Oct 022008

The Vatican has announced it will host an “Evolution Congress” as a part of the Pontifical Council for Culture’s “Science, Technology and the Ontological Quest” project. This is to mark the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s landmark work, The Origin of Species.

Phillip Sloan, a professor at Notre Dame, told the press conference the evolution debate, “especially in the United States, has been taking place without a strong Catholic presence … and the discourse has suffered accordingly.”

See? They’re here to help! And you can tell they’re serious because they are planning to exclude creationists and “intelligent design” advocates (but I repeat myself). After all, these religionists are intellectually respectable, unlike all those biblical literalists:

Jesuit Father Marc Leclerc, a philosophy professor at the Gregorian, told Catholic News Service Sept. 16 that organizers “wanted to create a conference that was strictly scientific” and that discussed rational philosophy and theology along with the latest scientific discoveries.

He said arguments “that cannot be critically defined as being science, or philosophy or theology did not seem feasible to include in a dialogue at this level and, therefore, for this reason we did not think to invite” supporters of creationism and intelligent design.

(Yes, it isn’t obvious how ID Creationism isn’t theological, being a product of religious dogma.) But here’s what should be catching everyone’s attention: they also said that “the other extreme of the evolution debate — proponents of an overly scientific conception of evolution and natural selection — also were not invited.”

Of course. We wouldn’t want our science to be too scientific at a “strictly scientific” conference, would we? What a charade.

It’s tragic that all the church has to do is invite the zillions of conflicted, disintegrated people who consider themselves to be both religious and scientific. Many would jump at the chance to help the church pretend to be intellectually respectable. And the church will absolutely hit the jackpot with any nonreligious scientist stupid or unprincipled enough to show up and wrap them in the mantle of reason and science.
But try as they might, there’s simply no getting around the fact that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible. Maybe some day the church will drop their fantasy of faith and reason being complementary means to knowledge, like the two wings of a bird.

Derbyshire on the Morality of Animal Research

 Posted by on 9 September 2008 at 6:03 am  Animals, Ethics, Science
Sep 092008

British scientist Stuart Derbyshire recently wrote the following essay defending the right of humans to use animals in scientific/medical research, and attacking the current UK scientific mainstream position against such research.

I thought it was especially noteworthy that he attempted to make his case on moral grounds. For instance, his article is entitled:

“Humans are more important than animals”

Also, the subheading is:

“When it comes to using animals in research, the only moral judgement should be: does it benefit humankind?”

In a related earlier essay from 2006 entitled, “The hard arguments about vivisection“, Derbyshire also arguee:

There is very good reason for believing that human beings are special. The sheer staggering scale and richness of human culture are unlike anything in any other species. The development of medicine, industry, transportation, communication, clean water, a stable food supply, and so on, are the discernible signs of culture and progress that are evidently absent from the non-human world. The absence of such cultural development in the animal world means that their experiences are also likely to be wholly dissimilar from ours, both as a cause and consequence of their limited progress.

Arguments in favour of animal research must include an acknowledgement that human beings are special…

Derbyshire is definitely moving in the right direction, although he does not quite make the full moral case. What he lacks is the explicit identification of reason as the source of human “specialness” (although it is implicit in his argument). It is man’s capacity for reason that gives rise to and explains the various unique features of human culture and behaviour Derbyshire describes. “Reason” is thus a fundamental characteristic of “man”, and is why one properly defines “man” as “a rational animal”.

Derbyshire also doesn’t quite make the argument that reason is the source of rights and that it is precisely man’s capacity for reason (and the volitional exercise thereof) that makes man’s special moral status both possible and necessary:

The source of man’s rights is not divine law or congressional law, but the law of identity. A is A — and Man is Man. Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival. If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work. If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being: nature forbids him the irrational.

This is yet another example of where Objectivist philosophy can help place others’ good ideas on a more solid philosophical footing.

Nonetheless, it is encouraging to see a scientist taking a man-centered view of his work, and using benefit to man as his standard of value. I hope we will see more discussion by scientists along these lines. And I also hope that Objectivists will be contributing to this debate.

* * *

I did submit a supportive letter to Spiked, but I’m not completely satisfied with the argument I used. If anyone has ideas for better formulations aimed at an active-minded member of the general public, please offer your suggestions in the comments section. In particular, I am interested in formulations that would fit within the usual LTE word limit of 150-250 words. I also welcome any criticism of what I actually did submit. If I botched my argument or should have taken a different tack, please don’t be shy in telling me!

Here is what I submitted:

Thank you for publishing Dr. Stuart Derbyshire’s essay, as well as linking to his 2006 piece, “The Hard Arguments About Vivisection”.

As a practicing physician, I am blessed to see daily the tremendous benefits that patients reap from scientific breakthroughs resulting from animal research — such as new “clot buster” drugs to stop brain strokes.

I wish more scientists defended the morality of animal research on precisely the same grounds that Dr. Derbyshire does — that it is good for people.

Dr. Derbyshire is quite right — humans are special relative to animals, because they possess the unique faculty of reason. It is this faculty that gives rise to and explains all the manifestations of human culture that he rightly praises in his 2006 essay, such as “medicine, industry, transportation, communication”. Animals exhibit none of this complex behaviour precisely because they lack the faculty of reason.

Furthermore it is man’s faculty of reason, not his capacity for suffering, that makes the concept of “rights” both possible and necessary. Rights are moral principles defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context — principles which presuppose both volition and reason. Animals have survival needs, but not rights — we don’t say that a lion violates an antelope’s “rights” when it stalks and kills the antelope. Nor does a human violate a cow’s “rights” when he eats a hamburger.

If humans can morally eat animals for food, we can also properly use them for other purposes that serve human interests, such as medical research.

Thank you,

Paul Hsieh, MD
Sedalia, CO
Co-founder, Freedom and Individual Rights in Medicine (FIRM)

Update: My letter (along with a few others) appears here.


 Posted by on 1 June 2008 at 12:23 pm  Language, Science
Jun 012008

The May 26, 2008 New Yorker has an interesting article on the history and science of hangovers. I especially liked their bit on international terms used to describe them:

Some words for hangover, like ours, refer prosaically to the cause: the Egyptians say they are “still drunk,” the Japanese “two days drunk,” the Chinese “drunk overnight.” The Swedes get “smacked from behind.”

But it is in languages that describe the effects rather than the cause that we begin to see real poetic power. Salvadorans wake up “made of rubber,” the French with a “wooden mouth” or a “hair ache.” The Germans and the Dutch say they have a “tomcat,” presumably wailing. The Poles, reportedly, experience a “howling of kittens.” My favorites are the Danes, who get “carpenters in the forehead.”

In keeping with the saying about the Eskimos’ nine words for snow, the Ukrainians have several words for hangover.

(Via Cosmic Log.)

Check Your Premises

 Posted by on 29 May 2008 at 11:16 pm  Epistemology, Science
May 292008

In a lengthy post entitled Dissecting Epistemology, Monica challenges the objectivity of many of our supposedly scientific beliefs about the world. She writes,

Apart from the obvious idea that much of science is ideologically driven, many scientists – irrespective of any underlying, driving ideology – have deliberately cooked data and managed to get it published in scientific journals for no other reason than the fact that they are second-handed and they want to be right. And of course, scientific history is also rife with examples of new ideas taking time to become established in the mainstream due to a lack of objectivity in the scientific community. Just take that “quacky” idea that bacteria might cause ulcers!! We scientists “know” that bacteria can’t inhabit stomach acid!? Right?? Most commonly of all, in my opinion, is not intellectual dishonesty but the fact that shoddy science is done all the time and people just fail to fully and objectively evaluate that research. Sometimes, those claims then end up becoming part of the “objective scientific consensus” that persists for 50 years.

To say, “I’ve not studied the issue, so I just don’t know,” is often the most objective, the most self-aware, and the most honest reply possible to an inquiry. Sometimes, it’s also the hardest reply.

In my judgment, even though I’m an ardent advocate of evolutionary theory, Ayn Rand exhibited exactly that kind of objectivity in her statement on evolution in her essay “The Missing Link” in Philosophy: Who Needs It. She wrote, “I am not a student of the theory of evolution and, therefore, I am neither its supporter nor its opponent.” I’ve seen that statement harshly criticized in some corners of the internet, as if Ayn Rand were obliged to swallow the standard scientific account of man’s origins — without any study of the facts of the matter. That’s completely wrong: it’s a demand to accept a theory on faith, just because it’s endorsed by a sufficiently large number of supposed authorities. Ayn Rand refused to be that kind of epistemic second-hander. Instead, she formed her own judgments based on her actual knowledge. As a result of that method, she effectively challenged two millennia of altruism in ethics. That’s the kind of insight that scrupulous objectivity — not to mention a large helping genius — makes possible.

Climate Change

 Posted by on 29 May 2008 at 12:22 am  Environmentalism, Science
May 292008

Climate change on the planet Jupiter is causing it to develop another Red Spot:

In what’s beginning to look like a case of planetary measles, a third red spot has appeared alongside its cousins — the Great Red Spot and Red Spot Jr. — in the turbulent Jovian atmosphere.

This third red spot, which is a fraction of the size of the two other features, lies to the west of the Great Red Spot in the same latitude band of clouds.

…The Hubble and Keck images may support the idea that Jupiter is in the midst of global climate change, as first proposed in 2004 by Phil Marcus, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. The planet’s temperatures may be changing by 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit. The giant planet is getting warmer near the equator and cooler near the South Pole. He predicted that large changes would start in the southern hemisphere around 2006, causing the jet streams to become unstable and spawn new vortices.

I’m sure this must be mankind’s fault somehow…

Einstein on God

 Posted by on 18 May 2008 at 11:17 pm  Religion, Science
May 182008

I’ve not studied the views of Albert Einstein much, but I was surprised by this revelation of his views on God (via Dan Rohr):

Albert Einstein described belief in God as “childish superstition” and said Jews were not the chosen people, in a letter to be sold in London this week, an auctioneer said Tuesday. The father of relativity, whose previously known views on religion have been more ambivalent and fuelled much discussion, made the comments in response to a philosopher in 1954.

As a Jew himself, Einstein said he had a great affinity with Jewish people but said they “have no different quality for me than all other people”. “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this,” he wrote in the letter written on January 3, 1954 to the philosopher Eric Gutkind, cited by The Guardian newspaper.

The German-language letter is being sold Thursday by Bloomsbury Auctions in Mayfair after being in a private collection for more than 50 years, said the auction house’s managing director Rupert Powell. In it, the renowned scientist, who declined an invitation to become Israel’s second president, rejected the idea that the Jews are God’s chosen people. “For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions,” he said. “And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people.” And he added: “As far as my experience goes, they are no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything ‘chosen’ about them.”

Previously the great scientist’s comments on religion — such as “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind” — have been the subject of much debate, used notably to back up arguments in favour of faith. Powell said the letter being sold this week gave a clear reflection of Einstein’s real thoughts on the subject. “He’s fairly unequivocal as to what he’s saying. There’s no beating about the bush,” he told AFP.

That’s definitely a refreshing blast of anti-religious air. Yet it doesn’t go far enough. The Hebrew Bible not a collection of “collection of honourable, but still primitive legends.” It is a collection of bloody, barbaric, and primitive legends. As a body of primitive literature, the Hebrew Bible is fascinating and often compelling — but it’s wholly unsuitable for moral instruction. The moral lesson of The Binding of Isaac, for example, is the absolute obligation of blind obedience to God’s commands, even when those commands require morally abhorrent sacrifices of priceless treasures. Abraham must sacrifice his only beloved son Isaac to God simply because God demands it — and he’s rewarded by God because he’s willing to do so without so much as a peep of protest. Such stories ought to be studied and enjoyed as historical curiosities, not as a foundation for modern life and morals.

The Vatican and Aliens

 Posted by on 17 May 2008 at 3:02 pm  Religion, Science
May 172008

From the news: “The Vatican’s chief astronomer says that believing in aliens does not contradict faith in God.”

Presumably, the aliens aren’t allowed to use birth control or have abortions either.

Update: The Onion’s “American Voices” feature asks: “Sure, what’s the harm in believing in two things with no physical evidence?”

Pat Corvini 2007 Course on Math Now Available

 Posted by on 12 May 2008 at 11:01 pm  ARI, Science
May 122008

In my 4/26/2008 blog post, “Are Mathematical Truths Discovered or Invented?“, I referred to Dr. Pat Corvini’s superb course at the 2007 OCON as an excellent example of applying the Objectivist epistemology to the concept of number. At the time, the course was not yet available for sale.

As an update – the course is now available for purchase from the Ayn Rand Bookstore. Here’s a slightly modified description of the course, per Dr. Corvini:

Two, Three, Four and All That

Number, though ubiquitous, is widely misunderstood. Drawing on Objectivist epistemology, this course sheds new light on the subject by sketching a reduction of the key ideas behind the modern number system and by showing their connection to cognition in general. Recognizing the objectivity of number provides a new framework for resolving historical and modern debates, and yields a heightened appreciation for the science of mathematics as a whole.

This course uses a detailed examination of the ideas behind counting, negative numbers, and area-measurement as concretes on which to illustrate wider conclusions about the nature of number. While not strictly a prerequisite, this material provides context for Dr. Corvini’s course on modern ideas of number and infinity (“The Sequel,” to be delivered at Objectivist Summer Conference 2008), and is highly recommended for those planning to attend.

According to the Ayn Rand Bookstore, the course is a 6-CD set, selling for $61.95. Total run time is 4 hrs., 29 min., including Q & A.

Apr 262008

This question is one of the topics in the upcoming June 2008 issue of the European Mathematical Society Newsletter. As Science News reports, this subject “has provided fodder for arguments among mathematicians and philosophers” for thousands of years, with no seeming resolution.

On one hand, there are Platonists who believe this:

…[A] mathematician discovers timeless truths independent of human observation and free of the transient nature of physical reality. “The abstract realm in which a mathematician works is by dint of prolonged intimacy more concrete to him than the chair he happens to sit on,” says Ulf Persson of Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, a self-described Platonist.

But the Platonists are forced to deal with some tricky implications of their views:

Those who espouse discovery note that mathematical statements are true or false regardless of personal beliefs, suggesting that they have some external reality. But this leads to some odd notions. Where, exactly, do these mathematical truths exist? Can a mathematical truth really exist before anyone has ever imagined it?

In contrast, there are those who believe that such talk of an abstract realm is just mystical hogwash:

Brian Davies, a mathematician at King’s College London, writes that Platonism “has more in common with mystical religions than with modern science.” And modern science, he believes, provides evidence to show that the Platonic view is just plain wrong. He titled his article “Let Platonism Die.”

…Reuben Hersh of the University of New Mexico …rejects the Platonic view, arguing instead that mathematics is a product of human culture, not fundamentally different from other human creations like music or law or money.

But the latter school is faced with a different set of intractable questions:

On the other hand, if math is invented, then why can’t a mathematician legitimately invent that 2 + 2 = 5?

…The challenge, [Hersh] admits, is to explain why it is that mathematical statements can be definitively true or false, not subject to taste or whim.

The solution to this millenia-old argument is to abandon both the intrisicist approach of the Platonists and the subjectivist approach of their opponents. Instead, mathematical concepts (like all concepts) are neither intrinsic nor subjective but objective. It is in debates like this where the Objectivist approach to epistemology and concept formation prove their value — in being able to cut through the errors made over the centuries by struggling philosophers and mathematicians.

Of course, properly applying Rand’s theory of concept formation to the philosophy of mathematics is a non-trivial task. Concepts of number are both seemingly self-evident, but also represent feats of tremendous abstraction. But scholars such as Dr. Pat Corvini have made a good start. Her course at the 2007 OCON, “Two, Three, Four and All That“, was on precisely that topic — namely how to apply the Objectivist theory of concept formation to concepts of number:

The concept of number as used in science today is one of man’s greatest achievements: a grand-scale integration capping centuries of effort and enabling a vastly expanded efficacy in all areas of life. But the growth in complexity of the number system has rendered the meaning of number ever more mysterious; number is seen both as a touchstone of certainty and as an arbitrary human construct whose applicability to the real world is a deep mystery. This is because the nature of number has not been properly identified; and as Ayn Rand pointed out, that imprecision is dangerous.

This course clarifies the meaning of “number” by examining it in the light of Miss Rand’s theory of concepts. Recognizing the objectivity of number provides a new framework for resolving both historical and modern debates, and yields a heightened appreciation for the science of mathematics as a whole—further reinforcing the value of Objectivist epistemology.

She is also offering a follow-up course at this year’s 2008 OCON, “Two, Three, Four and All That: The Sequel“:

Science shelves of bookstores are today awash in accounts of modern extensions of the idea of number, including infinity and the continuum, set theory, transfinite numbers, and the like. Many of these ideas, and the “mysteries” that proceed from them, figure prominently in modern philosophy and in popular discussion of the nature and limits of reason.

In this course, Dr. Corvini explains and evaluates some of the most influential of these ideas, using as a frame of reference both their historical context and the view of number as objective developed in her earlier courses. By identifying the fundamental nature of the ideas and of the errors involved, we see again the importance of a proper theory of concepts, and clarify the differences between an objective approach to mathematics and the more traditional views.

I have long had an interest in those topics such as foundations of set theory, the nature of the concept “infinity”, etc. Hence, if her 2008 course is as good as her 2007 course, then it promises to be a real treat. Diana and I have already signed up for it.

Although I have a degree in mathematics (B.S., MIT, 1984), her courses do not require any advanced math background. Dr. Corvini is a very clear and engaging lecturer, and she is excellent at explaining the relevant mathematical concepts to a general audience. If you can count to 10 and you are a normal intelligent adult, then you can follow her lectures.

So if you want to see how the power of the Objectivist theory of concepts can resolve questions that have stumped some of history’s greatest minds for thousands of years, check out her courses!

(I don’t believe that her 2007 course is available yet through the Ayn Rand Bookstore, but I expect that it will be eventually. It was available for purchase by 2007 conference attendees as part of the usual post-conference package, and hence I think it will eventually make it to the main bookstore listing.)

Animal Minds

 Posted by on 20 April 2008 at 6:44 am  Science
Apr 202008

The March 2008 issue of National Geographic recently published an interesting article on research into animal minds. If the reported facts are reliable, then animals may have some ability to isolate similarities and differences between percepts. Here is an excerpt from the article on scientist Irene Pepperberg and her parrot Alex:

…[B]ecause Alex was able to produce a close approximation of the sounds of some English words, Pepperberg could ask him questions about a bird’s basic understanding of the world. She couldn’t ask him what he was thinking about, but she could ask him about his knowledge of numbers, shapes, and colors. To demonstrate, Pepperberg carried Alex on her arm to a tall wooden perch in the middle of the room. She then retrieved a green key and a small green cup from a basket on a shelf. She held up the two items to Alex’s eye.

“What’s same?” she asked.

Without hesitation, Alex’s beak opened: “Co-lor.”

“What’s different?” Pepperberg asked.

“Shape,” Alex said. His voice had the digitized sound of a cartoon character. Since parrots lack lips (another reason it was difficult for Alex to pronounce some sounds, such as ba), the words seemed to come from the air around him, as if a ventriloquist were speaking. But the words—and what can only be called the thoughts—were entirely his.

For the next 20 minutes, Alex ran through his tests, distinguishing colors, shapes, sizes, and materials (wool versus wood versus metal). He did some simple arithmetic, such as counting the yellow toy blocks among a pile of mixed hues.

Of course, researchers have to be extremely careful not to anthropomorphize when interpreting such results. And even if animals are able to perform this sort of mental integration and differentiation of their percepts, this is not the same as being able to reason in the human sense. Hence, this post should not be construed as endorsing any form of “animal rights”.

But it is plausible from an evolutionary perspective that the human mental abilities that allow us engage in concept formation and reasoning would have primitive precursors in some of the higher animals, and that human cognition has a foundation based on those pre-existing building blocks. Hence, the exact abilities of various animal minds is a fascinating scientific subject worthy of study, even if it may not have any primary philosophical import.

(I’ve been told that some Objectivists believe that animals are essentially automatons without any feeling or consciousness, like rocks or plants. In my opinion, this is untrue, and data such as this is further evidence against that erroneous position.)

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