Not Dead Yet? Philosophy?

The Guardian has (a seemingly straight-faced) think piece by Raymond Tallis about why science really, really needs philosophy these days.

“…there could not be a worse time for philosophers to surrender the baton of metaphysical inquiry to physicists. Fundamental physics is in a metaphysical mess and needs help. The attempt to reconcile its two big theories, general relativity and quantum mechanics, has stalled for nearly 40 years. Endeavours to unite them, such as string theory, are mathematically ingenious but incomprehensible even to many who work with them.”

From my (admittedly long ago) philosophy studies, it seems that physics’ “metaphysical mess” is always with us, and that the results, if that’s the right word, that philosophy offers are illuminating complications, not solutions. Still it’s a nice wish that physics and philosophy make shared humanistic concerns more visible. Tallis’ argument in part seems to be that contemporary physics is soullessly technical, not a charge that philosophy escapes. To wit, here’s an abstract from the current issue of Philosophical Review,

A dynamic semantics for epistemically modalized sentences is an attractive alternative to the orthodox view that our best theory of meaning ascribes to such sentences truth-conditions relative to what is known. This essay demonstrates that a dynamic theory about might and must offers elegant explanations of a range of puzzling observations about epistemic modals.

Those philosophical greats, Monty Python, in “Not Dead Yet” (the Spamalot version). Perhaps they are really singing about philosophy.

The Cicadas are Coming

Science writer Carl Zimmer has a piece on the emergence of the 17-year cicadas in Tuesday’s Timescicada, with a great lead:

From North Carolina to Connecticut, billions of creatures with eyes the color of blood and bodies the color of coal are crawling out of the earth.

He’ll be adding an interactive map of their infestations (somehow a little more unsettling than the travels of the monarch butterflies, tracked in’s Journey North).

I lived through a previous emergence of  “Brood II” (1979 I think) in Salisbury, MD, and it was like something out of a Sci Fi film. Our tree-lined front sidewalk was coated with insects, and the night sounds were theirs entirely. Now I’m right next to Rock Creek Park, and haven’t caught site of one yet, but am expecting (and actually looking forward to) an evening symphony of their “dry and exalted” sounds, (as James Agee put it).

Keep Calm, They're Only 17-Year Cicadas

Reasonable Words: Sean Carroll on the Templeton Foundation

Caltech Physicist Sean Carroll has a level-headed response to the Templeton Foundation, and scientists who take money directly from it.

And that’s the real reason why I don’t want to be involved directly with Templeton. It’s not a matter of ethical compromise; it’s simply a matter of sending the wrong message. Any time respectable scientists take money from Templeton, they lend their respectability — even if only implicitly — to the idea that science and religion are just different paths to the same ultimate truth. That’s not something I want to do. If other people feel differently, that’s for them and their consciences, not something that is going to cause me to shun them.

It’s [shift in perspective from theism to atheism] the one piece of scientific/philosophical knowledge that could really change people’s lives. So in my view, we have a responsibility to get the word out — to not be wishy-washy on the question of religion as a way of knowing, but to be clear and direct and loud about how reality really works. And when we blur the lines between science and religion, or seem to contribute to their blurring or even just not minding very much when other people blur them, we do the world a grave disservice.

Interesting comments, including some from the evolutionary biologist, Jerry Coyne, author of “Why Evolution is True

Hungarian Spring Eclipse from Astronomy Photo of the Day

A small sideline to this issue, I’m on Carroll’s side (not as purist as Coyne), but another thing in the mix: even if you are a believer (and I’m not), “religion” is not one undifferentiated mass of work. Different religions believe profoundly different things about the nature of reality (means and ends). Just as Templeton, to me, is off-base to believe in the potential synthesis of scientific and religious ways of thinking, the “all religions are streams heading to the same sea,” idea, although romantically appealing, is also flawed.

Reasonable Words: Carl Zimmer: Science Writing is Not Pole Dancing

Science writer Carl Zimmer has a thoughtful response to the whole Jonah Lehrer mess (the New Yorker writer who resigned after admitting he faked quotes). Prompted by reporting by Boris Kachka in New York Magazine, Zimmer reflects on the challenges (but also the necessity) of writing about science for the general public, and the “talking past each other” that occurs when the culture of journalism meets the culture of science. A journalist friend of mine calls this phenomenon a “glimp,” her coinage I think. Would be good to name, as it happens in all kinds of contexts.


As for the other side of the story–the culture that fostered Lehrer–I appreciate that Kachka avoided silly sweeping generalizations–that all popular writing about neuroscience has become the worst form of self-help, that speaking about science in public is the intellectual equivalent of pole-dancing. Kachka instead reflects on the trouble that arises when a science writer reduces complex science to a glib lesson. He’s right to zero in on Lehrer’s 2010 New Yorker article “The Decline Effect and the Scientific Method” as an example of this error. For years, a lot of scientists and science writers alike have grown concerned that flashy studies often turn out to be wrong. But Lehrer leaped to a flashy conclusion that science itself is hopelessly flawed.

American Composer Aaron Copland once comments about non-musicians writing on music:

“If a literary man puts together two words about music, one of them will be wrong.” Swap “science” for “music”?

In other science news, Library Link of the Day tips a Guardian piece about scientific fraud that leads with

“Science is broken. Psychology was rocked recently by stories of academics making up data, sometimes overshadowing whole careers. And it isn’t the only discipline with problems – the current record for fraudulent papers is held by anesthesiologist Yoshitaka Fujii, with 172 faked articles.”

The piece is by two scientists, but exhibits some of the journalistic lambasting and selective citation of data that might give Zimmer pause. Comments are lively, including a trope about just how to find that perhaps notional  distinction between academic fraud and mere academic bullshit.

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