Friday, April 25, 2008

Quicklink: Philosophy Students Increasing in Number

Recently, the New York Times ran an article discussing the increasing number of undergraduates who are choosing to major in philosophy. It's always nice when the discipline gets some positive publicity--the article speaks highly of the worth of a major in philosophy--so I thought I would share it.

Best paragraph in the article:

Jenna Schaal-O’Connor, a 20-year-old sophomore who is majoring in cognitive science and linguistics, said philosophy had other perks. She said she found many male philosophy majors interesting and sensitive.

“That whole deep existential torment,” she said. “It’s good for getting girlfriends.”


Monday, April 21, 2008

SoapBoxxes, Quantum Plants, and Free Will

Hi everybody! It's been a while since I last posted here, so before I get to the meat of this post, I'd like to explain myself. About two weeks ago, I discovered SoapBoxxer, an Internet forum (ish thing), and it immediately proceeded to swallow my life whole and digest it in a warm broth of argumentative goodness. The basic premise of the site is that anyone can create an "Opinion," which consists of a binary statement (i.e. something with a Yes/No or Agree/Disagree answer), and other people vote on it. After you vote, you can comment on, argue about, or discuss the original topic and/or other comments on it. The site is new, relatively small, and full of pretty intelligent people. If you enjoy Internet argument even one fifth as much as I do, I'd recommend joining up right away. I am (of course) RealityApologist over there.

I was convinced that something good would come of my newfound addiction, and yesterday something did. Someone from SoapBoxxer pointed me toward this study about the newly discovered relationship between photosynthesis and quantum mechanics. It seems that researchers at Berkeley (yay!) have discovered a possible reason for plants' uncannily efficient use of sunlight (they're able to convert upwards of 90% of absorbed light into energy, whereas most solar panels haven't even come close to 50% efficiency yet). For a long time, how exactly they managed this was a mystery, but it seems like we've got a possible explanation now.

"We have obtained the first direct evidence that remarkably long-lived wavelike electronic quantum coherence plays an important part in energy transfer processes during photosynthesis,” said Graham Fleming, the principal investigator for the study. “This wavelike characteristic can explain the extreme efficiency of the energy transfer because it enables the system to simultaneously sample all the potential energy pathways and choose the most efficient one."

I can't stress enough how cool this is. Apparently the pigment molecules that are responsible for making the initial conversion of light energy to usable energy have a unique (so far--more on that in a bit) ability to momentarily "pause" the energy in a superposition and simultaneously explore all the possible ways the energy can be utilized. When it finds the most efficient way to utilize it, the wave function collapses into that state, and the energy gets passed on. The researchers on the project are careful to stress

For this reason, the transfer of electronic coherence between excitons during relaxation has usually been ignored. By demonstrating that the energy transfer process does involve electronic coherence and that this coherence is much stronger than we would ever have expected, we have shown that the process can be much more efficient than the classical view could explain. However, we still don’t know to what degree photosynthesis benefits from these quantum effects.

Obviously, I'm not a physicist (though reading about this stuff makes Columbia's MA in the Philosophical Foundations of Physics look mighty tempting), but it seems pretty clear that this adaptation is at least partially responsible for the very high efficiency of photosynthetic plants. Now, I'd like to take this idea a step further. What follows is PURE speculation on my part--I know there is at least one physicist in the audience, so PLEASE correct me if anything I say makes no sense.

I've discussed free will at some length on this blog, but I've spent very little time on Libertarianism (basically the view that we have free will in the traditional, robust, alternative possibilities sense). I've been dismissive of it as a viable philosophical position mostly because I haven't been able to see any scientifically plausible way that it could be true--most people who argue for it these days do so through an appeal to quantum mechanics, but are unable to describe how the brain might inherit the indeterminacy inherent in QM without also inheriting the randomness. This is a problem, of course, because random actions are no freer than determined ones--in order for us to really be "free" in a Libertarian sense, we have to be able to choose from multiple different paths without that choice being a random one.

Now the speculation: if chlorophyll can do this, why not the brain? If these researchers are correct, plants have evolved a mechanism to explore multiple quantum states at the same time before collapsing into the most beneficial one--what if our brains are doing something similar? Obviously, the mechanism would need to be far more complex than that involved in photosynthesis (making a rational choice doesn't seem to be just a matter of collapsing into the lowest energy state), but still: this research seems to lay some exciting groundwork for further exploration of the biological utilization of quantum mechanics. If our brains were somehow able to do something similar to this, it could potentially allow for quantum indeterminacy without quantum randomness--all possible quantum states would be open to us (indeterminacy), but which state we "collapsed" into would be dictated by something other than chance (not randomness). I'm very excited to see where this goes.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Charlton Heston

So Charlton Heston's dead. I'm sure someone else has already suggested this, but can we give his corpse a gun just for the fun of prying it from his cold dead hands?

Sorry--I couldn't resist.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Dogmatism Bites Man

Dogmatism in any form is dangerous. I think religion--as well as supernaturalism in general--is dangerous (in that it promotes false beliefs, etc.), but I would never argue that we shouldn't talk about religion or supernaturalism. As someone concerned primarily with truth, I don't think that suppressing the expression of any idea--no matter how absurd it might seem--is a good thing to do. That's why the recent exchange between secular activist Rob Sherman and Illinois State Representative Monique Davis (D-Chicago) is so appalling to me.

Rob Sherman is (apparently) rather well known in Illinois as the man who singlehandedly (well, pretty much) put a stop to the mandatory moment of prayer silence nonsense that the State Legislature tried to push on public schools last year. Well, he's back and rightfully pissed off once again. This time, he was testifying before the House State Government Administration Committee against Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich's attempt to give a $1 million grant to Pilgrim Baptist Church (for "reconstruction of the historical landmark"). Unwilling to let things like Constitutionality and good sense get in the way of her beliefs, Rep. Davis had the following exchange with Mr. Sherman (emphasis mine):

Davis: I don’t know what you have against God, but some of us don’t have much against him. We look forward to him and his blessings. And it’s really a tragedy -- it’s tragic -- when a person who is engaged in anything related to God, they want to fight. They want to fight prayer in school.

I don’t see you (Sherman) fighting guns in school. You know?

I’m trying to understand the philosophy that you want to spread in the state of Illinois. This is the Land of Lincoln. This is the Land of Lincoln where people believe in God, where people believe in protecting their children.… What you have to spew and spread is extremely dangerous, it’s dangerous--

Sherman: What’s dangerous, ma’am?

Davis: It’s dangerous to the progression of this state. And it’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists! Now you will go to court to fight kids to have the opportunity to be quiet for a minute. But damn if you’ll go to [court] to fight for them to keep guns out of their hands. I am fed up! Get out of that seat!

Sherman: Thank you for sharing your perspective with me, and I’m sure that if this matter does go to court---

Davis: You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying! You believe in destroying what this state was built upon.

And this from a Democrat! Some people (though not many) have called for Rep. Davis to publicly apologize, but I'm with Alonzo Fyfe in thinking that this isn't really enough; she needs to resign. She obviously has no regard for the separation of church and state--a fundamental part of our democracy--and, perhaps more fundamentally, she seems to hold the idea that those who disagree with her are dangerous and that their opinions need to be silenced. I'm all for disagreement, and I even suppose I might be OK with politicians saying things like "All atheists are immoral;" let the electorate see how ignorant they are, and they may not get reelected. It is, however, too much to tolerate when politicians begin to use their positions to bully people into silence.

The statement "it's dangerous for our children to even know your philosophy exists" shows not only a deep seated penchant for superstition, but also a pathological fear of putting the issue up for public debate--a fear that is fundamentally antithetical to her position as a democratic representative. If Ms. Davis believes her position to be the correct one, what could possibly be dangerous about giving kids all the facts?

Have you heard about this story before? I doubt it--though it happened over a week ago, it is only now being picked up (and pretty much only by blogs). Suppose, just for a moment, that the roles had been reversed here: suppose that it had been an atheist Representative browbeating and berating a Christian citizen in a public hearing. Do you think you would have heard about that? Is there something wrong with this picture?

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Sokal Affair

In honor of the holiday today, I want to talk a bit about my favorite academic hoax of all time: the Sokal Affair. In 1996, Professor Alan Sokal (a professor of physics at NYU) submitted an article titled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" to the prominent postmodernist/literary criticism journal Social Text. His goal was to see if a well respected (at least within its own field) academic journal would publish an article whose point was total nonsense simply because it used pretty rhetoric and supported the ideological stance of the editorial board. "Transgressing the Boundaries" is delightfully absurd, containing such gems as:

It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical "reality'', no less than social "reality'', is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific "knowledge", far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities.


Thirdly, the postmodern sciences overthrow the static ontological categories and hierarchies characteristic of modernist science. In place of atomism and reductionism, the new sciences stress the dynamic web of relationships between the whole and the part; in place of fixed individual essences (e.g. Newtonian particles), they conceptualize interactions and flows (e.g. quantum fields). Intriguingly, these homologous features arise in numerous seemingly disparate areas of science, from quantum gravity to chaos theory to the biophysics of self-organizing systems. In this way, the postmodern sciences appear to be converging on a new epistemological paradigm, one that may be termed an ecological perspective, broadly understood as "recogniz[ing] the fundamental interdependence of all phenomena and the embeddedness of individuals and societies in the cyclical patterns of nature.'

Just as liberal feminists are frequently content with a minimal agenda of legal and social equality for women and 'pro-choice', so liberal (and even some socialist) mathematicians are often content to work within the hegemonic Zermelo-Fraenkel framework (which, reflecting its nineteenth-century liberal origins, already incorporates the axiom of equality) supplemented only by the axiom of choice.

In short, he argued that quantum mechanics have broadly progressive political implications, implications which favor radical feminism and and end to the "caste system in the sciences."

Of course one does not need to be a physicist to recognize that virtually everything in the paper (exemplified by my quotations above) is pure nonsense--Sokal himself thought it so obviously absurd that he was amazed when it was accepted for publication in Social Text's "Science Wars" issue; the idea that quantum mechanics is in some way "a progressive feminist science," for instance, is so bizarre as to boarder on total gibberish. In fact, Sokal even contacted the editorial board of Social Text repeatedly and asked them to read his article carefully and offer any suggestions for improvement or clarification (he said that he was, after all, a scientist writing in a humanities journal, and thus needed all the help he could get). The editors offered no suggestions and no criticism.

On the day the article was to be published, Sokal published another paper, this one in Lingua Franca detailing his hoax and discussing why he perpetrated it. Snip from that article:

The fundamental silliness of my article lies, however, not in its numerous solecisms but in the dubiousness of its central thesis and of the ``reasoning'' adduced to support it. Basically, I claim that quantum gravity -- the still-speculative theory of space and time on scales of a millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a centimeter -- has profound political implications (which, of course, are ``progressive''). In support of this improbable proposition, I proceed as follows: First, I quote some controversial philosophical pronouncements of Heisenberg and Bohr, and assert (without argument) that quantum physics is profoundly consonant with ``postmodernist epistemology.'' Next, I assemble a pastiche -- Derrida and general relativity, Lacan and topology, Irigaray and quantum gravity -- held together by vague rhetoric about ``nonlinearity'', ``flux'' and ``interconnectedness.'' Finally, I jump (again without argument) to the assertion that ``postmodern science'' has abolished the concept of objective reality. Nowhere in all of this is there anything resembling a logical sequence of thought; one finds only citations of authority, plays on words, strained analogies, and bald assertions.

Why did I do it? While my method was satirical, my motivation is utterly serious. What concerns me is the proliferation, not just of nonsense and sloppy thinking per se, but of a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking: one that denies the existence of objective realities, or (when challenged) admits their existence but downplays their practical relevance. At its best, a journal like Social Text raises important questions that no scientist should ignore -- questions, for example, about how corporate and government funding influence scientific work. Unfortunately, epistemic relativism does little to further the discussion of these matters.

In short, my concern over the spread of subjectivist thinking is both intellectual and political. Intellectually, the problem with such doctrines is that they are false (when not simply meaningless). There is a real world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence do matter. What sane person would contend otherwise? And yet, much contemporary academic theorizing consists precisely of attempts to blur these obvious truths -- the utter absurdity of it all being concealed through obscure and pretentious language.

Regular readers will know that I have an ongoing Cold War with proponents of postmodernism and poststructuralism for more or less the same reasons Sokal outlines above: I think that there is a dangerous lack of critical academic standards within the field as a whole and that, as a result, it is far too easy to pass off utter nonsense as serious "philosophy" simply by draping that nonsense in literary allusion and obfuscating rhetoric; because of this, it warms my heart to see an actual academic catch these jokers with their pants down (even if said pantsing happened 10 years ago).

Predictably, there was some backlash to the so-called "Sokal Affair." The editorial board of Social Text complained that their publication (which was not peer-reviewed at the time) was based on a relationship of trust between editors and authors--a relationship which Sokal violated when he submitted an intentionally spurious article. Sokal contended (and rightfully so, I think) that this was precisely his point: the whole business of getting at the truth about reality isn't something that should be based on trust, but rather on careful consideration of the facts. He pointed out that:

My article is a theoretical essay based entirely on publicly available sources, all of which I have meticulously footnoted. All works cited are real, and all quotations are rigorously accurate; none are invented. Now, it's true that the author doesn't believe his own argument. But why should that matter? The editors' duty as scholars is to judge the validity and interest of ideas, without regard for their provenance. (That is why many scholarly journals practice blind refereeing.) If the Social Text editors find my arguments convincing, then why should they be disconcerted simply because I don't? Or are they more deferent to the so-called ``cultural authority of technoscience'' than they would care to admit?

In the end, I resorted to parody for a simple pragmatic reason. The targets of my critique have by now become a self-perpetuating academic subculture that typically ignores (or disdains) reasoned criticism from the outside. In such a situation, a more direct demonstration of the subculture's intellectual standards was required. But how can one show that the emperor has no clothes? Satire is by far the best weapon; and the blow that can't be brushed off is the one that's self-inflicted. I offered the Social Text editors an opportunity to demonstrate their intellectual rigor. Did they meet the test? I don't think so.

I say this not in glee but in sadness. After all, I'm a leftist too (under the Sandinista government I taught mathematics at the National University of Nicaragua). On nearly all practical political issues -- including many concerning science and technology -- I'm on the same side as the Social Text editors. But I'm a leftist (and feminist) because of evidence and logic, not in spite of it. Why should the right wing be allowed to monopolize the intellectual high ground?

And why should self-indulgent nonsense -- whatever its professed political orientation -- be lauded as the height of scholarly achievement?

So, in honor of April Fool's Day, thank you Alan Sokal for using a prank to make the world a slightly more rational place.