Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Deep Blue of Jeopardy

According to this note from Scientific American, IBM scientists are aiming to unveil a computer that can compete against humans on the game-show Jeopardy. Following up the success with chess, and the claimed success with poker, seems to me a bit of a stretch. A "final showdown" is planned for some time in 2010.

Monday, April 27, 2009

End Universities as We Know Them or Just End Universities?

Columbia Professor of Religion Mark C. Taylor offers a fairly bizarre series of recommendations for reforming universities in today's New York Times. He starts by making the well-known point that many graduate programs are larger than they should be because graduate student teaching saves universities money. This is true, but unrelated to his "reforms", which include abolishing traditional departments and tenure.

An example:
Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.
It makes perfect sense to have indisciplinary centers of research or even graduate programs. But how is someone supposed to invest the time and energy to gain specialized knowledge in any given field if they have to worry that their entire program might be abolished in seven years!?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

New Draft: Abstract Representations and Confirmation

Here is a recent draft of a paper I have been working on throughout my year at the Pittsburgh Center for the Philosophy of Science. It corresponds roughly to chapters III and IV of my book project where I go into more detail with examples and the significance for confirmation. I hope to post a more comprehensive overview of the project soon, but for now this may interest those working on both modeling and indispensability arguments.

Abstract: Many philosophers would concede that mathematics contributes to the abstractness of some of our most successful scientific representations. Still, it is hard to know what this abstractness really comes to or how to make a link between abstractness and success. I start by explaining how mathematics can increase the abstractness of our representations by distinguishing two kinds of abstractness. First, there is an abstract representation that eschews causal content. Second, there are families of representations with a common mathematical core that is variously interpreted. The second part of the paper makes a connection between both kinds of abstractness and success by emphasizing confirmation. That is, I will argue that the mathematics contributes to the confirmation of these abstract scientific representations. This can happen in two ways which I label "direct" and "indirect". The contribution is direct when the mathematics facilitates the confirmation of an accurate representation, while the contribution is indirect when it helps the process of disconfirming an inaccurate representation. Establishing this conclusion helps to explain why mathematics is prevalent in some of our successful scientific theories, but I should emphasize that this is just one piece of a fairly daunting puzzle.

Update (July 23, 2009): I have now linked to a new version of the paper.

Update (Sept. 30, 2010): This paper has been removed.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Dupré & Griffiths Reject "An Unproductive Controversy"

In a letter to Nature, John Dupré and Paul Griffiths argue that Harry Collins' recent note in Nature is a mischaracterization of the current state of science studies.

One amusing feature of Collins' note is that he only cites work by himself. So, the second and third waves of science studies that he discusses coincide with the change in his own focus. This reinforces Dupré and Griffiths' point that the philosophy of science is already engaged in the kind of productive collaboration between the humanities and the sciences that Collins is calling for. More importantly, this collaboration is not based on some sacrosanct sociological model of science as just another social institution, but rather on an engagement with the content of the scientific views themselves and their scientific justification.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

NYT Columnist Declares the End of Philosophy

What grade would you give this David Brooks essay in a freshman philosophy course? Perhaps a C for effort:
Think of what happens when you put a new food into your mouth. You don’t have to decide if it’s disgusting. You just know. You don’t have to decide if a landscape is beautiful. You just know.
Moral judgments are like that. They are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain. Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often can’t explain to ourselves why something feels wrong.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Mathematical Laws or Trivial Patterns?

Philip Ball offers an entertaining summary of a recent paper in Science on how data can be analyzed to propose laws. The kinds of examples discussed, from physics through biology, show the need for some philosophical clarification:
As Schmidt and Lipson point out, some of the invariants embedded in natural laws aren't at all intuitive because they don't actually relate to observable quantities. Newtonian mechanics deals with quantities such as mass, velocity and acceleration, whereas its more fundamental formulation by Joseph Louis Lagrange invokes the principle of minimal action — yet 'action' is an abstract mathematical quantity that can be calculated but not really 'measured'.
And many of the seemingly fundamental constructs of natural law — the concept of force, say, or the Schrödinger equation in quantum theory — turn out to be mathematical conveniences or arbitrary (if well motivated) guesses that merely work well. Whether any physical reality should be ascribed to such things, or whether they should just be used as theoretical conveniences, remains unresolved in many of these constructs.