Trying to elucidate exactly where Goethe is going with his notion of how living things should be described. The problem I had was that he seems to be assuming that our instinctive way of classifying living things is what the natural order really is like. For his general argument is that in order for us to classify organisms the way we do, we must have a concept of the archetype of each category of organisms. So my question was, how does this show anything other than that we have such a concept? For surely Goethe means to describe nature itself, not just our mental categories. Conant’s take was that Goethe was attempting to vindicate our instinctive ideas of the order of living things, that he doesn’t have an argument for why these ideas are necessarily right. Actually his first answer was that Goethe doesn’t draw a distinction between the natural order and the order we instinctively perceive, which I think is a much more intriguing interpretation. Both answers, though, chafe against my perhaps overly scientific intuition — it seems obvious to me that our instinctive judgments are often wrong, and I see no need or justification for vindicating them.
John Derbyshire on how he lost his faith:
[Raising kids] made me realize how perfectly natural religion is. We have a religious module in our brains, and with little kids you can actually watch it waking up and developing, like their speech or social habits. The paradox is, that to the degree that you see religion as natural, to the same degree it becomes harder to see it (and by extension its claims) as supernatural.
I guess Derbyshire is saying that the religious module in our brains is more obvious when we see it waking up and developing, as opposed to seeing it operate regularly in adults (which happens, indeed, very regularly). I find the idea of the module “waking up” interesting. So what would a human without that module be like? A toddler, I suppose, who doesn’t see intentions in everything?
I also think it’s clear that seeing it waking up and developing isn’t really any sort of evidence for the existence of that module. You must have already had a concept of what that module is like, a concept presumably gleaned from observing its full operation in adult humans, to be able to see it developing in children. And then of course it’s a whole separate step to show that it is a module, and that it is a cause of religious behaviour.
The point about seeing things as natural preventing us from seeing them as supernatural sounds trivial, but it’s a recurring theme in the changes in our overall philosophical perspectives over the centuries. Less things seem magical as more of them can be explained (for a given value of “explain”) by science. The more commonplace something is, the less likely it is to be seen as violating what we think of as “natural” standards. If “religious experiences” were more common they would probably be considered as supernatural as dreams, that is, not at all.
So, it’s an hour before the Resemblance class begins, and the readings that they promised they would put up still aren’t up. Too late to bug them to put them up, and I bet we won’t even get to today’s readings anyway, given that we barely ventured into last week’s readings last week. So I’m doing my Aristotle readings for tomorrow while running the 3g data analysis, and figured I might as well scribble down what I think he’s saying before I forget it all overnight.
What are the 6 uses of the word ’cause’? He says particular or genus, ‘incidental attribute or a genus of that’, complex or by itself. And then it’s 6 x 2 because there’s actual versus potential. All this from his Physics, 195b15
Particular versus genus is the distinguishment betwen the cause of a generic kind of entity, X, versus the cause of the specific entity x itself, where x is a kind of X. So, for example, if we ask why it rained today, we could explain the normal process which causes rain, or we could explain why it rained today rather than any other day.
I have no idea what he means by “incidental attribute or a genus of that”.
A complex cause is simply a cause that is composed of more than one entity. For example, to explain the cause of a work of art, we could say it is due to “X, an artist”, rather than just saying it is due to “X”, or that it is due to “an artist”. “X, an artist” being the complex cause. And presumably “the artist” or “X” are individually simple causes. Of course often we use simple names to denote complex objects (for example, if we say “Monet” it is probably understood that the concept of “artist” is contained under our use of that name, in addition to the concept of Monet the individual), but this seems to me to be a real distinction that exists independently of what we intend by the words we use.
Actual versus potential is simply a temporal distinction. Actual causes exist simulataneously with their effects, and also cease to exist at the same time that their effects cease to exist. The example Aristotle uses is the house-building man together with the house being built. The house-builder is a house-builder as long as the house is being built. The two come into existence and pass out of existence at the same moments. Whereas the house and the housebuilder do not pass out of existence at the same moment, and would only very improbably come into existence at the same moment.
I wonder if I might not have some problem with answering certain types of questions. At last week’s discussion someone asked why it was “important” for Aristotle to distinguish between the four types of causes. This question seemed to me to have two possible senses: either the questioner was missing something completely obvious, or she was asking a much deeper question. Either way, I didn’t know how to answer it right off. In fact no one replied for some time, and the discussion leader got a bit frustrated because she thought that the science majors in the section should have been able to answer! Then someone pointed out the difference between saying “my hand hit him” and “I hit him”, which was apparently what the discussion leader was looking for. But that, I think answers the trivial sense of the question. Obviously there is a distinction between these type of causes. But it is not at all obvious to me why making that distinction should be important. It does turn out to be an important foundation in much of Aristotle’s philosophy, but there is a bigger, legitimate question, as to why it is important to our understanding in general. Evidently, in daily life, we get on fine without making those distinguishments.
Oh bugger it. Perhaps there isn’t even a “deeper” question. I’d sit here and think about it more if I didn’t have that glacier-paced class to rush off to.
Carl Wieman, experimental atomic physicist turned physics education researcher, gave a talk here today on problems in teaching physics. I can’t say anything he said about how little students learn in the traditional lecture-lab class format surprises me. It all meshes with my experience of essentially absorbing vague generalities (and sometimes not even those) during lectures, and only really understanding when I go home, knuckle down and read the texts carefully and think about problems. In fact, in the current situation where I barely have time to complete the assigned problem sets and labs, I can feel myself resorting to the mode of thinking Wieman said was endemic amongst students — I’m solving problems by plugging in memorised formulas, instead of applying any physical understanding. Now, maybe there is a limit to how much physical understanding one can apply to quantum mechanics. But I’m still unhappy about it, and once this rash of midterms and papers passes, I hope to really knuckle down and read carefully and critically the variety of texts I have.
I recall coming across one study which showed that Cambridge physics undergraduates actually suffered a decrease in their physical intuition as they took more physics courses (Update: the relevant report is here). I think that has almost certainly happened with me. I certainly feel that my physical intuition has not been challenged since the first two quarters of introductory mechanics and electrodynamics, and, I’m afraid to look, but it’s probably flabby from lack of exercise. Everything we’ve done since then seems to have been largely learning to apply new mathematics, rather than shaping old ways or adding new ways of thinking about physical situations. I have not had that thrill, in our final intro mechanics problem set on special relativity, of staying up all night trying to understand a problem, and, on the verge of giving up at breakfast, having that breakthrough which created such a mental flash that for the rest of the day, I was infused with mental energy despite being physically exhausted from lack of sleep.
I wholeheartedly agree with his point that labs could be a lot more effective if one actually had more time to fully wrap one’s brains around the experimental situation, i.e. to undergo a quasi-graduate student research experience. As it is, for many experiments, we have to rush to complete them on time, and that is even without attempting to understand all the physics and equipment. And for those that we don’t have to rush, well, I’m certainly not going to hang around the lab fiddling with knobs when I have relentless problem sets, readings, lab reports and papers coming at me. The fact is I think I could be taking just the QM course, and nothing else, this quarter and I would still feel it is too much information to be squashed into a quarter. It truly is the one class which kills whatever free time I could have to think more deeply about… well, anything. So many late nights spent taming monster integrals and typesetting formulas for lab reports. And, though I say it myself, it’s not as though I am struggling in terms of grades. I fucking ace the class, but I still think I don’t know what’s going on. I can only imagine what it’s like for the others.
What’s it with Die Fledermaus and the lame “32 Dec” joke calendar? It’s on the DVD of the Bayerischen Staatsoper production with Carlos Kleiber, and also on this one with completely different singers. Perhaps it was the same producer.
I’d always wondered why I’d always had a vague feeling of irritation whenever I saw Carlos Kleiber’s face on the screen. During some sinful late-night watching of music videos on YouTube, it struck me that it could be because he looks and moves just like a certain philosophy professor here. Naturally M. F. is much less animated, but with both of them there is the same sensation that, even when they are looking at you, they are nevertheless looking at something far away. And the occasional gestures that M. F. would make eerily resemble, in their sweep and tempo, some of Kleiber’s gestures.
I must be insane to be blogging when I have a paper due tomorrow that I have barely started on. But blogging thoughts about the dialogue that are slightly off-topic is the most effective way of ensuring that one day I will mull over those thoughts again, for I am narcissitic enough to reread my own blog entries.
Hence, this note about a puzzling passage in the Phaedo. Socrates’ words in normal font, Simmias’ replies in italics.
Do not equal sticks and stones sometimes, while remaining the same, appear to one to be equal and to another to be unequal? — Certainly they do.
But what of the equals themselves? Have they ever appeared unequal to you, of Equality to be Inequality?
These equal things and the Equal itself are therefore not the same?
I do not think they are the same at all, Socrates.
The puzzle being: what does Socrates mean by “the equals themselves”? First he says that equal sticks and stones don’t always appear equal to everyone.Then he says “the equals themselves” always appear equal, and seems to imply that they do so for the same reason that Equality never appears to be Inequality. This would lead us to think that “the equals themselves” are something like Forms of Equality, and this is supported by the next sentence, which appears to compare the equal sticks and stones unfavourably with “the Equal itself”, as though “the equals themselves” is something like the plural of “the Equal itself”. If, to the contrary, Socrates means “the equals themselves” to mean equal things (like equal sticks and stones), this would contradict his assertion that these never appear unequal to people.
This seems to me the most plausible interpretation, but it seems bizarre to have a plural for the Equal. In Greek nothing is capitalised, so we need not consider the fact that the English translation I am using does not capitalise “equals” in “the equals themselves” but capitalises “Equal” in “the Equal itself”. In fact, the discrepancy in capitalisation gives a misleading impression that “the equals themselves” refers to imperfectly equal things in the real world rather than just a plurality of perfect Forms of Equality. But again, I’d always assumed that Forms had to be unitary — it is meaningless to speak of several Forms of the Equal since Forms are something like archetypes or essences and not objects. It violates the definitions of archetypes and essences if several of them exist — surely if several distinguishable Forms of the same quality exist, then it is not one quality and does not have a Form of its own.
Some exuberant mathematician named Jordan Ellenberg gave a talk on why mathematicians are portrayed in the mainstream media in ways similar to how mountaineers are portrayed in the mainstream media. i.e. that mathematics is dangerous, that it is done for its own sake, and a couple of other similarities that I forgot. I wasn’t too impressed by this “finding” since I don’t think it’s special to mathematics. It applies to all academic fields, a point which was brought up by people in the audience. Ellenberg however insisted that mathematics has it especially bad. That people find mathematicians weirder than historians because they imagine they know what a historian does for a living, whereas they imagine that they have no idea what mathematicians do for a living. At one point he even argued that people imagine they know what physicists do for a living! I found this implausible, until I figured that yeah, they probably do imagine people in white lab coats. Also found implausible his claim that mathematicians have it worse than physicists in terms of weirdness-perception. The most iconic figures in twentieth century intellectual eccentricty have been physicists. Einstein and Feynman in particular stand out. No mathematician in history has attained the widespread public recognition that those two have.
He had this substantial digression on how the climbing philosophy of renowned boulderer John Gill resembles that of mathematics — of solving problems in the “right way”. I found this rather iffy upon first hearing, and now, having read more of what Gill does, I find it even iffier. Gill doesn’t really say that his way is the “right way”. Rather he distinguishes bouldering as a separate category of climbing from top-rope climbing. The analogy to mathematics doesn’t work well here because mathematicians clearly have a fairly unified and dogmatic vision of a general mathematical approach, as such. Whereas Gill doesn’t strike me as dogmatic at all. I really don’t see what’s so special about bouldering as opposed to other types of climbing that makes boulderers more like mathematicians.
Some classic moments in the talk, such as when the guy beside me objected to Ellenberg’s effort to improve the public image of mathematicians: “the perception of weirdness is not all bad, it gives us a degree of freedom… ” — thus undoing all the work Ellenberg had done trying to argue that really mathematicians are not that weird, and that the public perception is skewed and needs correcting.
After all that song and dance getting the number of observed events down to 29, I go back and do a veto study of the decay I’m normalising mine against, I find completely fucked up statistics compared to what I’d gotten with ostensibly the same vetoes just three months before. At best this means tonnes more debugging before I can even begin to try finding out how to tighten the vetoes more. At worst it means that my 29 events are complete crap, and actually I have something like 800. Now if even one of those were real, and I can prove it, I’ll have my fast ticket to grad school. But I don’t believe any of them would be real. I don’t believe any of the 29 I have now are real either. There’s too much crap flying about in the detectors.
My hourglass is running out fast. I don’t have the time pressure of having to complete a senior thesis but that only means that it’s publish or nothing. It would be difficult to continue working on this from halfway round the world, so most likely it’s publish within the next nine months or nothing. Of course having registered for a senior thesis wouldn’t be “something” either.
Severely overworked. And the ironic thing is that it has nothing to do with my taking a fifth class, since said fifth class only requires a final paper and a final exam, and three hours of class a week. It has everything to do with the fact that I’m also earning spare cash grading calculus problem sets, and continuing with music theory classes. Woke up this morning with a fever and hence decided to forgo my weekly 30 mile bike ride for the first time since ???, but I haven’t stopped working since 9.30 in the morning and I still have two physics problem sets, half a music analysis paper, and most of a philosophy paper to complete. Which makes me almost glad that I am sick and have to stay indoors. I don’t derive any pleasure from this. But I definitely stave off depression.
It’s true. Just like last winter, taking a fifth course adds almost nothing to my workload. It’s always a few particularly time-consuming activities (this quarter, those are quantum mechanics labs and grading calculus homework) that suck off most of my time. In fact the time I spend on QM labs alone is more than the time I spent on all four of my humanities classes last winter.
And as always I feel deeply guilty about not working harder on my research. I still have 29 events left. I believe Bose-Einstein statistics are correct, so I need to get that down to zero. How, how, how? I need more time than I have to mess around with all those silly vetoes.
From Symmetry magazine’s travel tips for physicists:
I have a really good trick for getting rid of really chatty guys, but it only works for women. I always carry a Cosmopolitan magazine with me. I just pull it out and they leave me alone. It really works. I just carry one with me for that purpose; there’s nothing in there really worth reading.
I always bring a nice thick book for the long flights. I’ve read all of Dickens. It’s the ‘accidental tourist’ syndrome. I just want to avoid talking to the nitwit next to me.