Week of April 23, 2012: Week in Review

Interesting stuff from around the web: a scientist claims that philosophy is useless, apologizes, then claims that philosophy is really useless. A real-world example of the prisoner's dilemma. Interesting infographic of logical fallacies. Can evolution provide a foundation for moral law?

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On the uselessness of philosophy. Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist, apparently agrees with Steven Hawking, that philosophy is past its prime and is being supplanted by the hard sciences. In an interview for The Atlantic, he claims that physics progresses and philosophy does not. Physics unpacks truth about the universe and philosophy is only interesting to other philosophers. “Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, ‘those that can't do, teach, and those that can't teach, teach gym.’” Philosophy, according to Krauss, is only useful when it informs other disciplines which actually do all the heavy lifting, epistemically speaking. That was on Monday.

On Friday, he “updates” his comments in response to a letter he received by his friend Daniel Dennett. In the Scientific American, Krauss admits that he did not intend to come across as denying that philosophy is completely useless. It’s effective in some areas—like telling us where we ought to start to study the world—but still, as a discipline that gets at truth about the universe, it’s not much good. “When it comes to the real operational issues that govern our understanding of physical reality, ontological definitions of classical philosophers are, in my opinion, sterile.  Moreover, arguments based on authority, be it Aristotle, or Leibniz, are irrelevant.” he writes. He apologizes (for what is unclear) but then has a recommendation: “To those who wish to impose their definition of reality abstractly, independent of emerging empirical knowledge and the changing questions that go with it, and call that either philosophy or theology, I would say this:  Please go on talking to each other, and let the rest of us get on with the goal of learning more about nature.”

And no, this isn’t satire.

Self-replicating, synthetic nucleic acids. For those who agree with Krauss’ philosophy, perhaps this article on self-replicating, synthetic nucleic acids might be more interesting. According to the article, this research, has “implications not only for the fields of biotechnology and drug design, but also for research into the origins of life—on this planet and beyond.” Questions of teleology and  the relation of scientists who created these nucleic acids to the existence of them and what that might mean for biology best not enter your thinking. That is, no doubt, far too philosophical to be helpful.

The prisoner’s dilemma tested. Interesting real-world take on the prisoner’s dilemma. Thanks to Andrew Smith for the pointer.

See your logical fallacies. Cool interactive site on logical fallacies. They have a nice, downloadable poster as well. Thanks to Pete Harris for the pointer.

You can’t get there from here. My former professor J.P. Moreland was involved in a debate with Michael Shermer recently on the question of whether there is life after death.  After the debate, Moreland posted to his website a response to a claim he didn’t get to respond to in the debate. He argues in this piece that claiming that evolution can be a reasonable explanation for intrinsic values and moral laws runs into a significant logical problem. I attempted to post a reply to this argument on his website but apparently he (or his webmaster) didn’t think it was worth accepting. So I’m posting it here. Here’s what I wrote in response:

“This argument has teeth only if we first assume that ‘moral laws’ exists outside of whatever beliefs and practices have been developed by evolutionary processes and are things that beliefs must correspond to. Objectivity and a moral statement being ‘lawful’ need not entail this. Suppose humans believe the following to be a moral law: it is wrong to treat people as means. On evolution, what might make this a moral law just is the fact that humans believe (consciously or unconsciously) that this practice is conducive to survival (and the belief is a product of evolutionary processes including social and environmental programming). Objectivity does not need to be any broader than the idea that the belief is shared and publicly analyzable and it's can be considered a law only to the extent that it continues to be a practice humans believe to be conducive to survival. Over time, evolution may rewire our brains such that this is no longer considered to be valuable for survival and it would cease to be a moral law. That doesn’t seem to have any impact on the value or force of what we call a moral law today.

To say that on evolution, our moral beliefs and practices wouldn't track truth assumes what it's seems to want to prove: that moral laws are something outside of the human mind that beliefs must correspond to. Given the enormous fluidity of the moral code across generations and cultures, there seems to be little reason to believe that.”

New logic text worth checking out. My good friend and colleague, Dr. Paul Herrick, just released his new logic text with Oxford University Press. I had the privilege of reading the entire text prior to publication and giving feedback and helping shape the text a bit (even got a mention in the acknowledgements). The final product turned out extremely well and is worth the look. Check out Herrick’s Introduction to Logic.

Seuss

Ethics and politics Dr. Seuss style.

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