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Neil Tyson And The Value Of Philosophy

Reprinted from Scientia Salon. You can read the original here.It seems like my friend Neil deGrasse...

What Does It Mean For Something To Be Metaphysically Necessary?

I mentioned before, this semester I’m teaching a graduate level seminar on David Hume, and having...

David Hume And The Missing Shade Of Blue

This semester I’m teaching a graduate level course on “Hume Then and Now,” which aims at...

Is Theologian Alving Plantinga For Real? Alas, It Appears So

I keep hearing that Notre Dame philosopher and theologian Alvin Plantinga is a really smart guy...

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Massimo PigliucciRSS Feed of this column.

Massimo Pigliucci is Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York.

His research focuses on the structure of evolutionary theory, the relationship between science and philosophy

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You know you must be doing something right when both the Discovery Institute and the Institute for Creation Research get on your case! These two outlets of religious-centered non-thinking vehemently attacked my recent post on the inanity of choosing Sarah Palin as a Vice Presidential candidate -- which focused on her positions on teaching (she supports “equal time” for Creationism) and censorship (she has attempted to remove “offensive” books from a public library, going so far as threatening a librarian with being fired).
Sarah Palin, John McCain’s choice for Vice President should he win the November elections, is a worrisome character from the point of view of science education. It is hard to tell whether Palin herself is a creationist or not and, frankly, that’s far less important than the policy positions she holds in the matter. (Though, of course, having a Vice President who is deluded about basic aspects of reality would not be exactly reassuring. Oh, right, we already have had something along those lines for the past eight years, though Dick Cheney’s most dangerous delusions were not about who created the world.)
I have made the point several times on this blog that creationists (among whom I squarely classify so-called intelligent design proponents) simply don’t get it (or refuse to get it) when they claim that scientific controversies are a sign that there is something seriously wrong with science. Au contraire, mon amis, science makes conceptual progress largely through discussions and disagreements among scientists, which eventually get settled because of new empirical discoveries. Now, controversies about the Bible, on the other hand... But I digress.
Big question this morning! Of course, plenty of philosophers and scientists have wondered about the question of what is life, and the answer has proved more slippery than everyone thought. We all think we know how to tell if something is alive or not, and yet it is remarkably difficult to come up with a precise definition of the concept (just like American Justice Potter Stewart once famously said of pornography).
Researchers have tackled the problem of cooperation (and the related one of the evolution of altruism) for some time now. Initial game theory models suggested that cooperative animals would quickly be supplanted by selfish ones because of a cost to cooperation, as in the the so-called simple prisoners’ dilemma. In these situations, typically an individual can choose between an action that benefits everyone, but at a cost to oneself, and an action that clearly benefits the individual, but comes at the risk of greater loss if everyone adopts that strategy. It turns out that most of us would rather lose than share, a sad but to many not surprising commentary on the human condition. However, people eventually realized that cooperation makes the most sense in social groups, where phenomena such as kin and reciprocal altruism can take place. Sure enough, if the prisoners’ dilemma game is played iteratively, instead of in just one round, and if the players are allowed to keep track of what other players are doing (i.e., to build “reputations”) then it turns out that cooperating, even at a certain cost to oneself, is the winning long-term strategy.
My colleague Peter Turchin over at the University of Connecticut (my Alma Mater) has recently published an intriguing short article in Nature (3 July 2008) on what he termed “cliodynamics,” the possibility of turning history into a science. The word comes from Clio, the muse of history for the Greek and Romans, with the “dynamics” part referring to the central concept proposed by Turchin, that history -- contrary to what most historians might think -- is not just one damn thing after another, that there are regular and predictable patterns, from which we can learn and that we can predict.