A Few Good Links

I’ve been in a bit of a blogging slump, so in lieu of a post of my own here’s a few good links I’ve found today:

A few 3:AM interviews:

Tim Maudlin –

‘Philosophy of mathematics is a large and fascinating area about which I have had nothing at all to say. I am a mathematical Platonist in the simple sense that I believe clear, unambiguous mathematical propositions (e.g. Goldbach’s conjecture or the Axiom of Choice) to be either true or false independently of whether or not they can be proven. Indeed, it seems obvious to me for many different reasons (including, of course, Gödel’s theorems) that infinitely many mathematical truths are not theorems of any intuitively acceptable proof system. So I believe in a “world” of mathematical fact in virtue of which clear mathematical propositions are either true or false. But I do not take these mathematical facts to be materialist or naturalistic in any interesting sense. I would not, myself, regard this as a “counterexample” to naturalism or materialism, because I never thought of those doctrines as making any claims about mathematics. But perhaps I am idiosyncratic in that regard.’

Tim Crane –

‘What I am against is the idea that in the search for the correlates of consciousness, we already have a clear idea of what we are looking for, and we have to find the neural correlate of that. I don’t think we are in this situation: we are fundamentally confused about what consciousness is. For instance, we have no proper understanding of the relationship between conscious thought and conscious sensation. The various forms of thought and sensation are underpinned by very different neural mechanisms; so how can the neural correlate of their conscious natures be the same? I don’t think we are yet in a position to make such speculations. To make progress, we have to have a good conception of the phenomenology of consciousness, among other things. I think we are very prone to errors about this, for all sorts of reasons…’

Timothy Williamson 

‘Anyway, I am indeed saying that it is necessary what there is. Necessarily everything is necessarily something. There could not have been more or fewer things than there actually are, and which particular things there are could not have been different. What is contingent is only what properties those things have, and what relations they have to each other. I call that view necessitism. Its denial is contingentism.’

‘Wittgenstein could indeed have had a daughter. But no past, present, or future person could have been a daughter of Wittgenstein, at least not in the biological sense (obviously he could have adopted many actual women). Nor could any actual sum of atoms have been identical with a daughter of Wittgenstein, it could only have constituted such a daughter, and constitution isn’t identity. Rather, for a necessitist, something that could have been a daughter of Wittgenstein is a merely possible person, and a merely possible concrete object. It is neither concrete, a person, nor a daughter of Wittgenstein, but it could have been all three. Similarly, there could have been no tigers, if evolution had taken a different turn. In those counterfactual circumstances, all the actual tigers would have been merely possible tigers—non-concrete non-tigers that could have been concrete tigers. So it is contingent what kinds of thing are instantiated.’

aeon’s David Dobbs on why the selfish gene needs to die

‘It’s a gorgeous story. Along with its beauty and other advantageous traits, it is amenable to maths and, at its core, wonderfully simple. It has inspired countless biologists and geneticists to plumb the gene’s wonders and do brilliant work. Unfortunately, say Wray, West-Eberhard and many others, the selfish-gene story is so focused on the gene’s singular role in natural selection that in an age when it’s ever more clear that evolution works in ways far more clever and complex than we realise, the selfish-gene model increasingly impoverishes both scientific and popular views of genetics and evolution. As both conceptual framework and metaphor, the selfish-gene has helped us see the gene as it revealed itself over the 20th century. But as a new age and new tools reveal a more complicated genome, the selfish-gene is blinding us.’

A really cool chart on the philosophy of science –


(I’d probably put myself between scientific and structural realism, leaning a bit closer to structural realism, while recognizing that no one position here can do science justice. Some theories are purely instrumental – some are much more realist.)

A great Russell quote:

“I still think that truth depends upon a relation to fact, and that facts in general are nonhuman; I still think that man is cosmically unimportant, and that a Being, if there were one, who could view the universe impartially, without the bias of here and now, would hardly mention man, except perhaps in a footnote near the end of the volume; but I no longer have the wish to thrust out human elements from regions where they belong; I have no longer the feeling that intellect is superior to sense. I used to think of sense, and of thought which is built on sense, as a prison from which we can be freed by thought which is emancipated from sense. I now have no such feelings. I think of sense, and of thoughts built on sense, as windows, not as prison bars.” (‘My Philosophical Development’ (1959), p. 213)

And, on the topic of Russell, An Aristotelian-Thomistic response to Russell’s problem of induction –

‘And so to respond to Russell’s claim: what is existential or particular or singularcan refer either to the thing understood, or the way of understanding. If the latter, it’s false to say that experience is particular; if the former, then the particular is no more opposed to the universal than it is to the particular.’


Aesthetics, Science and Foreknowledge

If you’ve ever done any reading in science and the history of science, then you know there is a definite aesthetic side to the process of scientific theorizing and discovery. From Ptolemy to Copernicus to Einstein, most if not all of the great, creative scientific discoveries had behind them an urge for elegance, simplicity, and beauty – and I want to think on that for a moment – the urge for beauty, or the aesthetic urge, let’s call it.

This urge can be thought of as a kind of a guide towards discovery, though by virtue of it being based on contingent reality, not a necessarily true guide – the universe may very well turn out to be not very elegant after all. The universe isn’t necessarily elegant or simple, and as such, an aesthetic urge isn’t necessarily a true guide. In fact, thinking of it as a guide may not be the most helpful image – perhaps thinking of it as an instinct is better.

Crucial, in my opinion, to such an instinct is the idea that there is a tacit contact with reality had by the mind – a knowledge where what is known is more than can be put into words:

‘What Polany proposes here is not any kind of preconceptuality, but something more like foresight, an intimation which a scientist derives from an intuitive grasp of reality which he is unable to specify, and which constitutes the clue  from which he takes his start, and by developing which he guides his probing inquiry into the structure of reality. It is essentially an intuitive insight, the insight of a mind informed by intuitive contact with reality, an inductive insight with a semantic or ontological reference which is objectively correlated to an aspect of nature seeking realization, as it were, in the mind of the inquirer.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Transformation and Convergance in the Frame of Knowledge’, p. 113-114)

This foreknowledge or foresight has been a major factor in the great creative scientific discoveries – you see it in Einstein (and really in all the early quantum mechanics), Clerk-Maxwell, Newton, Kepler, Copernicus. Of those, Einstein’s quest for a unified theory is the most well known – a quest on which he was driven by an almost supernatural urge that there simply had to be a more elegant solution to unify and simplify gravity and electromagnetism. You also see it in modern physics – string theory, cosmology, and the current quest to unify relativity and quantum mechanics. Where various theories (aspects of the Standard Model, for example) have some less refined features, physicists seek to simplify or unify such theories or uncover different aspects of reality that ‘smooth out’, as it were, the rough patches (string theory has impressive potential to be such a unifying theory, but its lack of predictive power and experimental evidence may keep that from ever being fully realized). The role that such an instinct and such intuitions play in science can hardly be overstated:

‘Behind all that people call ‘hunches’, ‘guesses’, ‘intuitions’, ‘surmises’, ‘conjectures’, it is an implicit integrative activity of the mind that is at work in the epistemic process of scientific discovery, on which we rely in discerning their ontological references or in judging their bearing on reality, and therefore in distinguishing right hunces, guesses, etc. from those that are merely random. That is no less an intellectual activity even if in the nature of the case it cannot be logicalised and no rules can account for its operations.’ (p. 117)


T.F.Torrance, Michael Polanyi and Ultimate Beliefs

In his book ‘Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge’, T.F. Torrance devotes an essay to examining what he calls ‘ultimate beliefs’ and their effect on the natural sciences. Here’s a few relevant sections with some of my comments:

‘…the controlling statements with which we operate in science are both unfalsifiable and unverifiable. They are statements which express what we have called ultimate beliefs, beliefs without which there would be no science at all, beliefs which play a normative role in the gaining and developing of knowledge. Yet these ultimate beliefs are by their very nature irrefutable and unprovable. They are irrefutable and unprovable on two grounds: (1) because they have to be assumed in any attempt at rational proof or disproof; and (2) because they involve a relation of thought to being which cannot be put into logical or demonstrable form. Ultimate beliefs, then, are to be understood as expressing the fundamental commitment of the mind to reality, which rational knowledge presupposes and on which the reason relies in any authentic thrust towards truth.’ (p. 194) 

The fundamental commitment is important here – Torrance took from Polanyi the idea that trust, commitment and obligation are key aspects of our knowledge in the natural sciences, and I’ll come back to it here. The basic point to be taken here is that ultimate beliefs operate at a level which formal logic and proofs don’t apply because of their tacit nature. Continuing on:

‘Far from being irrational or non-rational, these beliefs have to do with the ontological reference of the reason to the nature and structure of things, which all explicit forms of reasoning are intended to serve, and without which they are blind and impotent. It is indeed not finally through formal reasoning that knowledge is advanced, but through the responsible commitment to reality in which are minds fall under the normative insights or ultimate beliefs which prompt and guide our inquiries, which enable us to interpret our experiences and observations, and which direct the reasoning operations of our inquiries to their true ends.’ (p. 194)

This goes back to the fundamental commitment – the commitment is essential for knowledge to be  and for reasoning itself to function. This commitment, where the mind falls under the ultimate beliefs, is what Polanyi called the ‘fiduciary framework’, which also includes a rational obligation for us to think in accordance with the revealed structures of reality – thinkng after the nature of things, to use Torrance’s maxim. This, for Torrance as well as the classical Christian tradition, is more or less the definition of faith. Continuing:

‘Since this is the case, it is irrational to contrast faith and reason, for faith is the very mode of rationality adopted by the reason in its fidelity to what it seeks to understand, and as such faith constitutes the most basic form of knowledge upon which all subsequent rational inquiry proceeds. There could be no rational inquiry, no reflective thought without prior, informal knowledge grounded in experience and formed through the adaption of our minds faithfully to the nature of things, in the course of which our basic beliefs arise.’ (194)

We could map out Torrance’s idea out roughly like this thus far:

Reality —–> experience of reality —–> ultimate beliefs

The act of fundamental commitment arises when our mind falls under the normative ultimate beliefs – there is an obligation to think after the nature of things which one has to personally commit to so as to not fall into irrationality:

‘The ultimate beliefs…are objectively grounded in, and ontologically derived from, the intelligibility of the real world so independent of our understanding that it reaches out in an objective depth far beyond what we can bring within the range of any masterful comprehending on our part. Beliefs of this kind, calling us to personal commitment, differ from the natural beliefs of David Hume, which he spoke of as causally induced determinations of the mind, and not as free acts resting on grounds or reason. According to Polanyi,’Every belief is both a free gift and a payment of a tribute exacted from us. It is held on the personal responsibility of the believer, yet in the clear assumption that he cannot do otherwise.’ In other words, belif is at once a free and obligatory act, an act which we cannot rationally resist: it is thrust upon us from the given.’ (p. 197)

Here our map can be extended:

Reality —–> experience of reality —–> ultimate beliefs —–> rational obligation —–> personal commitment 

What both Torrance and Polanyi both stress, as can be seen here, is the element of trust, commitment and obligation in the gaining of scientific knowledge. Ultimate beliefs forms the fiduciary framework within which we can commit to reality and so inquire more deeply into reality.


Stanley Jaki on the Starting Point of Science

‘Since science is divested of its nature when it ceases to be about nature, it is but logical to start with the facts of nature in staking out the epistemological phases of the road to discovery. The most immediate feature of those facts is their complexity, a complexity, however, that is far from chaotic. Regularities in those facts are obvious even to a cursory look, but so are departures from them. It is these departures or anomalies that spark curiosity in the mind, a feature which is mysterious only to those who are busy with the task of clearing up the process of understanding without admitting their curiosity about the task itself. Curiosity is not an automatic reaction, and much less automatic is the urge to look for ever more meaningful curiosa presented by nature. Such a look involves a patient sorting-out process, which in turn implies the isolation of special factors operative in nature, giving rise to more specialized or abstractive notions of it. The interrelation of those factors into sets and the integration of the sets themselves are further steps along the road to discovery of so-called laws, which are obtained when a complete generalization is achieved in the act of induction.’ (Stanley Jaki, ‘The Road of Science and the Ways to God’, p. 252-253)

Metaphysics, Science, Metaphysics

Stanley Jaki, one of my favourite authors, says in almost every one of his books that one can go from philosophy to science, but not from science to philosophy. It’s a one-way street. To build a philosophy from science (assuming the common definitions of both) is a conceptual confusion – or is it? How often is it said that a given scientific area of research is answering questions previously reserved for philosophy only?

Think, for example, of determinism. Determinism is a metaphysical theory – that any given state of affairs is causally necessitated by preceding states of affairs. Now, if the road truly is one way, then a metaphysical theory cannot be falsified by empirical data. Two things come to mind, however, that would ‘disprove’ determinism: quantum mechanics and Ilya Prigogine’s work in the field of non-equilibrium thermodynamics (http://www.osti.gov/accomplishments/prigogine.html). Both of these scientific enterprises seem to show that determinism is a bankrupt idea.

How is this possible, though? How can empirical scientific discoveries falsify a metaphysical theory? I suspect that the answer can be found by looking closely at what I’ve argued is the intimate tie between science and metaphysics. If a scientific discovery appears to falsify a metaphysical theory, then that ought to be a sign that what we hold as a metaphysical theory is simply a scientific theory in disguise – by the same token, if a metaphysical theory is taken to falsify a scientific theory, then what we have isn’t a metaphysical theory but a scientific theory disguised as metaphysics. If the above scientific enterprises falsify determinism, then it merely serves to demonstrate the deep concord between metaphysics, science and language.

The extent to which (say) determinism is falsified by a given scientific discovery shows the extent to which science and metaphysics are bound up together – while the metaphysics of causality aren’t empirical (Hume), the empirical correlations we see in scientific research do give us insight into the realm of causality. T.F. Torrance actually goes into a bit of depth on causality in light of the resurrection of Jesus – see here: http://growrag.wordpress.com/2011/08/26/the-implosion-of-classic-causal-determinism-through-resurrection/

If I could formulate a maxim of my own on this subject, in might be something along these lines: without metaphysics, there is nothing by which we can study the empirical, and without the empirical, there is nothing which we can study.

I wanted to say more, but my dog barked and I lost my train of thought.

Jaki on Science

‘It is a fundamental shortcoming of science that on its exact and formal level it gives the appearance of being severed from that reality which is a vast network of events standing in causal relation. Yet, while science may and should appear in that sense severed from reality, science becomes an illusion if that appearance is declared to be real.’ (Stanley Jaki, ‘The Road of Science and the Ways to God’, p. 275)

Conceptual Confusions and Philosophy of Mind

Of all the conceptually confused areas in philosophy, philosophy of mind is probably the most confused. Think of, for example, mental causation, or the debates on the relation of brain states to mental states, or the causal relation of neurons to thoughts, things along those lines. The confusion, like all conceptual confusions, is a simple one.

Suppose one performs a scan of a brain and observes the patterns of neurons when a certain cognitive action, like thinking of a certain thing, happens – or observe certain areas of the brain lighting up when a certain cognitive action is undertaken. In short, the physiological processes that, more or less, make thought happen. This is a normal observation made every day in laboratories across the globe – the confusion arises when it is assumed that what is observed is mental causation (brain states cause mental states, or something of the sort).

Empirically, what is observed is not mental causation but mental correlation – as I’ve pointed out before, causality is a metaphysical, and not an empirical, category. Any notion of causation takes one, implicitly if not explicitly, into the realm of philosophy. If one supposes that all that is observed is all that there is, one has crossed from science into philosophy – whether or not it is done well is another story entirely.

(As a late edit, I’ll add that mental causation is more varied than what I listed here – for example, epiphenomenalism, which denies the mental any causal power – mental states are caused by brain states, but brain states are not causally influenced by mental states – is a big part of the philosophy of mind debates)

This shows, again, how intimate the connection between science and metaphysics is. Think of an intricate braid made of two different strands of rope. While they are two distinct things, when they are intertwined correctly, they form a strong, intimate bond, as opposed to being tangled together in a lump, which serves only to prevent it from being used properly.

While of a slightly different nature than the causal confusion above, it’s easy to see how other confusions arise – for example, that neuroscience has shown that free will is an illusion. This again is simply a muddle of confused thinking – certainly brain science has a lot to tell us about the mechanical/physiological aspect of human volition (it has, and will continue to, inform us more and more of the mechanical, but not mechanistic, workings of the brain), but it has very little, if anything, to say about human freedom seen as a whole, and not merely seen as volition (which has very little part to play in a full account of freedom).

Such are the perils of conceptual confusions.