Archive for November, 2013

November 24, 2013

Science works; ergo God

by Neil Rickert

I obviously do not believe what is suggested by the title.  That title is my simplified way of describing what vjtorley has recently posted at the Uncommon Descent blog.  The tl;dr form of the title, as used by vjtorley, is:

The UD post uses a method of argument that we mathematicians refer to as Proof By Exhaustion.

There are actually two different versions of “proof by exhaustion”.  The main version is where one proves a result by exhausting all possibilities.  It is much like a case statement in a computer program.  That’s the version that is defined by the linked Wikipedia page.

The other version of “proof by exhaustion” is the one used by vjtorley.  That is where the argument is so tediously long, that you are exhausted by the time that you have finished reading it.  In fact, you are so exhausted, that you were too tired to notice all of the glaring holes in the argument.

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November 13, 2013

Convention (7) – Relativism

by Neil Rickert

When I mention my ideas about the role of conventions in science, I am often accused of being a relativist or a social constructionist or a post-modernist.  Those seem to all be related.  I am not any of those.  Today’s post will look at why my ideas about conventions do not have any relativist implication.

What am I

I’ve just said that I am  not a relativist or a social constructivist or a post-modernist.  So perhaps I should say something about what I am.  It’s not easy to say what I am, because my views don’t fit any of the standard labels.

In his book “Science and Relativism“, Larry Laudan presents a discussion between four philosophers of science, whom he labels as a positivist, a realist, a pragmatist and a relativist.  I disagree with all four of them.  For each of them, there are places where I agree with what they say.  But, overall, I do not see science the way that any of them see it.

November 11, 2013

Convention (6) – Essentialism

by Neil Rickert

Today I want to look at “essentialism” as a possible alternative to the use of conventions.  And then, toward the end of the post, I’ll briefly consider some other possible alternatives.

With today’s post, I will continue to use the hypothetical that I introduced in my previous post.  That is to say, I will assume that small animals are classified into two species, which I shall call “cats” and “dogs”.  There is no assumption that I am talking about what we usually call “cats” and “dogs”.  I’m just borrowing those names for convenience.

Essentialism

The idea of essentialism, is that what makes an animal a cat is that it contains the essence of cathood.  Likewise, what makes an animal a dog is that it has the essence of doghood.  The name “essentialism” comes from this reference to essences.

November 10, 2013

Convention (5) – objections

by Neil Rickert

In this post I’ll respond to some of the objections raised by John Wilkins, as best I understand them.  John raised objections during our discussions in comments to his blog post “Are species theoretical objects“.  I want to be clear that I am not picking on John.  It is my impression that many philosophers have similar views, and I have come across that sort of disagreement in discussions elsewhere.

I’ll start with a quote from that discussion, which I think reasonably summarizes John’s position.

As to conventions, again we may mean different things. I am basing my understanding on a read through of Lewis’ Conventions a while back. Consider correctly driving on the left side. Yes, if we all did the same things we’d all be driving on the left, but there is no fact of the matter which is best, left or right. In the same way, we may all choose to classify using the same conventions, but there need be no fact of the matter tracked in virtue of it being a conventional classification. If all we are doing is following conventions, then the ranks or categories so constructed are flatus vocus. There is nothing “out there” that is being tracked.

November 9, 2013

Convention (4) – Biological species

by Neil Rickert

This series of posts on convention originated with my comment to a post by John Wilkins, that I see species as being determined by convention.  See the first post in this series for links.  John disagrees with me, and gave reasons for his objections.  I plan to discuss those objections in the next in this series.  Today’s post will discuss why I take the designation of species to be conventional.

Categorization

Biological classification is an example of categorization.  I take categorization to be a dividing up of the world into manageable parts.  This is often described as “carving the world at the seams.”  However, there aren’t enough seams to account for how we carve up the world.

As an example, consider the dividing of the USA into fifty states.  Some of the state borders are along rivers.  Some are survey lines.  We could perhaps think of rivers as natural diving lines, or seams, except that we often don’t use them even when rivers are available.

November 7, 2013

Convention (3) – why we need conventions

by Neil Rickert

In this post, I shall give a couple of examples to illustrate why we use and need conventions.

3D Space

For the first example, consider 3-dimensional space as discussed by mathematicians and scientists.  We usually represent objects in space in terms of coordinate axes.  We typically use an x-axis in the left-right direction, a y-axis in the forward (away from me) direction, and a z-axis which is vertical.

The first thing to notice about this choice of axes,  is that the choice is rather arbitrary.  When I am at home, the x-axis is in a north-south direction, because my desk happens to face east.  And at work, where my desk faces roughly north, the x-axis is close to an east-west orientation.  The direction of the vertical axis also changes with location, due to the curvature (the spheroidal shape) of the earth.

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November 3, 2013

Convention (2) – word usage vs. behavior

by Neil Rickert

This continues the series that I started at

Today’s post distinguishes between conventions of word usage, and conventions of other kinds of behavior.  Word use is, of course, a kind of behavior.

I’ll give an example of each.

A word use convention

In his “Truth by convention,” Quine writes:

A contextual definition sets up indefinitely many mutually analogous pairs of definienda and definientia according to some general scheme;  an example is the definition whereby expressions of the form ‘sin —/cos —‘ are abbreviated as ‘tan —‘.

November 2, 2013

Convention (1) — introduction

by Neil Rickert

I am starting a series of posts on the idea of conventions, as in social conventions.  It has long been clear to me that conventions are important.  This, however, seems to be controversial.  As best I can tell, philosophers are deeply suspicious of convention.

As a self-declared heretic about philosophy, I am not troubled by opposing what seems to be the conventional view of convention among conventional philosophers.

Here’s some background reading: