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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy

“All you can do is hope for a pattern to emerge”*…

 

smiling_baby_10-1024x576

If you construct a Lego model of the University of London’s Senate House – the building that inspired the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four – the Lego blocks themselves remain unchanged. Take apart the structure, reassemble the blocks in the shape of the Great Pyramid of Giza or the Eiffel Tower, and the shape, weight and colour of the blocks stay the same.

This approach, applied to the world at large, is known as atomism. It holds that everything in nature is made up of tiny, immutable parts. What we perceive as change and flux are just cogs turning in the machine of the Universe – a huge but ultimately comprehensible mechanism that is governed by universal laws and composed of smaller units. Trying to identify these units has been the focus of science and technology for centuries. Lab experiments pick out the constituents of systems and processes; factories assemble goods from parts composed of even smaller parts; and the Standard Model tells us about the fundamental entities of modern physics.

But when phenomena don’t conform to this compositional model, we find them hard to understand. Take something as simple as a smiling baby: it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to explain a baby’s beaming smile by looking at the behaviour of the constituent atoms of the child in question, let alone in terms of its subatomic particles such as gluons, neutrinos and electrons. It would be better to resort to developmental psychology, or even a narrative account (‘The father smiled at the baby, and the baby smiled back’). Perhaps a kind of fundamental transformation has occurred, producing some new feature or object that can’t be reduced to its parts.

The notion of emergence can help us to see what’s going on here. While atomism is all about burrowing down to basic building blocks, emergence looks upward and outward, to ask whether strange new phenomena might pop out when things get sufficiently large or complex…

Does everything in the world boil down to basic units – or can emergence explain how distinctive new things arise?  Paul Humphreys helps us understand at “Out of nowhere.”

[Image above: source]

* Chuck Palahniuk, Lullaby

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As we forage for the fundamental, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Ernest Everett Just; he was born on this date in 1883.  A pioneering biologist, academic, and science writer, he contributed mightily to the understanding of cell division, the fertilization of egg cells, experimental parthenogenesis, hydration, cell division, dehydration in living cells, and the effect of ultra violet rays on egg cells.

An African-American, he had limited academic prospects on his graduation from Dartmouth, but was able to land a teaching spot at Howard University.  Just met  Frank R. Lillie, the head of the Department of Zoology at the University of Chicago and director of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) at Woods Hole, Mass.  In 1909 Lillie invited Just to spend first one, then several summers at Woods Hole, where Just pioneered the study of whole cells under normal conditions (rather than simply breaking them apart in a laboratory setting).  In 1915, Just was awarded the first Spingarn Medal, the highest honor given by the NAACP.

But outside MBL, Just experienced discrimination.  Seeking more opportunity, he spent most of the 1930s in various European universities– until the outbreak of WW II hostilities caused him to return to the U.S. in late 1940.  He died of pancreatic cancer the next year.

Ernest_Everett_Just source

 

Written by LW

August 14, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The only thing I know is that I know nothing”*…

 

Heraclitus of Ephesus; detail from Raphael’s <i>The School of Athens</i>, circa 1509

Heraclitus of Ephesus; detail from Raphael’s The School of Athens, circa 1509

 

Poor Diogenes Laertius. He gets no respect. A “perfect ass”—“asinus germanus”—one nineteenth-century scholar called him. “Dim-witted,” said Nietzsche. An “ignoramus,” declared the twentieth-century classicist Werner Jaeger. In his lyric moods he wrote “perhaps the worst verses ever published,” an anthologist pronounced. And he had “no talent for philosophical exposition,” declares The Oxford Companion to Philosophy.

Then why waste time on him? For this excellent reason: Diogenes Laertius compiled the sole extant work from antiquity that gives anything like a comprehensive picture of Greek and Hellenistic philosophy. He may have been a flaming mediocrity. He may have been credulous and intellectually shallow. He may have produced a scissors-and-paste job cribbed from other ancient sources. But those other sources are lost, which makes what Diogenes Laertius left behind, to quote the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “truly priceless.” Eighty percent of success is showing up, Woody Allen supposedly said. Well, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers showed up. And by dint of that, its author has become what Nietzsche called “the night watchman of the history of Greek philosophy: no one can enter into it unless he has given him the key.”…

Jim Holt on on one of the more curious accidents of intellectual history: “Lovers of Wisdom.”

* Socrates

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As we ponder provenance, we might spare a thought for Hans Christian Andersen; he died on this date in 1875.  A prolific writer of plays, travelogues, novels, and poems, he is best remembered for his (often curiously-titled) fairy tales.  Those tales– which include “The Princess and the Pea,” “The Ugly Duckling,” “Thumbelina,” “The Little Mermaid,” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes”– have inspired plays, ballets, and of course both live-action and animated films.

In Andersen’s honor his birthday– August 2 (1805)– is celebrated as International Children’s Book Day.

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“There is only one thing a philosopher can be relied upon to do, and that is to contradict other philosophers”*…

 

philosophy

In the July/August 2001 issue of the late, great magazine Lingua Franca, James Ryerson [now a New York Times writer/editor] published an enthralling article about an anonymous benefactor who was paying professors huge sums of money to review a strange 60-page philosophical manuscript…

Read Ryerson’s fascinating intellectual detective story at “The Mystery of the Millionaire Metaphysician.” And after you’ve done that (lest you spoil the ending), read what became of that anonymous benefactor.

[Image above: source]

* William James

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As we search for the moral in moral philosophy, we might spare a thought for William Penn; he died on this date in 1718.  An English real estate entrepreneur, philosopher, early Quaker, and founder of the English North American colony the Province of Pennsylvania, he was an early advocate of democracy and religious freedom, notable for his good relations and successful treaties with the Lenape Native Americans.  he directed the planning and development of the city of Philadelphia.

220px-William_Penn source

 

Written by LW

July 30, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Have pity on them all, for it is we who are the real monsters”*…

 

ardam-cryptozoology

The International Cryptozoology Museum is smaller than my apartment. It’s a big apartment, but it’s an even smaller museum.

The museum is located in a red-brick former industrial building in Portland, Maine. It shares a wall with Big J’s Chicken Shack, and so the International Cryptozoology Museum — the only museum in the world dedicated to the study and promotion of cryptozoology — smells wonderfully, overwhelmingly, of fried chicken…

Officially, cryptozoology is “the study of unknown, legendary, or extinct animals whose existence or survival to the present day is disputed or unsubstantiated.”

The International Cryptozoology Museum offers a slightly different definition. For the ICM, the discipline is “an exciting field that studies hidden and unconfirmed legendary animals, as a means to discover new species.”

The definition from the Oxford English Dictionary looks backwards. The animals are disputed and unsubstantiated. Their existence has not been proven. The ICM’s definition looks forward. The animals are hiding. Their discovery is imminent. There is something new to be found. The animals, or, more exactly, the cryptids — we’re talking Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, the Dover Demon, the Jersey Devil — they’re out there.

The International Cryptozoology Museum is a place of hope…

The search for surreptitious species at “Real Toads at the International Cryptozoology Museum.”  Visit the museum here.

* Bernard Heuvelmans (the father of cryptozoology and founder of the International Society of Cryptozoology), On the Track of Unknown Animals

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As we adumbrate the unfamiliar, we might send carefully-constructed birthday greetings to Sir Karl Raimund Popper; he was born on this date in 1902.  One of the greatest philosophers of science of the 20th century, Popper is best known for his rejection of the classical inductivist views on the scientific method, in favor of empirical falsification: A theory in the empirical sciences can never be proven, but it can be falsified, meaning that it can and should be scrutinized by decisive experiments. (Or more simply put, whereas classical inductive approaches considered hypotheses false until proven true, Popper reversed the logic: conclusions drawn from an empirical finding are true until proven false.)

Popper was also a powerful critic of historicism in political thought, and (in books like The Open Society and Its Enemies and The Poverty of Historicism) an enemy of authoritarianism and totalitarianism (in which role he was a mentor to George Soros).

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Written by LW

July 28, 2018 at 1:01 am

“All mystical experience is coincidence; and vice versa, of course.”*…

 

coincidence-clipart-Pi-Coincidence

 

Today, nearly all scientists say that coincidences are just that: coincidences – void of greater meaning. Yet, they’re something we all experience, and with a frequency that is uniform across age, sex, country, job, even education level. Those who believe that they’ve had a ‘meaningful coincidence’ in their lives experience a collision of events so remarkable and unlikely that they chose to ascribe a form of grander meaning to the occurrence, via fate or divinity or existential importance. One of the most commonly experienced ‘meaningful coincidences’ is to think of your friend for the first time in a long while only to have her telephone you that instant. Any self-respecting statistician would say that if you tracked the number of times you thought of any friend, and the number of times you had that friend immediately ring you, you’d find the link to be statistically insignificant. But it is not necessarily irrational to attribute grander significance to this occurrence…

Lightning can strike twice and people do call just when you’re thinking of them – but are such coincidences meaningful?  Find out at “On coincidence.”

[image above: source]

* Tom Stoppard

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As we muse on meaning, we might ponder the significance of the fact that on this date in 1817, the exquisite novelist of English manners Jane Austen passed away– six years to the day after the birth of William Makepeace Thackeray, who was in such works as Vanity Fair her successor as chronicler of English society (born on this date in 1811).  Coincidence?

Austen Thackeray

Jane Austen, as drawn by her sister Cassandra [source] and William Makepeace Thackeray [source]

 

Written by LW

July 18, 2018 at 1:01 am

“One cannot conceive anything so strange and so implausible that it has not already been said by one philosopher or another”*…

 

philosophy

There comes a moment in every philosophy student’s life, perhaps when struggling through a logic set or trying to parse some impenetrable Derrida essay, that the inevitable question comes up: What’s the point? A new philosophy paper, published in the June 2018 edition of the Journal of Practical Ethics, argues that there isn’t one.

At least, there’s not a singular coherent point that the field is working towards. Whereas history is clearly focused on understanding our past and biology is devoted to explaining living organisms, there’s some confusion as to philosophy’s purpose. There are clear themes of course, such as the meaning of life, and what constitutes reality. But the subject is huge and sprawling, encompassing questions about metaphysics, epistemology, language, and ethics, among others. Is the point of philosophy to unravel the nature of the universe, or how we know what we know, or the role of language, or answer some other great question?…

Find out why (and whether it matters) at “What’s the point of philosophy? A new philosophy paper says there isn’t one.

* René Descartes

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As we wax philosophical, we might recall that it was on this date in 1961 that Billboard Magazine reported that the teenage dance craze, The Twist, was being picked up by the adult crowd in Philadelphia.

twist source

 

Written by LW

July 14, 2018 at 1:01 am

“I love to talk about nothing. It’s the only thing I know anything about.”*…

 

zero

The computer you’re reading this article on right now runs on a binary — strings of zeros and ones. Without zero, modern electronics wouldn’t exist. Without zero, there’s no calculus, which means no modern engineering or automation. Without zero, much of our modern world literally falls apart.

Humanity’s discovery of zero was “a total game changer … equivalent to us learning language,” says Andreas Nieder, a cognitive scientist at the University of Tübingen in Germany.

But for the vast majority of our history, humans didn’t understand the number zero. It’s not innate in us. We had to invent it. And we have to keep teaching it to the next generation.

Other animals, like monkeys, have evolved to understand the rudimentary concept of nothing. And scientists just reported that even tiny bee brains can compute zero. But it’s only humans that have seized zero and forged it into a tool.

So let’s not take zero for granted. Nothing is fascinating. Here’s why…

It is indeed fascinating, as you’ll see at “The mind-bendy weirdness of the number zero, explained.”

Pair with: “Is a hole a real thing, or just a place where something isn’t?” and with The Ministry of Ideas’ podcast “Nothing Matters.”

* Oscar Wilde

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As we obsess about absence, we might box a dome-shaped birthday cake for inventor, educator, author, philosopher, engineer, and architect R(ichard) Buckminster Fuller; he was born on this date in 1895.  “Bucky” most famously developed the geodesic dome, the only large dome that can be set directly on the ground as a complete structure, and the only practical kind of building that has no limiting dimensions (i.e., beyond which the structural strength must be insufficient).  But while he never got around to frankfurters, he was sufficiently prolific to have scored over 2,000 patents.

“Fullerenes” (molecules composed entirely of carbon, in the form of a hollow spheres, ellipsoids, or tubes), key components in many nanotechnology applications, were named for Fuller, as their structure mimes that of the geodesic dome.  Spherical fullerenes (resembling soccer balls) are also called “buckyballs”; cylindrical ones, carbon nanotubes or “buckytubes.”

I have to say, I think that we are in some kind of final examination as to whether human beings now, with this capability to acquire information and to communicate, whether we’re really qualified to take on the responsibility we’re designed to be entrusted with. And this is not a matter of an examination of the types of governments, nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with economic systems. It has to do with the individual. Does the individual have the courageto really go along with the truth?

God, to me, it seems
is a verb,
not a noun,
proper or improper.

For more, see “And that’s a lot.”

 source

 

Written by LW

July 12, 2018 at 1:01 am

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