Thursday, June 30, 2011

Why I an a global warming sceptic

The Maverick Philosopher links to a global warming article by a Harvard Physics professor. The gist of it is that the current “climate crusade” against global warming is a moral epidemic. The notion that increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, notably carbon dioxide, will have disastrous consequences for mankind and for the planet, is based on contested science and dubious claims, he says.

This is a blog which is concerned with ‘sceptical’ issues, so it ought to be concerned with global warming scepticism. But that means scepticism in the strict and proper sense: not holding any positive opinions about p (or not-p), but rather holding that the evidence for p (or not-p) is not sufficient, or reasonable, or conclusive. Humanity is divided into fundamentally two types: those who sit at the front of the class and listen with rapt attention to everything Teacher said (as well as sucking up and toadying to Teacher and all other forms of authority with unquestioning acceptance); and those who sit and the back and talk and throw objects at those in the front, and generally disrepect all forms of authority. True believers at the front, sceptics and disbelievers and mockers and scorners, at the back. The world would be a disastrous place if either type predominated. A world of believers would be dreary and authoritarian if their beliefs were consistent. If not consistent, in would be full of more bloodshed and warfare. In a world of mockers and sneerers, nothing would ever get done, and it would also be boring with no true believers and boy scouts to sneer at and mock.

I am a global warming sceptic in the sense that I remain unconvinced that it exists. Equally I remain unconvinced that it doesn’t exist - being a cautious fellow and mindful of the possibility that it does, I very rarely use a car (the one I bought three years ago has done little more than 5,000 miles), and my heating bills are lower than anyone I know. I am both a global-warming and and anti-global warming sceptic.

Why am I sceptical that it exists? I see a scientific model, and empirical evidence adduced in support of the model. Taking the empirical evidence first, it is primarily statistical, given that the actual temperature data is noisy and subject to error. All kinds of extrapolation and curve-fitting is required to produce the neat ‘hockey stick’ graph that appears to show a constant temperature from the year 1000 until about 1850, when the temperature began to rise like the blade of a hockey stick. Since I don’t accept probabilities between 0 and 1, I don’t accept statistics. The temptation to select data to fit the theory is simply too strong. On the side of the model, there is a robust physical model which predicts rises in temperature for increasing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The problem is that water vapour is also a powerful greenhouse gas, and the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere is difficult to model. Add to that the fact that the effect of carbon dioxide obeys a logarithmic law – to get the same effect as doubling the amount, you have to double it again, and again) – a fact which I have never seen mentioned in any of the global warming propaganda in schools and the mainstream media. Nor is it mentioned in the truly horrible Wikipedia article on the Global Warming controversy. The article simply repeats over and over that there is a scientific consensus on GW (the word ‘consensus’ is repeated 26 times). It gives no substantial arguments or reasoning or basis facts on either side of the debate.

This will probably provoke all sorts of rude emails, to which I say, don’t be rude, just give me a neat Fermi argument to prove to me beyond reasonable doubt that a serious global warming problem exists. I am not interested in what any scientists conclude. I am interested in the basic evidence they have used, and the reasoning process which leads them to their conclusion. Possibility of another £5 Waitrose voucher for any decent answers (I am the final judge however).

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Isaac Watts on the size of the universe

I read through chapter X of Isaac Watts’ Philosophical Essays, where he talks about light from stars. My memory was bad: it is nothing to do with Olbers' paradox. The first section discusses whether space can be empty or not, and Watts argues it cannot. For light particles are passing through all parts of space in all directions. He gives a neat Fermi-like example. Imagine an auditorium containing a thousand plates, surrounded by an audience of a thousand people. Each person can see each plate. Thus, we can draw a line from any plate to every person. And similarly from any person to every plate. And (assuming light is particles) there is a constant emission of particles filling the air. The same must be true of space and the light emitted from stars. Thus, space must be full up of light particles. He wonders why the planets are not slowed down by all of this (an interesting question that I will leave to the experts).

The second section is on whether the universe is infininitely large or not. Watts argues not. For although the Earth was created by God 6,000 years ago (remember the time he was writing, in 1742), it is probable that the other solar systems were created long before that. In which case, if the light particles were being constantly emitted from the stars, the universe would be all used up and dark and dead, which it isn’t.

He mentions with apparent approval the opinion that when light particles are emitted from a star, gravity eventually draws them back to their source. Thus the universe will not be depleted by the constant emission of light, and it will have a finite size.

I was surprised to find he knows the speed of light (“one hundred and four score miles per second of the Minute”). I always imagined this was a nineteenth century discovery.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Olbers' paradox

Hunting through the internet to find something about Hubble's constant I found something on Olbers' paradox.  The Wikipedia article is not bad (but I have never disputed Wikipedia's generally good coverage of non-soft subjects).  The paradox is that a static, infinitely old universe with an infinite number of stars distributed in an infinitely large space would be bright rather than dark.  For if there were an infinite number of stars, evenly dispersed, the then for any angle of vision, the number of stars would be proportional, but the intensity of light inversely proportional to the square of distance. The two effects would cancel out thus, with an infinite number of stars, the sky would be uniformly bright, which it isn't.

The article says that Olbers was not the first to describe the paradox, without mentioning any earlier description. I remember reading a similar paradox by the English logician (and hymn writer) Isaac Watts (1674–1748), I shall look for his book tonight, and report back.

Meanwhile - and this is really a philosophical question - why is Hubble's constant a constant? 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Ad tertium

I reply to the third of the four arguments for direct reference.  The argument was that definition proceeds by genus and specific difference. Therefore a proper name cannot be defined, for they name individuals, and individuals are not species. They have no specific difference, and can only be distinguished by the proper name itself.

I reply by conceding that a proper name cannot be defined, and that a proper name does not signify a species or kind of thing. But I deny that "an individual can only be distinguished by the name itself".  As I have argued, signification is not a relation between a name and a thing, and so a proper name does not distinguish an individual in any strict and proper sense (although I concede that in an improper sense it is true that the name 'Frodo' distinguishes a certain fictional hobbit, as I argued here and in other places).  We do not learn the meaning of a proper name by definition or by acquaintance with an individual, but rather by acquaintance with the name itself.  When we first encounter the name, as Bosanquet says, it has a purely general sense: someone so-called.  When we next encounter it, it means the same thing as whatever it meant before. "Aeneas fled his home ... Aeneas was shipwrecked" means simply that someone fled their home and that the same person was shipwrecked.  We don't know who Aeneas was in any stronger sense than this.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

On human happiness

To be stupid, and selfish, and to have good health are the three requirements for happiness; though if stupidity is lacking, the others are useless. (Flaubert)

Monday, June 20, 2011


I've been quiet for a few days, but with good reason: my phone line has gone down.  British Telecom have a helpful booklet including a number to ring if your phone is out of order, but of course that was no good.  Similarly they provide a link to their website, but with the actual line down, the broadband goes too. 

Hopefully I will be back this week.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Fermi Challenge

Here’s an example I love, and which illustrates my problem with sceptics who are too keen on ‘argument from authority’. There's more about it here. The great physicist Enrico Fermi was fond of setting problems that seem difficult to solve, but which can be approached by a mixture of logic and common sense (and particularly without any appeal to ‘scientific’ knowledge or complex mathematics). One such problem was that of estimating the number of piano tuners in Chicago given only the population of the city. This seemed impossible to his students, but is fairly straightforward to resolve as follows.
  • From the almanac (the only authority required), Chicago has a population of about 3 million people.
  • Assume that an average family contains four members (Fermi was teaching in the 1930s when families were that large).
  • Therefore the number of families in Chicago is about 750,000.
  • If one in five families owns a piano, there will be 150,000 pianos in Chicago.
  • If the average piano tuner serviced four pianos every day of the week for five days rested on weekends, and had a two week holiday during the summer, then in one year (52 weeks) he would service 1,000 pianos. 150,000/(4 x 5 x 50) = 150, so that there must be about 150 piano tuners in Chicago.
Why do I like it? It does not rest on any appeal to authority, and depends on assumptions that are either common knowledge, or located in easily verifiable sources. Thus it is essentially difficult to refute. ‘Scientific’ claims, by contrast, rest on complex arguments based on previous scientific results, published in difficult-to-access sources, supported by a community who may, for all we know, be conspiring against the truth. Thus all ‘scientific’ claims, like appeals to authority in general, are easy to refute.

As an exercise, what is the simplest argument against the Young Earth Creationism - the theory that God created the world about 5,700 years ago? Most people now accept that God created the world (together with time and space, and the number system) more than 14 billion years ago. But why do they accept that? What is the simplest argument for the generally accepted age of the universe that you could write down on a credit card, and which you could explain to a 9 year old? You will find that this article, which is completely incomprehensible, is absolutely no use. I offer a prize of a £5 Waitrose voucher to the first decent reply to my challenge.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Phantom Time continued

I continue to be perplexed by the strange hypothesis of Dr. Hans-Ulrich Niemitz which I discussed yesterday. Namely that the early middle ages never existed. This morning I checked in Bede (b. 673, some way into the non-existent period), and English monk who wrote a well known and extensive history of his country, to see if the period really was missing.  All the evidence from his book suggests that it really was there.  For example, he writes
King Edwin, with all the nobility of his kingdom and a large number of humbler folk, accepted the faith and were washed in the cleansing water of baptism in the eleventh year of his reign, which ws the year of our Lord 627, and about one hundred and eighty years after the first arrival of the English in Britain. The king’s baptism took place at York on Easter Day, the 12th of April, in the church of St Peter the Apostle.
This neatly shows the two different ways in which we can use historical documents to reconstruct the past. Namely, relative dating (‘the eleventh year of his reign’, ‘one hundred and eighty years after the first arrival of the English in Britain’) and absolute dating (‘12th of April 627’). Absolute dates are absolute, of course. And relative dating can be used to reconstruct absolute dates. If you can tie relative dates together, which is easy to do in the case of reigns, which are contiguous (i.e. one when reign stops, the next one begins) then you can construct an ‘absolute’ series of dates, anchored on today’s date. Note that ‘absolute’ dates, of course, are merely relative dates anchored in a single date*.

Bede gives us plenty of both types of dating. In nearly all of the chapters he gives the Christian chronology (‘in the year of our lord’), and in the early ones he connects this with the Roman chronology (“Britain remained unknown and unvisited by the Romans until the time of Gaius Julius Caesar, who became consul with Lucius Bibulus 693 years after the founding of Rome, and sixty years before the birth of our Lord”). For the period from the 620s until his birth (in about 673) he simply gives relative dating (‘the glorious reign of Edwin over English and Britons alike lasted seventeen years’).

There is also another piece of evidence locked up in that passage, namely that the date (12 April 627) is recorded so precisely. There are many such examples in his work, and it is evidence of a precise recording system. If such a system existed, the probability of 300 years going ‘missing’ is improbable in the extreme.

Now it could be argued that Bede’s history was a Christian forgery, as Niemitz suggests happened in the case of Charlemagne. But then we have a number of different series of reigns, produced by almost completely independent sources. For example, French kings, English kings, Castilian monarchs, German emperors and other varieties of monarch, and many others. Could the apparently independent sources for these series have been a forgery?  Who coordinated it, and why?

There is a discussion of Niemitz here, but it is a sceptic website, and the big problem I have with sceptic websites is that they love to poke fun at silly theories, without adequately explaining what is silly about them. Should we even bother? Yes, because silly people (a group which includes many intelligent and apparently well-educated people) often believe such silly theories, in many cases precisely because of the way that they are dismissed out of hand by 'scientists'.  Here we come to another gripe I have against Wikipedia, but that must wait until tomorrow.  For a foretaste, have a look at this.

*We can now date terrestrial events relative to the creation of the universe. But this is still a relative date. Assuming that time did not exist before the universe began, does it make sense to say that God could have created the universe a few days earlier? This raises the question of what God was doing before he created the universe, but that is too difficult and extensive a question to discuss here.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Phantom Time Hypothesis

I nearly bought a Fortean Times today (surprisingly our newsagent keeps a number of copies in his shelf) but resisted the temptation.  What caught my eye was the surprising assertion that the early Middle Ages did not exist.  There is a paper about it online here, but the essence of it is this. The theory begins with Heribert Illig (b. 1947), who was puzzled about why the correction between the Gregorian calendar and the old Julian calendar of Julius Caesar was as much as 10 days.
Now please calculate: how many Julian years does it take to produce an error of 10 days? The answer is 1257 years. The question – at which date was the Julian calendar correct – can be calculated with the following amazing result (Illig 1991): 1582 – 1257 = 325
Thus there are about 300 'phantom years' that history says exist, but didn't.  Thus the whole period 600-900 A.D. never existed.

That's a very interesting theory for us medieval philosophers, who focus almost exclusively in the post Carolingian period, by reason of the paucity of literature in the intervening period.  If that period simply did not exist, then the lack of literature can easily be explained, because no one existed to write it.  If the dark ages did not exist, then Boethius, writing in about 520 (or 820 on the PTH theory) was nearly contemporary with John Scotus Eruigena (c. 815 – c. 877).  There would be no 'gaps' to explain.

Other things are less conveniently explained (such as the venerable Bede, who appeared to have been writing bang in the middle of the phantom period).  Presumably people counted the years as they went by.  Assuming there were no written records whatsoever, and no archeology to speak of, and assuming that different people counted the years as they went by, with only the record of the current year.  What is the probability of miscomputing the year?  Indeed, what is the probability of different groups consistently miscomputing the date, so that they all all arrived at the same, but consistently wrong answer?  How could they consistently lose more than 300 years?

Friday, June 10, 2011

On miracles, the supernatural and the burden of proof

Vallicella of Phoenix has an interesting and worthwhile series of posts on the burden of proof, of which the latest is here. In that, he writes

For one who plays the scientific 'game' and abides by its rules, there is no question but that the burden of proof lies on the one who asserts that there are miracles. No scientist worth his salt could hold that there is a presumption in favor of the existence of miracles. It is the other way around: there is an exceedingly strong, if not quite indefeasible, presumption in favor of their nonexistence, and indeed of the nonexistence of anything nonnatural. But this onus-assignment is relative to the scientific 'game' and partially constitutive of it.
Two points. First, I don’t believe there is any scientific ‘game’. The burden of proof is simply to show that any event, or kind of event exists. The default position is to reject all existence claims – not just miracles.

Second, I don’t believe there is any such kind of thing as a miracle (or supernatural event). But there are kinds of accounts, which fall into several easily identifiable patterns. For example, if we define ‘miracle’ as the purported referent of an account which is inherently implausible and unsupported by any strong evidence (and usually and in addition there exists evidence that the claim is being made for reasons unrelated to scientific objectivity) of course the default position is to reject miracles, and the burden of proof is to supply the evidence that is conspicuously lacking.

It is not that scientists hold a strong presumption in favour of the nonexistence of a certain type of event (‘the nonnatural’), as Vallicella appears to suggest. Rather, that there is a strong presumption by scientists in favour of rejecting the existence of anything referred to by a certain type of account. The ‘burden of proof’ is merely the requirement to supply a certain kind of account.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Ad secundum

I reply to the second argument of the four arguments for direct reference. The argument was that a name cannot be significant or intelligible to another unless the idea of what the name applies to is in the other person’s mind. Thus the meaning of most proper names is unknown to nearly all people in the world; they have no corresponding words in other languages. We can only have the idea of a particular thing by being acquainted with that thing, which is only possible if that thing actually exists. It follows that the meaning of a proper name involves direct acquaintance with the individual for which it is a name.

There a number of things to criticise in the argument. For example, the assumption that we use language as it were to evoke the ‘same idea’ in someone else’s mind. This goes back at least to Aristotle – “Just as all men have not the same writing, so all men have not the same speech sounds, but the mental experiences, which these directly symbolize, are the same for all, as also are those things of which our experiences are the images” (On Interpretation, ch. 1). This is questionable – as Frege argued, the distinction between things, meanings and ideas is analogous to that between the moon, which is publicly observable, the image of the moon in a camera or telescope, which is publicly observable, and the retinal image, which is not.

The reference of a proper name is the object itself which we designate by its means; the idea, which we have in that case, is wholly subjective; in between lies the sense, which is indeed no longer subjective like the idea, but is yet not the object itself. The following analogy will perhaps clarify these relationships. Somebody observes the Moon through a telescope. I compare the Moon itself to the reference; it is the object of the observation, mediated by the real image projected by the object glass in the interior of the telescope, and by the retinal image of the observer. The former I compare to the sense, the latter is like the idea or experience. The optical image in the telescope is indeed one-sided and dependent upon the standpoint of observation; but it is still objective, inasmuch as it can be used by several observers. At any rate it could be arranged for several to use it simultaneously. But each one would have his own retinal image [On Sense and Reference].
But that would take us too far afield. The objection errs in assuming that the meaning of a proper name cannot be communicated to another person, other than by direct acquaintance with the object that it names. But of course it can. As I commented here, the first time we encounter a proper name in a particular context, it signifies (for us) no more than a general idea - “Some Trojan warrior called ‘Aeneas’” perhaps. But every subsequent time we encounter the name, it has a definite and singular sense: the very same person as that Trojan warrior. It signifies merely that every sentence containing it is true – if true at all – of a single person. It signifies no more than that. And we easily learn this signification without being ‘acquainted’ – whatever that means – with the person who is named. That is how we learned the signification of the name ‘Jesus’, as I argued here and elsewhere.

On the fact that the meaning of most proper names is unknown to most people in the world, this is no more significant than the fact (assuming it is a fact) that eskimos have many different words for types of snow. And proper names are a part of a language if they are a significant part of the literature of that language. My Latin dictionary contains the Latinised form of all the main characters in Latin literature. Many of these are fictional, of course. All reference, I claim, is story relative reference.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Charley’s (single) ant

And here is another interesting paper by Greg Frost-Arnold, “Too much reference”. He considers the case in some way opposite to empty singular terms: where a singular term ‘refers to’ more than thing.

He writes:
Suppose a person purchases an ant colony. There are many small ants in the colony, and two big ants, Ant A and Ant B. However, the owner of the ant colony does not realize that there are actually two big ants, because he only sees one big ant at a time. (We assume the ants’ behavior is coordinated to satisfy this condition.) The owner believes that there is one big ant in the colony, and the owner decides to name this ant ‘Charley.’ The philosophical issue such a story raises is this: what is the semantic status of sentences that include the term ‘Charley’?
This is a case I discussed, with reference to a Bunuel film, here and here. There are actually two people (Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina) playing the same character (Conchita). Does the name ‘Conchita’ refer to two people – for once you have realised the trick, it is obvious that there are really two characters – or one? Or (pace Greg) to none at all?

If the theory of reference (the ‘Frodo’-Frodo theory) I have argued for is correct, this sort of multiple reference is impossible. The meaning of a name is exhausted by its function of purporting to signify the same thing. To understand the sentences ‘Fa’ and ‘Ga’ is to understand that if they are both true, then “some F is G” is also true. And, because they do not imply that some Fs are G, they they can only imply that one F is G. To say that there are two F’s is to say that there is an F, and there is another F. The word ‘another’ is the complement of a singular term. It always means a different thing, and for there to be one different thing means there being at least two different things.

What about the ants? Can’t it plausibly said that the proper name ‘Charley’ refers both to Ant 1 and to Ant 2? No, because, as I have argued, reference is not a semantic relation between language and reality. As I have argued, we can regard the two ant images as visual proper names. I see ant 1 walking out of the colony, and entertain the visual proposition ‘Here is an ant’. Ant 1 goes back, and ant 2 now comes out. I entertain the visual proposition ‘Here is the same ant’. Since I cannot understand this visual singular as applying to more than one singular, i.e. because I understand it always as meaning ‘the same …’, I cannot understand it as multiple reference. Thus it cannot be multiple reference. Singular terms always refer to singular things.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Is Atlantis West of London?

I just spotted this excellent post from May 2008, by philosopher Greg Frost-Arnold. He says that, in negative free logic (a variety of which I have argued for here, across too many posts to mention), all atomic sentences containing non-denoting names are false. But this leads to the following problem, he says. Assume, as seems probable, that 'Atlantis' is a non-denoting name.  Then in negative free logic, all three of the following sentences must be false.

(1) Atlantis is West of London.

(2) Atlantis is East of London.

(3) Atlantis and London have the same longitude.

But 'x is west of y' means the same as 'x is not east of y, and x does not have the same longitude as y', and now we have a problem.
If 'Atlantis is west of London' is false (as the free logician says), then at least one of 'Atlantis is east of London' or 'Atlantis and London the same longitude' has to be true -- but that contradicts the earlier assumption (of the negative free logician) that all of (1)-(3) are false.
He asks "Does anyone see a good response to this objection on behalf of the proponent of negative free logic?"  I answer: the objection relies, first, on the perfectly valid assumption that if p is equivalent to "~q and ~r", then ~p is equivalent to "q or r".  Second, it relies on the invalid assumption that "Atlantis is West of London" is equivalent to a conjunction of two negatives.  On the contrary, it is equivalent to the conjunction of two affirmatives. It is equivalent (according to our variety of NFL) to "something which is identical with Atlantis is West of London".  This in turn is equivalent to "something which is identical with Atlantis is neither East of London nor has the same longitude as London".  And the negation of that is

(4) It is not the case that something identical with Atlantis is not East of London, or it is not the case that something identical with Atlantis does not have the same longitude as London.

Now if (1) is false then (4) is true, and if Atlantis exists, it follows that Atlantis is East of London, or that Atlantis and London have the same longitude (I will omit the proof, which is elementary).  But if Atlantis does not exist, both (2) - which is equivalent to "something which is identical with Atlantis is East of London" - and (3) - which is equivalent to "something which is identical with Atlantis has the same longtitude as London" - are false.  For the presumption is that nothing is identical with Atlantis. 

This requires the negative free logician to bite a bullet, but it is not the unpalatable one that Frost-Arnold suggests.  We have to concede that sentences like "Atlantis is large" and "Atlantis is not large" are not true contradictories, but contraries.  The second is not the negation of the first. The true negation of the first is "notthing is Atlantis or Atlantis is not large".  But there cannot be simple solutions in philosophy.  When we have exhausted everything that is wrong, what remains must be right.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Direct Reference - ad primum

I reply to the first argument of the four arguments for direct reference.  The argument was that a proper name does not signify something that is repeatable, therefore does not signify a property. Therefore it signifies an object.

I reply: the argument relies on the assumption that a a term signifies either a property (which is repeatable) or an object (which is not).  This is false.  As I have argued before, the entire significance of a proper name is to signify that (if we are talking about anything at all) we are talking about a single thing.  In other words, Fa and Ga imply that some F is G, if 'a' is functioning as a proper name.  Thus it cannot signify anything repeatable like a property, by reason of its peculiar semantic function. 'Fa' and 'Ga' always imply that 'F' and 'G' apply to a single thing. Thus it makes no sense to say that this individual is Socrates on Tuesday, but that someone else is Socrates on Wednesday. Or that this individual is Socrates today, but might not have been Socrates.

Nor does a proper name signify an object.  Sentences containing the same proper name, accepted in the same sense, are true of the same thing, if they are true at all. But they do not have to be true of anything at all, in order for us to understand this.

Friday, June 03, 2011

The arguments for direct reference (review)

I've been away for a week.  Now I am back, and it is time to review the arguments for direct reference that we considered earlier, and to prepare for a reply.

Argument 1 was that a proper name does not signify something that is repeatable, therefore does not signify a property. Therefore it signifies an object.

Argument 2 was that a name cannot be significant or intelligible to another unless the idea of what the name applies to is in the other person’s mind. But we can only have the idea of a particular thing by being acquainted with that thing, which is only possible if that thing actually exists.

Argument 3 was that definition proceeds by genus and specific difference. Therefore a proper name cannot be defined, for they name individuals, and individuals are not species. They have no specific difference, and can only be distinguished by the proper name itself.

Argument 4 was that truth-conditional semantics rests on the assumption that the conditions for the truth of a sentence give the sentence’s meaning or significance. But there is no truth evaluable content when reference failure occurs. If there are no truth conditions, then there is no meaning or significance.

More later.  Have a good weekend, readers.