Monthly Archives: December 2013

Quote for the Day – Philosophers Are Weird but Not Insane

I am sitting with a philosopher in the garden; he says again and again “I know that that’s a tree”, pointing to a tree that is near us. Someone else arrives and hears this, and I tell them: “This fellow isn’t insane. We are only doing philosophy.”

~Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations,  §467

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Quote for the Day – The Empty Habit of Prayer: Tolstoy on Religious Deconversion

S., a frank and intelligent man, told me as follows how he ceased to believe:-

He was twenty-six years old when one day on a hunting expedition, the time for sleep having come, he set himself to pray according to the custom he had held from childhood.

His brother, who was hunting with him, lay upon the hay and looked at him. When S. had finished his prayer and was turning to sleep, the brother said, ‘Do you still keep up that thing?’ Nothing more was said. But since that day, now more than thirty years ago, S. has never prayed again; he never takes communion, and does not go to church. All this, not because he became acquainted with convictions of his brother which he then and there adopted; not because he made any new resolution in his soul, but merely because the words spoken by his brother were like the light push of a finger against a leaning wall already about to tumble by its own weight. These words but showed him that the place wherein he supposed religion dwelt in him had long been empty, and that the sentences he uttered, the crosses and bows which he made during his prayer, were actions with no inner sense. Having once seized their absurdity, he could no longer keep them up.

~Tolstoy, quoted in William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

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Quote for the Day – Theology and Idealism as Rhetorical Devices in Academic Philosophy

In old times, whenever a philosopher was assailed for some particularly tough absurdity in his system, he was wont to parry the attack by the argument from the divine omnipotence. ‘Do you mean to limit God’s power?’ he would reply: ‘do you mean to say that God could not, if he would, do this or that?’ This retort was supposed to close the mouths of all objectors of properly decorous mind. The functions of the bradleian absolute are in this particular identical with those of the theistic God. Suppositions treated as too absurd to pass muster in the finite world which we inhabit, the absolute must be able to make good ‘somehow’ in his ineffable way. First we hear Mr. Bradley convicting things of absurdity; next, calling on the absolute to vouch for them quand même. Invoked for no other duty, that duty it must and shall perform.

~William James, The Pluralistic Universe

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New paper – Measuring Mental Time Travel in Animals

For pdf click here: Williams – Measuring Mental Time Travel In Animals

Hasok Chang describes in Inventing Temperature how scientists dealt with the problem of measurement verification circularity when standardizing the first thermometers ever constructed. The problem can be illustrated by imagining you are the first scientist who wanted to measure the temperature of boiling water. What materials should you use to construct the measuring instrument? Once built, how do you verify your thermometer is measuring what you claim it is without circularly relying on your thermometer? Appealing to more experimentation is unhelpful because we must use a thermometer to carry out these experiments, and thermometers are what we are trying to determine the reliability of in the first place. Hasok Chang calls this the Problem of Nomic Measurement (PNM), which is defined as:

The problem of circularity in attempting to justify a measurement method that relies on an empirical law that connects the quantity to be measured with another quantity that is (more) directly observable.1 The verification of the law would require the knowledge of various values of the quantity to be measured, which one cannot reliably obtain without confidence in the method of measurement.

Stated more precisely, the PNM goes as follows:

1. We want to measure unknown quantity X.

2. Quantity X is not directly observable, so we infer it from another quantity Y, which is directly observable.

3. For this inference we need a law that expresses X as a function of Y, as follows:X = f(Y).

4. The form of this function f cannot be discovered or tested empirically because that would involve knowing the values of both Y and X, and X is the unknown variable that we are trying to measure.

My aim for this paper is to apply the PNM to an on-going debate in cross-comparative psychology about whether and to what extent non-human animals can “mentally time travel”. In 1997, Suddendorf and Corballis argued “the human ability to travel mentally in time constitutes a discontinuity between ourselves and other animals”.2 In 2002, Roberts argued non-human animals are “stuck-in-time”. Since then, a number of psychologists have defended similar claims. Endel Tulving states this hypothesis clearly:

There is no evidence that any nonhuman animals—including what we might call higher animals—ever think about what we could call subjective time…they do not seem to have the same kind of ability humans do to travel back in time in their own minds, probably because they do not need to. (Tulving, 2002, p. 2)

Call the claim that mental time travel is unique to humans Uniqueness. Naturally, Uniqueness has not gone unchallenged. One worry is that different theoretical assumptions about what counts as “mental time travel” are leading to disagreements over whether animals do or do not possess MTT. Furthermore, both sides of the debate more or less agree about the behavioral evidence, but disagree about how to interpret the evidence qua evidence for or against Uniqueness. This raises a problem of verification circularity similar to the PNM:

1. We want to measure MTT in animals

2. MTT is not directly observable, so we infer it from behavior Y, which is directly observable.

3. For this to work, we need to know how to infer MTT from behavior alone.

4. The form of this function cannot be discovered or tested empirically because that would involve knowing the unknown variable we are trying to measure (MTT).

Accordingly, my central thesis is that the question of whether animals can mentally time travel is not a purely empirical question. My argument hinges on premise (3): if psychologists have irreconcilable differences in opinion about which behaviors best express MTT, they will use the construct “mental time travel” to describe distinct phenomena and thus make different inferences from behavior to MTT. For example, if defenders of Uniqueness are using MTT as a label to describe a human autapomorphy3 but critics of Uniqueness are using MTT as a label for a core capacity shared with other animals, then they are clearly talking past each other and the debate is reduced to a semantic dispute about whether the term “MTT” is applied to “core” capacities or uniquely human traits.4 Therefore, I argue the empirical question of whether animals can in fact mentally time travel is intractable unless theorists can agree on both the connotative and denotative definitions of the term i.e. approximate agreement on the conceptual definition as well as agreement on its conditions of realization in the physical, measurable world.

1Chang does not analytically define the notion of “direct observation” but the paradigm case is observing the read-out of an instrument e.g. writing down the height of a column of mercury in a glass tube. Chang defends a hybrid version of foundationalism and coherentism whereby we begin scientific inquiry with some tentatively held beliefs justified by experience, especially the belief that we are capable of accurately observing the read-outs of our instruments.

2Citing neurological overlaps between “episodic-like” memory in non-human animals and human episodic memory, Corballis has recently dissented (2012). In his (2011) book, Corballis argues that what makes humans unique is our capacity for MTT and symbolic language super-charged by the capacity for recursivity i.e. Alice believes Bob desires that Chris thinks highly of Bob’s desire for Alice. Another recent convert is Roberts (2007), taking back his (2002) claims about MTT in animals.

3An autapomorphy is a derived trait that is unique to a terminal branch of a clade and not shared by other any members of the clade, including their closest relatives with whom they share a common ancestor.

4“We caution against grounding the concept of episodic-like memory in the phenomenology of the modern mind, rather than in terms of core cognitive capacities.” (Clayton et al 2003, p. 437)

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Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy, Philosophy of science, Psychology, Science

Book Report 2013 – What I’ve Read This Year

The following is a list of all the books I’ve read from front to cover in 2013, starting from the most recently finished. The books in bold are ones that were most influential to my thinking, or particularly fascinating.

  1. The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals – Thomas Suddendorf
  2. The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
  3. A Manual for Creating Atheists –  Boghossian, Peter 
  4. Simulation and Similarity: Using Models to Understand the World – Weisberg, Michael
  5. The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History – Gould, Stephen Jay
  6. Brain Imaging: What It Can (and Cannot) Tell Us about Consciousness – Shulman, R G
  7. Consciousness and the Social Brain – Graziano, Michael S A
  8. Wired for God?: The Biology of Spiritual Experience – Foster, Charles
  9. Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman – Gleick, James
  10. The Unpredictable Species – Lieberman, Philip
  11. The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism – Grayling, A.C.
  12. Stumbling on Happiness – Gilbert, Daniel
  13. The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why – Nisbett, Richard E.
  14. Civilization and Its Discontents – Freud, Sigmund
  15. The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature – Miller, Geoffrey
  16. Radicalizing Enactivism: Basic Minds Without Content – Hutto, Daniel D.
  17. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength – Baumeister, Roy F.
  18. Beyond Good and Evil – Nietzsche, Friedrich
  19. Marriage Confidential: The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses, and Rebel Couples Who Are Rewriting the Rules – Haag, Pamela
  20. Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking – Hofstadter, Douglas R.
  21. The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home – Ariely, Dan
  22. The Future of an Illusion – Freud, Sigmund
  23. Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets – Taleb, Nassim Nicholas 
  24. How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed – Kurzweil, Ray
  25. On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic – Nietzsche, Friedrich
  26. The Mind-Body Problem – Goldstein, Rebecca Newberger
  27. The Marvelous Learning Animal: What Makes Human Behavior Unique – Staats, Arthur W.
  28. Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order – Strogatz, Steven H.
  29. The Cultural Animal: Human Nature, Meaning, and Social Life – Baumeister, Roy F.
  30. Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False – Nagel, Thomas
  31. The Social Construction of What? – Hacking, Ian
  32. 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction – Goldstein, Rebecca Newberger
  33. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers – Roach, Mary
  34. Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety – Smith, Daniel B.
  35. The Minds of the Bible: Speculations on the Cultural Evolution of Human Consciousness – Cohn, James
  36. Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness – Cahalan, Susannah
  37. What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses – Chamovitz, Daniel
  38. Reconstruction in Philosophy – Dewey, John
  39. Against All Gods: Six Polemics on Religion and an Essay on Kindness – Grayling, A.C.
  40. The Logic Of Modern Physics – Bridgman, Percy W.
  41. The End of Christianity – Loftus, John W.
  42. Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress – Chang, Hasok
  43. The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a Complex World – Goldberg, Elkhonon
  44. Thomas Jefferson: Author of America – Hitchens, Christopher
  45. Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief – Barrett, Justin L.
  46. Brains: How They Seem to Work – Purves, Dale
  47. A Man Without Words – Schaller, Susan
  48. Beyond Morality – Garner, Richard
  49. Hallucinations – Sacks, Oliver
  50. The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t – Silver, Nate
  51. Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder – Taleb, Nassim Nicholas 
  52. The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood – Gleick, James
  53. Ubik – Dick, Philip K.
  54. The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution – Dutton, Denis

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New paper: Minimal Models Make for Minimal Explanations

Williams – Minimal Models Make for Minimal Explanations

Abstract:

The ontic view of scientific explanation is that explanations are objectively in the world. Critics of the ontic view argue it fails to capture the importance of idealization as a critical component of scientific practice. Specifically, Robert Batterman argues that highly idealized mathematical models in physics are counter-examples to the ontic view or at least show why the ontic view is incomplete as an account of scientific explanation. My aim in this paper is to defend the ontic view of scientific explanation against Batterman’s objections.

Feedback welcome! This may or may not be turned in as my second qualifying paper at Wash U.

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Quote for the Day – The Overwhelming Automaticity of Being

“Habit is thus a second nature, or rather, as the Duke of Wellington said, it is ‘ten times nature,’–at any rate as regards its importance in adult life; for the acquired habits of our training have by that time inhibited or strangled most of the natural impulsive tendencies which were originally there. Ninety-nine hundredths or, possibly, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousandths of our activity is purely automatic and habitual, from our rising in the morning to our lying down each night. Our dressing and undressing, our eating and drinking, our greetings and partings, our hat-raisings and giving way for ladies to precede, nay, even most of the forms of our common speech, are things of a type so fixed by repetition as almost to be classed as reflex actions. To each sort of impression we have an automatic, ready-made response. My very words to you now are an example of what I mean; for having already lectured upon habit and printed a chapter about it in a book, and read the latter when in print, I find my tongue inevitably falling into its old phrases and repeating almost literally what I said before.”

~William James, Talks to Teachers on Psychology: and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals

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