$2.6 Million Funding for Epistemology of the Large Hadron Collider

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 21/01/2020 - 4:39am in

An interdisciplinary research group has received funding totalling approximately US$2.6 million to pursue its study of  “the world’s largest research instrument”: the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva.

Inside the Large Hadron Collider

The Epistemology of the Large Hadron Collider “builds on the expectations today’s high energy physicists of a fundamental change in their theories and epistemic practices and links them to the complex conditions of large-scale research,” according to a press release. “It regards the complexity of these conditions as a challenge for the quest towards ever more encompassing and simpler descriptions of nature that has traditionally been associated with particle physics.”

This new round of funding for the project, which was established in 2016, comes from the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the Austrian Science Fund (FWF).

Based in cities around Germany and Austria, the project is composed of several subprojects on various topics, including: the history and use of virtual particles in physics research; the development and status of the related problems of naturalness, hierarchy, and fine-tuning; the relation between standard model research at the LHC and gravitational phenomena, including dark matter and modifications to Newtonian gravity; the way computer simulations and machine learning are used in particle physics research, including the epistemic status of the data resulting from such simulations; the dynamics of model choice and development; sociological aspects of the production of novelty and how credibility is established for experimental results.

The project will use its funding to, among other things, support Ph.D. students and postdoctoral researchers. Information about those positions and the project as a whole can be found here.

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Scholars Object to Publication of Paper Defending Race Science

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 21/01/2020 - 1:27am in

Scholars are objecting to the decision of the editors of the journal, Philosophical Psychology, to publish an article that calls for “free inquiry” into possible inherited genetic bases of group differences on IQ tests.

Detail of Redlining Map of San Francisco (1937)

The article, “Research on group differences in intelligence: A defense of free inquiry,” is by Nathan Cofnas, a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Oxford. Here’s its abstract:

In a very short time, it is likely that we will identify many of the genetic variants underlying individual differences in intelligence. We should be prepared for the possibility that these variants are not distributed identically among all geographic populations, and that this explains some of the phenotypic differences in measured intelligence among groups. However, some philosophers and scientists believe that we should refrain from conducting research that might demonstrate the (partly) genetic origin of group differences in IQ. Many scholars view academic interest in this topic as inherently morally suspect or even racist. The majority of philosophers and social scientists take it for granted that all population differences in intelligence are due to environmental factors. The present paper argues that the widespread practice of ignoring or rejecting research on intelligence differences can have unintended negative consequences. Social policies predicated on environmentalist theories of group differences may fail to achieve their aims. Large swaths of academic work in both the humanities and social sciences assume the truth of environmentalism and are vulnerable to being undermined. We have failed to work through the moral implications of group differences to prepare for the possibility that they will be shown to exist.

In acknowledgment of the provocative potential of the piece, the editors of Philosophical Psychology also published an editorial note defending its decision. It concludes:

Cofnas’ paper certainly adopts provocative positions on a host of issues related to race, genetics, and IQ. However, none of these positions are to be excluded from the current scientific and philosophical debates as long as they are backed up with logical argumentation and empirical evidence, and they deserve to be disputed rather than disparaged.

Water Bottles, Flint, Michigan

A petition has been launched objecting to the publication of the paper.

Started by Mark Alfano, a philosopher at Macquarie University, the petition disputes that Cofnas’s points were sufficiently “backed up with argumentation and empirical evidence,” and claims the paper was not competently reviewed. The main complaint noted in the the petition is that Cofnas’ paper “neglects the role played by environmental injustice, housing segregation, and related forms of discrimination in producing [IQ score] differences.”

If the editors and referees at Philosophical Psychology had competently reviewed the paper, they would have noticed this glaring error and insisted on revisions (or simply rejected the paper). Instead, it was accepted and published alongside an editors’ note defending the decision to publish that refers to the value of free speech and free inquiry. We also support free speech and free inquiry, but insist that free inquiry should be guided by norms of accuracy and expertise. Indeed, that is the point of academic peer-review. This paper does not respect those norms, and so should not have been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

The petition calls for a boycott of the journal until the journal’s leadership responds. The journal is edited by Cees van Leeuwen (University of Leuven) and Mitchell Herschbach (California State University, Northridge). The petition states:

Potentially responses include apology, retraction, or resignation (or some combination of these three). Should they choose to resign, we demand that a new group of leaders openly and honestly articulate a plan to reform the peer-review practices of the journal. Until the leadership respond in an acceptable way, we call upon philosophers and other researchers to boycott the journal by refusing to submit papers to it or referee for it.

The petition is here.

The post Scholars Object to Publication of Paper Defending Race Science appeared first on Daily Nous.

Collection of Science Fiction Stories Tackling Racism

Allen De Graeff, ed., Human And Other Beings (New York: Collier Books 1963).

Science Fiction, it has been observed, is more often about the times in which it was written than about the future. Quite often it’s been the ‘literature of warning’, in which the author has extrapolated what they feel to be an ominous trend in the present to show its possibilities for the future if left unchecked. Thus H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine presented a nightmarish far future in which capitalist elites and the working class had diverged into two separate species. The Eloi – descendants of the elite – were small, dreamy creatures, with no industry of their own. They were the food animals instead of the Morlocks, descendants of the working class, who had been forced into lives of underground toil by the late Victorian and Edwardian class system. Other SF stories have tackled the problems of overpopulation – John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar, the catastrophic over-reliance on mechanisation for, well, just about everything – E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, or the horrifying potential of genetic engineering and mass psychological conditioning, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and so on. I borrowed this colllection of SF stories from a friend. It’s interesting because it uses the theme of contact with alien and other non-human intelligences to criticise and denounce the very real, present issue of racism. The book’s blurb begins with the quotation ‘”Everything that diminishes human dignity is evil,”‘, and continues

With this timeless truth as his theme, Editor Allen DeGraeff has collected a group of superbly told science fiction tales that support it with horror or humor. Other planets, other centuries, living beings of shapes and colors other than “human” are the imaginative ingredients. Shock, surprise, and sympathy are the emotions they act upon.

  • Would you join the Anti-Martian League? Or, like Sam Rosen, would you fight it?
  • Would the gentle Adaptoman – four arms, two brains, three eyes-arouse your hostility if he worked in your office?
  • Could you live as a Professional in a world of Categoried Classes if there were also people known as Wipers, Greasers, and Figgers?
  • Would you marry an Android, a person physically just like you, but artificially “Made in the U.S.A.”?
  • Would you mock or make a friend of Narli, the charming fur-bearing exchange professor from Mars?
  • Could you serve with a soldier Surrogate, a human being reclaimed from the dead with biological techniques of the future?

In settings ranging from the Second Battle of Saturn to Earth 2003 and shining blue-green globe Shaksembender, these authors portray the ideas of human dignity.

The authors, whose work is collected in the volume include some of SF great masters – Ray Bradbury, William Tenn, Leigh Brackett, Frederick Pohl, both alone and with his frequent collaborator, C.M. Kornbluth, Robert Sheckley and Eric Frank Russell.

The stories were written at a time when the Civil Rights movement was gaining power, although still bitterly opposed by a viciously racist, conservative state apparatus and politicians. A number of other SF writers were also using the genre to denounce racism. Sometimes that was through metaphor, such as in Cordwainer Smith’s ‘The Ballad of Lost C’Mell’. This tale’s titular heroine is a young woman genetically engineered from cats. She is a member of an oppressed servile class of similarly genetically engineered animals. These creatures are denied all rights by their human masters, and humanely killed by euthanasia is they are unable to perform their functions. Through telepathic contact with another such creature, a dove of immense intelligence and wisdom, C’Mell is able to persuade a human board of inquiry to grant her people human rights. Other SF writers tackled racism directly, such as Harry Harrison in his 1963 story, ‘Mute Milton’. This was his angry reaction to a comment by a redneck southern sheriff’s response to the news that Martin Luther King was highly respected in Sweden and Scandinavia, and had been awarded the Nobel prize. The sheriff responded that King might be popular in Norway, but back in his town he would be ‘just one more n***er’. Harrison’s story is about a Black American college professor, who comes to a southern town on his way to another university to present his invention: a radio that runs on gravity. A stranger to the racial repression of the Deep South, he falls into conversation in a bar with a wanted civil rights activist while waiting for his bus out of town. The Black activist tells him what it’s really like to be Black in the South. The sheriff and his goons burst into the bar looking for the activist. He escapes out the back. The sheriff and his men shoot, but miss him and shoot the professor instead. When one of the goons tells the sheriff that they’ve killed an innocent man, he just shrugs it off as ‘another n***er’.

Racism has since gone on to be a major topic of much SF. It’s been explored, for example, in Star Trek, both recently and in the original 60’s series. It also inspired Brian Aldiss 1970s short story, ‘Working in the Spaceship Yards’, published in Punch. This was about a man with a Black friend having to come to terms with his own feelings about androids as they started working alongside them in the spaceship yards of the title, and going out with human women. It’s a satire on the racial politics of the day, when many White Brits were, as now, concerned about Black and Asian immigrants taking their jobs. And specifically anti-Black racism was tackled in an episode of Dr. Who written by award-winning Black children’s writer, Mallory Blackman. In this tale the Doctor and her friends travel back to the American Deep South to make sure Rosa Parks makes her epochal bus journey against the machinations of White racist from the future determined to stop Blacks ever gaining their freedom.

Not everyone is satisfied with the metaphorical treatment of racism pursued by some SF. I can remember arguing with a friend at college about Star Trek, and how the series explored racial tension and prejudice through Mr Spock. Despite being half-human, Spock was still an outsider, distrusted by many of his human crewmates. My friend believed instead that the series should have been more explicit and specifically explored anti-Black racism. More recently there has been the rise of Black SF writers, who use their work to address issues of race and the Black experience. An anthology of their work was published back in the 1990s as Dark Matters, a pun on the dark matter of astronomy, that is supposed to give the universe its missing mass.

Even if not explicit, the metaphorical approach allows writers to say what otherwise may not be said, as in the former Soviet Union. There, writers such as the Strugatsky brothers used the ‘Aesopian’ mode – SF as fable – to attack conditions in the Communist state, which would have been subject to censorship and severe punishment if said openly. Over in the capitalist world, the political situation was much freer, but there were still limits to what could be portrayed. Star Trek featured the first interracial kiss, between Kirk and Lt. Uhuru in the episode ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’, but the network faced deep opposition from broadcasters in the Deep South. An indirect treatment also allows people to think about or accept ideas, which they would have rejected through a more straightforward treatment of the subject. Some readers may have been more receptive to anti-racist ideas if presented in the form of aliens than through an explicit treatment of colour prejudice against Blacks and other races.

This anthology, then, promises to be very interesting reading both through the tales themselves, and what they have to say about the times in which they were written. Times in which Science Fiction was joining the other voices denouncing racism and demanding equality and freedom for all, human and non-human. 




















Nonviolent Protest Groups Placed on Anti-Terrorism List

Last week it was revealed by the Groaniad that the environmentalist group, Extinction Rebellion, had been put on a list of extremist organisations, whose sympathisers should be treated by the Prevent programme. Extinction Rebellion are, in my view, a royal pain, whose disruptive antics are more likely to make them lose popular support but they certainly aren’t violent and do keep within the law. For example, in one of their protests in Bristol last autumn, they stopped the traffic for short periods and then let some cars through before stopping the traffic again. It was a nuisance, which is what the group intended, and no doubt infuriating to those inconvenienced by it. But they kept within the law. They therefore don’t deserve to be put on an anti-terrorism watch list with real violent extremist organisations like Islamist and White fascist terror groups such as the banned neo-Nazi group, National Action.

But Extinction Rebellion aren’t the only nonviolent protest group to be put on this wretched list. Zelo Street put up a piece yesterday revealing that the list also includes Greenpeace, the campaigners against sea pollution, Sea Shepherd, PETA, Stop the Badger Cull, Stop the War, the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, CND, various anti-Fascist and anti-racist groups, as well as an anti-police surveillance group, campaigners against airport expansion, and Communist and Socialist parties.

I can sort of understand why Greenpeace is on the list. They also organise protests and peaceful occupations, and I remember how, during the ‘Save the Whale’ campaign, their ship, the Rainbow Warrior, used to come between whalers and their prey. I also remember how, in the 1980s, the French secret service bombed it when it was in port in New Zealand, because the evil peaceful hippies had dared to protest against their nuclear tests in the Pacific. From this, and their inclusion on this wretched list, it seems they’re more likely to be victims of state violence than the perpetrators of violence themselves.

Greenpeace’s John Sauven said

“Tarring environmental campaigners and terrorist organisations with the same brush is not going to help fight terrorism … It will only harm the reputation of hard-working police officers … How can we possibly teach children about the devastation caused by the climate emergency while at the same implying that those trying to stop it are extremists?”

And Prevent’s independent reviewer, Alex Carlile, said:

“The Prevent strategy is meant to deal with violent extremism, with terrorism, and XR are not violent terrorists. They are disruptive campaigners”.

Zelo Street commented that this was all very 1960s establishment paranoia. Which it is. You wonder if the list also includes anyone, who gave the list’s compilers a funny look once. And whether they’re going to follow the example of Constable Savage in the Not the Nine O’Clock News sketch and arrest gentlemen of colour for wandering around during the hours of darkness wearing a loud shirt. This is a joke, but the list represents are real danger. It criminalises any kind of protest, even when its peaceful. About a decade ago, for example, Stop the War held a protest in Bristol city centre. They were out there with their banners and trestle tables, chanting and speaking. Their material, for what I could see where I was, simply pointed out that the invasion of Iraq had claimed 200,000 lives. They were on the pavement, as I recall, didn’t disrupt the traffic and didn’t start a fight with anyone.

As for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, this is a knee-jerk attempt to link pro-Palestinian activism with terrorism. But wanting the Palestinians to be given their own land or to enjoy equal rights with Israelis in a modern, ethnically and religious diverse and tolerant state, does not equate with sympathy for terrorism or terrorism itself. Tony Greenstein, Asa Winstanley and Jackie Walker are also pro-Palestinian activists. But as far as I know, they’re all peaceful, nonviolent people. Walker’s a granny in her early 60’s, for heaven’s sake. They’re all far more likely to be the victims of violence than ever initiate it. In fact, Tony was physically assaulted in an unprovoked attack by an irate Israeli, while one woman from one of the pro-Israel organisations was caught on camera saying how she thought she could ‘take’ Jackie.

I realise the Stop the Badger Cull people have also physically tried to stop the government killing badgers, but this is again disruption, not violence. And one of those against the cull is Brian May, astrophysicist and rock legend. Apart from producing some of the most awesome music with Freddy Mercury and the rest of Queen, and appearing on pop science programmes with Dara O’Brien showing people round the Jodrell Bank radio telescope, he has not, not ever, been involved in political violence.

This shows you how ludicrous the list is. But it’s also deeply sinister, as by recommending that supporters of these organisations as well as real terrorist groups should be dealt with by Prevent, it defines them as a kind of thoughtcrime. Their members are to be rounded up and reeducated. Which is itself the attitude and method of suppression of totalitarian states.

Zelo Street pointed the finger for this monstrous shambles at Priti Patel. As current Home Secretary, she’s ultimately responsible for it. The Street wanted to know whether she knew about it and when? And if she didn’t, what’s she doing holding the job? But there’s been no answer so far. And a police spokesperson said it was unhelpful and misleading to suggest the nonviolent groups on the list had been smeared.

The Street said it was time for Patel to get her house in order, but warned its readers not to bet on it. No, you shouldn’t. This is an attempt to criminalise non-violent protest against capitalism and the actions of the authorities and British state. It’s the same attitude that informed the British secret state’s attempts to disrupt and destroy similar and sometimes the same protest movements in the 70s and 80s, like CND. And it will get worse. A few years ago Counterpunch published a piece reporting that the American armed services and police were expecting violent outbreaks and domestic terrorism in the 2030s as the poverty caused by neoliberalism increased. They were therefore devising new methods of militarised policing to combat this. We can expect similar repressive measures over this side of the Atlantic as well.

This list is a real threat to freedom of conscience, peaceful protest and action. And the ultimate responsibility for it is the Tories. Who have always been on the side of big business against the rest of society, and particularly the poor and disadvantaged.

They’re criminalising those, who seek peaceful means to fight back.

A Philosopher Takes on Evolutionary Psychology

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 18/01/2020 - 3:22am in

“Evolutionary psychological inferences commonly fail to satisfy reasonable epistemic criteria.” The failures are so significant that good evolutionary psychology may not be possible. 

So argues Subrena Smith, a philosopher at the University of New Hampshire. Her paper, “Is Evolutionary Psychology Possible?“, was recently published in Biological TheoryIn it, she argues that the popular research program of evolutionary psychology is methodologically unsound.

Dr. Smith also wrote a shorter version of the argument that was published at The Evolution Institute. In it, she first presents a description of the aims of evolutionary psychology:

The mandate of evolutionary psychology is to give true evolutionary explanations for contemporary human behavior. Evolutionary psychologists believe that many of our behaviors in the present are caused by psychological mechanisms that operate today as they did in the past. Each mechanism was selected for its specific fitness-enhancing effects, and each of them is responsive only to the kinds of inputs for which it is an adaptation.

To achieve the aims of evolutionary psychology, researchers “need to show that particular kinds of behavior are underwritten by particular mechanisms.” More specifically, evolutionary psychology confronts what Dr. Smith calls “the matching problem”:

For a present-day psychological trait to be related to an ancestral psychological trait in the way that evolutionary psychology requires, the present-day trait must be of the same kind as the ancestral one. It must also have the same function as the ancestral one and must be descended from that ancestral trait as part of a reproductive lineage extending back to prehistory. Also, importantly, the present-day trait and the ancestral trait must be of the same kind and have the same function because the former is descended from the latter. This is key because it might be that a present-day trait and an ancestral trait are of the same kind and have the same function without one being descended from the other. The architecture of the modern mind might resemble that of early humans without this architecture having being selected for and genetically transmitted through the generations. Evolutionary psychological claims, therefore, fail unless practitioners can show that mental structures underpinning present-day behaviors are structures that evolved in prehistory for the performance of adaptive tasks that it is still their function to perform. This is the matching problem.   

For the matching problem to be overcome, three conditions must be met:

First, determine that the function of some contemporary mechanism is the one that an ancestral mechanism was selected for performing. Next, determine that the contemporary mechanism has the same function as the ancestral one because of its being descended from the ancestral mechanism. Finally, determine which ancestral mechanisms are related to which contemporary ones in this way. 

We can’t just assume that the identities required in these conditions are met. “They need to be demonstrated.” More specifically:

Solving the matching problem requires knowing about the psychological architecture of our prehistoric ancestors. But it is difficult to see how this knowledge can possibly be acquired. We do not, and very probably cannot, know much about the prehistoric human mind.

Some evolutionary psychologists dispute this. They argue that although we do not have access to these individuals’ minds, we can “read off” ancestral mechanisms from the adaptive challenges that they faced. For example, because predator-evasion was an adaptive challenge, natural selection must have installed a predator-evasion mechanism.

This inferential strategy works only if all mental structures are adaptations, if adaptationist explanations are difficult to come by, and if adaptations are easily characterized. There is no reason to assume that all mental structures are adaptations, just as there is no reason to assume that all traits are adaptations. We also know that adaptationist hypotheses are easy to come by. And finally, there is the problem of how to characterize traits. Any adaptive problem characterized in a coarse-grained way (for example, “predator evasion”) can equally be characterized as an aggregate of finer-grained problems. And these can, in turn, be characterized as an aggregate for even finer-grained problems. This introduces indeterminacy and arbitrariness into how adaptive challenges are to be characterized, and therefore, what mental structures are hypothesized to be responses to those challenges. This difficulty raises an additional obstacle for resolving the matching problem. If there is no fact of the matter about how psychological mechanisms are to be individuated, then there is no fact of the matter about how they are to be matched.

That is not the end of the problems, though. Dr. Smith says, “Even if these obstacles could be surmounted, the problem remains of identifying these behaviors with particular kinds of behavior that are hypothesized to have existed in prehistory,” and she goes on to explain the difficulties this further task faces.

You can read Dr. Smith’s full paper here and her summary of its argument here.

Over email, I asked Dr. Smith what the reaction to her argument has been amongst the evolutionary psychology crowd and she reported that there hasn’t been much of one, apart from some dismissiveness.

Discussion welcome, especially from those who work in psychology, biology, and philosophy of science.

The post A Philosopher Takes on Evolutionary Psychology appeared first on Daily Nous.

On Eric's Advice to his son (David)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 17/01/2020 - 5:49am in

Today my son David leaves for Oxford, where he'll spend Hilary and Trinity terms as an exchange student in psychology. He is in his third year as a Cognitive Science major at Vassar College, soaring toward grad school in cognitive science or psychology. He is already beginning to think like a graduate student. Here's some advice I offer him and others around the transition from undergraduate to graduate study:

(1.) Do fewer things better. I lead with this advice because it was a lesson I had to learn and relearn and that I still struggle with. In your classes, three A pluses are better than five As. It's better to have two professors who say you are the most impressive student they've seen in several years than to have four professors who say you are one of the three best students this year. It's better to have one project that approaches publishable quality than three projects that earn an ordinary A. Whether it's admission to top PhD programs, winning a grant, or winning a job, academia is generally about standing out for unusual excellence in one or two endeavors. Similarly for publishing research articles: No one is interested to hear what the world's 100th-best expert on X has to say about X. Find a topic narrow enough, and command it so thoroughly, that you can be among the world's five top experts on X. The earlier in your career you are, the narrower the X has to be for such expertise to be achievable. But even as an advanced undergrad or early grad student, it's not impossible to find interesting but very narrow X's. Find that X, then kill it.--Eric Schwitzebel "How to Be an Awesome First-Year Graduate Student (or a Very Advanced Undergrad)" [HT Dailynous]

First, let me start by wishing David a wonderful time at Oxford! 

Schwitzgebel's letter was widely circulated approvingly by my academic friends on social media. And most of his advice (2-6) struck me as quite sensible, even wise--so go read the whole thing first. But I am ambivalent about (1.) [That's the the one I quoted above.] The reason I am ambivalent is that I recognize the hard truths underlying Eric's advice: there are plenty of smart folk. Specialization is the key to be noticed. To professionalize early ("have one project that approaches publishable quality") gives you a leg up in the academic rat race. It is now no rarity anymore to find MA students trying (and succeeding) to publish journal articles. As Nathan Ballantyne puts it in a charming review (of a recent book by Bill Lycan) "younger [professional] philosophers all know that reading outside of your field does not get you a career. It just doesn't pay the bills." (Read the whole review.)

But here is another hard truth: time is a scarce good. Time for research is, perhaps, the scarcest good. Pretty the much the only time of our life when we are free to read and explore is during our undergraduate and graduate (or as the English say: post-graduate) periods. Perhaps, during a generous post-doc, too. Yes, as we know from Eric's blog, he keeps up a regular habit of reading and ranging widely so it's possible. But among administrative, teaching, grant-making, and family duties there is very little time for curiosity. (Oh, and let's not get started on networking.) Our whole professional lives are oriented toward managing our times in effective ways so we can produce 'high quality' publications. I suspect, but haven't asked Eric, that he is like me and uses the development of new courses as means to keep educating himself on new topics. Perhaps -- but now I am projecting -- his excellent blog is also a means to find good excuses to keep his interests broad.

The bottom line is that we have near limitless freedom to explore intellectual avenues during our education: seminars, speakers, reading groups, etc. This is the period of our lives where we can create very solid foundations for our future intellectual habits; when we can learn different academic vocabulary and methods, and also quietly mull connections some of which invisible to our brilliant teachers. We learn to talk with folk from wide variety of academic disciplines and orientations. Most importantly, we learn to ask fruitful questions--perhaps the most important and underappreciated academic skill. This is especially important when we encounter intellectual obstacles not amenable to easy resolution.

As an aside, some of this academic learning and curiosity driven intellectual development can happen in relaxation time. I say this not to reject Eric's suggestion (6): "Draw bright lines between work time and relaxation time." This is sound, even existentially important advice. But when I was a graduate student I had (recall) a dog. I met folks from all walks of life in dog-park. But this also included quite a number of other academics. This has generated not just life-long friendships -- dogs > cats! --, but also exposed me to brilliant minds doing fascinating stuff. This has generated life-long conversations, including ones that have shaped my research trajectory.

Okay, to return my ambivalence. And I am not quite sure how to put it. In part because I am sure Eric's advice to David may well be right for David. But I worry there is such a thing, even a rather solid entity, as premature specialization. Lots of very bright and exciting minds on the cutting edge become dull academics with little to say of interest and so end up saying the same thing over and over again. (Please fill in your own favorite examples!) To experience this first hand is one of the few advantages of age. I even suspect that early intellectual hyper-specialization has something to do with the phenomenon of the diminishing rate of return from basic science that economists have been puzzling about. For, the focus on killing the narrow X can also end up killing off curiosity.



Good News As Millions Of Spiders And Other Dickhead Animals Die In Bushfires

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 16/01/2020 - 8:23am in


A positive has emerged from Australia’s summer of bushfires as scientists report that countless spiders, ticks, ants and other dickhead animals have perished in the flames.

“Those little eight legged bastards can scuttle as fast as they want but they won’t be able to outrun a rampaging fire front,” reported a cackling Professor Aristotle Knid from the Department Of Dickhead Animal Studies at the University of Wangaratta. “It’s a great tragedy that so many cuddly animals like koalas and sheep have been killed but on the bright side a truckload of brush turkeys and ibises have also gone down.”

“With any luck Australia’s population of bitey green ants, feral rats and blowflies may never recover from this,” said Dr Carrie P. Crawley, Curator of Annoying Prick Animals at Taronga Zoo. “Of the fifty million dollars allocated to wildlife recovery I’m hoping not a red cent goes towards bringing back any plovers.”

Marine biologists are keeping their fingers crossed that thousands of bluebottles and toadfish have been scooped up out of the ocean by water bombing planes and dropped directly onto the flames.

Peter Green

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On Living with Cosmic Loneliness; On the art of living and liberalism in Russell's History of Philosophy (III)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 14/01/2020 - 12:05pm in



Philosophy, as I shall understand the word, is something intermediate between theology and science. Like theology, it consists of speculations on matters as to which definite knowledge has, so far, been unascertainable; but like science, it appeals to human reason rather than to authority, whether that of tradition or that of revelation. All definite knowledge--so I should contend-- belongs to science; all dogma as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to theology. But between theology and science there is a No Man's Land, exposed to attack from both sides; this No Man's Land is philosophy. Almost all the questions of most interest to speculative minds are such as science cannot answer, and the confident answers of theologians no longer seem so convincing as they did in former centuries...Why, then, you may ask, waste time on such insoluble problems? To this one may answer as a historian, or as an individual facing the terror of cosmic loneliness.
The answer of the historian, in so far as I am capable of giving it, will appear in the course of this work. Ever since men became capable of free speculation, their actions, in innumerable important respects, have depended upon their theories as to the world and human life, as to what is good and what is evil. This is as true in the present day as at any former time. To understand an age or a nation, we must understand its philosophy, and to understand its philosophy we must ourselves be in some degree philosophers. There is here a reciprocal causation: the circumstances of men's lives do much to determine their philosophy, but, conversely, their philosophy does much to determine their circumstances. This interaction throughout the centuries will be the topic of the following pages.
There is also, however, a more personal answer. Science tells us what we can know, but what we can know is little, and if we forget how much we cannot know we become insensitive to many things of very great importance. Theology, on the other hand, induces a dogmatic belief that we have knowledge where in fact we have ignorance, and by doing so generates a kind of impertinent insolence towards the universe. Uncertainty, in the presence of vivid hopes and fears, is painful, but must be endured if we wish to live without the support of comforting fairy tales. It is not good either to forget the questions that philosophy asks, or to persuade ourselves that we have found indubitable answers to them. To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.--Russell The History of Western Philosophy "Introductory" xiii-xiv

At the start of the History, Russell claims that philosophy involves a rejection of extrinsic authority (e.g., revelation, tradition, faith, political legislation, etc.) and accepts or embraces (and perhaps submits to) the intrinsic authority of reason. So, from the start Russell's History embraces a kind of Enlightenment project in which the point of philosophy is to be free from the (unreasonable) tutelage of others. To become philosophical is to become both rational and secular. That is to say, part of the world historical drama of the History has a Spinozistic character: the attempts of reason/philosophy to free itself from such tutelage. One effect of this is that in general Russell evaluates the past, in part, in terms of its contribution to such progress. And this connects (recall) the way he evaluates philosophy both on its own terms and as a cause on shaping its environment. Okay, with that in place let's turn to the particular conceptions of philosophy.

First, philosophy is a speculative enterprise. But what counts as speculative can shift over time. So, the philosophy of one age may be the science of the next. That Russell associates science with definite knowledge is a bit surprising because when he was younger he treated the content of science as a changeable moving target. (There is an echo of this in the History in his passing comments on the impact of quantum mechanics on science (p. 540.)) Even so, one important implication of Russell's picture is that even in philosophy science has only limited authority: it may provide constraints, but if a question is properly philosophical, the present answer will outstrip the resources of present science (but may make future science possible). So, even scientific philosophy is in a certain sense beyond science. (I return to this below.)

Second, Russell thinks speculations, past and present, are interesting, in part, because they help understand ages and nations, which are both partially constituted by philosophy and, in turn, constitute it (see also the chapter on political liberalism). So, even if the history of philosophy is the history of error, it's these errors that shape fundamental features of social reality. And while ages may pass and nations go extinct, the present age and existing nations have been partially shaped by past philosophy.

This suggests that in order to grasp one's social world one must become acquainted with the speculative thoughts that helped shape it. If one only studies effects (e.g.,ages and nations) one lacks a full understanding and explanation of one's social world. And strikingly this acquaintance must be of such a sort that one becomes in a certain way a philosopher oneself ("to understand its philosophy we must ourselves be in some degree philosophers.") The study of the history of philosophy is thus, both, part of a political education and part of the path toward rationality.

Third, because philosophy is intrinsically speculative it is always accompanied by uncertainty. And so the natural teaching of philosophy qua philosophy in the art of living is to learn to live without certainty. (This puts an interesting spin on Keynes and Knight.) Russell tacitly assumes away here that giving up on hopes and fears -- the Stoic and Buddhist response -- or the very asking of certain questions (e.g., Hume, Nietzsche, Carnap, Wittgenstein) are appropriate.*

In Russell's narrative to live without certainty is, at bottom, the teaching of Locke (p. 608-9, where he quotes the Essay IV.XVI.4).** And because Locke is treated as the "first comprehensive statement of liberal philosophy" (600), we can see that for Russell liberalism -- in so far as it remains a skeptical liberalism -- is the repository of philosophy's contribution to the art of living. Marxism and fascism are also genuinely modern, in the way that liberalism is modern, but  these are more coherent than liberalism. Fascism, however, produces the subordination of individual reason to some despotic (non-rational) authority (600 & 790). In principle, Marxism need not do so in its ultimate state, but to get there rational persuasion is sacrificed to class war and revolution (790).

As an aside, Russell recognizes that to learn to live with uncertainty, which is always a bit "painful," is not always what's called for; one should not always insist on it in others. In particular, he praises Spinoza's philosophy of being a source of "help towards sanity and an antidote to the paralysis of utter despair" when circumstances are especially bad. According to Russell is this available without the metaphysical claims of Spinoza--"all one needs to realize is that that "human an infinitesimal part of the life of the universe." (580)

Russell understands scientific philosophy, or the philosophy of logical analysis, as a two-fold discovery: on the one hand "many questions...can be answered with precision, and by objective methods" not perhaps definitively, but with cumulative "successive approximations to the truth." (835-6) And where such truth is reached, philosophy turns into science. On the other hand, it is the embrace of mankind's inability to "find conclusive answers to many questions of profound importance to mankind" by science and reason alone. (835) That is to say, in this respect, as it looks like 'western' civilization is nearly destroying itself, Russell interprets the general outlook of  scientific philosophy as in fundamental accord with the way liberalism is the depository of philosophy's true teaching, as he puts in the last sentence of the book: "in abandoning a part of its dogmatic pretensions, philosophy does not cease to suggest and inspire a way of life." (836)


*It is often thought that to learn to live without certainty is characteristic of modernity. But I have long thought, inspired by this paper by Howard Stein, that for Plato philosophical questions do not just begin in wonder, but also (more speculatively) end in wonder. Russell himself thinks that Socrates is fundamentally dogmatic "his professed uncertainty is only assumed" (89; discussing the afterlife.)

**I do not mean to suggest that for Russell, Locke is the only philosopher that embraces this. (See History 663 on Hume's challenge to philosophy!)

Hanson Doesn’t Rule Out The Earth Being Flat And Exacerbating The Bushfires

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 14/01/2020 - 7:00am in


One Nation leader Senator Pauline Hanson has refused to rule out the World being flat and the effect of which exacerbating the current bushfires burning in Australia.

“We can’t say for sure that the earth is round,” said Senator Hanson. ”I have been shown some fascinating blogs and YouTube videos from my colleague Malcolm Roberts which have definitely convinced me to keep an open mind.”

“And if the Earth is flat surely that has to have an effect on the bushfires. I mean look at a stove they are flat, not round and they heat things up.”

When asked why she was so willing to believe a blog, YouTube video or Senator Roberts over say NASA or 97% of all Scientists, Senator Hanson said: ”Well where are there blogs?”

”If NASA can go to all that effort to fake a moon landing why can’t they produce a blog or Tumblr page.”

”My crackpot team of researchers spend a lot of time online and they’ve never shown me a thing from NASA that has me convinced that the Earth is definitively round.”

Mark Williamson

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Weird Science: Plants as Interplanetary Communication Devices

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 10/01/2020 - 5:06am in

Science Fiction has been described as the literature of ideas, and one of the most bizarre ideas is that grass is an artificial computing device. This strange notion appears in Clifford Simak’s 1965 novel, All Flesh Is Grass. This is about a small American town that finds itself completely enclosed beneath a forcefield. The town is on a nexus linking our world and its counterpart in a parallel universe. Investigating the force field and the strange disappearance years earlier of a mentally handicapped lad, the hero finds himself transported to this alternative Earth, where he meets the missing boy, now grown up. He also encounters a group of mysterious travellers from yet another universe, who have come to the world simply to listen to music and dance. Returning to our Earth, he finds that the force field has been put around the town by intelligent extradimensional aliens. There is a series of alternative Earths, who have come together to form some kind of interdimensional federation. These wise, enlightened beings wish to help humanity. They are skilled physicians, and show their good intentions by healing the town’s sick free of charge. It’s revealed that grass is some kind of intelligently engineered device, which was used by an alien race for information storage thousands of years ago.

As with many of the stranger ideas in literature, whether Science Fiction or not, you wonder where the idea came from. Some clue is perhaps given in the 1973 Erich Von Daniken book In Search of Ancient Gods: My Pictorial Evidence for the Impossible. Beginning on page 192, the world’s most notorious author on ancient astronauts discusses how two American scientists suggested that plants could be extraterrestrial communication devices. He writes

So far all attempts to capture signals from the cosmos with the aid of electromagnetic waves have failed. Dr George Lawrence of the Ecola Institute in San Bernardino, California, hit on a fantastic new way to communicate with extraterrestrial intelligences. Lawrence wondered if plants connected to an electronic control system would be suitable for communication with the universe. It is known that plants possess electrodynamic properties, indeed their capacity to assimilate tests and react in a binary way like a computer is sensational. Lawrence closely observed the semiconductive and general electromotive capacities of plants. He asked himself the following questions as part of his programme:

  1. Can plants be integrated with electronic apparatuses in such a way that they yield usable data?
  2. Can plants be trained to react to specific objects or events?
  3. Is the assumption that plants have the capacity for exception perception provable?
  4. Which of the 350,000 kinds of plants is most suited for the test. (p. 192)

Von Daniken then goes on to describe how plants respond to electric stimulation, and how Dr Clyde Backster, an expert in lie detectors, observed similar responses in 1969 during experiments in which he believed his test plants responded telepathically, at first to himself lighting a match, and then to a bucket of shrimps being plunged into boiling water. This response became known, apparently, as the Backster effect. Von Daniken continues

Dr Lawrence next tried to use plants for electromagnetic contact with the cosmos. A series of experiments, christened Project Cyclops, was organised over a distance of seven miles in the Mojave Desert, near Las Vegas. On 29 October 1971 at the same fraction of a second the measuring sets attached to the plants registered heightened curves which were transferred to the tape by an amplifier. What was going on? Was something underground stimulating the plants? Were there torrents of lava, earthquakes, magnetic influences? New sets were made, the plants were protected in lead boxes and Faradaic cages. The result was the same! Observed over a long period of time, curves and notes showed a certain synchronicity. The plants seemed to be communicating. Plants cannot think: they can only react. Every conceivable kind of magnetic wavelength was tried. At the moment of the different reactions, nothing could be heard. Could the process be connected with the fixed stars, with quasars or radiation? A new series of experiments clearly showed that the cause came from the cosmos. Radioastronomers with their gigantic antenna could pick up nothing, but plants showed violent reactions. Obviously a wavelength that functioned biologically was involved. This brought the experimenters into a territory whose existence has been suspected, but which is not measurable so far – telepathy. A biological contact took place in a way unexplained to date, but during the detour via the cells it became measurable. Dr George Lawrence said on the subject:

Obviously biological interstellar communication is nothing new. We have only 215 astronomic observatories in the world, but about a million of the biological type, although we call them by other names such as churches, temples and mosques. A biological system (mankind) communicates (prays) to a far distant higher being. Biological understanding is also the order of the day in the animal kingdom; we have only to think of dogs and cats which find their way home again by instinct. A fascinating feature of the experiments in the desert is the realisation that these biological contacts with the cosmos are connected with the speed of light.

The suspicion is growing stronger that the plants are called up by someone in the constellation Epsilon Bootes at a hundred times the speed of light. That is also why radioastronomers could not register the transmissions. Why use a big drum when a kettledrum is available? Perhaps we have investigated interstellar contacts with the wrong instruments, the wrong wavelengths and the wrong spectrum until now. (p.194-5).

This is clearly very fringe science, if not actually pseudoscience of the type likely to get Richard Dawkins grinding his teeth. It also merges into a kind of New Age pantheism, in which the cosmos itself may be some kind of God or supreme intelligence. It’s all very different from what I was taught in secondary school that grass was a monocotolydon. That means, it only has one leaf. I also note that the experiments started in 1971, some six years after Simak published his novel. But scientists and novelists were discussing plant intelligence from the 1950s onwards, including the idea that they could feel pain. It’s now been found that plants do communicate biochemically, and there was an article in the papers last week stating that they do feel pain. Perhaps Lawrence’s ideas, or ideas similar to them, were being discussed several years before Lawrence conducted his experiments, and influenced Simak when he wrote his book.