Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

Quick question: Is colour in your head or on the computer screen?

If you aren’t a philosopher, your first response might be, ‘Does it really matter?’ In this case, it does. A class action lawsuit depends on it.

In the suit the question becomes: is Apple misrepresenting their MacBook and MacBook Pro if they advertise displays capable of millions of colours, when they are really just selling displays that allow the perception of millions of colours?

The plaintiffs in this class action lawsuit, Fred Greaves and Dave Gatley, complain in their filing:

The reality is that notwithstanding Apple’s misrepresentations and suggestions that its MacBook and MacBook Pro display “millions of colors,” the displays are only capable of displaying the illusion of millions of colors through the use of a software technique referred to as “dithering,” which causes nearby pixels on the display to use slightly varying shades of colors that trick the human eye into perceiving the desired color even though it is not truly that color.

There is a rich literature on the philosophy of colour. Somehow, I doubt any of it will be used in court.

The blogosphere’s Cult of Mac is ripe with commentary. Hat-tip to Ars Technica via Apple 2.0 via Slashdot. See also Engadget and Apple Insider.

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The New Yorker hosts a talk by Jonathan Haidt and uploads the video. Hat tip goes to the brilliantly titled Missing Shades of Grue.

Worth watching just for the forest of hands that are raised when Haidt asks the audience who among them are liberals. I think there were more microphones at the podium than there were conservatives attending.

Drawing on his 5 foundation theory (mentioned here), Haidt argues liberals need to take into account the 3 extra moral ‘foundations’ which inform conservatives ideology. A third of the way through, Haidt discusses how his theory explains the politics of gay marriage. He also makes an interesting point about moral geography. Haidt observes a narrow liberal ideology creates a common denominator and promotes tolerance among people who congregate in urban areas, immigration attractors and transportation hubs.

Afterwards, there is a good conversation with Henry Finder. In it, Haidt talks about:

  1. the importance of emotion – awe, ‘moral elevation’ and ‘the blink test‘ – in the public perception of leadership in American elections
  2. post-hoc moral reasoning and moral dumbfounding
  3. why framing issues with language choices will convince nobody
  4. moral decay in the culture war between Islam and the West
  5. why liberalism can be bad for you and human dignity, and why liberals should work with the ‘good parts’ of conservative ideology

The best quote, referring to an electoral map showing liberals populate the areas around waterways:

I believe this shows that humidity makes people liberal.

Update: See now the post and comments at Dr. Joan Bushwell’s Chimpanzee Refuge.

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In an earlier post, I complained about one case of scientific theorizing taking place in a philosophical vacuum. There’s a lot of philosophy of science out there if only scientists knew to look for it.

If you are interested in the conditions for knowledge, you should know that philosophers have thought about this already. A lot. Their arguments will inform your work, and since a lot of modern philosophy of science is undertaken by philosophers with scientific training you can’t use man-on-the-mountain stereotypes as an excuse to ignore them.

If you are searching for a jumping-off point, an approachable overview of the history, themes and important works can be found in:

Coverage of recent developments, usually with a topically arranged collection of selected writings, can be found in any good introductory philosophy of science text or syllabus. One such is…

One of the big questions that scientists like to think about is, what makes scientific knowledge different from unscientific claptrap? And yes, philosophers have beat you to it. So stretch yourself beyond the criterion of falsifiability – yes, that’s no longer being taken seriously as a sufficient point of demarcation – and read up on more recent work.

To help researchers understand the demarcation problem, I’ve culled a short list from my graduate thesis project which examined the scientific status of cosmology. You might also enjoy listening to audio of Imre Lakatos’ lecture on Science and Pseudoscience.

The following are keystone texts.

  • Larry Laudan. ‘The Demise of the Demarcation Problem’ in Michael Ruse, ed. But Is It Science?: The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1988) 337.
  • Imre Lakatos & Alan Musgrave, eds. Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge: Proceedings of the International Colloquium in the Philosophy of Science, London, 1965 ,Volume 4 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978).
  • Paul Feyerabend. Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (London: Verso, 1975).
  • Karl Popper. Science, Pseudo-Science, and Falsifiability in Conjectures and Refutations : the Growth of Scientific Knowledge (Routledge, London, 1963).
  • Thomas Kuhn. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).

The persistence of Creation Science and Intelligent Design in American culture introduced the demarcation problem to US courtrooms. As might be expected, philosophers couldn’t stay away from this in their commentary…

More amazingly, philosopher Michael Ruse appeared as a witness in McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education (1981). It led to a debate between Michael Ruse and Larry Laudan, among others, that ranged from the question of demarcation to the wisdom of putting philosophers on the witness stand. Much of this is collected in:

  • Michael Ruse, ed. But Is It Science?: The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1988) 337.

Important contributions include:

A more recent, -if somewhat weighty – coverage can be found here:

  • Gary Edmond & David Mercer. ‘Conjectures and Exhumations: Citations of History, Philosophy and Sociology of Science in US Federal Courts’. Law and Literature 14:2 (Summer, 2002) 309.

For a range of commentary on pseudosciences, be they occult, superstition, or parapsychology…

  • Marie-Catherine Mousseau, ‘Parapsychology: Science or Pseudo-Science?’ Journal of Scientific Exploration, 17:2 (2003) 271.
  • George A. Reisch. ‘Pluralism, Logical Empiricism, and the Problem of Pseudoscience’ Philosophy of Science, 65:2 (June 1998) 333.
  • Paul Churchland. ‘How Parapsychology could become a science’ Inquiry 30:3 (Sept. 1987) 227.
  • Daniel Rothbart. ‘Demarcating Genuine Science from Pseudo-Science,’ in Patrick Grim, ed., Philosophy of Science and the Occult (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1982) 94.
  • Paul Thagard, ‘Why Astrology is a Pseudoscience‘ in Peter D. Asquith and Ian Hacking, eds, Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, Vol. 1978, Volume One: Contributed Papers (1978) 223.

With all that available as a good starting point for further reading, I’ll leave you with this – a claim that reflects my own opinion on the epistemic merits of insulating science from pseudoscience.

Rather than asking, Is this pseudoscience or genuine science? we should ask, What arguments and evidence support this clinical claim? We should be concerned with belief-worthiness, epistemic warrant, evidential basis, empirical support (pick your favorite locution), rather than attempting to determine whether the theory or practice falls on the proper side of a demarcation criterion that separates science from pseudoscience.

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Once again, hat tip to Science and Consciousness Review for mention of an article that opens with an astonishing claim:

More than 40% of American people believe in devils, ghosts, and spiritual healing.

The authors then ask two questions:

  1. Why do otherwise educated people have these irrational beliefs?
  2. What is the difference between superstitious or magical beliefs and other unfounded beliefs?

Their answer is that superstitious, magical and paranormal beliefs are based on category mistakes involving intuitions about physics, psychology and biology – intuitions that have their psychological origins in the “core knowledge” used during childhood.

In the past, researchers have expected these beliefs to be the result of ’emotional instability’ and ‘low rational thinking’ (i.e. stupidity). Lindeman and Aarnio designed their study to test this against their claim that mismanaged intuitions are the real cause. Their results:

[T]he best measures to distinguish believers from skeptics were ontological confusions, and secondarily intuitive thinking. Neither analytical thinking nor emotional stability could discriminate the groups from each other.

This is in agreement with their earlier work involving gender differences. That research showed women’s thinking – which they say is less analytical and more intuitive than men’s – contributed to women’s adherence to paranormal beliefs.

How fascinating. Innate intuitions are vulnerable to category mistakes that lead people to accept false beliefs.

All this leads me to ask…

  1. Why do some people confuse intuitive categories while others do not?
  2. Why are the mistaken intuitions so powerful?
  3. Is there a way to appeal to other intuitions to defeat the category mistakes?
  4. Are religious beliefs also the result of category mistakes?
  5. Is there an evolutionary advantage to making such a category mistake?
  6. Why don’t researchers make use of the wealth of philosophical literature about the demarcation between science and pseudoscience? None of it makes an appearance in the bibliography of the paper.

In fairness, the researchers are concerned with the psychology of crazy beliefs – my characterization, not theirs. However, they are presenting their work as a theoretical synthesis, and such a construction demands awareness of the relevant philosophy of science.

If I had ‘low rational thinking’, I might believe this omission comes from a disciplinary gestalt among psychologists – who are bitter that their work has often been the target of criticisms that it isn’t genuine science…

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It’s no secret I was excited by word of Jonathan Haidt’s latest publication. His work with Joshua Greene first caught my attention during a law school course in Health Law, where it made an appearance in my critique of the wisdom of repugnance promoted by Leon Kass. Their research introduced me to moral psychology, neuroethics, and experimental philosophy; thanks to their work, the political and legal ramifications of moral disgust and moral intuition has since become one of my primary research interests.

So today, I dived into Haidt’s new paper expecting something great. I got it. You can too, although it is locked behind a subscription.

Rather than covering Haidt’s review in detail, I’ll distill three insights from the paper that make a theoretical foundation for any further work in the fields of moral psychology and moral ideology.

  1. Moral reasoning is driven by affective responses like moral disgust. Gut reactions are immediate, and bias or distort subsequent processes of reasoning and justification.
  2. Moral reasoning is often like the press secretary for a secretive administration—constantly generating the most persuasive arguments it can muster for policies whose true origins and goals are unknown.

  3. Humans have five classes of moral intuitions, which each have unique evolutionary origins in the behaviour of individuals within gossiping moral communities. These are intuitions about…
    1. protection from harm – altruism
    2. fairness – rights, reciprocity, and justice
    3. loyalty – ingroup and outgroup relationships
    4. authority – respect and obedience
    5. purity of body and spirit – sanctified, not carnal
  4. In Western societies, conservatives make use of all five intuitions, but liberals pay more attention to harm and fairness. (Coincidentally, most research so far also focuses on harm and fairness – is research being driven by liberals, or are these easier to study?)

This is a rather dense package, so I encourage you to read the paper to unpack it.

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