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Metaphysical Math Missive • Scientific Faith • Time For Tallis • Flaws & Freedoms • (Epi)Phenomenal Response • Angry Re: Marks • Hob-Nobbing With Hume • Capitalism Has Value, But No Values
Metaphysical Math Missive
Dear Editor: I enjoyed Massimo Pigliucci’s column in Issue 84 in which, after reading James Robert Brown’s Philosophy of Mathematics, he seemed to find mathematical Platonism more plausible. Mathematical Platonism is the view that because there exist no perfect mathematical objects in the world, such as perfect circles, they must exist elsewhere as non-spatiotemporal, abstract entities. But as I said in my article on mathematical knowledge in Issue 81, philosophers have asked: how can we come into causal contact with such abstract objects beyond space and time? And thus, how can we ever have knowledge of them? In the book Pigliucci mentions, one of the ways Brown tries to get around this argument against Platonism is by attacking the Causal Theory of Knowledge (CTK). CTK claims that one has knowledge of an object or state of affairs only if that knowledge is caused by that object or state of affairs – through observation, for example. Here Brown appeals to a peculiar phenomenon in quantum mechanics called quantum entanglement. If, for example, a particular sub-atomic particle decays, it will produce two photons flying in opposite directions, each with a property called polarization. From experiments, we know that when one measures the polarization of the first photon, then the second photon will instantaneously have the opposite polarization, even if that second photon is separated from the first by faster than light (NB, 2 photons) distances (and thus unobserved). Brown suggests that contrary to CTK, we have here an instance of non-causal knowledge, since after measuring the first photon’s polarization, we have instant knowledge of the distant and unobserved second photon’s polarization. Brown concludes that CTK is wrong, and so is no impediment to our believing in mathematical Platonic objects. Yet although it’s true that we don’t have a direct causal connection with the second photon, there still seems to be an indirect causal connection. That is, the only way we can make such inferences about the second photon’s polarization is if physicists make repeated direct causal observations (via their instruments) on the polarization of first photons and then second photons. From these observations we then conclude that whenever we measure the first photon’s polarization, the second photon will always have the opposite polarization. We can then make an inductive generalization inferring that this will hold even for a future unobserved second photon. So although there seemingly is no causal connection between our two photons themselves, our very knowledge of their link can only be acquired by our (causally-connected) observations of repeated experiments performed on photons. Thus, CTK cannot be so easily refuted, for we are still causally linked with our knowledge here. So CTK, and its recent, albeit weaker, reformulations, continue to pose difficulties for mathematical Platonism.
Rui Vieira, Mississauga, Ontario
Dear Editor: As a mere biochemist, I am often amazed, enlightened and humbled by the clear thinking and ruthless logic demonstrated by many authors in your excellent magazine. However despite this excellence, I’ve noticed a curious blind spot that seems to occur time and again whenever the word ‘faith’ is mentioned. In the last issue Tim Wilkinson became the latest in a long line of offenders when he defined ‘faith’ as “belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence”. I find such a definition really rather curious, because I cannot imagine how such a belief could possibly exist. Even the wackiest conspiracy theory or most bizarre superstition is still based on at least a small amount of evidence and logical connections. Granted, you or I might think that such beliefs are based upon bad evidence and logic. However this does not mean there is no evidence or logic (however weak). Too often, rather than using the word ‘faith’ to actually mean something useful, it seems that many authors use it to mean ‘a belief that I do not agree with’. To me such a pejorative and rhetorical use of the word shows a far better example of people “temporarily misplacing their dictionaries whilst simultaneously taking leave of their senses” – to quote Tim again.
Like your columnist Massimo Pigliucci, I also “tend not to believe in anything that isn’t made of either matter or energy”. However, I am also comfortable with the word ‘faith’ even in a scientific context. When putting together a scientific argument, it is essential to pull together as many different types of experimental observations to form the basis of the argument. However it is fascinating how many other scientists, trying to be equally rational, can look at the same experimental evidence and draw very different conclusions. So faith, in this context, is having enough confidence to turn your results into a published conclusion that you are happy for others to try and challenge. It is taking the leap from tentatively believing a theory, to using that theory as a working principle. It is not belief in the absence of logic or evidence; it is a belief based upon ‘good enough’ evidence. Such a definition seems far more useful than the impossible definition of ‘ a belief without evidence’, or the rhetorical use as ‘a belief I do not agree with’.
Dr Simon Kolstoe, Centre for Amyloidosis & Acute Phase Proteins, UCL Medical School, London
Time For Tallis
Dear Editor: I always enjoy Raymond Tallis’s column, and in Issue 84 he exhorts us to tell him if he’s talking nonsense. I wouldn’t be so bold, but I think he has missed an important aspect of the relationship between sight and time, which is both biological and psychological. We literally see time pass us by through our eyes – as do all creatures with sight. Specifically, our sight parses time, by seeing, in the case of humans, I think around 24 fresh images per second. Other animals do it faster or slower, so different species literally see time pass at different rates. Most birds have a faster rate, and so do most insects. When we watch a sparrow turn its head, it appears jerky to us; but for its own kind, this movement would appear fluid.
Only consciousness gives tense to time: past, present, future. We remember a past and imagine a future, although we apparently use the same parts of the brain to do both. In other words, we reconstruct memories in our imagination. I’ve no doubt other species do this as well, especially the ones that hunt and anticipate the outcome of a chase.
Paul Mealing, by email.
Flaws & Freedoms
Dear Editor: Prof. Tibor R. Machan’s critique in last issue’s letters column of my vision of progressive liberalism in Issue 82 is consistent but flawed. He argues that he doesn’t want to curtail liberty on the grounds I propose (promoting autonomy and preventing suffering) but ignores my specific examples – the compulsory wearing of seatbelts being one that is pretty uncontroversial, in Europe if not in the United States. Obviously a libertarian like Prof. Machan is going to take issue with this kind of paternalism, and his critique would have a point if I’d advocated the state banning any and all risk-taking behaviour. However, that is not my position. Climbing mountains and hang-gliding are expressions of some people’s ‘large-scale concepts of the good’, as I call it. People consciously engage in these things to enhance their lives. Not wearing a seatbelt doesn’t come into this category.
Prof. Machan asks ‘by what standard’ I would advocate restricting liberty, and implies that no standard is ever justified. However, even the most ardent libertarian fails to hold this position – even Prof. Machan. All of us accept that there are good reasons to curtail some liberties – the freedom to swing my fist still stops where your chin begins. In fact, as I said, I clearly define two criteria for the limitation of liberty, but these apply only in so far as they do not affect people’s large-scale concepts of the good. We can, as mentioned above, prevent people from taking certain kinds of risks; and secondly, we can require them to promote the autonomy of other, potentially autonomous, beings (eg, I pay taxes so that kids can be educated and so that people can get medical care).
Prof. Machan’s objection that my suggestions for what might constitute a large-scale concept of the good (and so what freedoms might be taken away) is ‘ad hoc’, is fair. However, he ignores the fact that my list was not supposed to be exhaustive. The business of politics is partly about defining what gets included on the list and what does not. By contrast, his claim that many Muslims don’t value religious freedom is at least contestable, and only useful to him if he wants to make a relativist point about ‘freedoms’ being local rather than universal. I doubt this is his intention.
Finally, Prof. Machan advocates “charity, kindness and philanthropy” as non-coercive remedies for the plight of the less-well-off. Certainly, as I acknowledged, the state does wrong when it promotes dependency in those who benefit from welfare. However, Prof. Machan is too optimistic if he thinks that charity will effectively fill the needs of those who need it, and too quick to assume that the current distribution of economic resources is in no need of justification. This, in the end, is the issue between Rawlsian liberals like me, and the libertarian followers of Robert Nozick. Accidents of birth or otherwise, are not, from our perspective, enough to justify the opportunities of some and their denial to many. Having said all of that, I’d like to thank the Professor for his critique, and express a little sadness that I don’t seem to have elicited an equivalently scathing response from communitarian-minded readers – I’m sure I said just as much to upset them as I did neo-liberals!
Philip Badger, Sheffield
Dear Editor: When commenting on my article ‘Epiphenomenalism Explained’ (PN 81) in the Letters of PN 83, D.N. Dimmitt claimed that, given a sequence of brain states and a corresponding sequence of conscious states, either series might be the cause of the other. However, the situation is not symmetrical. Whereas states in the brain sequence are related by well-established scientific laws allowing prediction of later states, and, in principle, prediction of the corresponding conscious state, no conscious state guarantees its successor state, or any subsequent brain state. Further, whereas the brain sequence is continuous throughout life, the conscious one regularly ceases, in dreamless sleep, then reappears on waking – these changes being anticipated by brain states (cf when anaesthetics are administered). The conclusion must be that our conscious states are dependent on our brain states, not the other way about.
Dimmitt then suggests that if human brains are ‘driven by physics’ (as I believe they are), no errors in reasoning could possibly occur without breaking physical law. But when, on the radio, the Chief Inspector of Schools in Britain confidently said that the product of 8 and 7 was 54, his brain had not contravened the laws of physics! It had simply been improperly educated: his arithmetic ‘program’ was faulty. But faulty brain programs (those not fit for purpose) can be corrected – that’s just what teaching does. Even artificial neural networks learn to self-improve. The point is that brain and computer hardware (driven by physics) indifferently support our useful, rational software, as well as our useless, irrational software.
Steve Brewer, also in Letters, PN 83, says that my Axiom 2 (Every brain state evolves solely in accordance with physical law) is defined to have eliminated any function for consciousness, and therefore renders physics incapable of dealing with the mind. Indeed, Galileo understood that if physics were to progress beyond medieval animism, it was essential that it attempted to employ only what philosopher John Locke called the ‘primary qualities’ of matter, and eschew its ‘secondary qualities’ or ‘qualia’ (ie, its sense appearances). So, for example, science had to account for the whiteness and coldness of snowflakes in objective terms – which are, the wavelengths of light they reflect, and their temperature being lower than that of our fingers. After four hundred years of practising this method, the upshot is the discovery that brain activity itself evolves in accordance with the laws that apply in the physical world. Mental activity has today been brought within the scope of neuroscience. My two axioms of epiphenomenalism are thus not definitions, but a summary of empirical findings (the proper place for metaphysics).
Bill Meacham, in Letters PN 84, is correct to say that my observations on which creatures have consciousness and which do not were mere speculation. The well-known ‘problem of other minds’ exists precisely because there are no detectable physical aspects of consciousness – exactly as epiphenomenalism asserts. Bill is entitled to his pan-proto-experientialism – every particle in the universe is somewhat conscious (and presumably even space-time itself, if the particles turn out to be mere convolutions in it). This does not contradict epiphenomenalism, as long as Bill (and David Chalmers) acknowledges that the assumed ‘interiority’ or proto-consciousness of each electron, etc, is completely inefficacious, making no difference to its behaviour. I believe though that his theory still has two questions to answer:
1) Why does the mere juxtaposition of the alleged ‘simple psychic units’ of the brain’s atoms generate our own rich experience, so lauded by his hero, Whitehead? Some of us still want to discover what structures enable these great manifestations. Just proposing ‘a continuum’ does not help. A television set is not made from a continuum of numerous small TV sets. Why then shouldn’t consciousness be instead a novel attribute of suitably complex matter?
2) One day we may be able to determine the precise neural processes responsible for consciousness – in particular, the threshold for yielding pain experience. Meanwhile, unless he is a Jain, doesn’t Bill assume that the myriads of tiny creatures (eg bacteria) that humans inadvertently but necessarily destroy all the time are below this threshold? We have no alternative but to assess which brainy animals might experience pain.
Norman Bacrac, London
Angry Re: Marks
Dear Editor: In his column in Issue 84, Joel Marks asked for examples of intelligible anger which aren’t a form of indignation. Instead I want to show why it may not be possible to do so.
At least some of the time, we can act to bring about the states of affairs that we prefer; and we acknowledge that capacity in others too. Often our preferences are incompatible with those of others. If I eat all the pies then you can’t have any. The recognition that other people are like me in having preferences, and that there is no reason why my preferences (or any other individual’s) should take precedence all the time, gives rise to a concept of fairness. Psychopaths apart, this concept is something we all share – although we commonly disagree about how it should operate in any particular instance. We are by no means always correct in attributing particular thoughts and intentions to others. We mistake accidental occurrences for intentional acts. We misinterpret each others’ intentions. Most of all we give ourselves preferential treatment, while professing even-handedness. These are just some of the ways in which disagreements about fairness come about. If things don’t seem fair to us – if our preferences modulated by our sense of fairness are not fulfilled – we would not be behaving like humans if we didn’t sometimes express displeasure. So we are disappointed, upset, angry, etc. And we are indignant too because our sense of fairness has been transgressed.
When is anger not indignant? When we can’t possibly attribute it to a sense of fairness. If Billy Bunter is cross because he can’t eat all the pies, he’s not indignant, he’s just greedy! I’m sure he wouldn’t see it that way, but that’s because he’s blinded to unfairness by his greed. Would we regard an angry bully as indignant? I think not for similar reasons. I think I have come to agree with Joel Marks that all intelligible anger is indignant. These last two examples hardly count as intelligible. There are certainly not rational. Yet while anger at its most extreme is destructive and undesirable, I don’t share Marks’s view that anger would be best eliminated. We can’t keep a concept of fairness without the possibility of anger, and I want to keep fairness.
I have used moral terminology, which may not please Marks. However, I don’t think complete amorality is possible. To say that we ought not to hold moral positions is, after all, a moral position itself.
Geoff Frost, Nottingham
Dear Editor: In his column ‘World Without Anger’ in Issue 84, Joel Marks was correct to say that moral judgements can lead to anger. These, though, are only some of the things that can induce this emotion. Psychologists suggest that we get angry when our goals are frustrated. Some of our goals are ethical. A person who loves animals wishes to see them well cared for. When they are mistreated, the animal lover reacts in anger. His goal of their good treatment has been frustrated. But when he cannot get a toy or some other device to work despite much effort, a young child will also get angry. The same is true when he repeatedly loses a game.
John W. Hall, Victoria, BC
Hob-Nobbing With Hume
Dear Editor: I would first like to say that I appreciated the Hume issue (Issue 83) in particular, as Hume is one of my favorite thinkers. That said, I thought I’d like to bring up some points for consideration concerning Sally Latham’s ‘Hobnobs-causing-Neighbours’ scenario.
I think to a large degree Hume was correct to point out that ‘regularity’ is key to that which we tend to presume to be causally related. However, I don’t think this was as complete a picture in how we determine causal relations as many take him to be painting. Two things that came to mind when reading Latham’s Hobnob scenario that should have been addressed concerning causality, are precision and Ockham’s razor.
About precision: When I read Sally Latham’s scenario, I imagined her eating the Hobnobs at various times before the TV show was scheduled to begin. Sometimes she started eating the cookies 7 minutes before the show came on, and sometimes it was 30 seconds before the show came on. If that is the type of scenario she had in mind, then one reason the claim of her eating causing the TV program to start would seem silly is that when we look at causally connected events like popping a balloon or hitting billiard balls at each other, the effect that we see occurs immediately after its cause. It would seem strange if I popped 100 balloons in a row and some of them popped immediately, and others popped anywhere from 12 minutes to 2 hours later.
Suppose that the show Neighbours was causally connected to Sally Latham taking a bite into her first Hobnob for the day. What might we do to try and confirm this? We might have her bite into the cookie at 6:53pm one day, 7:06pm another, and go on like that for 100 days, and compare the results to mere statistical chance. If every single time we had her take that first bite of the day into the Hobnob, the show came on immediately, no matter how we tried to change the time variable, would we not at least consider the hypothesis that there were a causal relationship?
Another reasons why Latham’s example intuitively sounds silly is that it is so out of line with what we already have evidence to believe. Biting into other kinds of food has never previously given us reason to suspect a causal relationship between the act of eating and the starting of TV shows. But what if we had a myriad of instances where recognized experts concluded that biting into food starts television shows? If that were common knowledge, and Latham made the claim that biting into Hobnobs causes Neighbours to start, would it sound as silly in that hypothetical world? I think not.
Putting these ideas together, imagine a scenario where biting into food has been confirmed to causally start television shows in some cases. Imagine that we tested Latham’s claim in the ways mentioned above over a two year period, with positive results. This would seem to me to be a legitimate scenario to seriously consider the ‘Sally-eating-Hobnobs-causally-starts-Neighbours’ hypothesis.
Phil Elauria, San Francisco
Capitalism Has Value, But No Values
Dear Editor: In Frank Robinson’s lengthy defense of capitalism in Issue 83, he leaves out a most crucial aspect of the topic: the ethical responsibilities of financial institutions and large corporations for the communities from which their profit is drawn. Robinson seems to ignore that ‘the commons’, meaning the air, earth and water, are not the sole possession of businesses or financial institutions. The rape of mountaintops in West Virginia, with the cooperation of the government, to produce cheap coal, is an example of exploiting the commons for the profit of a few. Is this legitimate and acceptable capitalism in Robinson’s opinion?
Monopoly utility companies provide examples of the failure of Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ to make a system function fairly in the midst of what Robinson might call ‘beneficent self interest’. When Robinson compares our lifestyles and wonderful living conditions with those in Hobbes’ Leviathan, this comparison is laughable, since what is at work in the development of society is more than comfortable homes and iPads: it includes a gradual and undeniable change in our ethical sensibilities as time progresses. Those do not change as the result of the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few, but rather because the awareness eventually seeps into all levels of society that common sense and fairness are as desirable as obscene incomes and wealth.
Robinson says “The word ‘profit’ gets mixed up with ‘greed.’” Yes, this is no doubt the case. And can any one doubt why this is so? If a company, through its massive share of a market, gets a profit of ten percent or more, would he consider this reasonable? Most small firms realize anywhere between three and six percent profit. I’d venture that a profit margin of ten percent is excessive, but then the business hawks would come down on me and ask why I chose that number. I recall an anecdotal case that occurred during the Hurricane Katrina tragedy, in which one man was offering to ferry people across the swollen river for $45, but a mile down the river the same service was either free or a couple of bucks. Robinson might consider the first guy a shrewd capitalist: I would consider him greedy and immoral. In summary, if personal and institutional responsibility doesn’t come into play, the issue becomes one of economic facilitation and nothing more – nothing really human.
Richard Sansom, Sebastopol, CA
Dear Editor: I find that Frank Robinson’s defense of capitalism suffers from ad hoc reasoning. In one instance, he uses his conjecture that our purchasing patterns reflect “deep, ineradicable emotional needs” to support his thesis that capitalism “serves deep human values.” Yet these needs are often misguided and non-essential. There is no denying that much of free market business has flourished in a way that identifies and satisfies worthy desires, improving quality of life. But is capitalism really so noble as to have this aim? Not likely: consider the desires that ought to be curbed or not met at all – to smoke, eat junk-food, consume non-renewable, volatile fuel sources, etc. There is a reason industries serving these desires need regulators. To argue, as Robinson does, that more consumer freedom is always better, is to suffer from a form of classical liberalism which denies that we need help in choosing what is best. The trouble goes beyond taking advantage of basic desires for unhealthy instant gratification. It is more fundamental: to maintain profits a business must manufacture demand. And beyond a certain standard of living the desires thus encouraged are frivolous – you suddenly find yourself in need of a touch screen. When combined with evidence that we are characteristically unable to predict whether a product is something we actually need, a disturbingly parasitic relationship emerges: we buy unnecessarily, providing financial feedback to businesses so they can better fill a void we never knew we had.
While capitalism is not on the whole in opposition to human values, there are times when it could benefit from considering them. To say simply that “consumerism is necessary” is to reason in reverse – from the fact that we end up wanting what is sold to the premise that what is sold reflects what we want. Truthfully, there are luxuries we could do without, and other people who could immensely benefit from those resources.
Dorian Rolston, Buffalo, NY
Dear Editor: Like Robinson in his article on capitalism, I feel that demonizing a free market economic system is not right. However to portray today’s capitalism as either a free market system or serving deep human values also appears to me to be a little naïve. I think we have to challenge the basic premise that today’s economic system is really about the distribution of goods and services. Many of the capitalists getting wealthy today provide very little or no intrinsic value. Wall Street wealth is often unconnected to supply and demand. Here there is less and less emphasis on the value produced, and more on finding ways to substantially increase personal wealth by gaming the system.
I also believe that a capitalistic economic system is almost always focused on the direct resource cost and not on the societal cost. This system has been and can be very brutal. It is the tempering of this brutality that is one of the main functions of the political system, and a true democratic system would and should provide the necessary control mechanisms. The undemocratic control of our political figures by the capitalists has subverted this control mechanism, and it would be very naïve to state that this control has not been sought by the capitalists. The money that the foxes are paying the gatekeepers to help them into the hen house is enormous, and so any pretense that the current market system is pro-democracy is disingenuous. A free market system may be as good as it gets, but come on Robinson, what we now have in America is not a free market system, and not a working democracy.
Terry Ortlieb, The U.S.A.
Dear Editor: Frank Robinson seems stuck in the cold war era, unaware of capitalism’s effect on ecology, and with a weird belief that modern capitalism is somehow about free markets and fair competition. If it were, it wouldn’t be so much of a problem; but it’s not, is it? Small companies don’t have the ear of ministers, or have ministers on their board, or own the media. Small companies can’t move into a town and offer services for free until the competition – small family firms that have been there for generations – are dead, and then start charging. But multinationals can, and do .
The plutocrats have promised a trickle-down of wealth since Adam Smith. In today’s world, perhaps 0.001% live in luxury, 20% in comfort, and 80% with no welfare safety-net, no health care, no sickness or maternity pay, and no state pension. Are you sure that from behind a veil of ignorance you’d choose this world, Frank, given those odds?
Dave Darby, Winslow, Bucks