Wednesday, March 25, 2015

I Like Vertebral Wedging And I Cannot Lie

Men prefer big butts, right? Everybody knows that. Or do they? A recent paper in Evolution and Human Behavior seeks to answer this most important question. The hypothesis is that the male preference for particular female anatomical shape derives from selection pressure to prefer females whose spines were better adapted to carry the weight of pregnancy after the evolution of bipedalism. But is this good science or just an evolutionary psych just-so story?

Friday, May 9, 2014

Primary and Secondary Qualities in Locke

In Book II chapter viii of the Essay Locke provides two related criteria by which primary qualities are to be distinguished from secondary qualities: first, primary qualities are inseparable from the bodies in which they inhere, whereas secondary qualities are not. Second, secondary qualities are merely the observable effects of primary qualities and not real in the same sense in which primary qualities are, indicating an ontological dependence of the former on the latter. Locke uses these two criteria of demarcation to argue to a conclusion about our ideas of primary and secondary qualities, namely that ideas of primary qualities resemble those qualities but our ideas of secondary qualities do not. I will argue here that Locke’s two criteria are flawed and that he is inconsistent in applying them to qualities, and that his mistakes in correctly drawing the ontological distinctions between primary and secondary qualities result in his misapplication of those distinctions to the epistemological realm.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Uneasiness and Desire in Locke

The relation between uneasiness and desire in the chapter on power in the Essay (chapter XXI of book II) is at first glance unclear. The reader is told at one point that desire is uneasiness (II.xxi.32, 251 in the Nidditch edition), but at another the implication is that the instead of being the same thing as uneasiness, instead desire is what causes uneasiness (II.xxi.46, 262). Resolution of this tension is important to understanding Locke’s theory of the will, since uneasiness is taken to be the immediate cause of the will producing action (II.xxi.29, 249, II.xxi.31, 251). I will attempt here to explicate Locke’s concepts of uneasiness and desire in such a way as to highlight this tension in his theory, and will offer a speculation as to the theoretical motivation which may have prompted Locke to offer the account in such a way as to make it susceptible to this tension in the first place. But I don't have a solution on his behalf.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The World Is Only (In) The Mind

In what are probably his two most famous works, the Principles of Human Knowledge (P) and Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (D), George Berkeley argued for his most infamous doctrine--the idea that the objects of everyday experience are in fact ideas in the mind, not material objects that exist independently of their being perceived. Berkeley's theory--known as Idealism--seems obviously absurd (insane, frankly) but is notoriously resistant to refutation. It belongs to a long tradition in philosophy in which no idea is too crazy to put forward in an effort to achieve one's philosophical goals. In this way Berkeley's Idealism belongs in the same corner of the attic as Parmenides' monism, Plato's forms, Pyrrho's universal scepticism, and Leibniz's monads. The sorts of things you dust off and look at with great interest once in a while, but that don't really have an impact on the way you get around in the world.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Probability, likelihood, and the evidence for the existence of oh, god, is this going to be about Bayes' Theorem?

I've been thinking about why so many otherwise reasonable people (including my former self) might view the appearance of design in the structure of the world as a manifestation of the handiwork of some deity, when it's pretty clear that scientific theories can (at least in broad strokes) account for the origins of the universe as we know it and the development of life on earth without recourse to any kind of intelligent design. Beliefs come in various degrees of certainty, and normally our assent to belief systems is at least partially guided by looking at the way those systems account for the facts around us. 

We're normally OK at doing this as people. Not great, but OK. Good enough to get around in the world without being eaten by a tiger or falling off of a cliff or something. So, the problem becomes, how is it that people who are able to get around in the world based on a set of beliefs they form as a result of the evidence around them getting this one wrong? In other words, why do people find the idea of intentional design such a satisfying way of interpreting the world around them?

Who knows of a better way to think about this issue than probability theory? 



Friday, January 17, 2014

Big Bang: The Origin of the UniverseBig Bang: The Origin of the Universe by Simon Singh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Really good read. Gives a terrific historical account of the development of the Big Bang theory, showing how a combination of theoretical coherence and evidence led to the triumph of the Big Bang model over rival accounts. Fun stuff.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Secret Connexion: Causation, Realism, and David HumeThe Secret Connexion: Causation, Realism, and David Hume by Galen Strawson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Very good book. Meticulously counters the traditional view of Hume as dogmatically denying the existence of causation. Strawson shows (by close reading of Hume's texts) that Hume's arguments about 'necessary connexion' being only in the mind are epistemological rather than ontological. Hume avoids the mistakes of the 20th century positivists who call themselves Humeans. 'Hume, then, is not a "Humean"' (p. 228).

Friday, November 30, 2012

Happy Birthday, Mark Twain

Religion consists in a set of things which the average man thinks he believes, and wishes he was certain.
-Mark Twain, Notebook, 1879