Thursday, February 28, 2013

O Hear This!

This is an old post that I just realized I never actually posted. In a post from a few years ago, Humphrey quoted Simon Conway Morris, the evolutionary palaeobiologist (btw, "Conway Morris" is his last name, not "Morris"), where he references Anthony O'Hear, a philosopher who specializes in the philosophy of Karl Popper, among other things. The quote is basically that reducing thought to "memes" would essentially "deny the reality of reflective thought." I asked in the comments where Conway Morris writes this, and what the reference to O'Hear is. Humphrey pointed me to Life's Solution, Conway Morris's book, so I looked up O'Hear in the index. It's on p. 324. The reference to O'Hear is his book Beyond Evolution: Human Nature and the Limits of Evolutionary Explanation, pp. 156-158.

I find this interesting because Karl Popper wrote a lot on evolutionary epistemology of theories (EET) or evolutionary philosophy of science. This is the idea that the growth of knowledge can be seen in evolutionary terms, with better ideas "surviving." So Popper applied evolution about as far as it could go. Yet, even with this, Popper had an argument very similar to Alvin Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism, J. R. Lucas's Gödelian argument against physical determinism, and C. S. Lewis's argument from reason. Popper uses it to argue against determinism. He argued that one who affirms determinism can only do so by implicitly presupposing that determinism is false. In one of his books on Popper as well as the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, O'Hear critiqued Popper's version of this argument, and was in turn critiqued by Peter Glassen. So I find it interesting that, despite his skepticism towards this argument, O'Hear presents a somewhat similar argument that memes obviates reflective thought. I also find it interesting that he finds "limits" to evolution, and does so in a context of evolutionary philosophy of science which applies evolution to just about everything.

By the way, I quote a passage from Beyond Evolution here, and I quote Glassen's critique of O'Hear here.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Beer towns

The Pour Fool has posted his assessment of the top ten beer towns in the United States. My home state of Oregon has two entries: Portland and Bend. (In another post, he seems to have a high opinion of the Pelican brewery in glorious Pacific City on the Oregon coast.) The comments to the first post are also interesting, since many people disagree with his rankings: the most common claim is that Philadelphia should have made the list, but he explains in his responses why it didn't.

And despite all this wonder in my home state, I don't drink alcohol. I figure everyone has an allotment of alcohol that they're allowed in life, and I blew through mine in about seven years.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Critiques of critiques

Regarding Thomas Nagel's recent book Mind and Cosmos, you can read favorable reviews by Alvin Plantinga and Bill Vallicella (Maverick Philosopher). You can also read a negative review by Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg. But then the Leiter/Weisberg review received several negative reviews itself.  See the Neuro Times, Ed Feser, and Keith Burgess-Jackson. There is also a short comment by Vallicella.

Meanwhile, Vallicella also critiques the book Soul Dust: The Magic of Conscious by Nicholas Humphrey. Humphrey suggests that consciousness is an illusion, which Vallicella rightly points out is incoherent: who is having the illusion? It reminds me of a passage in A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis as he reflects on the death of his wife:
If H. ‘is not,’ then she never was. I mistook a cloud of atoms for a person. There aren’t, and never were, any people. Death only reveals the vacuity that was always there. What we call the living are simply those who have not yet been unmasked. All equally bankrupt, but some not yet declared. 
But this must be nonsense; vacuity revealed to whom? Bankruptcy declared to whom? To other boxes of fireworks or clouds of atoms. I will never believe -- more strictly I can’t believe -- that one set of physical events could be, or make, a mistake about other sets.
Vallicella also points to Peter Strawson's critique of same, but then critiques Strawson's critique.

Update (1 March): KBJ points to another critique of Mind and Cosmos, a negative review that is, unlike the Leiter/Weisberg review, "well-written, thoughtful, respectful".

Friday, February 22, 2013

J. R. Lucas

Philosophy is all interconnected. This allows someone who is an expert in political philosophy to comment on, say, epistemology or logic without committing the fallacy of irrelevant authority. This doesn't mean, though, that just because someone is an expert in one philosophical field, their opinion in other philosophical fields is just as valuable. Give philosophy's nature I think it's justified to give a philosopher the benefit of doubt when he comments on a philosophical topic outside of his usual focus, but ultimately you have to take it on a case-by-case basis. Bertrand Russell, for example, was an expert in the philosophy of mathematics, and used his credibility there to write books on other subjects such as the philosophy of religion and political philosophy. Unfortunately, it's obvious that he didn't know the first thing about the latter subjects. Anyone who has taken a Bachelor's level course in the philosophy of religion should be able to refute him.

J. R. Lucas on the other hand is one of those philosophers who brings expertise to every subject he approaches. This is partially because he takes philosophy to be a way of life rather than a method to win arguments. So he has written on logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of science, the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of religion, political philosophy, the history of philosophy, ethics, metaphysics, etc. You can see a bibliography of his publications here. A list of his books shows his diversity:
The Principles of Politics
The Concept of Probability
The Freedom of the Will
A Treatise on Time and Space
Democracy and Participation
Freedom and Grace
On Justice
Space, Time and Causality
The Future
The Conceptual Roots of Mathematics
Economics as a Moral Science
Reason and Reality
Those are the books he's written by himself. He has also written books with other authors:
The Nature of Mind
The Development of Mind
Spacetime and Electromagnetism
Ethical Economics
An Engagement with Plato's Republic
As far as I'm concerned, Lucas is one of the most important and under-appreciated philosophers of our day. He has written on philosophical subjects so diverse, and yet with a mastery that I could never achieve if I focused my life on just one of them. For one thing, the man thoroughly understands Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems. These theorems are so notoriously complex that I suspect there's only a few hundred people alive who understand them. Yet not only does Lucas understand them, he is able to show that they render strong artificial intelligence and all forms of physical determinism impossible. If I spent my entire life on Gödel's theorems I still wouldn't be able to interact with them as thoroughly as Lucas.

Fortunately Lucas has posted excerpts from several of his books online, as well as most of his published articles. You can read his Reason and Reality in its entirety, as well as Ethical Economics. He is putting another book on the subject, Economics as a Moral Science, online as he writes it. so far he has chapters 1 ; 2 ; 3 ; 4 ; 5 ; 6 ; 7; conclusion ; and two appendices here and here. He has also posted several chapters from his The Conceptual Roots of Mathematics online: chapters 2 ; 4 ; 7 ; 8 ("The Implications of Gödel's Theorem") ; 9a (which replaces his previous chapter 13) ; 9b ; 10a ; and 14. An Engagement with Plato's Republic, co-written with the late great Basil Mitchell, has the introduction and chapters 1 ; 3 ; and 10 posted online.

I'm linking to all of these to invite you to join me in being a student of Lucas. Philosophy students are going to be writing dissertations on him 500 years from now.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Quote of the Day

Does endowing scientific knowledge with handmaiden status constitute a serious blow against scientific progress? Are the critics of the early church right in viewing it as the opponent of genuine science? I would like to make three points in reply. (1) It is certainly true that the fathers of the early Christian church did not view support of the classical sciences as a major obligation. These sciences had low priority for the church fathers, for whom the major concerns were (quite properly) the establishment of Christian doctrine, defense of the faith, and the edification of believers. But (2), low or medium priority was far from zero priority. Throughout the Middle Ages and well into the modern period the handmaiden formula was employed countless times to justify the investigation of nature. Indeed, some of the most celebrated achievements of the Western scientific tradition were made by religious scholars who justified their labors (at least in part) by appeal to the handmaiden formula. (3) No institution or cultural force of the patristic period offered more encouragement for the investigation of nature than did the Christian church. Contemporary pagan culture was no more favorable to disinterested speculation about the cosmos than was Christian culture. It follows that the presence of the Christian church enhanced, rather than damaged, the development of natural sciences.

David C. Lindberg
"Myth 1: That the Rise of Christianity Was Responsible for the Demise of Ancient Science"
Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (ed. Ronald L. Numbers)

Sunday, February 17, 2013


for the lack of posts. I've been travelling around, and had a lot on my plate. I still do, actually, but I'll try to post more. I haven't run out of things to say.