Spinoza, Newton and Feynman

Reading The Graphic Spinoza, I was reminded of some thoughts I had concerning a quote from physicist Richard Feynman:

My son is taking a course in philosophy, and last night we were looking at something by Spinoza – and there was the most childish reasoning! There were all these Attributes, and Substances, all this meaningless chewing around, and we started to laugh. Now, how could we do that? Here’s this great Dutch philosopher, and we’re laughing at him. It’s because there was no excuse for it! In that same period there was Newton, there was Harvey studying the circulation of blood, there were people with methods of analysis by which progress was being made! You can take every one of Spinoza’s propositions, and take the contrary propositions, and look at the world – and you can’t tell which is right.

As pointed out at Hummings in the Fly-Bottle, “of course you can’t tell which of Spinoza’s propositions is true by looking at the world; you are not supposed to! Spinoza was not doing bad science; he was doing metaphysics”.

While Newton’s work has undoubtedly been foundational for our bedrock that is science, we need not judge the merits of one enterprise by the merits of another. Yes it was Newton’s framework and not Spinoza’s that set the stage for scientific progress to be made, but still, despite issues with its rationalist metaphysics, there is still good to be extracted and derived from Spinoza’s work. I don’t think that Feynman exhibits enough care in such matters to analyze the work in context. Spinoza’s philosophical enterprise is of significant historical, sociopolitical and ethical importance, laying the groundwork for the 18th-century Enlightenment and modern biblical criticism, including modern conceptions of the self and our place within the universe.

Newton was an ardent Christian and spent much time preoccupied with studying and dealing with literal interpretation of the Bible. Given the progress that has been made on understanding religion, Christianity and the Bible over the last few centuries, I shall appropriate Feynman’s quote from above and say that

I read about Newton’s work on occult studies and religious tracts dealing with the literal interpretation of the Bible, and I started to laugh. Now, how could that be? Here’s this great English natural philosopher, and I’m laughing at him. It’s because there was no excuse for it! In that same period there was Spinoza ushering in the modern age, shattering religious superstitions and offering insightful biblical criticism!

Before finishing, this brings to mind another quote from Feynman that I thought could be turned on its head: “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds”. Well, in a way ornithology is very useful to birds! Among other things, it plays an important role in avian conservation.

Minimum Viable Paper?

I recently read The Lean Startup for work. One idea central to the lean startup methodology is that of a minimum viable product (MVP): in product development, the MVP is a product with just enough features to satisfy early customers, and to provide feedback for future development.

This got me thinking about the possibility of a ‘minimum viable paper’ in academic writing. Appropriating the description of MVP above, a minimum viable paper would be something along the following lines: a paper with just enough material to expound the core ideas of the thesis and satisfy early reviewers, and to provide feedback for refining the paper and developing the details.

Could this save resources by reducing time and effort spent on papers that would ultimately be rejected, either because the thesis is not good enough or the reviewers are simply not inclined to accept it?

The Wit of Bertrand Russell

I have collected most of Bertrand Russell’s books over the years. Browsing through Dear Bertrand Russell recently, the following passage made me laugh and reminded me of how he is quite possibly the wittiest of all philosophers. A correspondent writes:

I am grateful for your autobiography. Thank you. I have already thanked God …

to which Russell replies

I am pleased that you liked my autobiography, but troubled that you thanked God for it, because that suggests that He has infringed my copyright.

Kardashian Index Calculator

The (amusing) Kardashian Index is a measure of the discrepancy between an academic’s social media profile and publication record based on the direct comparison of numbers of citations and Twitter followers.

I have whipped up an online Kardashian Index Calculator, largely because I have wanted to try out some website HTML scraping and Twitter API connecting.

On the Wisdom of Crowds

The Wisdom of Crowds is an interesting phenomenon. Here are some articles on the topic:

The last of these articles is of particular interest. It explicates my earlier hunch that the Wisdom of Crowds phenomenon has to do with something like the law of large numbers:

Surowiecki’s archetypal example comes from a 1906 county fair where 800 people participated in a contest to guess what the weight of an ox would be after it was butchered. The average guess was 1,197 pounds. The actual weight turned out to be 1,198 pounds. On its face, this seems like a dramatic testament to the ideals of democracy, but the accuracy of the average guess has much more to do with the nature of the problem than with the wisdom of the crowd.

Their task was clearly-defined and required no special information. Each person was free to guess any weight they wanted, but the higher or lower their guess, the more obviously wrong it would be. Random variation ensured that every high guess was counter-balanced by a low guess that was equally off the mark. After 800 such guesses, the average would stick right in the middle. In this case, the average happened to be the truth.

You can tease the same kind of wisdom out of a handful of dice. Say you hold a contest to guess the number you’re thinking of: 3.5. Only six-sided dice can enter this contest and, therefore, all guesses will range from 1-6. (Note that each die is physically incapable of guessing correctly, as dice can only express whole numbers.) Each die can enter the contest as many times as it wants and, eventually, you gather several hundred entries. Miraculously, the average “guess” is exactly 3.5! Again, the average just happens to be the truth.

The trick is that truly diverse (i.e. random) opinions will always vary around the mean. When you aggregate a whole lot of random opinions, you get a deceptively precise average, but this is not “wisdom” in any real sense. It’s a statistical artifact called the Law of Large Numbers and it has nothing to do with intelligence.

There are two frustratingly common factors that throw this trick right off the rails. The first is communication, as discussed above. It leads to the primacy effects and power law distributions that plague news aggregator sites. The second is bias that arises from common wisdom… or lack thereof.

What if you asked a crowd to answer the following well-defined question: “What is the distance to Alpha Centauri?” Because astronomical distances are so much larger than anything in a normal person’s experience, their guesses would probably fall short of 25 trillion miles. (An astronomer, on the other hand, would be right on the money.) In this case, the average just isn’t the truth.

Gödel’s U.S. Constitution Loophole and Trump

The election of Donald “Buffoon” Trump got me thinking about the story of Kurt Gödel’s U.S. citizenship hearing and how he claimed to have discovered an inconsistency in the Constitution that could allow the U.S. to become a dictatorship.

Turns out there is some discussion and research of the topic:

The Problem with the #WikiLeaks Hillary Clinton Leaks #Elections2016

WikiLeaks has recently released a collection of confidential documents that originated from within Hillary Clinton’s camp. They also claim that there will be more documents forthcoming within the next few months. Here are some articles on the matter:

One thing that I find problematic about these releases is that they are confined to just one of the two main presidential candidates. It might very well be the case that Donald Trump has done a ton of things that would be similarly damaging to his campaign. Without omniscience, without knowing that there is no such damaging information about Donald Trump, is it right to only release damaging information about the one candidate you happen to have the dirt on?

Sure there is a sense in which it is appropriate to disclose such information for the sake of truth and transparency. But in a situation such as an election, where damaging revelations can effect the outcome, the lack of total knowledge and asymmetry with regards to candidate revelations feels problematic.

What is the Opposite of an Echo Chamber?

To quote Wikipedia, “In news media an echo chamber is a metaphorical description of a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission and repetition inside an “enclosed” system, where different or competing views are censored, disallowed, or otherwise underrepresented”.

The internet and social media have really increased the prevalence of echo chambers. Here are some articles on the phenomenon:

It has become apparent that Twitter is largely (at least for me) a left-wing echo chamber. This makes me wonder about the possibility of an opposite effect, whereby someone aligned with one end of a spectrum moves some degree away from it as they become averse to the regressiveness, amplification, repetition and uncritical reinforcement conduced by the echo chamber.

Probability, Truthlikeness and the Cenk Uygur versus Sam Harris Debate

I became aware of the Young Turks and their main man Cenk Uygur earlier this year. As the months have gone by and I have watched more of their YouTube clips, Uygur’s arrogance, ignorance and general thickheadedness has become more apparent.

One conversation that I found interesting is the one Uygur had with Sam Harris, particularly the following portion, as it involves discussion relevant to truthlikeness and probability:

In this discussion, Harris makes the point that Mormonism is slightly more improbable/absurd than other Christian faiths because it makes the more specific claim that Jesus will return to Jackson County, Missouri rather than the more general claim that he will return to somewhere on Earth.

Continue reading “Probability, Truthlikeness and the Cenk Uygur versus Sam Harris Debate”

The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Information

Recently released: The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Information.

Information and communication technology occupies a central place in the modern world, with society becoming increasingly dependent on it every day. It is therefore unsurprising that it has become a growing subject area in contemporary philosophy, which relies heavily on informational concepts. The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Information is an outstanding reference source to the key topics and debates in this exciting subject and is the first collection of its kind. Comprising over thirty chapters by a team of international contributors the Handbook is divided into four parts:

  • basic ideas
  • quantitative and formal aspects
  • natural and physical aspects
  • human and semantic aspects.

Within these sections central issues are examined, including probability, the logic of information, informational metaphysics, the philosophy of data and evidence, and the epistemic value of information.