Category Archives: philosophy

Monty Redux

In the Monty Hall Problem a contestant is given a choice between one of three doors, with a fabulous prize behind only one door. After the initial door is selected the host, Monty Hall, opens one of the other doors that does not reveal a prize. Then the contestant is given the option to switch his or her choice to the remaining door, or stick with the original selection. The question is whether it is better to stick or switch.

The answer is that it is better to switch because the probability of winning after switching is two out of three, whereas sticking with the original selection leaves the contestant with the original winning probability of one out of three. Why?

The trick to understanding why this occurs is to view the situation not from the contestant’s viewpoint, but from Monty Hall’s. At the outset, from Monty’s point of view, the contestant has a one out of three chance of guessing the correct door. In the likely situation (two out of three) that the contestant chose wrongly, Monty then has to know where the prize is among the two remaining doors in order to open a door that does not reveal the prize. So Monty opens a door not revealing the prize and asks the contestant whether he or she would like to switch or not.

However, the contestant knows that in the likely (two out of three) situation that the initial choice was wrong, Monty had to know where the prize was in order to open the door that did not contain the prize. Since the contestant knows that Monty has to know where the prize is to make the correct choice, the contestant can (in this likely case) place him or herself in Monty’s shoes. At this point Monty knows that the remaining door is the one that contains the prize, and hence the contestant should switch.

If we consider the unlikely situation in which the contestant initially chose the door with the prize behind it, then this line of reasoning will not work. Imagine that Monty forgets the location of the prize every time the contestant guesses correctly. In this situation he can still open either of the remaining doors without ever ruining the game. From his perspective the location of the prize is unrelated to his actions; it played no part in his decision to open one door or another (he merely chose a door the contestant hadn’t).

So, in the one out of three case where the contestant initially selected the correct door, there is no way to deduce whether switching is beneficial based upon placing oneself in Monty’s shoes:  the situation where Monty has forgotten the prize’s location is indistinguishable from a situation in which he has not forgotten. Without any way to further analyze the situation and tilt the odds to over one out of three, the contestant should always assume that he or she is in the previous, more likely, situation and take the opportunity to switch.1


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1Imagine that the contestant has a guardian angel that will let the game run its course if the contestant switches doors, but will change the location of the prize such that if the contestant sticks with the original door the angel will make sure that the contestant wins four out of five times. Then the probability of winning while switching will stay at 2/3 but the probability of winning while sticking will be 4/5. If the contestant had some way of divining that this was happening, this would be a case in which further analysis would be of benefit.


File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.79.
On 13 Aug 2009, 13:48.

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

Climate Change

This is a post for Blog Action Day 09!

If the climate changes rapidly enough, the human race is finished.  If the climate does not change quite that rapidly, we’ve got other problems.

For the sake of argument, let us assume that we are not beings in some religious pantheon, but are merely biological organisms of this Earth.  If the climate changes, i.e. if nature as we know it no longer exists, then how are we to think of ourselves?

For our entire history we have lived within a climate that is amenable to us.  Living in a new climate would be like living on an alien planet, without hope of returning to Earth.  The problem is:  we are not aliens, we’re Earthlings.  If we are not Earthlings, what are we?  Hence the problem of climate change is more than a problem of our survival, it is an existential problem of our species.

We don’t need any more existential problems, and since this is one preventable, lets do something about it.

Posted in internet, philosophy. Tagged with .

Sexual Reproduction, The Case for, Round 2

Let us assume that there are different kinds of adaptations.  Specifically, some are better than others in the long run:  some adaptations will only make a difference in an organism’s ability to reproduce viable offspring over a short period of time, whereas others will be beneficial for many generations.

In asexual reproduction there is no mechanism for distinguishing between a short term beneficial adaptation and a long term beneficial adaptation.  This subjects long term beneficial adaptations to being potentially overshadowed by short term beneficial adaptations and genetic drift:  if a short-term genetic change  sweeps through a population, some adaptations can be wiped out.  This sort of (selected for or not selected for) genetic drift would be tempered if it were forced to go across the different biologies of the two sexes.

With sexual selection there is a mechanism for selecting long term beneficial adaptations over short term ones.  Long term beneficial adaptations will have to be good for both sexes:  if an adaptation is beneficial to both the male and female – individuals with significantly different biologies – then it is more likely to be  good for the entire species.  Short term beneficial adaptations may only be good for particular individuals or one sex, depending on the mutation.  This makes it less likely for short term, provincial adaptations (or drift) to last because they won’t be as effective across different the different biological make-up of the two sexes.

Therefore by distributing mutations across two different sexes – two similar but different biologies – long term beneficial adaptations can be selected for.

Posted in biology, evolution, fitness, philosophy, science. Tagged with , , , , , .

Sexual Reproduction

Say you are a single celled organism.  To reproduce you have to double your size and then you need to split yourself in half.  Repeat indefinitely.

Now say you are a single celled organism that has the option to reproduce sexually.  To reproduce you need to increase yourself to 3/2 your original size and find a similar mate.  Then you both contribute 1/2 to the new organism and repeat indefinitely.

Asexual reproduction requires you to double in size; sexual reproduction requires only a 3/2 increase.  Therefore the turn-around time for sexual reproduction is inherently shorter than for asexual reproduction (assuming there are viable mates readily available).

Is there a selective benefit to a shorter turn around time for reproduction?  If the species must constantly be adapting to a changing environment (that would be everyone), then having a higher rate at which new mutations (and thence adaptations) are introduced into the population is critical.

Secondly, given that there is enough food but it takes time to collect, I count more offspring for sexual reproduction:

Sexual Replication vs. Asexual Splitting

In sexual reproduction, there is an additional child from the first generation of children (as compared to asexual splitting) created in the same amount of time: At the +50% mark #1 & #2 mate to create #5, and #3 & #4 mate to create #6.  Then, at the 100% mark (or plus an additional 50%) #1 & #2 mate to create #7, #3 & #4 mate to create #8, and, at the same time, the initial children #5 & #6 mate to create #9.  #9 is also one generation ahead of the offspring of asexual replication.

Now, to be honest, I’m confused.  I don’t think that anything above is particularly complicated.  However, Wikipedia does not note this as a benefit of sexual reproduction.  It actually says that asexual reproduction is much faster.  This makes me think that I must have made a mistake or else someone would have added it.

The going theory appears to be that since every organism in an asexually reproducing species can give off children, then there is twice the potential for offspring.  This completely ignores any struggle that an organism might have that would prevent it from reproducing, or that work can be split with a mate making it easier to reproduce.

My main assumptions are, among others, that there already is a significant population of organisms, the organisms are not too fussy about their mates (no significant waste of energy searching for a mate),  energy / work is being split with the mate, and that the limiting factor has to do with gathering food.  I can’t see how, if these (reasonable?) assumptions hold, sexual reproduction isn’t the dominant, winning strategy.

Posted in biology, evolution, fitness, game theory, philosophy, science. Tagged with , , , , , , .

A Priori Against Physicalism

I saw that Richard Brown is working to defend physicalism against a priori arguments.  He says that most (all?) arguments use the same intuitions found in the zombie-knowledge arguments.

This got me to thinking about a priori arguments against physicalism and I came up with something different:

If physicalism is, as Dr. Brown says, “… the view that only physical things exist. Physical things are those things that are postulated by a completed physics,” then I wonder who made physics king?  I’d have to assume that there is something within science that specifies physics as most fundamental.

However, science itself, or more specifically philosophy of science, is discipline agnostic.  There is nothing within the basic structure of science to specify physics as the foundation.  Maybe it is biology that is fundamental, maybe it is psychology, maybe something else; the point is that there is no a priori reason to prefer one over any of the others.  If there is nothing that distinguishes physics as a ground for the other sciences, then there is no reason that physicalism should be taken as a fundamental philosophy.

At this point the physicalist would want to find some grounds for the claim that physics is fundamental.  This is problematic though: nothing could be used from within physics because that would be question begging.  On the other hand, if we try to justify physics as fundamental by appealing to something outside physics, then isn’t that thing that provides the justification more fundamental than physics itself?  If we have to justify the claim ‘physics is fundamental’ by appealing to something even more fundamental, then physics is no longer fundamental because it needs an outside justification.  Therefore any justification for physicalism is inherently question begging or self-contradictory.

I know I haven’t disproved physicalism; at best I’ve indicated that justifications for it are bad.  And if any justification is bad, then the position is indefensible.  Since most philosophers don’t like to hold indefensible positions, perhaps this is sufficient.

Posted in biology, ontology, philosophy, physics, science. Tagged with , , , , .

A Rabbit in a Forest of Mushrooms

Today I was in a shop and a young mother came in with her stroller and a handbag with an image of a sleeping rabbit in a forest of mushrooms.  The rabbit had a thought bubble that read, “A rabbit in a forest of mushrooms.”

I told her I liked the bag… I don’t think she realized that it had reminded me of the last paragraph of Wittgenstein’s On Certainty:

676. “But even if in such cases I can’t be mistaken, isn’t it possible that I am drugged?” If I am and if the drug has taken away my consciousness, then I am not now really talking and thinking. I cannot seriously suppose that I am at this moment dreaming. Someone who, dreaming, says “I am dreaming”, even if he speaks audibly in doing so, is no more right than if he said in his dream “it is raining”, while it was in fact raining. Even if his dream were actually connected with the noise of the rain.

The rabbit had created a visible dream-thought bubble that had correctly identified his actual situation, though the rabbit was asleep.

Does the rabbit’s dream-thought count as justified true belief?  It may well be justified because the rabbit could be observing it’s surroundings within the dream (and those images could be connected to reality through memory), it is apparently true, and the rabbit believes it (according to the rules of thought bubble attribution).  So the dream-thought of the rabbit seems to qualify as Justified-True-Belief, but I don’t believe we normally count dream-thoughts as knowledge.

Posted in epistemology, philosophy, wittgenstein.

On Charitability

There is no such thing as a private reality.  By private reality I mean any portion of reality that you alone can experience, that no one else could possibly understand.

There is, however, reality that is yet unexperienced and unknown to you.  Others may have experienced it before you, like explorers who have been to a far away place.  If a philosopher is clever, it is possible that she found a way to imbue her words with such an experience.  Since there are no private realities, it is also possible that you may be able to extract those experiences.

The allure of philosophy is then the allure of the unknown, the exotic and unexplored.  To be charitable is to approach philosophy in search of some yet unknown bit of reality.

Under these circumstances it is futile to give specific instructions on how to be charitable; each of us must understand how to prepare ourselves for adventuring beyond the relative comfort of what we know.

If anything, have faith in yourself and do not make assumptions (even charitable ones) about what you are doing.

There is no such thing as a private reality.  By private reality I mean any portion of reality that you alone can experience, that no one else could possibly understand.

There is, however, reality that is yet unexperienced and unknown to you.  Others may have experienced it before you, like explorers who have been to a far away place.  If the philosopher was clever, it is possible that she found a way to imbue her words with that experience.  Since there are no private realities, it is also possible that you may be able to extract those experiences.

The allure of philosophy is then the allure of the unknown, the exotic and unexplored.  To be charitable is to approach a philosophical treatise in search of some yet unknown bit of reality.

Under these circumstances it is futile to give specific instructions on how to be charitable; each of us must understand how to prepare ourselves for adventuring beyond the relative confort of what we know.

If anything, have faith in yourself and do not make assumptions (even ones considered to be charitable) about what you are studying.

Posted in language, metaphysics, ontology, philosophy. Tagged with , , , .

What Science Ignores

I was skimming the philosophy blogs today and came across “Should Scientific Methods and Data be Public?” over at It’s Only A Theory (and Brains for that matter).  Gualtiero Piccinini argues that scientific matters ought to be made public.  My first thought was, “What exactly does G.P. mean by public?” and my second was, “Anyone who doesn’t think scientific methods should be public is bat-shit crazy.” (Yes, I get angry about this stuff.  And from here on out, I’m using my own version of ‘public’, which is likely compatible with G.P.’s, but I do not want to look like I am putting words in Gualtiero’s mouth.)

Let me explain.

When practicing science we are ignoring, in part, at least three important things: time, space, and people.  Science is, in some respects, atemporal: we believe that if everything else is held the same, it doesn’t matter when we conduct our scientific experiments.  There is no scientific difference between an experiment performed this week and an experiment performed years ago; we can replicate the experiments of the masters and get the exact same results they did (within experimental error of course).

Secondly, science is, in some respects, separate from space:  we believe that if everything else is held the same, it doesn’t matter where we conduct our scientific experiments.  There is no scientific difference between an experiment performed in New York or in Shanghai; we can replicate experiments of scientists all over the world and get the exact same results they did.

Lastly, science is, in some respects, separate from particular people: we believe that is everything else is held the same, it doesn’t matter who is conducting our scientific experiments.  There is no scientific difference between an experiment that I have performed and one that someone else performs; anyone may replicate an experiment and get the exact same results as someone else.

This, among other reasons, is what makes science so great:  a scientific discovery will last beyond your life and your laboratory and can travel the world indefinitely.  Unlike a great performance (theater or sport, take your pick), it will be exactly replicable for all time.

Now, back to scientific methods being public.  If a scientific method is private, then it means that one or more of the three points listed above is being violated.  Either the experiment is limited to the people who performed it (only certain people can make it work), the experiment is limited to the time in which it was performed (it only worked that one time) or the experiment is limited to the place it was performed (it only works in my basement).  Once one of the three above points can no longer be ignored, then we have lost that which makes science so impressive.

Insofar as people are afforded the right to use language as they wish, I suppose it is acceptable for someone to call an experiment that violates one of the three above points science, or maybe, scientific.  I, however, hold that what is generally thought to be science necessarily requires that the above three points not be violated.

Posted in philosophy, science, time. Tagged with , .

Happy Birthday, H. C. O.

Today, as Google/Wikipedia tells me, is Hans Christian Ørsted’s birthday.  He coined the term ‘Thought Experiment’ and, if he had done nothing else, I’d still think he ought to be remembered far and wide.

Posted in philosophy, physics, science.

Do We Understand the Principle of Charity?

When trying to understand an unknown philosophy (or philosopher) we are taught that we should give that philosophy every possible opportunity to say something relevant.  This practice is called using the Principle of Charity and there are various ways philosophers go about implementing it (via Wikipedia):

By believing

  1. The other uses words in the ordinary way;
  2. The other makes true statements;
  3. The other makes valid arguments;
  4. The other says something interesting.

I do not believe using any of these methods is sufficient if you want to be charitable.

Case 1:

We can be charitable by believing the other uses words in the ordinary way.

Even if the oracle (speaker or text) uses words in the ‘ordinary way’, it may be that those words are irrelevant to the current topic.  Conversely the oracle may not use words in the ‘ordinary way’ but those words could still be relevant to the current topic.

For instance many people do not use English words in ways I consider ‘normal’ as a native English speaker, but it’s rather common that those folks have something very relevant to say about philosophy.  On the other hand there are many people who speak English quite fluently without anything interesting to say.

Case 2:

We can be charitable by believing the other makes true statements.

Even if the oracle makes true statements, it may be that those true statements are irrelevant to the current topic.  Conversely the oracle may not make true statements, but those false/ambiguous statements could still be relevant to the current topic.

For instance someone could be wrong but for the right reasons, i.e. he or she may have identified many of the critical presuppositions that underlie a topic.  Though the person has made a mistake in deriving the conclusion, he or she may yet progress our understanding.  On the other hand is a machine that continually prints out true statements of the sort “The sky is blue iff the sky is blue” and “Grass is yellow iff grass is yellow.”  We wouldn’t find such a machine to be making relevant statements.

Case 3:

We can be charitable by believing the other makes valid arguments.

Even if the oracle makes valid arguments, it may be that those arguments are irrelevant to the current topic.  Conversely the oracle may not make valid arguments, but those arguments could still be relevant to the current topic.

For instance a person may be right but for the wrong reasons, i.e. he or she may somehow have arrived at brilliant conclusions using the shoddiest reasoning practices.  Just because this person has bad technical execution does not mean we should ignore his or her interesting results.  On the other hand is the machine from the previous example that has perfect logical execution, but says nothing worthwhile.

Case 4:

We can be charitable by believing the other says something interesting.

This is question begging.  We cannot use the concept of interesting to explain what makes something interesting or relevant.

These examples show that the scheme illustrated above is insufficient to provide a charitable understanding of a text or philosopher.

Posted in language, philosophy. Tagged with , .