Sunday, March 30, 2008

Notes and Links

* Janet Stemwedel discusses science and belief at "Adventures in Ethics and Science."

* John Wilkins discusses classification in philosophy of science in a very interesting post at "Evolving Thoughts". One of the remarkable things if you read nineteenth-century philosophy of science is that most of the great philosophers of science in the period devote quite a bit of attention to the subject. But the interest dies out somewhere along the line (Wilkins suggests a sort of rough chronology of the disappearance), and I'm not sure why. Duhem in some sense seems the last hurrah for the topic: he does hold that classification has a crucial role (indeed, the crucial role) in physics, but he doesn't discuss classification as such at great length, and that's certainly not a part of Duhem that has had much influence. Wilkins presents an argument that "classification is not only interesting but one half of science."

* Kenny has a post on how Berkeley manages to be both a phenomenalist and a Platonist. It's no secret that I think that Kenny's right on track with regard to this point of interpretation.

* Keith discusses Cleanthes's argument against the eternity of the world in Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

* Brian Switek of "Laelaps" discusses the legend of the Wilberforce-Huxley 'debate'. One is reminded of the famous legend of Laplace's "I have no need of that hypothesis" in response to Napoleon; we have the real story (slight update here) from William Herschel's diary, since Herschel was there:

The first Consul then asked a few questions relating to Astronomy and the construction of the heavens to which I made such answers as seemed to give him great satisfaction. He also addressed himself to Mr. Laplace on the same subject, and held a considerable argument with him in which he differed from that eminent mathematician. The difference was occasioned by an exclamation of the first Consul, who asked in a tone of exclamation or admiration (when we were speaking of the extent of the sidereal heavens): "And who is the author of all this!" Mons. De la Place wished to shew that a chain of natural causes would account for the construction and preservation of the wonderful system. This the first Consul rather opposed. Much may be said on the subject; by joining the arguments of both we shall be led to "Nature and nature’s God".


That's a somewhat different moral. These folk legends seem to survive because they are clever rhetorical presentations of simple arguments; the tale gets adorned to bring out the intended point more clearly. In that sense they can be said to be a sort of loose and colloquial philosophical instrument, a way of doing philosophy outside of more rigorous dialectical contexts. Thus the real point in presenting them is generally not history but persuasive presentation of folk philosophy. The Diogenes Laertius approach to philosophy, one might say. Switek suggests that this is potentially dangerous:

Perhaps I'm a bit biased in that my preferred area of science (paleontology) is historical in nature, but I worry that the work of historians of science is often ignored. It's easy to give assent to the popular stories and use the same images & examples over and over again, but in some cases I fear monsters have been created that cannot easily be slain. Without a firm understanding of the history of our own discipline, we'll continually be working off of the "last best" review or representation, and stories will continue to mutate and become caricatures of more impressive, compelling historical events.


* Apparently I'm too loose with my tongue around here (ht):

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* A discussion of moral psychology at Bloggingheads.tv between Paul Bloom and Joshua Knobe (ht). Bloom has some interesting publications online. Cognitive science of religion gets some discussion as well. Lots of it is good; some of the discussion gets a bit weird, though.

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