The Thinkery

Philosophy, teaching, etc.

Month: January 2019


A friend of mine does a lot of work on the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who’s probably best known for inventing calculus [Leibniz and Newton were developing the mathematical foundations of calculus at the same time, and there was a big Anglo-Continental tussle over whose version came first (and whether or not one stole from the other).]

Anyway, recently, another friend asked this scholar about the appeal of Leibniz and I wish I had had a recorder handy, as he gave an interesting and persuasive explanation as to why Leibniz is worthy of attention. It turns out that (among other things) Leibniz had anticipated a lot of stuff that didn’t really get developed fully until much later – including some stuff that Alan Turing made his name with, on computability.

Since then, I’ve read a biography of Leibniz that was pretty good. It wasn’t an intellectual biography, and so didn’t get as deep into philosophical/mathematical details as I would’ve liked. But definitely a good read.

Image result for leibniz biography book antognazza

Today, I came across another book on Leibniz that looked interesting by a philosopher named Justin E.H. Smith called Divine Machines: Leibniz and the Sciences of Life. It was a bit pricey, so I emailed my Leibniz scholar friend to ask him if he knew anything about it. Turns out he had written a review of the book for Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. I think it’s fair to say he liked it, but didn’t love it.

The review, though, did exactly what a review should do – make you feel like you read the book without having to actually read it 🙂 I kid, but only a little. The review is comprehensive and gives a very good sense of the content of the book. It’s also very even-handed, from what I can tell; praising where praiseworthy, but critical as well. After reading the review, I don’t think I’ll be buying the book, unless I happen to come across it at a significantly discounted rate on Amazon, or in a used bookstore.

Meanwhile, I’ll be keeping an eye out for good books on Leibniz. Feel free to send any suggestions.

Mary the Super Color Scientist

There’s a famous thought experiment by Frank Jackson about a woman named Mary who, while having normal vision, is raised in a black-and-white environment. While in this environment, Mary learns everything there is to know about color – the physics of light waves, reflectivity, the physiology of the cones and rods in the eye, etc. Jackson argues that when Mary leaves the black-and-white room, and sees something red for the first time, she’ll learn something new. And since she already had all the physical knowledge there was to have about color, this new thing she learns is non-physical. Which shows that there are facts beyond the physical facts, and thus that physicalism is wrong.

Here’s a link to the .pdf of the article where this first appears – called “Epiphenomal Qualia”.

In that same article, Jackson first discusses a similar thought experiment, about a man named Fred who can see an additional shade of red that no one else can see. He proves to the satisfaction of scientists, via observation and experiment, that he’s really seeing this other shade.

Jackson’s point here is similar: we can learn everything physical there is to know about Fred (using brain scans, doing an autopsy after his death, etc.), but we still won’t know what that extra shade of red looks like. So despite having all the relevant physical knowledge, we’ll still lack the knowledge of “what it’s like”. So this knowledge must not be physical knowledge, and hence physicalism is false.

What got me thinking about all this is an article someone linked to on Twitter recently about a woman who sees many more colors than the rest of us. She’s Fred times 100! It made me wonder if Jackson knew about this condition when he wrote the article, or if he’s learned about it since.

It also gets me thinking about the more general question: do many thought experiments in philosophy (or anywhere else) actually come true? And when it does happen, does it matter? Does it add support, or undermine the point of the original thought experiment? Or are different cases going to be different?

Another related issue is whether or not thought experiments can be proven false, or impossible. Clyde Hardin was a professor at Syracuse University when I was a graduate student there. Hardin is famous for writing a book called Color for Philosophers in which he allegedly splashed some empirical cold water on some thought experiments related to color – specifically, the famous Inverted Spectrum thought experiment. In this thought experiment (sometimes used as a paradigm example of a philosophical 2 a.m. dorm room topic of discussion), two people have exactly opposite color vision – i.e. when one sees red the other sees violet. Where one sees ROYGBIV the other sees VIBGYOR. The thought experiment is drawing attention to the private nature of our qualitative experiences (much like Jackson’s do) and the impossibility of knowing whether others are really experiencing the world in the same way that we are.

Hardin apparently (I’m using such qualifiers because my memory’s a bit hazy since I haven’t read the Hardin book in years) showed that such inverted spectra are impossible. The thought experiment, though, still gets a lot of play, and I’m not sure Hardin’s takedown had any effect. Perhaps it shouldn’t, since it’s generally not the case that thought experiments have to be physically possible to serve their purpose (e.g. Einstein’s thought experiment about riding on a photon).

Anyway, thought experiments are definitely one of the most interesting aspects of many philosophical discussions. So it’s a topic I’ll no doubt return to.

Happy New Year! I’m baaaaaack.

I wanted to take a little break after the India trip, but never thought it would would end up being a year-and-a-half sabbatical (significantly longer than the trip itself)!

Anyway, I figure if I get rid of, some bot will grab it up and make me pay a lot more to re-acquire. And if I’m going to pay to keep the damn domain, might as well use it.

With respect to blogging, I very much like the style of Ann Althouse. Both in the sense of how she blogs (a bit everyday, sometimes just links, and other times more substantive posts); and also with respect to her honesty, fearlessness, and willingness to go against the grain. I often disagree with her. But she’s never boring. And she never simply spews someone’s party line.

So that’s the plan. I’ll post some stuff on philosophy, on teaching philosophy, on teaching at a community college, and on some of the projects I’m working on in that context (e.g. improving the advising model at my institution). But I’ll also post on the things I’m reading, pop culture, political issues (though very rarely), etc.

Welcome to 2019!

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