On bad anecdotes and good fun
My initial topic is the attractions of scandal, and an oft-told story: Diderot, humiliated at the court of Catherine by his inability to answer Euler’s supposed mathematical proof of the existence of God, limps back home to Paris.
The moral generally drawn from the story is: Learn your algebra! My moral will be an admonition to historians (but not only to historians).
I’ve read the Diderot anecdote many times—mathematicians seem to like it—and I’ve long been suspicious. Inspired by a colleague’s use of it in a talk last semester, I did some checking. Here’s what I found.
Dredge: new frontiers
Some of the largest structures built by humans are invisible or go largely unnoticed. The shorelines around big cities like New York have been almost completely subordinated to the needs and wants of their inhabitants. Dredging plays a large role in the building of artificial boundaries between land and sea. BLDGBLOG, a must-read for anyone interested in architecture, reports on an exhibit by the Dredge Research Collective.
The Dredge Cycle is landscape architecture at a monumental scale, carving the coastlines and waterways of continents according to a mixture of industrial need and unintended consequences. Thus far, dredge has remained the domain of logistics, industry, and engineering, a soft successor to the elevated freeway interchanges and massive dams that captured the infrastructural imagination of the previous century.
For the past year, the Dredge Research Collective have been exploring the choreography of these interconnected sedimentary landscapes, visiting dredged material confinement areas, from Poplar Island in the Chesapeake Bay to Hayden Island in the Columbia River, talking with dredge experts, such as the transnational materials conglomerate TenCate, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Bureau of Land Management, and publishing and lecturing widely on dredge.
Mammoth, another architecture blog that includes two members of the Collective, defines the Dredge Cycle:
[…] dredging is better understood as a component of a wider network of anthropogenic sedimentary processes which generate a fascinating array of interconnected landscapes. Fluid topographies are restrained by bright orange silt fences; dredging barges continuously empty shipping channels which are promptly re-filled with sediment disturbed by upstream farms and new subdivisions; sensate geotextiles monitor the stability of landscapes they are literally embedded in; hulking geo-tubes lay engorged with dredged sediments in streams on Filipino golf courses and along Mexican beaches and on the coastal dunescape of Virginian spaceports. Silts, sands, and clays flow rapidly between these landscapes in liquid suspension, linking them and re-shaping the earth’s surface. Collectively, the choreography of these landscapes embodies a vastly quickened counterpart to conventionally defined geologic cycles — the Dredge Cycle.
One site, still being planned, where the Dredge Cycle will make itself apparent—in the form of several billion dollars of real estate—is the Lo-Lo Ma project, which could connect Governor’s Island to the southern tip of Manhattan. Core77 explains how it will be done.
Texts as pretexts, or: the practitioner’s attitude
Mohan Matthen has been commendably frank in expressing his attitude toward the history of philosophy. But in fact what he has expressed does not pertain to history in particular: it pertains to any source of inspiration. It is what you might call the practitioner’s attitude.
When one reads Julia Annas or Margaret Wilson or Michael Friedman one thinks: Gee that’s really interesting. Could Aristotle or Descartes or Kant really have thought that? […]
And then one thinks: Oh who cares? It’s so interesting that it’s worth tackling on its own. But, no doubt, it gives the question a certain beautiful frisson that Kant could have held it.
[From NewAPPS.] Nothing at all changes if you substitute ‘Susan Wolfe’ or ‘Mohan Matthen’ for ‘Aristotle’ or ‘Descartes’. For me as a practitioner it’s of no especial import to get Aristotle or Mohan right so long as I have arrived at something of interest to me. It may be that a historian has helped me along toward that end. But what matters is that I have been inspired, that I am having interesting thoughts.
To that end presumably whatever works is licit, so long as it is not morally objectionable. I could just as well as have consulted tea leaves. I am, so far as inspiration is concerned, a pure egoist, a solipsist even, since it hardly matters whether I have listened to you or merely dreamt of listening to you.
The attitude of the practitioner ought not to be given any weight, therefore, to in judging the worth of history. It is too indiscriminate. The practitioner is indifferent to anything that fails to inspire interesting thoughts, and will value anything that does, whatever its intrinsic worth.
“Une trace impérissable de ces fugitives mélodies”
The earliest known recording of the human voice from which intelligible sound has been recovered was made by the French scientist Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville on 9 April 1860—seventeen years before Edison’s first phonograph recording. It is a bit of “Au clair de la lune”.
On 20 April another recording, longer and with better fidelity, was made. Earlier recordings exist, but for lack of calibration they have not been converted. Scott calibrated his later recordings with a tuning fork of known pitch.
The recovery was carried out by First Sounds, a group devoted to preserving, recovering, and publishing old recordings.
Below is a sketch from Scott’s patent application (“brevet d’invention”), dated 25 Mar 1857.
A piece of their mind
Addendum: Republished from NewAPPS. See there the informative comment by John Protevi on the substance of Balko’s column—the fallibility of drug-sniffing dogs (and their trainers), and the resulting miscarriages of justice.
My late cat Mr. H came to be very good at knowing when I was finished playing a piece on the piano. I have recordings in which, a second or two after the piano stops, Mr. H’s characteristic yowl supplies a coda. One might almost think he had a grasp of musical form, but I’m quite sure that his grasp was rather of my habits than of anything to do with music. He had likely picked up something in my posture that correlated with finishing a piece, something distinctive enough that he was rarely deceived by pauses during a piece.
I was reminded of this in reading first a column by Radley Balko on police dogs and then some extracts from a book cited by Balko, Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside of a dog (the title alludes to a Groucho Marx joke, in case you’re wondering). Horowitz describes experiments in which domestic canines, when humans are present, tend to do much worse than their wild cousins.
Tested on their ability to, say, get a bit of food in a well-closed container, wolves keep trying and trying, and if the test is not rigged they eventually succeed through trial and error. Dogs, by contrast, tend to go at the container only until it appears that it won’t easily be opened. Then they look at any person in the room and begin a variety of attention-getting and solicitation behaviors until the person relents and helps them get into the box (180).
Anyone who has a dog or cat will recognize the phenomenon. Are dogs, then, dumber than wolves? Horowitz doesn’t think so.
Translate: carry across
The metaphor implicit in translation is that of something being carried over from one “place” to another. The most fortunate, the most deserving of saints might be translated into heaven; their earthly remains were often translated from one church or monastery to another, along with the prestige of possessing them. Translate in this older sense bears a clear relation to transfer, of which it is merely the irregular past participle.
In those cases a thing was carried over or across: a person, a relic. In the now most common case, that of translation between languages, what’s carried across is not at all obvious. Decades ago, when theories of meaning—or rather speculation about theories of meaning—were all the rage, one would have said that translation consists in the construction and use of a systematic mapping of the sentences of one language to those of another, a mapping that preserves meaning or truth. The first attempts at computer translation worked from a similar definition.
Translation so conceived “carries across” only abstracta: the meaning or truth-value of the source. For anyone who has taken seriously the task of translation, that is a sort of caricature. The truth in it—what makes it caricature and not outright falsehood—is that something can be captured by the algorithms employed by Google and other automatic translation services. Call it the “gist”.
499 Words: Tuzet’s Cosmos
The philosophy of science directs its attention mostly to successful science—to Darwin, not to Lamarck or Driesch—and even when it turns to theories that have proved false, it tends to study only the “honorable” failures.It avoids the Helmonts and Fouriers, the Fechners and Josephsons—those who have sinned (or so it thinks) against reason, and given too free a rein to imagination. After all, if your aim is to understand how reason works, how knowledge is most efficiently attained, you will want the best specimens; the ill-formed, the dubious, the fake, you leave aside.
The past of science, especially before 1900, presents a much more heterogeneous picture than one would gather from the carefully tended cabinets of the philosophers. Where established truths are sparse, the imagination roams freely; and, as Descartes and Kant have warned us, to speculate beyond experience (let alone “all possible experience”) puts us at risk not merely of believing falsehoods, but of allowing the spirit of pure inquiry to consort with phantasms of desire.
Cosmology—the study of the translunar universe, and (latterly) of the earth itself as one world among many in that universe—has given ample scope to both fantasy and desire. Hélène Tuzet’s study, first published in 1965 …
On Rosenberg on Science
A quotation first:
“But what about other items on Professor Williamson’s list of disciplines it would be hard to count as science: history, literary theory? Can science and naturalistic philosophy do without them? This is a different question from whether people, as consumers of human narratives and enjoyers of literature, can do without them. The question naturalism faces is whether disciplines like literary theory provide real understanding.
“Naturalism faces these questions because it won’t uncritically buy into Professor Williamson’s ‘default assumption … that the practitioners of a well-established discipline know what they are doing, and use the … methods most appropriate for answering its questions.’ If semiotics, existentialism, hermeneutics, formalism, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction and post-modernism transparently flout science’s standards of objectivity, or if they seek arbitrarily to limit the reach of scientific methods, then naturalism can’t take them seriously as knowledge.
“That doesn’t mean anyone should stop doing literary criticism any more than foregoing fiction. Naturalism treats both as fun, but neither as knowledge.”
Rosenberg starts here with a brief list: history, literary theory. He forgets history (after implying that all history is narrative history: so much for the Annales school and hundreds of other historians), and turns to “disciplines like literary theory”.
Then we get a seriously defective bit of non-argument. In form:
If A, then B.
Here A = “semiotics etc. flout science’s standards or seek to limit the reach of scientific methods”, and B = “naturalism can’t take them seriously”.
No doubt Rosenberg holds A true. But it is bad manners in philosophy, even op-ed philosophy, to pretend you’ve proved or been granted a controversial premise that you haven’t gone one step toward proving.
On magnets and lies, and checking sources
The historian’s attitude, when attempting to establish matters of fact, toward the sources, is one of tempered but universal skepticism. The same applies to the history of the present. For example:
Don’t depend on popularizations for your knowledge of neuroscience (see the previous item in this blog for a similar issue concerning the biology of sex). A recent headline in several newspapers and online sources reads something like this: “Magnetic Pulses To The Brain Make It Impossible To Lie”. Wow! That’s exciting! And scary too…
The only problem is, it’s false. The original study, which takes two minutes to retrieve if you have access to the journal (Behavioural Brain Research, Volume 225.1 (Nov 2011) 209-214; doi:10.1016/j.bbr.2011.07.028) states its main result as follows:
In our study we found support for the general hypothesis: rTMS targeted at DLPFC changed spontaneous truth-telling/lying rate in a task with no mock-criminal, guilty knowledge, or personally relevant information processing contexts being involved. Importantly, clear hemispheric differences were found. In principle, artificial inhibition of the sustained neuronal activation-states in left DLPFC and possibly the concomitant effect on the systems intimately associated with DLPFC decreases the willingness to tell the truth (more non-truthful answers produced) and/or increases the willingness to tell lies. Conversely, inhibitory rTMS effect on right DLPFC and possibly the concomitant secondary effect on the DLPFC-associated systems increases willingness to tell truth (more truthful answers produced) and/or decreases willingness (or capability) to lie.
[Acronyms unpacked: rTMS = repetitive transcranial (from outside through the skull) magnetic stimulation; DLPFC = dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.]
The authors carefully note the limitations of their study.
- The effects of the magnetic stimulation may spread beyond the area adjacent to the coil; and so “ interpretations on causal effects of TMS exclusively through the TMS-targeted area should be taken with care”.
- The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex has many functions, and in a complicated task like “spontaneous” lying more than one may be activated: because “perceptual stimuli had to be named and two response variants chosen and reversed from time to time, the number of possible neural mechanisms that influence readiness to lie in our task and their possible interactions remain too numerous at present” to be sorted out.
- The spontaneity of the lying was limited to some unknown degree. Subjects were “instructed to name the colour correctly or just lie about it, naming the other colour that was not presented in this trial, being free to choose whether to lie or not”, but they were also told that only lying or only telling the truth would not be “good for the experiment”.
The upshot is that there is a positive correlation between spontaneous truth-telling and rTMS stimulation of the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex; and between spontaneous lying and stimulation of the left DLPFC. That’s very interesting. But it’s far from what you would gather from the headlines and stories online.
The moral should be obvious. In matters of science, there is no substitute for reading the original studies. Science journalists, and for that matter popularizing philosophers, should be drawn upon cautiously. Moreover, the studies often present complexities and issues (as here) that summaries, especially of the ax-grinding sort, tend to omit.
I learned this long ago when reading studies on animal perception that were cited over and over in the philosophical literature on representation. It was clear that only a few people had read the original studies; everyone else drew on their predecessors’ summaries. When I read the original studies, I discovered not only mistakes in the summaries but also a world of fascinating work that the “poor diet of examples” in the literature had simply omitted. Insect senses in particular offered much food for thought, and I recommend it highly if you’re thinking about the origins of representation or defining sensory modalities.
Philosophers have done a better job in the last twenty years. A much broader range of scientific results is brought to bear on philosophical debate, and prejudices according to which doing so is somehow unphilosophical have waned. Experimental Philosophy even generates its own results. But it’s well worth remembering, both when doing philosophy and when judging scientific results of political import, that although a great deal of expertise is required to contribute to ongoing research, rather less is needed to acquire a basic understanding of the results of research, to understand their limitations, and to evaluate second-hand accounts.
On a question of Mohan Matthen
Mohan Matthen writes at NewAPPS:
p: I am sitting here writing a blog post. It is now later than when I wrote the previous sentence.
Can I doubt the truth of what I just wrote?
Let’s say I can rationally doubt p if there is some scenario S that falsifies p, and I cannot conclusively rule S false. Certainly there are admissible scenarios that falsify p: I may be dreaming. So I can rationally doubt p.
Let’s say doubt is sceptical if it spreads to unrelated propositions. The dream scenario falsifies p, but it also falsifies everything else I seem to perceive. Let’s say a doubt is empirical if it does not spread. I may doubt that my computer is working properly. But this doubt, based on the computer’s odd performance, does not spread to the proposition that my printer is working properly. (More details here.)
I would claim that I cannot empirically doubt p. I can doubt that it is now later than when I started writing, but only by dream scenarios and other sceptical stratagems that cast doubt on all contingent propositions.
p: I am writing a blog post. My fingers are above the keyboard. Can p be doubted?
In a way, no. But an Aristotelian would hold that up and down are absolute notions: ‘up’ is away from the center of the universe, ‘down’ is toward it.
The Newtonian says: no, ‘up’ is the direction toward the center of some nearby large mass, and ‘down’ is away from that center; ‘up’ and ‘down’ are notions of purely local application (and in some reference frames, simply inapplicable); the Aristotelians’ ‘up’ and ‘down’ is “overturned” as being, though conceivable, of no application anywhere.
As for ‘above’, “x is above y” will mean that y and x lie along a line incident with the center of the nearby mass that defines ‘up’ and ‘down’, and that y is farther from that center. So understood the relation ‘is above’ (new style) is coextensive with the relation ‘is above’ (old style). Moreover, various commonplaces about aboveness can be explained in the new system, e.g. that it takes effort to situate one thing above another, or that if y is above x then y, if left unsupported, will fall on x.
Can the Newtonian be said to doubt that her fingers are above the keyboard? Notice that in the exchange above, statements (or, for that matter, thoughts) in which the relation of aboveness figures have been given two interpretations. I want to emphasize both two and interpretation. The original thought—that my fingers are above the keyboard—is not interpreted, and not itself an interpretation of something else. It’s just there, as something I think or say (you could add: on the basis of certain experiences, but that doesn’t seem to advance the argument).
The two interpretations seem to be incompatible, or rather they seem to have incompatible consequences in a world in which there is more than one candidate for “nearby large mass”.
The Aristotelian is committed to holding that if I am sitting on the visible side of the moon with my head pointing toward the Earth, my feet are above my head (‘above’ being understood Aristotelian-wise); the Newtonian is committed to holding that my head is above my feet (‘above’ being understood Newtonian-wise); and commonsense says that if x is (properly) above y, then y is not properly above x. (I have to bring in commonsense here, because there is no incompatibility between what the Aristotelian says and what the Newtonian says except through mediation by the “naïve” notion of ‘above’.)
My attitude toward my naïve belief that my fingers are above the keyboard cannot accurately be characterized as “doubt”. As a convert to Newtonianism, I am no more inclined to doubt that claim empirically than I was before I was converted (and whether I was converted from naïveté or from Aristotelianism). Newtonianism, like Aristotelianism, gives me an interpretation under which the claim is true.
On the other hand, I do, after a fashion, rationally doubt the claim insofar as I can imagine a scenario in which it, but also every other statement of a certain type, turns out false (e.g. if there were an even larger mass than Earth nearby and in the feet-to-head direction). Indeed, Newtonian physics gives me a systematic reason to relinquish the naïve notion of aboveness altogether insofar as it, along with various other notions about bodies and space, has a fatal connection with Aristotelianism (as many 17th-century philosophers thought it did). (The “retraining of intuitions” that Eric refers to was in part a relinquishment of Aristotelian/commonsense notions, e.g. of nonrelative rest and of differences between qualitative and specific change—alteration as contrasted with corruption. Descartes is quite explicit about this in Le Monde. Boyle in his Origin of forms and qualities devotes quite a bit of effort to convincing his reader that there is no distinction to be made between alteration, or change of quality, and generation and corruption, or change in substantial form; some of that effort consists in persuading his reader to give up Aristotelian interpretations of common experiences.)
I’m not sure whether commonsense notions of ‘before’ and ‘after’ stand to General Relativity as do commonsense notions of ‘above’ and ‘below’ to Newtonian (and post-Newtonian) physics. I suspect that in the world imagined by George Gamow, in which the speed of light is about 20 miles an hour, ‘before’ and ‘after’ would prove less useful, because simultaneity relations are not relativistically invariant. That would not lead me, exactly, to doubt that it is now later than when I wrote the previous sentence; but, as before, it would lead me to reinterpret what I take myself to mean when I make statements like that, and perhaps, in time, to relinquish ‘before’ and ‘after’. I would, for example, introduce the concept of worldline in interpreting commonsense notions of ‘before’ and ‘after’; and I would learn that those notions are applicable only along worldlines.