Archive for March, 2011

From the New York Times:

At an abstract level, people seem to be what philosophers call incompatibilists: those who believe free will is incompatible with determinism. If everything that happens is determined by what happened before, it can seem only logical to conclude you can’t be morally responsible for your next action.

But there is also a school of philosophers — in fact, perhaps the majority school — who consider free will compatible with their definition of determinism. These compatibilists believe that we do make choices, even though these choices are determined by previous events and influences. In the words of Arthur Schopenhauer, “Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.”

Does that sound confusing — or ridiculously illogical? Compatibilism isn’t easy to explain. But it seems to jibe with our gut instinct that Bill is morally responsible even though he’s living in a deterministic universe. Dr. Nichols suggests that his experiment with Mark and Bill shows that in our abstract brains we’re incompatibilists, but in our hearts we’re compatibilists.

“This would help explain the persistence of the philosophical dispute over free will and moral responsibility,” Dr. Nichols writes in Science. “Part of the reason that the problem of free will is so resilient is that each philosophical position has a set of psychological mechanisms rooting for it.”

Some scientists like to dismiss the intuitive belief in free will as an exercise in self-delusion — a simple-minded bit of “confabulation,” as Crick put it. But these supposed experts are deluding themselves if they think the question has been resolved. Free will hasn’t been disproved scientifically or philosophically. The more that researchers investigate free will, the more good reasons there are to believe in it.

An interesting discussion on why social morality and performance depend upon our having a notion of freedom of will.

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My recent silence is due to two factors: rampant illness and a longish post that I am now working on.

From my post on puzzle solving, I identified my nemesis and mortal enemy as the Rubik’s Cube. I have since been told that it is because I am too stubborn to learn basic strategy. This is no doubt correct, since I refuse to see a game (like chess, for example) as memorizing moves and strategy. Isn’t it more fun to engage in the process of discovery? I mean, what is the point of learning how to solve a Rubik’s Cube and then applying those rules rigidly in order to solve the puzzle? Is it even solving it if beforehand you have a method that removes discovery and imagination in the process?

I mean, look at this kid. Is he having fun?

OK, so maybe a little. Punk.


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If you think that science has dispelled the wonder from the Universe, its only because you aren’t looking at the world anymore, just your cell phone.

This video contains three different videos of Cassini’s fly-bys of  Saturn, each with increasing detail. INCREDIBLE.

5.6k Saturn Cassini Photographic Animation from stephen v2 on Vimeo.

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Just a note: If you have been following my reading of Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (Part I, Part II, Part III) you may be feeling a bit uncomfortable by now. At least, I hope you are (and I hope it’s not because of boredom or the tediousness of my writing!). If you are, its because Kuhn’s analysis leads to what many have called a “crisis of rationality.” Don’t worry, it gets worse. And that makes it much better. I have planned three more posts on Kuhn. We press on.

The Storming of the Bastille

The silly part about Kuhn’s essay is that he relates the progressive activities of science to political revolutions. This is nearly as bad as when athletes consider their “game” (which I thoroughly enjoy watching) to be a “war.” It is no wonder that war is an acceptable part of life today, for we clearly have no idea how truly horrifying it actually is. But I digress…

Popular French weight loss system

Despite my requisite disgust at the use of violent metaphors, there is actually something to the analogy. The revolution is preceded by a growing mistrust of the dominant authority, be it a government or a governing paradigm (it’s interesting, the analogy between a paradigm and a government, isn’t it?). As the unsolved problems multiply, unrest grows and a new solution or framework is sought. Then comes the guillotines. Well, not quite yet, but they are oiling them up, getting them ready for action. (So much for my righteous anger at violent metaphors…)

For Kuhn, the impetus for a paradigm shift is the emergence of anomalies, a “phenomenon for which the paradigm has not prepared the scientist.” However, because of the formative power of the prevailing paradigm, novelty in both experimentation and theory is very difficult to come by. It seems – and this is my conjecture – that paradigms and worldviews have a certain ‘stickiness’ to them (not unlike the blades of a guillotine after a hard day’s work – one must remember to thoroughly clean one’s guillotine if one wants to keep it in working order for a long time!). What I mean by this is that once we are embedded in a system of thought, it is difficult to remove ourselves from the paradigm and invent, for lack of a better term, a new worldview/political system/paradigm. It takes quite a jolt, and according to Kuhn comes only after a long and arduous process. (more…)

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As a pure coincidence – I promise that I did not suggest this to the New York Times, though they may have gotten the idea from my blog on their own – there is a nice little 5-part series on the Times website about Kuhn. It is written by a former graduate student supervised by Kuhn, and looks to be very entertaining.

I mean, what better way to start a series on Kuhn by discussing how he once hurled an ashtray at a student? Not that I endorse such behavior, nor would I practice it in my classroom, but it no doubt leaves a lasting impression on the student.

h/t to the blog It’s Only a Theory.

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Think about the features of working on a puzzle for a moment. From the get-go, we assume that a solution to the puzzle is not only possible, but assured. In the case of a jigsaw puzzle, we begin with the picture on the box and our activity is aimed at reordering the pieces to reproduce that image. In the case of a crossword puzzle, we don’t begin with a final image in mind, but the clues provided and, more importantly, the arrangement of numbered boxes, give us faith that there is in fact a solution to the puzzle.

Rubix cube, in the process of being solved

My favorite (by which I mean infuriating) puzzle is the Rubix Cube. I have never solved even the simplest mix-up of squares on the thing. Despite my long-held belief in the solvability of each arrangement, my attempts to solve the puzzle have always resulted in an epic fail. Generally, I break down – or rather, I break it down – tearing it to pieces and reassembling it in the correct arrangement. Actually, my first attempt at this sort of problem solving was to peel the stickers off the faces and then reapply them, but this doesn’t really work. It’s much better to just destroy the cube and then try to reassemble it, all in the name of science.


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I intended this to be a short post dealing with the phase of scientific history that Kuhn calls “pre-paradigm” science (its not). Basically, in what is an 11-page chapter in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (SSR, for short) Kuhn discusses the nature of the scientific enterprise before a “paradigm” emerges and orders all research projects towards its explication.

A Geocentric Depiction of the Universe

A paradigm, briefly, is a theoretical framework that emerges and functions as a rubric under which scientific research programs take place. The paradigm sets the agenda during its reign, establishing a period of normal science. An example of a paradigm would be the Copernican heliocentric universe, which replaced the geocentric Ptolemaic model (this change is an example of a revolution, or a paradigm shift). The idea here is that prior to the emergence of a paradigm, scientific research is relatively random “fact gathering.” Yet once a paradigm emerges, now experimental research has its problems defined for it. This includes, among other things, the limiting of the scope of meaningful questions to those that are answerable within the paradigm. Those questions that lie outside the paradigm are bracketed off, often labeled “metaphysical,”* though this is not the proper use of the term.

*Just a brief note about what metaphysics is as a discipline. In modern philosophy, particularly in the analytic tradition, metaphysics has come to mean those problems that are not answerable by science. So the mind-body problem for example is a metaphysical problem. However, classically this term referred to a line of inquiry that examined being qua being.

What does this mean? Well, all ‘sciences’ (i.e. methods for gaining knowledge) study ‘being’ (i.e. that which is) under certain aspects. So biology studies being qua (i.e. under the aspect of) living, psychology is the study if being qua mental (psychical?), mathematics studies being qua quantifiable, and physics studies being qua repeatable and mathematically reifiable. All of these sciences (and many more) study certain slivers of being; that is, they study what is (i.e. the universe or reality itself) under a certain aspect. What does metaphysics do? At least in the classical sense it studies being under the aspect of being. It is the most abstract, most universal way of exploring being.


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