Category Archives: Philosophy of science

Where this blog stands

Various commitments on papers commissioned in French have kept me away from this blog. Reward is another factor: with an average of around 30 daily hits on the English blog and 2500 on the French one, vanity has been a powerful drive for concentrating on the French one. Dialogue is another one. If you’ve had the opportunity of looking at the French blog you will have noticed that commentators often engage in lively conversations, with me resting comfortably in the meantime in the bleachers.

Why is that so? I believe that my reputation as a writer in English is not up to that as a writer in French, despite the 11 years I’ve spent in the UK and the 11 years I’ve now spent in the US. The reason is no doubt cultural affiliation: even in those days I was teaching at Cambridge University I was very much regarded as a representative of French anthropology. This applies as well to my writings in the philosophy of science: they belong distinctively to a tradition initiated by Poincaré, Meyerson and Duhem. As for my properly philosophical musings, they draw heavily on Kojève’s reading of Hegel and on Hegel himself – definitely not a central philosopher within the Anglo-Saxon world. Lacan, one of my major influences is surely known of English speakers but the truth here is that the Lacan I’m familiar with and have been a student of is an entirely different beast than the one resulting from the amazing transformation Lacan underwent when crossing the Atlantic.

So should my English blog fold? Not quite yet and this for the following reason: I detect (thanks to Google Analytics!) a renewed interest in the papers I wrote last year on the subprime crisis. The reason I imagine is that although they must have looked utterly weird at the time I posted them with such considerations as calls to renationalizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, they’ve now turned mainstream even though not due to anything of my own making.

This renewed interest may entice me in turn to come up with more, restarting hence the currently stalled dynamics. In addition, further contributions to a Human Complex Systems’ approach to the unfolding financial crisis are still in the making. Watch this space as only time will tell…

Would an interruption of the Gulf Stream be reversible? And if so, at what cost?

I’m blessed with a very popular blog in French. One of the questions that came up lately in my dialogue with commentators is that of the reversibility of major ecological disasters induced by human activity and of the feasibility of reversing such disasters with the tools pertaining to our current technology.

This is a serious question, a very serious one, and I intend to use the popularity of my (French) blog to push the issue a far as needs be. I’ve chosen one example – so that we don’t get locked in trivial generalities – that of a possible interruption of the Gulf Stream due to human activity. The consensus is that such an interruption – which I understand already occurred for ten days in 2004 – would make the temperature in Western Europe drop permanently by 5 to 10 degrees Celsius, that is, 10 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Is the interruption a possibility – even remote – and should the event occur, what are our realistic chances of reversing it?

According to the response I get to my query, I would consider launching an appropriate form of action around it. I will not be waiting – passively – to get your response only: I will try to reach out to the people I understand are the true experts on this issue and will refer back to you what I’m hearing.

Also – in an attempt to make it a full-fledged effort – I will communicate in each of my two blogs any progress made on the other.

The cunning of Reason

The very justification of a Human Complex System’s approach to the operation of human societies, implying a continuous explanatory spectrum from the individual (particle) to the cultural or societal levels (field), is offered by Hegel when he writes in Reason in History (*) that

… human actions in history produce additional results, beyond their immediate purpose and attainment, beyond their immediate knowledge and desire. They gratify their own interests; but something more is thereby accomplished, which is latent in the action though not present in their consciousness and not included in their design.

Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” at work in the markets would then be but one instance of such “cunning of reason.” It is then the more perplexing that the same economists whose analyses most assume the self-regulatory operation of such an “invisible hand” are also those who staunchly commit themselves to a principle of “methodological individualism” implying that there is nothing more to see in the economy than the outcome of the individual economic agents’ rational behavior.

Or is it instead that they are fully aware of the presence of a “something more thereby accomplished” but would rather not know about its precise nature?

(*) Posthumously published in 1837.

Logic and semantics in Woody Allen’s “The UFO Menace”

We read in Woody Allen’s “The UFO Menace” (*) that:

“Professor Leon Speciman postulates a civilization in outer space that is more advanced than ours by approximately fifteen minutes. This, he feels gives them a great advantage over us, since they needn’t rush to get to appointments.”

With due respect to the Nobel Prize laureate I would like to inform him that, had he been familiar with the work of the Mohist logicians (4th and 3rd Centuries B.C.) and with the Mo-tzu in particular, he wouldn’t have come up with such flawed reasoning. Indeed, that a civilization in outer space is more advanced than ours by approximately fifteen minutes does not entail that every one of the representatives of that civilization will himself or herself be advanced by fifteen minutes and will, for instance, avoid such embarrassment as running late at the dentist.

The Hsiao Ch’ü provides numerous examples of valid and invalid inferences that could have served as templates to Professor Speciman:

“If you inhabit somewhere in a state, you are deemed to inhabit the state; if you own one house in the state, you are not deemed to own the state. If this horse’s eyes are blind, we deem this horse blind; if this horse’s eyes are big, we do not say that this horse is big. If these oxen’s hairs are yellow, we say that these oxen are yellow; if these oxen’s hairs are many, we do not say that these oxen are many” (Hansen 1983: 136-137).

“Why is it”, do the Mohists ask, “that if I say ‘This oxen is yellow’, I can infer from that that all his hair is yellow but not that every one of his eyes is yellow?” The answer is of course that the “yellowness” of an oxen derives from the collectively attained color of its individual hair but not from the color of his eyes. The same reasoning is easily transposed to the case of an outer space civilization: its being more advanced than ours by fifteen minutes does not derive from the collective outcome of each of its members being individually more advanced by fifteen minutes in everyday pursuits but by another of its features, e.g. in the present case, its technology being more advanced by fifteen minutes.

That such inferences need to be solved on a case by case basis underlines that their application does not derive from logic which can be formalized in a symbolic language, but from semantics. The incontrovertible presence of regularities in pattern turn out here to be deceptive. Attempts at formalizing these have been made for the last fifty years by Professor Noam Chomsky and explain why he has devoted recently an increasing portion of his time to questions of a political nature rather than linguistic.

A final point on Professor Speciman’s argument: is it worth paying much attention to a civilization more advanced than ours by a mere fifteen minutes? Professor Speciman’s research is no doubt supported by taxpayers’ money; isn’t it any taxpayer’s duty to remind him that the minimum advancement between an outer space civilization and ours worth retaining attention should be a couple of years at the least?

(*) Woody Allen, The Insanity Defense, The Complete Prose, New York: Random House, 2007: 230-237

(**) Chad Hansen, Language and Logic in Ancient China, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1983

Why, like cats, we have nine lives

Back in 2000 I devoted a paper to some implications of the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics proposed in 1957 by Hugh Everett III in his Princeton thesis entitled “‘Relative State’ Formulation of Quantum Mechanics”. At the time I had no notion of anybody else in philosophy interested in these issues. The article was published in French in one of the publications of the Collège International de Philosophie in Paris (“Pourquoi nous avons neuf vies comme les chats”, in Papiers du Collège International de Philosophie, Nº 51, Reconstitutions, 2000: 69-80).

Recently I discovered a series of papers by David Papineau on the subject. I reminded David that we both attended Mary Hesse’s seminar in the history and philosophy of science in Cambridge (U.K.) in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I wanted to show David my 2000 paper and we agreed in our e-mail correspondence that the best approach would be that I translate my paper in the language wherein the current debate on the subject is taking place, i.e. in English.

So here it is a couple of weeks later. I have translated the paper literally (with added inter-titles), with one exception: I’ve skipped one paragraph at the end devoted to the existence of timeless worlds, realizing when reading again the paper seven years later that what I was saying there only made sense within the alternative and classical “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics as the argument relies implicitly on the collapse of the wave-function. Those who would still want to see the missing paragraph can turn to the original French version of the paper on my website (click here). Have fun!

Why, like cats, we have nine lives

(2007 translation of the original paper in French: « Pourquoi nous avons neuf vies comme les chats », in Papiers du Collège International de Philosophie, Nº 51, Reconstitutions, 2000: 69-80)

The mishap
Armel and I had stopped on the western side of rue de Condé in Paris. Francis who was aware that we were on our way to take the metro at Odéon has also stopped. However, Isabelle who was unaware of our plans had already crossed the street. She suddenly realizes that she’s the only one to have done so and comes back briskly on her tracks. But a car driven at full speed irrupts that will not manage to avoid hitting her…

A few seconds later I hear myself say to her: “I did see your blood covering the road.” Armel says: “The car passed only inches from you.”

I wake up right in the middle of the night and I think: “I truly saw her lying dead: I did see Isabelle’s blood on the road. Soon afterwards I saw her alive but for a fraction of a second I did not imagine her being dead: I literally saw her dead.” I say to myself: the world bifurcated, I was at one point part of a world where Isabelle died and soon afterwards part of a world where – thank God! – she was alive. Didn’t that fleeting vision of the accident imply a brief coexistence of two incompatible state-of-things? A co-existence which – as it is assumed by quantum mechanics – gets resolved by the sudden synthesis of two equally possible state-of-affairs until then superimposed (the famous “collapse of the wave-function”).

I start thinking of what report survivors of a “near-death experience” who claim having experienced that their consciousness (soul) is “hovering” above the scene where their body struggles between life and death. They mention that such contemplation was brutally interrupted and that they regained consciousness, that is, that their consciousness was all of a sudden reunited with their bruised body in a process reminiscent of the collapse of the wave-function at the quantum level.

I go back to sleep. A little later, still in the middle of the night, I wake up once again and within a couple of minutes a series of philosophical consequences of the “many worlds” hypothesis precipitate in my reflection: a deductive stream comprising the reconciliation of the standpoints of realism and of idealism; a confirmation of the Leibnizian concept of the “best of all possible worlds”; an expansion of the Cartesian cogito; the role played by Reason in History; [1]; finally, how to conceive (in a non-contradictory way) the essence of Being.
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