3QD: Why materialism is false

Euclid msMaterialism is the view that everything that exists is made of matter. What’s matter? It’s hard to say with both precision and completeness, but it can’t be far off to think of matter as whatever can engage causally with the known forces of nature: gravity, electromagnetism, and atomic forces (strong and weak). If a thing responds to any of those forces, that thing is material. Of course, maybe there are some unknown forces of nature, and we’ll have to revise as they become known, but right now, this seems to be an adequate criterion for judging what counts as matter.

But I don’t think materialism is true, and it’s not because I believe in spirits or love or imagination or magic. It’s because of math. Math is a science of form: it explores the possible forms or properties or systems that are possible. Some of these possible structures, of course, describe the real systems we come across in our world, which is neat, and makes physics possible. But there are many, many more possibilities than are actual. It doesn’t take many beers before a gang of interested mathematicians will start describing all sorts of things that could never come to exist in our puny world because they are too big or complicated.

More here…

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Should you return to college in the fall?

I doubt this post will reach many among its intended audience, but in case it helps anyone, I’ll try to offer some advice.

First, to set the stage. In this pandemic, nobody really knows what they are doing. Scientists have the best available insights, but they will be the first to admit that our situation has many unknowns that can change quickly in unknown ways – so it’s a day-by-day guess, even for the experts. The further away you get from a PhD in some science, the further away you get from even this much knowledge. Politicians are shooting from the hip, with one eye on their re-election campaign, and the other one on their re-election campaign.

Basically, the only thing we know for sure is that, in a pandemic, breathing on each other is bad.

Colleges can mitigate the degree to which students and professors and staff breathe on each other, but only so much – unless, of course, the classes go entirely online. Nevertheless, many colleges are offering mixed options, in which classes will meet partially face to face, and partially online. Why are they doing this?

Two main reasons. First, colleges need tuition dollars and many need to sell housing contracts. If everything goes online, students will seek cheaper online education venues, or not enroll at all. So, the promise of face-to-face classes brings in the money colleges need to stay afloat. Second, many students really need a face-to-face component to any class to stay motivated and engaged. College isn’t just downloading info. It’s a social experience, and social experiences require faces and spatial proximity, it turns out. Online education, for the most part, and with some narrow exceptions, stinks. The only people who claim otherwise are those seeking to earn money from it.

So what should you do? There may be some exceptional situations, to be discussed below, but my basic advice is this: take classes online this year if you are a good online learner, and otherwise take the year off.

Okay, there may be a narrow range of cases in which pursuing the face-to-face-but-sometimes-online option may be safe and workable. Not if you have any issues with your breathing or immune systems. Not if you are in any state where the governor’s policies are based on wishful thinking. Not if your college, in the emails they are sending you now, sounds more confident than anyone with a PhD has any right to be. But if, by happy chance, you are a robust young person, in that rare place where the disease is being met by enforced and effective social policies, and your college is sounding pretty severe and cautious about the whole thing, then it might make sense to go.

So think about these things: Am I free of health concerns? (NOTE: only a “no” answer to this question is significant. A “yes” answer is insignificant, since your health and seeming immortality provide no guarantee whatsoever that this disease cannot kick you down the stairs.) Are the state authorities responding intelligently to the pandemic? Is the college enacting serious restrictions? A “no” to any of these questions means you should wait a year.

But if your answer to all these questions is yes, one further consideration is whether online education works for you. If it just doesn’t – if you really need the face-to-face component to stay engaged and motivated – then delay for a year. For it is perfectly possible, and even likely, that classes next year will end up going entirely online, even if they are now being advertised as being face-to-face. So if you know now that online classes don’t work for you, it is smarter to press the “pause” button. I know, putting your college experience on hold for a year really sucks. But so does having to use a ventilator.

On the other hand, if you’re okay with learning online, but sort of want the possibility of some face-to-face (or, really, mask-to-mask) social interaction, and your governor and college administrators are all behaving like responsible agents, then going to college this fall might be okay. I hope.





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3QD: Protective Living Communities

By 2025, protective living communities (PLCs) had started to form. The earliest PLCs, such as New Promise and New New Babylon, based themselves on rationalist doctrines: decisions informed by best available science, and either utilitarian ethics or Rawlsian principles of justice (principally, respect for individual autonomy and a concern to improve the lives of those most disadvantaged). Membership in these communities was exclusive and tightly guarded, and they had the advantage of the relatively higher levels of wealth controlled by their members.

More here….

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Thomas Huxley: Making the ‘Man of Science’

Reading: Paul White, Thomas Huxley: Making the ‘Man of Science’ (CUP 2002).

220px-T.H.Huxley(Woodburytype)In a sense, this book is about the term “scientist”. Thomas Huxley regarded it as a crass Americanism, a term that belittled anyone who devoted their life toward gaining an objective understanding of nature, and who tried to base moral and political principles on that understanding. He preferred the more exalted title, “man of science”. But one ironic consequence of his boisterous life was that he helped make it possible to be a scientist – or one who sought the facts without weighing in on issues of value.

Paul White’s book is not a biography. It does not provide a list of the sequence of events in Huxley’s life. Instead, it provides an overview of how his life and character came to be shaped by social, cultural, and economic forces. As the title suggests, it is about how Huxley was made, not about what he did. This is a valuable approach to a figure, as it helps us understand a context, and the deeper currents shaping a life. It serves to remind us that lives can’t just be boxed up and lifted into other times. 

Early on, as a young man, Huxley worked out his identity in several spheres at once. He served with manly nautical men aboard the HMS Rattlesnake. He exchanged thoughtful and sensitive letters with his Australian fiancée, Henrietta Heathorn. He began to envision his trajectory along the lines of a new career arc, that of what we might now call a research scientist. His challenge was to find a way to build a solvent career that combined “manly virtues” with a spirit dedicated toward the disinterested pursuit of natural truths. He wasn’t going to be able to become a university don (he lacked the credentials) or a churchman (he lacked the faith) – but this left little else, in terms of available careers. 

Once he returned to England, Huxley made the acquaintance of Edward Forbes and Joseph Owen, who were able to help him build a career, as they could provide recommendations, influence, and entrance to societies and clubs. Men like him, without estates, had to grasp jobs at museums, institutes, and hospitals while doing their scientific work. In the beginning, Owen supported Huxley, though their relationship was complicated: Owen was becoming prominent as a museum curator and dramatic lecturer, and adopted a lordly attitude toward everyone, including Huxley.

When Darwin came along, Huxley championed his theory of evolution by natural selection, and used it to promote a different view of science: rather than a community of polite gentlemen clustered around museums, and maintaining a strict social order within Victorian society, Huxley viewed science entirely in meritocratic terms, and was quick to excoriate anyone who offered pious platitudes for the sake of “getting along” rather than actually pursuing the truth. This led to the sharp disputes between Owen and Huxley. Huxley favored laboratories over museums, and rough and tumble arguments over measured and polite consensus. He called himself “Darwin’s bulldog”. 

As he gained notoriety, Huxley began to publish essays on broader cultural themes in popular journals. He eventually turned to educational reform, promoting more science and less literature and languages in the curriculum. But in so doing, his public persona was negotiated among literary artists, critics, and scientists. He opposed both the elitist and religious sentiments of Oxbridge scholars and the industrialist attitudes of more crass reformers. He thought all students should be trained to think as scientists, and to value literature and the arts as an important decoration to their minds. He joined cause to some extent with Matthew Arnold, who also sought to democratize education, though with more importance placed upon literature and the arts than Huxley allowed.

As he offered social criticism, a confrontation with religion was inevitable. But Huxley’s relation to religion is complicated. He wrote vehemently against high church dogmatism that insisted upon its doctrines and the shortcomings of science. He despised superstitious thinking and the social pressures enlisted to enforce religious dogmas. He was friendlier to liberal clergymen who adopted a more tolerant, experimental attitude toward religious truths, and he coined the term “agnosticism” to name a more open-ended and less prejudicial attitude toward all truths, including religious truths.

But many of his friends and supporters were liberal clergymen, and Huxley himself adopted many methods of religious instruction, such as sermon-like essays and public addresses, and certainly treated science as something like a holy order. So one might say on his behalf: “Science is the one true god, and to the extent that religious thinking can be made consistent with science, in approach and with efforts toward verification, it is permissible.” Huxley worked alongside clergymen in a plan for public schools, and in that case he advocated some measure of Biblical instruction, particularly parts of the Bible which did not conflict with science and were appropriate for the moral formation of the children of lower classes.

As a man of science, Huxley feigned a public indifference to money, and wrote against crass industrialism, but later in his life he came to the defense of capitalism and private industry, and against the formation of labor unions, redistribution of land and wealth, and assertions of workers’ rights.

Interesting intellectual tensions were at play in this period. Herbert Spencer had argued that clever and strong men had exerted their force to seize capital and subjugate lesser men to their rule, following the laws of social darwinism. But workers now used that argument to show that the wealthy had stolen their capital and were thus not entitled to it. Spencer backpedaled, retracting some of what he had written. Others like Huxley argued in defense of the status quo, and criticized labor movements for being based on ignorance and passion – in a word, “degeneration” – instead of clear thinking. They also argued that England was in economic war with America and other imperial nations, and for this war a disciplined class of workers was required – even for the sake of the workers. We know what happened: labor unions gained some ground through force and violence, but in time the power of money and land overwhelmed the opposition.

The fight for workers’ rights was coupled with a fundamentalist Christianity in the book of William Booth which helped to promote the Salvation Army, In Darkest England and the Way Out (1890). Booth argued for a Christian brand of agrarian communism, or a return to the land and communities ruled by their devout members. Huxley argued against such religious fanaticism, and wrote a series of letters and essays targeting Booth and the Army. Nevertheless, at the end of his life, Huxley seemed to believe that science could not provide an ethics, and in fact nature was profoundly amoral, and ethical foundations would have to be gained from other sources.

It would not be far off to see Huxley as the grandfather of the people today (New Atheists, secular humanists, etc.) who see science as the sole purveyor of truth, and who take dim views of anything that doesn’t fold neatly into its doctrines. But what needs to be taken into mind is that this general attitude evolved in historical circumstances that included social class, economics, gender roles, religion, and politics – all of which could have been otherwise. The study of nature is framed within a contingent human context.


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3QD: What’s in your beetle box?

…But the problem with sense data is that they don’t exist. Here are a couple of reasons for being suspicious of them. First, there isn’t any empirical evidence of them whatsoever, apart from our thinking that they exist. (This is the downside of having your esse be percipi.) There’s no scientific instrument that can register the presence or absence of a sensation. We can measure the electrical activity of somebody’s brain, of course, and we can watch their pupils dilate, but the only way to find out whether they are experiencing anything is to ask them, and take their word for it. This is the so-called “hard” problem of consciousness: namely, to explain why there should be any consciousness, when nothing we can see “from the outside” gives us any information about it, or indeed any evidence of its existence.

More here…

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3QD: Living in Bubbles

A crisis, by definition, has dramatic effects. It changes how we behave, where wealth goes, what policies we enact, and what we hope. But it also can bring into higher relief features of our lives that have not changed, but turn out to be more important than we realized.

Soap bubbles, by Jean Siméon Chardin (1733-4)

Like the fact that human life takes place in bubbles. This just means that humans like to form groups: somewhat closed networks of interactive relationships among a small number of relatives or friends whose principal job it is to care for one another. “Semi-permeable palliative social matrices” one could call them, but “bubbles” will work just fine. A bubble is an enclosed space, protected from the outside by a fragile boundary; all its points are equidistant from a center; it is almost invisible, but offers a hopeful shine when the light hits it right. All the same can be said of a circle of good friends. And all of human history has been built upon such bubbles.

More here…

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The Ring of Gyges (a story)

So, I’m no fiction writer (at least, not on purpose). I give it a shot now and then, for fun. A while back I had a plan to write a series of stories featuring the “wonder cabinet” of Dr Tenebris, which would be a stockpile of amazing and magical artifacts of the past. I wrote a story about the ring of Gyges (made famous in Plato’s Republic), and got partway through a story about the Antikythera mechanism before giving up. (This was the real Antikythera mechanism, the one that could change the motions of the planets, not the duplicate in that museum in Athens.) Like I said, I’m no fiction writer. But what’s the point of having a blog if you can’t embarrass yourself before a broader audience? So here is my effort at telling a story of the ring of Gyges.

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Richard Marshall interview at 3:16

Richard Marshall is a creative and interesting guy who has passions for making vivid paintings and interviewing philosophers. Somehow he decided to interview me, with the result to be found here. I had loads of fun answering his questions.

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3QD: Freedom and determinism – what we can learn from the failures of two pretty good arguments

The “Consequence Argument” is a powerful argument for the conclusion that, if determinism is true, then we have no control over what we do or will do. The argument is straightforward and simple (as given in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy):

Premise 1: No one has power over the facts of the past and the laws of nature.
Premise 2: No one has power over the fact that the facts of the past and the laws of nature entail every fact of the future (i.e., determinism is true).
Conclusion: Therefore, no one has power over the facts of the future.

Premise 1 seems awfully secure. Authors of history books might change people’s beliefs about the past, but try as they might, they won’t actually change the past. Similarly, scientists may write about the laws of nature however they please, but nothing they write will change those laws. No one can control the facts of the past, or the laws of nature.

Premise 2 looks pretty good too. For at least great big patches of nature, events happen because of the way things are or have been, and because of the continuous governance of the laws of nature. True, there are subatomic phenomena that seem to be indeterministic (Einstein was wrong, and God or nature does seem to roll teensy-weensy dice). But for whatever reason, it also seems that as these subatomic bits are assembled into larger parts of nature, the dice rolling seems to no longer have any effect, and at that point we enter upon a deterministic universe. Certainly by the time we get to big globs of neurons within the skulls of homo sapiens, wired up to eyeballs and limbs, we are in a domain where the fact is that the facts of the past and the laws of nature entail every fact of the future.

And the conclusion follows: we have no power to affect the future. So that’s it. We’re done.

More here…

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Structure, Energy, and Reality

This past term I’ve been teaching a capstone class in which students are supposed to write a longer paper on some topic that means a lot to them. It’s meant to be a culminating event for their undergraduate work in philosophy. The class is always a fun exchange of ideas in which I can just participate rather than lead. It’s unfortunate that the COVID-19 virus came along – for many more serious reasons, of course, but also because it meant our seminar meetings were cut short, and we didn’t get to continue having the fun we were having.

I decided this term to write my own “undergraduate thesis on a topic that means a lot to me”, and came up with the following treatise on the nature of reality. I may as well post it here!


Structure, energy, reality


(from the ICERM website at Brown University)

In this brief essay I will advocate the view that reality is a collection of possible mathematical structures infused with energy. There are many important questions I will not answer, such as what determines the range of mathematical possibility, what energy is, how a possible structure comes to be infused with energy, or whether there are any mathematical structures not infused with energy, in some universe or other. These are vital questions, but I do not know the answers to them. Still, one has to start somewhere. To provide a clear account of my view, I will divide this essay into three sections: (1) math as form; (2) energy as matter; and (3) the differences levels of interpretation make.

1. Math as form
Aristotle was right to think of substances as form united with matter, and right again to think of form as the more important of the two. When we seek to explain natural things or events, we always must turn to the form or structure of the things or events. When some atoms combine to form a molecule, what really matters are the structures of those atoms and their valences; the brute matter composing the atoms does not enter into the explanation, except as that matter is represented through structural and electrical properties. In this sense, materialism, understood literally as the view that everything is composed of matter, is false. If it were true, one would never be able to explain anything. There must be form as well as matter, and in any explanation, form matters more.

It might seem like form is not as real as matter, because form is usually not available to our senses except by being present in matter. We never see sphericality, but we see billiard balls and planets, and we might think of sphericality as a property that depends for its existence on some material substrate that has greater ontological weight. But this is an illusion that comes from the ways we are taught to talk about our sensory experience. When we become more serious about reality, we learn to talk about objects in the world independently of how they appear to us, and we try to talk about the world as it is in itself. As we do so, we begin to speak exclusively of the formal properties of objects: their structures, how they move, what other powers or properties they have, the range of ways they can affect other objects, and so on. The language of science is a language ranging over nature’s formal properties, and learning to speak it means leaving behind the ordinary supposition that material substrates are more important than the forms or structures they have.

Continue reading

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3QD: Our very own annus mirabilis

This isn’t the first time universities have shut down from fear of pestilence. In 1665, “it pleased the Almighty God in his just severity to visit this towne of Cambridge with the plague of pestilence”, and Cambridge University was closed. Students were sent home, and all public gatherings were canceled. Some students arranged to meet with tutors over that time, but we can suspect that a good number of students simply went home, forgot about their studies entirely, prayed fervently, and followed whatever strategies they could to lessen the chance of death.

More here….

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3QD: Thoughts on Killing a Dog

Last week we had our dog put down. It was time. She was getting old and facing some serious neurological difficulties. The tipping point was a pair of severe seizures in the middle of the night, spaced about a minute apart. I know that seizures can trigger more seizures, and as I was trying to help ease her through the second one, I was thinking “What if this is it? What if she keeps seizing until she dies?” and I wondered whether I would have the nerve to strangle her myself rather than let her die in that horrible way. Thankfully, I was not put to that test. She came out of the second seizure, and stumbled around blind for the rest of the night, trying to escape from the dark hole she thought she was in.

The rest of the essay is here.

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3QD: Reflections on It-ing and Thou-ing

We find ourselves always in the middle of an experience. But it’s what we do next – how we characterize the experience – that lays down a host of important and almost subterranean conditions. Am I sitting in a chair, gazing out the dusty window into a world of sunlight, trees, and snow? Am I meditating on the nature of experience? Am I praying? Am I simply spacing out? Depending on which way I parse whatever the hell I’m up to, my experience shifts from something ineffable (or at any rate, not currently effed) to something meaningful and determinate, festooned with many other conversational hooks and openings: “enjoying nature”, “introspecting”, “conversing with God”, “resting”, “procrastinating”, and so on. Putting the experience into words tells me what to do with it next.

Essay here

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3QD: Conversation with a Genie

Essay here.

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Back to 3QuarksDaily

After a bit of a break, I’m going to resume contributing monthly essays at 3QuarksDaily. The first essay is now up, alongside the fascinating essays, poems, and insights from the other contributors.

How To Be Kind

“There’s only one rule I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’” —Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Despite Vonnegut’s strong counsel to babies entering the world, kindness seems to be in short supply. Little wonder. Our news media portray to us a world of power politics, corporate greed, murders, and cruel policies which are anything but kind. Our popular forms of entertainment, much more often than not, are stories about battles that shock and thrill us and gratify our lust for bloody vengeance, leaving no room for wimpy, kind sentiments. Success is advertised to us as requiring harsh discipline, dedication, and focus, and kindness, it appears, need not apply. Even though we all like to give and receive kindnesses, they seem to play no role in our political, social, and cultural economies.

The rest here.

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