Archive for December, 2011

December 30, 2011

A thought experiment on consciousness

by Neil Rickert

Here’s a thought experiment.  I would appreciate reader comments on their reactions.

Let’s use the expression “real universe” for the one where we live.  Let’s imagine that there is another universe, which we will call the “alternative universe”.  In many ways, this alternative universe is like the real universe.  In fact, the alternative universe is such that all of the molecules, quarks, etc, are in the same relative place as are the molecules, quarks, etc on earth.  And there is some “force” which has the effect that when any physical event occurs in the real universe, then the corresponding physical event occurs in the alternative universe.

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December 28, 2011

Massimo, you are funny when you are angry

by Neil Rickert

An open letter to Massimo Pigliucci, should he happen to read it.  I doubt that Massimo even knows that I exist, and there is probably no reason that he should.  So I doubt that he will actually read this.

There seems to be a war of words going on in the atheist blogs.  First, Massimo posted a negative obituary for Christopher Hitchens.  Then Jerry Coyne posted a reaction to this.  So now Massimo has posted a reaction to that reaction.  To top it off, PZ is now reacting to Massimo’s posts.  Well, okay, PZ is actually reacting to a different post by Massimo, but a post that criticizes the gnu atheists.

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December 26, 2011

Gender roles

by Neil Rickert

This is a bit off the beaten path of what I usually post here. I thought it might be interesting to add perspective to a recent blog post by Jason Thibeault.

I was shopping waiting in line at the checkout cashier of Toys R Us.  This was many years ago, so I do not even know whether that particular store (in Melrose Park, IL) still exists.

Not far from the cashier lines, there was a large basket of balloons.  And, at that basket there was a boy at around 4 years of age with a young woman whom I presumed to be his mother.  I probably would not have noticed, except that the boy was beginning a tantrum.  He pointed to a balloon.

“I want that one,” he yelled.

“You can’t have that one,” said his mother.  “You can have this one (and she pointed to a different balloon).”

“No, I want that one,” yelled the boy.

“Pink balloons are for girls,” said the mother.  “I’ll buy you a blue balloon.”

The boy’s tantrum got worse, as he continued to insist that he wanted the pink balloon.

“You can have a blue balloon.  You can have a green balloon.  You can have a red balloon.  You cannot have a pink balloon,” said the mother.

Fortunately, our waiting line reached the cashier where I could pay for the items I was purchasing, and leave the store.  So I don’t know how that eventually turned out.  But I doubt that it turned out well.

I would never have considered insisting on balloon colors for my children.  The mother’s reaction seemed way over the top.

I guess training for gender roles begins early, and parents are some of those who promote such roles.

Note:  according to some linguists, I should have titled this post “sex roles.”  They tell me that “gender” is a grammatical classification.  But then other linguists tell me that words get their meaning from the way we use them, in which case my title seems correct.

December 25, 2011

Best wishes for the season

by Neil Rickert

Direct youtube link

Some other sites have posted this Tim Minchin piece because it presents a non-religious view of Christmas. I am posting it because it depicts rather well what Christmas was like growing up in Australia.

December 20, 2011

On comment spam

by Neil Rickert

The spammers have been very active of late.  I just deleted 9 spam comments.  I check several times a day, and 9 in a few hours seems to be high rate for me.

Akismet, the spam detection service used by WordPress does a pretty good job.  The statistics show that they have detected 2490 spam comments since I began this blog less than two years ago.  I have not been keeping close count, but I can only remember one false positive (a non-spam comment that was identified as spam).  And I don’t remember any spam that was missed (failed to be identified).

December 16, 2011

More on free will

by Neil Rickert

Coel Hellier has laid out the case against free will in his post Lacking “free will” does not negate moral responsibility.  Since he expresses his case very clearly, this will be a good way for me to indicate where I disagree.  I’ll respond in a pseudo-dialog, as if I am debating with Coel.

Before I start the dialog, let me briefly state my own view.

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December 6, 2011

Free will and determinism – the greatest show on earth

by Neil Rickert

There have been several recent posts on questions of free will and determinism.  I am finding a lot to laugh about in those posts, so I am categorizing this one as humor.  I will be commenting, in particular on the recent posts by Jerry Coyne (here and here) and on the post by Sean Carroll.

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December 6, 2011

On determinism

by Neil Rickert

If I were asked to describe the tree on the parkway in front of my house, I would probably give its height and its breadth.  That would come across as a deterministic description.  It is unlikely that I was say anything about the way that it flops around in the wind.  That’s the way that scientists and engineers tend to look at things.

An engineer working for an electric utility might be more interested in the way a tree flops around in the breeze, because that flopping around could cause the tree to knock down some power lines.  However, that engineer would probably just specify a radius of motion, so that he would finish up with what still looks like a deterministic description.

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December 5, 2011

How does science work?

by Neil Rickert

As I mention in my post on the not-yet-published book “Mathematics and Scientific Representation”, the author Christopher Pincock says “The success of science is undeniable, but the nature of that success remains opaque.”  That’s an admission that philosophy of science does not fully understand how science works.  In this post, I give my own opinion on the reason for the success of science.

As I see it, science works mainly because it is systematic.  When we are not sufficiently systematic, when we represent the world in a willy nilly manner, it is hard to keep track of a lot of information.  You can see this in the example of the first builder in “The parable of the three builders.”  By being more systematic, science reduces the cognitive cost and that allows us to keep track of far more information about the world.

Because it is systematic, science make available a vastly increased amount of information about the world.  More and better information leads to better predictions.

December 5, 2011

Why mathematics is useful to science

by Neil Rickert

Philosophers, including philosophers of science, talk about representations.  For example, the statement “the cat is on the mat” might be a representation of one aspect of the world.  When mathematicians talk of representations, they think of a representation as a mapping of one space into another.  For the way that philosophers talk of representations, a mathematician might think of that as a mapping from reality to the space of linguistic expressions.

One way of having representations of the world is to come up with ad hoc methods of representing little bit of the world, and then tossing them together, willy nilly, to provide a more comprehensive representation of the world as a whole.  For want of a better term, I’ll call that way of representing the “willy nilly method” and I will refer to a representation result from such a method as a willy nilly representation.  The naming of houses by the first builder in my post “The parable of the three builders” could be considered a willy nilly representation.

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