Plato’s weekend suggestions

readingsOur regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

Mo’ parsimony, mo’ problems: a philosophical analysis of the epistemic independence of paleontology.

One more on Sam Harris, no comment.

Are the constants of physics actually constant? So far, it appears so, but nobody knows why.

Perhaps Plato was right about the limits of democracy after all…

Most popular theories of consciousness are worse than wrong. Very likely including the one put forth by the author of this article.

Finally someone said it: there is absolutely nothing wrong with “appropriating” other cultures. Indeed, it’s the way human cultures evolve.

Google DeepMind: What is it, how does it work and should you be scared?

Turns out, Neil DeGrasse Tyson shouldn’t just not talk about philosophy, but also about biology

On the benefits of starting your day with a cold shower. Trust me, it works.

Leaving an academic post because it just isn’t worth it. Interesting article, though it doesn’t seem to me like the author actually has a plan B in mind.

118 thoughts on “Plato’s weekend suggestions

  1. Thomas Jones

    Dan K, what are you talking about? Did I say you had called someone a crackpot (in so many words . . . maybe)? Coel was a regular commentator here, as you well know. He called Brodix a “crackpot,” and was told by Massimo he would be temporarily suspended for doing so. He told Massimo to shove it. And that is why you don’t have to deal with him anymore. I think it was unfortunate on both sides, but it’s Massimo’s blog and he gets to draw the lines.


  2. SocraticGadfly

    Lila, re your four points.

    I think No. 1 is probably half true.

    No. 2? At least 110 percent true.

    No. 3? Even more true than No. 2.

    No. 4. About 100 percent true.

    I don’t know about No. 1, but there’s very good evidence to support Nos 2-4. If you refuse to objectively look at said evidence … that’s your problem.


    Beyond the more immediate points? I think Harris’ “strategy” on debates and discussions makes him look more like a YEC all the time. And I really mean that. I think Harris ups the ante on this behavior each time.

    And, Thomas, per your own comment … it is Massimo’s blog. If he wants to post a link the the latest outré Harris move, with a one-line dismissiveness, it Is Massimo’s blog. And, like all of us, you too have the choice of commenting or not.


  3. SocraticGadfly

    I also, to double down more, find many of Harris’ followers cult-like. I’m not saying that Lila is a “follower,” in a disciple-like sense, let alone a cult-like follower, but, my interactions in various social media show a lot of followers of his who think he can do little wrong, as well as that he’s a public intellectual genius which, per Massimo, he is not.

    (I suppose we should be grateful that Massimo’s dismissive 1-line linking hasn’t served as some sort of dogwhistle bringing them all here.)


  4. Thomas Jones

    Socratic: “(I suppose we should be grateful that Massimo’s dismissive 1-line linking hasn’t served as some sort of dogwhistle bringing them all here.)”

    Some might think their absence outside of the regulars here undercuts your cult characterization.


  5. Thomas Jones

    Socratic: “If he wants to post a link the the latest outré Harris move . . .” Actually, the piece linked is per my earlier comment just another in the line. I’m not here to defend Harris, and while I’ve already acknowledged Massimo’s prerogative in linking to whatever he wants, I’m not brain-dead yet. It’s the “No comment” comment that I claim gives the appearance of shit-stirring the readership. Else where are all the “cult” harpies, come to defend Harris’s integrity? This is, I think, a waste of time and certainly a move that smacks of the same sort of bias and manipulation that some here self-righteously denounce.


  6. Robin Herbert

    Hi Lila,

    I don’t think the issue of whether or not I agree with a criticism is relevant to the question of whether that criticism is a smear or not. Neither is the question of whether or not the criticisms are right. One can criticise and be wrong, that does not make it a smear.

    I can only go back to what I said before, the author agreed to the debate requested by Sam Harris and agreed to terms demanded by Harris which favoured Harris.

    That seems to be going rather out of his way to give Harris every opportunity to respond in just the way Harris would wish to respond

    Although there might not be a precise borderline between what is a smear and what is not, the extent to which the author has acceded to Harris’s demands seems to put it very firmly in the non-smear category.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Robin Herbert

    I think the question of whether or not someone can be labelled a ‘scholar’ is meaningless. I could put out a shingle claiming to be a scholar.

    It is far more important to ask whether what somebody is saying or writing makes sense or is useful.

    Incidentally, I read a bit of the ‘Towards a science of morality’ thing, which is what I assume is being referred to above.

    It seemed like a lot of waffle on all sides, at one point someone wanted to resurrect Bentham’s hedonic calculus, God help us.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Robin Herbert

    Hi Synred,

    If spirt what rules does it obey? Does cause-effect apply? Or randomness?

    Anything, whether a spirit or a machine, might obey rules which are neither deterministic nor random. As I pointed out before, these are only a dichotomy for completely indivisible events. The idea that there is no alternative other than deterministic or random is a misapprehension which appears to plague discussions about free will.


  9. synred

    Well when I said the that choices were either caused or uncaused (which I took/take to be random) in Theology class, the good reverend professor at Santa Clara told me my thinking was too ‘mechanical’. Well what did he expect I was a physics major!

    I know that many question have more than two answers, but what exactly does ‘uncaused’ split between? Random and what?

    Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung? I don’t get that.

    What else?


  10. Robin Herbert

    Hi Synred

    In order to understand the question I would have to know who is it that claims that the ‘uncaused’ splits between something and something else. I am not aware of that claim.

    I can neither explain your theology profession nor Schopenhauer to you as I have never met the former and I don’t understand the latter.

    I could point out that you are asking the wrong question – you should be asking what ’caused’ splits into. That I can splits into deterministic, non-deterministic/non-random and random.

    As for ‘uncaused’, I am not sure what you mean by it. Do you just mean random?


  11. synred

    Well I trying was to express your ‘neither determinant nor indeterminate’ in the language I used way-back-when.

    Caused does split into determinate and probabilistic (QM}, if you don’t buy Many w

    Is that what you mean? It doesn’t help, it’s still random. even if the odds of various choices are influenced by the prior conditions..

    ‘determinant vs. indeterminate’ doesn’t seem to me to leave much wiggle room.

    I suppose indeterminate into might be split into ‘random’ and nothing (the world just stops?) and we never find out what would have happened.


  12. Robin Herbert

    For example, I wrote a program which takes a set of randomly generated algorithms and evolves them into algorithms which draw a rectangle.

    Now if I took out the pseudo random number generator function in the program and replaced it with a genuine random number generator then the run of the program, as a whole, would be a process which was neither deterministic, nor random.

    So describing something which is neither deterministic nor random is easy. Yet that dichotomy still sits at the heart of the objections many people make to the idea of libertarian free will.


  13. Robin Herbert

    Hi Synred,

    Is that what you mean? It doesn’t help, it’s still random. even if the odds of various choices are influenced by the prior conditions..

    No, I meant what I said, something which is <neither determnistic, nor random. Such as the process I described above.

    It will eventually produce a program that more or less draws a rectangle, but will do it in unpredictable ways.

    If there is such a thing as a genuine random number generator then that process I described is possible.


  14. synred

    Now if I took out the pseudo random number generator function in the program and replaced it with a genuine random number generator then the run of the program, as a whole, would be a process which was neither deterministic, nor random

    That seems wrong to me. The first program is determinate. If you run it again with the same seed you’ll get the same results.

    The second program is random. The fact that they share the same code is irrelevant. The second will not repeat accept by stroke of luck.


  15. Robin Herbert

    The program uses randomness, but it is not random. It will achieve a specific goal in a non-random, not deterministic way.

    There is such a thing as a real random number generator. You can, e.g., digitize the time of a radiative decay to produce a truly random number.

    Not if Everettian Quantum Mechanics is true, in which case nothing is random, which is why I said “if there is such a thing as true randomness”.


  16. synred

    A program is determinate. If you what you put X in you get Y=’F(X). Same X gives same Y every time. It’s just a function in the mathematical sense. A map from one set X to another Y.

    (If you put a different sent X’ in you get a different set Y’ (well it might in some cases be the same set Y).. If you put in random X’s you will get random Ys. If X’s are random Y’s will be random, if the program does something.

    [a] A program the predicts weather might only output sun, ran or snow from the input of a vast array of measurements. In a more extreme case a program might output the same Y regard;eess of X. Such a program would be determinate even of X is truly random.

    If Y depends on X then random X gives random Y

    Here’s a fun one. Write a program the spits out a pseudo-random selected phrase regardless of the question typed by a user. I’d bet it could pass the Turing test with some folks or post away on some blogs (not PF). .


  17. synred

    It’s easy enough to write a program to place points along the edges of a triangle or fill in the interior based on a random input. It is unnecessarily complicated … just selecting points between 0-1 makes the same point.
    The program is just


    where X is the random input between 0 and 1 and Y is the output. If X is random Y is random.
    As there are a finite number of possible number in a digital computer, the program will eventual produce all the possible numbers. You could put them in a list. With more computing you can put them in the list in order of size, the determinate end you seek.

    However, to know you finished you have to check (just count). For any finite time, the list may still be missing some entries. As the time grows the probability of this drops to near zero, but never goes to 0.

    If you run long enough you will reach your pre-determined goal, but you can’t know how long it will take. The time till completion will be random. The behavior of the program is still random.
    It’s not much of a model for ‘free will’ either. The behavior of the program is determined for any given input. The end point is determined by construction. The route to the result is slow and random.


  18. synred

    The end point is not random. The behavior of the program is random. The time it takes to get there is random.

    See detail in previous post.

    People all end up dead. That is determinate. In the meanwhile their behavior seems pretty variable, if not random.


  19. Massimo Post author


    I’m not sure I would describe the recent commentary as problematic, though at times I wish some people (will not name names) didn’t add superfluous, and indeed occasionally self-undermining, side comments that may be perceived as unfriendly.

    Then again, as I hope you all know, while I’m striving to keep this forum civil and constructive, I’m not going to police anything but the most egregious offenses (“crackpot”), and of course I myself occasionally slip into phrasing something in a way that I later regret — like the now infamous “no comment” comment accompanying the link to the article about Harris. Pobody’s nerfect, as they say…


    no, I’m not about to provide safe spaces for anyone, but see comment above about civility and constructiveness.

    Harris may be charitably described as an independent scholar, but for me the definition of scholar implies that the person actually publishes in peer reviewed spaces, which Harris does not. There are some actual independent scholars out there, and he doesn’t seem to fit the category. He is an author of popular books, and a successful one at that. No shame there.

    That infamous footnote (there are actually two that I mention in my review) was a deal breaker for me because it signaled quite clearly what he has then done since consistently: his refusal to engage with actual scholars in the fields he opines about. In my mind he is very much like Krauss, actually, but I could be mistaken.

    I really doubt that my occasional articles and comments about Harris are doing much damage to him. At the least, I don’t see any empirical evidence for it…

    As for Pinker, Haidt, Bloom, etc.. Well, to begin with my personal opinion of at the least some of that bunch isn’t particularly high, even though they are all legitimate scholars. Second, it is perfectly natural that they all engage each other and endorse each other’s books, since they all subscribe to a strongly scientistic stance, usually harshly critical or dismissive of the humanities (see Pinker’s infamously condescending piece telling humanists not to be afraid of science, for instance). Now, such groups do exist on the other side as well, of course, but again it is no mystery — nor any indication of Harris’ credibility — that those particular individuals endorse him.


    “So how does a ‘biological organism’ differ from a machine? I take it as a skeptic that you’re not advocating anything beyond the physical, right? No spirits or élan vital? So to me as a physicist if it’s physical it’s machinery.”

    No elan vital, I assure you. Machines are first off designed, organisms are not. Second, machines tend to have little redundancy of systems compared organisms, which is why the former are often described in engineering terms as “brittle” while the latter tend to be more homeostatic to internal and external disturbances. (This is, of course, a matter of degrees.) Third, machines are built from a blueprint, organisms develop by a complex series of intermediate stages. Fourth, machines aren’t alive, and one doesn’t need to invoke an elan vital to see that there is a difference between, say, a robotic dog and an actual dog.

    So when you say that for a physicist if it’s physical it’s a machinery is something I’m not on board with. If it’s physical it’s made of matter/energy, but “machine” has a much more narrow meaning than physical.

    synced and Robin,

    you may have been talking across purposes during your discussion of random vs deterministic. No program of the type described by Robin can be random, but if it does include a significant source of randomness then the process that the program generates may be described as random.

    Either way, discussions about free will should never be about determinism vs randomness, since that entirely misses the point. The point is about causality vs a-casuality, whatever the source and character of causal processes.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Robin Herbert

    Hi Synred,

    Yes it is!

    I know about programs.

    As do I. In particular I know about the program I am describing.

    Assume that it uses a true random number generator.

    The endpoint is not random, as you say. But neither is it determined.

    The endpoint will be a program which can draw a rectangle. But since there are many ways for a program to draw a rectangle (single loops, nested loops, explicit point setting etc) there are many ways to satisfy the end condition. The endpoint (if ever reached) will be a program that can draw a rectangle, any program that can draw a rectangle.

    Each of the steps in between will be the same, neither random nor determined as there is no difference between the intermediate steps and the end point other than that a condition has been satisfied.

    The time to run will be random, because it will depend on, among other things, the time to run for each of the evolving programs which were randomly generated and randomly mutated at each step. But the fact that the time to run is random does not make the process as a whole random. Clearly the process I am describing is not random.

    Not a good model for free will? Of course not, it was not intended to be. It is simply a counter example to falsify the claim that any non deterministic process must be random.

    If there is a claim “if A then B” you only need to find a counter example of “A and not B” to falsify the premise, a trivial counter example will do.


  21. Robin Herbert

    Hi Massimo,

    If you don’t think that determinism is a key issue in a debate about free will then you probably mean something different by the term than I do.

    For my part I think that it would be meaningless to say that we could have free will even if every one of our actions was already inevitable before we were born.

    On the other hand I can’t see how causality is an impediment even to libertarian free will, as long as causality does not imply determinism.


  22. Massimo Post author


    I’m sure you know this, but compatibilists and incompatibilists both accept whatever picture of the universe comes from physics, be it deterministic or with a component of randomness. Free will isn’t going to come from randomness, so that’s usually a red herring in the discussion.

    Contra-causal incompatibilists, on the other hand, typically claim that free will is, in fact, non caused, which is a position I reject, but it too has nothing to do with determinism or randomness, it has to do with causality.

    Liked by 1 person

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