Taking Prisons and Schools as Case Studies

If we think of institutions at all, we usually assume that they were created to serve a particular purpose, even if they are flawed in fulfilling this purpose. Carroll Quigley postulated the social process of the “institutionalization of the instrument,” according to which institutions are created as instruments to attain a particular end, but these instruments are then transformed into self-serving institutions that are increasingly poor instruments because their purpose shifts from fulfilling its instrumental purpose to fulfilling a self-defined institutional role. …


Revisiting Parfit’s Existential Risk Thought Experiment from the Perspective of Emergent Complexity Pluralism

Derek Parfit

In Intrinsically Arithemetical Realities and in R.I.P. Derek Parfit, I quoted a passage from Parfit that anticipated the study of existential risks:

I believe that if we destroy mankind, as we now can, this outcome will be much worse than most people think. Compare three outcomes:

1. Peace.

2. A nuclear war that kills 99 per cent of the world’s existing population.

3. A nuclear war that kills 100 per cent.

2 would be worse than 1, and 3 would be worse than 2. Which is the greater of these two differences? Most people believe that the greater difference is…


Edmund Husserl and Scientific Civilization

“…what if truth is an idea, lying at infinity?” Formal and Transcendental Logic, sec. 105

In many posts I have discussed the idea of scientific civilization, while I have also discussed the idea of a science of civilization (cf., e.g., Thought Experiment on a Science of Civilization and On a Science of Civilization and its Associated Technologies), and these two ideas — scientific civilization and a science of civilization — are connected in an important way. A truly scientific civilization that takes science as its central project will continuously expand the scope of science until it eventually means that a science of civilization takes shape in the form of a reflexive scientific theory of scientific…


Institutional Science, Big Science, and Personal Science

Science as an institution today consists of colleges and universities, which are in part funded by government money that is parceled out in the form of grants and loans, decided upon by numerous committees (themselves institutions in turn), which money is often funneled through additional committees once it arrives at a given institution. (It is well known among academics that one must attempt to get a grant twice the size that one needs, since the institution is going to take half of it.) …


On the Possibility of Living in Truth for Those Who Hold Truth as an Ideal

“The Red Pill” has become a pervasive metaphor since the 1999 film The Matrix, in which the protagonist is offered a choice between taking a red pill and a blue pill. The red pill has come to signify difficult and unpleasant truths, while the blue pill has come to signify the comfortable and comforting lies with which most people are pacified.

There is a relationship between the idea of the red pill and Vaclav Havel’s conception of “living in truth.” An individual may not be able to change a dishonest society, but one can still choose to live in truth…


Knowledge in a World of Indefinite Extent

An interesting twentieth century perspective on the expansion of scientific knowledge was provided by Harlow Shapley:

“After seven years of work with large instruments on questions concerning the globular star clusters — their structure, relationships, stellar content — I realized that we were relatively more ignorant about them than when I had started my investigation. I had added more to the unknown than to the known.” (Harlow Shapley, The View from a Distant Star, p. 17)

This is clearly a tendentious way to characterize the results of scientific research. Shapley noted that, “…we were relatively more ignorant about [globular star…


The Sociology of Scientific Knowledge

In Reticulate Science I argued that the large scale structure of science in historical time is likely to be a simultaneous progression of division into narrower specializations and a synthesis into greater wholes that seek to provide a big picture understanding of the world that is not to be found in the more precise and compartmentalized knowledge derived from specialization. …


On Specialization and Interdisciplinarity

Over the past few decades a number of ideas that I call “big picture research programs” have appeared — big history, astrobiology, the overview effect, existential risk, SETI, the Drake equation, the Fermi paradox, the Anthropocene. Many of these are neither “sciences” nor “disciplines” in the conventional sense, but they represent the effort of scientists and philosophers to recover a comprehensive approach to knowledge in the wake of scientific specialization since the scientific revolution.

Is it possible to constitute a new science at this late date in the development of science? And is it possible to constitute a “big picture”…


Fine Tuning the Drake Equation with the Rezabek Ratio

Starlink Satellite Constellation

After the 2013 Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress a number of those of us who participated continued to correspond about interesting ideas that came out of the conversations, and one of these ideas was that of the Rezabek Ratio. During a discussion of METI (active messaging of extraterrestrial intelligence) by Jim Benson, Heath Rezabek suggested that someone opposed to unregulated METI could broadcast a static or random signal as a masking counter-signal to a METI signal and essentially silence the outbound METI signal. Formally, this can be expressed such that the factors of the Drake equation, which terminates with the number…


Alternative Neural Architectures for Consciousness

The issue of Science for 25 September 2020 features a crow on its cover with the headline “Avian Awareness: Carrion crows display sensory consciousness.” There are three articles in the journal on this theme, “A neural correlate of sensory consciousness in a corvid bird” by Andreas Nieder, Lysann Wagener, and Paul Rinnert, “A cortex-like canonical circuit in the avian forebrain” by Martin Stacho, Christina Herold, Noemi Rook, Hermann Wagner, Markus Axer, Katrin Amunts, and Onur Güntürkün, and “Birds do have a brain cortex — and think” by Suzana Herculano-Houzel.

Everyone who has watched crows carefully knows that they are intelligent…

Nick Nielsen

One Man Think Tank

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