Archive for September, 2011|Monthly archive page

The Sea

In neurath, skepticism on 15/09/2011 at 7:14 am

We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction. (Otto Neurath)

The epistemic pessimist values avoiding error over acquiring information. As a result, the pessimist is unwilling to ask information on Prom Night to dance for fear of the potential rejection. Don’t forget your inhaler!

The epistemic optimist values acquiring information over avoiding error. As a result, the optimist falls in love with information, even if the information should be erroneous. There’s gold in that thar valley between her thighs. What of a communicable disease?

What if one were to resolve this tension not as Neurath did, but as follows: one neither fears nor loves information; one depersonalizes information. One feels no attachment or repulsion: one uses the information and sees where it leads. Only then can one decide if the information is worthwhile. One uses information, for that is all one has.

You’re lost at sea during a great storm, grasping floating wreckage. No need to be picky. You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps or replace beams one by one anymore. Everything you’ve built is gone now, most of it sinking quickly below the waves. You catch anything that passes within reach. It’s life or death. You need a raft, or a lifeboat, or anything to jury-rig a sail. You need to make it through the storm. Anything will do, until it doesn’t. Any information will work, until it doesn’t work. And if it doesn’t, if it begins to pull you under the waves, cast it aside and replace it with another piece of flotsam floating by in the storm.


The Evolution of Ideas

In critical rationalism on 12/09/2011 at 11:43 pm

While the abstract kingdom stands at a yet greater distance above the biosphere than the latter does above the nonliving universe, ideas have retained some of the properties of organisms. Like them, they tend to perpetuate their structure and to breed; they too can fuse, recombine, segregate their content; indeed they too can evolve, and in this evolution selection must surely play an important role. (Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity)


A Study in Stubbornness

In fideism, irrationalism on 12/09/2011 at 8:00 am

The BBC’s Conspiracy Road Trip: 9/11 is a recent documentary on the conspiratorial 9/11 Truth movement.



In gellner on 10/09/2011 at 2:51 pm

When there was a recognized final Authority and intellectual court of appeal, the professional thinker could perform a useful function and he could do so with dignity — especially if the authoritative truths were available in a Holy Writ, and literacy which gave access to it was a specialist accomplishment which he did not share with all and sundry. Surrogate final sources of truth have since been sought — the Inner Light of Reason, Experience, History, Nature – but unfortunately these ladies do not speak with a clear, single or unambiguous voice.” (Ernest Gellner, Words and Things, p. 13)


You’re Not Paranoid if It’s True

In fallibilism on 09/09/2011 at 12:50 am

What happens when believers in 9/11 conspiracy theories change their minds.


Catholic Dogma

In fideism, irrationalism on 08/09/2011 at 7:59 am

Edward Feser has a strange argument in favor of the possibility of reconciling evolutionary theory with Catholic dogma.

Supposing, then, that the smallest human-like population of animals evolution could have initially produced numbered around 10,000, we have a scenario that is fully compatible with Catholic doctrine if we suppose that only two of these creatures had human souls infused into them by God at their conception, and that He infused further human souls only into those creatures who were descended from this initial pair.  And there is no evidence against this supposition. (bolded)

Put aside that, as far as our scientific theories indicate, that the first biological human male and first human female existed, at minimum, thousands of years apart. Instead, focus on what Feser has done: yes, it is a possibility that an omniscient being imparted a particular cognitive structure (which Feser calls ‘souls’) into two biological humans, but possibility amounts to very little. It is possible that other humans are in fact androids, and to save this theory from attempted refutation, a defender can easily claim that no, this particular being is a human, but androids walk among us! There cannot be, by the very structure of the argument, evidence against this supposition.

Within the larger scheme of things, if we see how Catholic dogma began, their stances on epistemology, the historical structure of their ‘holy’ texts, their gradual refinement and replacement of dogmas under pressure from within and without the Church, then who cares if it is possible to reconcile even the most de-clawed version of Catholic dogma with evolutionary theory? It’s retreated too far, for too long. No, the Israelites never were slaves in Egypt. It’s just a story. No, Adam and Eve never lived, and certainly never were given dominion over all other creatures, and they never lived in a magic garden with a talking snake. There was no Noah’s ark, and to think otherwise would be intellectual suicide. I’m sure, or at least I hope that Feser would agree with me on all these points. But what remains? He can have his supposition for all I care, he can attempt to square the circle by redefining both until the two are one (we’re not talking about biological humans, but humans with souls!), but I take it as seriously as attempts to reconcile origin stories from other — now-defunct — religions.


Van Fraassen on Technology

In van fraassen on 07/09/2011 at 6:10 am

Note to self…

There’s one huge problem I have with Bas Van Fraassen’s argument against realism of scientific entities: I have myopia, and have to wear glasses all the time. What clear distinction can I make between using glasses to fix my myopia and using a magnifying glass to see cells? In both cases, I would use a piece of theory-laden technology to improve upon my evolved senses. It might be said that my myopia is, at least in this case, an outlier, as would someone that is born deaf requiring a cochlear implant. The general senses of a community is what matters, not any particular individual. This looks like, at least to me, to be an ad hoc solution: we’re dealing with things in middle-world that are, I should hope, deserving of a stronger epistemological status than atoms. The use of glasses is a technological fix, rather than a widening of my epistemological horizons. But then we return to the problem: where is the hard distinction between a pair of glasses and a magnifying glass?

Imagine that the human race had instead evolved a set of eyes that were far more exact than an eagle’s. The veil surrounding the atom would be pierced. But would it? Our senses are designed only for adequacy, and frequently do not track the truth. The difference between the eagle-eyed race of humans and our own would be what, exactly? Their ‘technology’ has undergone a process of conjecture and refutation on the species-level, refining particular tools over billions of years. Our technology has undergone the same process, but on a different level, the theoretical level. While the differences are superficial, since one is to a large extent innate and the other manufactured, this difference does not extend to the level of epistemological warrant. Why should innate senses be elevated over acquired senses?

Here is the rub: I think Van Fraassen’s argument doesn’t just apply only to the very small, but to any and all possible objects. All sensory experience is theory-laden, not just technological ‘experience’. While there is an extra step between seeing a read-out on a Geiger counter and seeing an apple, none of the two are on surer epistemological footing (think of Plantinga). Van Fraassen’s argument then, if we wish to be conservative in the properties, relations between properties, and objects in our epistemological bag, applies not just to theoretical scientific entities, but to theoretical everyday entities. We ought to be as strongly against realism of the everyday.


From ‘Ought’ to ‘Is’

In bartley, critical rationalism, ethics on 06/09/2011 at 2:50 am

After reading Eric MacDonald’s piece on natural law theory over at Choice in Dying, I think it best to describe how a Critical Rationalist as influenced by Popper and Bartley crosses the ‘is-ought’ gap. Natural law theory seeks to ground ethics in something tangible, something that is easy to grasp. It is in the nature of things to be so, and therefore it follows that we must follow the nature of things. Of course, this indubitably begs the question of what exactly is the nature of things. To take a poor example, it is in the nature of things that bananas fit hands, but bananas also fit into orifices other than the mouth. But put this problem aside for the moment. Assume that it can be solved, or at least a group of people may come to an agreement, tentative though it may be, on the nature of things. Hume, though, notes that it is difficult to justify an ‘ought’ as logically following from an ‘is’, and does not rule this out as impossible. I, on the other hand, take this justification as impossible, since this problem of justification is little more than a variation of Fries’s trilemma: (1) either this ethical justification goes in a circle, (2) grounded on a foundation that is assumed without argument, or (3) part of an infinite series of justifications.
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In critical rationalism, fallibilism on 02/09/2011 at 11:51 pm

[It] is like trying to cover the world with leather to avoid the pain of walking on stones and thorns. It is much simpler to wear shoes. (Ramana Maharshi)


Philosophy and Science-Themed T-Shirts!

In art on 02/09/2011 at 11:47 pm

It’s difficult for anyone working in philosophy to find a nice casual philosophy-themed shirt. A few years ago, I picked up this most awesome shirt:

I’ve just learned that the company behind the shirt, Amorphia Apparel, has come out with a new line of t-shirts. And they are awesome. Most of them use the instantly recognizable font of some of my favorite punk and metal bands, mashed together with famous philosophers and scientists. I think I’ll have to pick up a copy of this one soon, seeing as I rate Hume as one of the greatest philosophers …

I’m just sad that there’s no Popper shirt. What would it even look like? I decided to make a quick mock-up Popper-logo in an homage to Iron Maiden.


It Works!

In fideism on 02/09/2011 at 7:16 am

A friend just sent me this interview of Gov. Rick Perry …

I’ve cleaned up the relevant parts of the interview, scrubbing Perry’s horrible speaking style so that it’s somewhat understandable.

Interviewer: … Why does Texas continue with abstinence education programs when they don’t seem to be working … ?

Perry: Abstinence works.

Interviewer: But … we have the third highest teen pregnancy rate among all states in the country. … It doesn’t seem to be working.

Perry: It works. Maybe it’s the way it’s being taught or the way it’s being applied out there, but the fact of the matter is, it is the best form to teach our children.

I should preface this by noting that Perry is not talking about the act of abstaining from sex. Yes, of course that prevents STDs and pregnancies in teenagers. The question is whether or not abstinence-only education works. Perry clearly answers in the affirmative.

The problem here is not that Perry has the wrong answer. Abstinence-only education does not work. The reasons are well-known, and almost gobsmackingly obvious to anyone that can remember their own hormone-driven teenage years. The temptations of the flesh, directed through billions of years of evolution, compel us to behave in specific ways.

The problem here is not that Perry wants more pregnant or STD-positive teenagers in Texas. Attributing such motives to Perry does little more than paint him as a devil, a person that wishes to make others suffer for making choices he finds distasteful. It’s far too easy to dismiss him as a bad person, for in doing so we reject his position when it is at its weakest. Perry thinks, so I conjecture, that his policies will work to solve a host of plagues in his state. What these problems are, however, are up for debate.

Perry seems unable to go through the process of problem-solving. If a proposal does not, as far as we can tell, work, then we must either reject the proposal or produce some iteration of the proposal that explains why it failed. This is the basic trial and error process: We accept our mistakes. Perry will have none of this. He starts with a proposal (“Abstinence works”) and then when confronted with conflicting data, ends with the proposal!

Here we have an individual that will not change his position even with the world against him. Possibly this is for religious or moral reasons. He might think that premarital sex is sinful. Since Perry think his religion’s position on sinful acts is true, endorsing condom use would do little more than beget sin. Perry has a duty to follow his dogma come what may, otherwise it would not be dogma any more. Any possible consequences, such as a high level of teen pregnancy in Texas, the untold suffering of others, and the spread of STDs, is tolerable when souls hang in the balance.