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, February 15, 2012

Rationally Speaking podcast: The 'isms' Episode

In this episode Massimo and Julia ask, "Is the fundamental nature of the world knowable by science alone?", looking at the issue through the lenses of a series of related philosophical positions: determinism, reductionism, physicalism, and naturalism.

All of those "isms" take a stance on the question of whether there are objectively "correct" ways to interpret scientific facts -- like physical laws, or causality -- and if so, how do we decide what the correct interpretation is?

Along the way, Massimo and Julia debate the nature of emergent properties, whether math is discovered or invented, and whether it's even logically possible for "supernatural" things to exist.


  1. Nice question, but only if one agrees on something being "the fundamental nature" of the world. For that one would need first a notion of "nature" (which may slide easily into Aristotelian essences or suchlike, or remain withing reasonable and empirically manageable limits), and then one would need some scale to measure the "fundamentalness" of one or another version of that "nature" of the world.
    For any given level of "fundamentalness", one may (probably always) imagine some "more fundamental" level that is still to be known: each answer, in fact, always elicits more questions. Not that these "levels" do exist in actual reality: we are only speaking of one's mental representations of the "nature" of the world --some more superficial or derivative, some more "fundamental").
    To be blunt, methinks the question is unanswerable, not becuase it is difficult but because it is poorly framed. The logical structure of the question posed seems to me very similar to the question "Can an unstoppable force be stopped?", only phrased in somewhat less clearly contradictory terms.
    Scientists, on the other hand, would be hardly shaken by this kind of question: science is not after "the fundamental nature of the world", whatever one may mean, or intend to mean, by that vague phrase. Science is after less grandiose purposes. After all, science is but a glorified (more formalized, more systematic) form of cognitive activity than the simpler forms practiced by people in their ordinary lives (minding the step, seeing whether it is raining, guessing whether it is about to rain later, asking where is the darned umbrella, or trying to guess what caused the noise that awoke you at 3:00 in the morning).

  2. The fundamental behaviors are what science can deal with, but the fundamental nature - the why and how - may easily be unkowable.

    I completely agree with you, Hector M., and that knowing is subject to our ability to mentally configure the objective observations, and our subjective knowledge is severely constrained by our experience of living in a purely cause and effect, macroscopic, environment.

    I now see myself as a subjective awareness, and my sensory input and movements as interfaces to objective reality. My reality exists solely in my head, and my understanding of what is going on is what is 'real'. How well my thoughts and understandings, and abstract creating and planning, can only be tested against 'objective', or 'outside of self', reality subject to my subjective values being satisfied.

    I strongly believe that our understanding is fundamentally limited to the nature, or level of nature, of our local macroscopic physical 'laws' of nature that shaped us, and we can affect in reverse.

    We are a product of a fundamentally limited slice of the over-all nature of our universe.

    I can't remember, maybe it was von Neuman, who replied, when asked by one of his students Felix T. Smith, "I'm afraid I don't understand the method of characteristics."
    Yes, it was, and he replied, "Young man, in mathematics you don't understand things. You just get used to them."
    Now that I read John von Neumann's quotations, math seems to be a beautiful analogy to our attempts and knowing reality.

    We seem to be limited to Bayesion modelling and selection (Bayesian Classification and Regression with High Dimensional Features ) in order to approximated the behavior of reality, one that is almost entirely probabilistic in nature, and thus, our knowledge of objective reality can never be any greater than probabilistic.

    Sorry for the long post, it seems I do my best(copious) thinking when replying to blogs!
    I have more ammunition for the free-will debate, ha-haaaaaaaaaaa!!

    Thanks, Mike Laing

  3. I had a longish, and negative, comment at the podcast page with one harmless link that isn't posted. Can you check to see if it can be posted? Thanks.

  4. Mark,

    I asked our producer to look into it. Usually comments are published in a timely fashion, unless they contain gratuitous insults or death threats.

  5. It's subjective, but pretty much *any* insult doesn't advance discourse, in my opinion. At any rate, I checked with the editor of the podcast site, and he confirmed that there was no deletion of any comment posted recently. Is it possible that it was too long and the system rejected it automatically? You may want to try to repost it by breaking it down in 2-3 chunks.

  6. Define "threat". I was kidding btw. It wasn't that long. I can repost.

  7. Maybe your description of reductionism fits a philosophical definition but it seems to me that in practice it means to reduce complex systems to their most elementary functional units ( organisms in ecology, molecules in biochemistry, atoms in chemistry, etc.), not to the fundamental building blocks of all matter - strings or whatever.


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