Oh dear, I pissed off the big shots among the New Atheists — again. If you are on Twitter or happen to have checked a couple of prominent NA blogs recently, you will have noticed a chorus comprised of none other than Jerry Coyne, Sam Harris, PZ Myers and, by way of only a passing snarky comment, Richard Dawkins — all focused on yours truly. I’m flattered, but what could I have possibly done to generate such a concerted reaction all of a sudden? Two things: I have published this cartoon concerning Sam Harris, just to poke a bit of (I thought harmless, good humored, even!) fun at the guy, and — more substantively — this technical, peer reviewed, paper in a philosophy journal devoted to a conceptual analysis and criticism of the NA movement, from the point of view of a scientist, philosopher, and, incidentally, atheist.
I’ve been reading for a while now Jim Baggott’s Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth, a fascinating tour through cutting edge theoretical physics, led by someone with a physics background and a healthy (I think) dose of skepticism about the latest declarations from string theorists and the like.
Gay marriage is rapidly becoming less and less controversial, at least in the Western world. Yes, the battle hasn’t been won just yet, both in Europe and in the US, but we are getting there at a pace that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
Here comes another post on ethics! This one is, I must admit, somewhat meta-ethical, despite my recent post about the limited value of meta-ethical discussions when it comes to debates in first-order ethics. As I pointed out in the discussion that followed that essay, it’s not that I don’t think that meta-ethics is interesting, it’s just that it shouldn’t be used as an excuse for refusing to get down and dirty about actual everyday moral questions.
In a forthcoming episode of the Rationally Speaking podcast, Julia and I discuss the philosophy and science of suicide, i.e. what empirical inquiry tells us about suicides (who commits them, how, what are the best strategies for prevention) and how philosophical reflection may lead us to think of suicide. In this post I will focus on the philosophical side of the discussion, for which an excellent summary source, with a number of additional references, is this article by Michael Cholbi in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, to which I will keep referring below.
So the other day Julia Galef and I had the pleasure of interviewing mathematical cosmologist Max Tegmark for the Rationally Speaking podcast. The episode will come out in late January, close to the release of Max’s book, presenting his Mathematical Universe Hypothesis (MUH). We had a lively and interesting conversation, but in the end, I’m not convinced (and I doubt Julia was either).
Good question, right? I’ve been thinking more about it for a few weeks now as a result of an interesting talk by Gopal Sreenivasan (Duke University) entitled “Moral expertise and the proto-authority of affect,” which he gave at CUNY’s Graduate Center.
My Facebook account is reserved for close friends and family (if you want to follow my writings, there’s Twitter). One of my very close relatives is a fellow of about my age, self-professed politically progressive, and with whom there is a lot of reciprocal respect and love. The ideal conditions to conduct the occasional rational discourse on politics or social issues, right? Wrong.
As I’ve mentioned on other occasions, my most recent effort in philosophy of science actually concerns what my collaborator Maarten Boudry and I call the philosophy of pseudoscience. During a recent discussion we had with some of the contributors to our book at the recent congress of the European Philosophy of Science Association, Maarten came up with the idea of the pseudoscience black hole. Let me explain.
I recently attended a talk by Daniel Garber (Princeton University) on the topic of “God, Laws and the Order of Nature in the Scientific Revolution.” While Garber’s talk was mostly historical in nature, it raised some interesting points about why and how we talk about laws of nature at all. And the connection was reinforced just a couple of days ago when I went to the New York Film Festival and saw a screening of “Particle Fever,” a documentary about the Higgs boson during which the concept of the fundamental (lawful, according to supporters of supersymmetry; random, according to people who favor the multiverse) architecture of the universe was the truly big question lurking in the background.
When I go to the gym I get easily bored, so I listen to either music or, more likely, audiobooks. Recently, I’ve spent exercise time with a couple of scifi entries by author Robert Sawyer. I started out with Flashforward, then moved to Calculating God. Both books are based on clever premises, unfold nicely, but are — in my opinion — ruined by the author’s penchant for invoking deus-ex-machina scenarios near the end. And they both preach a bit too much science, to the point of feeling like a lecture to the reader, especially Calculating God. Nonetheless, they do make the time at the gym pass significantly faster…
You can tell I've had philosophy of mind on my mind lately. I've written about the Computational Theory of Mind (albeit within the broadest context of a post on the difference between scientific theories and philosophical accounts), about computation and the Church-Turing thesis, and of course about why David Chalmers is wrong about the Singularity and mind uploading (in press in a new volume edited by Russell Blackford and Damien Broderick). Moreover, and without my prompting, my friend Steve Neumann has just written an essay for RS about what is it like to be a Nagel. Oh, and I recently reviewed for Amazon, John Searle's Mind: A Brief Introduction.
I have recently been to the European Philosophy of Science Association meeting, where my colleague Maarten Boudry and I have hosted a symposium on our recently published book on the Philosophy of Pseudoscience. I have, of course attended several other sessions and talks, as is customary on these occasions (it is also customary to enjoy the local sights, food and drinks, which I dutifully subjected myself to…).
Ever since Socrates, philosophers have been in the business of asking questions of the type “What is X?” The point has not always been to actually find out what X is, but rather to explore how we think about X, to bring up to the surface wrong ways of thinking about it, and hopefully in the process to achieve an increasingly better understanding of the matter at hand. In the early part of the twentieth century one of the most ambitious philosophers of science, Karl Popper, asked that very question in the specific case in which X = science. Popper termed this the “demarcation problem,” the quest for what distinguishes science from nonscience and pseudoscience (and, presumably, also the latter two from each other).
Time to take a break from philosophy of mind and get back to evolutionary psychology. The occasion originates from a recent post by evopsych researcher Robert Kurzban, on what he calls "creationism of the mind." There Kurzban excoriates our good old friend, PZ Myers for some apparently silly criticisms he leveled at the field. Kurzban goes on commending Jerry Coyne for having recently seen the light, becoming a supporter of the field.
I recently examined (and found wanting) the so-called computational theory of mind, albeit in the context of a broader post about the difference between scientific theories and what I think are best referred to as philosophical accounts (such as the above mentioned computational “theory”). Defenders of strong versions of computationalism (which amounts to pretty much the same thing as strong AI) often invoke the twin concepts of computation itself and of the Church-Turing thesis to imply that computationalism is not only obviously true, but has been shown to be so by way of mathematical proof.
Readers of Rationally Speaking are familiar with my criticism of some scientists or scientific practices, from evolutionary psychology to claims concerning the supernatural. But, especially given my dual background in science and philosophy, I pride myself in being an equal opportunity offender. And indeed, I have for instance chastised Alvin Plantinga for engaging in seriously flawed “philosophy” in the case of his evolutionary argument against naturalism, and have more than once sympathetically referred to James Ladyman and Don Ross’ criticism of analytic metaphysics as a form of “neo-scholasticism.”
Time to reconsider the relationship between science and the supernatural. A number of colleagues in both science and philosophy argue that the supernatural is nothing special, that god-related hypotheses can be tested by ordinary scientific methods, and that — given the repeated failure of such tests — the only rational conclusion is that science has pretty much shown that there is no such thing as the supernatural.
Back in 1992, Francis Fukuyama famously argued that the advent of Western liberal democracy spelled nothing less than the endpoint of sociocultural evolution: we have finally discovered the best way to govern people and organize society, and that’s gonna be it.
I have wanted to comment for some time about a number of available “theories of truth.” The occasion has now been presented by the fact that I am writing the fourth chapter of my new book (on whether and how philosophy makes progress, forthcoming from Chicago Press), which is about the surprisingly not-so-straightforward concept of progress (and truth) in science itself, the very discipline normally held to be the paragon of a truth seeking enterprise.
Democracies have existed for a long time without lobbying, and have worked very well, thank you very much. Indeed, institutionalized lobbying is a recent phenomenon, pretty much exported by the United States, and still relatively young in other Western countries.
One of the things that has always struck me as different — and not in a good way — in the United States compared to other Western countries is the way Americans think (and act) about crime, particularly their prison system. Recently, my colleagues Ken Taylor (Stanford) and John Perry (University of California-Riverside) have tackled the issue on their wonderful podcast, Philosophy Talk (which comes with an associated blog, the tagline of which is cogito, ergo blog), causing me to ponder some more disturbing thoughts about it.
I have been doing public outreach for science since I originally moved to Tennessee in 1996. It has been a fun ride, and I’m sure it will continue to be that way for many years to come. But two of the first things I learned when debating creationists and giving talks about the nature of science were: a) nastiness doesn’t get you anywhere; and b) just because you have reason and evidence on your side doesn’t mean you are going to carry the day.
My most recent post was about the worthiness of so-called “demarcation” problems, such as reflections on what distinguishes science from philosophy, the latter from theology, and the former from pseudoscience. My interest in this field has been rekindled because of a long time collaboration with my colleague Maarten Boudry, which has resulted in a forthcoming edited book on the topic, to be published in July by Chicago Press.
Is Nietzsche to be found somewhere between Ayn Rand and Antonin Scalia? This is just one of a series of intriguing claims I am encountering while reading The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, by my CUNY colleague Corey Robin, a political theorist, journalist and associate professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center.
I just finished reading the excellent collection Philosophy and the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, edited by Nicholas Joll, a must for anyone who has ever been captivated by Douglas Adams’ comic genius and its scientific and philosophical undertones. Here I am going to briefly comment on a single table that appears in the last essay of the volume, “The funniest of all improbable worlds — Hitchhiker’s as philosophical satire,” by Alexander Pawlak and Joll himself. It’s a table about several potential meanings of the phrase “the meaning of life” and how they are related to each other.
There has been quite a stir in philosophical circles over the last several years caused by the emergence of a new sub-field referred to as experimental philosophy (colloquially, “XPhi”). I was actually at one of the first symposia that a young crowd of energetic philosophers had organized to get things started back in the early aughts.
The “Darwinian” theory of evolution is here to stay. I used the scare quotes to refer to it in the previous sentence because the current incarnation, known as the Modern Synthesis (and incorrectly referred to as “neo-Darwinism,” which actually was an even earlier version) is significantly more sophisticated and encompassing than the original insight by Darwin. Indeed, my opinion — which is certainly not universally shared — is that evolutionary biology is currently undergoing another gradual but significant change, referred to as the Extended Synthesis, that will expand its domain of application and explanatory tools even further.