simple as going back to teaching the ABCs.

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    1. I think the worse problem of the humanities is academic obscurantism: the use of convoluted language to hide a lack of content/coherence.

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    2. I disagree. I think that the accuses of obscurantism are mostly a historical heredity of certain american scholarship (for example the accusation is less prominent in the UK) and derives from the influence of neo-potivism, an excessive value given to "plain language" (which can be used as effectively to confuse and obscure as well, if not even better, than complex language. The language of demagogues and marketing is plain not baroque) and the general antipathy for the vocabulary and ideas of German idealism which is, for some very good reasons, influential in the humanities.

      Personally I rarely had problems understanding any of the texts I had to study to get my degree and the possibility to tackle those complex texts only made it more rewarding.

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    3. Allegedly, Foucault said: "In France, you gotta have ten percent incomprehensible, otherwise people won’t think it’s deep–they won’t think you’re a profound thinker". I think this applies today, and everywhere.

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    4. I'm skeptical, mostly because I had many positive experiences reading those authors that usually get branded as charlatans in certain circles: from Hegel to Derrida. Even when I didn't agree with them, even when I saw their errors or their dishonesty, I always found them to be intelligent, deep and cultured writers.

      But consider this: at the end of the day Jargon is just a vocabulary and if it is a mask it is a paper-thin mask that can be pierced by consulting a specialized dictionary (like the penguin dictionary of critical theory).

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  22. Massimo,

    > I actually think it can be used the other way: we do “touch” matter, if by touch we mean interacting with force fields.<

    The same is being done with the notion of free will, by defining it as the "feeling of free choice", while choice is really dependant on internal and external pre-existing factors in a line of causation.

    >Not necessarily. If you are not a mathematical Platonist, for instance, you would argue that mathematical objects are a product of our minds, but they are not *arbitrary* products, the Pythagorean theorem is true in a strongest sense than, say, a fashion statement.<

    I think there's a fundamental difference between mathematical objects and morals. Mathematics is composed of the relationship between existing physical objects (for example, it's an empirical fact that the diameter of a circle is always proportional to the circumference), and the way we interpret and codify these relationships (the language and rules of mathematics, the part that is the product of our minds). In contrast, the performer/recipient of moral values and the interpreter is the same: the human colective.

    In morals, if there's not a collective of humans, no one can interpret morals, and no objects in the universe could even potentially perform them or be affected by them, so morality effectively ceases to exist. In mathematics, even if there are no people, the diameter of a circle will still be proportional to the perimeter, many phenomena will still follow certain functions (even if no one describes them), etc. Logical consistency will persist.

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    1. Hi BHRA,

      What about more abstract mathematics? Imaginary numbers, N-dimensional hypercubes, etc? There are fields of mathematics that bear no known relationship to anything in the physical universe, but I think they are still not arbitrary.

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    2. This annoys me to no end. There are very few fields of mathematics that don't have a relationship to the physical world. Let's consider your examples. Imaginary numbers, n-dimensional hypercubes, etc. were developed by taking existing mathematical objects found via investigating the real world (real numbers and geometric cubes) and weakening their assumptions (respectively, that square roots can't be taken of negative numbers, and dimensionality is limited to 3).

      And you're flat wrong about those examples not having relations to the physical universe. Imaginary numbers (ie, complex numbers) are related to waves, while n-dimensional hypercubes are related to networks. Complex numbers were found to have a relationship with trigonometry, and geometry was found to be more flexible than Euclid's compendium.

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    3. Disagreeable Me, I must admit my knowledge of math is shallow, and after posting this I wondered something similar. I think Sharkey's explanation sounds good though.

      As long as those more abstract things can be used somehow in some field of science, I guess we can say they are related to the physical world. This is related to Sharkey's answer: http://mathforum.org/library/drmath/view/53879.html

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    4. Hi Sharkey, BHRA,

      I see no reason for annoyance. I am not ignorant of the many uses that imaginary numbers ultimately found in the real world, but initially they were abstract. And there are many fields of mathematics that remain abstract, but many of these are not as familiar.

      And, Sharkey, as much as you say that hypercubes are extrapolations of objects in the real world, it remains the case that physical hypercubes do not exist, and there exist non-Euclidean geometries that do not seem to describe the real world either.

      My point was that mathematical objects are neither arbitrary nor determined or constrained by physical reality. You may have undermined my two examples, but surely you do not deny that better examples exist.

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  23. Still annoyed.

    Imaginary numbers were not initially abstract. They were (partially) found via attempts to solve cubic equations, which arose from studying cones. And there are physical hypercubes, they just don't have 3 spacial dimensions (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intel_iPSC/860). The network topology is best represented as a hypercube, and there is a relationship between the "abstract" hypercube and the physical manifestation of the computer network.

    I reject that better examples exist, at least examples that would be recognizable as "mathematical objects". Math is currently rooted in set theory and logic, and we use the set theory and logic that makes sense in our universe. Everything that we call "math" is constrained and determined by these non-arbitrary axioms.

    The axioms of set theory and the axioms of logic are "self-evident", in that they coincide with our observations of the world. For instance, we can put two collections together (axiom of union), two collections can be distinguished (axiom of pairing), if an event happens here and another event happens there then both events happened (logical AND), etc.

    We shouldn't be shocked that mathematical insights have application to the natural world; math is our dialect for the rules of our universe.

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    1. Hi Sharkey,

      Reading about the history of imaginary numbers on Wikipedia, it seems that the concept dated back long before cubic equations, etc. I'm not saying you're not at least partially correct (you obviously know your stuff), but Wikipedia at least seems to disagree.

      Network topologies are not physical hypercubes. It might be that they can be represented this way, but they can also be represented in three dimensions. And they are, by the path traced by network cables. I reject this as an example of a real physical hypercube.

      You argue that all math is rooted in set theory and logic (in fact, I suspect one could make an argument that set theory is also rooted in logic). This seems correct to me, but which set theory and which logic? There are various different axiomatisations of both.

      >we use the set theory and logic that makes sense in our universe<

      Can you conceive of a universe where the most basic axioms of set theory and logic would not hold? I cannot, and I suspect they are inconceivable even in principle. If those universes are literally inconceivable, I would hold those universes to be impossible. If they are conceivable, if we can work out in detail what it would be like to have a universe where 1+1=3, then I would hold that we have in fact discovered a new branch of mathematics (or axiomatisation of logic).

      >The axioms of set theory and the axioms of logic are "self-evident", in that they coincide with our observations of the world. <

      My view is different. I think they are necessarily true, by definition. What you mean by union is defined by your description. Even if we could not combine two physical collections for physical reasons, we could still do it in the abstract. If one set union another set did not result in the combination of both sets, then the operation you have performed is not a union. The same goes for logical AND.

      I think these are useful operations and concepts. They are self evident to us precisely because they are useful - we have evolved to intuitively grasp basic set theory and logic because these concepts are fundamental to intelligence and intelligence, at least in our case, is adaptive. But I think they are not just useful in this universe. They are useful in any possible universe.

      If you're going to argue that all branches of mathematics describe the physical world simply because all mathematics is rooted in logic and logic is rooted in the physical world, then there is probably little point in searching for examples of very abstract mathematics (of which I am sure there are many).

      In any case, even if you can't agree with me, it genuinely bothers me that you would be annoyed by my point of view!

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  24. Your point of view is annoying to me because it deifies mathematics. There is no evidence that mathematics is some god-given mystical power useful throughout all worlds; there's plenty of evidence that it is generated by humans investigating this world, found by observing specific behaviour and relaxing some of that specificity to make things easier to think about.

    I can't conceive of a universe where set theory and logic are fundamentally different, but I believe that's expected. Our intelligence is conditioned to think about logic and sets in a way that makes sense in our slice of the universe. Quantum mechanics and relativity causes cognitive difficulties for those attempting to understand the mathematical ramifications of those properties, and they are part of our universe!

    >> If those universes are literally inconceivable, I would hold those universes to be impossible.

    This is human-centric bias and nothing more. Just because you (nor I) could conceive of a radically different set theory and/or rules for a physical universe doesn't mean it's impossible. In fact, the difficulty we have in conceiving of a different set theory shows my point: our thinking is so influenced by our universe that (some) alternative schemes are truly inconceivable.

    >> If you're going to argue that all branches of mathematics describe the physical world simply because all mathematics is rooted in logic and logic is rooted in the physical world, then there is probably little point in searching for examples of very abstract mathematics (of which I am sure there are many).

    Exactly. People think "abstract mathematics" is some far removed, mystical creation: it's not. It's high school arithmetic, logic, geometry, etc taken to generality, but you could add back specifics and end up with a plausible physical relationship (with a suitable mapping from axioms to physical properties, of course).

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    1. It doesn't deify mathematics, although it does reify mathematics. Perhaps that's what you meant.

      >There is no evidence that mathematics is some god-given mystical power useful throughout all worlds<

      It's not god-given or mystical. But it must be useful throughout all worlds. Logic works by definition. You are free to define whatever axioms you please, and then the definition of those axioms entails what can be derived from them. If you seriously believe that there is a universe where, starting from the same axioms, you could come to different conclusions, then your intuitions are so alien to me that I just can't see where you're coming from.

      If you are arguing that you could get different conclusions from different axioms, then I agree. If you are saying that our universe is an inspiration for our axioms, I am also inclined to agree, to a point. But if you're saying that there is something in the physical structure of this universe that prevents even the possibility of our conceiving of some other set of axioms, I find this to be an incredible claim.

      >This is human-centric bias and nothing more.<

      I disagree.

      >Just because you (nor I) could conceive of a radically different set theory and/or rules for a physical universe doesn't mean it's impossible.<

      Just because neither of us can conceive of radically different rules doesn't mean that those rules are inconceivable either. Only inconceivable to we two individuals.

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  25. >> It doesn't deify mathematics, although it does reify mathematics. Perhaps that's what you meant.

    I meant deify, as in worshiped as a god.

    >> Logic works by definition.

    You can't just assert this. Why does logic work? What does "work" even mean in that context?

    >> If you seriously believe that there is a universe where, starting from the same axioms, you could come to different conclusions, then your intuitions are so alien to me that I just can't see where you're coming from... If you are arguing that you could get different conclusions from different axioms, then I agree. But if you're saying that there is something in the physical structure of this universe that prevents even the possibility of our conceiving of some other set of axioms, I find this to be an incredible claim.

    My main point is the middle claim; I'm (indirectly) arguing the last claim but that shouldn't be incredible. There are plenty of limiting processes of our universe that disallow us to conceive of another axiom set. For instance, we don't have (countably) infinite time, so a logic with an infinite axiom set (and I don't mean an axiom schema) is inconceivable. The best we could do is sort of handwave as I just did, but we simply can't reason using such a logic. QED.

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    1. >I meant deify, as in worshiped as a god.<

      Well then you're wrong, as I don't worship mathematics. I don't think mathematics is a being to be praised, I don't think it's supernatural or magic, and I don't think it has agency to directly intervene in my life. Calling me a maths-worshipper is like calling Krauss a science-worshipper. It's stretching the term beyond its definition.

      >You can't just assert this. Why does logic work?<

      Ok, it looks like I'm just making an assertion, but I'm not making quite the assertion you take me to be, I suspect.

      I think logic is in some sense the exploration of what is entailed by certain definitions. Logical AND does what you said it does by definition - because its definition defines what it does. It's not contingent on any physical fact. There is no possible universe where logical AND would behave differently, because if it did then it wouldn't be logical AND but something else, and even in that universe a mathematician could still propose the original logical AND as a useful operation. That's what I mean when I say logical AND, and all other logical operations, work by definition.

      >There are plenty of limiting processes of our universe that disallow us to conceive of another axiom set. For instance, we don't have (countably) infinite time, so a logic with an infinite axiom set (and I don't mean an axiom schema) is inconceivable.<

      Point taken. But if we limit ourselves to reasonably simple axiom sets, so we take complexity and feasibility out of the equation, then my point stands. I don't think there are any axiom sets of reasonable simplicity that we cannot conceive of. And if all possible simple axiom sets are available to us, then at least we can say that the mathematics of simple axiom sets is not determined or constrained by this universe.

      I would agree with you that many more kinds of mathematics might be available to us if we lived in a universe that allowed for us to have vastly more brain power, but I don't have the sense that that point is what is at issue.

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