Thursday, December 30, 2010

Stuart Kauffman Blog Series

Stuart Kauffman has been writing some interesting posts at NPR's 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog.  Kauffman is a biologist, author and "big thinker", and his latest thoughts are about the possible role of quantum mechanical processes in life and mind. He also has some philosophical speculations related to these ideas.

The latest series of posts takes as a launching point recent theoretical and experimental results which show that it is possible for an open quantum system which has decohered into a classical system (for-all-practical-purposes or FAPP) to re-cohere.  Also there are preliminary indications that such behaviour may occur in a biological context (see recent photosynthesis research):  therefore this is new science which might have applications to understanding mind. The philosophical side to this is that he interprets QM to show that there is an ontological status to possibilia or potentialities in addition to concrete actualities; furthermore the border between these two realms might be where the interesting action takes place (the 'Poised Realm'). He speculates that the ability of systems to repeatedly move between quantum and FAPP classical status might lead to "non-algorithmic" processes. If the human brain utilizes these, it might then constitute a "trans-turing system".

Now all this is alot to digest, and the fearless speculation coupled with invented jargon can be off-putting at first. But I like his ideas and I would recommend readers take a look.  Here are the links (Kauffman also interacts quite a bit with commentors, which is nice).

Part One: Beyond Einstein and Schrodinger?
Part Two: The Quantum Mechanics of Closed Quantum Systems
Part Three: The Quantum Mechanics of Open Quantum Systems
Part Four: The 'Poised Realm' is Real
Part Five: The Non-Algorithmic Trans-Turing System
Part Six: We Seem to be Zombies
Part Seven: How Mind can Act Acausally on Brain?

Update [5 January 2011]:   I'll add new links as they come.  In the latest post, Kauffman discusses the interpretation of QM.  He says that after 85 years, we need to bite the bullet on a less economical ontology.  We need to recognize that there are real possibilities as well as real actuals and the quantum measurement event is the actualization process which bridges these two realms.
Part Eight:  A Hypothesis: Res Potentia and Res Extensa Linked By Measurement

Update [29 January 2011]: Why consciousness might be associated with quantum measurement events.
Part Nine: What is Consciousness? A Hypothesis

Update [30 January 2011]: Looking for the neural correlates of consciousness in measurement events at (entangled) synapses.
Part Ten: Standing the Brain on its Head

Update [31 January 2011]: Last in the series for now:
Part Eleven: Can We Have a Responsible Free Will?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Experience and Causation

I’m re-reading sections of Gregg Rosenberg’s A Place for Consciousness: Probing the Deep Structure of the Natural World. What’s brilliant about the work is that it starts with the Russellian insight about the mind-body dilemma (discussed here) and then “ups the ante” by linking consciousness to other metaphysical puzzles – including those of those of causation and the composition of objects.

Here’s a rough table listing a general feature of the world and the aspect of consciousness it matches up with.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Russell on QM and the Brain

Since I’m quoting Bertrand Russell these days: check out the following passage from late in The Analysis of Matter. It’s hard to believe he wrote this in 1927.

Russell is discussing how physics seems to imply a universal, causally closed determinism which encompasses the mental. But then he says this:

This, however, is perhaps not quite the last word on the subject. We have seen that, on the basis of physics itself, there may be limits to physical determinism. We know of no laws as to when a quantum transaction will take place or a radio-active atom will break down. We know fairly well what will happen if anything happens, and we know statistical averages, which suffice to determine macroscopic phenomena. But if mind and brain are causally interconnected, very small cerebral differences must be correlated with noticeable mental differences. Thus we are perhaps forced to descend into the region of quantum transactions, and to desert the macroscopic level where statistical averages obtain. Perhaps the electron jumps when it likes; perhaps the minute phenomena in the brain which make all the difference to mental phenomena belong to the region where physical laws no longer determine definitely what must happen. This, of course, is merely a speculative possibility; but it interposes a veto upon materialistic dogmatism. It may be that the progress of physics will decide the matter one way or another; for the present, as in so many other matters, the philosopher must be content to await the progress of science. (p.393)
It has been a long wait, but quantum biology is finally emerging as a research field, and I predict it will have implications for mind (even if less dramatic than the new age crowd would picture).

Monday, November 29, 2010

Quotes on the Key Mind-Body Insight

A simple insight serves to clear away a common confusion surrounding the mind-body problem. The great success of the physical sciences has led many to assume that the formal descriptions contained in scientific theories also provide a metaphysical guide to the essential character of natural phenomena. The insight is that this leap is unwarranted, and therefore the metaphysical thesis of scientific materialism (or physicalism) is founded on a flawed conception of the natural world. To the extent dualists share this conception of the “body” side of the problem, they share the mistake as well.  [UPDATE 6 June 2012: light editing]

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Comments on Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape

In The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Sam Harris argues for moral realism, and a version of consequentialism in which the proper target for moral concern is the maximization of human well-being. Furthermore, he says the substance of well-being consists in the qualities of conscious experience, and modern neuroscience is giving us the tools to assess conscious states: hence answering moral questions is properly within the domain of science.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Abilities vs. Dispositions

John Maier (of ANU) does research on the philosophy of abilities. I read his SEP article on abilities, and a draft paper entitled “An Agential Theory of Dispositions.” In the latter, he argues that dispositional properties (also known as dispositions, and sometimes powers) can be analyzed in terms of agents' abilities. The idea is that claims about dispositions in the world are a “projection of agent-centric facts about manipulability onto a world whose nature, considered in itself, is exhausted by the categorical.” Since I have been interested in ontological accounts which place dispositions in a central, fundamental role (see list of posts below), I was interested to see Maier’s argument for this alternative proposal.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Philosophers Gently Debating

Philosophy TV is a welcome addition to the web, and I look forward to watching more installments.

I watched Craig Callender and Jonathan Schaffer debate whether metaphysical debates have substance/merit, given recent criticism from other quarters, particularly from philosphers of science. Callender took the skeptical position while Schaffer took the defense. (I posted on a Callender paper on this topic here; a post which touches on some of Schaffer's metaphysical interests is here).

It was a thoughtful discussion, but both gentlemen were so exceedingly polite and deferential, that the points of disagreement took a long time to bring out. Schaffer had a bit easier time being the defender of metaphysics (merelogical examples were the focus): partly this was because Callender doesn't himself consider all metaphysics to be irrelevent, and also because it is very hard to have a detailed account of what's good and what's bad. For instance, asserting that a debate is too unconnected to science isn't sufficient, since we don't know that the debates couldn't have relevance in the future.

Despite an hour and a half, they didn't get to discuss the key issue of whether our modal intuitions should be considered reliable. Anyway, I'll be checking in on other episodes.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Necessary Being(s)

I think there’s a good case to be made for a necessary being (NB), driven by an argument from contingency. But what else can we say about the NB?

I think a lot about the nature of this NB, and have been oscillating between different conceptions. At one pole is a conception of a chaotic and indifferent mega-cosmos which contains every non-contradictory thing as an actual or latent part. Then, I consider incrementally “tamer” NB’s which are shaped by additional necessary features.

To start, it certainly seems plausible that a broad range of logical and mathematical truths are necessary. Perhaps all reality must contain some minimum degree of order, so it can be grasped by reason (although I don’t see why our local physical laws should be thought specifically necessary). Much more controversially, my study of the mind/body problem leads me to suspect all concrete existence is necessarily experiential or proto-experiential in character. And, going further on a limb, where there is experience, there is value: perhaps value and morals are somehow grounded in the nature of the necessary being.

But this project of “taming Chaos” gets increasingly problematic.

Coming at this from the other direction, most people who posit an NB are theists who believe in a personal God with various attributes who sometimes acts as an agent within the world. I don’t see right now how I’d ever get to this conception.

What seems most clear is that the NB must be the maximum instance of existence. Any more specific or idiosyncratic depiction of God runs the risk of being inconsistent with this. (I thought Mark Johnston, in his book Saving God, is good on this point, when he argues that if God is the “highest one”, any devotion to a more specific and hence lesser deity can be seen as idolatry.) This is where “divine simplicity” breaks down, too: the only arguably “simple” NB is the metaphysically maximal one.

Once you layer God with attributes which are derived from human properties, and most obviously if you make God an actor in an earthly drama (rather than him “in whom we live and move and have our being”), it seems clear you’re no longer talking about the NB.

Comments welcome -- this is difficult stuff!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

GPPC: New Links

The Greater Philadelphia Philosophy Consortium, a non-profit organization formed by area colleges and universities, has a new web address, and also now can be followed on Facebook and Twitter.

The purpose of the GPPC is to promote philosophical inquiry, foster cooperation among philosophers in the region, and also share the insights and methods of philosophy with the larger public.

The site has information on several conferences and programs scheduled for the 2010-2011 academic year, as well as discussion groups, and will include information about other events at member schools. Please check it out. I'm involved in providing support to the GPPC; you can contact me if you're interested in learning more about this.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Is the Universe 2-Dimensional at Short Distances?

We don't have a theory of quantum gravity, but we have a number of research programs on the case. Steve Carlip has a paper (The Small Scale Structure of Spacetime) which discusses an intriguing fact: many of these otherwise disparate programs display or imply the idea that our familiar four dimensional (3 spacelike + 1 timelike) spacetime may be two dimensional (1+1) at high energies/short distances.

If 4 dimensional spacetime is an emergent phase, and the more fundamental physics is comprised of elementary, causally linked, quantum bits of some sort, you might expect this kind of dimensionality.

Here is the physics arxiv blog article on the paper.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Comments on Meillassoux

I enjoyed Quentin Meillassoux’s book (please see my prior post): it is creative and thought-provoking philosophy at its best. I can’t endorse Q.M.’s quest for a “speculative materialism”, but I found his views on the central topics of contingency and necessity (hyper-chaos!) very interesting and challenging to my own opinions.

1. Why Materialism?

I came to Q.M.’s discussion of “ancestrality” and its challenge to “correlationism” from a different perspective: I don’t agree that the right goal involves purging mind from nature, thereby elevating the scientific account as such to truth. (I’m actually not even sure why he wants to be a materialist, as I’ll explain below). I don’t think “correlationism” is completely wrong in that I think subjective points of view are indeed ineliminable aspects of our world. I note ancestrality poses no prima facie problem for Russellian monism and panexperientialism. But I thought Q.M. made excellent points in his critique of most philosophers’ failure to provide an account of the compelling nature of scientific facts, and the trap of centering reality on human consciousness and/or language. He draws a persuasive connection between these problems and philosophy’s slide into deflationism/anti-realism (and sometimes postmodernism) which has hurt its relevance.

Now, I really liked his exploration of contingency and proposal of a hyper-chaos model. Q.M. views facticity (the absence of a reason for something) as a kind of universal solvent that ultimately undermines any view of what’s necessary other than contingency itself. Interestingly he shares with his “correlationist” opponents the rejection of arguments for any necessarily existing entity or entities. And it is certainly true that many or most modern philosophers reject not only classic arguments for the existence for God – but also broadly reject the possibility of engaging in metaphysics to reach conclusions regarding the necessity of logical truths, mathematics, physical laws, morals, etc.

With regard to the “correlationist” philosophers, Q.M. uses the fact that they themselves might agree that subjectivity itself can't be demonstrated to be necessary as ammunition against them. If even this can be doubted --and note a correlationist would tend to argue this in refuting an absolute idealist, for example-- then the correlationist subject-object “circle” is not necessary either. It turns out then, that, in rejecting absolute idealism, the correlationist has endorsed the ubiquitous scope of facticity. And, ironically, this is evidence to Q.M. that facticity itself can be elevated into something absolute and necessary (“factiality”). (Note he sees this as a necessary principle, not an entity).

Now, here is where I pause to wonder why Q.M. is a self-described materialist. He believes he has derived that things-in-themselves do exist (as contingent facts), but even if he has shown they exist independent of human minds, he hasn’t ruled out that they might have aspects of both mind and matter, or that perhaps facts might be somehow neutral with respect to those categories.

2. My “well-behaved” chaos vs. Hyper-chaos

But let me get back to the issue of necessarily existing entities.

A. Has he really shown necessarily existing entities are impossible?
B. Couldn’t hyperchaos be a necessary entity?

Now, in the absence of a knock-down argument for the necessary existence of something, why would someone believe in its truth? Well, some assume rationality can reach beyond our world and conceive of what is possible, and that this can lead us to map what is metaphysically possible and what is necessary. There are two problems: first, some disagree with this rationalist premise; second, people disagree regarding what’s conceivably possible. In fact, the widespread disagreement can be taken as evidence for the faultiness of the premise.

Now, Q.M. doesn’t offer new arguments against rationalism, he just assumes that the forces of modern anti-rationalism are on firm ground, and then he turns to his project of finding (ironically) a new absolute in the fact that everything can be questioned and found lacking a reason for its being.

But I’m not ready to concede that rationalism is dead just because there exist a preponderance of modern philosophers who think so (they could be wrong). I’ve argued there is a viable modern foundation for rationalism, inspired by the discovery that indeterminism is true of our world (see recent posts here and here).

In fact, I have been entertaining a model for a necessarily existing entity which is a chaotic ground of all metaphysical possibilities (including variation in physical law) – with the creation of the actual an intrinsically chancy process. (see for instance my posts on Timothy O'Connor's book). But my chaos has been “shaped” via rationalism: I thought certain conclusions, such as the fact that logical and mathematical truths were necessary, and that actual events are always experiential events, were justified by reason. And I have been willing to entertain the possibility that other truths might be necessary, too (morals/values?).

But Meillassoux has done a good job making me question my capacity to reach such conclusions. For every necessity I propose he might assert there is no way to be sure, and thus the only sure thing is (“super-”) contingency.

And yet I note that he immediately follows his conclusion of supercontingency and hyper-chaos with a derivation of the principle of non-contradiction, which, as it is based on conceptual analysis, seems pretty rationalist. And he hopes to derive other such conclusions, involving mathematics for instance. At this point I start to wonder if his project is very different from mine (albeit more sophisticated). And by the way can’t I define hyper-chaos as the set* of all non-contradictory possibilities and refer to this as a necessarily existing entity?

I’ll stop there. There’s lots to think about, and “hyper-chaos” is definitely haunting my thoughts, thanks to Q.M.

* I assume he'd say that we can't sum the possibilities because they are "transfinite", hence untotalizable, given his arguments in Ch.4.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Meillassoux: A Foundation of Absolute Contingency

I thank Allen for recommending that I read Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Meillassoux is an innovative thinker on a philosophical mission. His goal is to re-establish a secure foundation for our scientific knowledge, lacking in modern philosophy, without returning to an outmoded metaphysics of the past. The key for him will be taking the notion of contingency to the limit. If there is truly no reason for anything (including physical laws), then, rather than seeing this as a limitation, we should embrace this as the one positive absolute truth on which we can build our foundation.

Meillassoux (hereafter Q.M.) is a French philosopher; the English translation is provided by Ray Brassier. (A talk given in England by Q.M. which offers an overview of his work is here -- however, in my case I needed to read the book for things to sink in.) In some ways, Q.M.’s writing betrays a bit of what I think of as “continental style” – including some tendency toward the grandiose, and an unfortunate penchant for creating new terms. However, the content transcends any intra-academic boundaries – he is dealing with big philosophical questions of perennial interest, and indeed he doesn’t invoke the work of any postwar philosopher with the exception of a shout-out to Alain Badiou (who also wrote the preface).

Below are my notes on the book; I’ll add some further thoughts of my own in a follow-up post.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Quantum Measurement in an Infinite Universe

Anthony Aguirre, Max Tegmark, and David Layzer have an intellectually stimulating paper on Arxiv called “Born in an Infinite Universe: a Cosmological Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics”. They seek to show that if eternal inflation has led to an infinite, statistically uniform universe which therefore contains innumerable exact copies of our local region, then this leads to a new interpretation of quantum mechanics. Specifically they say we can associate the Born rule probabilities of QM with the actual frequency of measurement outcomes realized across the identical spatially distributed experiments. In other words, when we do an experiment, the uncertainty in the outcome is a result of our ignorance of which copy we are. (Layzer has a related paper posted here).

Monday, August 02, 2010

Della Rocca on the PSR

Yale’s Michael Della Rocca has a paper out in support of the principle of sufficient reason (PSR). Della Rocca, whose expertise is on the Rationalists, begins the paper with a humorous shtick about how he is writing the paper against his better instincts, since he knows how little credibility the PSR has in contemporary mainstream philosophy.  [UPDATE 4 August 2010: I neglected to tip hat to Sympoze.]

His strategy in the paper is to push the burden of proof back onto those who dismiss the PSR.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Fine-Tuned for Pantheism?

In his book, Immortality Defended, John Leslie argues (in his Chapter 5) that the characteristics of our world can serve as evidence for his model of pantheism. Recall that Leslie thinks our world is one of many called forth from possibility into actuality by the creative power of the Good. These worlds can also be characterized as those worthy of being thought about by a divine mind.

This position can be thought of as intermediate between a non-theistic concrete modal realism (David Lewis’ model), where all metaphysically possible worlds exist, and classical theistic models where a personal deity creates our world alone (although some modern thinkers allow for a personal God to create many worlds, too.)

Saturday, July 10, 2010

John Leslie: Immortal Pantheist

I read philosopher John Leslie’s Immortality Defended (2007).  It is an admirably brief book (supplemented with many suggestions for further reading) which outlines and defends a model of pantheism. The discussion of immortality is actually only a small part of the story (the fourth chapter of a five chapter book) and Leslie’s ideas about that topic follow fairly naturally once the pantheistic stage is set. My summary and comments are below (also to be continued in a follow-up post), but note they only capture a small portion of the rich and provocative arguments to be found in the book.  FYI, a good NDPR entry on the book is here.

Friday, July 02, 2010

UK Fetal Awareness Metastudy

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists released an updated report on fetal awareneess with a focus on pain (summary here, pdf of full report here, hat tip: Parableman). Its key conclusion is that there is no fetal pain prior to 24 weeks of gestation. This is because “connections from the periphery to the cortex are not intact before 24 weeks” and “most neuroscientists believe that the cortex is necessary for pain perception.”

Monday, June 21, 2010

No Final Theory

I read Marcelo Gleiser’s book, A Tear at the Edge of Creation. Gleiser is a physicist who has begun to wax reflective about the methods and limits of science. His main message is that the idea of a final theory is misguided and counterproductive (Gleiser blogs at the NPR 13.7 blog; he has a recent talk online here; hat tip goes to Peter Woit’s blog).  [UPDATE: 25 June 2010:  Prof. Gleiser responds to some criticisms here.]

Monday, June 14, 2010

Order Underpins Everything

I discovered the work of Kevin H. Knuth, and took a dive into his papers and this recent talk given at the Perimeter Institute. The theme of his research is that a simple ordering relation among elements is more fundamental than, and can be used to derive, more familiar theories. The talk is entitled “The Role of Order in Natural Law”, and was part of a workshop on the topic of laws of nature.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Getting Moral Truths from Non-Moral Truths

David Chalmers has been posting chapters of a draft manuscript entitled “Constructing the World”. The project has to do with the idea of “scrutability”: given some set of base truths and ideal reasoning, can all truths be known? He thinks so, and the work is mainly about fleshing out (in much detail) variations on this thesis.

Chalmer’s arguments engage the more technical side of analytic philosophy, which makes it more difficult reading for me. But, there is good stuff here to be sure (I thought the chapter which confronts Quine’s critique of the analytic/synthetic distinction was very valuable by itself).

In Chapter 6, Chalmers briefly discusses “hard cases” of truths which seem difficult to derive from a more limited set of truths: these include some mathematical truths, philosophical truths, and moral truths. The case of moral truths was on my mind given the recent discussion of Sam Harris’ remarks on developing a science of morality. Chalmers seems to think that if moral truths are real, then they should be scrutable from the set of non-moral truths.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Mark Johnston's Surviving Death

I read Mark Johnston’s book, Surviving Death, which was based on his 2006 Carl G. Hempel lectures at Princeton. I had liked his previous book, Saving God (which I mentioned here); in comparison, Surviving Death is more densely argued and challenging, relative to the “payoff”. But I’m glad I read it: Johnston is an interesting and unique thinker.

In the book, Johnston looks for and finds a naturalistic sense in which a person could be said to survive death: a good person can truly identify with all of humanity by directing his or her actions in concert with this concern. He or she will then live on in the “onward rush of humanity.” A highly condensed summary follows below.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Where Rationalism Meets Empiricism

To review one aspect of the model being explored here:

The concrete world is a causal network of events; each event is an actualized outcome, selected from a set of possibilities*. Some form of modal realism is true: while the unactualized possibilities aren’t themselves concrete, they are real in some sense. Their reality is implicated in everything that happens.

I speculate that since we’ve evolved in this kind of world, we are naturally acquainted with possibilities. In fact, the consideration of possibilities is central to life (of animals, too) and to our reasoning. Somehow, humans leverage this acquaintance with possibilities to spin whole scenarios of how a world could be.

Contemporary rationalism takes the form of modal metaphysics – where one claims that our faculty for conceiving possible worlds is reliable. Like older forms of rationalism, it is vulnerable to critics who claim we can’t know about anything which is not experienced concretely.

But on this account, the space of possibilities is involved in every concrete event. These “abstract” entities are real and are implicated in causality. Therefore our modal reasoning (and by extension, our contemplation of all sorts of abstract concepts) is not disconnected from the empirical realm. Our rational faculties are grounded in our direct acquaintance with something real.

* An alternative account would characterize each event as a manifestation, resulting from an intersection of probabilistic dispositions, or propensities. In quantum physics, the analogues are the measurement event and the wavefunction.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Morality: Not Natural or Supernatural?

Sean M. Carroll, the Caltech cosmologist who blogs at Cosmic Variance, has had a couple of posts responding to Sam Harris’ recent arguments that we should be able to develop a science of morality (he doesn't think this is possible in principle, although his reasoning reads to me as a list of challenges about the practical difficulty).

His discussion offers a clear example of exactly why a materialistic worldview inspired by science leaves one out to sea when it comes to issues crucially important to us.  (I say all this as a big fan of Carroll; he is a great representative of a new generation of scientist-popularizers.)

Monday, April 26, 2010

Powers vs. Humean Supervenience

I’ve been interested in ontological accounts which feature dispositional properties (also known as dispositions or powers) in the starring role.  This intriguing draft paper, “Goodbye, Humean Supervenience”, by Oxford's Troy Cross, sets out to show that David LewisHumean supervenience program (which seeks to reduce everything to a mosaic of categorical properties) fails, since it can be reinterpreted as a system where Lewis’ fundamental properties are in fact identical to dispositions.  This implication can’t be rejected without abandoning the account of properties as sets of possibilia.   The possibility unattractive feature of the dispositional doppelganger of Lewis’ story is its appeal to nonlocal circumstances as the trigger for the manifestation of the powers.  My notes on the paper follow.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Balaguer on Free Will, Part Three

The last post discussed Mark Balaguer’s argument that that the question of libertarian freedom reduces to the question of indeterminism at the point of decision.  In this post, I’ll summarize his argument that the presence or absence of the indeterminism in question is an open scientific problem.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Balaguer on Free Will, Part Two

There are two steps in Mark Balaguer’s argument (contained in chapters 3 and 4 of his book, respectively).  In the first step, the subject of this post, he argues that the question of freedom reduces to a question of indeterminism in decision-making.  In the second step (to be discussed in the next post) he argues that the presence or absence of the relevant indeterminism is an open scientific problem.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Balaguer on Free Will, Part One

After reading and enjoying one of Mark Balaguer’s papers on free will I also ordered and read his book Free Will as an Open Scientific Problem.   Not only did I like his approach to the topic, but his opening arguments, discussed below, clarified for me the reasons for my own vague dissatisfaction with much of the contemporary literature on free will.

(Note:  In these posts I’ll present much of the discussion in my own words; Balaguer himself is very precise in defining his terms and setting forth the arguments.  So, I recommend the book for those interested, but also in the online domain take a look at this paper, "The Metaphysical Irrelevance of the Compatibilism Debate", which overlaps with the first two chapters of the book, as well as a discussion of the paper and then the book itself in several posts and comment sections at the “The Garden of Forking Paths” blog – here, here, here, and here.)

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

I Agree With Sam Harris on Science and Morality

Sam Harris has a short talk here on why he thinks "science can answer moral questions."  A follow-up to some initial criticism is here, and a brief discussion of "getting an ought from an is" is here.  He evidently has a book forthcoming related to all this.

While the philosophically more talented will have issues with his arguments (and with my brief discussion of this complex topic below), I agree with his main thrust.  There are two key steps here:  first, we include first-person experiences in our view of nature, and second, we locate the target for our (natural) moral instincts in the qualities of the experiences of sentient creatures.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Spinoza on the Composite Self

It can seem surprising the degree to which our conscious experience is opaque as to what causes and/or composes it.  The revelations of neuroscience come only from third person investigation.  Even on its own first-person "turf", introspection has been shown to be a poor guide to analyzing our mental states, perceptions and memories.  The mind-body problem in philosophy is of course the story of the inability of the mind to perceive how nature constitutes it.

The fact that the brain/body is very much a composite system seems to be the reason for some of the difficulty.  Reading Spinoza's Ethics recently, it was interesting for me to see that he grasped this point in the 17th century.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Philosophers Discussing Food! Upcoming Event

Mark your calendars -
The Greater Philadelphia Philosophy Consortium presents its annual Public Issues Forum:

 “The Future of Food”

Saturday, March 27, 2010, 1:00 to 5:30 P.M.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Books Unblogged: Spinoza Edition

Here are some books I enjoyed reading in recent months (which in a parallel blogging universe I discuss in greater detail.)

1. A Spinoza Reader (edited and translated by Edwin Curley).

I wanted to read Spinoza’s Ethics; this volume also contains some excerpts from other writings and correspondence. Among philosophers, Spinoza is comparatively easy to read. While his idea to write the Ethics in a Euclidean format was quixotic, it makes the discussion straightforward to follow and subsequently reference.

I like Spinoza’s metaphysics very much, so I’m inclined to say he was “way ahead of his time.” (Good SEP articles on Spinoza here and here). In any case, I think he’s right that the most viable view of God is as a maximal conception of Nature. We live in a finite locale within God’s infinite expanse. On the other hand, Spinoza failed to find an explanation for contingency and so endorsed necessitarianism (but see also here): ignorance is his explanation for our intuition of contingency (I’d like to travel in time and see what he would have made of quantum mechanics and the idea of objective indeterminism). I think his views about mind (thought and extension are two coequal aspects of the same reality) still make plenty of sense in today’s philosophical landscape. The latter parts of the Ethics get a little long-winded and pedantic, but include a variety of practical tidbits of wisdom about human psychology and how to live one’s life that will reward a re-reading.

It’s a wonderful world we live in where you can find multiple well-written popular books about Spinoza, too. I enjoyed

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Quantum Interactions Create Space-time

The notion that spacetime is an emergent phenomenon is, by my reckoning, being proposed by an increasing number of thinkers. Physicists and philosophers working in quantum gravity and quantum foundations are turning to the idea that the spacetime of relativity is not fundamental, but rather something which arises from a more fundamental world of quantum mechanical systems and their interactions.

I just saw a reference to one such argument which was made a few years ago in an article by Avshalom C. Elitzur and Shahar Dolev called “Quantum Phenomena Within a New Theory of Time”. This was published in the 2005 collection Quo Vadis Quantum Mechanics?, Avshalom C. Elitzur, Shahar Dolev, Nancy Kolenda, Eds.

Elitzur and Dolev examine several puzzles over the nature of time in quantum mechanics and are led to the hypothesis that quantum interactions (measurements) themselves are responsible for the creation of spacetime.

A couple of quotes from section 17.10, titled “An Outline of the Spacetime Dynamics Theory”:

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Neither Special nor Trivial

Note: this is a navel-gazing post with no external links.

I'm thinking again about my modal realism and the status of the actual vs. the rest of the possibilities.  I summarized in a prior post (Actual as Indexical, After All?) my conclusion that, while my metaphysical model is very different from that of David Lewis, his idea that what it is actual is just what is local to a point of view made sense.  This implies that our actual world is not the result of a special creative outcome, and that we should probably assume that all metaphysical possibilities are actualized "somewhere" in modal space.  I saw this as just an extension of the Copernican trend familiar from science:  our local situation is not special; it's just another local neighborhood in a huge expanse of reality.

But more recently I've been reconsidering this.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Dieks on RQM

This is a quick follow up on the prior post.  Van Fraassen was a pioneer in the 1970's of the modal interpretation of QM (which became over time a family of interpretations), and he’s now clearly an admirer of RQM.  I'm not a careful student of the modal interpretations (here's the SEP article by Michael Dickson and Dennis Dieks), but the starting point involved an attempt to do away with the measurement collapse postulate (which was why I originally had a hard time getting interested in the program).  The goal was instead was to append actual values to dynamically evolving states.  The SEP article details the various challenges and developments over the years;  what was new to me was the fact that a subset of the philosophers involved had proposed a perspectival or relational approach in an effort to solve some of the problems.  These efforts come close to the spirit of RQM despite the very different starting point.  This is discussed in a recent paper by Dieks called "Objectivity in Perspective: Relationalism in the Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics".

Below for bookkeeping are some past posts on interpreting QM.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Van Fraassen on "Rovelli's World"

I’ve long been interested in Carlo Rovelli’s Relational Quantum Mechanics (RQM), and had been aware that philosopher of science Bas C. van Fraassen had an unpublished paper discussing RQM.  Recently, I saw that a preprint draft of this paper, called “Rovelli’s World,” had appeared on his website.

In the opening paragraph, van Fraassen calls RQM an “inspiring” original vision, and says “its presentation involves taking sides on a fundamental divide within philosophy itself.”  Unfortunately, he doesn’t return explicitly to this last statement (and there is no conclusion section in the paper), but it is pretty clear that the key controversy of RQM revolves around the issue of realism.  RQM seeks a consistent and complete interpretation of a quantum mechanical world, but this comes at the expense of fully objective realism.  We give up the idea of absolute observer-independent quantum states, likewise observer-independent values of physical quantities; “the theory describes only the information systems have about each other.”

The main content of van Fraassen’s paper is a careful exercise in analyzing RQM to see what higher-order aspects of the world it describes are actually “absolute” (or objectively known) even as the states and measurement outcomes only exist relationally.  He wants to compare what Rovelli - qua the author of the paper on RQM - seems to know about the world, as opposed to what a particular system in the world (playfully denoted “ROV”) can know, assuming the theory is correct.  He looks at length at a specific example, where ROV is a third observer following on a “Wigner’s friend”-style example:  based on his analysis he concludes an additional postulate should be added to RQM to clarify the scheme.

Below the fold are my notes on the paper:  they are somewhat sketchy; please refer to the paper for the real deal.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Quantum Photosynthesis Update

There's an new paper in Nature (full text behind the paywall) which looks very interesting.  The authors found evidence that quantum coherent effects are utilized to drive more efficient photosynthesis in algae at room temperature.  This result, along with other research, suggests this is a ubiquitous aspect of photosynthesis in nature.  A SciAm article describing the research with quotes from team leader Greg Scholes is here.  Wired has an article here (hat tip: Cosmic Variance).  In other work on this topic, the research group behind the Engel, paper from 2007 (the subject of my post: "Quantum Biology Goes Mainstream") also has a new arxiv preprint with updated results.

I suspect that non-trivial quantum effects are widespread in biology, and I hope researchers continue to get the inspiration (and funding ) to continue these efforts.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Justifying Metaphysics to its Critics

There has been a (to me gratifying) rebirth of metaphysics in English-speaking philosophy over the last couple of decades. Now, just as in the past, there is a backlash coming from within the profession. One locus of the opposition comes from philosophers of science. Now one of the best contemporary philosophers of science, Craig Callender, has a draft paper (“Philosophy of Science and Metaphysics”) giving his own critical assessment of metaphysics, which he presents in a judicious and thoughtful manner. (For a recent bloggy example of the tension here, see the sometimes pointed debate down in the comments to this post at It’s Only A Theory.)

Callender believes metaphysics plays an important role in science itself as well as philosophy of science. But he thinks some metaphysics goes wrong by assuming too much autonomy from science: there is a “resurgent idea that metaphysicians have a wider domain of study than scientists.”  As a result:

Today metaphysics is again the target of deep suspicion. In fact, we are in the midst of a flare-up of historic proportions. Evidence of this comes from my bookshelf. Many recent books in philosophy of science possess entire chapters strongly condemning comtemportary analytic metaphysics.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Another Argument for Emergent Gravity

I have followed with interest a growing body of opinion among physicists that gravity (and space itself) is best thought of as an emergent phenomenon (most recently here).  Erik Verlinde has a paper, called On the Origin of Gravity and the Laws of Newton, which presents a heuristic case for gravity as emergent.

Unlike most of the other research papers I've blogged about, this is not a quantum gravity theory, but rather uses a number of concepts in mainstream physics (thermodynamics, the holographic principle) to derive emergent gravity.  He says that if one coarse grains a microscopic theory (whose precise dynamics need not be known), and applies the holographic principle to measure information on partition screens between particles, the information on the screens will give rise to an entropic force - this is gravity.

The paper has engendered discussion (I first saw it mentioned by Peter Woit here;  there is some appreciation here, and criticism here -- Verlinde responds here).  The main criticisms are that Verlinde's points are either not new, or that they embody circular reasoning (since concepts from Newtonian and post-Newtonian physics are used to derive Newtonian gravity).  Verlinde responds that he is bringing out a new insight which should help convince people that gravity is not a fundamental force, but is emergent.

I can't adjudicate the disagreements, but I think it's very suggestive that the argument for emergence continues to gain adherents.

I also think it is interesting to note that in Verlinde's model the microscopic theory, while not defined in any detail, must have a well-defined asymmeterical time dimension, as in the emergent quantum gravity theories I've reviewed.  "Time is fundamental, while space is not".

[UPDATE 22 Jan.2010:  A couple of more related links (HT).  A New Scientist article, and an illuminating preprint from Lee Smolin, who works through a Verlinde-type derivation in a different way, utilizing ideas from Loop Quantum Gravity research (altho note the specifics of LQG are actually not very important to the analysis).  He does a very good job placing the Verlinde work in context of other research and shows where it seems to add new value.]

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Templeton Funds Initiative in Evolutionary Biology

[See also updates at the end of the post]

I just saw the news (here - I’m not sure if this was made public earlier) about the John Templeton Foundation's $10 million multi-part grant to fund “Foundational Questions in Evolutionary Biology” (FQEB), an initiative to be led by Harvard’s Martin Nowak.

Nowak has led what is called the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics at Harvard and has focused on the mathematical modeling side of evolutionary studies. The first announced effort is to offer fellowships to scholars pursuing envelope-pushing work on topics in evolution as well as the study of the origin of life.

I would like to learn more about this, but here are a few tidbits from the above links which are interesting. While the name evokes the earlier Templeton funding of the Foundational Questions Institute (FQXi), this program is more geographically centered (in Boston) and so, while not involving a new independent physical institute, it nonetheless is less “virtual” than FQXi. FQXi exists mainly to provide grants to scholars whose work in foundational physics might not otherwise garner funding from traditional sources. FQEB seem to be more people-driven (and Harvard/Boston oriented), and Nowak’s role seems crucial.

Importantly to me, however (as someone who watches Templeton -- see here and here -- and “roots” for them to apply their vast resources wisely), the initiative raises more potential controversy in terms of whether pure science will result from this effort versus a bias to search out and rationalize religion-friendly results. (This is not an issue with FQXi, which I think anyone who supports pure physics would be at least broadly pleased with):

  • The stated goal includes a reference to "understandings of teleology and concepts of ultimate purpose".
  • A Templeton officer says a “next phase of FQEB” will include “rigorous integrative work” with scholars in philosophy and theology. 
  • The board includes a Divinity professor(!)
  • Nowak, who has had affiliations with Templeton for some time, is himself is a committed Christian (was this a necessary if not sufficient fact in spurring this initiative?). A short essay where he expresses some of his views is here.
 The reason this is concerning, obviously, is that this country has faced an long and ongoing challenge to keep education in evolutionary biology free from interference from misguided religious folks.  The Templeton Foundation has disavowed any support for the most prominent recent political agitators in this area – the “Intelligent Design” movement -- and I think their efforts in supporting science/religion rapprochement have been harmless (if often wasteful, in my opinion). But why make a big effort in science funding in this crucial and sensitive area (which is a wonderful idea) and then contaminate it with any religiosity at all? That concerns me and I’m worried that it is a big mistake.

[UPDATE 8 Jan.2010: It seems the Templeton newsletter emailed to me on 6th January, which is my first link above, was the first public notice of this; the next blogosphere notice was today and comes from the "Intelligent Design" promoter, William Dembski, here. My brief opinion of ID is above and in an earlier blog post here.]

[UPDATE 20 Jan.2010: Templeton has announced funding priorities for the new year, and, of interest to this blog, they include Quantum Physics and the Nature of Reality and Foundational Questions in the Mathematical Sciences.]

[UPDATE 21 Jan. 2010: Also interesting to me is Templeton’s recruiting of journalist and blogger Rod Dreher to a post called a director of publications. His new blog is here (the first post is here). I assume it is no accident that he is a Christian conservative. There seems to be plenty of circumstantial evidence of an ongoing tension at JTF between the late founder’s clearly non-sectarian, progressive view of the religious impulse and the current Christian conservative leadership.]

Monday, January 04, 2010

A Crystallizing Universe

The use of a phase transition to describe reality pops up in this paper by George Ellis and Tony Rothman: “Time and Spacetime: The Crystallizing Block Universe.”

I had previously read Ellis’ contribution to the FQXi contest on time: “On the Flow of Time”. In that essay, Ellis criticized the notion of picturing the universe as an unchanging four-dimensional space-time block, and proposed a model of an “Evolving Block Universe”, which includes the indispensable notion of time flow. In this new paper, Ellis and Rothman fine-tune this idea.

They associate the flow of time with the transition from a quantum future to a classical past: this transition is marked by the time-irreversible process of quantum state-vector reduction (measurement). They note, however, that phenomena displayed in certain quantum set-ups (delayed choice and quantum eraser schemas) show that the transition process doesn’t take place uniformly. This non-uniform nature of the transition inspired the crystallization metaphor.

I like that Ellis takes quantum measurement seriously as a natural process (actualizing potentialities) and links this transition to the experienced flow of time.