Philosophy in the 20th century was 'rubbish'

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23 Jul 2009, 1:22 pm

Jessica Griggs, reporter

Yesterday it felt like my IQ increased 20 points via pure intellectual osmosis. It was a long day - 21 people that deserve my full attention over four 90 minute intense sessions, punctuated by coffee and conversation breaks in between.

The talk that got the most people fired up was by a woman with the intriguing moniker (TED likes to give everyone a snappy two word job description) "aquatic ape theorist", Elaine Morgan.

She believes that rather than climbing down from the trees and onto the savannah, our chimp ancestors descending into a watery world (perhaps as a result of a catastrophic flood) and so humans emerged from the shallows.

According to Morgan the evidence is plain to see - from our nakedness to the streamlined way we dive into the water ("imagine a gorilla doing that"), to the gunk that covers us when we're born, the composition of which is only shared by the goo that covers baby seals.
This theory was first floated in the 1960s by zoologist Alistair Hardy but was quickly filed in the drawer along with UFOs and yetis.

At 90, Morgan - sometime writer for New Scientist - is the oldest TED speaker ever and once you got over the "I wish my gran was as cool as this" thought you hung off her every word. If she didn't manage to convert the audience to her theory then at the very least, she persuaded us all that it was definitely worth digging out of the drawer. Go here for more arguments Morgan used to illustrate her point.

I think I had my first proper TED moment during a talk by North Pole swimmer, Lewis Pugh. He did a 1000m swim in -1.7 degree water to raise awareness of climate change. Apparently at this temperature your fingers swell up to the size of sausages as the molecules in your skin freeze, expand and then explode. It took him four months to regain sensation of his digits.

I don't know whether it was me imagining the mind-boggling coldness or the fact that when he showed us the video of the swim, I realised he did it in Speedos - but I definitely had goosebumps.

David Deutsch, the quantum computation pioneer and multiple universes advocate, blew my mind, or rather made it hurt but in a good way. Rather than talking about either of these two subjects he gave us a whistle-stop tour of the philosophy of science - talking about what makes a good and bad explanation by appealing to the font of all knowledge - the Simpsons.

He explained that a good explanation is one that can't easily be varied to fit any observation, or in Simpsons lingo, one that can't be brushed away by saying "oh, a wizard did it". The philosophically minded will recognise this as a generalisation of Popper's theory of falsification.

I chased him down afterwards to ask him what had prompted him to make such a didactic speech at TED2009?

"It's not a reaction to any event but something a bit deeper. The reason I'm a physicist is because I'm interested in anything fundamental and physics is the area where knowledge is the deepest. But it's completely impossible to understand what the foundations of physics are saying about the world if you use rubbish philosophy, and unfortunately the 20th century was an era when philosophy went into a complete nose dive."

As for the small matter of quantum computing - Deutsch's money is on a theory known as "cluster quantum computing". And what's keeping him occupied at the moment? Just the small matter of developing a new kind of quantum field theory, along with generalising the theory of computation to include the whole of physics. Phew...

(Image: TED / James Duncan Davidson) ... 7/ted.html

Wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings. ~Heinrich Heine, Almansor, 1823

?I wouldn't recommend sex, drugs or insanity for everyone, but they've always worked for me.? - Hunter S. Thompson


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Joined: 18 Dec 2007
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23 Jul 2009, 4:29 pm

Aye, there's the rub(bish) topic

Good article. Great man of science, that Sir Karl Popper of the Vienna Circle.

However, the notion that philosophy in the 20th century was "rubbish" (perhaps because of its inability to be falsified) is itself rubbish. Being an artist (and a bit of a scavenger) I can find valuable stuff in so-called garbage. All you have to do is look--hard. And this much of what science is about. 8)

Radiant Aspergian
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