Archive for the ‘science and philosophy’ Category

massimo pigliucci

For years now the humanities and any non-STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields have been in retreat in colleges throughout the world, especially in the US. This retreat is the result of a number of factors, perhaps foremost among them the increasing importation of business-style models into academia and the resulting conviction that if studying a given discipline doesn’t have an immediate payoff in terms of employment then it is not worth studying. This is a false and perniciously instrumental view of higher (and lower, really) education, which has the potential to undermine people’s ability to develop into cultured human beings capable of reflecting on what they do, how they do it , of appreciating all aspects of life (not just jobs and livelihood), and of making informed decisions as members of a democratic polity.

The aggressiveness of radical empiricists and their dismissal of non-scientific fields exacerbates this problem, and in my mind, therefore contributes to undermining the very fabric of our democracy and to decreasing the quality of our life.

Biologist and Philosopher of Science Massimo Pigliucci, writing at his blog, Scientia Salon.

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 “People nowadays,” Wittgenstein writes in Culture and Value, “think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians, etc. to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them-that does not occur to them.”

At a time like this, when the humanities are institutionally obliged to pretend to be sciences, we need more than ever the lessons about understanding that Wittgenstein—and the arts—have to teach us.

(Ray Monk, the biographer of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein writes in Prospect magazine)


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Albert Ellis, the founder of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, was originally a Psychoanalyst but became disillusioned with its results. He turned to the teachings of an ancient Roman slave and philosopher – Epictetus. Epictetus was Greek, and followed the teachings of Socrates and Plato.

The Stoic philosophy has a familiar ring because it uses basically the same method as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – We can control our beliefs through rational dialogue, and build habits of thinking about the world realistically without becoming the slave of our emotions and the slave of circumstance. This is also the fundamental principle discovered by Stephen Covey in the bestseller “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.”

In this TED talk, Jules Evans describes how he suffered from panic attacks and stumbled upon CBT, which lead to the curing of his anxiety. He was so taken by this experience that he decided to interview Albert Ellis about the influence Epictetus had on his psychological theories.

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A rendering of the Gage skull with the best fit rod trajectory a

A computer model of the Gage skull showing a reconstruction of the most likely trajectory taken by the tamping rod (gray). The colored fibers represent white matter in the brain and show which ones would have been severed by the rod. On the right, another view of white matter fibers that were likely injured by the rod. (Slate)

Image courtesy Van Horn JD, Irimia A, Torgerson CM, Chambers MC, Kikinis R, et al.

Sean Kean, writing for Slate, describes why the famous “iron rod through the frontal lobes” case study is reinterpreted every generation according to the latest neuroscience developments. The personality/frontal lobes theory is probably overstated, since bone fragments and fungal infection could have destroyed other parts of Gage’s brain as well:

Because of all the uncertainty, Ratiu, the Bucharest doctor, recommends that neuroscientists stop teaching Gage. “Leave this damn guy alone,” he says. (Like Gage himself, people seem to indulge in “gross profanity” when discussing his case.) But this seems unlikely. Whenever teachers need an anecdote about the frontal lobes, “you just take this ace out of your sleeve,” Ratiu says. “It’s just like whenever you talk about the French Revolution you talk about the guillotine, because it’s so cool.”


If nothing else, Macmillan says, “Phineas’s story is worth remembering because it illustrates how easily a small stock of facts can be transformed into popular and scientific myth.”

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It’s Spring Break (aka reading week), and I’ve already taken on some reading projects. I’m currently working through Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and considering the validity of the Dawkin’s meme concept, especially in relation to ethics and “sociobiology.”

David Widdicombe, over at St. Margaret’s Anglican Church, has an interesting critique of Darwinists who reject the concept of form. He notes the absence of metaphysical discourse in the biologists camp, especially in relation to  perceptions of unity (a precondition for scientific study) and desire of the Good.

To balance the often depressing conclusions of the sociobiologists, I’ve taken up Pierre Hadot’s What is Ancient Philosophy?, where he argues that Socrates’ goal of actually living the good life was philosophy. As a way of life, it requires the spiritual exercise of dialectic, or logical discussion, and is characterized above all by love for the Good, and love for friends who live in community. (Some of my postmodern type friends may not know that Hadot’s reading of Plato inspired Michel Foucault to write about spiritual exercises.)

Here are a couple quotes that demonstrate the continuity of this understanding of philosophy as primarily an ethical activity, or a way of life:


It is more important to want to do good than to know the truth

– Petrarch (1304-1374), On His Own Ignorance and That of Many Others



Plato and Aristotle can only be imagined dressed in the long robes of pedants. They were honest men, and, like the others, they laughed with their friends; and when they amused themselves by writing their Laws and their Politics, they did it as an amusement. This was the least philosophical and serious part of their lives; the most philosophical part was living simply and quietly.

– Pascal (1623-1662), Pensees  331



Most people imagine that philosophy consists in delivering discourses from the heights of a chair, and in giving classes based on texts. But what these people utterly miss is the uninterrupted philosophy which we see being practiced every day in a way which is perfectly equal to itself…. Socrates did not set up grandstands for his audience and did not sit upon a professorial chair; he had no fixed timetable for talking or walking with his friends. Rather, he did philosophy sometimes by joking with them, or by drinking or going to war or to the market with them, and finally by going to prison and drinking poison. He was the first to show that at all times and in every place, in everything that happens to us, daily life gives us the opportunity to do philosophy.

– Plutarch (46-120 AD), Whether A Man Should Engage In Politics When He is Old  26


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In our last Philosophy Cafe, we invited Dr. Arthur Schafer, head of the Centre for Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba, to talk about whether there are moral absolutes. Schafer is a prominent commentator on ethical issues here in Canada, and  recently invited the cognitive/evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker to lecture at Winnipeg’s new Museum of Human Rights.

Always engaging and provocative, Schafer argued that as long as we had enough facts about a situation, we would steer toward the right action, or at least know what the right action is not. He gave the example of a head hunter in Papua New Guinea. Why do they insist on harvesting the soul of the opponents head, each time a new baby is born? Because they have imperfect knowledge about the fact that harvesting souls is impossible, and hence headhunting is redundant (and so terribly politically incorrect). If the headhunter knew this, they would probably (hopefully) stop headhunting. Ethics is defined by how we view harm reduction in each individual situation, based on factual knowledge.

To me this represented the liberal scientific anti-religious view of life quite admirably. We know what is good based on a utilitarian calculus of harm. The key here is that harm is always defined according to modern liberal conceptions of the individual and of rights. We can respect other cultures’ erroneous and harmful views, because they are acting in good faith without the factual correct knowledge that we have. Therefore it becomes very important to educate people in empiricism and facts, which can undermine harmful ways of thinking.

But if good ethics are based on “facts”, how do we come to knowledge of the intrinsic dignity of the individual – of human rights? I suppose that ethical facts may in the end be reduced to a kind of scientism. Do Pinker, Dawkins, and company view the idea of human rights as merely a useful meme that allows for human flourishing? Do people have responsibility and freedom to act morally, or merely the illusion of responsibility for reproductive advantage?

Since I’m currently reading Daniel Dennett’s book “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” in which he extols the “meme” interpretation of culture, I couldn’t resist Roger Scruton’s article criticizing the same. Scruton is a close student of the arts and of philosophy and often says what many people lack the courage to articulate (and articulate clearly). In this New Atlantis article, he does it again:

The theory of the “meme” threatens to debunk the whole realm of high culture by making culture into a thing that survives in the human brain by its own efforts, as it were, and which has no more intrinsic significance than any other network of adaptations.

Scruton provides a sustained argument for the idea of a human person and their subjective experiences, and therefore freedom and moral responsibility.

Even if there are units of memetic information propagated from brain to brain, it is not these units that come before the mind in conscious thinking. Memes stand to ideas as genes stand to organisms: if they exist at all (and no evidence has been given by Dawkins or anyone else that they do) then their ceaseless and purposeless reproduction is of no concern to culture. Ideas, by contrast, form part of the conscious network of critical thinking. We assess them for their truth, their validity, their moral propriety, their elegance, completeness, and charm. We take them up and discard them, sometimes in the course of our search for truth and explanation, sometimes in our search for meaning and value. And both activities are essential to us. Although culture isn’t science, it is just as much a conscious activity of the critical mind. Culture — both the high culture of art and music, and the wider culture embodied in a moral and religious tradition — sorts ideas by their intrinsic qualities, helps us to feel at home in the world and to resonate to its personal significance.

Other, perhaps reactionary, critics of the meme concept have similar things to say. One such critique comes from David Bentley Hart, the orthodox theologian who wields the English language like a scimitar (“Daniel Dennett Hunts the Snark”). He points out that memes are a useful metaphor in the absence of any clear understanding of how evolutionary theory might explain culture and ideas. The propagation of memes functions more like a virus, rather than a function of human consciousness, will, desire, and rational thought. Atheists like Dennett, therefore, easily sidestep the need to refute the content of ideas, particularly ones he disagrees with, such as God and religious faith.

So far, from my reading of Dennett, liberal values like human rights are arbitrarily seen to be “good” (always in quotation marks) for the simple reason that things like eugenics, radical reductionism (E.O. Wilson and company), and the concept of God, are common sensically bad. There is no argument here, only assertion backed by the scientistic metaphor of memes.

More to come on Dennett and ethics.

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Given enough time, can monkeys typing randomly come up the works of Shakespeare?…or even just 1 play?….  or just 1 sonnet?

The “infinite monkey theorem” has a long pedigree in the history of ideas – starting with Aristotle, and showing up in Jonathan Swift, Bacon, Huxley, Jorge Luis Borges, and Dawkins. There was even a real live demo of monkeys banging on (or smashing rather) typewriters in the UK. (They weren’t able to produce a single English word –  even “a”).

This week I used the poor old typing monkeys to illustrate the pros and cons of intuition. Does our hunch of what is possible change when we examine mathematically how small the chance actually is?

In AP Psych,  Thinking and Cognition unit, I gave a Cole’s notes summary of Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking: Fast and Slow. Kahneman is a cognitive psychologist famous for showing how economic decision theory has not taken account the often irrational nature of our intuitions, which are influenced by recent thoughts, events, and environments. For example, participants in a study who were asked to describe their overall life happiness were told to go make a photocopy in another room. Once they returned the psychologists gave them a life happiness questionnaire. In the experiment group, psychologists placed a dime on the photocopying machine. To their amazement, the experiment group reported a higher happiness in life than their counterparts! Their judgment of the whole was influenced by a recent (and minuscule) chance event that changed slightly their thought process.

We’re also less reasonable than we think, often falling back on gullible intuition to conserve energy. For example, consider the following:

A bat and a ball cost 1.10, and the bat was 1 dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

If you answered 10 cents, you’ve fallen prey to your misguided intuition, which associates the 1 dollar difference with the easy calculation between $1.00 and 10 cents. If you think about it before jumping to conclusions, you’ll realize that if the ball cost 10 cents and the bat was 1 dollar more, then the bat would have to cost 1.10, and the total would be 1.20. But you’re in luck, because when presented to students at Ivy League schools such as Harvard, more than have of the participants made the same mistake. In my AP Psych class of 23, only 1 student caught the problem right away.

OK, back to typing monkeys. I thought of using this example after reading about atheist philosopher Anthony Flew’s famous “conversion” to theism. This conversion, also experienced by the likes of Einstein, Schrodinger, Dirac, and Heisenberg (to varying degrees), hinges on the fundamentally rational nature of the universe: 1. science assumes the rationality of the universe, 2. the universe seems to reflect some kind of order, accessible to reason (or given by reason if you’re an idealist), 3. the inherent order of the universe seems to contradict the doctrine that all events are entirely by chance, 4. Our experience of order is more real than our experience of random chance, 5. It is more rational to assume their is an ordering logic to the universe (whatever that may be) than that everything is entirely by chance.

Anthony Flew, an atheist heretic, was said to be just an old man in his 80s with the jimmies for some kind of piety. That may be the case. Nevertheless, the example he cites from the scientist Gerald Schroeder is a great illustration:

What are the chances that monkeys will type a single Shakespeare sonnet?  Well, the smallest word in the English alphabet is “a”, but you need a space in front and back, so assuming that there are roughly 30 characters on a typewriter, that’s a probability of 30 x 30 x 30 , or 27,000.  Now, how about a sonnet? “Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s Day” is 488 characters long. There are 26 letters in the alphabet, so the probability of generating each character in sequence is 26(power 488). In base 10, that’s 10 (power 690).

Just to give you an idea how big that number is, there are only 10 (power 80) estimated particles in the known universe. There are not enough particles in the universe to write down the trials – you’d be off by 10 (power of 600).

If each particle were somehow converted into a microcomputer and did 488 trials a million times per second, the number of trials you get from the beginning of time is 10 (power 90). You’d be off again by a factor of 10 (600 power).  “Yet the world just thinks that the monkeys can do it every time.”

Again, this is simply 1 of Shakespeare’s sonnets, never the complexity of DNA or ecosystems, and it would be impossible for the entire universe converted to computers to generate it within the history of the universe.

So… how did my students react? Well, some were impressed. But most kept to their hunch – “if it is at all possible, and the universe is infinite, then sure, it’s possible for monkeys to come up with a Shakespeare sonnet.”

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