Sunday, May 15, 2005

Various and Sundry

* An Annotated Wimsey; much needed, although only partial. The notes on the interesting but very odd The Documents in the Case (non-Wimsey) are especially good. Never having read Bulwer-Lytton, I hadn't had a good grasp on why "It was a dark and stormy night" has become the proverbial bad literary opening; but the Whose Body? notes conveniently give the full sentence:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents -- except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

The sentence starts out just fine, but then gets worse and worse until it's the literary equivalent of nails on a blackboard. And the fact that it gets worse and worse makes its good start almost painful. So now you know, if you didn't already.

* Michael Spencer discusses Christian sexuality in Sex in Dangerous Places.

* Hugh Montefiore died Friday (HT: NT Gateway Weblog, which has a list of obituaries). He was a pro-nuclear-power environmentalist, Bishop of Birmingham, and Biblical scholar. He was 85.

* Paul Newall has put up an interview on Incompleteness and Scientific Theories (HT: Studi Galileiani), which is an interesting read. I think that it's very clearly not the case that underdetermination is always due to incompleteness of data. In physical theory, i.e., the sort of heavily mathematical theories Duhem solely concerns himself with, underdetermination appears to be due not so much to the incompleteness of the data (although perhaps that contributes) but due to the power of the instrument used: mathematics is a vastly more powerful instrument for generating theory than any methods of data-gathering are for constraining it. One can see an analogy to this if one considers the common exercise of completing a series of numbers:

1, 2, 3, ?

What number comes after 3? If we interpret the data in terms of one possible mathematical pattern (e.g., addition of one), we will get a different result than if we interpret the data in terms of another mathematical pattern (e.g., as part of a Fibonacci sequence). And Duhem's argument for what we would call underdetermination of theory basically insists that we can come up with any number of mathematical ways to organize any set of generalizations from experiment; we are limited in this only by the ingenuity of physicists and mathematicians. Duhem has a rather complicated story for why we don't, in fact, always accept just any mathematical pattern that organizes the data, which gets into psychology; and, in fact, in Duhem's philosophy of science, underdetermination is never a genuine problem, since Duhem doesn't think theory choice in physics needs to be justified by observation, anyway -- observation just gives the material for organization. But the basic point is that in mathematics, the potential for theorizing on any given set of data has no discernible bounds; this is something on the theory side itself, even abstracting from any fuzziness or incompleteness on the empirical side. (That said, Duhem also recognizes underdetermination through the incompleteness of the data, in his discussions of measurement.) I'm not quite sure why this turned into a discussion of Duhem. I also disagree with the 'empirical undecidability' of God's existence as Mathen defines it in the interview, of course. It's absurd to say we can't argue for the existence of x on the basis of our experiences unless our scientific theories for those experiences are complete -- if we believed that, we could never argue for the existence of anything. But there's no reason to restrict it to God's existence: any cause of any experience is in the same boat, because there might always be some other cause that's really doing it (which would show up on a more complete scientific theory). This, in fact, is the reason for Newton's Fourth Rule of Reasoning; thinking that this makes an issue undecidable is just a version of what Newton calls the evasion of induction by hypotheses.

* Haiku summaries of great works of literature at "Mansfield Fox" (HT: Death in the Afternoon). The summary of the Acts of the Apostles is especially appropriate for this Whitsunday:

The Church is born as
The Holy Spirit descends.
Comedy ensues.

* I received a hit from a search engine that shows a profound faith in the informative power of the internet: how to be the master of the world. If only it were that easy....

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