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Novum Organon

The Novum Organon, Or A True Guide To The Interpretation Of NatureThe Novum Organon, Or A True Guide To The Interpretation Of Nature by Francis Bacon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book I on Bacon's Novum Organon is an enjoyable and insightful discussion of induction and the new science that he proposed to replace Aristotle and Medieval approaches to knowledge. I particularly liked his discussion of the "idols of the mind."

Book II was an application of the new method to the scientific ideas of his time, thus not very engaging and something to skim through.

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Inner Voice

A fascinating article on Aeon about research into our inner voice.  This will come in handy when I start Descartes in class in a couple of weeks.

An excerpt:

The roots of the new work trace back to the 1920s and the Russian developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who said the human mind was shaped by social activity and culture, beginning in childhood. The self, he hypothesised, was forged in what he called the ‘zone of proximal development’, the cognitive territory just beyond reach and impossible to tackle without some help. Children build learning partnerships with adults to master a skill in the zone, said Vygotsky, then go off on their own, speaking aloud to replace the voice of the adult, now gone from the scene. As mastery increases, this ‘self-talk’ becomes internalised and then increasingly muted until it is mostly silent – still part of the ongoing dialogue with oneself, but more intimate and no longer pronounced to the world. This voice – at first uttered aloud but finally only internal – was, from Vygotsky’s perspective, the engine of development and consciousness itself.


The Cerebral Mystique

A good article criticizing the notion that "we are our brains."  An excerpt:

The brain is special because it does not distil us to an essence, it unites us to our surroundings in a way a soul never could. If we value our own experiences, we must protect and strengthen the many factors that enrich our lives from both inside and outside, so that as many people as possible can benefit from them now and in the time to come. We must realise that we are much more than our brains.


Pastoral Prayer upon Stephen Hawking’s Death

This is more than a month old, but I wanted to share it.

Physicist Stephen Hawking died this week. Hawking inspired us to ask questions such as:

What do we know about the universe, and how do we know it? Where did the universe come from, and where is it going? Did the universe have a beginning, and if so, what happened before then? What is the nature of time? Will it ever come to an end?

He believed that one day science would develop a complete unified theory and then all humanity would be capable of discussing "the question of why it is that we and the universe exist." He wrote, "If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason--for then we would know the mind of God."

Hawking of course was an atheist, so he was writing in metaphor when he spoke of God. But I've always been intrigued by how even science, when pushed to the outer limits of theoretical physics, sounds deeply spiritual and mystical.

And so today, as we enter our time of prayer, let's do so in awe and wonder at the marvels of our universe and our human ability to understand them.

Let us begin with a moment of silent reflection.

Silence.

God of Time and Space,

You have surrounded us with wonder

And we are in awe.

You have also given us amazing powers

To explore and study and theorize and understand.

Our brains can build rockets that send probes billions of miles from Earth

In order to send pictures back to us revealing unimagined beauty.

We can develop theorems that in simple mathematics grasp profound truths about how the universe works.

We can imagine and dream and hypothesize not only about the very beginning of time and space but what might even be outside our own universe.

May we always defy our earthly and physical limitations.

May we always be curious.

May we always look up at the stars and wonder why.

Now, as our Savior taught us, let us pray:


Knowing the Mind of God: A Tribute to Stephen Hawking

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Most people would find the picture of our universe as an infinite tower of tortoises rather ridiculous, but why do we think we know better?  What do we know about the universe, and how do we know it?  Where did the universe come from, and where is it going?  Did the universe have a beginning, and if so, what happened before then?  What is the nature of time?  Will it ever come to an end?  Recent breakthroughs in physics, made possible in part by fantastic new technologies, suggest answers to some of these longstanding questions.  Someday these answers may seem as obvious to us as the earth orbiting the sun--or perhaps as ridiculous as a tower of tortoises.  Only time (whatever that may be) will tell.

This is the second paragraph of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time.  I read the book in college, I think when I was 19, and his follow up Black Holes and Baby Universes a few years later.  Hawking was already iconic among my high school friends--we were all sci fi and science geeks.  And I was in a phase where I had a deep fascination in cosmology and theoretical physics (I read most of the works of Paul Davies while in college and then wrote my senior Honors thesis about his concept of God).  

And this was the time when I was being drawn into philosophy, and metaphysics in particular, where these questions were explored.  

Since childhood even up to this morning when I was listening to the radio one thing has been guaranteed to make me nauseous--the thought of why anything exists at all and yet the idea of nothing existing makes no sense.  Rationality breaks down and my head and stomach spin.  And yet these limits of scientific and philosophical quandary drew me inexorably on.

The concluding chapter to A Brief History ventures further into the realm of philosophy and even theology and spirituality.  If we can achieve a complete unified theory (or theory of everything) then what role is left for God?  The book ends with a  most fascinating paragraph:

If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason--for then we would know the mind of God.

The "mind of God" here should be understood in the Platonic sense--the highest reality in the Divided Line in the Republic.  Only the highest form of knowledge, a type of mystical contemplation, can know the mind of God.  From ancient wisdom we have understood that the limits of reason and scientific inquiry take us into the realm of mystical experience.  Here was a contemporary physicist developing a similar idea (Paul Davies argued that physics is a surer path to God than religion, for similar reasons, and even named a major work The Mind of God).

But the problem with the God of the theoretical physicists, as with the God of the philosophers, is that they aren't describing Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews. But, that discussion is for another time.

As my philosophical education advanced, I realized more of the flaws in Hawking's philosophical understanding of science (many scientists lack a philosophical understanding of their discipline), though looking at my marginalia, I already had some objections to simplistic understandings.  I don't think a theory of everything is possible, and one reason is that his understanding of the laws of physics can't survive philosophical critique.  Consider Nancy Cartwright's How the Laws of Physics Lie wherein she reveals that “Rendered as descriptions of fact, they are false; amended to be true, they lose their fundamental explanatory force."

But it is still a grand hope and something to aspire to.  And Hawking is correct that could we do it we would achieve the "ultimate triumph of human reason."  Though it may just be that to achieve that highest form of knowledge we must transcend reason into the mystical.

A toast to Stephen Hawking for his brilliant mind and insightful ideas.  I thank him for helping to inspire me and launch the course of my intellectual life.

BTW, here's an excellent obituary by Roger Penrose.


Multitudinous Self

A good essay on the self, defending a realist position that is a development of William James.  An excerpt:

The multitudinous self is based on the psychologist Ulric Neisser’s account of the self, laid out in his paper ‘Five Kinds of Self-knowledge’ (1988). Neisser encourages us to reevaluate the sources of information that help us to identify the self. There are five sources, which are so different from one another that it is plausible to conceive each as establishing a different ‘self’. First there is the ecological self, or the embodied self in the physical world, which perceives and interacts with the physical environment; the interpersonal self, or the self embedded in the social world, which constitutes and is constituted by intersubjective relationships with others; the temporally extended self, or the self in time, which is grounded in memories of the past and anticipation of the future; the private self which is exposed to experiences available only to the first person and not to others; and finally the conceptual self, which (accurately or falsely) represents the self to the self by drawing on the properties or characteristics of not only the person but also the social and cultural context to which she belongs.