Category Archives: Philosophy

Total Request Blog: My research in a nearby possible world

In the requests thread, Kyle asks: If you had to research in a different area than you are now, what would it be? It can be as different as you want, but can’t be too similar. At the least you have to be publishing in entirely different journals.
This is an easy one: philosophy of science. I took several great philosophy courses at Caltech (which you might imagine had a scientific focus in its philosophy department) and got really interested in issues of what science is and why it works. I still think about these topics in idle moments and I could definitely see myself doing research in this field if I hadn’t gone for something more practical and experimental. Indeed, many of you have had to sit through my digressions on problems like the grue paradox (sometimes presented in Dinosaur Comics form). Imagine if I could get paid to do this—although I’d have to write serious papers, unless there’s a Journal of Philosophical Letters as Presented by T-Rex. The downside is that I wouldn’t get to play with expensive high-frequency electronics with lots of buttons, and having qubits to experiment on is pretty cool.

Absurd claims

I’m going to steal yet another meme from Tyler Cowen, who asks: What is the most absurd claim you believe? “It should refer to a view which you actually hold, but many other smart people consider untenable and bizarre.”
During a period overlapping heavily with my undergraduate years, my answer would have been that I think David Lewis’ theory of possible worlds is largely correct; in particular the notion that all possible worlds are just as real as the actual world. I’ve only read excerpts from Lewis’ works so I’m not prepared to accept or discredit his entire theory, but the underlying principle seemed right. Later, however, I realized that this could not possibly be true as I had imagined it: the reason being that the laws of physics in the actual world seem to be very regular and time-translation invariant, whereas there are many more grue-like worlds where the laws of physics randomly change than there are worlds like this one. So the probability of finding oneself in a world where the laws of physics are observably stable is vanishingly small. (A reasonable objection is that this probability isn’t well-defined. But if all possible worlds are equally real I would be very surprised not to find myself in a world with some grue-ish properties.)
So I had to shelve this idea. I’m still don’t have a convincing idea of what distinguishes the actual world from other possible ones, but I think there must be something, and maybe it has to do with why the laws of physics are fixed with time.
Anyway, I thought the modal realism thing would be an unusual answer to the question, but it was mentioned by the fourth commenter in the original MR thread so I guess not. But having given up on that some years ago, what is my current most absurd belief? Probably that many-worlds is the correct interpretation of quantum mechanics. (Even though I don’t like to call it “many-worlds”.) Of course this has some conceptual similarities with my previous absurd belief, but at least this one suffers from fewer grue-type problems.
Anyone else want to confess some absurd beliefs?

This explains so much

I hadn’t been keeping up with David Brin’s blog, but fortunately Brad Delong has, and linked to Brin’s latest insight: we are living in a simulation, and the simulation is a certain person’s Mary Sue fantasy:

How about this one? That we are all living inside someone else’s Start Trek Holodeck dream. Is there any way we could test this hypothesis? A method that goes even deeper than cybernetics, neurophysiology or even physics?
Simply look around and see who has been impossibly fortunate, vastly out of all proportion to personal talent and competence, or even family privilege, or even any possible intervention by anomalous good luck!

You can probably guess the punchline at this point, but the whole post is entertaining.

ID and Kuhn

The other day I saw a commenter at Brad DeLong’s blog assert that Intelligent Design was a scientific revolution of the kind described by Thomas Kuhn. Once I stopped laughing, I began to wonder whether this was a common belief among ID proponents.
I guess it is, since Matt Yglesias devotes a long post to rebutting this notion. I usually enjoy Yglesias’ more philosophy-oriented posts, and this one is particularly good. Key paragraph:

Similarly, the brute fact that ID has a lot of problems doesn’t refute it. The problem with ID is that, unlike real revolutionary science, it doesn’t lead to any normal science. There are no ID-based research programs. Nothing has never been accomplished by applying the ID paradigm to a question in biology. All ID’s scholarly (and “scholarly”) proponents do is try to offer half-assed refutations of Darwin. You can quote Kuhn all you like, but you’re not doing revolutionary science unless your purported revolution leads to some normal science. Intelligent design does not.