Friday, August 11, 2006

The Facts Are Not All In

I benefited from reading Daniel Stoljar’s book, Ignorance and Imagination: The Epistemic Origin of the Problem of Consciousness. The book defends the thesis that the problem of phenomenal conscious experience in contemporary philosophy of mind is rooted in our ignorance of a type of “experience-relevant non-experiential truth”. (See the brief blurb from David Chalmer’s blog here and also visit Conscious Entities and scroll down to see the recent review there[UPDATE 22 Feb.2007: the permalink is here]).

In defending his thesis, Stoljar does a great job reviewing and summarizing many of the debates of the last couple of decades. He invariably takes complicated arguments and simplifies their language and structure as he moves his discussion along. The book is valuable for this aspect alone.

In terms of his position, it’s a fairly modest idea – we’re ignorant about something relevant but of course he can’t say what it is! It does, however, seem a reasonable position to hold. He argues that this epistemic view of the problem is successful in undermining the conceivability and knowledge arguments which conclude that experiential truths are not all entailed by the non-experiential truths. Importantly, though, he is also arguing that none of the various philosophical/conceptual refutations of these arguments work. According to Stoljar the problem of consciousness is not one where the debate can be won “from the armchair” within the confines of philosophy of mind at the present time.

I’m sympathetic to this since I also think we need to triangulate on the problem using other considerations. At the same time, given the imperfect terms of the debate, I don’t think Stoljar is entitled to the conclusion that our ignorance is specifically of non-experiential truths. It is equally plausible, for instance, that the new truths would not be considered “non-experiential”, but as truths upon which both experiential and non-experiential truths (as we currently conceive of them) supervene. He considers a view very much like this (due to Russell), but concludes (wrongly in my humble opinion) that it is best thought of as an instance of his epistemic view.

I have some more thoughts provoked from my reading which I’ll try to develop into another post, but for now let me reiterate my admiration for the book: it’s very well written and is recommended for those who follow these debates.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Revised Mission for Templeton?

There’s a post by Sean Carroll on Cosmic Variance from the other day noting that the Foundational Questions Institute (FQXi) had announced the recipients of its first round of grants geared toward research into deep questions of physics and cosmology. It looks like an exciting and worthy list. The sole funding (so far) for the institute has come from the John Templeton Foundation (JTF), which is well known for having as a primary goal the promoting of a reconciliation between science and religion. At the end of his comment to the post, Anthony Aguirre (associate director of FQXi) says: “…it is interesting to note that we recently found out that JTF has a new mission statement. Not sure what this signifies.”

If you go to the foundation’s home page, you now see this mission statement:

The mission of the John Templeton Foundation is to serve as a philanthropic catalyst for scientific discovery on what scientists and philosophers call the 'Big Questions.' Ranging from questions about the laws of nature to the nature of creativity and consciousness, the Foundation’s philanthropic vision is derived from Sir John’s resolute belief that rigorous research and cutting-edge scholarship is at the very heart of new discoveries and human progress.

I don’t know when this appeared (and it wasn’t heralded by a press release), but it is remarkable to note the focus on science and the complete absence of the words “religion” or “spirituality”, etc.

[UPDATE (Nov. 14, 2006): The foundation has revised the site; the mission statement above is reworded slightly but the content is the same; the older mission statement mentioned next appears to have been removed...]

Now it turns out that if you drill down into the "About the Foundation” section you will see a different mission statement, which has the references to moral and spiritual dimensions, etc. and a quote from Sir John referring to God. And if you check out the overview of what is still called the Science & Religion part of the foundation’s work, you still see the emphasis on religion. It may be that mission statement on the home page shouldn't be taken to imply a significant change in emphasis. (Take a look at the Programs and Conferences sections for more information on what the foundation is doing -- there is also a 15 minute video).

Many, including Sean Carroll, have been concerned about accepting grants from the foundation because of suspicions it really simply wants to advance religion, specifically Christianity. I would refer you to this article by science writer John Horgan from a few months back, for background on these sorts of qualms.

The reason this is all intriguing is that the foundation has immense resources (over $1 billion), yet the idea of reconciling religion with science seemed misguided. Science is of course not a worldview but a methodology for investigation of the world. If you try to inject religion into science it wouldn't be science anymore. Perhaps JHF realizes this, and simply thinks funding scientific research into the deepest foundational issues will lead to results friendly to their worldview.

Another way to approach these issues would be more philosophical than scientific -- looking for middle ground between the science-inspired worldview of metaphysical naturalism versus religious worldviews. But I've long thought that if this was the goal, then the foundation should have supported academic philosophy more explicitly alongside physics on the one hand and theology on the other. Disciplines such as philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, and metaphysics, for instance, have (in my opinion) a crucial role to play if you want to find such common ground between worldviews. Perhaps I can be encouraged by the reference to “philosophers” in the mission statement above.

Regardless of this, if the foundation intends to continue or further increase its focus on funding of foundational research in physics and cosmology with no explicit religious "strings" attached (as appears to be the case with the FQXi funding), that would be a good thing.

Update: Congratulations to Matt Leifer (of Quantum Quandaries) for being one of the grant recipients (his comment on the grant announcement is here).