Category Archives: philosophy

On the defense of ‘Evolutionary and Newtonian Forces’

Dr. Ellen Clark, a.k.a. Philosomama, has written a good review of Velasco & Hitchcock’s Evolutionary and Newtonian Forces [no paywall], one of the first papers to appear in the new open access journal Ergo. She points out that although V&H are trying to show how evolutionary forces are well described by analogy to classical causal Newtonian forces, they very nearly prove their opponent’s — the statisticalist — position. However, she comes to their defense.

Briefly, the causalist position is that evolutionary forces are causal like the force of Newtonian gravity. Natural Selection is a causal force that acts on biological organisms. The statisticalist position claims evolutionary phenomena are just the statistical result of the underlying causal physical processes. Hence, for the statisticalist, evolutionary phenomena have no force of their own.

V&H want to argue that evolutionary forces are like friction or elasticity. Dr. Clark points out that these forces can be problematic for their view, as they too note:

As Velasco & Hitchcock acknowledge, friction and elasticity are usually thought of by physicists as emerging “from the aggregate statistical behaviour of more elementary forces in certain kinds of system.” … But this is grist to the statistical view’s mill, we might say. They argue that natural selection supervenes on more basic causal events, without adding any extra causal power of its own. So these critics might happily accept that evolutionary forces are analagous to non-fundamental Newtonian forces, whilst holding their ground on the claim that natural selection is not causal.

However, causalist vs. statistical isn’t what I would like to discuss here; see her review for more discussion. Instead I’d like to focus on her appeal to the unknown as a defense of V&H’s causalist position. She claims that it is OK to consider evolutionary forces causal, like Newtonian forces, because Newtonian forces are mysterious. Since Newtonian forces are mysterious, we shouldn’t privilege their causality and should grant that right to not well understood biological forces as well. She says:

If there is anything magical about thinking of natural selection as an overall force producing all the multifarious births and deaths that we actually observe, then it is in very good company lumped in with physical forces.

This is an example of my favorite fallacy, Ignotum Per Ignotius: explaining something unknown by appealing to something even less understood. Let me explain why this is really problematic for her defense and ultimately for V&H.

Imagine a statisticalist pointing to their analogies and explanations of evolutionary phenomena and saying, “Evolution isn’t mysterious at all, and we have a perfectly good statistical explanation right here. The only causality is in the underlying fundamental physics.” The evolutionary causalist is then in the uncomfortable luddite position of insisting, without reason, that we don’t understand evolution. Appealing to an analogy with physics that supports the causal position is question begging, if there is no deeper reason why this analogy holds other than it supports the claim that evolutionary phenomena are mysterious and hence causal. Therefore without some other reason to support the causal view of evolutionary phenomena, appealing to mysteriousness does not justify the causalist position.

Moreover, without a supporting causalist argument, V&H have done the statisticalist’s work for them. As noted above, they have gone and shown exactly how evolutionary phenomena are like statistical results of underlying forces.

Posted in biology, evolution, philosophy, physics. Tagged with , , , , .

On Metaphysical Proficiency

Are you good at metaphysics? How good are you at metaphysics?

When I consider these questions, the only sure thing is that there is no objective measure of metaphysical proficiency. I can’t even imagine standards by which we could judge it. It would be at least as hard to estimate as intelligence, and anyway, I doubt smarts correlates with metaphysical skill. Lots of smart people have said a lot of ridiculous things. I like to think that I’m better than the next guy, because, well, I like to think that. This reminded me of the old highway driving razor:

Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac? — George Carlin

I’d amend it to say:

Everyone who is more dogmatic than you is an idiot and everyone who is less dogmatic than you is a maniac.

Perhaps we are the metaphysicians we think we are, but it wouldn’t hurt to be a bit more metaphysically charitable.

Posted in metaphysics, philosophy. Tagged with , .

Shaking the Tree

Life often results in situations such that no strategy suggests any further moves. We just don’t know what to do next. In a game of perfect information, where each player knows all the previous moves, this can signal stalemate. Take chess: given both sides know everything that has transpired and have no reason to believe that the opponent will make a mistake, there can come a time when both sides will realize that there are no winning strategies for either player. A draw is then agreed upon.

The situation is not as simple in games of incomplete information. Let’s assume some information is private, that some moves in the game are only known to a limited number of players. For instance, imagine you take over a game of chess in the middle of a match. The previous moves would be known to your opponent and the absent player, but not to you. Hence you do not know the strategies used to arrive at that point in the game, and **your opponent knows that you do not know**.

Assume we are in a some such situation where we do not know all the previous moves and have no further strategic moves to make. This is to say we are waiting, idling, or otherwise biding our time until something of significance happens. Formally we are at an equilibrium.

A strategy to get out of this equilibrium is to “shake the tree” to see what “falls out”. This involves making information public that was thought to be private. For instance, say you knew a damaging secret to someone in power and that person thought they had successfully hidden said secret. By making that person believe that the secret was public knowledge, this could cause them to act in a way they would not otherwise, breaking the equilibrium.

How, though, to represent this formally? The move made in shaking the tree is to make information public that was believed to be private. To represent this in logic we need a mechanism that represents public and private information. I will use the forward slash notation of Independence Friendly Logic, /, to mean ‘depends upon’ and the back slash, \, to mean ‘independent of.’

To represent private strategy Q, based on secret S, and not public to party Z we can say:

Secret Strategy) If, and only if, no one other than Y depends upon the Secret, then use Strategy Q
(∀Y\S) (∃z/S) ~(Y = z) ⇔ Q

To initial ‘shaking the tree’ would be to introduce a new dependency:

Tree Shaking) there is someone other than Y that depends on S
(∃z\S) ~(Y = z)

Tree Shaking causes party Y’s to change away from Strategy Q since Strategy Q was predicated upon no one other than Y knowing the secret, S. The change in strategy means that the players are no longer idling in equilibrium, which is the goal of shaking the tree.

Posted in game theory, independence friendly logic, logic, philosophy. Tagged with , , .

NYC Area Philosophy Calendar Spring 2014 update

I’ve updated the NYC Area Philosophy Calendar for Spring 2014. As per usual, there are some great talks and conferences to check out.

I’d love feedback about the calendar, so please get in touch if you have any comments or suggestions.

From my website statistics Brooklyn, NY has the heaviest calendar users. Hello Brooklyn.

Posted in internet, news, NYC, philosophy.

More on Philosophy Publishing: Cartels and Rhetoric

Here is a selection three reviewers’ comments from two well-ranked journals about a paper of mine:

  1. “Be that as it may, there really isn’t a recognizable philosophical project here that would merit consideration by [Misspelled Journal Name].”
  2. “I do not see how the author can improve the paper, since its motivation is ungrounded.”
  3. “This paper makes interesting, important claims and it should with improvements appeal to a broad and diverse audience.”

It would be one thing if all reviews were like 1 and 2. I’d be some mix of crazy, mistaken and uninformed. The issue is review 3. That reviewer saw my work completely differently than the others, basically exactly as I was hoping it would be understood.

How can the disparity in views be explained?

One way could be to blame ‘cartels’ of academics. The idea behind academic cartels is that reviewers belong to some school of thought, a cartel. They, consciously or not, favor work that supports their cartel by referencing them or providing more arguments in their support. By supporting ‘their’ work and rejecting others’, they increase the relative importance of themselves and their friends in academic standing.

Under the the cartel theory, reviewers 1 and 2 rejected my paper more because my ‘philosophical project’ did not support them and their projects, than me not having a project or some actual problem. This view is backed by the fact that reviews 1 and 2 had almost no engagement with any specific claims or arguments in my paper, but instead made critical generalizations about what was said or how it was said. For instance, reviewer 1 said I relied too heavily on Prominent Philosopher X and reviewer 2 said I had not read enough of same Prominent Philosopher X. The criticisms are basically meaningless since they could mean any number of things — no details of what I had wrong were given — and I could take them to just be a smokescreen for their bias.

I’m sure some of this is going on, but I don’t think cartel bias is the main issue. More likely is overwork. It is just easier to make up a BS criticism than an actual criticism. Again, consider the criticism having to do with Prominent Philosopher X: the underlying issue is that they both criticised without ever mentioning what exactly I had said wrong. Moreover, a journal editor would have a tough time arguing with this sort of accusation. I think the reviewers were more concerned with having something defensible to say than saying anything substantive.

Said differently, journal referees are highly risk averse. There is no incentive for them to get themselves into a position that requires more work. They already put in extra time to be the referee, so making difficult arguments is overmatched by making defensible, if nonsensical, arguments.

There are two approaches to this problem: top down from the journals and bottom up for the paper writers. Journals can institute policies that incentivize better reviews. A review of reviews, if you will. A new journal that only accepts reviews of other papers could be formed. This meta-journal would highlight the best and the worst, showing what good reviews and (anonymous) poor reviews are. This would help value service to the community as a reviewer, have pedagogical use in showing best practices and wouldn’t make people avoid being reviewers.

As a writer I advocate figuring out the best rhetoric such that the poor overworked reviewer will think they are getting what they want. Then, if they really don’t like the paper, they will have to come up with a more substantive criticism. Rhetoric, rhetoric, rhetoric: the arguments and conculsions will be the same, but how they are dressed up will be different. I think some philosophers believe themselves to be above ‘mere’ rhetoric, but from everything I’ve seen, this belief just serves to cover up how much we are affected by it. We drink our own Cool-Aid all too often, and a smart writer should use this to their advantage.

Posted in argumentation, game theory, philosophy.

NYC Area Philosophy Calendar Update

I’ve updated my NYC Area Philosophy Calendar, a listing of the philosophy lectures, conferences and events in the NYC metro area. As per usual, if one were to attend the huge amount of lectures and events, they would have a very good academic philosophy education for the price of a Metrocard and some late fees at the public library. Please leave me any comments and suggestions, especially if you know of events and venues that I don’t have listed.

With this update comes technical improvements: Events are color coordinated by location (school color usually) and are tagged by topic (ancient, Kant, epistemology, etc.). The calendar software has different ways to view the data (day/ weekly/ monthly calendar, agenda, poster-board). It also can do subscriptions based on filter, so if you only want to see epistemology events at Fordham, you can use the categories and tags to specify this, and then you can export only those events.

Fordham and CUNY have long lists of fantastic speakers lined up. Some notable events are Noam Chomsky speaking at Columbia’s Dewey lectures, and the 31st Annual Meeting of the Society for Ancient Greek Philosophy (SAGP) with the Society for the Study of Islamic Philosophy and Science (SSIPS) at Fordham, which has a massive program.

Also, as per usual, Columbia is slow on posting events. Rutgers, too, has nothing listed yet. The New School for Social Research has some things posted, but it seems to be mostly cross-listings of other departments, so I expect that the more philosophy-oriented content is still coming. Sarah Lawrence College sometimes has public lectures of interest, but they too have very little posted. I’ll check back in few days and update accordingly.

 

Posted in news, NYC, philosophy. Tagged with , , .

Cynic Argumentation

Many arguments are called ‘cynical,’ but is there anything that is common to them? Is there a general form of cynical argument?

One type of cynical argument is a kind of reductio ad absurdem, a proof by contradiction, to discredit a premise. The first step is to take the premise and associate it with some worldview.

  1. Assume P. (premise)
  2. P holds under worldviews W.  (Cynical Generalization)

Then, the cynic discredits those worldviews.

  1. Worldviews W are not the sort of views we want.    (ethical, logical or other valuation)
  2. Therefore the premise P is rejected because it leads to absurd consequences.  (Contradiction 2, 3)

What is unique here is the use of worldviews. The cynic generalizes from the premise to associated worldviews. Instead of finding something wrong with the premise itself, the cynic objects to any line of thought that leads to the premise.

Therefore, the criticism mounted here is existential: The cynic objects to people’s way of life, their existences. In doing so, the cynic changes the standards of evaluation. Though the premise may be unassailable on its own, when it is placed in the wider context of life, it no longer remains innocent or safe. By focusing the argument in this way, the premise can be seen as a symptom of affliction, an unwanted life—an absurdity.

— — — —

I find this argumentation style particularly interesting because of the Cynical Generalization step. The generalization is something like modal. However, it is not a generalization to possible worlds, but to possible lives. The cynic considers all possible lives that include affirming the premise and asks whether it is possible or desirable to live those lives.

Since we do reject different ways of life all the time that we feel are not for our selves, this argument style cannot be dismissed as flippant. Moreover, it is an extremely powerful argument: as historical cynics have shown, if you are willing to forgo the trappings of society, you are freer to reject its laws and conclusions.

Posted in argumentation, logic, philosophy. Tagged with , .

On Philosophy Publishing

There has been some discussion in the philosophy blogosphere on citation rates in academic philosophy journals. Since I recently decided that I was going to try to get my work published, I have spent a bit of time thinking about this. When John Protevi at NewAPPS asked about citation patters,  I left a comment, but the topic really warrants a longer treatment. Here are some thoughts:

Let me postulate, for this discussion, that doing philosophy and publishing are very different enterprises. That is, the content of the philosophy is separate from the distribution of it, and while you hope that your philosophy has some merit, we are currently concerned with getting it published regardless.

Consider the top philosophy journals, not as philosophy journals, but just as publications. Do these journals compete with each other? Yes, but they also cooperate more. If anything, the top journals are in coopetition. While the journals do compete for the best new content, consider how they make their money. They make their money by being purchased, in this case by academic libraries with limited resources. They will only get purchased if the libraries (and philosophy departments) feel that there is active research going on that they need to access. So it is much more important for journals to have an active discussion amongst themselves to give the appearance of active research being done (again regardless of merit).

It is not so much that they compete with each other, than they are in competition with everyone outside their area.

Now, how do these journals show that they have an active discussion? They reference each other, back and forth. This mutual referencing fosters the importance of the discussion, and hence the journals too. Once the discussion has begun, all other journals that wish to publish on the topic will have to reference back to the original journals, again fostering the original journal’s importance.  Hence a journal, or group thereof, that fosters a discussion—a niche if you will—will effectively block out other journals. All other or new journals will always be playing catch-up since they will inherently have fewer references and hence be less important.

This suggests that citations and referencing is a highly strategic business practice. Journals need to get themselves into the discussion somehow to make themselves relevant. If possible, they want to be the nexus of the discussion.

One interesting consequence is that it is less the individual researchers or papers that are cited, but that the journal is cited at all. The journal wants to be in on the discussion, and it doesn’t matter how it gets there. This suggests a bias towards references that include the journal or involve the journal in discussions, whether those references are relevant or not.

This leads to the treatment of ‘stars’ within the profession. If the journals publish the writing of a ‘star’ they will immediately get themselves into a position where people need to have that person’s work. So it is a good strategy for a journal to play into ‘star’ writers and to burnish their reputation (e.g. dedicated journal issues, invited papers) since this will make their research seem important and require people who do research to reference the work of the star in that journal.

Consider, then, why we cite. Is it to give credit to those who did great work? Sure, but there is too much at stake in terms of reputation (reputation yields job offers and money) for that to be the sole reason.

Is it to show we know what we are talking about? Unlikely but possible: journal publishing is not done to show that you have the done the reading, and if you are talking about something important then it doesn’t matter who is referenced.

Is it to make our lives easier, so we don’t have to argue every point? Likely at times, this is again too simplistic in terms of other issues.

Is it because it plays into the business model of the journals? Probably more than we want to admit.

Conclusions?

As mentioned above, journals will be biased towards self referencing their publication. Hence, if your work can be framed in a way that allows for journal self references, all the better. Same goes for citing stars. This also means that the bias could allow for references to go unchallenged: e.g. reference Hume for everything (or David Lewis), and always have some references to big journals. Conversely, less prominent work can be slipped in unnoticed if it is sandwiched between stars and big journals.

Perhaps there is an optimal ratio of prominent authors and different top journal references to less prominent references to give the appearance of new-ness and importance to the discussion.

At any rate, journal publishing exists at the intersection of business and philosophy, and it does no good to treat the double blind review as the only factor in getting published.

Posted in game theory, news, philosophy.

An Introduction to the Game Theoretic Semantics view of Scientific Theory

What is a scientific theory?  In an abstract sense, a scientific theory is a group of statements about the world.  For instance the Special Theory of Relativity has, “The speed of light in a vacuum is invariant,” as a core statement, among others, about the world.  This statement is scientific because, in part, it is meant to hold in a ‘law-like’ fashion: it holds across time, space and observer.

The Popperian view is that we have scientific theories and we test those theories with experiments.  This means that given a scientific theory, a set of scientific statements about phenomena, we can deductively generate predictions.  These predictions are further statements about the world.  If our experiments yield results that run counter to what the theory predicts — the experiments generate statements that contradict the predictions, the theory did not hold across time, space or observer — then the theory eventually becomes falsified.  Else the theory may be considered ‘true’ (or at least not falsified) and it lives to fight another day.

The game theoretic semantics (GTS) view is that truth is the existence of a winning strategy in a game.  In terms of the philosophy of science, this means that our theories are strategic games (of imperfect information) played between ourselves and Nature.  Each statement of a theory is a description of a certain way the world is, or could be.  An experiment is a certain set of moves — a strategy for setting up the world in a certain way — that yields predicted situations according to the statements of the theory.  If our theory is true and an experiment is run, then this means that there is no way for Nature to do anything other than yield the predicted situation.  Said slightly differently: truth of a scientific theory is knowing a guaranteed strategy for obtaining a predicted Natural outcome by performing experiments.  If the strategy is executed and the predicted situations do not obtain, then this means that Nature has found a way around our theory, our strategy.  Hence there is no guaranteed strategy for obtaining those predictions and the theory is not true.

An example:

Take Galileo’s famous experiment of dropping masses off the Tower of Pisa.  Galileo’s theory was that objects of different mass fall at equal rates, opposing the older Aristotelian view that objects of greater mass fall faster.

According to the Popperian view Galileo inferred from his theory that if he dropped the two balls of different mass off the tower at the same time, they would hit the ground at the same time.  When he executed the experiment, the balls did hit the ground at the same time, falsifying the Aristotelian theory and lending support to his theory.

The GTS view is that dropping balls of unequal mass off a tower is a strategic game setup.  This experimental game setup is an instance of a strategy to force Nature to act in a certain way, namely to have the masses hit at the same time or not.  According to Galilean theory, when we are playing this game with Nature, Nature has no choice other than to force the two masses to hit the ground at the same time.  According to Aristotelian theory, when playing this game, Nature will force the more massive ball to hit the ground first.  History has shown that every time this game is played, the two masses hit the ground at the same time.  This means that there is a strategy to force Nature to act in the same way every time, that there is a ‘winning strategy’ for obtaining this outcome in this game with Nature.  Hence the Galilean theory is true: it got a win over the Aristotelian theory.

Why you might want to consider doing things the GTS way:

GTS handles scientific practice in a relatively straightforward way.  Theories compete against Nature for results and against each other for explanatory power.  Everything is handled by the same underlying logic-game structure.

GTS is a powerful system.  It has application to  game theory, computer science, decision theory, communication and more.

If you are sympathetic to a Wittgensteinian language game view of the world, GTS is in the language game tradition.

More on GTS:

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/logic-games/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Game_semantics

Posted in game theory, logic, philosophy, science. Tagged with , , , , .

You think this has nothing to do with you.

Philosophy is disparaged often enough, and by people who ought to know better.  As of late, every time this happens I think of this scene — but with the text (something like) below…..

Oh. Okay. I see.

You think this has nothing to do with you.

You go to your desk and you select, I don’t know, some statistical mathematical model, for instance, because you’re trying to show the world that you take science seriously and follow what you think are established scientific practices.

But what you don’t know is that that mathematical model is not just established science.

It’s not a data model.  It’s not a model of phenomena.

It’s actually a deductive nomological model.

And you’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 1277, the Bishop of Paris proclaimed that a multiplicity of worlds could exist.

And then I think it was Pascal, wasn’t it, who argued that probabilistic mathematics could be applied to situations?

And then mathematical models quickly showed up in many different philosophies.

And then it, uh, filtered down through to natural philosophy and then trickled on down into some basic handbook of science, where you, no doubt, adopted it without another thought.

However, that statistical model represents millions of hours and countless lives.  And it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from philosophy, when, in fact, you’re using ideas that were selected for you by the people in this room.

Posted in philosophy, random idiocy, science.
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