Category Archives: science

the lowest desires of modern people

… Another alternative would have been to give you what’s called a popular scientific lecture, that is a lecture intended to make you believe that you understand a thing which actually you don’t understand, and to gratify what I believe to be one of the lowest desires of modern people, namely the superficial curiosity about the latest discoveries of science.

This quote is from the beginning of Wittgenstein’s “A Lecture on Ethics” or whatever the untitled transcript of the talk he gave to The Heretics Society is called.  I’ve seen this part of the lecture omitted; admittedly it has little to do with his later arguments.  However, I always felt that this barb was something interesting.

The quote has little force as an argument: it is merely his opinion that a superficial curiosity about the latest discoveries of science is bad.  No contradictions or other nonsense is pointed out, nor does it even evoke a parallel between those he is disparaging and some accepted foul thing.

But it is clear, concise and otherwise totally unlike everything else that Wittgenstein is known for, while touching upon the topics of belief, understanding, science, and desire.  Odd, no?

What the quote is, is a smear; it is an insult:  Calling something a lowest desire, without reason, is merely to insult it.  What’s going on here?

Say I have a superficial curiosity about the latest discoveries of science.  So what?  If the latest scientific research has little to do with my profession, say I’m a restaurateur, then what harm is there in having a passing interest in what other smart people do?  It might even be considered commendable that I make such an effort.

Now Wittgenstein is saying that my earnest effort is nowhere near commendable, but all the way at the bottom, the basest, of desire.  Since he accusing “modern people” it is not just ‘me’, but everyone.  This is insulting and unwarranted.

However, this isn’t exactly what Wittgenstein was after: he disliked superficial curiosity in scientific discoveries not because of the impulse of people to learn and take interest in others, but because it made people believe that they understood a thing which actually they didn’t understand.  Understanding difficult things is an accomplishment, and scientific research is difficult. In enjoying a superficial curiosity about the latest discoveries of science, he is accusing us of feeling a sense of accomplishment when we have done nothing to merit it: he is accusing us of mental masturbation.  Ouch.

We can also now understand why this criticism is “modern”.  Before  modern times, there was no way to have a “popular scientific lecture”: only in the last century or so have we had the communications technology and an available public which allows for such a thing.  You couldn’t expect feudal peasants to leave their farms or be educated enough to appreciate such a lecture.  But by November 1929, the date of this lecture, mass media was in full swing with the wide distribution of newspapers and books, and the start of national radio broadcasts.  Only with widespread media distribution did the danger of popular science becoming a narcotic exist.

Wittgenstein saw that with the modern increase in information distribution capability came a danger of intellectual drugging of the population.  It disgusted him that people would take pleasure from the feeling that they understood difficult theories with which they only had the most superficial engagement.  Unfortunately he had no argument or solution to prevent this, and so he resorted, as we all do when we are out of good arguments, to insults.

One can only think that the internet has made this an even more pervasive problem.  It blows our information distribution capability off the charts.  And we are, unsurprisingly, completely addicted to it.  It’s too bad dear Ludwig never really commented more on modernity, he seems to have been rather perceptive.

Posted in ethics, internet, philosophy, science, wittgenstein. Tagged with , , , , .

Time and the Limits of Science

Measurement takes time; measurement is a process.  So the measurement of time immediately yields this theoretical issue:

Since measurement takes time, our ability to break time into ever smaller pieces will always be proportional to the method of measurement used.  The faster our measurement device that measures time, the more divisible time will be.  Insofar as there are limits to how fast a measurement process can occur (relativistic or other), there will be limits on the lengths of time we can measure. From this perspective, time is discontinuous: there will be a point at which we can no longer split time into smaller pieces.

From a different perspective, time must be continuous: we can start our measurement of time whenever.  Since there are no restrictions on when our measurement may begin, each and every instant must be just as good as every other instant, hence time is continuous.

So which is it: Is time continuous or discontinuous?

Or is the question badly formed? The discontinuity argument is based upon the ideas of measurement and relativity.  The latter argument, for continuity, is based upon what might be considered a fact of modal reality.  Perhaps the two arguments are not talking about the same thing.

I can’t give an end-all be-all answer to the questions of time, but here is my opinion:   Time is continuous, but when we start to do scientific activities, time can and will only be able to be measured discretely.  Therefore the two arguments are not using one word to describe two different phenomena.

The question then becomes how doing science limits what we can observe.

This might sound like an extremely unlikely situation, but consider the case of organized sports.  When playing a sport or game you are bound, restricted, to following certain rules.  However, by following these rules, you and the other players can demonstrate skills and abilities that you otherwise would not have been able to observe:  Lots of people may be in shape, but only a small fraction of those people are professional athletes.  Those athlete demonstrate their superior physical and mental prowess by performing on the game field by being restricted by the official rules.

Getting back to science, does it now seem so unlikely that we restrict ourselves in certain ways in order to accomplish other tasks?  For time to be scientifically useful, we need to have some sort process that has a fixed point from which to start counting from, and a unit to count.  Then we can compare an unknown process to this known process, and we have done so with much success.

This comparison could not have occurred without the introduction of an arbitrary fixed point and unit of measurement: by restricting our concept of time to these particular processes we enable ourselves to perform scientific research.  Research is not possible if we use the unrestricted modal notion: no comparison can be made because there is no inter-modal process to compare a worldly (intra-modal) phenomenon to.  But with the use of fixed points, units and processes, we also become subject to relativistic limitations.  It seems like a very small price to pay considering the success of science.

To sum up: time is subject to modal considerations, which gives it special properties such as being continuous.  Once we start to do science, though, we restrict ourselves to the non-modal aspects of time, which allows us to use it as a tool in scientific research.  This also makes time appear to have different properties, but upon closer study, these properties are artifacts of the measurement process and not time itself.

Posted in measurement, ontology, philosophy, physics, Relativity, science, time. Tagged with , , , .

phil sci interwebs goings on

Although I seriously doubt anyone who reads this blog for philosophy of science doesn’t yet know about It’s Only a Theory, if this does apply to you, go check it out. It bills itself as “A Group Blog Devoted to General Philosophy of Science”.

Along the same lines Bryan over at Soul Physics has listed some of the few places to find philosophy of science on the net.  Yours truly was pleasantly surprised to make the list.

It’s Only a Theory just asked whether the pure philosopher of science is going the way of the dodo.  This question is of some interest to me because 1) I like philosophy of science but I have only a passing interest in any particular science,  and 2) I’ve gone the way of the dodo:

I never thought I was going to be an academic and it became painfully obvious after a short stint in grad school that being an academic wasn’t for me (or at least the normal academic route isn’t).  Now there are a few reasons for this, but one of them was that doing philosophy of science in the way I saw fit wasn’t going to happen.  The details of physics or biology just aren’t what interest me: I care about what makes theories work and then downwardly applying any results to the sciences.    So I could have been one of these pure phil-sci people, but from my perspective at the time, and apparently it still applies, this won’t get you ahead in academic philosophy.

… but at least my rss reader has some more interesting stuff nowadays, and hopefully yours will too.

Posted in internet, philosophy, science.

Deriving Philosophy of Science

Two posts ago I claimed that

The goal of science is, therefore, to separate the settled from the anomalous.

So what is the settled?  What is the anomalous?  How are they separated?

If we take these concepts to be fundamental then we are unable to analyze the concepts of settled, anomalous and separation scientifically: if they are at the bottom of all science, then everything within science depends upon them.

How then to understand?

At the bottom of it all is our ability to understand. We learn and we understand.  With this comes the ability to determine what we believe we understand and what we do not:  For certain things we have reasons that explain those phenomena and for other things we will not have reasons nor explanations.

These abilities are not based in science; they are metaphysical and logical.  Claiming that you cannot understand (in general) is paradoxical.  If you claim to not understand what it is to understand, then you must understand what it is not to understand.  But if you understand what it is not to understand, then you must know what it is to understand not understanding.  So you must understand what it to understand. But then you are denying being able to understand…  Hence it is nonsensical to deny understanding understanding.

Therefore we get understanding, not understanding and the difference on non-scientific grounds.   Insofar as reasons and explanations are part of understanding, we get them too.

How do we understand what is settled and what is anomalous?

Again paradox:

If you claim that it is not settled what it means to be settled then you must have known what it is to be not settled, that is, it is settled what it is to be not settled.  Then you must know what it is to be settled, i.e. it is settled.  But then you claim that it is not settled… Therefore you cannot claim that what it means for something to be settled is not settled.

If we assume that not settled and anomalous are identical in meaning (not settled = anomalous; not anomalous = settled) then we have nearly all the concepts we need.

But here comes the hard part: how do we separate the settled from the not settled?

Well, since we already have understanding, this requires doing actual science, as in creating a theory and then  going and seeing if that theory actually makes something that was anomalous no longer so by predicting it accurately.  This isn’t the post for me to get down off my metaphysical cloud, so Good Luck, you’re on your own (for now at least).

Posted in metaphysics, ontology, philosophy, science.

Counter Structural Realism

I’m starting to think that ‘structural’ in ‘structural realism‘ is vacuous.

Before getting to the meaning of structural we have to know what we mean by real.  In this instance we are specifically concerned with science so what we are looking for is the goal of science, i.e. what is scientifically real.  This is a meta-scientific question, and the best I can do here is to quote what Darwin quoted at the start of the Origin of Species:

“The only distinct meaning of the word ‘natural’ is stated, fixed or settled; since what is natural as much requires and presupposes an intelligent agent to render it so, i.e., to affect it continually or at stated times, as what is supernatural or miraculous does to affect it for once.”

Butler: Analogy of Revealed Religion

The goal of science is, therefore, to separate the settled from the anomalous.  We do this by crafting a theory and testing its predictions:  Since we have some fixed part of our theory that consistently predicts some phenomenon, there must also be something fixed in nature that is causing the consistent behavior.

This leaves us to consider the meanings of stated, fixed and settled in order to understand ‘natural’ or ‘scientifically real.’  However, for my current interests, all I need to point out is that if everything we must do to call something ‘scientifically real’ is also sufficient for calling something a structure, then structure is doing no work.

Now we have to identify the structures that we are referring to in structural realism: these structures are the mathematical and logical relations that still apply even if other parts of the theory are modified.  Since some mathematical and logical relations can be retained even as the overall theory changes, these structures the ones that structural realists want to save in order to maintain continuity across theory and paradigm.

But what are the settle or fixed parts of a theory?  First and foremost it will be the part that is making the consistently correct predictions, which includes the math and logical relations that determine how to formulate the predictions.  Therefore determining something to be real is to already determine everything that the structural realist was trying to gain by using the concept of structure.  This is to say that calling something real is to already attribute all the properties that we were hoping to gain by calling the thing structural, making the term structural vacuous.

Posted in ontology, philosophy, science.

Truth is… and other short thoughts

Truth is whatever you are willing to wager your sanity on.  This works because sanity is relative to people, so if you are willing to wager your sanity on something, so should other people.

Deontology has a problem because no one can definitively tell you what it is to follow a rule.  So deontologists can’t fault others for appealing to unexplained concepts without undermining their own argument.

Whereas the meanings of particular words may be conventional and subject to historical accident, there are distinctions that the words create that are not conventional.  If logical operators are conventional, but must exist is every possible world (you must define the world using such operators), then conventional loses its meaning: it ceases to be a convention and is instead a necessity of the universe.

The concept of structure in ‘structural realism’ is ontological, causing problems for ontic structural realists.  By calling the theory structural, structural realists are attempting to exploit the concepts associated with ‘structure’ from areas other than philosophy of science.  This means that the term is not being used ontically because the concept of structure is taken to have real properties.  So at every turn ontic structural realists are appealing to an ontological concept.


oh and information aesthetics is back from break! woohoo!

Posted in ethics, language, logic, metaphysics, ontology, philosophy, science.


Readers of this blog may have noticed a lack of updates recently. I can’t apologize: I’ve been eating, breathing and drinking philosophy for so long, that now that I have written everything I wanted to write, I feel free.  I wish it on all of you. [Happy New Year Everyone!]

But this doesn’t stop me from thinking.  I was at a Christmas party  and got talking with an Indonesian economics grad student.  He was researching economic methods Indonesia could use to become treated as a major world power, such as investing in ports with international business significance.  Interesting stuff.

Unfortunately my knowledge of economics is woeful.  However, when I pressed him to explain exactly how his economics works, he used ethical terms.  This gave me the idea that economics is fundamentally based in ethics.  When economists speak of value, this use of value is not different than the value we use in ethics, only a bit more abstracted.

Money used to represent a commitment of the issuing institution to having a certain amount of a precious metal on hand.  The cash was a proxy for that metal.  Metal, of course, has no inherent value: it is just a lump of metal.  What gives a lump of metal value is its properties that people use for specific purposes, and these purposes are fulfilling the commitments we have in daily life.  Hence money is an eventual proxy for commitments.

Now, commitments are a relativistic metaphysical substance, something I have much more experience with (man that’s a funny thing to say).  Relativistic metaphysical substances can be analyzed along the general guidelines of physical relativity: there is a general theory, there is a special theory, and then there is quantum.

The forces of macroeconomics can be conceptually aligned with a general relativistic theory, and microeconomics with special relativity.  Unfortunately everyone already understands these things so there is little hope of finding some inefficiency to exploit.

What people don’t get is quantum mechanics: it is just accepted that things are weird in the quantum world.  My view is that quantum phenomena are a highly sophisticated relativistic measurement issue (yes, I have seen all the data against this view and I am still convinced).  This allows me to look in the world of economics for similar relations and, lo and behold, impulse buying fits the schema.

Impulse buying appears to unbelievably unstudied: it has 4 whole paragraphs dedicated to it in Wikipedia.  I know this isn’t the best judge of research, but other economic topics in Wikipedia seem to have textbooks written about them and impulse buying has 1 academic journal reference (about how distraction affects brand selection during an impulse buy, not exactly the underlying theory) and a reference to a ‘Natural Parenting’ magazine article.  I feel like I can declare myself an expert right now: I am the foremost leader in the economic theory of impulse buying.

I guess now that I am done with philosophy I can start a business to see if my theories are correct…. never thought I’d end up in experimental philosophy, but it just goes to show that you can never say never.

Posted in economics, philosophy, Relativity, science. Tagged with , , , .

something about time

There is something about time that I can’t seem to stop thinking about.

We measure time by agreeing upon an event and then counting from that point onward.  Today is October 17, 2008 AD.  It is this AD that keeps my attention.  It has been 2008 years, ten months and seventeen days since the birth of Jesus of Nazareth: AD stands for Anno Domini, or year of our lord.  Those not wanting to be explicitly Christian use CE, which stands for Common Era, which is just a nice way of saying the same thing without recognizing Jesus as the lord.  Wikipedia dates the use of this term to 525 AD, though this is how everyone has been measuring time forever. AD began to be used in 525, but before that people just used other events (like natural disasters, battles worn or lost, etc.) as starting points to count the date from.

The only result is that time is not universal but relative to whenever people agree to start counting from.  This is nothing new, but maybe like The Ring, if I pass it along, then it won’t bother me any more.  If you become similarly afflicted, I apologize, but you know what to do.

Posted in measurement, Relativity, science, time. Tagged with , , , .

Consciousness Dilemma, take 2

Back in January I wrote up a post on what I believe to be a major problem in the study of consciousness. Now, with the introduction of Consciousness Online (started by the estimable R. Brown), I feel my dilemma should get some renewed attention.

Here’s the argument:

  1. Assume someone knows what consciousness/mind is.
  2. If someone knows something, then it is part of his or her consciousness.
  3. If someone knows what consciousness is, then his or her consciousness has a part that contains consciousness.
  4. Therefore someone has a consciousness that contains consciousness.

Up until this point I am willing to grant that all this is possible. Our consciousness may be able to contain itself within itself. But could we write it down?

  1. We can only write or say finite things.
  2. If someone’s consciousness contains consciousness, then their contained consciousness contains consciousness itself and so on ad infinitum; this person’s consciousness has a self referential infinite regression.
  3. Writing down what consciousness is would require us to write something infinite.
  4. Therefore we cannot write down/ say what the consciousness is.

One might think that we would still be able to figure out pieces and put them together to get the full picture, and use terms like ad infinitum to represent some infinite, but comprehensible, process. However this would require us to know that the picture that we were putting together was an accurate one.  The only way to know that we were putting together an accurate picture would be to already have an overall theory of consciousness that we knew to be correct. Hence the piecemeal approach begs the question.

With no bottom up method possible, nor any top down method available, even if someone were to discover what consciousness is, she wouldn’t be able to tell anyone.  Therefore we will never have a full understanding of our consciousness.

So the dilemma is to come up with a story about philosophy of mind (and associated disciplines) while necessarily lacking a story about consciousness. Anyone have anything to say?

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

Where Does Probability Come From? (and randomness to boot)

I just returned from a cruise to Alaska. It is a wonderful, beautiful place. I zip-lined in a rain forest canopy, hiked above a glacier, kayaked coastal Canada and was pulled by sled-dogs. Anywho, as on many cruises, there was a casino, which is an excellent excuse for me to discuss probability.

What is probability and where does it come from? Definitions are easy enough to find. Google returns:

a measure of how likely it is that some event will occur; a number expressing the ratio of favorable cases to the whole number of cases possible …

So it’s a measure of likelihood. What’s likelihood? Google returns:

The probability of a specified outcome.

Awesome. So ‘probability as likelihood’ is non-explanatory. What about this ‘ratio of favorable cases to the whole number of cases possible’? I’m pretty wary about the word favorable. Let’s modify this definition to read:

a number expressing the ratio of certain cases to the whole number of cases possible.

Nor do I like ‘a number expressing…’ This refers to a particular probability, not probability at large, so let’s go back to using ‘measure’:

a measure of certain cases to the whole number of cases possible.

We need to be a bit more explicit about what we are measuring:

a measure of the frequency of certain cases to the whole number of cases possible.

OK. I think this isn’t that bad. When we flip a fair coin the probability is the frequency of landing on heads compared to the total cases possible, heads + tails, so 1 out of 2. Pretty good.

But notice the addition of the word fair. Where did it come from, what’s it doing there? Something is said to be fair if that thing shows no favoritism to any person or process. In terms of things that act randomly, this means that the thing acts in a consistently random way. Being consistently random means it is always random, not sometimes random and other times not random. This means that fairness has to do with the distribution of the instances of the cases we are studying. What governs this distribution?

In the case of of a coin, the shape of the coin and the conditions under which it is measured make all the difference in the distribution of heads and tails. The two sides, heads and tails, must be distinguishable, but the coin must be flipped in a way such that no one can know which side will land facing up. The shape of the coin, even with uniform mass distribution, cannot preclude this previous condition. Therefore the source of probability is the interdependence of physical conditions (shape and motion of the coin) and an epistemic notion (independence of knowledge of which side will land up). When the physical conditions and our knowledge of the conditions are dependent upon each other then the situation becomes probabilistic because the conditions preclude our knowing the exact outcome of the situation.

It is now time to recall that people cheat at gambling all the time. A trio of people in March 2004 used a computer and lasers to successfully predict the decaying orbit of a ball spinning on a roulette wheel (and walked out with £1.3 million). This indicates that after a certain point it is possible to predict the outcome of a coin flipping or a roulette ball spinning, so the dependence mentioned above is eventually broken. However this is only possible once the coin is flipping or the roulette ball is rolling, not before the person releases the roulette ball or flips the coin.

With the suggestion that it is the person that determines the outcome we can expand the physical-epistemic dependence to an physical-epistemic-performative one. If I know that I, nor anyone else, can predict the outcome until after I perform a task, then the knowledge of the outcome is dependent upon how I perform that task.

This makes sense because magicians and scam artists train themselves to be able to perform tasks like shuffling and dealing cards in ways that most of us think is random but are not. The rest of us believe that there is a dependence between the physical setup and the outcome that precludes knowing the results, but this is merely an illusion that is exploited.

What about instances in which special training or equipment is unavailable; can we guarantee everyone’s ability to measure the thing in question to be equal? We can: light. Anyone who can see at all sees light that is indistinguishable from the light everyone else sees: it has no haecceity.

This lack of distinguishability, lack of haecceity (thisness), is not merely a property of the photon but a physical characteristic of humans. We have no biology that can distinguish one photon from another of equivalent wavelength. To distinguish something we have to use a smaller feature of the thing to tell it apart from its compatriots. Since we cannot see anything smaller, this is impossible. Nor is there a technology that we could use to augment our abilities: for us to have a technology that would see something smaller than a photon would require us to know that the technology interacted at a deeper level with reality than photons do. But we cannot know that because we are physically limited to using the photon as our minimal measurement device. The act of sight is foundational: we cannot see anything smaller than a photon nor can anything smaller exist in our world.

The way we perceive photons will always be inherently distributed because of this too. We cannot uniquely identify a single photon, and hence we can’t come back and measure the properties of a photon we have previously studied. Therefore the best we will be able to accomplish when studying photons is to measure a group of photons and use a distribution of their properties, making photons inherently probabilistic. Since the act of seeing light is a biological feature of humans, we all have equal epistemological footing in this instance. This means that the epistemic dependence mentioned above can be ignored because it adds nothing to the current discussion. Therefore we can eliminate the epistemic notion from our above dependence, reducing it to a physical-performative interdependence.

Since it is a historical/ evolutionary accident that the photon is the smallest object we can perceive, the photon really is not fundamental to this discussion. Therefore, the interdependence of the physical properties of the smallest things we can perceive and our inherent inability to tell them apart is a source of probability in nature.

This is a source of natural randomness as well: once we know the probability of some property that we cannot measure directly, the lack of haecceity means that we will not be able to predict when we will measure an individual with said property. Therefore the order in which we measure the property will inherently be random. [Assume the contradiction: the order in which we measure the property is not random, but follows some pattern. Then there exists some underlying structure that governs the appearance of the property. However, since we are already at the limit of what can be measured, no such thing can exist. Hence the order in which we measure the property is random.]


If I were Wittgenstein I might have said:

Consider a situation in which someone asks, “How much light could you see?” Perhaps a detective is asking a hostage about where he was held. But then the answer is, “I didn’t look.” —— And this would make no sense.

hmmmm…. I did really mean to get back to gambling.

Posted in biology, epistemology, evolution, fitness, independence friendly logic, logic, measurement, mind, philosophy, physics, Relativity, science, Special Relativity, technology. Tagged with , , , , .