My Philosophy Now essays

Philosophy NowI have recently published a list of my contributions to the Ask-a-Philosopher site, so I figured we could continue with this informal series with what I wrote so far for the excellent Philosophy Now magazine. Here it is (please note that many of these articles are behind paywall; you can either subscribe to the magazine or download them from my DropBox folder.):

The Philosopher, The Priest, & The Painter (2015)

Philosophy and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2014)

Are There ‘Other’ Ways of Knowing? (2014)

What Hard Problem? (of consciousness) (2013)

The Ajax Dilemma (2013)

On Naturalism (2013)

Testing My Own Morality (2012)

Reflective Equilibrium (2012)

Doctor Who and Philosophy (2012)

Mathematical Platonism (2011)

What Darwin Got Wrong (not much) (2010)

On Xenophobia (2010)

The Evolution of Evolutionary Theory (2009)

(scientific) Hypotheses? Forget About It! (2009)

Crossing The Divide (between the Two Cultures) (2009)

The Old and The New (in the study of philosophy) (2008)

Is Science Going To End? (2008)

A Transcendental Philosophy of Science? (2008)

Philosophy, Science, And Everything In Between (2007)

Fieldnotes From The Borderlands (between science and philosophy) (2007)

What is a Thought Experiment, Anyhow? (2006)

Is Ethics a Science? (2006)

Wittgenstein Solves (Posthumously) the Species Problem (2005)

What is Philosophy of Science Good For? (2004)

The Alleged Fallacies of Evolutionary Theory (2004)

Philosophizing about the Mind (2002)

The Ethics of Tit-for-Tat (2001)

Design, Yes. Intelligent, No. (2001)

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43 thoughts on “My Philosophy Now essays

  1. (Oh my. Apparently my comment below is slightly tardy.)

    I must say that I do enjoy the level of agreement above, given that it does generally conform with my own beliefs. But also because I realize that Massimo is nearly off to a Munich workshop to address this specific topic with various prominent people. We’ve discussed this a bit in an earlier post, though a last send off does seem appropriate. Though we obviously can’t all actually be Massimo, we might indeed live vicariously through him — as well as thank him for the opportunity.

    I like to work my way up from the basics. All that I can know with any true certainty, is that “I think” — there need not be any reality beyond this one ontic fact of reality. I do simply presume that there is far more.

    Given my vast set of presumptions, I also observe that there is only one way that the human has to figure anything out — it theorizes models of reality, and then checks to see if they do remain consistent with what it thinks it knows about reality. When they do stay consistent, our models also tend to become accepted.

    Next there is the concept of causality. Apparently science has done a great job of validating this stance over the opposite notion, or magic.

    Given the circumstances above, we obviously ought to be quite humble regarding our so-called “laws.” Our languages must merely reflect epistemology, and so should never break into true ontology. Even the one thing which I do know to be certain, or “I think,” shouldn’t be accurate in an ultimate sense.

    Though a theist, I do suspect that Labnut agrees with what I’ve said above. Hopefully he’ll correct me if not. Regardless I cannot disagree with his position that there may ultimately be an infinitely creative supernatural entity which developed everything. Furthermore as something with ultimate agency that seems to have created good and bad existence for countless subjects (rather than just irrelevant existence), this agent should ultimately be considered “good” to some degree, as well as horribly “evil.”

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  2. Coel,

    I think it’s safe to assume that anything I say isn’t going to register with you, but let’s see if I can make a point clear enough that someone else will be willing to comment on, either to agree with you, or to verify that what I say is coherent;

    We perceive reality as flashes of perception. Thus we experience time as the point of the present moving from past to future events. Physics codifies this by treating time as measures of duration, along that seeming vector from past to future. Then correlates them to measures of spatial distance, i.e., one of the three dimensions of spatial volume.

    My argument is that it is the changing configuration of what physically exists, that by creating and dissolving these events/configurations we perceive, turns them from future to past. To wit, tomorrow becomes yesterday because the earth turns, relative to the sun.

    Therefore, rather than the present being a subjective point of view, as one’s position in space is subjective and thus assuming a block time, in which all events are equally existent, in that larger four dimensional spacetime, it is only the present state that is physically existent and the passage of time is an effect of change occurring within it.

    Now I can extend the argument much further than that, such as pointing out that causality yields determination, as events have to occur, in order to be determined, rather than being predetermined by the “laws of nature” and therefore existing in that “block time.” They are first in the present, then in the past.

    Or pointing out that what is measured is essentially frequency, which is an effect of cycles of activity. This makes it similar to temperature, which is an effect of the amplitudes of that activity, as well as its frequency.

    Now if anyone has any thoughts, opinions, judgements, or questions, I’m certainly all ears. If I am in fact as deluded as Coel insists, I would truly like to know, but simply appeals to authority, or insults do not constitute an actual argument, as Coel seems to think.

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  3. ps,
    Duration being the state of the present, as these events come and go, not a vector external to the present.

    Thus measures of time/frequency are subject to the context of what is being measured.

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  4. Coel,

    “I think that’s just a figurative way of asking “why does matter behave as it does?”, rather than seeing “laws” as something more primary than matter”

    Again, I don’t think so. Read Smolin’s latest and you’ll see that there is a genuine ontological debate within the physics community.

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  5. Eric,

    “Our languages must merely reflect epistemology, and so should never break into true ontology”

    Sort of. The way I think of it is that we don’t want our ontology to stray too far from our epistemology, i.e., if you makes ontological claims those claims better be congruent and close to the sum total of the empirical evidence. (Which is one reason I don’t believe in gods, for instance.)

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  6. Thanks for the lesson above Massimo, since apparently I’ve been using the terms “ontology” and “epistemology” in a nonstandard and thus faulty manner. Fortunately I did only begin using them in recent months.

    I was using “ontology” essentially as “that which is ultimately real,” and conversely “epistemology” as “human conceptions of reality.” Thus here a person would never say “our ontology,” since this would be exactly what was meant by the term “epistemology.” From your account above however I see that everything does step back one level (and thus I lose my nifty term to reference that which is ultimately real). So now I see that human understandings of reality may be referred to as “ontology,” while “epistemology” is relegated further back to evidence itself. Thus to reference that which is beyond us I must return to my standard and boring term “ultimate reality,” that is unless a nifty term does exist? If not then perhaps in Munich you’ll suggest our need for one.

    Regardless, the following is my corrected observation: ““Our languages must merely reflect ontology, and so should never break into ultimate reality.”

    Furthermore I’d love for you to mention to them a highly diplomatic version of the following: “The human, which includes every physicist who has ever lived, ultimately remains an idiot. That some would claim that a lack of human falsifiability will invalidate the potential for something to actually be real (like Karl Popper), may be interpreted as yet another demonstration of the human mind’s limitations.”

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  7. Eric, perhaps the word you are looking for to replace “ultimate reality” is noumenal world, a la Kant?

    Yes Massimo, that could do the trick! As long as I’m able to alternate between “phenomenal reality,” which should require a “phe” subject of experience, and then “nomenal reality,” which should be independent of any subject at all, this may help others understand my ideas. Thus I could now say: “Our languages must merely reflect ontology, and so should never break into noumenal reality.”

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  8. Massimo, well done with the 2013 “What Hard Problem” piece. For a moment you had me a bit puzzled when you called this a category mistake, since I do find “hard” to be quite an appropriate description. Nevertheless given that Chalmers does instead treat it as an “impossible” problem, and thus presumes that only dualism could be a sufficient explanation, yes I do consider this to be a category mistake as well. While the issue may indeed be hard, as you’ve mentioned, science should still be able to work on it, and perhaps even prevail. Evolution presumably did exactly this!

    Observe that plants and computers do have senses, though we don’t consider them “qualia.” Thus perhaps it would be useful to break the qualia term up into a “senses” input component, plus a “sensations” input component to represent the punishment/reward that a conscious subject experiences. So then how does one create horrible/wonderful existence for a computer, or bring it these “sensations”? Once senses are removed from this question, I believe we should have a more fundamental “hard problem of consciousness.”

    With this in mind, a far more simple question should concern why evolution took this route at all? I suspect to promote autonomy…

    If you can’t threaten/reward a machine with horrible/wonderful existence, then notice that you will give it no personal incentive to figure things out. Thus when it comes up against circumstances that it wasn’t designed to handle in our highly complex natural world, you might personally need to step in to improve it. I suspect that evolution was able to get around many such alterations, by solving the hard problem of consciousness. Because it could then (and only then) threaten/reward its subjects with good/bad personal existence, this gave subjects incentive to PERSONALLY figure out what to do. Responsibility here became transfered somewhat from creator, to created, and apparently this consciousness stuff was indeed a successful dynamic.

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  9. Gadfly,
    I’m a bit disappointed Labnut hasn’t dropped by.

    My current project of heavy manual labour leaves little time for things more cerebral 🙂 In general, I’ve explained my point of view and I don’t think it needs defending, not least because the objections I have seen are lightweight. But in any case I am determined to pursue the policy that there is no argument to win, only insights to be gained.

    Massimo,
    ..close to the sum total of the empirical evidence. (Which is one reason I don’t believe in gods, for instance.)

    I completely respect your choice but I think it is worthwhile re-examining how we come to accept certain beliefs. First, very few of us have access to primary evidence so we almost invariably make judgements on the basis of reported evidence. To do that we must choose whose reported evidence to believe. This we mostly do by firstly looking for reports from credible and authoritative figures and secondly we judge that by looking for confirmation from other sources and consensus.

    This combination of credible, authoritative sources that are confirmed by similar reports and reflect a general consensus is the manner we form reliable beliefs. From this it can be seen why we do not demand proof(none is available) and instead settle for an intuitive assessment based on a reasonable balance of probabilities. We do this all the time without thinking about it. When I board a plane for Johannesburg I cannot prove I will arrive safely. Nevertheless, on a reasonable balance of probabilities, I believe I will(passengers on flight MH70 made the wrong call). The strength of the balance of probability that I demand depends on the risk I am willing to assume. As a skydiver I was willing to assume a high level of risk and two close calls were a stark reminder of that risk.

    The law courts understand this very well and all law suits are decided on a balance of probabilities, even though they demand primary evidence. Criminal cases demand a strong balance of probabilities since society expects a low risk of punishing the innocent. Ordinary civil cases are settled on a simple balance of probabilities.

    With that background it should be seen that it is nonsensical to demand proofs of God’s existence. When atheists do that it is a dishonest rhetorical gambit designed to discomfit their theist opponents. Just as dishonest is the claim that theists have the burden of proof, since there is no proof to be had.

    Given all this, the only reasonable approach is to construct a balance of probabilities case for belief in God. To do this, one must construct a best case atheist hypothesis and a best case theist hypothesis. Then one marshals supporting evidence for each hypothesis, so called affirmative arguments. And then one marshals arguments in rebuttal and ask if there are any defeater arguments.

    Given the affirmative arguments for each hypothesis, and the counter-arguments in rebuttal, one is now well placed to form a balance of probabilities assessment. Each person must bring to the table his own level of acceptable risk he applies to this assessment. There is no need to use fancy Bayesian methods. We never do it in our daily lives so why do it in this case? In our daily lives we are satisfied with simple intuitive assessments of risk and probability. A dishonest technique I have seen being widely used is to misrepresent the theist hypothesis in its weakest form. Obviously one should only argue against the best case hypothesis but too many people are only interested in cheap rhetorical shots. Religion is the cultural manifestation of theism and so offers many opportunities for cheap shots.

    For me at least, it is transparently obvious that this balance of probabilities methodology is the only realistic way of deciding whether or not to believe in God. The strength of the balance of probabilities you apply depends on your tolerance for risk.

    This is what I have done. I carefully constructed best case hypotheses for both sides. I collected every available affirmative argument and argument in rebuttal for both hypotheses(this took me a lot of time). I came to the conclusion that the balance of probabilities, when considering some 20 or so affirmative arguments, strongly favoured the theist hypothesis and this is why I converted from atheism to theism. It was a costly conversion in the sense that it required a commitment to a changed way of living and a determination to become a better, more moral and compassionate person. Looking back, I feel that my life has become happier, more purposeful and more worthwhile as a result. All my friends are atheist and they look on with amusement(the atheists I know are nice people), seeing this as a confirmation of my eccentricity. But I love them for their tolerance.

    It is worth emphasising again the importance of making careful, honest, best case hypotheses for both sides of the argument. It takes a lot of research.

    Finally, I find it strange that almost no-one uses this approach. I have only ever seen it reported one other time. Of course, if all one is trying to do is win the argument then there are any number of cheap rhetorical shots available. I am prepared to accept that someone else can go through this same careful, researched process that I did and come up with the opposite conclusion. In that case I will gladly and respectfully share notes with him in a sincere search for new insights.

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