Archive for 2012|Yearly archive page

Review of Boaz Miller’s ‘Rationality Principle Idealized’

In critical rationalism, popper on 28/02/2012 at 9:48 am

Just found this review. It’s worth checking out.


Feser writes on Popper

In critical rationalism on 27/02/2012 at 4:28 am

The Thomist Edward Feser has written a few blog articles on issues relating to Popper’s work in philosophy of mind here, here, and here. His most recent post Hayek and Popper on the mind is also worth a read.

I don’t agree with Feser on many things (his arguments for Catholicism for one), but he seems to appreciate work done by Popper (perhaps when his criticisms against monism are useful) and is an excellent writer.


Gibson and the Internet

In art on 26/02/2012 at 1:47 am

Cyberpunk qua cyberpunk served, in the long run, only to provide a facile adjective for the working vocabulary of lazy journalists and unimaginative blurb-writers. Yet even those at least partially in the know about science fiction (if nothing more) who debated, defended, or denigrated Gibson didn’t have the faintest idea of what Gibson was actually doing. (Though he didn’t either, at least not at the time—no writer knows what he or she has actually created until the book is actually read by others.) Neuromancer, foremost, was a shout in the night that was the 1980s, is the 1990s, and will be, it seems to me, the decades soon to come. That is to say, a foreshadowing and estimation of our future derived from a specific reinterpretation of our present, and in this very special instance lifted into actuality through the agency of its readers. For if Gibson in truth had nothing to do with the making of cyberpunk as it came to be known (he didn’t create it, didn’t name it, and after it was cursed with its catchy monicker, didn’t want a whole lot to do with it), in the most genuine sense he did create cyberspace. Not merely the word (see the OED); the place.

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation.

… Let me emphasize a point earlier glanced upon: All fiction, whether straight or genre, whether literature or Literature, is a personal reinterpretation of its writers’ existence during the time the fiction was written. Therefore science fiction has rarely predicted with any accuracy, save through coincidence or extremely well-informed suppositions a la Verne or Wells, the specifics of the future that ensues, postpublication. (Where do you park your atomic-powered lawnmower?) Sometimes, however—who can say how the spark catches fire, how the fish manages to live on land—it turns out to exactly, mysteriously, capture the spirit. In Neuromancer Gibson first apprehended, as no one else had, what I believe shall prove to be the shape of things to come; he saw the writing on the wall, the blood in the sky, the warning in the entrails. Saw the mind beneath the mirrorshades, as it were, and what that mind would be capable, or incapable, of thinking. Saw the substance disguised in style. What if someone, in the spring of 1914, had stood in the center of Berlin, foresaw in a vision the philosophies and worldviews capable of provoking the events for which the twentieth century would be most remembered, and then went off and wrote it all down? Now let’s be Heisenbergian and ask: What if the act of writing it down, in fact, brought it about?

When Neuromancer appeared it was picked up and devoured by hundreds, then thousands, of men and women who worked in or around the garages and cubicles where what is still called new media were, fitfully, being birthed; thousands who, on reading his sentence as quoted above, thought to themselves, That’s so fucking cool, and set about searching for any way the gold of imagination might be transmuted into silicon reality. Now Gibson’s imagined future cannot by any means be called optimistic (nor, in truth, can it be called pessimistic—it is beyond both); more to the point, he has often said that he intended “cyberspace” to be nothing more than a metaphor. No matter. Once a creation goes out in the world its creator, like any parent, loses the control once so easily exertable over the offspring; another variety of emergent behavior, you could say. That’s so fucking cool, man—I think we can pull it off. So rather than the theoretical Matrix, we now, thanks to all those beautiful William Gibson readers out there in the dark, have the actual Web—same difference, for all intents and purposes, or it will be soon enough. (Some Dark Holler, Jack Womack)


Surprise, Surprise: Brainstorming is a Bust

In critical rationalism on 15/02/2012 at 12:13 am

It turns out brainstorming doesn’t work. Guess what does?

[Charlan] Nemeth’s studies suggest that the ineffectiveness of brainstorming stems from the very thing that [Alex] Osborn thought was most important. As Nemeth puts it, “While the instruction ‘Do not criticize’ is often cited as the important instruction in brainstorming, this appears to be a counterproductive strategy. Our findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.” Osborn thought that imagination is inhibited by the merest hint of criticism, but Nemeth’s work and a number of other studies have demonstrated that it can thrive on conflict.

According to Nemeth, dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints. “There’s this Pollyannaish notion that the most important thing to do when working together is stay positive and get along, to not hurt anyone’s feelings,” she says. “Well, that’s just wrong. Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs.”

It’s also worth reading for the history of MIT’s Building 20.


Theism and science compatible?

In critical rationalism, plantinga on 09/02/2012 at 7:30 am

Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened. (1 Kings 18:27)

Yes, they are. But first, I should explain …

I see only the prima facie absurdness in religious dogmas. I’m a genial atheist, the kind that will listen to those with a religious bent and let them believe what they will — as long as their metaphysical system is not incoherent: their beliefs are coherent and consistent with our best available knowledge. I might be wrong; they might be right. But overall, in the social sphere, I find most religions to be obviously manmade, at their best boring or neutral, and pernicious at their worst.

Consider a physical system that at first blush appears to contradict a metaphysical system, say that the universe is guided by a deity that acts directly in the world, or initially designed so that its movements follow its aims. Further suppose that we know precisely the history of this physical system. By statically analyzing the data, we learn that the apparently random effects have an organization so that they appear to not be random, so it does not warrant the claim that a random source is behind it. If accepted, this would falsify the claim that there is a random source. Of course, this leaves open the possibility that the source, while not random, is not due to this hypothesized designer or guider (apophenia happens), but it would be a significant blow to any claim that the source is random and corroborate claims about the existence of a guider or designer.

On the contrary, if we find that the data is in fact random, then nothing follows. The data does not warrant the claim that a random source is behind it. Rather, it corroborates that the source is random, but it equally corroborates that the source is guided or designed, but the designer or guider could act in ways that we are unaware of; or with plans, aims, and whims with which we have no access.

So, given the physical system and initial conditions shortly after the big bang, what is the probability p that in this universe an intelligent species will evolve purely by unguided means? If p had a very low value, this would falsify unguided evolution, for unguided evolution would probably not produce an intelligent species. If p had a high value, this would not falsify guided evolution, for the religious individual could claim that their deity guided or designed the universe in such a way that intelligent beings would evolve. Thus, against our intuitions, any advancement in the natural sciences has the potential of falsifying unguided physical systems, but not guided or designed physical systems.

What is the moral of the story? Metaphysical claims about deities are unfalsifiable, and can be held on to come what may, as long as the claims do not logically contradict one another and in line with our best available knowledge (or our best available knowledge is explained away with ad hoc rationalizations for inconvenient facts), but — since we’re good Popperians — unfalsifiability does not support a position; rather, it detracts from it. If the metaphysical system is to satisfy these two requirements (coherence and consistence with best available knowledge), they need only be constructed in such a way that a central religious claim is not amendable to scientific inquiry. By happenstance, there are an infinite number of coherent metaphysical systems: the Prime Mover may be left-handed, or the Great Architect live in a shack on the back side of the moon, and so on. The very fact of the unfalsifiability of metaphysical claims about deities is enough for us to reject it due to our wish to keep our ontological baggage light and rule them all out, and not set question-begging standards that let in some but not all metaphysical beings that are unobservable/uncriticizable.

Addendum: Here I should give a rudimentary account of Popper’s argument according to virtue epistemology: one way to understand critical rationalism is that there are intellectual traits that are virtuous in so far as they help solve problems ranging from the concrete to the most abstract. We create solutions to these problems, but our solutions will often make some mistake, and not solve these problems. If we want to solve problems, the only way to eliminate error is through criticism of these solutions.

It is far too easy to find positive stories, surreptitiously save our theories from criticism (either by slight modification of the theories at the core or ad hoc adjustments to the periphery), or sit back knowing that our metaphysical beliefs are untouchable, and such intellectual traits can take place with different content. Therefore, to promote intellectual well-being, we ought to shy away from giving self-serving positive stories about why we believe things to be so, or attempt to inoculate our theories from criticism, or believe metaphysical claims that cannot be subject to criticism.

Searching for confirming evidence, gradually changing positions without acknowledgement, and adopting beliefs that are beyond the scope of critical discussion are not virtuous acts. Rather, it is virtuous to refrain from these activities, virtuous to actively listen to criticism from others, and even more virtuous to be actively critical of our own theories. If we cannot do so, we retire from solving problems as failures.


Inventing the Wheel

In Uncategorized on 12/01/2012 at 1:34 pm

One could not have predicted the invention of the wheel, for a necessary part of the prediction would be to say what a wheel is, and to say such a thing would be to invent the wheel.