December 2009 archive

Merry Secular Christmas

I don’t believe in Santa Claus.

But I do believe in the ‘Christmas spirit': the spirit of peace and goodwill to family, friends and all humankind. I share in seasonal rituals such as the giving of gifts; the breaking of Christmas crackers; the wearing of silly paper hats; the sharing of inane jokes; and the ingestion of turkey, ham and pudding.

I can do all these things without believing in Santa Claus. Or the divinity of Jesus Christ.

So why is it so difficult for us to imagine a secular religion?

This would be a ‘religion’ – a cultural and philosophical institution – the role of which is to give meaning to our lives, to explain the workings of the world and our place in it, that provides a set of values to live by, that guides us towards living a happy and fulfilling life, that supports and comforts us in times of hardship, and that encourages community and social cohesion.

All without resorting to the supernatural or divine.

Is that so hard to imagine?

I don’t think it is. It’s just that we haven’t been prompted to imagine it yet.


Now is the time for us to begin a serious discussion of what a secular religion might look like. To imagine a substitute for conventional supernatural religion that is entirely compatible with our best rational and scientific understanding of the world – yet not limited by reason or science. An institution for those of us who have acknowledged the non-existence of God or gods, yet are reluctant to abandon all of the benefits that religion has to offer.

An institution designed from the ground up to be flexible, revisable, pluralist, inclusive, non-dogmatic, rational and scientific, but also wondrous, supportive and able to satisfy our deep seated need for meaning and morality.

It’s nearly 2010, and it’s time for secular religion to emerge. For thousands of years religion reigned. For the last few hundred years reason and science have grown to replace religion as our descriptive tool for understanding the world. Over the last decade or so atheism has eroded belief in the divine and the supernatural. Now it’s time to build something new – something prescriptive beyond just the negative thesis of atheism.

It’s time to build a positive philosophy that is capable of handling the tremendous challenges we are sure to face in the future, challenges that any belief system based on myth and fantasy won’t be suited to face.

It’s time for secular religion.

Merry Christmas, and have a peaceful, wonderful and contemplative new year.

Stereotyping People by Their Favourite Philosopher

Continuing in the spirit of recent helpful stereotyping efforts, I contribute this:

People who didn’t study philosophy.

People who did study philosophy, but only as an elective.

People who know they should tidy their room, but never do.

People who don’t know who Leucippus is.

People who are constantly reminding you that “so-and-so didn’t actually first invent that, you know.”

People who burn incense.

People who cross their legs in a slightly stiff and awkward way.

People who are suspicious of beans.

Thomas Aquinas
People who express overly convoluted arguments to justify things that we all already agree with.

Francis Bacon
People who like art, but know little about science.

Thomas Hobbes
Highly intelligent, highly irritable men.

Rene Descartes
Americans who call him “dez-car-dees” and love saying “I think therefore I am” but don’t know what “cogito ergo sum” means.

John Locke
People who read Newsweek, but only because they haven’t yet discovered The Economist.

David Hume
Jolly people with a lingering sense of urgency.

Immanuel Kant
People who are never, ever late.

People who wear their collars turned up, and probably earn more than you.

Baruch Spinoza
Cat people.

Gottfried Leibniz
People who wear berets, but shouldn’t.

George Berkeley
People who got the heebie-jeebies from watching The Matrix.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Fops and cads.

People who pause in conversation, grasping for the longest word they can think of to express a simple idea.

Friedrich Nietzsche
People who came to philosophy during the most awkward 15 minutes of their teenage years.

Adam Smith
People who secretly enjoy romantic comedies.

Karl Marx
Men with beards and women who don’t wear makeup.

John Stuart Mill
People who like scotch and soda.

Gottlob Frege
People who wear different coloured socks.

G.E. Moore
People who take just that bit too long precisely dividing the bill after dinner.

Bertrand Russell
People who secretly want to smoke a pipe.

Ludwig Wittgenstein
People you’re always surprised to see in the queue to the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

Jean-Paul Sartre
People who once smoked – and may still do – even though they hate it.

Simone de Beauvoir
Men who think quoting philosophy impresses women; women who aren’t impressed by men quoting philosophy.

Martin Heidegger
People with a disconcerting lazy eye, so you never know if they’re talking to you.

Maurice Merleau Ponty
People who complain about missing the great art exhibition that just left town.

Jaques Derrida
People with expansive bookshelves, prominently displayed, few of which have been read.

Michel Foucault
Good looking people who wish they were better looking.

John Rawls
People who fantasise about working for Obama.

Ayn Rand
People who are polite but insistent, and who wear comfortable shoes.

Richard Rorty
People who still like merlot, no matter what anyone thinks.

John Mackie
People who don’t say much, but when they do, you sit back and listen.

David Lewis
People who don’t get sarcasm.

David Chalmers
People with a disarming, but condescending, smile.

Noam Chomsky
People who confuse a conversation for an argument at dinner parties.

Daniel Dennett
People who have never watched commercial television.

Q.W. Quine
People who don’t know anyone who actually does watch commercial television.

I’m Not a Darwinist, and Neither Are You

Brian Leiter reminds us that there are no ‘Darwinists’, and ‘Darwinism’ is not a theory in biology. This is a point that needs making and making again, whether to lay enthusiasts or members of the academy.

As we know only too well now, framing an issue does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of shifting opinion before the actual arguments even begin. So we can’t let those who would seek to misrepresent science for their own purposes re-brand evolution as an ideology. It’s not an ideology. It’s not dogma. It’s a scientific theory. And a very well supported one, at that.

There are no “Darwinists,” and “Darwinism” is not a theory in biology

Zen Epistemology: Knowing-That, Knowing-How and Everything in Between

This is a post that was originally on my old blog, Logos. However, in the wake of my post about the Knowledge Argument, I thought it might be worth resurrecting it, with a few updates. Here goes:

At first, I saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers. Then, I saw mountains were not mountains and rivers were not rivers. Finally, I see mountains again as mountains, and rivers again as rivers.

It has come to my attention that contemporary epistemology is disconcertingly arse-backwards. This is because it’s caught in the uncompromising grip of an obsession with knowledge-that. This, over half a century after Gilbert Ryle famously made a strong case that knowledge-that is not all there is to knowledge as such. Disappointing.

All the way back when I was writing my honours thesis – which applied knowledge-how to Frank Jackson’s Knowledge Argument in the philosophy of mind – it appeared as though there was at least a modicum of debate going on over the nature of knowledge.

But in the decade that has lapsed since, it seems knowledge-that has come back to the fore an, in my opinion, thoroughly gummed up the works when it comes to some of the most important questions in epistemology: what is knowledge?; to what does it apply?; how is it acquired?; can we really know anything?; is there such thing as a priori knowledge?; can anything be said to be analytic?

These are important questions – more-so than many in metaphysics – because they virtually underpin every other philosophical endeavour, as well as relating to a number of very significant real-world issues, such as ethics (and metaethics), politics, science, and philosophy of mind.

So, what I’d like to do here is espouse an alternative view to the paragon view of knowledge-that espoused by Stanley and Williamson, who recently suggested that knowledge-how is a species of knowledge-that. In fact, I’d like to espouse the entirely opposite view: that knowledge-that is a species of knowledge-how. An arse-forwards view, one might say.


What Mary Learned: Putting the Knowledge Back in the Knowledge Argument

It amazes me that the Knowledge Argument is still kicking around to this day, and, according to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, “it is one of the most discussed arguments against physicalism.” Although, as we all know, being the “most discussed” is a poor indicator of being “the most convincing”. If anything, the more discussed, the more problematic.

But what I find the more remarkable is that the KA is still taken as an argument against physicalism rather than an argument against a particular conception of knowledge. It is the “knowledge argument” after all; knowledge plays a pivotal role in coming to the conclusion that physicalism is false.

What I’d like to do here is present a very quick criticism of the KA by appealing to an alternate conception of knowledge, one that allows for physicalism.

First, the KA. For those unfamiliar, it goes a little something like this:

MARY is confined to a black-and-white room, is educated through black-and-white books and through lectures relayed on black-and-white television. In this way she learns everything there is to know about the physical nature of the world. She knows all the physical facts about us and our environment, in a wide sense of ‘physical’ which includes everything in completed physics, chemistry, and neurophysiology, and all there is to know about the causal and relational facts consequent upon all this, including of course functional roles. If physicalism is true, she knows all there is to know. For to suppose otherwise is to suppose that there is more to know than every physical fact, and that is just what physicalism denies…
It seems, however, that Mary does not know all there is to know. For when she is let out of the black-and-white room or given a color television, she will learn what it is like to see something red, say. This is rightly described as learning—she will not say “ho, hum.” Hence, physicalism is false. (Jackson, 1986)
The SEP helpfully sums up the argument as such:
(1) Mary has all the physical information concerning human color vision before her release.(2) But there is some information about human color vision that she does not have before her release.


(3) Not all information is physical information.

The weakness in the argument is in premise (1), that Mary has all the ‘physical information’ about colour before her release. And the key to this premise is this notion of ‘physical information’, often stated as ‘physical facts’. However, this assumes that all the ‘physical facts’, whatever they are, can be learned via books and television, i.e. that all one need to know everything is a sufficient number of propositions. I beg to differ.

Propositional knowledge is a handy thing, but facts aren’t the only game in town. This is the pivotal point that I believe is overlooked by many epistemologists. I hear there are some who believe that propositional knowledge is the only game in town, and that non-propositional knowledge is reducible to propositional knowledge. Hogwash.

I’ve outlined my arguments against this view on my old blog, but I’ll reiterate here. In short, it’s propositional knowledge that plays second fiddle to non-propositional knowledge. The textbook example is riding a bike. I can know how to ride a bike, yet be unable to recite all the propositional knowledge involved in that know-how (i.e. “I know that if I want to slow down by z km/h, I squeeze the brakes with n amount of force” or “I know that if I want to stay balanced, I need to correct my steering by y degrees when I tilt to the left by z degrees” etc.). Furthermore, it’s impossible for me to know all the propositions involved in riding a bike; there are just too many of them for me to know.

What constitutes my knowledge how? Simple: it’s dispositional. I know how to ride a bike if I can, in the right circumstances, indeed, ride a bike. I know how to do 10 push ups if I can, in the right circumstances, indeed, do 10 push ups. I don’t know how to do 1,000 push ups if I can’t, in the right circumstances, indeed, do 1,000 push ups.

By necessity, propositional knowledge abstracts away some rarefied aspect of this non-propositional knowledge, such as by describing a particular instance or by making a generalisation – but I’d contest that you’d need an infinite number of propositions to capture even a simple case of knowledge how, such as riding a bike.

Case in point: give someone a comprehensive manual on how to ride a bike. Have them study it in detail, until they can recite each sentence by heart. Then stick them on a bike and see if they know how to ride. Then pick them up and apply plasters.

Think of it this way: non-propositional knowledge is analogue; propositional knowledge is digital. A single analogue waveform can never be captured in perfect detail by a digital data. The resolution can improve indefinitely, but it’ll still fall short of capturing the nuance of the analogue waveform. Even a formula describing a waveform won’t capture the exact waveform as it appears in the world.

Furthermore, there’s some propositional knowledge that an individual can’t learn unless they have the non-propositional knowledge first. Like riding a bike. Even with a detailed (non-infinite) list of propositions about riding a bike, there’ll still be more new propositions that can be abstracted once you actually get on and ride it (“I know that if I want to slow down by 34.76904 km/h, I squeeze the brakes with n+17.44892 amount of force”).

So, back to Mary. I’d suggest there is some propositional knowledge that Mary cannot learn from books and televisions alone. Those books and televisions might as well tell her a long list of propositions about how to ride a bike, make a tricky putt or bake a soufflé. But until she actually experiences these things, the propositions will only be the barest approximation of the complete knowledge how. Same with seeing red.

Moreover, if we extend the thought experiment somewhat, say Mary has a twin, Mariam. Mariam is raised in an identical room to Mary, except, Mariam is shown a single red object once her ‘education’ is complete. Mariam has her ‘aha’ moment when seeing red, and then undergoes an advanced brain scan.

The precise state of her brain is then compared with that of black-and-white Mary. Mary then undergoes advanced neurosurgery, altering her brain to be identical with Mariam’s. When Mary awakens, do we expect that she will know what red looks like?

If epistemologists would just stop fixating on propositional knowledge like it’s the be all and end all, we might make some progress on these questions. It’s not like epistemologists are in such a strong state of agreement that current theories are looking unassailable. If we reconsider our reliance on propositional knowledge – and the insistence on drawing a hard distinction between the mind and the world around it – then we might resolve many problems in metaphysics, including the Knowledge Argument.

Is New Scientist Losing Its Way?

Science journalism is a funny game. I know that only too well from my experience editing two quite different science magazines. Building a bridge between the often esoteric world of science – with its breathtaking complexity, arcane language, super-specialised practitioners and often tangential relation to the real world concerns of every day people – is a daunting task.

Magazine publishing is also a funny game. Readers are fickle at the best of times. And they’re easily distracted by shiny new media. As advertising dollars dry up, budgets are also slashed, forcing magazine editors to do more with less. Often good journalism pays the price – not only because it’s expensive, but because that’s often not what the readers want.

How do you know what readers want? The easiest way is to look at your sales. If that cover story on a new strain of broccoli didn’t sell, but the one on super-duper-m-dimensional string theory did, then you know what to go for next issue. I imagine New Scientist – which also benefits from being a weekly, which means more granulated sales data to mine each year – reviews its sales very carefully, and uses that intelligence to plot its future issues.

A quick scan over the last three years of New Scientist covers gives a good indication of what sells well. Clearly psychology, particularly ‘mystery of the mind’ stuff, is popular. In 2009, 19% of New Scientist covers featured something about the mind – down from 22% in 2008, although up fractionally from 18% in 2007.

The environment has also been a big seller in recent years, particularly in 2007 – hot on the heels of the buzz from An Inconvenient Truth and the Stern Review – although it’s been less prominent this year, with only two covers featuring climate change.

But clearly the big winner – and the big money spinner – is super-duper-m-dimensional string theory/cosmology/zany physics; through 2009, a full quarter of New Scientist cover stories have concerned news physics and cosmology. In 2008 and 2007 it was even more prominent, capturing 28% and 34% of cover stories, respectively.

These aren’t any old physics or cosmology stories though. They don’t concern the nitty gritty of experiments going on in physics labs around the world – stuff like the behaviour of light passing through optical fibre, or nuclear physicists delving in to the structural properties of matter. No, these things are too mundane for New Scientist readers. They want to explore the lunatic fringes of physics, where dwell untold invisible dimensions and theories concerning strings.

Hence you get cover stories such as appeared in the last issue of New Scientist. This concerns what can only be called unfettered speculation about power sources for future – way future – spacecraft. One is to harness a one million tonne black hole and use the Hawking radiation as a source of propulsion. The other is to use a kind of Bussard scoop to gather up dark matter use use as fuel.

The only problem is – both notions are based on such flimsy science, such an abundance of unfounded assumptions and such wild fancy, that neither has much scientific value. We know only scarce amounts about black holes, less about Hawking radiation, and even less about how to create or even store one. Dark matter – well, we don’t even know where it is, let alone what it is. The idea of capturing a theoretical, unobserved form of matter to use as fuel is, well, absurd. Good for science fiction? Sure. But science? No.

Now, I can see why New Scientist insists on embarking on these wild jaunts into speculation. The readers lap it up. But it’s doing a disservice to science, and the long term prospects of the magazine. The more wild, unbelievable stories appear in New Scientist, the less stock serious science practitioners and enthusiasts will place in the magazine.

The solution? First, New Scientist should stop sourcing its stories from For those who are unfamiliar with ArXiv (pronounced ‘archive’), it’s a free pre-press server for science papers in physics, mathematics, statistics, computer science and quantitative biology. And by ‘pre-press server’, it means virtually any scientist can upload any paper to the server to be read by anyone.

There’s no peer-review, no strict selection criteria and little to prevent a scientist from uploading speculation rather than a considered, empirically-supported paper. That makes for some literally fantastic papers – and wonderful fodder for the cover of New Scientist.

In fact, both papers cited in the New Scientist feature on space travel are from Neither have been peer-reviewed. It’s questionable whether either would be accepted for publication in a reputable science journal.

Readers need to know that is not a reputable science journal. Much of the stuff published there is of a high quality – but it lacks the checks and balances of a journal to be able to discriminate the solid from the fluff. That makes it a poor source for science journalism.

And I know first hand that New Scientist loves to use speculative material from whenever possible. I authored a story for New Scientist last year on superheavy elements and was asked to use a paper published on as the peg. However, that paper was thoroughly discredited by other experts in the field. The science was weak, the method was flaky, the conclusions were dubious. Yet New Scientist insisted the article be cited. As a freelancer, my job was to do what the editor ordered. So I did. Although I feel it went some way to weakening the article.

Don’t get me wrong. I love New Scientist. I want to see it thrive. I want to see it spread the word of science to the general public – which is a public service as well as a business. But I’m concerned with the magazine’s obsession with fantasy and speculation, and its reliance on dubious sources, primarily

New Scientist, please get back to your roots of reporting on real science, published in real journals and which affects the real world. It’s not too late to turn back and once again be the beacon for good science journalism in the world.

Evolutionary Psychology Myths #1: Human Universals

Evolutionary psychology is a complex and, um, evolving endeavour. And it is often misunderstood, not only by its critics, but also often by its proponents and practitioners. So I present the first in a series of ‘evolutionary psychology myths’, not to debunk EP, but to dissolve some of the myths – some of the straw men – that are hoisted by opponents and assaulted with wasted vigour.

The first fallacy is that evolutionary psychology implies that human nature is somehow universal; that many, if not all, of our evolved characteristics are shared by all humanity.

There are some high profile evolutionary psychologists who have implied just this. Take this excerpt from a paper 2005 by none other than EP’s dynamic duo, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides:

The  long-term scientific goal toward which evolutionary psychologists are working is the mapping of our universal human nature. By this, we mean the construction of a set of empirically validated, high-resolution models of the evolved mechanisms that collectively constitute universal human nature.

Cosmides and Tooby have stated a similar position several times – that their research is not interested in human differences, but human universals. That’s all good and well, but it doesn’t mean Cosmides and Tooby – and many other evolutionary psychologists – don’t believe there are evolved differences in human nature. It’s just that the focus of their study is human universals.

However, sadly, this position can give a misleading impression that evolutionary psychology is only concerned with human universals – or even more extreme, that the only aspects of our psychology that have evolved are shared by all humans. That’s not the case.

In fact, if evolution has influenced our minds – and I’m inclined to agree with evolutionary psychologists that it has – then we would not expect evolution to furnish us all with the same psychology – the same personalities, intuitions, heuristics etc. In fact – and in keeping with our understanding of evolution and its impact on biology at large – we would expect it to lend us a diversity of psychological features.

This is for the simple reason that many of the problems that evolution has sought to solve don’t have one single answer, whether it’s the best way to find food or a mate, or how to interact with other members of your species. An individual organism’s strategy is dependent on their environment, which can fluctuate wildly, and even more important, on the strategies employed by other organisms.

As such – especially given our complex social nature and the convoluted problems that emerge from that – we would fully expect that evolution would endow us with a range of strategies for solving these problems. As such, evolution suggest psychological diversity, not psychological uniformity.

This manifests in two main ways: the first is in our problem solving modules (although I’m wary of that term ‘module’ – it may not be a discrete unit unto itself), such as a facial recognition module or our moral emotions; the other is that other evolved faculty for abstract reasoning.

This notion of evolved psychological diversity is central to my own thesis on evolution and morality. Far from evolution advocating any one particular value system or political ideology, it equips us to develop a vast plurality of values and thus ideologies to give us a wide range of responses and solutions to the problems we’ve faced in our evolutionary past. This is the idea I call Moral Diversity – a kind of moral semi-pluralism.

At the base level is the problem trying to be solved, which in the case of morality is: ‘how do you get a bunch of unrelated individuals to live and cooperate together for mutual benefit without them defecting on each other and ruining the whole venture?’

There is no one solution to this problem; there are many. And some solutions are better than others in different circumstances. Sometimes it pays to be open, trusting and highly cooperative. Sometimes that strategy leaves you open to defection. Sometimes it pays to be closed, suspicious and only cooperative with your immediate family or local community. Sometimes that approach means you miss out on potentially lucrative cooperative ventures with outsiders.

As such, evolution has furnished us with faculties, heuristics, intuitions etc that respond in different ways to the environment to produce a diversity of responses.

So, far from an evolutionary perspective on morality suggesting that ‘if it’s evolved, it’s universal’, it suggests that ‘if it’s evolved, it’s diverse’. That’s one straw man down – many left to go…