Sunday, November 20, 2016

Essential Thinkers #17 Francis Bacon: Scientific Method and the Problem of Induction

English philosopher of science, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was the forerunner of the famed British school of philosophers that include John Locke, David Hume, George Berkeley, J. S. Mill and Bertrand Russell. Bacon’s important works include The Advancement of Learning, New Atlantis and the Novum Organum. Bacon was also an essayist and enjoyed a successful legal and political career, in particular after James I’s succession of Elizabeth, whereupon he was made Lord Chancellor until being found guilty of corruption.

Attributed as the originator of the saying “knowledge is power,” his importance as a philosopher is most notable with regard to his concern for scientific method. Bacon was troubled by the two schools of thought that had come out of Platonism and Aristotelianism respectively. Firstly, the rationalist view that knowledge could be gained by examining the content and meanings of works – a view Bacon dismissed as like spinning a web from the inside of one’s own head. Secondly, the Aristotelians, intent on collecting masses of empirical data, where equally useless at helping a man arrive at any scientific hypotheses. What was needed, insisted Bacon, was a new way of collecting and organising data that would help generate inductive hypotheses.

Bacon, like many of his contemporaries and predecessors, had been concerned with the problem of induction, a problem that would later receive an astonishingly sceptical response from David Hume. The problem of induction, as Bacon’s contemporaries saw it, was that the mere repetitive occurrence of an incident does not guarantee that the same thing will happen again. To give a simple example, suppose a man draws nine blue marbles out of a bag of ten (9/10). It is no more likely that the tenth marble will be blue than it is that it will be red. The previous instances do not guarantee anything about the following instance.

Bacon saw that the answer to this problem lay in placing the emphasis of investigation on looking for negative instances to disconfirm hypotheses, rather than finding ways of confirming them. This is striking precursor to Karl Popper’s twentieth century falsificationist scientific methodology and his much vaunted claim of ‘solving the problem of induction.’ As Popper readily admits, he owes much to Francis Bacon.

However, unlike others of his time and later David Hume, Bacon was less interested in the problem of justifying inductive generalisations, than in how to generate good inductive hypotheses out of the masses of data collected by observation. Bacon revised a new method. To illustrate it, Bacon shows how one might generate a hypothesis on the nature of heat. One should, Bacon tells us, list all those things in which the property under investigation, in this case heat, is present, then all those things in which the property is absent and finally all those cases which admit of varying degrees of the property in question. From such list, Bacon believes the natural hypothesis will present itself, which in this case, as he well knew at the time, is that heat is produced according to the movement or excitation of molecules within a body.

Although Bacon’s method is undoubtedly one way of applying order to a body of data, and even perhaps a useful way in some cases, it nevertheless seems unlikely to fulfil his ambition, which was to find a systematic way of deriving scientific hypotheses from the arrangement of data. It is unlikely that there ever could be such a system. Bacon failed to take into account the creativity and imaginative aspect of scientific theory building. No matter how systematically one organises data, inductive hypotheses cannot be guaranteed to appear out of them. One may find that some facts deductively follow from a certain ordering of data, but that is not what Bacon was after.

Despite his failure in this regard, Bacon nevertheless made some important contribution to the philosophy of science and the problem of induction, not least, as we have seen, in being the first to stress the importance of negative instances.
[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012. Also watch YouTube 60 Second Philosophy: Francis Bacon]

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Saturday, November 19, 2016

I Wonder #8 How Do People Age?

Ageing is a result of the gradual failure of the body’s cells and organs to replace and repair themselves. This is because there is a limit to the number of times that each cell can divide. As the body’s cells begin to near this limit, the rate at which they divide slows down. Sometimes the new cells that are produced have defects or do not carry out their usual task effectively. Organs can then begin to fail, tissues change in structure, and the chemical reactions that power the body become less efficient. Sometime the blood supply to the brain is not effective. The brain cells become starved of oxygen and nutrients, leading to forgetfulness. For most old people memories bring great pleasure. Strangely, even though recent events may be forgotten, old people often clearly remember events that took place in their childhood.

Fact: The skin becomes looser as people age. As skin sags it forms into wrinkles and creases because the fibres of collagen that normally provide support to the skin became weaker.

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Friday, November 18, 2016

I Wonder #7 How Does Our Body Grow?

The most important forces that cause growth lie inside a living thing from the beginning. These forces are called its heredity. The human body has stages of growth: embryo and foetus, infant, child, youth, mature adult and old age. People’s bodies grow faster in the early weeks of life than at any other time. Even before the end of the first year, they are growing less rapidly. Through the whole period of childhood, they grow at a moderate rate. Then growth starts to speed up again. All human beings are much alike in their growth. But there are important differences. Boys and girls all follow the same general pathway of growth, but each one follows it in his own way.

Fact: [From the Internet] The bones of a baby’s head are not fully fused at birth, making the skull flexible enough to pass through the mother’s birth canal. The bones eventually join, but a gap in the skull, called the fontanelle, may not close up for several months.

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Essential Thinkers #16 Thomas More: Utopia's Vision

Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), friend and supporter of Erasmus (refer to previous Thinker), led a dangerous but incorruptible political life which would earn him the death penalty from the same King who once knighted him, Hendry VIII. Unimpressed by Henry’s solicitations, More’s determined adherence to Catholic orthodoxy prevented him from recognising either Hendry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon or his subsequent self-appointment as head of the English Church in order to marry Anne Boleyn. Fortunately for the history of Western thought, More managed to complete his most important philosophical work, Utopia in good time, 1518 in fact, before Hendry took his head in 1535.

In More’s Utopia, a traveller brings back tales of an island in the South Seas where everything is organized in the best possible way. The book takes the form of a dialogue, in which the traveller, Raphael Hythloday, divulges the wise ways of Utopia as he found them in the five years he spent there. More’s vision of Utopia is a kind of Christian communism, in which there is no personal property, internal commerce or personal ambition. Each member of society works six hours a day regardless of their job. This, says More, is entirely satisfactory in terms of providing enough labour. For other societies only require the poor to work long and exhausting days because of the existence of the idle rich.

The Utopia provides for its citizens by means of a system of farms, each consisting of at least forty workers. There are intellectuals and governors in More’s visionary society, but these are chosen by merit and only remain in their jobs so long as they prove satisfactory. There is also an elected Prince who acts as head of state, but can be removed in case of tyranny. Interestingly, More does not rule out slavery in his ideal society. So-called ‘bondsmen’ are given the distasteful jobs that More does not want his happy citizens to partake in, such as slaughtering the livestock and serving up communal dinners. The bondmen are people serving penal sentences for the breaking of any of the Utopian laws, such as virginity before marriage and chastity during wedlock. Bondmen are also drawn from other societies from among those who have been condemned to death.

Whilst More’s Utopia possesses some admirable liberal qualities, it is also, aesthetically oppressive in the same way as Maoist and Cambodian regimes have been in the real world. More expects all his citizens to wear the same plain, undifferentiated dress. Architecturally it is unremittingly dull. Each of the fifty-four towns are built according to an identical plan. The streets are all twenty feet across and every home is exactly alike. The residents swap homes on a regular basis according to the law to discourage the idea of private ownership, although since all the houses are alike this seems somewhat pointless.

Like The Republic of Plato, it is doubtful that More’s utopian vision could provide the basis for a realistic model of any society, let alone the transformation of an existence one. Nevertheless, the value of Utopia lies in the articulation of certain social and socialistic ideals in an age very far removed from such philanthropic concerns. Bertrand Russell probably sums up the problem with More’s vision, when he says, “If in More’s Utopia, as in most others, would be intolerably dull. Diversity is essential to happiness, and in Utopia there is hardly any.”
[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012]

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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

I Wonder #6 How Fast Does the Earth Move?

The Earth orbits the Sun every 365¼ days. The Earth’s orbit is not quite circular but ellipse and when it is closest to the Sun, it revolves or moves at 18.2 miles per second and when it is farthest away from the Sun it travels at 18.8 miles per second (on average 30 km/h. As for the case of SuperMoon recently, Moon looked larger because it orbiting in ellipse nearer to the Earth and moves at 3,683 km/h on average).

The Earth also rotates about its own axis once every 23 hours 56 minutes and 4.091 seconds. This means that the stars rise just under 4 minutes earlier each day. In four years this adds up to a whole day, which is why is added to the calendar at the end of February every fourth year or what is called the “leap year.”

In addition to the Earth’s own movement, our solar system is orbiting the Milky Way galaxy at 160 miles per second and the galaxy is travelling through space at about 390 miles per second. We all are moving even when we’re not moving. Get it?

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Monday, November 14, 2016

I Wonder #5 How Does Time Differ Around the World?

The earth gets light and dark at approximately the same time all over the world, so it is necessary to adjust the clocks. If we did not do this, you might find that dawn was at 10pm. In the year 1884 time zones were set up around the world, measured from Greenwich in London. Each time zone on the east or west of Greenwich has a different time.

Each zone is either one hour ahead or one hour behind its neighbouring zone – it is one hour earlier to the west of each zone, and one hour later to the east. One example of the time difference is, when it is 12 noon in Malaysia it is 1pm in Seoul, Korea.

Fact: When people travel long distances by fast jet plane they often get a feeling of confusion which is known as jet lag. The reason for this is because modern aircraft travel so fast that they may cross several time zones in a short time during a flight. It may take a couple of days for your brain to adjust.

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Saturday, November 12, 2016

I Wonder #4 How Mirror Works?

Listen to Mirror Mirror by M2M and Mirrors by Justin Timberlake, I wonder about… mirror. Mirrors are pieces of glass that have been coated with a reflective material on the back, so that when a beam of light strikes the surface none of it is absorbed. The beam of light is actually reflected away again.

The beam of light is reflected at exactly the same angle as it struck the mirror, but in the opposite direction. This can be visualised if you imagine a snooker ball striking the cushion of the table and bouncing back at an angle. Mirrors are used in many ways for example in telescopes, flashlights, headlights of cars and lamps in lighthouse.

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Friday, November 11, 2016

Essential Thinkers #15 Desiderius Erasmus: Reformed Theology, But Sided Catholics

Dutch humanist philosopher and theologian, Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) was the illegitimate son of a priest and was himself forced into a monastic life by his guardians. It the monastery at Steyr his lifelong passion for Latin began, and he quickly outstripped the ability of his tutors. He escaped the monastic life in his late twenties and proceeded to travel and study widely. He eventually came to England and struck up a friendship with Thomas More [I’ll introduce him on the next list of thinker], which lasted until the latter’s death at the hands of Hendry VIII. It as whilst making his way to England on a subsequent visit from Italy that he conceived his best known work, In The Praise of Folly. Arriving at More’s house in London, he quickly committed it to paper and published it, with More’s support, in 1509.

In The Praise of Folly has a dual purpose. On the one hand, Erasmus uses it as a vehicle for satire against the offices and institutions of the Roman Catholic Church, for which he had developed a deep hatred during his time at Steyr. He attacks the monastic orders and their conception of worship as consisting in “the precise number of knots to the tying on their sandals.” With more venom he goes on, “It will be pretty to hear their pleas before the great tribunal: one will brag how he mortified his carnal appetite by feeding only upon fish; another will urge that he spend more of his time on earth in the divine exercise of singing psalms… but Christ will interrupt: ‘Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees,… I left you but one precept, of loving one another, which I do not hear anyone plead that he has faithfully discharged.’”

This introduces the central theme of Erasmus’s Folly, namely his concern with religion as a worship “from the heart,” that has no need of the offices and intermediaries supplied by the Church. True religion, Erasmus insists, is a form of Folly, in the sense that it is simplistic and direct, not convoluted with unnecessary sophistications and dogmatic doctrine. For Erasmus, religion is based on a thorough-going humanism, understood in its classical sense, as a confidence in human reason to know and worship God. In similar vein, Erasmus was no friend of scholasticism, nor indeed of the philosophical fathers of his day, Plato and Aristotle, Erasmus’s hero was St Augustine, from whom he took the doctrine that reason must be the servant of faith. Apart from In the Praise of Folly and his later Colloquia much of his work consisted in Greek and Latin translations of the Bible.

Erasmus had enormous influence on ushering in the Reformation, but surprisingly, in the struggle between the Catholics and the Protestants, the latter of who were undoubtedly closer to Erasmus’s religious ideas, he eventually sided with the Catholics. This apparent contradiction reflects his somewhat timid nature. He could not condone the violence of the Lutherans, preferring to attach the Catholics with words rather than actions. When More was executed by Hendy VIII for refusing to accept his supremacy over the Pope as head of the Church of England, Erasmus is quoted as saying, “Would More have never meddled with the dangerous business, and left the theological cause to the theologians”, a quote that brings into sharp relief the difference between his character and the uncompromising, incorruptible nature of More.
[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012. Also watch YouTube’s ‘Desiderius Erasmus: Short Biography’]  

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Thursday, November 10, 2016

I Wonder #3 How Was Glass Discovered?

It was discovered that glass forms when melted solid materials are cooled quickly, so that they do not produce crystals. The main ingredients for making glass are sand, soda ash, or potash and lime, melted together at a very high temperature. Since these materials are found in abundance in many parts of the world, the secret of glassmaking could have been discovered in many countries.

The Romans were great glassmakers and used glass as a coating for walls. By the time of the Christian era glass was already being used for windowpanes.

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Wednesday, November 9, 2016

I Wonder #2 How Do Kidney Machines Work?

If the kidneys become diseased and stop working, it is necessary to use a kidney machine to remove waste from the blood. This machine process is called dialysis. It involves pumping blood from a tube in the person’s arm into thin tubing that runs through a tank of sterile liquid. Waste passes from the blood through the walls of the tubing, and the cleaned blood is returned to the blood. This process must be carried out regularly if it is to be successful.
FACT The adrenal glands are attached to the kidneys. They help create energy which stimulates the body to prepare it for instant action. Any extreme sport or violent activity, such as playing skateboard, causes a sudden rush of adrenalin.

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I Wonder #1 How Do the Kidneys Work?

The kidneys work by effectively removing the majority of waste products from our blood, and are vital to our health (or I may called it as blood-cleansing system). We each have two kidneys, which lie on the back of the abdomen. From the inner side of each kidney a tube called the ureter runs down the abdominal cavity entering the bladder.

Blood is pumped through groups of tiny tubes inside the kidneys, and harmful waste material passes out through the walls of these vessels and down the ureter into the bladder. Here it is ready to be discharged from the body as urine. The kidneys also work by producing certain hormones which help to regulate blood pressure.

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Saturday, November 5, 2016

Essential Thinkers #14: Niccolo Machiavelli, a Political Theorist "The Prince"

Florentine-born philosopher of the Italian Renaissance, Niccolo Machiavelli (1467-1527) was a diplomat and dramatist, but is best remembered for his hugely influential and notorious work of political theory, The Prince, which was made his name synonymous with political machinations. Providing a detailed analysis of successful, if on occasion immoral, political techniques, Machiavelli’s text is still used today by students of both philosophy and politics. In The Prince, Machiavelli concentrates on those techniques a successful politician must use if he is to achieve his political ends, without regard to the moral justification of the means thereby employed. Often criticised by detractors for its lack of moral sensibility, it is nevertheless a work of great intellectual integrity and consistency.

In The Prince, Machiavelli considers how best a leader can achieve his ends once he has determined that the ends he has identified are worthwhile. Never has the phrase “the ends justify the means” been more appropriately applied than it is to Machiavellian technique. The book is almost entirely practical, rarely speculating on the rightness or wrongness of the methods adumbrated therein.

Nonetheless, The Prince does contain certain theses about which political ends are good. Machiavelli thinks there are three primary political “goods”: national security, national independence, and a strong constitution. Beyond this, he is almost entirely concerned with practical questions of how to go about securing political success. It is vain to pursue a good political end with inadequate means, for it will surely fail. One must pursue one’s convictions with strength and courage it one is to be successful, employing whatever means necessary.

The heart of Machiavelli’s teachings consists in the manipulation of others, including the populace, for power. To this end, although Machiavelli does not teach that virtue is good in itself, it can often serve one’s political ends to appear to be virtuous. This is perhaps the doctrine that has caused most outrage against Machiavellian thought. But Machiavelli himself is unconcerned with such weak and even hypocritical sensibility. If, as we have said, one’s ends are good in themselves, all that matters is that one brings them about; in order to do this, Machiavelli tells us, one must have more power than one’s opponents. Without doubt, The Prince is a work meant only for those that have the fibre to take this fact, however unpleasant, seriously.

Although The Prince is unflinching in its teachings, it must be read alongside Machiavelli’s longer and more balanced work, the Discourses, if his own views are to be fairly understood. In the Discourses, he provides more detailed background as to what he thinks makes a good and successful constitution. His political ideal is the republic run by the Princes, leaders of the principalities, but held in check by both the noblemen and ordinary citizens, all of whom share a part in the constitution. As Bertrand Russell rightly says in his commentary on Machiavelli, the Discourses might easily be read by an eighteenth century liberal without occasioning mush surprise or disagreement. Machiavelli has no time for tyrannies, not because people have an inalienable right to freedom, but because tyrannies are less-stable, more cruel and more inconstant than governments held in esteem by a reasonably content population. It is the achievement of such a government that is Machiavelli’s prime political concern.
[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012. Also watch YouTube’s ‘The School of Life: Niccolo Machiavelli’]

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