Category Archives: Philosophy

You Wish I’d Never Been Born?

kid-picWith the latest anti-abortion dust-up, I’ve noticed a resurgence of stories from people who tell us that if the pro-abortion folks had had their way, they wouldn’t here.

“I dare you to look in her eyes,” I read, “and tell her you wish she weren’t alive today.” It’s a powerful rhetorical ploy. But a little thought reveals that as an argument, it’s misleading at best. Continue reading


Zombie Flow Chart

No time to write up an explanation of the argument, but I wanted to post this flow chart I threw together (below the fold). Fuller text version of the argument coming soon. Continue reading

Of Philosophy and Science

Plato-AristotleThere’s been a bit of a buzz in the blogosphere lately about the merits of philosophy, and whether it has anything to offer science or scientists. I’m guessing that some of it might be motivated by a resurfacing of the dust-up between Larry Krauss and David Albert prompted by Albert’s critical review in NYT.

Bee over at Backreaction complains about philosophers who don’t really understand the science they’re commenting on, and that as science continues to make progress in figuring out how the mind works, philosophers should just “get off the turf.”

PZ has a couple posts in which he bravely suggests that philosophical thought (such as displayed by Doolittle, a biologist and one-time colleague of mine) might help scientists avoid some common errors (and he interestingly distinguishes between technicians and scientists and argues that good scientific ability — by contrast to mere technical ability — is, in part at least, a form of natural philosophy).

Not surprisingly, however, several commentators appeal to Feynman (“Philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds”) and Dawkins, and to their general disdain for philosophy, to lament that PZ is giving in to mushy-headed woo, and that he’s dissing the bright steel blade of empiricism and data.

Anyhow, since I suppose I’ve got a dog in this fight, I thought I might as well throw out some thoughts:

1. The question is not whether we’re going to do philosophy; the question is whether we’re going to do good philosophy or bad philosophy. Continue reading

A Gedankenexperiment on Speciation

You’re a biologist who realizes that the idea of immutable species – kinds of creatures arranged hierarchically and permanently – is long dead. You see that one type of animal can morph into another type, and (save for some limits on how quickly genes can change) there’s nothing to prevent any new trait from developing in a population of creatures. In other words, all the common people who think that there are real species of animals created by god are wrong.

What do you do? (Choose one.)

a) Realizing that the mutability of animals has profound implications for medicine and husbandry (after all, our doctors and veterinarians must take note, as they already do to some extent, of the fact that there is no real biological barrier between animals, and how can we give different treatments for different animals if there’s no biological difference between them?), you ponder and then write about what should be done in light of the evidence of evolution, suggesting reforms to medicinal practices and new ways to think about breeding various animals.

b) You spend your time concocting new definitions of “species” to replace the immutable kind species that no longer holds.

In my view, choice a) is eminently worthwhile, while choice b) is a complete waste of time. I am mystified that most biologists choose b).


This post is pure snark. For context, see here and here.

Misunderstanding Compatibilists

Over at Why Evolution is True, Jerry is “mystified” by what motivates compatibilist philosophers. (And plenty of compatibilists — me included — respond with varieties of indignation and snark in the comments.)

It seems to me that Jerry is suffering from a couple of misunderstandings about compatibilism (misunderstandings that we’ve run into in the comments section here too, e.g., in my conversation with Ron Murphy).

Here are the false beliefs:

1) Compatibilism is driven by a prior commitment to the existence of libertarian (contra-causal, supernatural, dualist) freedom, which is then frustrated by the advance of science. Rather than just admit that we aren’t free, compatibilists respond to these scientific discoveries by “concocting new definitions of free will to replace the ghost-in-the-machine contracausal free will that no longer holds” (as Jerry puts it here).

2) Compatibilists wish they had libertarian freedom. They’re smart enough to realize that we don’t have have it, but they really want it so badly that they feel driven to cook up a weak-broth substitute so they can ignore the fact that we aren’t really free. They’re (perhaps unconsciously) pining for a world in which ghosts can violate the laws of biology and physics.

These are both wrong, wrong, wrong.

Compatibilists don’t want libertarian (contracausal, supernatural) freedom. We wouldn’t take it if you offered it to us.

To begin with, we tend to think that the very notion of libertarian freedom is probably incoherent, so you’re probably offering nothing but confusion.

Further, even if the notion is coherent, we tend to think that libertarian freedom would be useless. Why would I even want to be able to violate the laws of physics. (Unless it let me fly like superman, I mean . . . but that’s another matter.)

Compatibilist freedom is all the freedom we can make sense of, and is all the freedom we want. And we all have compatibilist freedom. And it matters not a whit that the universe is (effectively) deterministic.

And compatibilists have held this position for thousands of years. So it’s not like we’re dismayed at the revelations of modern neuroscience and physics. The results are interesting for understanding how our minds (and the rest of the world) work but as far as freedom goes, it’s largely irrelevant. Of course there are natural processes that produce our decisions and actions; that’s what we’ve been saying all along.

So it’s rather irksome to have a biologist suggest that we’re trying to save some pale ghost of supernatural dualistic freedom from the onslaught of modern science. It lumps us in with the view that we’ve criticized and rejected for centuries. And it suggests that we’re craving something that we’ve explicitly argued no one should want.

It’s even more irksome when the charge is leveled against someone like Dennett (or, to a much lesser degree, your humble blogger) who has been on the front lines attacking dualism. To appeal to my earlier analogy, we’re the ones spending all our time attacking the Santa myth, and Jerry’s accusing us of concocting new definitions of presents to replace the north-pole-elven-made toys that science has deprived us of.

Dennett is among the hardest of the hard-core physicalists. And Jerry wants to accuse him (and his ilk) of being a mamsy-pamsy closet wanna-be supernaturalist?

This is why Jerry’s post elicited charges of being a cheap shot, sighs of motherly exasperation, and so on. It’s a misrepresentation, whether willful or due to carelessness.

(For my defenses of compatibilism, see here, and here.)

How long will this experiment take?

Ed Yong (whose “missing links” are always the best collection of science links anywhere), points to an NPR interview with Lenski, which also discusses a seed experiment that’s been going on for over a century.

Brought to mind a collection of really long experiments that I stumbled on a while back. (Note too the discussion of Henrietta Lacks.)

My personal favorite is the experiment showing pitch is actually a liquid: by letting it drop out of a funnel — once a decade or so:

Begun in 1927, just getting ready to perform the experiment took years. The Professor heated a sample of pitch in a sealed funnel and for three years Parnell let the pitch cool and settle. In 1930 he cut the bottom off of the funnel, freeing the pitch to begin its mind-bogglingly slow escape.

Professor Parnell lived long enough to record only two drips fall, at an average rate of approximately once every 8.5 years. Parnell died in 1948 but the pitch experiment has kept on going without him. As of 2009, the pitch has dripped only eight times.79 years after the experiment was begun, the ninth drop is beginning to form.

I find this fun because of an example that a well-known metaphysician, Peter van Inwagen, offers of a metaphysically impossible object. He’s fond of claiming it’s a priori obvious that there cannot be a liquid wine bottle.

And I’m fond of pointing out that if a liquid were viscous enough (like pitch), there’d be no problem making a wine bottle out of it.

If I ever find an artist who works with pitch or tar, I’ll commission a liquid wine bottle to present to van Inwagen at his retirement.

[Someday I’ll update this post with a photo of one of my favorite kinetic sculptures. It’s at the MIT robot museum in Boston, and it is a series of gears. The first gear is driven by a motor moving fairly quickly, and then it’s scaled down by the next gear, etc., etc. The final gear is set in a block of concrete, and will rotate once every 13.5 billion years.

(a) Talk about a long experiment.

(b) I find it a beautiful example of how our intellect can grasp reality. We know that each gear is moving — slower than the previous amount by a very specific amount — but that movement completely escapes our senses.]

Epistemology of Journalism

There’s been a bit of a debate lately about Nate Silver, the number cruncher at Five Thirty Eight election polls blog.

Silver is a stats guy who plugs the public poll numbers into a computer model that he has developed to give the probability of various scenarios — such as Barack Obama winning the presidential election next Tuesday.

Right now Silver’s model gives an 82.7% likelihood of an Obama victory.

The dust-up is over the fact that many pundits (especially, but not exclusively, right-leaning pundits) think that the race is far closer than this, and indeed, may even be in Romney’s favor at the moment.

These claims are based on the fact that the national polls have Romney and Obama effectively tied, and several have Romney in the lead. Further, many argue that Romney has “momentum” since not too long ago he trailed in the national polls, and now the race is neck-and-neck.

So, do we trust the geeky numbers guy, or do we trust the savvy well-connected pundits?

Mark Coddington has a very nice discussion of the philosophical differences underlying the debate:

Silver’s process — his epistemology — is almost exactly the opposite of this:
Where political journalists’ information is privileged, his is public, coming from poll results that all the rest of us see, too.
Where political journalists’ information is evaluated through a subjective and nebulous professional/cultural sense of judgment, his evaluation is systematic and scientifically based.

There’s lots more there, and in the pieces he links to, including discussion of “savviness” as a jounalistic ideal. Jay Rosen has made the case that journalists pride themselves as being “objective,” above the partisan fray, and as privy to the facts of how things really work (in contrast to the partisan public’s misconceptions of how things work).

We see this too, I’d suggest, in the response of the NYT public editor to Silver’s offer to make a wager (for charity) on the outcome of the election. If Silver’s jounalistic critics are correct that Silver’s odds are off, they shouldn’t mind betting on it, and Silver is willing to put his money behind his numbers.

The NYT editor views this as unseemly, however:

the wager offer is a bad idea – giving ammunition to the critics who want to paint Mr. Silver as a partisan who is trying to sway the outcome.
It’s also inappropriate for a Times journalist.

Notice the sins that Silver is supposedly guilty of here. By being willing to put money on the probabilities he’s calculated he’s opening himself up to partisanship. And (according to the NYT journalism ethos) this is inappropriate for a journalist.

Because journalism isn’t about getting the facts right (according to journalists). It is about being “objective” and being “above the fray” — even, unfortunately, when the fray is about the facts themselves. (Which is an example of the fallacy of false balance.)

Another point mentioned by Coddington is that many people are conflating probabilities with predictions. This brings to mind a little exchange I had with Roger Pielke Jr. last year.

People who downplay the science of climate change also seem to have trouble distinguishing between estimates of probability and predictions.