Monday, April 14, 2014

Jon Pertwee and vacuum tubes

Yes, it's Jon Pertwee who "starred as the Third Doctor in the science-fiction series Doctor Who from 1970 to 1974".

"philosophical self-examination will continue to have a reason for being"

"Philosophy in the Popular Imagination"


Andrew Taggart

March/April 2014

Philosophy Now

In my life nothing good has ever come of the “What do you do?” question. Once off my lips, the line “I work on moral philosophy, on ethics,” can lead in only one of two directions. Either my acquaintance, unschooled in philosophy, will be almost preternaturally interested in what I have to say – as if she’s happened upon some sublime creature only thought to exist on blanched parchment – or she’ll be absolutely dumbstruck by the stupidity of a life well wasted. Although it could go either way, let’s suppose she’s alighted on the latter path. “Philosophy… It doesn’t get you anywhere,” she replies, reveling in a truth that she believes is as certain as the claim that night follows day. And I’ve yet to come up with a truly satisfying rejoinder, probably because there’s no such thing. Try a joke, you think? “Oh, I don’t know, it certainly gets you into debt.” Or a plea for clarification? “I suppose it depends on what you mean by ‘get you anywhere’.”

The truth is that neither response will do. For if my conversational partner already thinks philosophy a waste of time, perhaps through having a mistaken conception of philosophy, then she probably (as my former English landlady was fond of saying) “can’t be bothered” to listen to a full rebuttal, and she won’t brook a sharp counterexample either. Like so many others, she’s already made up her mind – or, better put, her mind has already been made up for her.

To do philosophy in the public sphere today is to be immediately put on the defensive, and in most cases, to stand in the wrong. And yet, how we got to this point where philosophy has been put on all fours – either fetishized as being beyond the real world or vilified for playing no part in it – still needs to be explained. A first modest step would be to get straight in our minds how many lay people conceive of philosophy, and why this (mis)conception should matter to those of us who believe, somewhat antiquely, in the life of the mind.

One place to begin is with my interlocutor’s saying that when philosophers discuss something, they never get anywhere. She could mean one of three things by this: first, that philosophers get mired in endless debate, never yielding anything in the way of concrete resolution; or second, that they continually make something out of nothing, causing all parties involved to be brought to a state of mental confusion due to the endless jostling over definitions and the petty squabbling over overnice distinctions; or third, that in the game of philosophy there’s no way to resolve who’s right and who’s wrong. These three doubts, collectively or individually, present considerable challenges to philosophy’s basic self-conception. The first doubt would have it that there can be no authoritative conclusions drawn from a set of competing claims; the second that no mental tranquility can be gained; and the third that there can be no certain judgments concerning winners and losers in the truth game.

Rather than respond to each of the doubts in turn, it occurs to me that it would be wiser to ask what assumptions lie behind my interlocutor’s worries. I suspect that she deeply feels the culturally-widespread loss of faith in the power of reason to help us understand ourselves and our world. She needn’t be a relativist or a deep skeptic to believe this. She may simply believe, for instance, that some combination of emotions, instincts, past experiences, hunches, friends’ advice and expectations, is better than reason at determining how we should act. Against this attitude the philosopher’s belief that reason has its own power to help (as well as its own inherent limitations) requires a profound attitudinal shift: humility must be cultivated where there was once impatience. The light of reason can only shine after we’ve discovered how to quiet our minds and distance ourselves from our ‘empirical selves’ – the chaos of our everyday experience. There’s a long education – an itinerary of sorts – which ultimately leads to this state of mind: a path that the uninitiated hasn’t known or hasn’t taken, and in consequence, can’t find value in.

My interlocutor might concede that if philosophy has any value, it’s philosophy in the sense that everyone has their own personal philosophy. A personal philosophy, she might suggest, is a fundamental set of beliefs that one lives by. Think of a book subtitle like ‘The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women’. In this sense of the word, we’d be justified in saying that a coach has her own coaching philosophy, a company its corporate philosophy, a party its governing philosophy, etc.

I’m not so sure that the notion of personal philosophy gets us very far in vindicating philosophy per se, for three reasons. One is that it’s not clear to me how far anyone espousing a personal philosophy is really committed to that set of beliefs. How do we know that he lives his life so that it lines up with his own ‘philosophy’, or that when the sea looks stormy, he won’t jump ship? How far his beliefs line up with his actions has yet to be demonstrated. Another reason is that we would need to know whether his personal philosophy is worth standing by. Merely saying “This I believe!” can’t be the end point of any probing inquiry, but must instead be a starting point. And the last reason, already more than hinted at, is that, whatever it is, philosophy must be more than a doctrine, it must be a certain style of thought – a way of examining one’s life with the goal of determining whether the life I’m leading amounts to anything good, for example. But when someone expresses their personal philosophy, the question of why it’s a good thing to have a personal philosophy still remains unasked, as if it were enough just to have one. So personal philosophies are frequently unphilosophical in nature.

“All right. But if you’re going to dismiss talk of personal philosophy as hopelessly ‘unphilosophical’, you’ll have to come round to agreeing with me that philosophy is otherwise useless,” my non-philosophical friend might (philosophically) argue. “After all, the philosophy you’re talking about has no bearing on the real world. It’s mostly an academic pursuit full of puzzles, word games, and the kind of thing that’s done in universities. It’s up in the clouds, not down-to-earth, and nowhere else useful, either.”

“You’re right, contemporary professional philosophy has, in general, become unhinged from the concerns common to all of us,” I might reply. “And, yes, the worst of it has degenerated into logical puzzles and the search for ingenious counterexamples and knock-down arguments to theories no-one else is interested in. But, beyond these worries, I can hear in your voice the most potent criticism – that philosophy is worthless on the grounds that acting is more important than thinking. ‘Getting things done,’ you imply, should be ranked much higher than ‘pie-in-the-sky reasoning’.”

Suppose for a moment that my interlocutor is right. But then, aren’t there times when we don’t know how to act – as well as times when we’re completely at a loss concerning how to go on, or how we got to where we are – a place where we’d prefer not to be? Times when we’re in a crisis over which we seem to have no control? Times when our lives no longer seem to make any sense? At such times, wouldn’t it be wise for us to try to think our way through the situation, in order to come to some more complete understanding of ourselves and of our place in the order of things? It’s at such tragic moments that the moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s questions concerning what we care most about and what (and who) is worthy of our care might ring in our ears. At its best, philosophy asks us to be meticulously honest with ourselves. It impels us to look closely at the hand we’ve been dealt, to determine the extent to which we’ve helped or harmed others, to figure out what ultimately matters to us, and to assess how we’ve lived, in the most fundamental terms we can understand.

Were my questioner then to ask, “Why philosophy now?” my reply would be that we’re living through a historical period marked by great change. The institutions that make up the modern world – education and medicine, family and religion, home and work, among others – as well as the spheres of influence that define our existence – the economy, civil society, the state – are changing dramatically, resulting in new experiments in living being tried out. Some will get replicated and others will be ruled out. Insofar as our time has raised fundamental questions about the nature of our existence (what, for instance, is work? What is meaningful work? What is family? What is justice?), philosophy has returned in the form of a life-need – an activity that, although not fully understood, nor resounding with authority in the public imagination, is more than ever of vital importance. And yet philosophy is vital only if its conclusions are embodied, lived out in practice – that is to say, only so long as they’re taken in, sat with, mulled over, and integrated into our being. In this light, what people should find attractive about the philosophical life is a vision of an integrated soul – a person whose fundamental cares and concerns are integrated into a meaningful whole.

And if, at this late stage, she were to scoff at this seeming self-importance, I might offer the thought that one of the things I’ve learned is not to take myself too seriously. Jane Austen taught me that, along with my myriad failures. Other things I’m still learning include the art of speaking truthfully without bullying or boring; that of being honest without baring all to all; of being accurate without being self-righteous: also, how to be grateful when corrected, open-minded while committed, and, above all, how to love the small things, the grace of them all, and, not least, the sheer fact of my existence.

Reason, it turns out, is neither omnipotent nor impotent in matters of the head and heart. Philosophical wisdom is neither so rare as to be entirely extinct from the world we inhabit, nor so common as to be easily purchasable in the marketplace. Yet thanks to a mature recognition that things aren’t as they ought to be, philosophical self-examination will continue to have a reason for being, because it promises to ultimately bring us peace of mind about the things that matter most.

The progress of philosophy

"How Philosophy Makes Progress"


Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

April 14th. 2014

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Philosophy was the first academic field; the founder of the Academy was Plato. Nevertheless, philosophy’s place in academe can stir up controversy. The ancient lineage itself provokes dissension. Philosophy’s lack of progress over the past 2,500 years is accepted as a truism, trumpeted not only by naysayers but even by some of its most enthusiastic yea-sayers. But the truism isn’t true. Both camps mistake the nature of philosophy and so are blind to its progress. Let’s consider the yea-sayers first.

The structure of universities demands that a field be designated as a science, a social science, or one of the humanities. This structure has ill served philosophy. It’s not a science, and it’s not a social science. Therefore it belongs, by default, to the humanities, rubbing shoulders with English literature and art history. And what are the humanities? They are premised, according to one cultural critic, Leon Wieseltier, who is among the most impassioned contemporary defenders of the humanities, on "the irreducible reality of inwardness" and are, in fact, "the study of the many expressions of that inwardness." (Wieseltier’s words were written in response to an essay by my husband, Steven Pinker.)

This definition of the humanities is arguably apposite for the study of art and literature, but most philosophers would reject it, starting with Plato himself. In fact, it sounds like a course-catalog description of the shadow studies in which the prisoners of Plato’s cave are involuntarily enrolled. The man who banished the poets from his utopia would hardly acquiesce in a view of philosophy that rendered it a species of literature. If the arguments of Plato and Descartes, Spinoza and Hume, Kant and Wittgenstein yield us nothing but expressions of our irreducible inwardness, then we can judge them only on aesthetic grounds, as we do Sophocles and Dante, Shakespeare and Milton, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Some philosophers might agree to the aestheticizing of the field (Martin Heidegger? Richard Rorty?), but many more would not. Henri Bergson argued that the relentless flow of time captures the essence of reality, and that, therefore, all concepts being static, distort reality. Proust channeled this conclusion into the literary techniques of In Search of Lost Time. But while we evaluate Bergson on the merits of his arguments, argumentative validity has no bearing on the accomplishment of Proust.

When it comes to philosophy’s progress, the inward-looking view of Wieseltier decrees that there is none: "The history of science is a history of errors corrected and discarded. But the vexations of philosophy and the obsessions of literature are not retired in this way. In these fields, the forward-looking cast backward glances." Literature and philosophy are crushed together in the hearty embrace. Plato would shudder.

Now for the naysayers. In the past, opposition to philosophy most often came from the pious, who protested the blasphemous arrogance of human reason seeking to supplant revelation. But nowadays the most vociferous of the naysayers are secular and scientific. While the yea-sayer sees philosophy as a species of literature, the naysayer sees philosophy as failed science. He urges us to look at the history of science and its triumphant expansions, which is simultaneously the history of the embarrassing shrinkage of philosophy. Yes, philosophy was the first academic field, but only because the sciences had not yet developed. Questions of physics, cosmology, biology, psychology, cognitive and affective neuroscience, linguistics, mathematical logic: Philosophy once claimed them all. But as the methodologies of those other disciplines progressed—being empirical, in the case of all but logic—questions over which philosophy had futilely sputtered and speculated were converted into testable hypotheses, and philosophy was rendered forevermore irrelevant.

Is there any doubt, demand the naysayers, about the terminus of this continuing process? Given enough time, talent, and funding, there will be nothing left for philosophers to consider. To quote one naysayer, the physicist Lawrence Krauss, "Philosophy used to be a field that had content, but then ‘natural philosophy’ became physics, and physics has only continued to make inroads. Every time there’s a leap in physics, it encroaches on these areas that philosophers have carefully sequestered away to themselves." Krauss tends to merge philosophy not with literature, as Wieseltier does, but rather with theology, since both, by his lights, are futile attempts to describe the nature of reality. One could imagine such a naysayer conceding that philosophers should be credited with laying the intellectual eggs, so to speak, in the form of questions, and sitting on them to keep them warm. But no life, in the form of discoveries, ever hatches until science takes over.

There’s some truth in the naysayer’s story. As far as our knowledge of the nature of physical reality is concerned—four-dimensional space-time and genes and neurons and neurotransmitters and the Higgs boson and quantum fields and black holes and maybe even the multiverse—it’s science that has racked up the results. Science is the ingenious practice of prodding reality into answering us back when we’re getting it wrong (although that itself is a heady philosophical claim, substantiated by concerted philosophical work).

And, of course, we have a marked tendency to get reality wrong. If you think of the kind of problems our brains evolved to solve in the Pleistocene epoch, it’s a wonder we’ve managed to figure out a technique to get so much right, one that is capable of getting reality itself to debunk some of our deepest intuitions about it—for example, relativity theory playing havoc with our ideas of space and time and quantum mechanics playing similarly with our notions of causality. In contrast, philosophical arguments, lacking that important pushback from the world, don’t have a comparable track record in establishing what Hume called matters of fact and existence.

The naysayer’s view of philosophy as failed or immature science denies it the possibility of progress, as does the yea-sayer’s view of philosophy as a species of literature. But neither conforms to what philosophy is really about, which is to render our human points of view ever more coherent. It’s in terms of our increased coherence that the measure of progress has to be taken, not in terms suitable for evaluating science or literature. We lead conceptually compartmentalized lives, our points of view balkanized so that we can live happily with our internal tensions and contradictions, many of the borders fortified by unexamined presumptions. It’s the job of philosophy to undermine that happiness, and it’s been at it ever since the Athenians showed their gratitude to Socrates for services rendered by offering him a cupful of hemlock.

One troubled conceptual border to which philosophers attend concerns science itself. In his essay "Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man," the philosopher Wilfrid Sellars agrees that the proper agenda of philosophy lies in mediating among simultaneously held points of view with the aim of integrating them into a coherent whole. But for Sellars the action is focused on the border between what he calls the "scientific image" of us-in-the-world and the "manifest image" of us-in-the-world. (His actual language is "man-in-the-world." Sellars’s paper was published in 1962, based on two talks he gave in 1960. Certain incoherencies in points of view, reflected in linguistic standards, were yet to come to light.)

"For the philosopher is confronted not by one complex many-dimensional picture, the unity of which, such as it is, he must come to appreciate; but by two pictures of essentially the same order of complexity, each of which purports to be a complete picture of man-in-the-world, and which, after separate scrutiny, he must fuse into one vision." The "manifest image" Sellars explained as the conceptual framework "in terms of which man came to be aware of himself as man-in-the-world. It is the framework in terms of which, to use an existentialist turn of phrase, man first encountered himself—which is, of course, when he came to be man. For it is no merely incidental feature of man that he has a conception of himself as man-in-the-world, just as it is obvious, on reflection, that if man had a radically different conception of himself, he would be a radically different kind of man."

In other words, the manifest image is so central to the way in which we think of ourselves that it is constitutive of those very selves. We wouldn’t be the things that we are without it—the very things who progressively elaborate the scientific image, bringing to the task our manifest image of ourselves as rational beings, "able to measure ... [our] thoughts by standards of correctness, of relevance, of evidence." Our having an ever-expanding scientific image of ourselves is itself an aspect of our manifest image, the sense that we have of ourselves as creatures who not only believe but offer reasons for our beliefs (and for our actions as well, but we’ll get to that). We can’t give up on either of the two images of us-in-the-world without destroying the other. They are codependent even when there are issues between them—which is beginning to make philosophy sound like a couples therapist.

Consider, for example, that relativity theory seems to tell us that time doesn’t flow, that all of space-time is laid out in a frozen all-at-once-ness, with the distinctions among past, present, and future "an illusion," in the words of Einstein, "albeit a persistent one." How can such a view of time be reconciled with perhaps the most conspicuous aspect of our manifest image, implicated in almost every emotion we have—our regret and nostalgia for the past, our hopes and terrors for the future? One can’t revamp our notion of physical time without disturbing our conception of the very things we are.

And there is the scientific image of us-in-the-world elaborated by neuroscience, one in which I am a brain consisting of a hundred-billion neurons, connected by a hundred-trillion synapses, and this brain itself hasn’t a clue as to what’s going on among those synapses. How can this be reconciled with the manifest image of me as me, pursuing my life, remembering it and planning for it, singularly committed to its persistence and flourishing? How can the neuron-level view be reconciled with the manifest truth that at some level our brains undeniably think about things? Where’s the aboutness to be found among those neurons and synapses? And is the scientific image even coherent if we can’t assert that we think about that scientific image, and that in thinking about it, we are thinking about the world?

Once again we come up against the codependence of the scientific and manifest images, even as they sit on the couch with arms folded self-protectively across their chests and resentful ungivingness in their glares, while philosophy, charged with bringing them together, recognizes their mutual needs. As science progresses, philosophy’s work of increasing our overall coherence progresses in tandem. In fact, the scientific image couldn’t even coherently claim for itself its expansionist triumphs without helping itself to philosophers’ work—to explicate what is essential to scientific methodology and why it is uniquely effective, to argue why it offers an image of reality and not just one more social construction.

Sellars is right that philosophy is best viewed neither as inward-expressing literature (in which case give me poetry over philosophy) nor as failed science (in which case give me physics over philosophy), but as the systematic attempt to increase our overall coherence. Still, his conception is too narrow. Philosophy does indeed always involve our manifest image, but it needn’t always involve the scientific image. In particular, some of philosophy’s most significant progress has proceeded independently of science, and here the work of increasing our moral coherence is particularly important. And this is philosophical work that hasn’t kept itself locked away in the Academy, which was where Plato chose to pursue philosophy, but has made itself felt in the agora, where a barefoot Socrates wandered among his fellow citizens, trying to get them to feel the point of his questions so that they might begin to make moral progress.

As living organisms we are primed, unthinkingly, to do all we can to thrive; to be more precise, we are primed, unthinkingly, to do all we can to increase the probability that copies of our genes will survive. But our manifest image of us-in-the-world compels us to give reasons for our actions, and this activity, though undoubtedly compromised by the unthinking processes that science has recently brought to light, proceeds on its own terms. Indeed, the fact that it proceeds on its own terms is part of the manifest image of us-in-the-world. The reasons we are prepared to give to ourselves and one another in accounting for our behavior make no mention of the machinations of the selfish gene. Such reasons would never wash, not even if you’re Richard Dawkins. On the contrary, coherence work of the moral kind pushes in the direction of less influence by those unthinking processes and the presumptions they spawn—all variations on "me and my kind are worth more than you and your kind."

Gregarious creatures that we are, our framework of making ourselves coherent to ourselves commits us to making ourselves coherent to others. Having reasons means being prepared to share them—though not necessarily with everyone. The progress in our moral reasoning has worked to widen both the kinds of reasons we offer and the group to whom we offer them. There can’t be a widening of the reasons we give in justifying our actions without a corresponding widening of the audience to which we’re prepared to give our reasons. Plato gave arguments for why Greeks, under the pressures of war, couldn’t treat other Greeks in abominable ways, pillaging and razing their cities and taking the vanquished as slaves. But his reasons didn’t, in principle, generalize to non-Greeks, which is tantamount to denying that non-Greeks were owed any reasons. Every increase in our moral coherence—recognizing the rights of the enslaved, the colonialized, the impoverished, the imprisoned, women, children, LGBTs, the handicapped ...—is simultaneously an expansion of those to whom we are prepared to offer reasons accounting for our behavior. The reasons by which we make our behavior coherent to ourselves changes together with our view of who has reasons coming to them.

And this is progress, progress in increasing our coherence, which is philosophy’s special domain. In the case of manumission, women’s rights, children’s rights, gay rights, criminals’ rights, animal rights, the abolition of cruel and unusual punishment, the conduct of war—in fact, almost every progressive movement one can name—it was reasoned argument that first laid out the incoherence, demonstrating that the same logic underlying reasons to which we were already committed applied in a wider context. The project of rendering ourselves less inconsistent, initiated by the ancient Greeks, has left those ancient Greeks, even the best and brightest of them, far behind, just as our science has left their scientists far behind.

This kind of progress, unlike scientific progress, tends to erase its own tracks as it is integrated into our manifest image and so becomes subsumed in the framework by which we conceive of ourselves. We no longer see the argumentative work it took for this advance in morality to be achieved. Its invisibility takes the measure of the achievement.

I’ve imagined Plato shuddering at a certain conception of the field he helped to shape. Would he likewise shudder at having been left so far behind by that field? I think not. If he was committed to any philosophical position, he was committed to the assertion that philosophy is progress-making. Think of the Myth of the Cave, which could be subtitled "A Philosophical Pilgrim’s Progress." Even excluding the science-directed philosophy of Sellars’s analysis, which couldn’t be accomplished in advance of scientific progress, still the task of rendering us more coherently integrated was too much for any man, for any generation, for any millennium. Our conceptual schemes are fragmented for reasons that run deep in our psyches, having nothing to do with the reasons that function in our manifest image of us-in-the-world, powered instead by unthinking strategies (strategies that science is beginning to illuminate).

No wonder progress, though real, is laborious. But given enough time and talent—and maybe even a bit of funding—our descendants will look back at us and wonder why we stopped short of the greater coherence they will have achieved.

Value of philosophy of science--a perspective

"What is philosophy of science (and should scientists care)?"


Janet D. Stemwedel

April 7th, 2014

Scientific American

Just about 20 years ago, I abandoned a career as a physical chemist to become a philosopher of science. For most of those 20 years, people (especially scientists) have been asking me what the heck the philosophy of science is, and whether scientists have any need of it.

There are lots of things philosophers of science study, but one central set of concerns is what is distinctive about science — how science differs from other human activities, what grounds its body of knowledge, what features are essential to scientific engagement with phenomena, etc. This means philosophers of science have spent a good bit of time trying to find the line between science and non-science, trying to figure out the logic with which scientific claims are grounded, working to understand the relation between theory and empirical data, and working out the common thread that unites many disparate scientific fields — assuming such a common thread exists.

If you like, you can think of this set of philosophical projects as trying to give an account of what science is trying to do — how science attempts to construct a picture of the world that is accountable to the world in a particular way, how that picture of the world develops and changes in response to further empirical information (among other factors), and what kind of explanations can be given for the success of scientific accounts (insofar as they have been successful). Frequently, the philosopher is concerned with “Science” rather than a particular field of science. As well, some philosophers are more concerned with an idealized picture of science as an optimally rational knowledge building activity — something they will emphasize is quite different from science as actually practiced.

Practicing scientists pretty much want to know how to attack questions in their particular field of science. If your goal is to understand the digestive system of some exotic bug, you may have no use at all for a subtle account of scientific theory change, let alone for a firm stand on the question of scientific anti-realism. You have much more use for information about how to catch the bug, how to get to its digestive system, what sorts of things you could observe measure or manipulate that could give you useful information about its digestive system, how to collect good data, how to tell when you’ve collected enough data to draw useful conclusions, appropriate methods for processing the data and drawing conclusions, and so forth.

A philosophy of science course doesn’t hand the entomologist any of those practical tools for studying the scientific problems around the bug’s digestive system. But philosophy of science is aimed at answering different questions than the working scientist is trying to answer. The goal of philosophy of science is not to answer scientific questions, but to answer questions about science.

Does a working scientist need to have learned philosophy of science in order to get the scientific job done? Probably not. Neither does a scientist need to have studied Shakespeare or history to be a good scientist — but these still might be worthwhile endeavors for the scientist as a person. Every now and then it’s nice to be able to think about something besides your day job. (Recreational thinking can be fun!)

Now, there are some folks who will argue that studying philosophy of science could be detrimental to the practicing scientist. Reading Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions with its claim that shifts in scientific paradigm have an inescapable subjective component, or even Popper’s view of the scientific method that’s meant to get around the problem of induction, might blow the young scientist’s mind and convince him that the goal of objective knowledge is unattainable. This would probably undermine his efforts to build objective knowledge in the lab.

(However, I’d argue that reading Helen Longino’s account of how we build objective knowledge — another philosophical account — might answer some of the worries raised by Popper, Kuhn, and that crowd, making the young scientist’s knowledge-building endeavors seem more promising.)

My graduate advisor in chemistry had a little story he told that was supposed to illustrate the dangers for scientists of falling in with the philosophers and historians and sociologists of science: A centipede is doing a beautiful and complicated dance. An ant walks up to the centipede and says, “That dance is lovely! How do you coordinate all your feet so perfectly to do it?” The centipede pauses to think about this and eventually replies, “I don’t know.” Then the centipede watches his feet and tries to do the dance again — and can’t!

The centipede could do the dance without knowing precisely how each foot was supposed to move relative to the others. A scientist can do science while taking the methodology of her field for granted. But having to give a philosophical account of or a justification for that methodology deeper than “this is what we do and it works pretty well for the problems we want to solve” may render that methodology strange looking and hard to keep using.

Then again, I’m told what Einstein did for physics had as much to do with proposing a (philosophical) reorganization of the theoretical territory as it did with new empirical data. So perhaps the odd scientist can put some philosophical training to good scientific use.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Seasonal, but is it really relevant?

"Papyrus Referring to Jesus’ Wife Is More Likely Ancient Than Fake, Scientists Say"


Laurie Goodstein

April 10th, 2014

The New York Times

A faded fragment of papyrus known as the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” which caused an uproar when unveiled by a Harvard Divinity School historian in 2012, has been tested by scientists who conclude in a journal published on Thursday that the ink and papyrus are very likely ancient, and not a modern forgery.

Skepticism about the tiny scrap of papyrus has been fierce because it contained a phrase never before seen in any piece of Scripture: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife...’ ” Too convenient for some, it also contained the words “she will be able to be my disciple,” a clause that inflamed the debate in some churches over whether women should be allowed to be priests.

The papyrus fragment has now been analyzed by professors of electrical engineering, chemistry and biology at Columbia University, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who reported that it resembles other ancient papyri from the fourth to the eighth centuries. (Scientists at the University of Arizona, who dated the fragment to centuries before the birth of Jesus, concluded that their results were unreliable.)

The test results do not prove that Jesus had a wife or disciples who were women, only that the fragment is more likely a snippet from an ancient manuscript than a fake, the scholars agree. Karen L. King, the historian at Harvard Divinity School who gave the papyrus its name and fame, has said all along that it should not be regarded as evidence that Jesus married, only that early Christians were actively discussing celibacy, sex, marriage and discipleship.

“I took very seriously the comments of such a wide range of people that it might be a forgery,” Dr. King said in an interview this week. She said she is now very confident it is genuine.

“When you have all the evidence pointing in one direction, it doesn’t make it 100 percent, but history is not a place where 100 percent is a common thing,” Dr. King said.

The new information may not convince those scholars and bloggers who say the text is the work of a rather sloppy forger keen to influence contemporary debates. The Harvard Theological Review, which is publishing Dr. King’s long-delayed, peer-reviewed paper online on Thursday, is also publishing a rebuttal by Leo Depuydt, a professor of Egyptology at Brown University, who declares the fragment so patently fake that it “seems ripe for a Monty Python sketch.”

Dr. King presented the fragment with fanfare at a conference in Rome in September 2012, but was besieged by criticism because the content was controversial, the lettering was suspiciously splotchy, the grammar was poor, its provenance was uncertain, its owner insisted on anonymity and its ink had not been tested.

An editorial in the Vatican’s newspaper also declared it a fake. New Testament scholars claimed the text referred to the “bride of Christ,” which is the church — an interpretation Dr. King said was entirely possible.

It is very unusual to test the ink and papyrus of a fragment so small — this one is 4 by 8 centimeters — because it can damage the item, papyrologists say. The authenticity and dates of other famous fragments were determined by paleographers examining the handwriting.

The “Jesus’s Wife” papyrus was analyzed at Columbia University using micro-Raman spectroscopy to determine the chemical composition of the ink. James T. Yardley, a professor of electrical engineering, said in an interview that the carbon black ink on this fragment was “perfectly consistent with another 35 or 40 manuscripts that we’ve looked at,” that date from 400 B.C. to A.D. 700 or 800.

At M.I.T.’s Center for Materials Science and Engineering, Timothy M. Swager, a chemistry professor, and two students used infrared spectroscopy to determine whether the ink showed any variations or inconsistencies.

“The main thing was to see, did somebody doctor this up?” Dr. Swager said in an interview. “And there is absolutely no evidence for that. It would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible.”

However, Dr. Depuydt, the Egyptologist at Brown University, said that testing the fragment was irrelevant and that he saw “no need to inspect it.” He said he decided based on the first newspaper photograph that the fragment was forged because it contained “gross grammatical errors,” and each word in it matched writing in the Gospel of Thomas, an early Christian text discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. “It couldn’t possibly be coincidence,” he said.

A forger could easily create carbon black ink by mixing candle soot and oil, he said: “An undergraduate student with one semester of Coptic can make a reed pen and start drawing lines.”
But the scientists say that modern carbon black ink looks very different under their instruments. And Dr. King said that her “big disappointment” is that so far, the story of the fragment has focused on forgery, not on history.

Back to business...sort of--CU-Boulder philosophy department

"In wake of report, CU-Boulder philosophy department gathers to look ahead"

Outside facilitator to discuss climate with faculty


Sarah Kuta

April 11th. 2014

Boulder Daily Camera

Two months after the release of a divisive independent report about the University of Colorado's philosophy department, faculty members are meeting for a two-day retreat to talk about how to move forward.

The retreat, which began Friday on the Boulder campus, includes a discussion facilitated by C. Kristina Gunsalus, director of the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics at the University of Illinois.

In late January, the university administration released an independent report that found sexual harassment, bullying and other unprofessional sexualized behaviors within the philosophy department.

Three investigators with the American Philosophical Association's Committee on the Status of Women Site Visit Program authored the report, which led administrators to replace the chairman and suspend all graduate admissions into the department until at least 2015.

"The site visit report has brought up some areas for improvement, so now it's time to have the discussion on how exactly the faculty as a team and the department as a whole can achieve those goals," CU spokesman Ryan Huff said Friday.

The retreat follows the report's recommendation to ban alcohol at all department events, but sidesteps another recommendation that all official events be held during normal workday hours.

Near the end of the report, the authors described their concerns with a past "mountain event" retreat and plans for a future event.

"In light of this department's history, all events, including retreats, need to be held during business hours (9-5) and on campus or near campus in public venues," the report's authors wrote. "...Under no circumstances should this department (or any other) be organizing the social calendars of its members."

Off-site retreat

One half of the retreat will occur from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Hotel Boulderado, according to an email sent to faculty members.

Huff, who said the cost of the retreat wasn't readily available to him, said the report's recommendation does not apply to official department-wide events, such as the planned retreat this weekend.

He added that with the teaching schedules of faculty, it's difficult to get everyone together during the week for a two-day retreat.

"The report was focusing on unofficial, impromptu gatherings of small numbers of faculty and students," he said. "Those are the kinds of events that, especially with alcohol present, should not be taking place. However, the report is not focusing on the events that take place outside the 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday time frame that are official events with agendas with all the faculty present, with the department head present. That's what these events are."
Though the College of Arts and Sciences is paying for the retreat, no administrators will be present. In an email to the faculty, department chairman Andy Cowell said Gunsalus will not produce any written materials from the retreat, but will "discuss things" with Steven Leigh, dean of the college, "since he's paying the bills on this one."

Leigh declined to comment.

'A very strong department'

Since the report's release, Huff said many members of the department have attended bystander training and additional training about sexual harassment and discrimination. Huff said the department climate committee also has been meeting and discussing how to move forward after the site visit report's release.

"There certainly are various trainings either in progress or that will occur in the future to improve the climate and this retreat is really a chance to get everyone in one room and to really talk about how to improve the situation," Huff said.

Philosophy professor Michael Tooley said he's been optimistic about the department in recent weeks, adding that he expects some useful discussions to occur at the weekend retreat.

He said many faculty members have been meeting for lunch on a regular basis, which has helped to improve morale within the department.

Tooley also said several faculty members who had planned to leave the department are now being retained, and there's a possibility new faculty members may be added to philosophy in the future.

"I was really quite worried because a number of my colleagues applied for jobs elsewhere, so there was really a fear that we would lose people, but that hasn't happened," he said. "I think if we can get over that hurdle or two we'll continue to have a very strong department."

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Comic bookstores going the way of regular bookstores?

"Will Amazon Do To Comic Shops What It Did To Book Stores?"


Lauren Davis

April 10th, 2014


Big news today in the comics publishing world: Amazon has purchased Comixology, the largest retailer of digital comics. So what does that mean for your local comic book store?

Amazon is certainly already competing with brick and mortar comic book stores; they sell both physical comics (often with sizable discounts on trade paperbacks) and Kindle editions of comic books. But the Comixology purchase means that Amazon is looking to be the major player in digital comics distribution (especially when it comes to single issues of comics), and that digital comics may be seeing a much wider audience than they've enjoyed through Comixology and other platforms so far.

Comixology is already a significant concern for comics retailers. Some shops have opted to work with it, participating in the platform's storefront affiliate program, which enables retailers to sell digital comics from their brick and mortar stores. And, as publishers have increasingly made digital editions of their comics available the same day as the print comics, Comixology has seen growing financial success. Apple announced that the Comixology app for iPad and iPhone was the highest-grossing non-game app of 2013.

So what does Amazon's acquisition mean? For now, all Comixology CEO David Steinberger is just saying that Comixology will become an Amazon subsidiary and continue to operate as its own platform. But with Amazon behind Comixology, chances are that we'll be seeing digital comics getting into the hands of more and more people. Hopefully, that means more people reading comics overall—and more creators seeing their comics purchased and read even if they don't have a print distributor.

But as with prose books, not everyone is going to want to make the switch from paper to digital. Some people simply prefer the experience of reading on paper, and many folks collect single issues of comics—although it will be interesting to see if the latter changes with the rise of digital comics. And there's a social aspect to comic book stores that is distinct from what you see in a bookstore. The weekly ritual of going to the shop on Wednesdays to discuss the latest issue with your fellow readers won't be replicated by the mere availability of digital comics. Still, it will be interesting to see what Amazon plans to do in the digital comics space and how retailers feel about the purchase.

It will also be interesting if we see competitors in the digital comics space rise in the wake of this announcement. Comixology is the top digital comics platform; its major competitor, Graphicly, switched its focus to ebooks instead of digital comics alone. This purchase means that Amazon has essentially created a digital comics monopoly, but the field of comics is populated by creators who are incredibly sophisticated when it comes to the digital space. Many cartoonists have had immense success releasing their comics on PDF—often using Kickstarter as a preorder system—as well as through platforms like Comixology and Amazon. As Amazon moves more into the digital comics space, the reactions of those creators—whether they find Comixology/Amazon useful going forward—could have a major impact on the landscape.

"Amazon Buys Digital Comics Company ComiXology"


Graeme McMillan 

April 19th, 2014


Well, there goes the digital neighborhood. ComiXology, the leading digital comics platform responsible for the sale of more than 4 billion pages of comics in 2013 alone, has been purchased by Amazon.

The buyout (which is expected to close in the second fiscal quarter of 2014) had been rumored for weeks now—ComiXology’s eleventh-hour sponsorship deal with the recent Emerald City Comic-Con being seen as “proof” by many—but official confirmation came in the form of an open letter on ComiXology’s site this afternoon in which co-founder and CEO David Steinberger wrote that the sale makes ComiXology’s “crazy goal” of turning everyone on the planet into a comic reader “more possible than ever before.”

“ComiXology will retain its identity as an Amazon subsidiary and we’re not anywhere near done ‘taking comics further,’” the letter continued. “We’ve only just begun.” In a separate statement, Amazon’s VP of content acquisition and independent publishing David Naggar said that the two companies “share a passion for reinventing reading in a digital world.”

Details about the deal were undisclosed, unsurprisingly, but the initial announcement left questions about the buyout that remain unanswered, including the fate of ComiXology’s self-publishing platform Submit and whether or not the purchase will impact ComiXology’s relationship with Apple.

There is undoubtedly the potential for this partnership to bring ComiXology (and comics in general) to a wider audience, but also the potential for the company to disappear within the wider Amazon hierarchy. Will ComiXology end up being the next IMDb, or Zappos, or go the way of CDNow, Telebook or Yap?

[Note: An earlier version of this story asked whether or not the Amazon acquisition would impact ComiXology’s relationships with publishers. Representatives for both Marvel and DC told WIRED that there would be no change, with a DC Entertainment statement going on to say that the company was “confident that Amazon’s purchase of ComiXology will make both our partners that much stronger and allow us all to continue to enhance and build the fastest growing segment of our publishing business as we bring our digital comics and graphic novels to our fans all over the globe.”]