Zizek on ecological ideology

18 09 2009

Wow, this is fun.


Darwin’s unfinished revolution

8 02 2009

Via Halewistan

Cambridge paleontologist Simon Conway-Morris has interesting ideas about the tendency of evolution to follow certain overarching pathways. In a recent talk while visiting here on campus, he went on to make some oblique, but fascinating, conjectures about the immanence of phenomena such as complexity and intelligence. The Economist discusses him here:

… Simon Conway-Morris, a palaeontologist at Cambridge University, in England, is the champion of a new interpretation of evolution—one that challenges the view that it is largely governed by the accident of circumstances. Unlike Gould, he thinks that if evolution were replayed from the beginning, a lot of things would turn out the same.

Dr Conway-Morris has arrived at this view from a detailed study of what is known as convergent evolution. Darwin himself was intrigued by this phenomenon, in which different groups of organisms independently evolve similar solutions to similar problems, whether these solutions are teeth, eyes, brains, ecosystems or societies. Where other biologists have noted such convergences as “remarkable”, Dr Conway-Morris believes they actually tell a broader story.

His argument is that, given the nature of physics and chemistry, there may be only a limited number of ways in which things can work. Evolution will be channelled into these successful paths, and thus does have trends. Two of these, he thinks, are towards complexity and intelligence. He adds that things “don’t just happen in chemistry”. They happen because of pre-existing causes. Whether it is the molecules of crystallin that are used to build an eye or the haemoglobin that makes blood carry oxygen, the nature of molecules themselves means that evolution is more likely to follow a path determined by their basic structure. Evolution is a mechanism, and it works within rules.

Dr Conway-Morris’s view of the world may or may not turn out to be correct. If it is, it may prove more palatable to some people than the current interpretation of the biological world as ultimately materialist and purposeless.

Darwin himself was deeply troubled by his materialist thoughts and what they meant. He considered how thoughts and emotions were simply secretions of the brain. From his correspondence it seems his religious beliefs never reached a fixed position, but he was sensitive to the extent to which his ideas could upset others. He even devised a diplomatic answer that avoided challenging the existence of God. When asked about the origins of emotions, instincts and degrees of talent, he noted, “say only they are so because brain of child resembles parent’s stock”.

via Charles Darwin’s revolution is unfinished | Unfinished business | The Economist.

And in audio, here.

A tradeoff between principles and safety

28 01 2009

While you don’t have to agree with everything Christopher Hitchens says (I don’t always), you can always count on him giving a thoughtful, well-spoken (and often crass) argument.

A Problem of Knowledge

18 01 2009

ScienceInsider, the science-policy counterpart to the journal Science, has reported that Louisiana state educators may not have the ability to teach Intelligent Design (ID) in schools. Officially, teachers have the ability to teach “controversial” scientific theories, such as evolution, origins of life and global warming. Really? While it pains me that these are considered “controversial” as science, I suppose there’s some morsel of relief that they can now be taught.

What is making many scientists anxious is that this can open the door for the teaching of ID.  Proponents of ID claim it’s a issue of censorship, and that rival ideas to Darwinian evolution deserve strong footing from where a fair comparison can be made. I see this as deceit: the issue with ID is not that it is presented (an issue of censorship), but that it is presented as science (an issue of authority). ID is a religious or philosophical stance, and that stance I cannot revoke (no matter how absurd I may think it is), but it is not a scientific stance. We live in a society that trusts scientific claims to knowledge and religious claims less so. My view of the matter is that proponents of ID want to elevate creationism to a “science” to gain authority for their belief.

There are several reasons why ID cannot be counted as science. The first is that it makes no testible hypotheses. How do you test for a cosmic creator? The second is that it is an empty explanation. You can explain anything by saying “God (…oops, I mean ‘some creator’) made it”.  For each of these points I will defer to the blunt oration of Christophy Hitchens: “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”; “a theory that explains everything explains nothing.” The third reason ID cannot be counted as science (and should not be given equal status with evolution) is that not enough scientists believe it as science. This point may seem strange, but it comes with how humans understand knowlede and truth. Theoretically, truth is indifferent to human views; truth is not democratic. Knowledge is dependent on human perception and the suffrage of those who study knowledge. String theory is an example of science that is not testible but still science because scientists believe it.

ID will require some good arguments and evidence if it should ever be considered scientific. I doubt this will ever happen though. Most arguments for ID seem to involve how incomprehendible the universe is. The problem is that in no way does the observation of incomprehension lead to the sole conclusion of some celestial creator; the problem is that ID simply doesn’t have any good arguments.

Life and Meaning

15 01 2009

Daniel Dennett‘s response to the question, ” what is the meaning of life?” is this:

“The secret of happiness is to find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.”

Some less than savoury people (JT and Lopez, in particular) have asked me what my philosophy of life is.  I’ve kept this view since high school, because I’ve yet to find something better. Dennett’s answer is quite good, but lacks the whole “personal journey” aspect of life.

My answer is to live up to the compliments given to you. Most compliments given out seem overblown, and said more for civility than description.  In high school I was told by a school mate that I was noble.  After thinking about this, I came to the conclusion that this had to be wrong. How could I be noble? What does noble mean? Instead of leaving it at that – instead of leaving it as some fuzzy description of me by one of my friends (which I did not agree with) I thought that this would be a good goal to define and reach. I would eventually like to be noble. Since then I’ve collected a few other compliments that I’d love to have describe me accurately, such as “nice” and “smart”.

Oh, and the best definition of “noble” that I’ve come accross is this: living in such a way that most people respect but will not commit to themselves.

Dennett’s false demystification

15 01 2009

If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law.

Daniel Dennett

I don’t think i agree with this. A darwinian perspective can be used to derive meaning and purpose, but it certainly does not provide it in any inevitable, consequential sense. I think Dennett may be falling prey to the illusion that his prefered mental aesthetic is universally ‘true.’ It doesn’t follow that because a theory describes/predicts processes with elegant accuracy it therefore embues life with meaning. Life, literally, has infinite meanings; especially in today’s social environment, the problem is parsing out what you decide to ignore! Darwinism only unifies physics and meaning for Dennett because he wants it to. That’s a-ok with me… Darwinian thought is inextricably tied up  in my meaning-system too, i’m sure, whether consciously or otherwise. But it’s more arbitrtary than Dennett seems to imply.

Zizek on Ecology

7 01 2009

YouTube – Slavoj Zizek, Ecology without Nature, Athens 2007 (4/6).

One of my favourite pop-phiosophers, Slavoj Zizek, on ecological catastrophe. Turn the volume up, get over his telltale sweaty twitch and suspend your disbelief:

and then…

… thoughts?