28 February 2009

26 February 2009

The Most Depressing TED

This is got to be the most depressing TED I've ever seen: it is only a little over 10 minutes and is a must see.

Comet Luli

Picture from The Independent.co.uk

25 February 2009

Mind/Brain and the idiocy of NPR

This is one of the worst NPR articles I've ever had the misfortune of listening to (and then reading again because I was so worked up). NPR "Science" article or listen to it here.
I was going to write out my thoughts but they are much too long. I'll just say two quick things:

First off, the mind/body problem is nonsense. There is no mind body problem, though for some reason most philosophers will tell you there is one. Most scientist will tell you there isn't and then proceed to give a nonsense answer about how there are only bodies. Newton killed the idea of the actual existence of physical bodies and no one has altered that empirical concept since: "a purely materialistic or mechanistic physics, impossible", he says. Not that I think you should just take his word for it; what he meant is that there's no proof a physical objects in light of action at a distance (what we now call the Theory of Fields and what he called Forces). This is again said by John Locke as "[god] annexed effects to motion which we can in no way conceive motion able to produce." (I'm almost positive that Locke didn't believe in God.) All this remains the case, there is no evidence for the existence of bodies -that is, of anything physical being ontologically substantive-. The Buddha and especially Nagarjuna's interpretation of the theory of emptiness, did the same much before either Newton or John Locke, but that is incidental.

For some reason one of the surgeons interviewed thinks this might amount to proof of God's Intelligent Design. What hogwash. This is just the argument from ignorance: basically it is an argument of this type (or so it was given in this NPR piece), if Evolution is correct then it should be able to explain complex systems. Evolution cannot explain complex systems, therefore Intelligent Design is true.
You see how the fact that Evolution is said, erroneously, not to be able to account for complex systems is in no way connected to the theory of Intelligent Design! That is, disproving one theory does not in itself provide support for any other theory. The logical form is If A then B, not B, therefore C. You can see that this mode of thought is fallacious.
(Image from SEED.COM)
"There is nothing about neurons that scientifically would lead you to infer consciousness from them. They're masses of gelatinous carbon and hydrogen and nitrogen and oxygen, just like other kinds of flesh. And why would flesh have first-person experience? So, even logically, it doesn't hang together."

Nonsense, there are plenty about neurons that would lead you to infer consciousness: this is as much nonsense as saying I wouldn't get tired if I walked up a hill because the hill doesn't have any substantive ontological status. But of course, that isn't even what the man is arguing... he is arguing that there is something special about PEOPLE that makes us different from all other things: that is a claim not born out by any facts. Understanding that bodies are not truly existing does not lead to the conclusion that what we call a body and what we call a mind are separable -they're not. They are dependently arising phenomenon; not real in themselves which arise only together: they are dependent, as in any subject/object relationship. That is again to say that just because bodies don't exist doesn't mean or imply anything about Intelligent Design or Evolution. And if these antievolutionists want to know something about how complex systems come about, they might look into Systems Biology or Complexity Theory.

Tubular Eyes

The Barreleye is quite odd, I must admit. Family Opisthoproctidae. Check her out.

24 February 2009

Phenomenological Fields

Queer ideas, these Phenomenologists have. But, it maintains the particularities of experience and the interdependence of knowing: though, the interdependence is not of subject/object, but of the community of knowers. The academic article is attached: " Intersubjectivity and Humanities-Based Psychology: Some Thoughts on Cleaning Up Our Language."

In my very humble opinion, these people have very mistaken ideas about the purpose and function of language; which does not need to, and cannot, be 'cleaned up.'

Blog Ethic and Bailiwick

(Image shamelessly stolen from RevelationArt: check them out, the work is quite good.)

"Many blog readers will form opinions based on very simple things," says Wager. "Like words such as 'voodoo correlations.' There's no reason to use such loaded words when making a statistical argument. The argument should be able to stand on its own."
(This from a recent Seed article entitled "That Voodoo That Scientists Do.")

Tor Wager -quoted above-, a cognitive neuroscientist from Columbia University, is quite right about one thing (even if he is very wrong about what he wants to be right about). For all of you who read Seed, or who've been following the controversy through other media, you'll know that Dr Wager is objecting to a forthcoming paper titled "Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience" (Ed Vul & Nancy Kanwisher, MIT, and Hal Pashler,UCSD). While I think Vul, et al, are basically correct in their assessment of some recent neuroscience, the more important point, at least for me as it concerns me, is that Bloggers pass themselves off as experts.

Now, lest it seem as though I'm one of the many people constantly maligning Bloggers and Blog Readers, I also think that New York Times writers pass themselves off as experts when the very often are not: (often with much more devastating consequences.) What I very blandly recommend is that you, the reader, come to your own conclusions. The good thing about blog posts is that they usually link to primary sources: if you want to have an informed opinion, read them. I am also of the opinion that a sound Science Education greatly helps critical analysis. I'll quote Chomsky, who makes this point more eloquently than I can:

"I think studying science is a good way to get into fields like history. The reason is, you learn what an argument means, you learn what evidence is, you learn what makes sense to postulate and when, what's going to be convincing. You internalize the modes of rational inquiry, which happen to be much more advanced in the sciences than anywhere else. On the other hand, applying relativity theory to history isn't going to get you anywhere. So it's a mode of thinking."

I feel obligated to qualify myself as vastly under-qualified; yet in the fields that I do feel qualified to have an opinion, I give my opinion: (generally that translates into areas concerning the History and Philosophy of Science & Technology, Astronomy, Physics -at least conceptually-, Geology, Philosophy, Linguistics, and just a little bit of Evolutionary Science.) I have my bailiwick and I try to stick too it. My intellectual honesty will hopefully translate into something usefully for you and I am always happy to debate and be corrected: (that's what the "Syndicate" part is about.)

NeoLamarckianism and Child Abuse

I have a School Friend, whom I quote below, who researches Neo-Lamarckian ideas which I find quite interesting: (especially since Lamarck is so put upon in public education; rightly so in most respects.) In that vane, the Times had an article today on the effect of early childhood abuse on your biology and it, in my opinion, falls into this NeoLamarchian category.
A quick example of a neolamarckian idea: the act of breastfeeding imparts the mother's immune system on her child and that immune system is a trait that mom acquired by interaction with her environment. In other, better, words "parents acquire immunological resistance to certain pathogens, and then transmit the resistance to their children via breastfeeding." There are other examples concerning bacteria mutation and the remarkable way "viruses infect gametes with useful characters [which] cause[s] offspring to have those new traits."
The Times article sites evidence recently published in the Journal Nature Neuroscience by Dr. Michael Meaney, working out of McGill University in Montreal; the study was on human suicide, the thrust of which being that gene expression changes in abused children, making them more likely to commit suicide (as well as suffer from other mental disorders).
From the Abstract: "We examined epigenetic differences in a neuron-specific glucocorticoid receptor (NR3C1) promoter between postmortem hippocampus obtained from suicide victims with a history of childhood abuse and those from either suicide victims with no childhood abuse or controls.... These findings translate previous results from rat to humans and suggest a common effect of parental care on the epigenetic regulation of hippocampal glucocorticoid receptor expression."
The moral, be a good parent: apparently there are books on the subject now: (actually, I think that Alfie Kohn is the person to go to in this last respect; or at least, with respect to early childhood education.)

23 February 2009

Peeking under the Firmament

And God said, "Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years: And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth": and it was so. And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: the stars also."

Journal of Philosophical Studies

The Journal of Philosophical Studies new issue focuses on the Philosophy of Science. For all of you who are interested (a.k.a the insane) and are lucky enough to be a subscriber or part of a syndicate subscription (a.k.a students & teachers) the Godfrey-Smith Article on "Models and Fiction in Science" is quite interesting. I won't dilate further, at least not yet; though there's no promising that I might not be overcome with the urge at a later date.

The Political Economy of Our Food Systems

This short news piece quite remarkably illustrates the subversion of science to corporate interests even when the outcome effects the health and well being of children. Many studies have shown that feeding children good quality food improves concentration abilities and grades over all with a negligible added cost: commonsense, simple commonsense.

Tonight with a good Scope

Four of Saturn's moons will transit the planet early in the morning tomorrow (Tuesday the 24th at about 5:54 my time) and I'll not be able to see it: it is snowing in Pittsburgh and anyway, I don't have a respectable telescope. But for those of you who do... well, I envy you. A lot is learned through the observation of the transits, most famously, the transit of Venus across the Sun, but I doubt this is going to be especially exciting as far as data collection goes. It will be a fun sight however. Space.com has a fine article on the subject and they also point out that a comet will be visible, for all of you not being snowed on, tonight at tomorrow night near Saturn as well. If I can find some good Hubble Pictures post event I'll post them here.

Big Heads makes for Good Looking Babies

The Science in this is all rather self evident; the basic question is why do we find 'cute' things 'cute.' The video argues, in a rather cute way, that we misplace the biological imperative to like our own species' young upon the features which the young have: (this is called Pedomorphosis.) It goes on to argues that the features the young have they have for other reasons than just cuteness (big heads = big brains, baby fat = insulation, etc.) and while that can generally be inferred it cannot always be; the causal relationships can be confusing here: we may have accentuated features as children precisely so that we are not subject to infanticide - that is to say that cuter children probably aren't the ones you kill and eat if you're super cold and hungry. "Nature, red in tooth and claw" as the Evolutionists are fond of saying. (I found this on Popular Science.)

20 February 2009

The Evolution of Language and The BBC

Quentin Cooper's Material World is one of the two popular science radio programs which don't drive me crazy with an overabundance of vacuous questions. This weeks show was particularly good; He had an interesting piece on the significance of historical climate data in modern climate modeling, but the best part was the last segment on the Evolution of Language. I have to say that I'm in love with linguistics, especially biolinguistics, as it solves so many interesting intellectual problems. Mark Pagel and Nick Chater were the guests on Material World and had quite interesting things to say about the coevolution of language biologically and sociologically: really, quite remarkable. I recommend a listen. They, Mark and Nick, casually mention another smart Linguist by the name of Steven Pinker, and if you haven't check him out on TED then you should watch him now. They of course talked about a hero of mine, Noam Chomsky: I say of course because he invented modern linguistics but he unfortunately doesn't do TED talks; you can, however, check him out on Google Video very easily as most of his talks are publicly posted.

19 February 2009

Indispensable Cooking

The Economist, that bastion of so many insensibly sensible people, had an interesting recent article about someone whose work think I rather like: Harvard Professor, Dr. Richard Wragham. I'm not totally convinced by his arguments but I do find them interesting, rigorous, and plausible. Among other things, Dr Wragham helped develop the idea that non-human animals often use non-foods to self-medicate: (in the technical literature this is called Zoopharmacognosy.) This latest article is concerned with the evolutionary role of cooking in human animals (erectus & sapian) and is based off the work published in his 2003 paper, "Cooking as a Biological Trait" and a 2006 book on the same subject (The Cooking Enigma). The paper is not unreadable and "suggest that cooking may be obligatory for humans" because of calorie needs which are satisfied by the increased efficiency of digestion from cooked food. I'm not really sure if this explains my need for a good curry or a home-cooked Pizza, but at least I now have good reason to not be a Raw Foods person.

Abstruse Higgs

This was just too good: Abstruse Goose is always quality, but this captures, I think, the sentiment of so many people. While I really don't care who detects the Higgs first, Tevatron or CERN, I do feel rather badly for all the Ph.D students at CERN who are waiting on the Collision results to get awarded their degrees; it must be frustrating to have ones degree delayed a year because of relatively small technical malfunctions.

It is quite interesting, as a side note, that no one doubts that we will find the Higgs: quite an interesting fact about a lot of Astronomy and Physics of late is that prediction vastly proceeds our capacities for observation.

15 February 2009


I just wrote an overly long overview of Thermodynamics for a school function and I thought I'd share one of philosophically interesting ideas generated by the field: (I'm leaving off talking about Creationism, The Arrow of Time, and many other interesting, but more talked about, concepts in favor of my own personal favorite. And, of course, I though I'd share this Moxy Fruvous video, which says everything better than I ever could:

Moxy Fruvous - Entropy

Heraclitian versus Parmenidean metaphysics

This is to my mind the most interesting philosophical question posed by Thermodynamics. Heraclitian metaphysics are process conceptions, where as Parmenidean are substance conceptions. Parmenideas proposed the idea that the way to understand the world was through the idea of unchanging stuff (atoms). He said that in order to understand the world the natural philosopher much examine closely this unchanging stuff for its universal, necessary, and certain characteristics. Heraclitus on the other hand said that everyone recognizes experience to be particular, contingent, and positive of some uncertainty. He, therefore, said that in order to understand the world you should look at the Logoi (plural of Logos meaning rules or laws) for change. With the advent of the Calculus we were able to model change in a much more sophisticated way and as the Statistical Mechanical world view became more prominent we start seeing that the world has qualities which are not exclusively Parmenidean; that is, knowledge of the world cannot be said to be universal, necessary, or certain.

This is also sometimes called the idea of “stochastic law”, stochastic being a 75 cent word for statistical. It is quite odd, on its face, to say that a Law is only probably true. And of course this is what we do say with respect to Thermodynamics as well as many other areas of modern physics.

I’d rather not say that the Heraclitian and Parmenidean metaphysics are in conflict with each other, but rather complement each other. But I think if modern physicists had to give up either the idea of the ultimate reality Matter or the Idea of the ultimate reality Energy, they would en mass give up the idea of the reality of Matter: (that is, side with a process rather than with a stuff.)


The rise of the science of thermodynamics brings the idea of energy into the center stage. But energy is only real in specific forms and no specific form of energy is really Energy. That is to say that Energy has a generic character, but it only manifests itself as Heat E, Gravitational E, Chemical Binding E, ElectroMagnetic E, Etc. So there are rules,(logoi) to the transformation of energy, because if there weren’t you couldn’t talk about reality, but the ‘thing’ Energy does not itself exist: it is ontologically vacuous. So we believe that each specific form of Energy is an instance of a more generic concept which is not itself observable or necessarily real. Another way to put this is that the generic form of energy is what is conserved, and what the first law applies to: the specific forms can be mutilated however you like.

This really shows the gulf between atomistic/Parmenidean THINGHOOD thinking and process/Heraclitian metaphysics of dynamic change. Energy is immaterial, but it has explanatory characteristics of mater: it has properties: it can act upon matter and change it without being material itself.