Rationally speaking, is a presentation of New York City skeptics dedicated to promoting critical thinking, skeptical inquiry and science education. For more information, please visit us at NYC Skeptic's Doug. Welcome to, rationally speaking, the podcast, where we explore the borderlands between reason and nonsense. I'm your host, Massimo Pelikan. With me, as always, is my co-host, Julia Gillard. Julia, what are we going to talk about today?
That's our topic today has a technical dry sounding name and then a very exciting sounding name. So the the official name of the topic we're discussing is conciliations.
And the exciting subtitle, which I like more, is The Unity of Knowledge, which sounds potentially promising, but also vague.
So we're going to explain what it is. It was I think the term was like the modern version of what's meant by the term was originated by a book about 15 years ago by E.O. Wilson. And it essentially, although will expand on this definition, means the the unifying of different fields are of different ways of explaining the world. And his theory or his thesis in the book was that we are over time approaching a unified explanation of how the world works, such that the divisions between different fields of science and even between science and the humanities are just sort of temporary as we're in the process of figuring things out.
But those those boundaries will well, eventually blur and then fade away, right?
Yeah, that's the basic idea and reason we are talking about it. Even though Wilson, as you said, published the book back in 1998 there.
Well, it's twofold. For one thing, it is, in fact, a Binaggio now a classic. I mean, a lot of people know about that book and other people refer to it, even even though they might not have read it since it came out.
But the other thing is that it's becoming, again, a popular topic. Just a month ago, I was invited as a speaker at a conference at the University of Missouri, St. Louis on concealments where, in fact, Wilson was the keynote speaker right at the beginning of the conference.
And and then the rest of us were essentially supposed to expand or comment on what he was saying. I think that the organizers didn't realize that I was going to be essentially the token skeptic at that conference, which I guess means that if they did not realize that I wasn't the token skeptic anyway, I was definitely a skeptic, that I didn't know what your stance was going to be on this before starting the.
This is I'm just finding out now that you're a skeptic of the idea.
Great. All right. Well, elaborate on it. All right. So so and ah. And Wilson also just published recently, the same month as the conference, a fairly long article in the Harvard Review, taking up again the topic of concealments in a particular case. And I think the article refers particularly to to the arts and to aesthetic judgment and that sort of stuff. And so it's the idea that aesthetic judgment and will be explained by at some point, by biology, in particular, by neurobiology, actually by a combination of neurobiology and evolutionary biology.
And one of the questions that arises every time that people talk about consilience or unity of knowledge is, well, what do you mean by explained? And and in fact, what could even expand the the question to make it a little broader make. Well, what do you mean by knowledge?
What do you mean by mean. Ha true. Right. What do you mean. No, no, no, no. I don't run with that stuff there. OK, so, so that's what I think we, we should talk about today. That is, you know, does it make sense or what sense does it make to call for a unity of knowledge. What are we people I mean not just Wilston, but a bunch of people who have been working in this area.
I mean, by a unity of knowledge, unifying.
I just there's such a thing as knowledge as is a homogeneous category essentially of human endeavors so that you can actually think of unifying it or is it fundamentally heterogeneous.
And this has to do also with the relationship between different fields.
As you mentioned a minute ago, the idea that Wilson put forth in that book and that others that follow up on is that the social sciences would eventually be reduced to biology for effective purposes and that even the humanities, according to Wilson, would either be subsumed into biology or would be very strongly informed by biology.
And then, of course, one can ask the question, well, why stop in biology?
Just because Wilson is a biologist? And that doesn't mean that that's the ultimate level of analysis.
And one could could push the question further and said, well, if the rationale for for reducing all the social sciences and humanities biology is that we are biological organisms, which seems to be the rationale, then by the same token, we also all physical objects. So why not go all the way to quantum mechanics?
We should probably give an example of what it might look like to reduce the social science to biology.
So like, yeah, and that's not going to be easy, actually, because. Wilson is long gone on sort of general idea, but he's very short on the details.
Yeah, I kept wanting to to butt in as I was reading his book and ask for more specific examples.
So one of the examples is obviously his own field of sociobiology, which eventually turned into the more apparently more palatable evolutionary psychology. So the idea is that psychology ever since, which of course is social science, ever since the heyday of Freud and in psychoanalysis, has essentially lacked a unifying theory. So, in fact, that's true for the social sciences in general, sociology, psychology, depending on how you think about economics, economics also.
But let's leave that aside for a minute. Certainly sociology and psychology don't seem to have anything like the what say biology has with the Darwinian theory of evolution or like physics has as the standard model or quantum mechanics. In other words, it doesn't seem to be an overarching theory that makes sense of the objects of study of that discipline.
And now Freud, of course, tried. That was one of the major attempts of, in fact, William James before before Freud, frankly, tried to turn psychology into a hard science by by using the hard sciences as a model. And one of the things that they realised they needed was an overarching theory.
Now, Freudian psychoanalysis didn't go anywhere in that in that department. You know, then we had Skinners behaviourism, for instance, that followed. A follow up on that one also didn't go very far. So right now, what we have is in terms of psychology is a very interesting discipline that makes a lot of it has a lot of empirical content. There is a lot of interesting stuff to psychologists can tell us about human behaviour, but they don't seem to have at the moment at least much of a general idea of why people behave in a certain way rather than another, and social biology or evolutionary psychology.
And their the idea, of course, is that, aha, that's the overarching explanation that human beings behave in a certain way because we evolved a certain number of of mental models that were adapted to the plasticine environment and they're now backfiring or finding or being deployed in a very different social and physical environment. And that's from there you can you can use that as a starting point. So that will be an example of concealments if, in fact, they were successful.
Now, we've talked about evolutionary psychology in the past, and there are very good reasons to believe that it's not quite that successful.
And in fact, I think it's a good example of what the problem and we're going to we're going to have or I'm going to try to argue is with the whole Consilience project, which is at one level, it certainly is the case that a certain range of human behaviours evolved and therefore that our options today are constrained by the kind of biological organism that we are. I mean, let me let me say, for instance, not verbatim, but but in in spirit, one of the early review reviews of the book, but of Concealments by Eleanor, who is an evolutionary biologist, incidentally, and this was in the Boston Review of Books and all pointed out that, you know, at some level you can certainly see say you can certainly deploy biology to explain certain things, like, for instance, why is it that painters don't use UV paint?
Well, the reason for that is because I don't see you.
I don't see you now that you know, that's that's an interesting fact.
But it really doesn't even begin to sort of tell you anything relevant about art and the complexities of artistry over centuries and across cultures and all that sort of stuff.
So that seems to be the problem that, you know, if by coincidence you mean a very minimum level of explanation and says, look, we're biological beings and you better we better take that seriously.
Yes, I think that nobody would disagree with that. But the question is, well, how much more can that kind of approach tell you about cultural processes such as, you know, the development of the arts, the humanities, literature, philosophy and all that sort of stuff?
That's that's the question that Wilson seems to come short in answering. Yeah.
So I the biggest thing that I got out of reading about Consilience was like I came away with a renewed appreciation for the importance of speaking precisely because, like, this topic, especially the languages you mentioned, is is pretty vague and there's so many different things that could be meant by it.
And so, for example. It's not clear when you talk about unifying knowledge, it's not clear whether you mean explaining one phenomenon in terms of another phenomenon, right. Or finding the cause of one phenomenon by like by referencing another discipline.
So, for example, with the like, you could explain human behavior in terms of biology or you could describe human behavior in terms of the behavior of the brain. And those are two different ways of like linking disciplines. And it seems like my my evaluation of whether Consilience makes sense and actually seems like a good theory depends a lot on which version of those. You mean so.
Well, I don't know. So it does seem pretty clear that that everything can be explained in terms of physics at its lowest level.
But it also seems clear I don't know if it is that clear, but but anyway, sorry when I say everything will go there, but like, if you knew the position and velocity of every atom in the universe and you knew all the physical laws, and let's just assume that quantum effects aren't significant enough to matter, then you could predict everything that would happen without needing to know anything about economics or.
Yeah. Or, you know, human behavior or. Yeah. Well, that's that's is to understand this other phenomenon. Correct.
That is a strong the it's what it's called the strong determinists or a physical. Physical is reductive approach. Yes. And actually I'm agnostic about that.
I know a lot of other. Yeah. We could describe them as absurd. Right.
So I don't want to go back there. OK, well, so let me just briefly finish my long point.
The other so that that what I just described there is explaining phenomena in terms of sort of lower level phenomena like explaining biology in terms of chemistry, explaining chemistry in terms of physics. And then the the other thing that I was alluding to, the other possible meaning for for quintillions is citing causes from another discipline.
So explaining why we behave a certain way today in terms of our ancestral environments or I don't know, probably a decent example right now.
There's a number that it seems like you can't actually find.
There's another way to put, I think, the fact that you were articulating without going into discussion another discussion about physical reduction, reductionism, which I think, again, we have touched on in the past. We're probably going to go back at some point in the future if, for instance, there are several people that I can think might help us as guests wading through that particular thing. But I don't think it actually we need to go there in terms of talking about convenience, because you were trying to make a distinction there that that also Uninor in the in the in the review that I mentioned made.
And that is the distinction between ontological unity and epistemological unity.
So do those two things match the things I was just describing in terms of versus defining the mind?
So let's see if they do so. The idea of ontological unity is this.
I'm sure we all agree on that. It's most of us would agree that living organisms are made of cells which are made of molecules which are made of atoms, which are made of pork's and whatever the bottom line of physical expression is, is going to be. So in that sense, yes, there is a unity of everything. Everything in the universe, including living organisms, is made of the same stuff. Right. So ontological in terms of a claim about existence, a claim about what is what.
What we made of it is I think, in fact, at this point trivially true, that, yes, there is a unity of things out there.
Now, the epistemological issue, it's a little more complicated, which is OK, but can you actually explain things?
By going to the minimum common denominator, you can you can you know, the boards, for instance, can you come up with, let's say, a quantum mechanical theory of art or a quantum mechanical theory of human behavior?
And we theory. You mean a theory that would predict why we why we get enjoyment or pleasure, like visual interest in science or at least post-test that is at least explain in a scientifically sound way.
And I think that equally trivially, the answer there is no I'm not saying that it's not possible in principle that one would get us back into the discussion about physical production.
But even if it is possible in principle, we're certainly nowhere near doing anything like that. And frankly, I would bet whatever you want, that we're not going to get there for a very, very, very long time. Nobody's even thinking about nobody would even know where to start, you know, in deploying, say, quantum mechanical theory or string theory in order to come up with a sensible explanation of social interactions or or pretty much anything else, even in biology, anything above basic chemistry you simply cannot do cannot do that.
So so so it seems like, you know, on the one hand, so we're now sort of stuck between two.
I've argued trivially true statements.
On the one hand, it is certainly the case ontologically that everything is made of the same stuff.
On the other hand, it seems to be equally true trivially to epistemologically that that doesn't help you very much when you try to explain a high degree of complexity with the lowest possible denominator. So what is it exactly that we're trying to do when you're doing consumers and we're trying to do to a knowledge one to deploy the one in order to do the other or we're doing something else entirely?
Maybe I'm just thinking off the cuff now, but maybe that's what we always do.
Yeah, right. Yeah. Well, that was that caveat was meant to say that I might not endorse the sentence I'm about to utter, you know, two minutes from now. Oh, nice.
Well, so maybe when we try to explain some phenomenon, what we're really trying to do is like describe it in terms of phenomena that are maybe one or two levels more fundamental than the one that we're currently looking at.
So we would consider it an explanation of aesthetics if we were able to predict or predict, as you said, which visual patterns people would find appealing.
Like if we were able to explain that completely with psychology or cognitive science, basically, then that would be I guess we would sort of that like explaining or reducing aesthetics to cognitive science. But yeah, but if we explained it in terms of the movement of quarks in our brain, that would not feel like an explanation. Right. Like, maybe that is what explanation is. It's like we want something that reaches far enough between two things to draw a connection that we find useful, but it can't reach so far down to a completely different level of description because we can no longer see the connection.
Yeah, I mean, that's a very valid point. I mean, explanations are human constructs and as such, they have to be useful to human beings. You know, there's no such thing as the best explanation depends on the suspension for what and for whom, you know, what is it that you're trying to do and who is it good to be useful for? So I think that is you're absolutely correct there. However, I would take issue with one thing that you just said.
I mean, what you said actually does, um, I don't think Wilson would disagree with that particular suggestion.
And if Fed all philosophers would agree that, yes, there is a proper level of reduction in philosophy, a lot of people informally, one in terms of its usefulness to us not to be objectively correct.
And so a lot of philosophers do make these informal distinction between sort of greedy reductionism and in proper reductionism. The greedy reductionist is somebody who really does want to go all the way down to the quantum level always. And that's, as I said, foolish.
But a reasonable reductionism is exactly you describe that is OK, we've got a phenomenon at this level.
We're going to try to understand in terms of lower levels even than wherever, um, especially when it comes to complex systems such as biological organisms.
And certainly societies may not be quite enough because, for instance, you know, you could say, well, all I need to to to to do in order to understand the structure of a living organism is to go one or two levels down at the level of, let's say, development and molecular biology. Those are pretty there's only a couple of levels below the full organism, the whole organism level.
But the problem with that approach is, of course, that what organisms do and the way organisms look, the phenotype and the behaviour of organisms depends actually on the interactions between those levels and the environment. And the environment is actually bigger. It's a broader level of analysis.
So really what you need to do in order to understand how a living organism develops. Function is an interaction between one or two levels below the full organism and one or two levels above in terms of, say, communities of of species or populations within a species in terms of ecosystems, you know, that sort of stuff. So it really becomes in order to have a good explanation of a living organism, you really need to go a couple of those below in a couple of levels above.
You don't want to go as far above as, say, the gravitational impact of the Andromeda galaxy, because that's probably relevant.
I mean, it's that really above I feel like I'm talking about like you, but not above in terms of like levels of analysis. Well, I'm talking about size and scale, right?
I mean, an ecosystem is bigger than any other organism in a galaxy, certainly much, much bigger than an ecosystem. But even assuming that these are actually comparable, I mean, your objection is, I think makes sense that they may not even be comparable.
But even if they are, we're talking about scales that are not very useful. OK, so in order to understand a living organism, I think that both the quantum level and the cosmological level of analysis are not particularly useful, even though living organisms are in fact made of quantum stuff and they do live in cosmos that is made of galaxies and all that sort of stuff.
Hmm. Yeah, I, I was just remembering another confusion or ambiguity and consilience the first one we talked about was between the ontological and epistemic or epistemological. Right.
But then another one is is horizontal versus vertical. Yes.
So, so vertical would be like everything we were describing was sort of vertical, like higher and lower levels of analysis. But horizontal would be between different like connections between fields at the same level of analysis.
So and you can see this kind of horizontal consilience happening to some degree, maybe not to the same degree that Wilson thinks is happening or will or should happen.
But to some degree, when you see hyphenated disciplines like, you know, palaeobiology or, I don't know, physical anthropology.
So you see people, scientists using tools from from one discipline or like in economics, for example, there's been a lot of blurring between like sociology and economics or cognitive science and economics.
But if that were the case, I mean, again, you're right. But that is the that is the sort of the week end of the spectrum of claims of concealments. And nobody would disagree with it.
I mean, if if Milton and colleagues are saying is that, look, we really ought to talk across disciplines whenever that is appropriate, I can hardly see who would ever object to that. Like, all right, I'll grant you that that claim.
But like, yay for you. Exactly right. So why would that turn your book into a Pulitzer Prize winning thing?
So clearly, there must be something a little more serious there and a broader claim.
Now, I'm going to say something might be controversial among some of our listeners, but I when I was rereading Wilson's book and he would be horrified at listening to this, but at hearing this but I was reminded of the same experience that I had while I was reading some books from postmodernists during the famous science wars.
Now, the postmodern if you remember the postmodernist idea is, of course, that that that the social milieu, the social environment in which things happen, in which every human activity happens, strongly influences what's going on.
And those activities include science so that you know that it is important to take into account seriously the fact that science is a social activity done by human beings and all that sort of stuff. It's not just a purely logical pursuit of truth.
Now, whenever postmodern if that were all the postmodern, as we're saying.
Right, or all this sociology strong sociologist of science, we're saying who would disagree that it's true. It's certainly the case.
And and we do know of biases, you know, both cognitive biases and social biases that that get into the scientific enterprise. And we need to be taking those seriously. But if you go from there to the much stronger claim that therefore science is a social construction period, that is that it is epistemically just as good as creationism or astrology or whatever other cultural tradition.
Now you're making an argument. You're making a claim that sounds superficially the same. You know, it's just it's all socially constructed.
But you're making it a much, much stronger sense that all of a sudden it makes you look like a fool.
Now, the typical strategy of postmodernists when they are attacked on the strong claim is to retreat to the weak claim so that you cannot possibly disagree with the weak claim.
And then as soon as you turn around, they come back and make and make the stronger claim again. And I got that impression from Wilton's concealments.
That is on the one hand. If all you're saying is, look, we should talk to each other as much as possible across disciplines, who would disagree?
But then you turn around for a minute and he says things like, you know, well, the entirety of philosophy and literature and aesthetics and all that, they will all go down to biology.
Whoa, wait a minute. What do you mean by that?
Yeah, I think on one of our earliest episodes, I brought up the concept of a Deepti, which was a word invented by Daniel Dennett.
And it's it's a claim that sort of hovers or is in like a superposition between two possible meanings, one of which is true but trivial, and the other which is like would be would be striking and like totally important if it were true. But it's definitely false.
That's right. Yes, exactly. So that's exactly that's the impression I got.
Now, one of the things that really rose my curiosity in this is why is Wilson and other people? Because there are several others that are there following him trying to do this.
What is at stake here?
Yeah, I wonder, you know, what is the motivating force? And it's very poetic. It's like it is very poetic. Yes. At least if you don't look at it too hard. Right. Right.
So so Wilson says why is doing this so in the book? And he said that that the conference that I attended and he says that he likes the idea. Notice notice the word liking, which is an aesthetic judgment. Right.
You expect him to be back? Yeah, he yes. He likes the idea that that knowledge that all of human experience, all of human knowledge can go down to one fundamental common denominator, that there is a unification of of everything that we know.
Um, but as again, Eleanor pointed out in the review of the book, that's an aesthetic ideal.
It's absolutely not founded in any particular. There's no empirical reason to believe that that is going to succeed or not. It's just your preference.
It's also but I thought we had agreed on this, but maybe we actually didn't. It's not even clear to me that he is making a claim or like. Right.
I thought we had sort of concluded that it's not clear what that would even look like for for knowledge to be unified.
That's right. So I guess what I'm saying is it's not clear to me what the strong but false version of Consilience is.
Well, the strong version would have to be that all of the humanities and social sciences would be reduced to biology in a way that it's analogous to in which, let's say some people do. As it turns out, as soon as they looked into it, do some controversy there. Some people think the chemistry has been reduced to physics, as you saw this.
Well, this is sort of what I was getting at when I when I talked about like, well, yes, maybe we could if we knew the position velocity of every atom, like we could predict exactly what would happen in an economy. If you put a certain monetary policy in place, that may be true, but that doesn't count as having understood things at the level of economic entities or even at the level of individual people. It's your understanding the level of atoms.
So I guess you're saying that his claim is that we would like. We would end up explaining everything in terms of physics, if we if we could. I don't think we would feel that that would satisfy doesn't go to the physics. It doesn't go all the way down to physics. It stops the biology. But of course, the natural question is why stop there? Right. Just because you're a biologist.
There's the other thing that so several commentators have pointed out that. The idea of concealments. It's really strange, particularly for an evolutionary biologist. Why? Well, because, again, remember, it's an aesthetic ideal, right?
We will like it real soon. And other people would like there to be a unified explanation of all of all human knowledge, whatever that means.
But several people are pointing out that actually that is not what you would expect if you take evolutionary biology itself seriously, because human brains, after all, are a product of evolution.
They're not perfect thinking machines. They're not full of cognitive biases.
We evolved to, you know, our brains evolved to solve problems in the places in Savannah, not not not to resolve problems of complex scientific and philosophical levels. Now, we do some of that. Obviously, we do have science and philosophy. But it's amazing. We get as we got as far as we as we got, and certainly we will go further out in that direction.
But to expand that, somehow the human brain has to be eventually, inevitably will lead to these sort of all all comprehensive understanding under one big umbrella is really to sort of essentially assume that for the purposes, the purpose, no limits to human cognition.
Clearly, there are limits to human condition, not only because the human brain evolved, but try to memorize a million digits right there.
That's a problem like how you paused, as if giving me the time to do that right now. I mean, if you think about it for just a second, it's obvious that human condition does have limits.
And actually, I think I've read Wilson himself arguing that we should preserve human nature as it currently is not.
That's his biophilia thing. So that's a whole different the whole discussion. It seems relevant, at least it is, but it's not clear how it fits with the with the rest. Yeah, no.
I just mean, it's like it's relevant because especially if you want to preserve our current, you know, the current limits of our brain, then it seems especially hopeless right now.
That would that I was I was with the line of reasoning. I was going to one more point that I like to make, which is the other thing that motivates Wilson and company, and that is this idea of objective truth. What they want is a way for human beings to reach a final objective truth. And if that Wilson book points out that is two favorite moments in human history are the Enlightenment and the rise of logical positivism in the early part of the 20th century.
Those are the two moments in human history when people really thought seriously that we were going to come up with some kind of universal knowledge of everything, because once you start applying science, you get rid of all the garbage and you and you and you're left with objective knowledge.
Well, the Enlightenment, at least I, I thought the optimistic ideology there was that we would be able to understand everything and and explain everything with science, but not that everything would be explained by one theory.
No, no. That's right. Yeah. Yeah. I don't want yeah. I didn't mean to suggest that, that the Enlightenment or even logical positivism need to be read as a coincidence.
But they are. But but Wilson himself point out to point to those two moments as sort of humans striving for objective knowledge and all that sort of stuff. Well, he seems to not know or not realize or being aware of the fact that logical positivism has failed for very, very good reasons.
No, no. I know he's aware of that. Well, he's aware of that. But but he explains that as saying, you know, it wasn't a fit. It was just a momentary setback. And by the way, everything is going to be hunky dory once that neurobiology tells us how the human brain works.
He actually says that in the book.
And he's like, really? How's that going to work? And there's this pretty obvious counterexamples. I mean, regardless of what human neurobiology of what neurobiology is going to tell you about the brain, first of all, that knowledge in itself is derived by the brain, by a human brain. So if there are if a human brain is incapable of objective and absolute truth in in some sense, then clearly you cannot trust anything as objective and definitive that human brain itself comes up with even about the human brain.
Oh, OK. I didn't write him as I was expecting or hoping for one hundred percent certainty in our understanding of the world.
Yeah, it does really. Yeah it does.
Yes I can actually I can, we can post because I can't find them right now, but I can post quotes.
I am confident that if I asked him E.O. Wilson really 100 percent and he'd be like, well no, not 100 percent. I confidently predict that that would happen.
Yes. But that's only because when you put it that way, nobody is foolish enough to defend that position. But when you talk about objective truth, I don't know what else you mean.
But believing that there is one fact of the matter about how the world is. Different from believing that humans will ever have complete knowledge of that, but it is the latter that he wants and that is the latter that he's going to talk with with a continuous approach. And that's why he likes logical positivism and enlightenment, because that was, in fact, one of the goals of our logical positivism, that is to make to to a certain things as objectively, objectively, on one hand, and then get rid of everything else as literally meaningless, you know, if there is the famous.
But I thought logical positivism was more about clarifying the way that we were thinking about things as opposed to. Like abandoning certain fields of science? Well, no, actually, logical positivist had a problem, for instance, with unobservable in science. They they thought that if. Yeah, that right. So. So which means that actually they had literally put in question quite a bit of physics itself.
Yeah. But this is clearly not something that. Yes. And it's not it's nothing that modern physicists or for that matter, modern philosophers will go for.
So I find interesting is this idea of the quest for objective truth and all that, because it seems to me like this ignores a lot of what's been going on in epistemology and in logic for the last, you know, two hundred years. I mean, just to mention two things briefly.
There are two, at least two reasons why the the logic, the logical project is definitely undermined. One is Hume's problem of induction, which we talked about in the past. So this idea that, you know, scientific knowledge is arrived at by induction, by generalisation, from the particulars.
And you pointed out that there is no logical defense of doctrine that is not circular. That is that it doesn't already imply induction. That doesn't mean that we should throw away induction. It doesn't mean that we should throw away science. It just means that we do not have a logically tight argument to trust induction as a type of reasoning. That ought to be a problem for anybody looking for objective truth anywhere.
The other side is resisted a little longer. You know, the second major type of reasoning that is used by by scientists is deduction, which is, of course, on the basis of logic and mathematics.
And there, too, are all the way into the early part of the 20th century. There was this search for objective, tight, closed explanations of foundations, of mathematics and logic.
Those failed as well. Bertrand Russell and Whitehead, Principia Mathematica failed on that account.
Go to theorems, showed why they failed.
So it's now pretty much accepted that we really do not have tight, completely self-consistent, completely objective ways of assessing either inductive logic or deductive logic.
That means that for all if purposes, that the idea of a universal, you know, true, true, objective truth is out of the window. It's just not the kind of thing that human beings can do. End of story.
Well, I mean, I think I've said this before when we talked about induction and about the incompleteness theorem, but I see those as sort of asterisks that we have to like implicitly add on our on our research about the state of the world, but not as like really if science kept progressing and kept progressing and we were able to figure out how the universe worked at like all these different levels of analysis.
And we were able to make really accurate predictions about all sorts of different things in the universe. I don't think that the fact that we can't justify induction nonsecular would really be that bothersome. Well, it shouldn't be bothersome, but it would undermine it does undermine the claim of objective truth.
Right. Maybe. Maybe I misperceived what you have with your priors. You never got one.
You're Wilson would disagree. But anyway, I want to make sure we have time before we end the episode to talk about. I was curious about first what you talked about at the conference as the skeptic, or maybe it was similar to what we discussed today, but also what what does a conference on consultants look like?
What were the other theories of. Yeah, so the first question is actually very simple. Fairly simple. Yes. I touched on some of the topics that we covered today, actually have a longer essay that probably will come out in a new magazine called eOne Magazine, a note in that that it's about to be launched in England, where I will actually have the full text of the of my presentation. So we'll post links when those come out.
And how is the reception that did people of any. Oh, interesting. Yeah. So that was very interesting. So first of all, let me ask you answered your second question, which is what is the consequence of a conference of Canadians look like? It was a really strange thing.
So we had everybody from economists to literary critics to neurobiologists to evolutionary biologists, and there were all over the place, which was, by the way, one of the reasons the conference was fun in terms of reception to my criticism of Wilson.
Unfortunately, Wilson left immediately after his talk, which was highly unfortunate. I think I considered in particular that the entire country had been built around. This is talk. So the conference lasted three days, but he left immediately after his talk. Now, other people that where the conference included David Sloan Wilson, who is an evolutionary biologist, which actually has recently published a quote, published a paper with E.O. Wilson on on group selection, and Patricia Churchland, who has been one of our guests recently.
And so the reception was interesting. The some people really reacting negatively to my criticisms, essentially concluding that they were trying to undermine the entire idea, the entire approach. And, of course, depending on how you look at it, they may be right. The meaning of depending on what you mean by the approach of others, including David, we're actually much more sympathetic, although up to a certain point. So, David, for instance, when we should have on the podcast one of these days, because he's a delightful person, David and I often disagree on on a variety of topics in evolutionary biology.
But one of the things that I like about David is that he's he's one of the best examples of that I know of of a genuinely, intellectually curious person. So when after my talk, which was the last on the first afternoon, he asked me out for drinks and then for dinner, and the two of us kept talking for hours and hours and hours, sort of eviscerating every possible consequence of what I had been saying and what he was going to say the following day.
So it was that that was one of the best things about the conference.
That is, there were actually people who were generally interesting in sort of in the dialogue.
It was an interesting experience that the proceedings at the conference will be published, I believe, by Harvard Press at some point. So, of course, it's going to take some probably a year or so while we are running out of time.
And I want to make sure we have time for our rationally speaking picks. So let's wrap up the section of the podcast and move on to the next. Welcome back. Every episode, Julie and I think a couple of our favorite books, movies, websites or whatever tickles our rational fancy. Let's start as usual with Julia's pick.
Thanks, Massimo. I have two picks, actually. I'm going to bend the rules a little bit because I can the the first pick is just a bit of self promotion.
I have a YouTube channel where I've been posting like five to ten minutes videos where I talk about philosophy, rationality. I've talked about finance, I've talked about tradition, like whether and when we should keep traditions and whether and when we should abandon them. Sometimes I talk about ethics.
Sometimes I do little interviews with a friend of mine who, you know, is in some interesting field and there's maybe 10 or 12 videos on there currently.
But I've just made a series of a total. Yeah, yeah. Sorry. So it's called the channel is called Measure of Doubt. So the address is YouTube dotcom slash measure of doubt. All one word. It's a reference to a Bertrand Russell quote.
And yes, there's about 12 or so videos on there currently.
But I've, I've been meaning to increase the frequency with which I post videos. So I've just made a bet with Masimo that if I don't post one per week for the next couple of months, I have to buy him dinner next time I'm in New York. Delightful.
Yes. Which works so well.
Last time when I was trying to get myself to finish my blog post, speaking as I'm continuing, that actually worked better for me because the first time I got dinner in the time I got a broke, though.
I understand. OK, but just want to remind our listeners, the first time I got a dinner and the second time I got a blog post, I went either way.
Oh, and I take requests from from viewers for questions that people want me to answer. So check it out. And then my other pick is a paper by one of my favorite, uh, very interesting and creative philosophers named Nick Bostrom. It's called Predictions from Philosophy How Philosophers Could Make Themselves Useful. It's an old paper. It's from nineteen ninety eight.
And so yeah, it's kind of an old paper, but still really interesting, especially if you haven't encountered all these ideas before.
Basically he just goes through what I would consider like six or seven of the most interesting and challenging philosophical problems that are both unresolved, like according to most philosophers who consider these problems and also problems that could have bearing on on the world, on our future.
So there is a discussion of potential superintelligence. There's a discussion of the Fermi paradox. There's a discussion of anthropic and how it's how it should affect our predictions about life in the universe and about why our universe is the way it is.
Sorry how those predictions would be affected by the fact that we would not be here thinking about them if if intelligent life had not evolved on our planet.
There's a few other pretty interesting arguments that he lays out or or philosophical problems. But I don't I can't think of another place where there have been this many of the interesting open questions and philosophy laid out and explained in one place.
So we'll put a link to that on the website, because that does remind me of the classic by Bertrand Russell Problems and Philosophy. That's a short book, which is maybe this was a subtle call out to that.
Yeah, me now, Mike, and my pick is something quite different from the usual. It's an article in Scientific American that came out in December 2011 by Larry Green Meyer, who is the associate editor for technology at Scientific American. And the title of the article, which will post a link to from the website, is Ten Facts About Portable Electronics and Airplanes.
And there is little because recently I was, as usual, traveling on an airplane and people asked me, you know, the flight attendants asked everybody to turn off their iPhones and iPads and computers and animatronics and blah, blah, blah. And they don't mean just in airplane mode. They turn it off. Yeah. And then and of course, everybody ignores them, including me. I never turn down them off and simply put him to sleep or in airplane mode.
And of course, nothing happens.
So at the end of that flight, I immediately back on my iPhone and I did a little research about why exactly is it that we ask anyway.
So this article goes into the hypothesis was that they wanted us to pay attention to the safety demonstration.
That is one possible explanation. Now, there are some is it turns out this article goes briefly to the whole thing and there are some reasons to turn off certain electronics. Certainly, obviously, most obviously the ones that actually emit Wi-Fi signals because they could, in fact, interfere with the navigation of the airplane, although, as it turns out, most post 1980s airplanes actually shielded.
So unless you happen to travel in a really, really old airplane, you know, that's unlikely to be a problem. That doesn't seem to be any compelling reason whatsoever, however, to turn things off as opposed to put them on an airplane mode just because the flight attendants can't tell the difference, they might.
That's right. There's Wi-Fi on a lot of planes now. Why is that OK? But our own person. But that's centrally controlled in flight. I think the idea is. That's right. So the idea is the Odigo actually goes into that as well. The idea is that the crucial moments know the most dangerous moments in a flight are, in fact, landing and takeoff.
And so during, you know, cruising altitude, it's not a problem. Right. But during those moments that people want, you know, complete control of communication, essentially.
Anyway, so I was curious. I looked it up. As it turns out, there is, in fact, an answer out there. And it's also it turns out, if you're a little skeptical of of the flight attendants overreaching, you have good reasons. On the other hand, as another article that I read on the same topic pointed out, remember, the flight attendant is in charge. So if you if you blatantly disobey your flight attendant, the flight attendant has, in fact, the power to deplane you without any any additional explanation or any recourse on your part.
So, you know, you might not want to risk it.
Yeah, I like the the distinction here between what is wise and what is what is true and what is lost.
Maybe next time we can talk about the reasons for the various Byzantine security precautions that TSA forced, especially because they still have plenty of wind event on that subject.
But for now, this concludes another episode of rationally speaking. Join us next time for more explorations on the borderlands between reason and nonsense.
The rationally speaking podcast is presented by New York City skeptics for program notes, links, and to get involved in an online conversation about this and other episodes, please visit rationally speaking podcast Dog. This podcast is produced by Benny Pollack and recorded in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York. Our theme, Truth by Todd Rundgren, is used by permission. Thank you for listening.