Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Scifi list

Over at Schwitzsplinters Eric Schwitzgebel has been collecting Philosophers' recommendations of science fiction for the philosophically-minded.

I couldn't resist piping up when I saw how recent most of the other suggestions are- Greg Egan and Ted Chiang came up loads: Ugh!! Modern scifi seems to me to have taken a really technical turn - its become more like science journalism, about showing off how many details about quantum theory can be included, for example, than about actually playing around with parameters of reality.

The oldies are the best I say. I grew up on good solid 1950s scifi, the kind that was printed in fan magazines, where the characters were reassuringly two dimensional. They were desperately sexist and the dialogue often terrible but it didn't matter, because they were all about the ideas. Attitudes to science have changed a lot since then. Technology used to be magical, something that could save us from work, take us around the galaxy and solve all of humanity's problems. Now we've lost that optimism and science has become somewhat elitist, intellectual, on the back foot under attack from the paranoid homeopathic antivaccination brigade. I feel that science fiction has in turn lost its playfulness, its bravado. I hope it comes back one day soon......

Here are my contributions to Eric's blog.....

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Oxford Philosophy of Biology Reading group is go!

I'm pretty excited to announce that, as of friday this week, Jessica Laimann and I are convening a brand new shiny reading group. Theme is 'Inheritance and Cooperation', this week's reading is 'The major evolutionary transitions' by Szathm√°ry and Maynard Smith 1995 (the paper, not the book) and tickets are selling fast. Not literally, obviously, although I am thinking about flogging a commemorative mug.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

On carlessness

Back before the bear was born, while we were taking turns to get caught in a panicked loop,  reeling off items whose possession we considered essential features of the parenthood that was nearly upon us (Me: lipstick, tinned food, prunes; Him: lampshades, a shed) there was one item that recurred: a car. We were full of all sorts of unrealistic and bizarre preconceptions concerning the essential nature of parents and their accoutrements, but car-ownership stood out as something with actual reason backing it up. Cars help you to carry things to places without getting wet. They enable you to drive to supermarkets and appointments. They permit last-minute scrambles for the safety of grandparents' houses. Everyone we know who has progeny has a car, we thought. Without a car you're second-class, not a proper grown-up, not to be trusted with raising a human.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Quarantine ethics

It was recently reported that residents of slums in Liberia and Sierra Leone have been placed under military-enforced quarantines: nobody in, nobody out.

The ebola crisis has been reasonably visible in western media, and there was some discussion of the uncomfortable fact that the lives of several white aid workers were saved by an antidote too scarce to be widely deployed. But I am surprised that there hasn't been a bigger western reaction to the tactics that seem to be in use to control the disease in the African countries it is affecting.

BSPS meeting

I'm giving a talk to the British Society for the Philosophy of Science next monday 13th, at the LSE.

Title: 'How to Count Organisms'


'Current biology struggles to settle a disagreement concerning the best way to conceptualise one of its key entities - the organism. In this talk I try to show that philosophers have tools they can offer to science, by utilising a simple story about natural kinds to build justification for a particular account of what it is to be a member of the class 'organism'. 

I offer a justified organism concept by tying it to scientific success in a way which offers us confidence that the class picked out is not merely a matter of taste but is, in a sense I will specify, the right answer. I argue for a characterisation of the organism problem as concerning the identification of the units we need to count if we want our models of  the selection of traits in real populations to truthfully capture the dynamics of evolutionary change.'

I'm looking forward to it!

Thursday, 2 October 2014

How to ruin a good dress

Its nice that Olivia Wilde and other celebs are trying to promote breastfeeding. But doing it in designer clothes, in a cafe, while your baby is naked, is just really weird!