Mathematical Platonism is one of those things I changed my mind about over time. And, of course, I may change it again. I began with curiosity and at least partial assent, convinced that mathematics is, indeed, uncannily weird. Too weird for there not to be some substance to the idea that mathematical truths are not invented by mathematicians, but rather “discovered,” in a way analogous to how astronomers discover planets (though, obviously, not literally: no telescope will ever show you the Pythagorean theorem…).
Robert Wright, the author of The Moral Animal and a visiting professor of science and religion at Union Theological Seminary, has written a provocative article recently in the New York Times’ Stone column, entitled “Can evolution have a higher purpose?” His answer is a qualified and rather nuanced yes. Mine, as we shall see, is a decided no. But my no also comes with some qualifications. Our differences might be useful to those who want to think about the nature of science (the subject matter of philosophy of science) and the nature of the world (the subject matter of metaphysics).
A few weeks ago my CUNY Graduate Center’s colleague Michael Devitt gave a colloquium entitled “Individual essentialism in biology,” which was followed by a response/commentary by Peter Godfrey-Smith by the title “Modality, essence, and biology.” I thought it was a really interesting example of two top notch philosophers going at each other, respectively defending and criticizing a given central thesis, in the best tradition of analytical philosophy (no, I do not mean this as a sneer). It was also, however, a rather surreal experience for a biologist turned philosopher of science such as myself. I mean, essentialism, seriously?
Despite the title of this blog, I have made it clear that I reject any form of Platonism, from the original idea of “Forms” to the mathematical variety. This is something I’ve given quite a bit of thought to, and one of those instances were I can document having changed my mind, from a positive position to a negative one. But of course I’m neither a metaphysician nor a philosopher of mathematics, so my opinions in this area are simply those of a scientist and philosopher with a general background in both disciplines.
Disclaimer: I’m neither a physicist, nor a philosopher of physics. Moreover, I don’t play either role on television! Nonetheless, I’m fascinated by physics, as well as by debates amongst physicists, or between physicists and philosophers. So I perked up when a couple of weeks ago the regular colloquium at the Philosophy Program of CUNY’s Graduate Center was scheduled to be by Nina Emery, of Brown University, who gave an unusually lucid talk (given the topic) entitled “Against radical quantum ontologies.”
Panpsychism is in the news. Check out, for instance, this Oxford University Press blog entry by Godehard Brüntrup and Ludwig Jaskolla. Brüntrup is the Erich J. Lejeune Chair at the Munich School of Philosophy, has published a monograph on mental causation, and is the author of a bestselling introduction to the philosophy of mind. Jaskolla, in turn, is a lecturer in philosophy of mind at the same school, his research focusing on the metaphysics and phenomenology of persons, the philosophy of psychology, and the philosophy of action.
In other words, these are serious people. And so is the paladino-par-excellence of panpsychism, NYU’s David Chalmers. Why, then, are they lending their weight to such a bizarre notion? Let’s talk about it.
Causality is one strange concept. It is absolutely essential to our understanding of the so-called “manifest image” of the world, i.e., the world as perceived and navigated by human beings. (The distinction between the manifest and the scientific image was introduced by philosopher Wilfred Sellars.) It is crucial for us to distinguish between events that happen because (i.e., are caused by) other events, vs things that appear to be the result of chains of cause-effect but really aren’t. We think smoking, statistically speaking, causes cancer, meaning that there are physical events that make it more likely that if you are a smoker you will get cancer. But when a few years ago someone showed a statistically significant correlation between number of births in London and frequency of storks flying overhead, nobody cried out for a revision of human biology textbooks…