Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Quote of the Week, 2014-11-26

In the mental world, the evidence for the universality of causal laws is less complete than in the physical world. Psychology cannot boast of any triumph comparable to gravitational astronomy. Nevertheless, the evidence is not very greatly less than in the physical world. The crude and approximate causal laws from which science starts are just as easy to discover in the mental sphere as in the physical. In the world of sense, there are to begin with the correlations of sight and touch and so on, and the facts which lead us to connect various kinds of sensations with eyes, ears, nose, tongue, etc. Then there are such facts as that our body moves in answer to our volitions. Exceptions exist, but are capable of being explained as easily as the exceptions to the rule that unsupported bodies in air fall. There is, in fact, just such a degree of evidence for causal laws in psychology as will warrant the psychologist in assuming them as a matter of course, though not such a degree as will suffice to remove all doubt from the mind of a sceptical inquirer. It should be observed that causal laws in which the given term is mental and the inferred term physical, or vice versa, are at least as easy to discover as causal laws in which both terms are mental.

Bertrand Russell, Our Knowledge of the External World, Lecture 8

Retrieved from Project Gutenberg

In a lecture on cause and its application to free will, Russell takes time to note that causal laws apply to the interactions between different mental phenomena, or between mental and physical phenomena. I find free will to be a very difficult concept, in that among the people who believe it exists, they are almost universally certain it does not exist in computers, and yet are unable to give any sort that qualitative difference that withstands careful scrutiny. I'm working on a post looks at a typical example of this position.

This will be the last Quote of the Week to feature Russell, at least for a while. I've downloaded some Kant and some Nietzsche, so I expect they will be featured over the next few months.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Quote of the Week, 2014-11-19

The world is not what it is. We should put out that silly "but it's human nature!" argument to pasture. At one point, a large percentage of the U.S. population was enslaved. Not long ago, women couldn't even vote. Even more recently, over 90% of the population thought inter-racial marriage was immoral. The world changes every day, and silencing criticism by claiming that things are the only way they can be is small minded and utterly incorrect. Women feel harassed when subjected to cat calls each time they leave their house. I would feel precisely the same. And since they are the ones getting harassed, you don't get a say in how they should feel. The behavior is unacceptable and society should stand against it.

Siro, JazzFanz post

We constantly see claims of nature used to justify inequality. This race has specific traits, that gender tends to act a certain way, the other sexuality shows deviance, etc. However, one of the real truths is that primate nature is plastic, adaptable, and responds to its cultural surroundings. Since humans are primates, this includes us.

One great, real-world example are the Forest Tribe Baboons, who had a dramatic shift in culture when the largest, most aggressive apes were killed off rapidly due to unusual circumstances. All over the world, baboons were known for their use of violence within a tribe to establish order, but within a couple of generations, this tribe turned to more pacifistic and cooperative models of organization. Culture can be changed. I don't advocate killing off our perpetrators of egregious racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc., but I do advocate fighting them.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Quote of the Week, 2014-11-12

Between philosophy and pure mathematics there is a certain affinity, in the fact that both are general and a priori. Neither of them asserts propositions which, like those of history and geography, depend upon the actual concrete facts being just what they are. We may illustrate this characteristic by means of Leibniz's conception of many possible worlds, of which only one is actual. In all the many possible worlds, philosophy and mathematics will be the same; the differences will only be in respect of those particular facts which are chronicled by the descriptive sciences. Any quality, therefore, by which our actual world is distinguished from other abstractly possible worlds, must be ignored by mathematics and philosophy alike. Mathematics and philosophy differ, however, in in their manner of treating the general properties in which all possible worlds agree; for while mathematics starting from comparatively simple propositions, seeks to build up more and more complex results by deductive synthesis, philosophy, starting from data which are common to all knowledge, seeks to purify them into the the simplest statements of abstract form that can be obtained from them by logical analysis.

Bertrand Russell, Our Knowledge of the External World, Lecture 7

Retrieved from Project Gutenberg

I have areas of agreement and areas of disagreement with this post. I would put both mathematics and philosophy, as well as fields of study like constitutional law, largely in a class of knowledge referred to as formal knowledge. For me, this is knowledge derived from systems we set up, such as logic, uses propositions we assert to be true. In this sense, it is true mathematics, philosophy, or the law would be the same in any alternate world, as long as you hold the assumptions that they make to be unchangeable.

On the other hand, Russell wrote these lectures in 1914. long before the Kurt Gödel's incompleteness theorems and Paul Cohen had proved the independence of the Continuum Hypothesis in set theory. We can certainly talk about one possible world where the Continuum Hypothesis is true, and another where it is not true. In that case, we can't say mathematics will be identical in these two possible worlds. The would hold true for any branch of philosophy (or any other formal system). We will always come across unprovable statements, which may be true or false, and discuss possible worlds for each case. The assumptions of mathematics are not unchangeable, but instead, up to the decision of the mathematician.

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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Quote of the Week, 2014-11-05

US deaths from ebola = 1
Annual US deaths from the flu = >3000, as high as 49,000 over the past 40 years

US ebola infections = 3 (maybe 4, only 2 transmitted in the states)
Annual US flu infections = between 5% and 20% of the population get the flu, approx 200,000 are hospitalized from it annually

% of US populations panicking over ebola = >90%
% of the US population that thinks flu shots are worthless = ?%, but apparently anyone who follows Bill Maher. Link.

% of US population that are morons....well you can do the math.

LogGrad98, JazzFanz post

I don't have anything more to add to this one.

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