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Sylvia Wenmackers
physicist philosopher mother blogger daydreamer
Interests: physics, philosophy, art, books
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The simplification and high pace required for popularization sometimes requires making a caricature of the topic itself (let alone of other related topics). Of course, I do agree that slip-ups in history of science are a pity, especially for a show with so many viewers, and that these should be pointed out and corrected. But I do not interpret the occurrence of such errors as a sign of ill intentions or neglect: it may just be ignorance of ignorance. Science handbooks are full of distorted history, and this is not well-known among scientists. So the advisers of the program (I assume it's a whole team, not just Neil deGrasse Tyson) may have been unaware of this, in a way that they didn't even consider consulting an expert. Krauss may be a different case: besides popularization, he also engages regularly in debates on science and philosophy. (Maybe NdGT does that too, but in any case it is not what Cosmos is about.) In such a context, I view the unnuanced dismissal of philosophy in a much less favourable light. On the other hand, it is my impression that the romantic idea of scientists engaging deeply with philosophy in their everyday work may also rely on a distortion of science and its history. Sure, there are high-profile cases in which this applies, but these are the exceptions, not the rule. (It may be more common in theoretical physics, but the largest physics community is that in experimental material science.)
Most of my former collegeagues in physics think philosophy is useless. (They don't seem to realize that their own attitude is a philosophy.) A minority is interested in history and philosophy of science, but even for them it rarely influences their daily work. And that's fine! When I was in the lab, I also had the feeling that I just didn't have the time to ponder over philosophical issues (even though I wanted too): there were samples to prepare and spectra to analyze. Likewise, Neil deGrasse Tyson is already doing so much: reaching out to a large audience about science. If he succeeds in making young people enthusiastic about science, he has done a wonderful job. Soon enough, these people will start asking questions of their own. And these questions will include philosophical ones, I am sure of it, for you just can't separate science from philosophy a binary way. The goal of Cosmos is to popularize science, all of it. Presenting such a multifaceted thing as a magnificent whole requires a lot of simplification. With that goal in mind, it is also not difficult to see that the show has to pass over many subtleties of the interactions between the sciences and other human acitivities, including philosophy. Maybe someone could make a Cosmos-like production about philosophy. That would be great. Meanwhile, I give the Cosmos team the benefit of the doubt.
Mohan, you ask "There are those I refrain from citing because I don't like their work. If some happen to be women, should I reconsider? Should I reconsider when such people are male? And should people consider citing me because I am not white?" As I understand the proposal, the answer is 'no' to all of these questions. For instance, people should not consider citing you because you are not white, but they should not not cite you because of it. But unlike citing someone, not citing someone isn't always a conscious decision. (If I don't know X's work, I will not cite X, but I haven't really decided not to cite X.) As I understand it, the idea is that people should ask themselves whether they are (involuntarily) omitting some people's work because these people happen to be not male, not white, or have/lack other attributes that ought to be irrelevant in citing practices. The proposed test is only a way to make you aware of your own blind spot. Once you have been made aware of the work of people you don't usually read, whether or not to read and cite them should depend on the usual reasons for deciding this (i.e., the content of their papers).
David, I just finished reading a related course chapter prepared by the main speaker: the only philosophical paper in the (short) reference list is yours. So, I had just put it on my reading list, when I saw you posted a link to it. Thanks! I understand your observation that the intelligence explosion can be reached without exponential growth. At the same time, it taps into an issue I am still unsure about: speed plays a role at various places in this discussion, but it is not always mentioned explicitly. The understanding (or at least measurement) of intelligence itself is closely related with speed. Intelligent behaviour is connected to being able to respond in a timely manner (which depends on the context). But some differences in intelligence cannot be compensated by increased speed alone: having a larger intelligence will allow someone (or something) to finish certain tasks faster, yet some tasks cannot be done at all - no matter how slowely - before a certain level of intelligence has been achieved. (Maybe for some tasks you just need a large working memory - or some other resource other than time - and without it there is no to complete it.) And some things can be done, but not in any relevant time span (e.g., before the Sun explodes). Hm, I'm just not fast enough to think through all of this by Saturday.
Jon, thanks for sharing the Garcia view, which I wasn't familiar with. Given that we live in world in which so many things happen, I tend to be skeptical of reading too much into synchronicities: they are bound to happen, although they may evoke creative thinking. (BTW, maybe you should suggest to your students to make a Wikipedia page on Tristan Garcia in English?) Regarding stagnation: there seems to be a lower rate of increase in clockspeed in recent years, but it's hard to tell whether that's a temporary lag or the onset of stagnation. Of course, there are also worries about limitations on raw materials. Although the gaming industry isn't catering to the needs of computer science, the investments do allow game developers to experiment and push the boundaries. And it certainly wouldn't be the first time that hardware or software elements initially developed for gaming purposes were put to good use by scientists as well. So, who knows: all the developers of games about creating intelligence and interstellar travel may actually be contributing to make similar things happen in reality.
Next Saturday, the University of Leuven is hosting an outreach event called Philosophy Festival ("Feest van de Filosofie"). This year's theme is people & technology ("mens & techniek"). I was asked to join a panel discussion on the technological singularity. The introduction will be given by a computer engineer (Philip... Continue reading
On the Nature website, Richard Van Noorden reports that a French computer scientist, Cyril Labbé, has discovered over 120 computer-generated papers that have been published in conference proceedings between 2008 and 2013. Over 100 of these papers were published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) and 16... Continue reading
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Dec 3, 2013