Stephen Hawking’s Self-Defeating Anti-Philosophy Declaration

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As reported by The Telegraph, Stephen Hawking has apparently told Google’s Zeitgeist conference that, because philosophers have not kept up with recent developments in physics, “their art is dead”. This, of course, is itself as philosophical a statement as any that has ever been uttered (and certainly not one that could be derived from any physical theory; those who disagree are reductive physicalists – in other words, philosophers of a sort). By declaring philosophy to be dead, Hawking has proven it to be quite alive. And kicking.

An Open Letter To UNLV Administrators

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Dear President Smatresk, Provost Bowers, and Dean Hudgins-

A communication from the American Philosophical Association recently informed me that you are contemplating totally eliminating UNLV’s philosophy department. As a philosophy professor myself, I’m writing to express my sincere hope that this will not be necessary. It is not just the weight of tradition that has made philosophy one of the oldest academic disciplines (traceable back at least to Plato’s Academy, 387 B.C.). It has survived so long in Western higher education because, more than any other discipline, it specializes in teaching critical reasoning skills that can be used by anyone, both during and after their formal studies. And no other discipline hones those skills while considering questions that are of interest to anyone with an inquiring mind, no matter what their professional focus. In short, philosophy is the glue that holds together a liberal arts education. Surely you can find a way to balance your budget by “sharing the pain” more equitably with other departments, and thereby leave open an invaluable option for your students.

Thank you for your consideration-

Dr. Larry A. Herzberg
Associate Professor of Philosophy
University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh

Consciousness Online Conference – 2011

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Well, it’s that time of year again: time for another Consciousness Online Conference, going on between 2/18 and 3/4/2011. If you’re interested in consciousness (and what conscious creature would not be?), there are 11 presentations at this year’s conference, several of them involving video presentations. I haven’t had time to read the papers yet, but here are the main dishes (invited papers) on the Consciousness smorgasbord this year-

Black and White and Color by Kathleen Akins.

Consciousness and the Introspection of Apparent Qualitative Simples by Paul Churchland.

Minds, Brains and Turing by Stevan Harnad.

On the (Dis)unity of Consciousness by Jesse Prinz.

If you’re not sure whether this is your cup of tea, I’d start with a particularly entertaining 10 minute video presentation by Philip Goff, who argues that on one popular view of the relationship between mind and matter (known as “property dualism”), if Lot’s wife is conscious, then so must be the pillar of salt that God turns her into. (In more technical terms: property dualism entails panpsychism).

Have fun, and please… try to stay conscious.

Philosophy Survives at Howard University

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Along with many other members of the American Philosophical Association, I recently emailed Sidney Ribeau, President of Howard University, asking him to reject an internal commission’s recommendation to eliminate the philosophy program as an independent department. I posted that letter here. I’m happy to report that President Ribeau recently informed the APA that his university’s philosophy department will indeed survive (albeit minus its Masters degree offering). The text of that letter can be found here.

Anger At God: An Emotional Paradox

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Philosophers of emotion sometimes view anger and many other emotions as being “factive”. The mark of a factive emotion is that if one has it towards something or someone, then one must at the same time believe that this something or someone exists. For instance, if I am angry at Jack (presumably for something I think he’s done), then I must believe that Jack exists (at least!). This contrasts with certain non-factive emotions, such as fear or anxiety: for instance, I can reasonably fear that it is raining outside without believing that rain is occurring; it’s enough if I believe that it is merely possible. As Robert Gordon once noted, I don’t even have to believe that it is probably raining, since it seems perfectly reasonable to both fear that it is raining and believe that there is exactly a 50% probability that it is (so that I believe that rain is no more probable than it is improbable).

Anyway, a story in the newspaper today (on the Entertainment page, under the the “Brief” heading) entitled “Anger at God common during times of crisis” caught my attention. The fact reported by the headline is certainly unsurprising, but the story goes on to note-

Interestingly, those who don’t believe in God or question God’s existence reported more anger at God than people who said they believed.

If anger really is a “factive” emotion in the sense outlined above, the fact that non-believers report more anger at God – if this really is a fact – is a significant observation. Of course, I can imagine several explanations that would square this fact with the idea that anger is a factive emotion, but for the moment I just want to savor the apparent paradox.

To The Best Of Our Knowledge

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I’ve occasionally mentioned sometimes overlooked but worthy public radio shows on this blog, and I think that Wisconsin Public Radio’s “To The Best Of Our Knowledge” certainly falls into that category. It’s consistently intelligent and interesting. Lately they’ve been airing a series called “Science and the Search for Meaning” which is particularly thought-provoking from a philosophical point of view. Episodes include:

PART ONE: WHAT IS LIFE?
PART TWO: WHAT DOES EVOLUTION WANT?
PART THREE: DOES THE “SOUL” STILL MATTER?
PART FOUR: CAN ISLAM AND SCIENCE COEXIST?
PART FIVE: CAN SCIENCE BE SACRED?

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

Open Letter to Dr. Sidney A. Ribeau, President, Howard University

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To: Dr. Sidney A. Ribeau, President
Howard University
2400 6th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20059

Dear Dr. Ribeau-

The American Philosophical Association has recently brought to my attention that “A Presidential Commission on Academic Renewal at Howard University has issued a recommendation to eliminate the Philosophy program as an independent department, and combine it with the existing program in Classical Civilizations and, perhaps, add some offerings in Religious Studies.” As a professional philosopher with great respect for the academic integrity Howard University has displayed throughout its distinguished history, I strongly urge you to reject this recommendation of the commission’s.

Philosophy, as an academic discipline, is unique. It’s methodology of carefully examining and critically evaluating the logical relations between ideas is, like that of mathematics, largely a priori. It is quite distinct from the empirical, largely a posteriori methodology of social sciences like History (Classical Civilizations) or Anthropology (Religious Studies). Also, unlike such social sciences, philosophy is, at its core, “normative” in the sense of being concerned with questions of how one should live and how one should come to believe or disbelieve various sorts of propositions, in contrast to the social sciences, which properly describes how we do live and how we do operate psychologically. Philosophy would be irrelevant were it not informed by the social sciences, but it is not a social science itself, and any attempt to merge philosophy with such a department seems likely to result in a deterioration of philosophy’s core mission.

Interdisciplinary programs are laudable, of course, but their value depends on maintaining basic distinctions between disciplines. Thank you for considering this request.

Sincerely-

Dr. Larry A. Herzberg
Associate Professor of Philosophy
University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh

Of Arches, Spandrels, and Natural Selection

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As a philosopher, Jerry Fodor (of Rutgers University) is famous for his contrarian stances, and his recent book with Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, What Darwin Got Wrong, has been stirring up a lot of discussion both in academic circles and on the web. To understand their criticism of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, it’s helpful to first consider a case of human design. Take arches, for instance. Arches were “selected for” by architects because they solved an important engineering problem: how to efficiently support certain sorts of structure. Along with arches come spandrels, those areas that fill the space between the arches-

Architects probably weren’t concerned with spandrels at all when they first designed arches, but since you can’t have arches without spandrels, the two are “endogenously linked”, and so are “co-extensive” – wherever you have a series of arches, you have spandrels. It’s important to keep in mind that although they are co-extensive in this way, ‘arch’ does not mean ‘spandrel’ (or include ‘spandrel’ in its meaning), and one can certainly think of an arch without thinking of a spandrel. Similarly, to adapt an old example, although ‘healthy creature with a heart’ is co-extensive with ‘healthy creature with a kidney’, the two expressions obviously do not have the same meaning. One way of putting this is to say that they have the same extensions (since they refer to the same creatures in the actual world), but different intensions. Finally, certain linguistic contexts – the intensional ones – are sensitive to differences of intension, while others – extensional ones – are not. For instance, belief ascriptions are intensional contexts. Extensionally speaking, it just as true to say (as the legend goes) that Oedipus has been having sex with his mother (from whom he was separated as an infant) as it is to say that he has been having sex with Jocasta. But as long as Oedipus is unaware that Jocasta is his mother, it is false to say that Oedipus believes that he has been having sex with his mother, although it is undoubtedly true that he believes that he has been having sex with Jocasta. ‘Jocasta’ and ‘Oedipus’s mother’ extensionally refer to the same woman in these contexts, but they have different intensions, and belief-reports (but not simple fact-reports) are sensitive to this difference.

Okay, that’s the set-up. Here’s how it all connects with natural selection: according to Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, the Darwinian theory of natural selection requires a notion of “selected for”. According to the theory, phenotypic traits (like the trait of having eyes) are biologically “selected for” because they enhance fitness. But, according to the authors, ‘selected for’ constitutes an intensional context: it has to distinguish between traits that are co-extensive, and it can’t. Let’s return to our arches and spandrels example to explain why. If nature, rather than human architects, had naturally selected arches for their structural enhancement properties (maybe because the environment happens to be such that cathedral-shaped organisms thrive), it would be just as correct to say that the spandrels had been “naturally selected for” as it would be to say that arches had been naturally selected for, even though spandrels are merely “free-riders” on the arches; they are not causally responsible for the arches’ fitness-enhancing properties. Hence, Darwin’s theory of natural selection supposedly has a serious conceptual problem.

I haven’t yet read the book, so I may have misrepresented or left out important details. However, Fodor lays out the basic idea to non-specialists at the University of Delaware in an audio recording available here and at iTunes U, and I’ve tried to reflect its content. Here is a brief excerpt, where Fodor lays out the central argument-



Is Fodor right about this? If so, should it matter to biologists? The standard interpretation of quantum physics apparently violates basic principles of deductive logic, but that doesn’t seem to disturb many physicists…

Experiencing, Remembering, and Happiness

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If you have a few minutes (20 or so), here’s an interesting segment of a talk by the Nobel prize winning inventor of “behavioral economics”, Daniel Kahneman. The topic concerns two types of happiness which can easily come apart: that of the “experiencing self”, and that of the “remembering self”.

On Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing

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An article today in the New York Times reports that, in physics anyway, we are on the verge of discovering why there’s something rather than nothing… or at least why the Big Bang has produced more matter than anti-matter. It all has to do with “the behavior of particularly strange particles called neutral B-mesons, which are famous for not being able to make up their minds”-

They oscillate back and forth trillions of times a second between their regular state and their antimatter state. As it happens, the mesons, created in the proton-antiproton collisions, seem to go from their antimatter state to their matter state more rapidly than they go the other way around, leading to an eventual preponderance of matter over antimatter of about 1 percent, when they decay to muons.

Whether this is enough to explain our existence is a question that cannot be answered until the cause of the still-mysterious behavior of the B-mesons is directly observed, said Dr. Brooijmans, who called the situation “fairly encouraging.”

The observed preponderance is about 50 times what is predicted by the Standard Model, the suite of theories that has ruled particle physics for a generation, meaning that whatever is causing the B-meson to act this way is “new physics” that physicists have been yearning for almost as long.

Dr. Brooijmans said that the most likely explanations were some new particle not predicted by the Standard Model or some new kind of interaction between particles. Luckily, he said, “this is something we should be able to poke at with the Large Hadron Collider.”

Okay guys, get poking! But, of course, a new model that explains the matter-anti-matter asymmetry better than the old “standard” model won’t solve the Really Big Question that metaphysicians, like very young children, always have at the ready: why? Why has this (fill in any impressively predictive physical model you like) ever happened? It seems unlikely that any merely descriptive theory, no matter how useful, will ever satisfy those who find this question engaging. Of course, it’s easy to write the question off as presupposing a sort of anthropomorphism, as if a universe had to be designed for a reason or purpose. But I think the question goes deeper than that, because even if you recognize that expecting the universe to have a purpose or a raison d’être is committing a sort of logical error or “category mistake”, the question still feels sensible. Maybe such a feeling just indicates that one is banging up against the limits of the human mind… and maybe not.

Alan Watts On Transience

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Alan Watts was in particularly good form when he gave a seminar called “The Mythology Of Hinduism”, available as a podcast on iTunes from The Electronic University. Here’s a brief excerpt on transience that will give you the flavor of his talk-



Magnetism And Consequentialism

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‘Consequentialism’ refers to a family of prescriptive moral theories that hold that an action’s consequences are the sole determiner of its morality or immorality; intentions per se don’t matter. Utilitarianism – roughly, the view that the morally right act for agent A at time t is that act available to A at t that maximizes the amount of happiness in the world, and/or minimizes unhappiness – is a well-known form of consequentialism. Opposed to such views are moral theories that focus more on the agent’s intentions. A fascinating study out of MIT suggests that magnetic fields can bias moral reasoning in favor of consequentialism-

To make moral judgments about other people, we often need to infer their intentions — an ability known as “theory of mind.” For example, if one hunter shoots another while on a hunting trip, we need to know what the shooter was thinking: Was he secretly jealous, or did he mistake his fellow hunter for an animal?

MIT neuroscientists have now shown they can influence those judgments by interfering with activity in a specific brain region — a finding that helps reveal how the brain constructs morality.

Previous studies have shown that a brain region known as the right temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) is highly active when we think about other people’s intentions, thoughts and beliefs. In the new study, the researchers disrupted activity in the right TPJ by inducing a current in the brain using a magnetic field applied to the scalp. They found that the subjects’ ability to make moral judgments that require an understanding of other people’s intentions — for example, a failed murder attempt — was impaired.

The study offers “striking evidence” that the right TPJ, located at the brain’s surface above and behind the right ear, is critical for making moral judgments, says Liane Young, lead author of the paper. It’s also startling, since under normal circumstances people are very confident and consistent in these kinds of moral judgments, says Young, a postdoctoral associate in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

“You think of morality as being a really high-level behavior,” she says. “To be able to apply (a magnetic field) to a specific brain region and change people’s moral judgments is really astonishing.”

Professors teaching introductory ethics courses, take note: if you wish to discuss cases that bring out the importance of intentions in moral reasoning, you’d do well to make sure that none of your students are holding magnets – or cell phones? – next to their ears.

Believing is not seeing

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This is an extraordinary example of what might be called “functional seeing”. Compare checker square A and square B-

checkershadow_illusion4med

Although you should not believe this just on the basis of what you see, squares A and B are exactly the same shade of gray. You can confirm this in a graphics program (like photoshop). The fact that you see the squares as different shades of gray strongly suggests that your brain has evolved to tell you more about shadows than about the particular shades of colors. Why? Because representing shades of color as such is something that only an artist needs to do; it has very little survival value (unless you happen to be one of those lucky artists who gets paid for discriminating colors). On the other hand, distinguishing shadows is an important aspect of seeing objects in a natural world, and seeing objects is crucial to survival. One other thing: the fact that you can’t see the two squares as having the same color even after you know that they do is proof of the visual system’s “modularity” or “informational encapsulation”: vision is highly resistant to modification by belief or knowledge. Believing is not seeing.

Thanks to Edward H. Adelson at MIT for making this image available.

Supreme Debate

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It’s not often that you get two justices of the Supreme Court with such different points of view informally debating on national television, but that’s just what you got with C-SPAN’s recent America & The Courts hour. Justices Scalia and Breyer squared off on pros and cons of Originalism – roughly, the view that Supreme Court justices should always interpret and apply the clauses of the constitution exactly as the founders would have, at least to the extent that this can be determined. I disagree with Scalia on Originalism, because I fail to see why the interpretations of the founders – who, after all, were just humans, not gods – should be favored over the interpretations of present supreme court justices, who have the benefit of history and hindsight, and so probably have a wider and wiser perspective on how to apply to present circumstances the values enshrined in the constitution. However, in the past I have been impressed by Scalia’s ability to argue for his judicial philosophy. So I was happy to see that Breyer could keep up with him quite well, arguing at least as effectively for his approach. A rarity on TV these days: intelligent and relevant programming.

You can watch the hour online here.