Dylan Casey

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Feb 022014

The philosophy I love is that of articulated wonder. (Not incidentally, I also find this the character of my favorite science.) Not wonder simply. No. There’s a reason that Dante’s Paradiso is so flipping hard to read. Page after page extolling wonder without the challenge of trying to understand is uninviting, uninspiring, even just plain boring. (Sorry Dante and any of your Dante lovers.) I like Plato and Socrates for this reason. Socrates is often tremendously annoying, but, if you read Plato’s dialogues with just the smallest smidgen of generosity, you see Socrates’ aggression and condescension has its home in articulated wonder — trying to sort something out but always remembering that the sorting out doesn’t come to an end. Those that focus on wondering itself too much or too long tend toward unripened mysticism or soggy sentimentalism. Those that focus too much on the articulation confuse clarity with certainty and construction with understanding. I might call the first group the theological philosophers and the second group the sciencey scientists.
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Nov 022013

From http://mysardinia.com/As I prepared for our recent podcast on New Work and we interviewed Bergman himself, I found that I have many sympathies with the project. Even without an analysis of the calamitous effect of the current job system on our economy, I can buy the fact that our job system is a structure with rules, implicit and explicit, that are optimized for some people (those with capital) and not for others. I can also buy the notion that we ought to change it and that we can change it. I’m also on board with the notion that work is an enlivening activity in our lives, maybe the enlivening activity. Bergmann was fond of contrasting the power of work to enliven our lives against the power of sex – saying that good work will even keep us from good sex – as an indication of the potential for work to capture us. Reflecting particularly on my early days of grad school, my wife would probably agree, though she wouldn’t agree that it is good for us.
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Aug 232013

man-head-in-sandI’m in the midst of reading Karl Popper in preparation for our next recording and have been thinking about the distinction between the fruits of scientific exploration, the theories and accounts of the world, and the underlying disposition of scientific argument, especially as it applies to the way we, as a community, discuss and expect to resolve disputes, what we consider as evidence, and what we expect both proponents and nay-sayers to bring to the table when making their claims.

Adam Frank has a nice Op-Ed piece in the NYTimes this week regarding this very issue. Frank cites the rise of creationism from a minor undercurrent of American culture to a well-funded ideological effort to shape the curriculum in our schools, the continuing cult of climate deniers who extend across our government, and resurgent anti-vaccine campaigners as indicative of the lamentable erosion of the importance of science and the traditions of science in our public discourse.
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Aug 032013

3:AM magazine has a nice interview of the physicist Sean Carroll by Richard Marshall that’s part of an ongoing series interviews, generally of philosophers, being done by the magazine. Carroll is an theoretical astrophysicist who has managed to avoid the pratfalls of physicists like Stephen Hawking who recently declared the death of philosophy. Carroll considers himself sympathetic to philosophers/ philosophical inquiry in general, mainly out of a shared desired to understand the world.

The public spat between physics and philosophy is just silly, more a matter of selling books or being lazy than any principled intellectual position. Most physicists know very little about philosophy, which is hardly surprising; most experts in any one academic field don’t know very much about many other fields. This ignorance manifests itself in a couple of ways. First, a lot of scientists are quite comfortable with simplistic philosophy of science. This usually doesn’t matter, but there are cases where good philosophy has something to offer, and scientists rarely put in the work necessary to understand what that good philosophy has to say. Second, scientists tend to think of philosophy as a service discipline – what good does it do for my practice of science? The answer is almost always “no good at all,” which they then translate into thinking that philosophy has no real purpose. The truth is that almost all scientific work can proceed quite happily without philosophy – you can be very good at driving a car without knowing how an engine works. But when it’s important, philosophy very important indeed. Continue reading »

Feb 072013


I’ll be giving a public lecture entitled “Surprises and Sweet Spots” on Friday night, February 8th, at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland if you’re pining for something to do and are in the neighborhood. The lecture starts at 8pm and is followed by an extended “conversation period” for those that want to hang around.


Jan 272013

The Santa Fe Institute has jumped into the massive open online course game, launching “Introduction to Complexity” run by Melanie Mitchell, a professor of computer science at Portland State University and author of Complexity: A Guided Tour. The Santa Fe Institute has done lots of interesting work over the years in complexity, chaos, and emergent systems. One thing I’ve always liked about them is their cross-disciplinary tendencies. They thrive on getting people from diverse disciplines together.

The course itself looks to be pretty interesting and starts February 4th if you want to sign up. I don’t expect it to be fundamentally philosophical, but it will likely provide lots of good stuff to think about. Below is the lecture outline.


1. What is Complexity?   7. Modeling Social Systems
2. Dynamics, Chaos, and Fractals   8. Networks
3. Information, Order, Randomness   9. Scaling
4. Cellular Automata  10. Cities as Complex Systems
5. Genetic Algorithms  11. Virtual Field Trip; Final Exam
6. Self-Organization in Nature
Jan 082013

The most recent brough-ha-ha from one of Mark’s posts seems to center on rationality and philosophy, but underlying all the stuff in the “new rationality” is understanding the process of updating our current knowledge with new information through Bayes Theorem (LW calls the process belief updating or bayesian updating). Bayes Theorem is both very useful and very interesting historically and philosophically, and not without its philosophical issues. (Uninformative priors anyone?) I want to point everyone to two books by the philosopher of science Ian Hacking that open up the landscape of probability and induction with a good, strong dose of philosophical reflection along the way. Hacking writes clearly and, for my money, does a great job of keeping the open questions out in the open.

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Dec 282012

Credit physics.ubc.ca

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of discussing P.W. Anderson‘s famous 1972 article More is Different as part of  a PEL Not School study group on emergence with Not Schoolers Bill Burgess, Casey Fitzpatrick, Ernie Prabhakar, and Evan Gould.

Anderson argues that the sciences don’t form a reductive whole — that chemistry isn’t applied physics and psychology isn’t applied biology — taking early aim at the conceits of the uber-reductionist elementary particle physicists. Part of his argument is an articulation of how the principles of symmetry-breaking make this non-reductionism clear in the physical world. We discuss all these matters trying to sort out Anderson’s claims and what we think of the evidence for them.

You can read the article yourself here.

If you’re a Not School member (or as we like to say, PEL Citizen), you can access the audio of this discussion on the Free Stuff for Citizens page, along with the audio from several other Not School discussions.

If you’re not a member, please consider joining. For $5 a month you’ll get access to regular audio discussions (above and beyond our regular podcast episode). As one Not Schooler put it about a recent discussion with Mark about Chalmers’ The Conscious Mind, these can be “almost as good as a regular podcast.” Membership also gets you access to study groups and discussion forums, all sorts of other bonus content, and the opportunity to participate in Skype/Google Hangout audio or video discussions yourself if you’re interested (fame and/or notoriety await you). Read more about Not School and sign up.


Dec 012012

Not SchoolThere’s lots of cool things going on in the PEL Not School discussion groups. To entice those of you that are interested in emergence to come check things out, I’ve proposed reading and discussing a short, interesting essay by the physicist P. W. Anderson called “More is Different: Broken Symmetry and the Hierarchical Nature of Science”. The essay itself is was originally published in 1972 in Science  and is a classic in the discussions of emergence. You can get a PDF copy of the original article or get it along with a bunch of other interesting articles  included in recently published collection Emergence: Contemporary Readings in Philosophy and Science (Bradford Books) edited by Mark A. Bedau and Paul Humphreys.

I plan to have a single discussion over Skype or somesuch concerning the reading at a time to be determined in mid/late December.

Come check it out!


Nov 262012

QUIIINNNNEEEEE!!!!!Joining Mark’s reading of Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empricism” on our member site, I’ve added the other essay we read for Episode 66, “On What There Is” to the lot.

Due to copyright issues, I can’t just put this on our public site, nor can I sell it as a one-off item, so the member site is the only way we can currently distribute this. Learn more about membership and sign up.


(The Shatner image came from here.)

Nov 262012

Image from NYTimes.comA friend of the podcast pointed me to today’s column in the NYTimes Gray Matter by Alisa Quart about a backlash against neuroscience, particularly popular accounts of it throughout mainstream media from Malcom Gladwell on tipping points to Chris Mooney on the “republican brain” to Eben Alexander on the neuroscience of heaven. These all follow the general theme of over-simplification and over-extrapolation of, in this case, neuro-scientific studies. (Alexander would seem to be something of an exception here. He’s using his cred as a scientist to give authority to his personal testimony regarding a near-death experience. He’s not pointing to a double-blind study or anything. He’s just saying “I saw heaven when I was in a coma and since I’m smart and I’m a neuro-scientist, you should believe me.”)

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Oct 232012

Freeman Dyson has a review of Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? in the early November issue of The New York Review of Books. Dyson is an esteemed physicist who, as a young man, cinched the link between accounts of quantum electrodynamics given separately by Richard Feynman, Julian Schwinger, and Sin-Itiro Tomonanga in the late 1940s. He probably should’ve been included in the Nobel Prize awarded for QED, but it is limited to three simultaneous recipients. Dyson’s review is interesting for a few reasons. First, he attended Cambridge at the time of Wittgenstein and, in fact, lived in an apartment below him. He had been given the Tractatus as a gift in high school and “read it through in one night in an ecstasy of adolescent enthusiasm.” His reminiscences about Wittgenstein in a few paragraphs is worth the read itself. Second, his judgment of the philosophy is linked to his judgement of the actions of the man. For instance, “Heiddegger himself lost his credibility” when he joined the Nazi party as a rector at Freiburg. Discussing Wittgenstein and Heidegger (the twin 20th century biggies according to Holt), Dyson quips:

Holt summarizes the difference between Heidegger and Wittgenstein in nine words: “Wittgenstein was brave and ascetic, Heidegger treacherous and vain.” These words apply equally to their characters as human beings and to their intellectual output.

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Oct 182012

In a recent column in The Stone, Harvey Cormier considers the political oomph of pragmatists through a nice presentation of some central thinking of William James. The occasion for the piece is a recent spate of writings characterizing Obama as “a pragmatist politician.” What I like best about Cormier’s article is his refutation, through James, of the lame but pervasive equation of pragmatism with weak-kneed inaction. Pointing to James, he emphasizes that pragmatism is compatible (even essential) to genuine truth-seeking by being incompatible with ideology:

Still, while James did want us to believe, he also wanted us to give up “ideologies.” He called pragmatism “[t]he attitude of looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts.” Pragmatists can have principles but not self-verifying ones; they renounce any certainties that are based on claims of universal necessity.  In our world of chance and change, things may not go the way we want either intellectually or practically, so we have to look to the developing world of actions and results for support of, and challenges to, our most cherished faiths. The final test of even our logic is how well it leads us to act and live. Pragmatists therefore think, and act, provisionally, or subject to later changes in course. Still, provisional action is action, and particular actions are sometimes irrevocable. Moreover, “provisional” need not mean “timid.”

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Oct 142012

Two friends of mine have recently started blogs, though of different stripes.

One is by Gary Borjesson called Idle Speculations. Gary and I met on the faculty at St. John’s, and, like me, is on leave right now. Gary’s book on dogs, friendship, and philosophy, Willing Dogs & Reluctant Masters: On Friendship and Dogs, has just been published. His blog, just a few entries long, swerves from ruminations on the coming death of his dog (Aktis has been ill), to an article on the National Sheepdog Finals, to reminding us that dogs have rudimentary, but essential, understandings of justice.

The other, Clearing My Head, is by Robert Henderson, a good friend from my grad school days at the University of Rochester where I studied experimental particle physics. Bob studied theoretical particle physics, but following his degree became a quant on Wall Street. After 15 years working at several banks, he’s gone on a motorcycle trip to clear his head and make a transition in his life. He’s riding across the US, taking the back roads from New York to the west coast, mainly improvising the path along the way. Clearing My Head, is primarily a travelogue, recording his trip and commenting a bit along the way. He’s a big fan of Pirsig and istened to our episode on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as he rode from Madison to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. There’s something fitting about listening to that episode while riding a motorcycle across the country.

Oct 132012

For your weekend podcast-listening pleasure, a friend of the podcast pointed me to the most recent episode of the Rationally Speaking podcast in which the hosts take up science fiction and chew on what kinds of philosophical insight might garnered from such speculative fiction. (Beware those who, like Seth, abhor the thought experiment!) In the words of the podcasters themselves:

By its very nature, science fiction has always been particularly suited to philosophical exploration. In fact, some of the best science fiction novels, short stories, movies, and TV shows function like extended philosophical thought experiments: what might cloning tell us about our views on personal identity? If we could all take a pill to be happy, would we want to do that? In this episode, Massimo and Julia recall some of their favorite philosophically-rich science fiction, and debate the potential pitfalls in using science fiction to reach philosophical conclusions.

Sep 262012

The Federalist Papers (originally published as just The Federalist) are a collection of essays published in newspapers in 1787-1788 arguing for the ratification of the American Constitution. Each was published under the pseudonym “Publius” though most were written by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. (There are a few written by John Jay.) They were collected and published in groups during the ratification of the Constitution and then published as a group following ratification. They are among the most important documents articulating the political philosophy underlying the American Constitution itself.

The essays are widely available in many forms and have been published by many presses. You can get a free version from Project Gutenburg. The Wikipedia entry for the Federalist Papers contains extensive links and structure to the papers and cross-references to each of the essays.
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Aug 122012

Every August for the past ten years my family and I have spent a couple of weeks on a smallish lake in northwest Michigan. I say small, but it’s about 1800 acres, plenty big for most purposes, if tiny compared to the big water of Lake Michigan just five miles away. Most every afternoon the breeze picks up and I take a good sail on our Laser. Sometimes it’s peaceful and the zen-like tranquility overflows as the dinghy slides along the water. The aloneness is pleasant and refreshing, like a good walk in the woods. Other times the wind is howling at 25-30 knots, spray lashing over the bow, and it’s an exhilarating fight through the waves. On those afternoons I find myself talking to the sky and the wind and feel a bit like I’m in a Hemmingway novel, equal parts Heraclitus and Epicurus. Continue reading »

Aug 032012

 Every now and then you find something that is, on the one hand, unexpected. The thought of it hadn’t occurred to you, neither as a fact found through the memes of popular culture nor as an extrapolation from your current knowledge. On the other hand, the discovery isn’t so much a surprise as simply new information that really just fits in with all the rest. My most recent such moment happened at a local used book store, The Frugal Muse, while I was looking for a decent translation of Neitzsche’s “On Truth and Lies in the Non-Moral Sense” for an upcoming podcast. Browsing the spines of philosophy tomes that had fallen from other people’s shelves, and having truth and meaning on my mind, I picked up a volume of essays titled Meaning and Mental Representations and edited by, among others, Umberto Eco. My limited knowledge of him stems solely from his best-selling work of fiction The Name of the Rosewhich includes a murder that turns on  the hunt for the sole copy of the second portion Aristotle’s book on poetics concerning comedy. It turns out (likely as no surprise to most PEL listeners) that Eco is also an academic specializing in semiotics. This new-found fact (for me) fit in just fine with my memories of the novel.
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Jul 302012

A PEL fan pointed us to the work of the recently deceased philosopher Paul Cilliers from South Africa, particularly to a short paper he wrote for  ”On the Importance of  a Certain Slowness.” (published as a chapter in Worldviews, Science, and Us: Philosophy and Complexity ). In the essay, Cilliers points to the various “slow” movements that have been cropping up around the world from slow food, to slow cities, to slow schooling to slow sex and looks to focus

on the underlying principles which make the debate on slowness an important one. Through an analysis of the temporal nature of complex systems, it will be shown that the cult of speed, and especially the understanding that speed is related to efficiency, is a destructive one.

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Jul 262012

Dennis Overbye has a nice article this week in the NYTimes on the recently published explanation of the Pioneer Anomaly. As he explains,

The story starts with the Pioneer 10 and 11 space probes, which went past Jupiter and Saturn in the late 1970s and now are on their way out of the solar system. In the 1980s it became apparent that a mysterious force was slowing them down a little more than should have been expected from gravity of the Sun and planets.

Was there an unknown planet or asteroid out there tugging on the spacecraft? Was it drag from interplanetary gas or dust? Something weird about the spacecraft? Or was something wrong in our calculation of gravity out there in the dark?

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