Apr 092009

The exciting archaeological discoveries at Gobekli Tepe, a mega­lithic site in southern Turkey that predates Stonehenge by about 6000 years, are reported on the Smithsonian website.  Gobekli Tepe consisted of multiple T-shaped stone pillars, up to 16 feet tall and weighing 7 to 10 tons each, arranged in circular patterns on a hill­top. The location was apparently used for religious purposes and probably preceded the advent of agri­culture in the region.

The link is from Jebadiah Moore’s excellent The Jeblog, where he remarks:

I really like the theory that the desire to create this place led to the devel­opment of agri­culture rather than the other way around. Perhaps I’m just romantic, but I like the idea that humanity only wrested itself into a single place in order to fulfill a higher goal.

In a similar context, speaking of the Hopewell mounds at the High Bank site in Ohio, I can remember Bob Horn observing that the gods can be useful to humans.


Mar 292009

An article on Freeman Dyson in The New York Times Magazine this week — The Civil Heretic by Nicholas Dawidoff — prominently featured Dyson’s skepticism about global warming:

IT WAS FOUR YEARS AGO that Dyson … announced that “all the fuss about global warming is grossly exaggerated.” Since then he has only heated up his misgivings, declaring in a 2007 interview with that “the fact that the climate is getting warmer doesn’t scare me at all” and writing in an essay for The New York Review of Books … that climate change has be­come an “obsession” — the primary article of faith for “a worldwide secular religion” known as environmentalism. Among those he considers true be­lievers, Dyson has been particularly dismissive of Al Gore … and James Hansen … Dyson accuses them of relying too heavily on computer-generated climate models that foresee a Grand Guignol of imminent world devastation as icecaps melt, oceans rise and storms and plagues sweep the earth, and he blames the pair’s “lousy science” for “distracting public attention” from “more serious and more immediate dangers to the planet.”

This was followed by an interesting column in today’s NYT by John Tierney, Tragedy is not Freeman Dyson’s Business, about the contrast between naturalistic and human­istic perspectives on climate change.  Tierney concludes with: “I find Mr. Dyson’s arguments compelling, but I have a feeling some Lab readers will disagree. Fire away.”

I think Freeman Dyson is a good scientist.  Last summer I sent various friends a link to his NYRB essay, The Question of Global Warming.  But I am somewhat surprised — and this may indicate my own bias — to see the doubts of a leading scien­tist displayed so visibly by the New York Times.  Is this perhaps a concession that the science is not yet settled?  Will we next see a discussion in the Times of, say, Roger J. Pielke, Sr. or the scientists at Climate Audit?  


Mar 172009

I am an admirer of Charles Murray, a good man whose extra­ordinary political cour­age captures what is best in the Quaker tradi­tion. His recent essay, The Europe Syn­drome and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism, makes a case for American ex­cep­tion­alism based upon the idea that the purpose of government is to faci­litate the pursuit of happiness — as understood in the Aristotelian sense:

My argument is drawn from Federalist Paper No. 62, probably written by James Madison: “A good government implies two things: first, fidelity to the object of government, which is the happiness of the people; secondly, a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained.” Note the word: happiness. Not prosperity. Not security. Not equality. Happiness, which the Founders used in its Aristotelian sense of lasting and justified satisfaction with life as a whole.

Murray observes that there are only four “institutions” in society within which human beings can achieve this kind of deep satisfaction: family, community, vocation, and faith.

The stuff of life — the elemental events surrounding birth, death, raising children, fulfilling one’s personal potential, dealing with adversity, intimate relationships — coping with life as it exists around us in all its richness — occurs within those four institutions.

The goal of social policy, according to Murray, should be to ensure the robustness and vitality of these four institu­tions. He argues that the European model of the state does not do this — that despite its material successes, “it is not suited to the way that human beings flourish — it does not conduce to Aristotelian happi­ness.”  

Murray predicts that science in the 21st century will reinforce these observations.  He cites Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience in support of the idea that “social sciences are increasingly going to be shaped by the findings of biology; specifically, the find­ings of the neuroscientists and the geneticists.” 

Finally, Murray suggests that America needs another political Great Awakening, a re­discovery “in the gut” of what is most valuable in life.

There are some big ideas in this essay.  Read it for yourself.


Feb 282009

I found Steven F. Hayward’s All the Leaves are Brown quite absorbing.  It is a review of recent environ­mental writing, covering both tendencies toward authori­tarianism in the green move­ment and some promising new approaches from the left in the writing of Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger, Seymour Garte, Orrin H. Pilkey and Linda Pilkey-Jarvis.


Update, 11/09:  See Nordhaus and Shellenberger at The Breakthrough Institute.

Feb 262009

Peter Smith, of Logic Matters, has noticed a new Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, Set Theory: Constructive and Intuitionistic ZF.  Constructive and intuitionistic set theories result from the rejection of the law of excluded middle, and effectively restrict set theoretical ontology to poten­tially infinite sets:

The shift from classical to intuitionistic logic, as well as the requirement of predicativity, reflects a conflict between the classical and the constructive view of the universe of sets. This also relates to the time-honoured distinction between actual and potential infinity. According to one view often associated to classical set theory, our mathematical activity can be seen as a gradual disclosure of properties of the universe of sets, whose existence is independent of us. This tenet is bound up with the assumed validity of classical logic on that universe. Brouwer abandoned classical logic and embarked on an ambitious programme to renovate the whole mathematical landscape. He denounced that classical logic had wrongly been extrapolated from the mathematics of finite sets, had been made independent from mathematics, and illicitly applied to infinite totalities.

In a constructive context, where the rejection of classical logic meets the requirement of predicativity, the universe is an open concept, a universe “in fieri”. This coheres with the constructive rejection of actual infinity (Dummett 2000, Fletcher 2007). Intuitionism stressed the dependency of mathematical objects on the thinking subject. Following this line of thought, predicativity appears as a natural and fundamental component of the constructive view. If we construct mathematical objects, then resorting to impredicative definitions would produce an undesirable form of circularity. We can thus view the universe of constructive sets as built up in stages by our own mathematical activity and thus open-ended. [SEP]

This article might interest our BA Seminar students, as well as students in Programming Languages who have recently encountered Curry-Howard Isomorphism — the correspondence between intuitionistic logic and CLK.


Feb 252009

Artur Bieleki characterizes the Fantasie, Op. 49, as “one of the pinnacles of Chopin’s creative art” and according to Niecks “Chopin’s genius had now reached the most per­fect stage of its development, radiating with all the inten­sity of which its nature was capable.” The Fantasie begins with a mys­ter­ious march-like preamble, followed by an astonishing free-form expo­si­tion. The middle section consists of a beautiful cho­rale, which abruptly gives way to a recapit­ula­tion and a slight wisp of a coda. The music is wayward and power­ful. The performance is by Hannah:


Feb 212009

Socrates wrote nothing. Plato more than com­pensated for this deficit, for nearly fifty years fashioning brilliant dialogs in which Socrates was the central figure. His early dialogs were written shortly after the events they depicted — maybe around 395 BC — and were intended for a critical audience which would have remem­bered Socrates. They portray Socrates conversing with the citizens of Athens, and describe the events surround­ing his trial and death. These dialogs typically end with­out concep­tual reso­lu­tion, without answers to the questions they pose. In this sense, the philo­sophical impact of Socrates is mainly destructive; he stings like a torpedo fish and his opponents slink away. On the other hand, the early dialogs also provide fascinating glimpses into the char­acter of Socrates — a character so compelling that we begin to understand why Plato could not bring himself to move on, why he built such a remark­able monu­ment to this man.

In Plato’s Symposium, Alcibiades crashes the party — drunk — and proposes a eulogy of Socrates.  He first compares him to the sileni to be found in the statuaries stalls, which when opened reveal figures of the gods inside.  He then describes the effect that Socrates, “with nothing but a few simple words”,  had upon his listeners:

Continue reading »

Feb 152009

I was saddened last week to read this article, by another Senator, blaming the current economic crisis on the ‘ideology’ of Milton Friedman. I first read Free to Choose and Capitalism and Freedom when I was in my thirties, and I suspect that I was attracted to Milton Friedman as much by his evident humanity and kindness as by the lucidity of his thought.  Over the years, though, his ideas began to make more and more sense.  It may be that early acquaintance with religious hypocrisy had sensitized me to the recognition of poli­tical and economic hypocrisy — and Friedman was certainly tireless in exposing the latter — but there must also have been some other factor, some influence that led me to place a high value on human freedom.

I think people have to decide for themselves whether freedom is important — there are clearly argu­ments to be made against it.  But here is a brief introduction to one of its greatest advocates:

If you want to see more of Milton Friedman, this site contains videos of his famous PBS series.  


Feb 142009

by W. B. Yeats

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Feb 102009

One of our most distinguished Senators recently remarked to his colleagues that “the science is screaming at us.”  The behavior of several (climate) scientists this past week certainly seems to lend credence to this obser­vation. Here is an exchange between Michael Mann of the University of Pennsylvania and a Canadian journalist named Lawrence Solomon:

Original Solomon article.

Mann reply.

Solomon response.

A fair summary of the North and Wegman Reports, in my opinion, is given by Steve McIntyre here

A second incident involved the behavior of NASA scientist Gavin Schmidt in regard to Harry, an Antarctic weather station. Roger Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado became embroiled in this controversy and gives his summary here: 

A Formal Response to Gavin Schmidt   (also, see his comment #2).

Original sources on this latter dispute can be found at RealClimate and ClimateAudit.  

Altogether, it was not a great week for civility in science. 


Feb 042009

We have had some rather vigorous discussions on platonism in our BA Seminar. Recently the discussion centered on the existence of “natural kinds” — the question, for instance, of whether biological species are arbitrary distinctions or grounded in reality. In a famous passage from the Phaedrus, Plato talks about dividing things into forms “following the objective articulation; we are not to attempt to hack off parts like a clumsy butcher. . .” (265e)  Most of our students, it seems, tend to be nominalists rather than realists [which is not meant to imply that they are clumsy butchers]. Thinking about platonism reminded me of the following cartoon — linked in a comment to our GRE post. It is from a nice site, xkcd: A Webcomic of Romance, Sarcasm, Math and Language.


Jan 182009

On September 12, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI gave an address to the Faculty of Science at the University of Regensburg entitled Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections. This address was widely reported by the press, especially the Pope’s remarks about Islam in which he cited the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus’ contention that violence is incompatible with the nature of God.  In the aftermath there were riots and demonstrations, diplomatic protests were lodged throughout the world, and a nun was killed in Mogadishu. Here is the Wikipedia description of the con­tro­versy.

More interesting to me, and not reported by the press much at all, is the rest of what Benedict had to say at Regensburg.  At risk of simplifying, I will pick out three major points:

1) Benedict claimed that Christianity must be viewed within the broader context of Greek philosophy. “This inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history — it is an event which concerns us even today.”  (This is in response to what the Pope referred to as the “call for the dehellenization of Christianity”.)

2) He positioned the Church explicitly on the side of modern science. ”The scien­tific ethos, moreover, is. . .the will to be obedient to the truth, and, as such, it embodies an attitude which belongs to the essential decisions of the Christian spirit.”

3) He called into question logical positivism — citing the unity of human reason and the “intrin­sically Platonic element” in science.

Spengler remarks somewhere that the Catholic Church is one of the few modern institutions that finishes its conversations. This should be reason enough, I think, to attend to the remainder of Benedict’s address. In my opinion, there is considerable philosophical sophistication in the Pope’s comments.  Even for those of us who are not Catholic, the Regensburg address provides a refreshing counterpoint to the flat land­scape of post­modernism.  I recommend it.


Jan 112009

So, Shelley and I went off to see Gran Torino this evening and we really liked it. This is not necessarily a recommendation. Shelley tends to like movies about grumpy, politically incorrect, old men while I seem to like everything Clint Eastwood does. But Ann Althouse, who strikes me as hard-headed and sensible, also gives Gran Torino a strong review: “I laughed, I cried — a great movie experience.”  Trailers are here.

At the end of the movie the audience just sat there.


Jan 042009

The following chart, taken from, is based upon 2002 data and shows GRE scores for various academic fields of graduate study:

Three things strike me about this chart. First, the total scores for the scientific disciplines are consistently higher than those for the humanities and social sciences; second, philosophy has the highest total score of the non-scientific disciplines; and third, the low ranking of education (and public administration) calls into question the seriousness of our culture — and its sustainability.