Monday, October 26, 2009


I loved Logicomix, the graphic novel of ideas written by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou and illustrated by Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna (here are reviews from the NYT and Guardian). It dramatizes the quest of Bertrand Russell and some of his contemporaries to build a certain basis for knowledge, beginning with the project of providing a complete and consistent logical foundation for mathematics (or at least arithmetic). It was a quest tinged with tragic overtones, as the effort itself led to the uncovering of its own impossibility (culminating with Gödel’s theorems). The authors play up a second kind of dramatic theme as well, dwelling on the specter of madness as it haunted figures in turn of the 20th century mathematics: it depicts Cantor’s insanity, Frege’s paranoia, and Russell’s fear of inheritable madness in his family.

I guess I rate Logicomix highly in part just because it was such a nice surprise that it exists! I’m not sure where it would rank if there were 10 graphic novels dramatizing historical intellectual or scientific quests. If I were to come up with criticism, I would say first that it has an excess of framing devices: the story is delivered by Russell via reminisces at a 1939 lecture; then, an outer frame consists of ingressions of the authors themselves as they debate how to present the story, and then at the end digress into a discussion of Aeschylus’ Oresteia (!). Also, I think the madness theme is too forced (e.g. by having Russell seeking out Cantor without knowing he was committed to an asylum – Russell never met him).

The ideas themselves are presented accurately, I think, although not explored in great depth: the focus is more on storytelling. However, a key conclusion is delivered correctly IMO: reality outruns its abstract description (the map should not be mistaken for the territory). Both Russell and his Principia Mathematica collaborator Alfred North Whitehead separately would critique metaphysical materialism in the 1920’s developing this theme.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

GPPC Calendar: Update

Work is underway to get the GPPC website updated (a new webmaster was needed); in the meantime, below is some information for the two fall 2009 conferences.

The Greater Philadelphia Philosophy Consortium is a cooperative effort of 15 area University philosophy departments, which puts on 3 topical philosophy conferences, an annual undergraduate philosophy conference, and a public issues forum on a topic of interest to philosophers and folks at large. All conferences are free and open to the public.

1. "Instrumental Reasoning: A Conversation with John Broome"
Sunday, November 1, 2009, 1pm to 5pm
Clayton Hall, University of Delaware, Newark, DE

This conference, organized by Mark Greene at Delaware, has its own home page here.

2. GPPC Symposium, “The Medical Humanities”
Saturday, November 14, 2009, 1:00 to 5:30 P.M. Followed immediately by a reception until 6:00 P.M.
Temple University School of Medicine, 3500 N. Broad Street, Philadelphia. Room 105 & Stone Commons

Sherwin Nuland, M.D., Yale University,
“Half a Millennium of Artists Portraying
Diseases and Healers: 1500-2000”
Hilde Lindemann, Ph.D., Michigan State University,
“Caring and Coercion: What Counts as Autonomy
at the End of Life?”
Rebecca Kukla, Ph.D., University of South Florida,
“Paper is Complete – Author TBD: The Death of the Author in Contemporary Biomedical Research”
Scott Burris, J.D., Temple University,
“When ‘Ethics’ Becomes ‘Law’”
Miriam Solomon, Temple University (contact for more info.)
W. Mark Goodwin, Rowan University

Monday, October 12, 2009

3 Links: Math and Physics

[UPDATE 13 October 2009: Edited for typos and clarity]

First, since I’m on the record as a skeptic regarding the existence of actual or concrete infinities, I’m on the lookout for discussion of this topic. Here’s a talk given by mathematician Edward Nelson (hat tip: Not Even Wrong). In it, he expresses deep skepticism not only (in passing) regarding the idea of an actual physical infinity, but also (very controversially) on the concept as used in mathematics itself. I wouldn’t think skepticism about the former need have anything to do with the latter (and I’m certainly no mathematician), but I thought this was interesting reading.

Second, I enjoyed reading this (lengthy) overview of quantum gravity research by R.P.Woodard. The main focus of the paper is a “pedagogical explanation” of just why the techniques used in creating quantum versions of classical theories didn’t work when it came to general relativity (I thought this was helpful even if one can't follow all the formalisms). There is also a short section on the state of current research. Woodard makes this comment in the section discussing Causal Dynamical Triangulations (p.67): “…exact calculations are unlikely to be unattainable for quantum gravity, so the most fruitful way of questioning perturbation theory [i.e. the QFT method which is also the basis of original string theory – Steve] is to develop better approximation techniques.” The idea of finding a theory of everything (TOE) which consists of a set of equations with exact solutions looks like it is not going to happen. Finding a well-motivated approximate description of the ultra-high energy regime from which GR and QFT matter fields co-emerge at lower energies is probably the way things will go (I fearlessly predict).

Lastly, here’s a link which is just plain cool. Experimental physicists have been trying to place larger and larger molecules in quantum superposition: here’s a proposal for designing an experiment which could achieve this for a virus. Hat tip goes to the Physics and Cake blog.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Power Holism

This makes a nice follow up to my recent reading of C.B. Martin’s book: I found this paper, “Puzzling Powers: The Problem of Fit” by Neil E. Williams. In it, Williams identifies and seeks to address a trouble spot encountered by Martin and other advocates of a powers/dispositions-based ontology.

To start, Williams describes three key features of the ontology. First: the powers are intrinsic properties of their bearers. They don’t need external or relational connections for support. Second, the manifestations which they are capable of producing are essential features of the power: those potential manifestations make a power what it is. Third, the actual manifestations occur as a result of reciprocity. Martin in particular stressed the mutual nature of powers working together to produce manifestations, noting different pairings or combinations of powers will lead to different outcomes.

Given these three features, Williams sees “a problem of fit.” He says: “Stated briefly, the problem is that powers have to work together when they produce manifestations (reciprocity), but as they are not relations (intrinsicality), and they cannot change with the circumstances (essentialism), the fact that they are causally harmonious is without explanation.” Powers fit together to produce mutual manifestation, but the fact that they fit is not accounted for by the three features they possess. He uses a jigsaw puzzle analogy to suggest that, as it stands, there’s no reason to expect a fit to occur without adding more to the story.

So, what to do? Williams doesn’t think it’s advantageous to drop one of the three features he began with. With regard to essentialism, he does mention an alternate idea that the potential manifestations essential to powers are not determinate but are instead “TBD” (to-be-determined) via hooking up with other powers. But he still sees a gap with this idea: what finally makes the particular determinate manifestation finally occur?

So, instead, Williams puts forward a solution: “power holism”. The nature of powers is determined holistically: “the specific, determinate nature of each power (that is, the set of manifestations a power is for and the precise partners required for those manifestations) depends on the specific, determinate nature of other powers with which it is arranged in a system of powers.”

He notes we also need to discuss the bigger picture of “…what kind of world allows for or provides for the fit that power holism bestows.” How do the powers get their holism on, in other words?

He looks at three ways one might address this. First, we could just posit holistic coordination as a brute addition to ontology. But this isn’t very satisfying. Second, he suggests one might look to a platonic account: collaboration between powers takes place in the platonic realm. Third, one might retain naturalism, but suggest a form of monism which could support the coordinated fit. For instance, if all powers ultimately ontologically depended on the prior existence of the whole world (a la Jonathan Schaffer), then this shared basis could explain the harmonious fit. Williams is sympathetic to this option but says any of the choices might be worthy of consideration.

A very good paper. I liked the appeal to holism and (although Williams doesn’t use this terminology) non-local connections. In my opinion, though, in order to really nail it down, some indeterminism needs to be added to the model. Fit (correlations) can be explained by the non-local connections, but powers need to be seen as capable of more than one outcome per partner—an irreducible indeterminism only resolved when the manifestation (event) occurs. This would then nicely comport with quantum mechanics.

(I see Williams also has a paper co-authored with Andrea Borghini advocating a single-world modal actualism, explained using a powers ontology. I’ll have to check that out – my last post on that topic was here).