Plato’s weekend suggestions

readingsAnd we are back! After the 29 “episodes” of the Nature of Philosophy series, Plato’s suggestions for your weekend readings return:

Here is a detailed review, published in the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, of a new book by James Marcum, entitled Thomas Kuhn’s Revolutions: A Historical and an Evolutionary Philosophy of Science? The reviewer, John A. Schuster (University of Sydney), was a student of Kuhn and has some really interesting insights to offer about the complex relationship between the historian-philosopher and the (highly controversial) developments in sociology of science and science studies that followed Kuhn’s work.

Some people hate Alain de Botton, others love him. I think sometimes he is cheesy, at other times insightful. In this article in the New York Times he tells us why we tend to marry the wrong person, and why it’s okay to let go of romantic expectations and embrace pessimism instead.

A really interesting article by Martin Smith in the Oxford University Press blog (a source to keep an eye on) arguing that sometimes it is rational to believe things that are unlikely. Does this indirectly undermining the Bayesian paradigm?

David Hu is a self-confessed “wasteful scientist,” and makes a very good case for why scientists ought to clearly explain what they do to the public, and especially why the taxpayers should support their research.

Teenager leaves spectacles on floor of San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art as a prank, leading some to think they were an exhibit. A huge discussion ensues on whether the teenager’s glasses — given his intention — were or were not art. But perhaps we should discuss whether some modern art is actually bullshit.

Not a very recent entry, but molecular biologists think that the human body can distinguish between hedonic and eudaimonic well-being, at a cellular level…

What is literary criticism good for? This long review of three recent books on the topic is a good introduction to the question.

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Categories: Plato's Suggestions

49 replies

  1. Eric

    It is sad to see you too using “reductionist” pejoratively or as though it is non preferred dissatisfactory information. We either take human nature as it is without giving it a second thought, or we start being reductionists by breaking it down into mental compartments like pleasure vs pain, utility etc. Then we break pleasure down into different types of pleasure and then down into chemical reactions. We all do this. Reductionism is reductionism. You haven’t escaped it by using words to break down a concept rather than molecules. You are either in favour of seeking deeper lower level explanations or you are not.

    Nothing but good can come from finding out that our molecules react better for our health to eudaimonic pleasure than hedonic pleasure. If we are able to demonstrate this at the cellular level it is far far from useless reductionism. It aids higher level understanding.

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  2. Reductionism 6/4/2016 12:10 PM

    Let me repeat here what I posted on PF and Aeon.

    ‘Reduction’ is used as a pejorative term of explanation.

    ;What’s actually done is to show how ‘higher levels’ ’emerge’ from ‘lower’. The lower level does not by itself explain or allow us to understand the higher level [a].

    My favorite example is thermodynamics ’emerging’ from atoms. When Boltzmann explained thermodynamics with statistical mechanics is he haded something, namely statistics, i.e., how lots of atoms behave.

    It was not a reduction, but a construction.

    An imperfect analogy would be building a house out of bricks, boards and glass.

    If I had my way we’d quit calling it ‘reductionism’, but, that’ll never happen..

    Now most other problems are harder than thermo and remain unsolved. Even chemistry and the stability of molecules is an unsolved problem much less biology, intelligence or ‘consciousness’.

    I’ve been reading about QM and apparently even the emergence of particle like behavior from the underlying fields is not completely understood though there are workable calculational tools and I can calculate the angular distribution in ‘beauty’ meson decays.

    [a] The lower level, even if completely understood, can at most ‘simulate’ what happened. It does not explain how/why it happens.

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  3. The important point is that lower level explanations are additional knowledge not a reduction of knowledge. One always has the higher level explanations all the way up to the macro manifest image. None of that goes away or is made irrelevant by lower level explanations. Engaging in lower level explanations should be called additionalism so people don’t misunderstand it so badly. It is additional information. It reduces nothing. At it’s worst it is moot, but more often it is helpful in the macro world.

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  4. I like the word ‘construction’ and neologism would be ‘constructivism’ which we can steal back from ‘post modernist’ and in analogy to building stuff.

    {/:>)

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  5. “Reductionism” is a singularly uninformative term, unless it is stated exactly what reduced to what and (this is important) in what sense it reduces.

    The word has been used in a bewildering variety of ways many of them contradictory. Even as applied to materialism it refers to a family of positions, not just one position. Even dualism has been stated as one position within reductionism.

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  6. Hi Garthdaisy,

    Thank you for your concern! I’m sure that more than a few out there are just itching for there to be a fight between us which adds division among their perceived foes. As always however, I simply seek sensible discussion so that different opinions can be plainly stated and analysed. Unfortunately I often perceive disagreement through separate term interpretation — surely not the most sensible way to explore things!

    As far as reduction/emergence goes, I’m an extreme believer in causality, and even beyond most modern physicists, who seem to interpret Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle as a demonstration of ultimate uncertainty. From my definitions if there is any ULTIMATE uncertainty whatsoever, then this represents a void in causality, or what’s commonly known as “magic.” Apparently this is the only form of supernatural existence which physicists currently advocate (to the chagrin of Einstein). Regardless yes, all things should reduce in my opinion, because otherwise the principal of naturalism becomes broken.

    When we move from ontology to epistemology however, the extremely imperfect human perspective must also be taken into account. Thus here we don’t attempt to study how politics work through things like biology and neuroscience, but instead we idiot humans generally just try to fathom social dynamics themselves. Yes the realities of biology and neurology will help determine political realities, though we should be far too stupid to learn much about this through such fields, and even though biology and neuroscience should be quite instrumental for determining political dynamics.

    So yes I am in favor of seeking deeper lower lever explanations, which we obviously do as science progresses, though I consider the human to be far too stupid to generally explore, for example, politics by means of biology and neuroscience, even though such cause/effect dynamics should exist in my opinion.

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  7. Like a lot of things, there are positive and negative aspects of reductionism.

    It is necessary for understanding reality. Our eyesight is reductionist, or it would all just be white light, though we call it focusing.

    Like focusing, reductionism highlights some aspects, but obscures others.

    We can’t turn all noise to signal, or it becomes noise again.

    A more useful exercise would be to go back and study many of the aspects of reality that are obscured, but this is hard to do, since we only tend to see what our minds and cultures have trained us to see.

    I’ve certainly raised a few issues here, to use as examples of such training. Time as an effect of action, thus future becoming past, rather than present moving from past to future, would be the one I’ve raised most often, but our minds function as a sequence of perceptions and so that is a pretty foundational framing device to be objective about.

    Also that a dimensionless point is mathematically self negating would be another, but a lot of abstraction is built onto that and so there is little inclination to open that door either.

    So don’t knock reductionism, but understand it is a significant tool, but not a god.

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  8. Filter and focus light.

    Though for many, tools are gods.

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  9. While I think it’s quite hopeless to reduce entire subjects back to more basic subjects, I’m very interested in reducing individual concepts back to more basic ones. How about morality? I work with a form of ethics which is “amoral,” or perhaps “descriptive” rather than “prescriptive.” My subjective total utilitarianism provides theory regarding good/bad rather than right/wrong. Thus I consider it to reside on a more basic plane than the one which philosophers generally explore. The following is an attempt to reduce the morality which resides in philosophy, back to the plane which I generally work with:

    Apparently for many definitions of morality, social beliefs are the main component. Thus perhaps eating dog is considered moral in Korea, but immoral in American. Furthermore this social definition might be extended out to other species. Thus among certain birds it’s moral for a mother to permit a dominant chick to kill the weaker.

    Some might confine definitions of morality to encompass little beyond the human however. Here a social component may or may not be included, though apparently utility associated with empathy and/or theory of mind are required in a biological sense. If your understanding of the utility/happiness state of others does not affect you in a corresponding manner, and if you are similarly unmoved by your understanding of what others think of you, then you should reside independently of morality. This is what we expect of robots and conscious fish. From a faithful dog however, some reasonable morality is generally expected.

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  10. To talk about morality in anything other than social animals is as incoherent as talking about flight in non flying animals. Morality is an evolved set of emotions and intuitions in social animals. Non social animals have no such thing nor does our idea of morality apply to them.

    As for us social animals I would agree with Eric that there is no such thing as right or wrong, only a subjective good or bad. From this subjective good and bad people can vote on what they think should be permissible and not permissible, but “right” and “wrong” are incoherent in anything other than a religious world view.

    But thanks to our evolved social animal traits, subjective “good” and “bad” turns out to be directly tied to collective good and bad. We evolved to feel good about being seemingly selfless because such seeming selflessness is in the end self serving. In fact the more selfless it feels, the more self serving it usually is.

    The study that got this discussion rolling, if it’s results are confirmed, is grounding for this idea, which is noticeable in the manifest image, but only confirmed by lower level explanations in biology, and perhaps even lower level explanations in physics.

    It can never hurt to have lower level scientific understanding of emotions that can be confusing in the manifest image alone. The reason the manifest image of our emotions can be so confusing without the lower level explanations is that they are anachronistic, in that they evolved for another environment. We can only know this through lower level (reductionist) explanations.

    To either doubt this study, or to think it is worthless information is strange to me. I think it is both likely to be true and incredibly useful information if it is.

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  11. I like to argue that like ‘opposite sexes’ are not opposites. Good and bad are not opposites. Good is not simply the absence of bad.

    Bad/evil is absolute: pain, death, perhaps excessive social disruption leading to pain and death.

    Good is relative — depends on what you like and care about. Different strokes for different folks.

    -Traruh

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  12. Hi garth,

    “To either doubt this study, or to think it is worthless information is strange to me. I think it is both likely to be true and incredibly useful information if it is.”

    I don’t think that the article carries enough information to trust or doubt it or even to know what they are claiming.

    I am interpreting that they mean that the brain propogates different signals for emotions that we term eudaimonic to the ones it propogates for the emotions we term “hedonic” and that certain systems in our body react differently to these different signals.

    That would be more or less what even a layman would predict, so I am not sure how useful that information is.

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  13. It seems a little like saying that the molecules in our tear ducts are capable of distinguishing between strong and neutral emotions.

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  14. Morality and reductionism do not mix well. For one thing, moralism is an ideal, while the function of reductionism is to isolate and define a particular aspect, essence or quality. Ideals don’t reduce to anything other than themselves, because they are a wholisitic quality. Trying to distill morality to its basic elements would be like trying to reduce beauty to its basic elements.
    Yes, it can be observed that good and bad are a biological binary, which will guide any functioning organic entity, from single celled organisms, to human societies, but that is as useful and informative as knowing computers use a on/off binary code to build out multitudes of possible programs.
    What guides entities is that sense of the ideal. Otherwise the wholeness is lost and they break up.
    This is why religions, no matter how archaic and obtuse, will provide a social foundation in ways science and philosophy cannot. They create social convergence, while the analytic intellect tends to create divergences.

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  15. Garthdaisy,

    I am certainly aware of your anti capitalism position, and so have wanted to find a less confrontational place to mention that I’m on the other side. I didn’t “choose” to be a capitalist, but rather see capitalism displayed throughout nature. I’m sure that you do as well, but also have evidence that the highly evolved human has largely overcome such basics. I think you’ve mentioned observing that the happiest people tend to also be the ones who help others the most. This surely puts you reasonably close to Massimo’s virtue ethics. Yes I can see why you’d find the mentioned study so exciting!

    I do not want to rob you of your optimism, but disagree nonetheless. I consider us all to essentially be selfish, even given our empathy. I work hard for the benefit of myself (which includes those I love and so on), so the more I feel that the fruits of my labor are instead appropriated by others, the less incentive I have to produce. Nevertheless the principal of capitalism itself suggests that this system must be heavily regulated. Given human selfishness, under capitalism the powerful will naturally tend to use their power to exploit the weak. Thus governments must actively step in to prevent this as well as they can.

    Anyway, you’re free to try to help me become more of an optimist regarding human nature. As for me however, I’m not terribly worried about converting you to capitalism. There are many far more controversial topics that I hope for us to explore!

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  16. Hi Brodix,

    So people commonly define “morality” as an ideal rather than as a property of reality? Well this could help explain why I’m commonly so misunderstood — perhaps others are highly concerned about ideals, while reality itself is virtually all that concerns me. I don’t know if I’ll ever gain an interest in ideals, though I certainly enjoy speaking with those interested in the realities of good/bad existence itself.

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  17. Eric,

    The ideal is as fundamental to the cognitive function as intuition. It is like a compass needle pointing us in our preferred direction.

    Yes, when we start to examine the details of what we try to then define as ideal, it becomes fuzzy and everyone has different views on what are their ideals.

    You, for instance, would seem to view “reality” as your ideal, but what is reality?

    For example, for the “hard sciences” and math, the ideal of reality is the most stable and repeatable patterns. So they retreat to the micro, macro and pure abstraction, because that is where the most stable patterns are. Yet even there, they keep finding fuzziness and infinities and so push even further and now we have string theory and mathematical proofs that require terabytes of information, as extensions of these ideals.

    Why are stable patterns an ideal? Is it because our thought processes operate in in terms of stable patterns, rather than the dynamic functionality in which we exist? Even our eyesight creates flashes of momentary perception, rather than processing all the light entering our eyes.

    Now I keep raising various points, such as time not being fundamental, or that a dimensionless point is self negating, yet no one responds. Is that because my points are illogical, or because they are outside the group think that forms the compass needle of collective thought? Our group ideal of what is what.

    So what is it you seek in life, if it is not an ideal?

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  18. No Brodix, I wouldn’t say that reality is my ideal. I commonly consider it quite non ideal actually. But only by learning about reality do I believe that we can better deal with it. I seek for us to better understand reality rather than have our heads in the clouds. I believe that through pure description, we can learn how to better lead our individual lives, as well as structure our individual societies. I neither see philosophers attempting this so far, nor psychologists. Though it may be repugnant at times, I find a great answer in subjective total utilitarianism.

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  19. Eric,

    I’m with you on the idea we could benefit from better understanding reality. For example, that money is a contract, not a commodity.

    Though I would be careful how you phrase it. Much of what qualifies as real is only utilitarian in filling a place and time. When you try to extract some deeper purpose, the whole bubble collapses.

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