Plantinga’s private language

One of the great things about arguments for gods and the supernatural, is that you can always look back at them and find new problems. Alvin Plantinga’s arguments are especially lovely in this regard. Having been recently been thinking of Wittgenstein’s private language arguments, it occurred to me that somewhere in there is a rebuttal to Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism.

The evolutionary argument against naturalism argues that if both evolution and naturalism are true, then we cannot trust our own rational faculties, and therefore cannot trust our belief that evolution and naturalism are true.  The reasoning goes that naturalistic evolution does not specifically produce true beliefs, but rather produces adaptive beliefs. An adaptive belief does not need to be true, it just needs to produce adaptive behavior. For example, rather than believing that you should run away from a tiger because it will eat you, you might believe that you should run away from a tiger because that’s the best way to pet the tiger (Plantinga’s example). The number of false beliefs that produce adaptive behavior is much larger than the number of true beliefs that produce adaptive behavior. Therefore, most beliefs are probably false.

There are numerous issues with this argument, a few of which you might be shouting at the screen. From a scientist’s perspective, Plantinga appears to be ignorant of how evolution actually works. Evolution does not necessarily produce the most adaptive traits, certainly not immediately. If you have false but adaptive beliefs at one point in time, it is questionable whether those beliefs would continue to be adaptive when your descendants find themselves in slightly different environments. Also, Plantinga ignores that brain efficiency is an adaptive trait. I would imagine that a brain which produces true beliefs via reasoning is far more efficient than a brain that produces false but adaptive beliefs via some mysterious yet reliable process.
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Ostensive definitions for queer experiences

While I’m still on the subject of Wittgenstein’s private language arguments, I’d like to say more about how it relates to queer experiences.

You might notice that I’ve never stated exactly what the private language argument is. It isn’t really a formal argument, in the sense of having premises and a conclusion. Rather, the private language argument refers to a cluster of issues regarding personal experiences. For example, what does “pain” refer to, if anything? When I experience a thing, how do I identify it as pain or not pain? How do I know that it is similar to what other people are feeling when they refer to pain?

You must realize that I am not formally trained in philosophy. I’ve never read Wittgenstein first-hand and don’t know precisely what he says. But it seems to me that the private language argument is wasted on philosophers, when it’s so directly relevant to queer experiences. How does one know that one is experiencing sexual or romantic attraction? How about gender dysphoria? This isn’t philosophical abstraction to us, it’s something we live through and discuss amongst ourselves extensively. I would bet that it is also relevant to other minority experiences, such as chronic pain, depression, or aphantasia.

Usually, when we define a word, we explain it in terms of other words. But clearly we can’t do this for every word, because the definitions would eventually become circular. If you think about it, there is a way around this.  You can define a word by pointing to examples of it. For example, I can define an ant by pointing at one, or I can define an octahedron by pointing at one. This is called an ostensive definition.
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My beetle is an elephant

This is a repost of an article from less than a year ago, which went on The Asexual Agenda.  I was recently reminded of this article, and I intend to say more on the subject.

Sciatrix once created an influential metaphor for attraction: it’s like everyone has an invisible elephant that only they can see.  These invisible elephants are apparently very important in society, but hardly anyone can be bothered to describe them because it’s assumed that everyone has their own elephant and can see for themselves.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, once described a thought experiment: Suppose that everyone has a box with a “beetle” inside it, but each person can only see their own “beetle”.  Wittgenstein argues that when we talk about “beetles”, we are only referring to that which is in the box.  It doesn’t matter if the boxes actually contain different things, or if the things change over time, or if the boxes are actually empty.  (watch this video)

That feeling when philosophical thought experiments become directly applicable to your daily life. [Read more…]

Physics and p-values

In science, there is something called the “replicability crisis”–the fact that the results of most studies cannot be replicated. This appears to mainly come from psychology and medicine, where meta-studies have found low replicability rates. But it likely generalizes to other scientific fields as well.

At least, when people talk about the replicability crisis, they definitely seem to believe that it generalizes to all fields. And yet, one of the most commonly discussed practices is p-hacking. Excuse me, folks, but I’m pretty sure that p-hacking does not generalize to physics. In my research, we don’t calculate p-values at all!

(Background: p-hacking is the problematic practice of tweaking statistical analysis until you get a p-value that is just barely low enough to technically count as statistically significant. FiveThirtyEight has a neat toy so you can try p-hacking yourself.)

Here I speculate why p-values rarely appear in physics, and what sort of problems we have in their place.
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Stabilizing an inverted pendulum

Like many physicists, I have a fondness for simple physical systems that behave in unexpected ways. Here’s a demo known as “Kapitza’s pendulum”.

For those who didn’t watch the video, it shows an ordinary pendulum attached to a motor. Then the motor starts moving up and down 58 times per second. While the motor is running, the pendulum stands upright, and stays upright even when knocked to the side.

Kapitza’s Pendulum is easily understood by anyone with a degree in physics. But for everyone else, here’s an explanation that could be understood with high school physics.

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Linkspam: February 10th, 2017

Time to get back into these monthly linkspams.

Cartomancer on Greek Masculinity – This is a long but worthwhile article on masculinity in ancient Greece.  What’s interesting is that there are multiple masculinities (just as there are today, of course), as illustrated in Achilles and Oddyseus.

The Intersection of Guess Culture and Sex is Rape Culture – The thesis is in the title, and I agree with it.  When consent is important, such as in the realm of sex, then it is important that consent be clear.  I am not exactly sure what the advantages guess culture has over ask culture, but clear communication is certainly not among them.

The Value of a Vote – ExtraTricky calculates the value of a vote based on the probability that it could have flipped the election (according to polling estimates).  In California, our votes are worth 40 times less than the average vote.  I guess… I guess I already knew democracy was dead, and didn’t need math to tell me so.

Ace Tropes – This is a series about tropes in asexual fiction.  I wrote the first six articles, but it is now being continued by the excellent Sara.  I really enjoy writing about tropes because it’s a way to connect to other people over fiction, without having to have read and liked exactly the same fiction.  I live on the long tail of culture, liking things that hardly anyone else likes, but that doesn’t mean we can never talk to each other.

Storybook endings

I recently saw a movie about two people chasing their dreams. The main theme of the movie was pragmatism vs idealism, and the main conflict in their relationship was when the two people drifted apart from each other on that scale. (Yes, the movie in question was La La Land, but this isn’t about that particular movie.)

The thing about this kind of story is that the interpretation depends a lot on the ending. Do the people in fact achieve their dreams? Or does it turn out that their dreams were unrealistic, and that they were better off pursuing more realistic goals? In effect, the ending of the story is an expressed opinion about whether it is better to be pragmatic or idealistic.

As critical viewers, we might disagree with the story’s opinion. For example, if the ending were too idealistic, we might consider it implausible, because we believe most people with such pipe dreams are never able to achieve them. Or if the ending were too pragmatic, we might criticize it as too dark or cynical. Generally, we wouldn’t accuse an unhappy ending of being implausible. We take for granted some optimism in our story endings, and a cynical ending tends to defy our expectations long before it defies belief.
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