Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 139

Here it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

The phrase “meaning of life” has a surprisingly recent origin

The elusive quest to demarcate science from non-science.

Imagine, if you can, a criminal justice system that doesn’t yield to the retributive side of anger.

The difference between true contrarians and the oxymoronic concept of a contrarian herd.

Hard data, or intuitive hunch? That is the false dichotomy.

Five features of better arguments. Good luck implementing them.

Moderation: the most challenging and rewarding of virtues.


Please notice that the duration of the comments window is three days (including publication day), and that comments are moderated for relevance (to the post one is allegedly commenting on), redundancy (not good), and tone (constructive is what we aim for). This applies to both the suggested readings and the regular posts. Also, keep ‘em short, this is a comments section, not your own blog. Thanks!


44 thoughts on “Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 139

  1. wtc48

    iwwveeper: “Socratic Gadfly: Couldn’t you make a case that John Hammond had as much data as any sabermetric analysis. When he saw Lady Day, it all fell into place.”

    There are cases, in all fields, where data seems to have been pre-entered in an individual. The common term for this is “talent,” and those who have it are sometimes labeled “prodigies.” The classic example is Mozart, who was miles beyond his teachers from the start. Maybe Hammond is the Mozart of jazz. The nature of talent is somewhat of a mystery, but I don’t believe that this is necessary to its existence. If a human were born with the same sense of smell as a dog, it would be a prodigy for the human, but quite natural for the dog.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. leo vince

    Re: the meaning of life

    Not sure, but it’s not the dopamine effect I get by seeing my comments posted here (and the opposite). Everyone is talking and I hear no sound! I know, it sounds like one of Ἡράκλειτος fragments.


  3. ejwinner

    Paul Braterman,
    “Why not cut out the middleman, stop discussing what is or is not science, and focus directly, in cases of interest, on whether a claim is legitimate?”
    Because as a ‘just plain folk,’ I haven’t the knowledge or skill to judge the legitimacy of many scientific claims. I can, and do, discuss certain grand claims that seem to rest on questionable assumptions (‘string theory must be true because the math is so beautiful!’); or that derive from shoddy prejudice (‘genetics can prove the superiority of our race!); because such claims seem embedded with fallacious reasoning, and this I can understand. But while I follow debates eg., about the “Copenhagen interpretation,” I’m aware that I can’t really participate in these, because I don’t have the physics (or biology, or whatever the science involved.). Concerning much scientific information, I cannot actually know it, except insofar as I can trust the scientists involved.

    To put it another way: I don’t know that the earth is in the process of major (and not beneficial) climate change that we humans have brought about; I trust that this is the case, because I trust those expert in the sciences involved (some 95% or more, according to report, I understand) who tell me this is the case. On the other hand, as we should all be aware, quite a number of ‘just plain folk’ trust the 5% or fewer of the scientists who (for whatever reason) claim this is not the case; and yet again, some don’t believe there’s any such expertise at all.

    (I wrote “for whatever reason,” because obviously, trusting in the 95% climate scientists who say this is the case, that itself gives me cause to distrust the 5% who say it isn’t. But what happens if, in whatever science, a controversy arises and the percentages of between the disagreeing expert parties are not so obvious and overwhelming? Then I have to pay attention to what I can understand of the arguments, but otherwise hold judgment in abeyance because I just don’t have the science needed for participation.)

    The nature of expertise – in any field – seems superficially simple; I have an infection, I go to a doctor, I get an antibiotic, I’m cured. But why am I going to this doctor for this ‘antibiotic’ (in quotes, since I don’t really have at hand the science involved in its production), instead of going to a herbalist for some tea prepared from ‘an ancient remedy’ for curing ‘disturbances of the soul’ the infection may presumably manifest?

    As should clear from the recent discussions here at PF about the early dialogues of Plato, this problem goes back to the very origins of expertise and learning. Surprisingly, the world we share is not composed of what we know, but who we trust.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Robin Herbert

    While there never was a golden age of argument, the impersonal hyper-connectedness of the internet and the near omnipresence of our access to it have transformed the civic experience for those who remember something different.

    It would be good to get an example here of what that ‘something different’ is. The internet gets the blame for everything, but the average social media exchange is a model of civility and respect compared to the average parliamentary debate over the last, say 45 years that I can recall.

    And the concept of ‘winning’ an argument comes from those wretched high school ‘debating’ competitions where sophistry and empty rhetoric were rewarded.

    It was internet forums where the idea of ‘winning’ a debate became frowned upon.


  5. SocraticGadfly

    WTC, you reminded me of the famous Samuel Johnson bon mot:

    “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”


  6. SocraticGadfly

    More seriously, to WTC, re Hammond:

    It’s a talent for someone like Billie Holliday to sing just off the beat. It’s a taste, though, for people to like that as art.

    Ditto for Mozart avoiding parallel octaves in his Requiem, wrecked by the Süssmayr realization. (There are better modern realizations, don’t despair. The Boston Baroque uses another in its must-hear performance.) It’s a great talent, but, whether or not the realization wrecks Mozart, later ages of music used parallel fifths and parallel octaves all the time.

    And, again, de gustibus non disputandum.

    Now, that said, the intuition? Not only can it find potential new talents, it can consider them potential new talents based on hunches about changes, or impending changes, in taste.

    And, other than platinum records if one is right in guesses, that’s not measurable.

    And, individual tastes are value-less, anyway.

    To riff back to baseball sabermetrics:

    There is no Wozzecks Above Replacement.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Paul Braterman

    ejwinner, here too we can cut out the middleman. You need to feel confident, when consodering a topic that is out of your own area of expertise, that those you turn to for guidance deserve to be regarded as authorities. But this is true whether the topic is climate change, or income tax law, or the quality of Rommel’s generalship.


  8. brodix


    “Surprisingly, the world we share is not composed of what we know, but who we trust.”

    There is trust and there is blind trust. There is a point, when the train does appear to have left the track (ref. multiverses, rather than climate change), that some alternate views and ideas might be worth examining.


  9. Markk

    I also loved the better arguments article. Especially the first point, re seeking truth rather than winning arguments. I make that mistake too often. I ought to make a banner with that point and pin it on my wall.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. astrodreamer

    Sarewitz’s headline says: The impossibility—and the necessity—of distinguishing science from nonscience. Well, it can’t be both, can it? He clearly finds it impossible and unnecessary and is edging the public towards accepting the triumph of the Kuhn / Feyerabend / Lauden front. Pity that philosophical science critique should coincide with the spread of mindless right-wing anti-science.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. brodix


    Having the time to go back and read more carefully through your post on the mathematical nature of reality, I would like to offer up what I see as a very clear example of how basic mathematical facts get ignored by even the most august of sciences, when it goes against their group think.
    When Edwin Hubble first discovered the redshift of distant galaxies, the two possible reasons put forth were doppler shift, from them moving away, or a slowing of the light, aka “tired light.” The second was dismissed because there was no obvious distortions of this light, so nothing to slow it.
    The next problem to explain was this effect was essentially identical in all directions, with the rate of redshift proportional to distance. Which created the impression that we appear to be at the center of the universe. The consensus then became, using Einstein’s explanation of SR, “spacetime,” that space itself must be expanding and every point would appear as the center. Which entirely overlooks, for some unexamined reason, the basic premise of SR, that light is measured at C in any frame, given that if the light is being redshifted, obviously it is not Constant to the intergalactic frame, as it is taking longer to cross!
    Two metrics of space are being assumed, from the same intergalactic light. One, based on the spectrum, that appears to expand, being compared to one, based on the speed, that is being used as a denominator.
    If there are more lightyears between galaxies, as the universe supposedly expands, what determines this speed of light, if it is not the “vacuum” of space, through which light travels at C?
    As Einstein observed; “Space is what you measure with a ruler.” The ruler, in this case, is the speed of light, since it is still being used as the denominator.

    Given we are at the center of our point of view, that might suggest to someone bound by logic, that redshift is an optical effect, which is a much longer discussion.
    I would also point out that Inflation and Dark Energy are further patches to the Big Bang theory.
    Dark Matter might be resolved through a further examination of the quantization of light. That mass is part of the spectrum of this quantization/gravity, not gravity a property of mass.

    In response to ej’s comment about trusting authority, in all the decades of making this very basic point, I can only think of one instance where someone, over the course of years, rather unwillingly, came around to the admission that I had a point.
    All of which I see as the real power of the herd over logic.

    I too appreciate any feedback……


  12. Jesper Valgreen


    Wootton’s book sounds interesting. I might give it go.

    I don’t know Pierre Duhem’s work well enough to offer a confident opinion, but I think Quine should have stuck to his guns. The matter is not that words and their referents may be shuffled about arbitrarily, and I don’t think anyone besides Humpty-Dumpty ever subscribed to that notion. But, in the case of the Ptolemaic system, adjusting post hoc with epicycles upon epicycles ad infinitum, one may account for any conceivable trajectory. At the price, of course, of giving up on physical realism and ease of use. All that remains is a sort of arbitrary just-so formalism with an ever-growing number of fine-tuned parameters. That sort of thing cannot be falsified because it is not the sort of thing that can be true in any meaningful sense. The best that it can hope for is some kind of usefulness. When physicists talk of beauty and elegance, it is not just a matter of aesthetics, but of avoiding precisely this kind of mess.
    It is worth noting also that Tycho Brahe rejected the Copernican model precisely because he failed to observe any parallax – a clear prediction of that model. He had in his own view falsified it. He proposed his own model, with the Sun orbiting the Earth, and the Planets in turn orbiting the Sun. We now know of course that what he really falsified was the auxiliary hypothesis of a small universe.
    I remain agnostic on SUSY, but at some point this also becomes a matter of whether there are better things to do with all that money. In that regard, mathematical consistency and, indeed, elegance is hugely important, not as an end in itself, but as a means. No one ever directly observed the Higgs boson. What was observed was an incredible mess of decay particles, and to calculate through that, to make the calculations even possible, is what drives the search for elegant math. On that note, Quantum Field Theory with its Feynman path integrals and the summing over histories of an infinity of unphysical virtual particles, may soon join the Ptolemaic system as a stepping stone, but not ultimately the right idea. The success of QFT is that it incorporates spacetime into Quantum Theory, but at the price of virtual particles and the introduction of terms that, when calculated through, just cancel out. As long as the interactions are simple it doesn’t matter much, but at LHC-level messes, the formulas run to dozens of pages. New approaches developed by Nima Arkany-Hamed and others gets rid of this awful mess, but the consequence is that spacetime cannot be fundamental.

    “Some sort of metaphysically random world…” surely, that would be a Bolzman universe? But the matter may not be whether some pattern obtains that is amenable to mathematical treatment. But whether focusing on that is the best way of obtaining useful knowledge. Sometimes the best treatment is historical; sometimes its better to tell stories than to do equations.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Alan White

    Sorry I (sic)ed your nom de plume astrodreamer.


    “As Einstein observed; “Space is what you measure with a ruler.” The ruler, in this case, is the speed of light, since it is still being used as the denominator.”

    The constant c is a posit in special and general relativity. Proper measurements are by clocks and rulers within inertial frames only, and thus support that posit of c in both theory and observational results. I’ve written several pieces debunking misunderstandings like this, the latest in Erkenntnis a couple years back.

    Liked by 1 person

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