Showing posts with label science. Show all posts
Showing posts with label science. Show all posts

Thursday, 15 June 2023

The Problem With Stories

Human minds run on stories, in which things happen for human meaningful reasons. But the actual world is not human centred. It runs on causal processes that are largely indifferent to humans’ feelings about them. 

The great breakthrough in human enlightenment was to develop techniques – empirical science – to allow us to grasp the real complexity of the world and to understand it in terms of the interaction of mindless (or at least unintentional) processes rather than humanly meaningful stories of, say, good vs evil. Hence, for example, the objectively superior neo-Darwinian account of adaptation by natural selection that has officially displaced premodern stories about human-like but bigger (‘God’) agents creating the world for reasons we can make sense of. 

Science flourishes still, demonstrating the possibility for human minds to escape the fairy tale epistemology that we have inhabited for tens of thousands of years and to inquire systematically into the world, or at least to benefit from the work of those who do. Yet - as the evolution example illustrates - stories continue to exert a powerful psychological hold over human minds. The US is one of the most educated societies in the world, but only around a third of adults accept the scientific account of evolution. Despite their deficiencies stories continue to dominate our minds, and hence the world that we build together with our minds via politics. From our thinking on the economy to identity politics to Covid to Climate Change to Climate Change activism, stories continue to blind us to reality and to generate mass conflict and stupidity.

Saturday, 2 July 2022

We Should Fix Climate Change, But We Should Not Regret It

Climate change is a huge and urgent problem. It is natural to suppose that it is therefore a terrible mistake, an unforced error that we should regret and try to prevent ever happening again.

I disagree. Climate change is the unfortunate outcome of the economic growth that has transformed human civilisation for the better. We cannot regret climate change without regretting the vastly better world for most people that the fossil-fuel powered technological revolutions of the last 250 years have achieved. Nor should we draw the anti-technology lesson that solutions are always worse than the original problems, that humans should retreat to living within the bounds of nature rather than attempting to escape them.

Sunday, 5 June 2022

Philosophy Belongs in the Sciences, Not the Humanities: A Rant

Philosophy has traditionally been considered and considered itself a part of the humanities, with a continuity in skills and attitudes, such as an emphasis on scholarship. In many universities philosophy departments are part of larger humanities faculties and thus fall under governance institutions designed for traditional humanities disciplines like literature, history, law, and religion. This association is bad for philosophy. Philosophy is a science of intellectual inquiry and it needs institutions, methods and attitudes suited to that task.

Saturday, 28 May 2022

Four Reasons Not To 'Trust The Experts'

A standard reaction to the disastrous democratic discourse and political mismanagement of public interest issues from the economy to public health to gun control has been to demand more respect for experts. I am sympathetic to the idea that when it comes to facts it is better to look them up than to try to work them out for ourselves, and that the way to do that is ask the experts: people in good standing in the relevant epistemic community (previously: Democracy is Not a Truth Machine). 

Nevertheless, there are problems with the 'trust the experts' mantra that should be acknowledged if we are not to fall into an epistemic trap of misplaced faith. Here are four that I try to keep in mind.

Tuesday, 22 December 2020

Two Failures Of Covid Science - And How To Do Better Next Time

While there have been obvious achievements by Covid science these should not obscure the very significant failures that have also occurred, such as around the politicisation of scientific advice and the delay in rolling out vaccine programmes. These failures may have allowed hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths, as well as extending and worsening the social and economic impact of the epidemic on billions of people. Nevertheless, the point of identifying such failures is not to allocate blame, but rather to plan for how to do things better in future. 

Monday, 2 November 2020

The Political Economy Of Risk: Covid Edition

Covid-19 reminds us once again that we can’t do without politics, or, to put it another way, we can’t do well without doing politics well.

‘Science’ can’t decide the right thing to do about Covid, however appealing it might be to imagine we could dump this whole mess on a bunch of epidemiologists in some ivory tower safely beyond the reach of grubby political bickering. This is not because scientists don’t know enough. The scientific understanding of Covid is a work in progress and hence uncertain and incomplete, but such imperfect knowledge can still be helpful. The reason is that since Covid became an epidemic it is no longer a merely scientific problem. Dealing with it requires balancing conflicting values and the interests of multitudes of people and organisations. This is an essentially political challenge that scientists lack the conceptual apparatus or legitimacy to address.

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

For The Sake Of Science - Let The Anti-Vaxxers Have Their Way

The authority of scientific experts is in decline. More and more people think they can figure things out just fine by themselves and reject the intellectual division of labour laboriously built up over the last few hundred years. This is foolish since expertise is a civilisational super power on which our modern prosperity is founded. It is also dangerous since expert advice is essential to addressing existential threats like epidemics and climate change. The fewer people believe scientists’ pronouncements, the more danger we are all in.

Fortunately I think there is a solution for this problem. Unfortunately, it looks like some people are going to have to die.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Welcome to Philosophy! Make the most of your time here

[Adapted from introductory remarks to my first year Ethics course at Tilburg University]

If I have calculated correctly, mine is the very first class in your new academic careers in philosophy. This is a great privilege for me, but also a great responsibility. It is also an opportunity for me to say some very general things about academic philosophy, about what to expect in the next few years and how to make the most of your studies.

Most of you will have encountered philosophy before in some form. Perhaps you took a high school class. Perhaps, you've done some reading in your spare time or watched a lecture online by a famous philosopher like Slavoj Žižek or you hang out on the philosophy reddit. Whatever your experience, doing a whole degree in philosophy is going to be much bigger and stranger and harder. For example, right from the beginning you will be reading classic works written by expert philosophers for each other, and trying to make sense of their intricately argued claims about topics - such as the computational theory of mind - that you have never heard of before. And then reading equally clever counter-arguments by other philosophers.

Studying philosophy is exhilarating, but it can also seem overwhelming. So think of this as a kind of map to help you find your way, but also as a treasure map to motivate you to keep going when things get tough. 

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Almost No Disasters Are Natural

A natural disaster is a disaster because it involves a lot of human suffering, not because the event itself is especially big or spectacular. The destruction of an uninhabited island by a volcano is not a natural disaster, because it doesn't really matter to humans. A landslide doesn't matter, however enormous, unless there is a town at the bottom of the hill.

So what does the word ‘natural' add? We use it to demarcate the edges of responsibility. We don't use it very well.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Human nature and the human condition

Aspects of human nature - like our capacity for language, reasoning or emotions - are amenable to scientific analysis that looks at where they come from and how they work, using tools like evolutionary biology, genetics, or neuroscience. But not everything about us that is important is innate. Many deeply entrenched features and characteristics of human life are contingent not essential. They come from our human history, not our human biology. Such aspects of the human condition - like marriage, sports, and war - resist scientific analysis and must be studied in a more humanistic way.

Monday, 15 November 2010

A Critique of the Modern University part II: Research

I previously argued that universities fail at education, partly because academics are so committed to the life of a scholar: they want to learn, not teach (see part I). So perhaps the real contribution universities make to society comes from their research? On the one hand universities do produce a lot of it; on the other hand it is rarely useful to the rest of us. The struggle for real and important knowledge requires - surprise surprise - more than just setting up an academic bureaucracy and giving it money.