02 November 2007

Philosophy Conference

I've got to admit... I enjoyed the philosophy conference more than I expected to. Much more than I've enjoyed similar physics conferences, for instance. I think it's because I'm much more interested in ideas than, for instance, technology. Also, it was like a mini-vacation and got me out of town for a bit. It's about a 2.5 hour drive down to University of Utah from here. It took a bit longer coming back, as 6:00 seems to be rush-hour-ish. I say 'ish' because I've driven in much worse. We never came to a complete stop on the interstate, for instance, though at times I had to slow down to around 35. At any rate, I left at 8:30 yesterday morning, after stopping to pick up Will (he of my philosophy and the beginning taiji class).

We got to Salt Lake right about 11:00 am, and I stopped at Wild Oats (which I discovered was only a few blocks from the university whilst checking routes then night before). I was running low on buckwheat, and Wild Oats actually has it in the bulk bins. Much cheaper than I'd been paying for it in Pocatello. Also, Wild Oats has a salad bar/deli, so we ate lunch there before heading up to the conference. And I mean 'up' literally, as UU is up on a hill, and Wild Oats was still down in the valley. Anyway, onto the conference!

Keynote: PreSocratic Science?
I really enjoyed this talk by Daniel Graham. It was examining whether preSocratic philosophers were working within a scientific framework. The traditional view is that they were not, as they either did not bother to test their ideas or lacked the means to test them. Graham mentions one case where they clearly did rely on observation to confirm their ideas: the moon. Actually, he said there were three cases, and included eclipses and meteors, but the strongest case was for the moon. The earliest indication was a verse of poetry, something about the moon "shining by borrowed light" in a work by Parmenides. Two of his students carried on with that idea (Empedocles and Anaxagoras). Anaxagoras stated directly that the moon gets its light from the sun, rather than couching it in a poem.

This idea had several consequences. (1) It indicated that the sun did not "die" or even stop shining at night, as otherwise there would be no way for the moon to reflect its light; (2) The path of the sun must be a circle (or at least a near-circle) that goes under the earth (until the rise of heliocentrism several centuries later, anyway); (3) If the moon stops shining, something must be in the way of the sun's light, which then tied into his presentation on eclipses; (4) A solar eclipse might also be caused by something getting in the way of the sun's light.

I won't go into all the gory details, but there were two solar eclipses in the time period when Anaxagoras was writing, and one of them had a path that would have put all of the Pelopenessus in shadow, and he later says that the moon must be at least as big as the Pelopenessus. I would agree that this constitutes scientific thinking. Get an idea. Consider a testable/observable consequence of that idea. Gather data. (All spelling errors on Greek names are undoubtedly mine).

2:15 Ontology of Mathematics
Meh. This was by Paul Hendengren. Now, I'm sure there were some interesting ideas buried in this guy's rather horrid presentation, but, ya know, if you're invited to give a one-hour talk, you prep for a one-hour talk. You don't get there, realize it's too long, and then try to rattle off stuff like an auctioneer, reading straight from your paper, and every so often deigning to look up and make an actual comment about it. I'll try to summarize what I got out of all the blather.

He's arguing against the idea of numbers, or any other mathematical constructs, having any reality other than that granted in thoughts, and doesn't think that thoughts themselves are real "things." There was a rather odd repeated refrain, that you can't put "things" in your mind, just like you can't put keys in your walking. He sees the mind as a process, not as...I don't know...a storage device? Because the presentation was so frenetic, it was extremely difficult to follow. But he seems to presuppose some things: (1) thoughts exist only in the mind, and have no reality other than the mental processes underlying them; (2) numbers and all other math constructs are nothing more than labels with no intrinsic meaning of their own (he would say the same thing about words); (3)meaning lies only in the process of reading/interpreting the symbols/numbers/words, not in the symbols/numbers/words themselves.

First thought: so what? No one claims that the word "blue" would be instantly recognizable by any human as designating a certain set of wavelengths of light. Of course the meaning is in the agreed-upon interpretation and not in the word itself. Does that mean that the color blue only exists in the mind of those observing it? I very much doubt it, though I'm aware that there are those who would argue otherwise. There is a range of measurable wavelengths that people would agree were blue. There might be some disagreement about the exact cut-offs between, say, blue and green, and that may have more to do with variations in the way our eyes process visual data than anything else. But after deciding on the range of wavelengths that are blue, it would be possible to build a machine to observe and indicate if the light coming from an object was in that range. If so, blue. If not, not blue. To me, that indicates that it is reasonable to talk about the "blueness" of an object. Is it an artificial definition? Yup. Do I care? Nope. Arguments that the properties of objects exist only in the mind of the observer just leave me cold. It's not that there's no mental component; it's that there are objective, measurable components as well.

So try this one. Someone who's never heard of "blue" is shown a blue object. Will she call it blue? Of course not. Now show her other objects that are also blue, even the same identical shade of blue. Unless she's color-blind, she will agree that there is a commonality between the objects. Hmmm... that does suggest the commonality could come in the instrumentation attached to the mind, but not the mind itself. Similar instrumentation (e.g. non-colorblind human eyes) would produce similar observations. I can see a case for that argument, but not for the purely mental construct one. But... eh, I'm tired of the topic, so I'm moving on.

3:30 Probable Evil
I debated between this one and a concurrent session, Necessity of Theism. Now I wish I'd gone to that one, because by and large I agreed with Jim Hardy, and probably would have disagreed vehemently with the other presentation, and that's much more entertaining. I'm going to try and give the outline of his argument without the specific numbers he used. First off, though, I found it inordinately amusing to see an atheist using an argument from probability. He, however, was intellectually honest enough to point out when he was just making up numbers, and to show what would happen if those numbers were wrong.

First off, his goal was to have a counter-argument to the Design argument, which often throws out ad hoc probabilities. He did not call them ad hoc, but I think he should have, because his argument did not rely on any particular probabilities. He also made it clear what kind of god he was addressing. He called it a "Good Enough God": (1) Very powerful, capable of manipulating the weather, healing flesh, etc, easily; (2) Very, very good; superior in goodness to any human; (3) Responsible for much of what goes on in the world (either in the strong sense of directly causing, or in the weak sense of setting it up from the beginning), and who maintains an interest in all that goes on. So, for instance, the classic omnibenevolent, omniscient, omnipotent god would be considered a "Good Enough God," but so would weaker formulations of deity.

So, nearly everyone agrees that there is evil in the world. The classical theist must argue that it is all justifiable, that intervening would make the world worse or no better. Then the atheist need only provide a single act that is unjustifiable to make the whole house of cards come crumbling down. The crux of the argument is that if we take any act that we all agree was evil (a child killed by abusive parents, hundreds killed in a tornado), if any reasonable person would perceive a non-zero probability that the world would have been better (or no worse) if God had intervened, then there are so many such act that the likelihood that all of them were Justified Evil is vanishingly small. Just for kicks, he threw in the "747 in a junkyard" figure that gets trumpeted around, and showed that, for a single year, looking only at child abuse in the U.S., and even giving a high probability of justification, he could beat that figure. That is, the probability of all those acts being justified was nearly zero, and less than the (assumed) probability of the 747 in a junkyard. That was for a single type of evil act in a single country over a single year.

I'm not bringing numbers into it, because they don't matter. All that matters is that people concede any non-zero probability that the evil was unjustified. Now, he is assuming independence, and I'm not sure that's valid from a theological standpoint. I'm not sure that it isn't, either, but something feels wonky about that assumption. Still, he did mention that issue, which is more than the Design probability people do. He also indicated that he's only going off of "publicly available evidence." He's not trying to disprove the existence of such a god; he's trying to show that, base solely on publicly available evidence, it is extremely unlikely, as a counter to the ID'ers position that the existence of life and the universe is extremely unlikely without a Designer. Oh, and he actually understands the math he's using.

One person asked him directly whether he was trying to prove that god-belief was irrational. He said that he thought it was irrational based solely on publicly available evidence, but that his argument said nothing about personal or privately available evidence. It's pretty obvious that he's just trying to beat the ID'ers at their own probability game, and succeeding.

4:45 Categorical Syllogism
*sighs* I would have gone to something else if I'd realized how basic this one was going to be. Essentially, it was all about a philosopher examining predicate logic and discovering that, since there are three pieces to the argument, there are six possible orderings, which yield three unique partitions into two sets, respectively called Deduction, Induction and Abduction. He spent most of the time going over S3 (the symmetric group on three elements), and used an extremely nonstandard notation for it. Some of his closing remarks were of a bit more interest. He said that using the Symmetric group notation on 4 elements, he found that "argument by analogy" fell into one of two cases: (1) Abduction followed by induction; or (2) Abduction followed by deduction. I would have liked to hear more about that than about a bunch of stuff I learned in beginning Abstract Algebra.

It was well-presented, and I'm sure non-math people needed to go through the intro material, but... it's S3! You don't need to spend the whole time on S3! A simple combination argument will show that there can be 3*2*1=6 orderings, with two possible partitions each, and an exhaustive search will show that only 3 of those are distinguishable. Come on. Also, I was getting tired at that point, so I may have been a bit irritable.

Lots of fun, mostly enjoyable, and definitely worth the trip down.


John said...

Sounds pretty cool.

About the "Ontology of Mathematics,"

Even if his three presuppositions are true, I agree with your "so what?"

But numbers aren't words. Abstract ideas, sure, but they have a definite meaning. It doesn't matter if you call it "one" "uno" "ichi" or "wa'". Someone raised with no language (like Jodie Foster in Nell) would still develop the concept of counting.

Fibonacci said...

I think the counterargument might run that a property like "blueness" can be measured in a physical object, whereas a property like "irrational" (in the numerical sense) can't. I could further provide counterarguments for two or three iterations, I think, and I'm still not sure where I stand on some aspects of the debate. I completely agree with what you're saying about the nature of language; I'm just not convinced those who make statements about numbers not being real are always making a language argument.

Qalmlea said...

No, I agree that there is an issue beyond language. But this guy would question the reality even of the integers. He claims to do things all in terms of processes, and instead of "one, two, three" insists on "first, second, third." But I see one object, and, hey, there's a physical analogue of 1! Two objects, a physical analogue of 2! I don't know of anyone who thinks "First object, second object" when presented with two objects.

I suspect that if the speaker had had a bit more time to present some of the depth, I wouldn't have focused exclusively on language, but, so far as I could tell, he never got beyond that basic metaphor. *shrugs*

Oh yes. He insists that a sentence cannot be true, as a sentence. It can only be true as interpreted by a mind.

Fibonacci said...

"I don't know of anyone who thinks 'First object, second object' when presented with two objects."

Small children who haven't learned to count without having objects to count, perhaps. There is a level of abstraction involved.

"Oh yes. He insists that a sentence cannot be true, as a sentence. It can only be true as interpreted by a mind."

I kind of think the interpretation by the mind is part of the definition of the word "sentence". A sentence carries meaning.

Qalmlea said...

He would disagree that a sentence carries meaning. Or that it carries anything, in point of fact. I think he would say that it is a process, and that the meaning is in the interpreting. I'm not sure he would consider "meaning" a thing, either; it's a process of the mind instead.

At which point I just want to slap him and call him out for being too pedantic.