Archive for December, 2007

Time and Human Embodiment

I was wondering around the internet as a distraction from my inability to think of a gift to give to my grandparents, and I ended up reading a few articles on eternalism and block time. A friend of mine, Tom, has been expressing his interest in the subject for a while and urging me to investigate the topic. It hasn’t come up academically, but now, as I’m currently on vacation and engaging in procrastination through blogging, the time seems right.

The idea of block time has to do with the ontology of time. Many contemporary physicists and philosophers have posited it as a way to understand the nature of time in a manner compatible with their understanding of relativity. I can’t claim to have the understanding of relativity that any of the citations in either the Stanford Encyclopedia or Wikipedia display, but it seems fair to say that many people understand an implication of relativity to be the subjectivity of time.

Or is that our perception of time? Block time allows for a sort of time that is independent of individual experiencing agents. It is a conception of time that declares all points of events to exist on something like a landscape rather than a linear direction. Time does not fly like an arrow or meander like a river; it exists, radiating out from the perceived moment into eternity. Block time is certainly more compatible with Einstein’s theories, but I’m uncomfortable with one of its premises.

Let’s think of an argument in favor of block time that goes like this:

1) We (humans) perceive the passage of time. In other words, we perceive temporal asymmetry. We remember events from the past, but not from the future. The present is a fleeting moment that is impossible to get a hold of due to time’s constant movement.

2) According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, one’s perception of time is spatially dependent. For example, if one person is located on Earth and the other on Mercury, one can never measure what the other is doing at the same instant.

3) Because of this, temporal asymmetry seems to be a quality of the human perception of time rather than a quality of time.

4) Therefore, a more accurate model of time will deflate time-related concepts like “past”, “present”, and “future”. Events may have some temporal connection (has anyone explored the implications an eternalist view has for causation?), but this can be analyzed on something closer to a landscape than a single, objective, linear flow.

My problem is simple: 1 and 2 do not entail 3. We, the humans described in line 2, are the ones describing how time might be if it does not flow as generally supposed. We generally perceive time to flow. We have made an observation that shows that this perception is spatially dependent. Based on this, we can say that most of our experience with time is limited by how our consciousness is embodied. But after that, what can be said about the nature of time? We’ve revealed something about humans, not the nature of time!

And so an attempt is made to transcend our humanity and create a model which is then fundamentally imperceptible to us- the block theory of time. It is a theory which describes how time might work, but it is also a theory that we, as humans, cannot perceive. This is hardly fatal for block time; after all, we don’t seem to directly perceive gravity or causation. Unfortunately, this says that we do not have a satisfactory account of gravity or causation. Block time doesn’t do much for our understanding of time in the same way that our accounts of gravity don ‘t do much for our understanding of gravitation.

I think that a better place to start than block time would be an exploration of if, and then how, we can square relativity and its challenge to our regular perception of time. But before this work can be done, we need a better understanding of our capabilities. There needs to be further investigation into the limits of human understanding and perception to figure out what it is we can know about time. In other words, more work needs to be done on how human embodiment affects our consciousness and our ability to know anything about time at all.

December 22, 2007 at 6:28 pm 1 comment

500 Views!

Bandaging my ego as midnight arrives and my Science and Religion paper continues to press me with difficulties is the news that this blog has had over 500 views! My regular, finals-time posting has really helped pick things up… amazing what regular updates and community participation do to a blog’s exposure. Some reflection is clearly in order.

I started blogging here near the end of April, 2007. There were a few initial posts refuting vacuous claims from Uncommon Descent, but I was unhappy with them and the direction the blog was taking and so decided to abort and restart at a later date. One small batch of deletions later, I was free of the vise-like grip of finals stress and on summer break. Away from Western Massachusetts, I was living in Boston with my girlfriend and working as a canvasser and then as a cook. Being much too big of a nerd to let my brain wander too far from my academic studies, I started reading books I picked up at used bookstores around Boston that caught my interest. The new reading list, overall lack of structure and means of external evaluation began spurred me to begin posting creative, rather than responsive, work. Academics throughout the semester slowed the blog’s pace, but it has once again picked up as an outlet for topics tangential to my finals work. This time, come the end of the semester, I think I’ll keep the posts and the direction. We’ll see what the story looks like when I hit 1000 views.

December 11, 2007 at 1:12 am Leave a comment

Polar Bear Jawbones and Science Coverage

Here’s the story: Professor Olafur Ingolfsson, of the University of Iceland, has unearthed an ancient polar bear jawbone on the Svalbard Archipelago in Norway. The jawbone holds significance for the natural history of polar bears as it could help date when polar bear speciation first occurred. It also might help us predict how the polar bear population might react to global warming, as the new discovery could show that the polar bear species has already endured one warming and cooling cycle. The BBC has a great article on it including quotes from Ingolfsson, details on Svalbard, and most especially the significance of the study. It even includes this stripped down phylogeny:

Basic Bear Phylogeny

They even cited the source from which they modified it. Excellent science journalism, and the first article on the subject to appear in the mass media (at least according to Google News). The author of the article, Jonathan Amos, makes no bones about geologic time or the explanatory role of evolution. I wish there were more articles like it in the popular media.

Which gave me an idea: as long as I started with the first article on the topic (and a great article, at that), why not compare this one with others to follow? Just start a study in miniature of the differences between media outlets. I’ve got a Google Alert set to update me as more news is released, so I’ll be posting edits to this post regularly.

5:30 pm edit: 5 hours after the news broke, the only article out there remains the BBC’s. Perhaps it’s my search– I’ve had an alert on the phrase “Polar Bear Jawbone” in all news sources. But broadening to “Polar Bear” only brings a bunch of stories on the Polar Bear Plunge, a benefit for the Special Olympics. I’ll stick to looking for jawbones.

9:30 pm edit: 9 hours after the news broke, there’s still nothing else on it. We’ll see if something happens in the Americas tomorrow– perhaps the next editions of newspapers will carry an article.

December 10, 2007 at 2:54 pm Leave a comment

Why Philosophy Should Emphasize Interaction Over Specialization

In the last century, philosophy as it exists in academia has specialized itself heavily, sometimes to the detriment of its ability to interact with outside fields. Such specialization is a modern phenomenon, and it’s impact on debate in multi-disciplinary subjects like that of science and religion has been detrimental. A general philosophical background and thorough understanding of topics external to but considered by philosophy is necessary to advance debate in those subjects, but this is discouraged by specialization in philosophy.

Some might say that specialization has always existed in philosophy, and has helped rather than hindered debate. It is true that philosophers have long found rich patrons and been instated at the Academy. All the same, I would bet that increased professionalization in philosophy parallels professionalization in the sciences. The growth of Universities from the nineteenth century onward increased professional opportunities for philosophers as well as anyone else. And with this professionalization came increased specialization.

It is also true that there have been separate branches of philosophy ever since the field was formalized in Ancient Greece: metaphysics, ethics, and epistemology have long been distinct categories of philosophy. That said, there are more “philosophy of…” categories today than ever. Philosophy of science became a titled specialty through the research and Diaspora of logical positivists like Carnap and Hempel. Philosophy of action came about as a field largely through Wittgenstein and G.E.M. Anscombe. Philosophy of mind as a specialty has really taken off since behaviorist psychology imploded and neuroscience took its explanatory place.

As these specializations gained increasing recognition, schools began offering courses of study that focused on a particular philosophical segment and not others. Philosophical specialization as it exists today is a modern phenomenon.

I don’t mean to present a simplified view of modern philosophy. These different subjects I’ve introduced as my examples do not exist in a vacuum, and they are increasingly forming new and innovative combinations. But this hybridization seems only to increase the amount of specialties rather than emphasize a more universal philosophical standpoint. Bioethics, neuroethics, social studies of knowledge, and more all show that hallmark of increased specialization: graduate programs devoted to their study. These programs are certainly attractive; I’m aiming to head into one, myself. I’m just not convinced their impact on philosophy has been altogether positive.

Why am I writing this now? Where I’ve taken classes in plenty of “philosophy of…” categories, this semester I took a class on science and religion. In the class, I’ve focused on the topic of causation with a specific historical interest in the topic as it was discussed by figures that have philosophical taxonomists lying awake at night, asking their pillows, “Should I put Avicenna down as a physician? A philosopher? A theologian? Damn!” My research for the class has largely concerned itself with figures like Aristotle, Augustine, Al-Farabi, Avicenna, Al-Ghazali, Averroes, and Aquinas… a formidable chronology of philosophers who blended (each in a distinct manner) philosophy, science, and theology in the examination of their world.

So I can’t help but wonder where the Avicenna of today might be found. In doing so, I’ve had the pessimistic thought that it’s unlikely that the current academic system could steer someone to a path similar to his. Interested in theology? Go to seminary! Interested in medicine? Go to medical school! Interested in metaphysics? Better head over to the Philosophical Gourmet to get a good idea of where the great metaphysicians of today are teaching! It could be that my finals-related stress is spilling over into angst regarding my future in the field, but philosophy as it has previously existed was not as easily classified as so many graduate programs. It was also not so easily classified as the philosophical want ads are these days: “WANTED: A Phd in Philosophy with a background in philosophical Logic, Philosophy of Science, and Philosophy of Language. Non-tenure track position with 3-year limited fellowship.”

Could it be that all this categorization is a bad influence on philosophy? The 20th century had did have its Renaissance figures, several of which were brilliant polymaths. This is not to mention that there are good reasons for specialization– not the least of which is the staggering increase of information that arrives each year. If I go to graduate school for philosophy of science, there is easily enough material to take up the rest of my life in debate. The same can be said for any of category of philosophy.

Where the specialization of philosophy seems to be the most damaging is where the specialization seems to pit philosophy against other disciplines. The conflict between science and religion has, at times throughout the year in my class, seemed to be transmuted to a conflict between philosophy and religion. This idea is not new. Augustine put theological knowledge over all other varieties, and there is a reason Al-Ghazali’s famous work is titled The Incoherence of the Philosophers.

Looking backwards, it seems that for every Augustine and Al-Ghazali there is an Averroes and Aquinas. There seems to be a component in the debate between the works of those authors, however, that is missing today. Aquinas and Augustine may have been theologians first, but their works also place them amongst the great philosophers. Averroes may likewise be considered more of a philosopher than anything else, but he was also a theologian, physician, and a lawyer. Their thought epitomizes the great work that can come from interdisciplinary scholarship. In considering any area where philosophy seems to conflict with another discipline, their example should be considered.

Philosophy is conducted better from a multi-disciplinary background. The most important thing to take away from such a background is the knowledge of how to take other viewpoints seriously in debate. Medieval conceptions of causation are not poorer because they came about in a theological framework, even though such a framework might not allow for the most complete explanation. Likewise, theologians should take philosophy concerning the possibility of miracles from the perspective of metaphysics seriously. Philosophy has benefited from interaction with other fields before, and the importance of this interaction cannot be overstated. In preparing students to participate in the historical debates of philosophy, academia as a whole should keep this in mind: specialization doesn’t always lead to the best explanation.

December 9, 2007 at 10:44 pm 2 comments

Pascal, Transcendentalist? Revisited

I was reading Wittgenstein’s On Certainty to wind down after working on my biology presentation, and hit proposition 100: “The truths which Moore says he knows, are such as, roughly speaking, all of us know, if he knows them.” It struck me that this was a good definition of transcendental truths (on which, up to this point in OC, Wittgenstein has been critical). It then struck me that my previous posts on Pascal and Thoreau were even more confused than I had previously thought.

Some of my background in understanding transcendentalism comes from reading Thoreau. This reading has been done outside of an academic setting and unfortunately largely in a vacuum. Some of my background in understanding transcendentalism comes from reading Kant. Most of that consisted in reading his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals in my Ethics class last year. It was the Kantian component (both in my background, and in terms of completeness of idea) that was missing from my thinking on Pascal.

Of course Pascal was a transcendentalist. He was a christian apologist! He believed in a transcendent higher power, with truths that, roughly speaking, all of us (could) know. In a very Kantian sense, Pascal was a transcendentalist. At least part of my confusion came about because of a definitional issue.
At least my view was confused in an interesting way. I think the root of of my difficulty was in trying to link Pascal’s (and Kant’s) transcendentalism to Thoreau’s. Thoreau’s transcendentalism carries with it a lot of cultural baggage, to which I may be particularly susceptible. I haven’t had the opportunity to have this baggage exposed to me in a conversational setting, and it now seems to have lurked in the background, obfuscatory. If I ever get back to linking Pascal to Thoreau, I’ll need to more closely examine what differences there may be between his transcendentalism and Kant’s as well as why I think those differences exist.

December 4, 2007 at 4:25 am Leave a comment

Averroes and the Limit of Thought

In criticizing Al-Ghazali, Averroes “insisted that the reality of causal operations could be inferred from sensory experience and argued that knowledge itself depended upon causality, since the distinction between what is knowable and what is not depends upon whether or not causes can be assigned to the thing in question” (John Henry, “Causation.” Gary Ferngren, “Science & Religion: A Historical Introduction.” 2002.)

This seems to blend epistemology and metaphysics together. It is critical in the sense that it draws a limit; in this way, it foreshadows both Kant and the Tractarian Wittgenstein. Averroes apparently draws the limit to what is knowable from a metaphysical principle—knowledge is based on the ability to assign a cause. I wonder if it might be better put that knowledge must be based on a justification. Averroes could have meant that when challenged on how it is we know a fact, we relate something that seems like its cause. I’m not sure that cause was the root of justification in Averroes’ philosophy. It isn’t Henry’s goal to be more specific on this point, but it seems like it could be a major failing in Averroes’ epistemology.

A theological approach to this might be what I’m finding so perplexing. For the early Wittgenstein, for example, no limit to thought can be drawn for to draw a limit is to know what is on the other side of it. To draw a limit to thought is to think, as he puts it, what cannot be thought (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Introduction). If, however, one accepts a certain amount of inscrutability in the nature of God then one can declare that much of God exists outside of human thought. We can contemplate God as Aristotle contemplated the Prime Mover, incapable of knowing its totality because of the limits of matter. As Aristotle had a tremendous influence on Averroes, this might be more fitting.

December 2, 2007 at 3:40 pm 1 comment

Final Papers Might Equal More Posts

I’m in the midst of final papers. This should mean that my blog continues in its update dry spell. Instead, it probably signifies a increased volume of posts. I started this blog while writing my final papers at the end of spring semester, after all. Both developing thoughts and overflow might end up as new posts.

There are three topics on which I’m writing final papers, so the odds of posts materializing for any of them are good. For my Wittgenstein class, I’m writing a paper on Wittgenstinean Causation, with a focus on Wittgenstein’s influence on G.E.M. Anscombe’s “Causality and Determination”. For my class on Science and Religion, I’m writing a paper on Medieval Muslim views on causation. The primary figures of this comparative paper are Avicenna (Ibn Sina), Al-Ghazali, and Averroes (Ibn Rushd). For my Seminar in Ecology I might have some posts which lean closer to science than philosophy. I’m giving a presentation and writing an accompanying paper on Agave pollination syndromes with a focus on the coevolutionary aspects of this particular syndrome.

December 2, 2007 at 3:22 pm Leave a comment


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Everything on this blog should be taken as a draft, the spilling over of mental activity flung far and wide. The author is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, MA who enjoys many things but devotes most of this space to matters academic.
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