The Ship of Theseus sails in Water (and not H2O)

The difference between natural language and the language of science

The problem of reference in philosophy deals with relations of words to the world. Do words correspond to some mind-independent objects in the external world? In the following text, I propose the thesis that “reference” is one area where science and everyday affairs take sharp, diametrically opposed directions, and that this in turn implies that we use different faculties of the mind in doing science as opposed to everyday work.

In everyday life, words can be used to communicate to others what we mean. “There is a chair in the room”. This sentence appears simple to understand. And it is. Everyone can easily understand what it means and it communicates one’s beliefs about the world. The simplicity of the sentence leads us to believe that the constituents of this expression, the words of the sentence, refer to some mind-independent objects called “chair” and “room”.

Let’s examine the word “chair”. The dictionary defines a chair as: “A seat, especially for one person, usually having fours legs for support and a rest for the back and often having rests for the arms.”

Instead of wasting “ink” over explaining why the word chair can’t possibly refer to any external object in the world, I refer the reader to the following pictures of chairs, Continue reading The Ship of Theseus sails in Water (and not H2O)

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From Causality to the Supernatural: Babies know it all!

Work in cognitive psychology has shown that young infants possess the concept of causality as an innate feature of their minds. In fact, it has been shown through recent experiments that this notion is so strong that infants can infer the existence of an unseen casual interaction and even an unseen causal agent from just the motion of an inanimate object! Continue reading From Causality to the Supernatural: Babies know it all!

Big Data or Pig Data?

(A fable on huge amounts of data and why we don’t need models)

 There was a pig who wanted to be a scientist. He was not interested in models. When asked how he planned on making sense of the world, the pig would say in a deep mysterious voice, “I don’t do models: the world is my model” and then with a twinkle in his eyes, look at his interlocutor smugly.

By his phrase, “I don’t do models, the world is my model”, he meant Continue reading Big Data or Pig Data?

Galileo and Economics

Or ‘Why we can’t blame Galileo for the latest financial crisis!’ 🙂

Modern science can be roughly said to begin with Galileo Galilei. One of the commonly used methods in science is sometimes referred to as the Galilean Style. This style refers to, among other things, the idealizations and abstractions that scientists use in modeling the world out there. Scientific models do not aim to accurately describe the world. Rather, the idea is (Galileo’s idea) to try and abstract away ‘superfluous’ aspects, and also to use idealizations where possible. As an example of an idealization, consider the fact that Newton in his law of gravitation supposed that the entire mass of the object is concentrated on its center. Similarly, Galileo used ‘frictionless’ planes for performing thought experiments, etc.

But what does all this have to do with Economics? Continue reading Galileo and Economics

Fiction as Simulation

Studies by neuroscientists have shown that while reading fiction, our brains simulate the action narrated in the text. The information from the text is taken, integrated with the reader’s personal experience, and often those areas of the brain are activated which would also be involved if the reader was actually performing or observing comparable real life situations and activities.

And this is where we can see two benefits of reading (or writing) fiction. Continue reading Fiction as Simulation

Alan Turing in a society of machines

I am usually not at a loss for words (at least while writing). But what can one possibly write about that bird, that song; that tragedy, that ecstasy; that lamb, that lion; that beautiful genius called Alan Turing—that hasn’t already been written?

What can I add? Don’t forget what Iqbal said: ‘A particle in its place can be as powerful as the sun!’ So yes, perhaps I can! I remember a reverend saying that, “There is nothing in any tragedy, ancient or modern, nothing in poetry or history (with one exception), like the last hours of Socrates in Plato.” The pity is that unlike for Socrates and Christ, we have no account of Turing’s last moments before his murder. Perhaps, I can try and give my guess, my model of what might have happened… Continue reading Alan Turing in a society of machines

The Chomskyan Style

Chomsky’s review of B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior

There are two quotes about Chomsky the scientist that I think best describe him. First is by a person whom I normally wouldn’t quote, Daniel Dennett. Dennett says about Chomsky: “Not many scientists are great scientists, and not many great scientists get to found a whole new field, but there are a few. Charles Darwin is one; Noam Chomsky is yet another”.

However, it is the second quote that I like more; probably because it reflects the feeling that I have always got myself. In an article (Chomsky and his Critics), discussing books in which Chomsky interacts with his critics among philosophers, Ian Hacking says, “It is like watching the grandmaster play, blindfolded, thirty-six simultaneous chess matches against the local worthies. He almost always wins.”

Indeed, Chomsky often reminds me of the great 18th century Urdu poet, Mir Taqi Mir. Continue reading The Chomskyan Style