Tag Archives: humanities

Human(itie)s, aliens, and autism: Ian Hacking and Elliot Sober at Fluno Center tomorrow

Humanities at Wisconsin are said to be underfunded and demoralized, but you’d never know it from the excellent “What is Human?” symposium the Center for Humanities is holding tomorrow at Fluno Center. At 1:45, Ian Hacking will speak on “Humans, aliens, and autism” — perhaps he’ll expand on some of the material in this 2006 essay from the LRB. Hacking’s two books on the development of probability theory, The Emergence of Probability and The Taming of Chance, are probably the best I’ve read on the history of mathematics; to stay bound to the theme of this post, he is one of the only people writing really humanely about mathematical practice. (The late Thomas Tymoczko was another.)

Speaking at 11:15 is our own Elliot Sober, who is that most powerful of creatures, a philosopher who knows Bayes’ Theorem. (See also: Adam Elga, K. Anthony Appiah.) Sober’s title is TBA, but he may well talk about (or, more likely, against) the “design argument” against Darwinism. (He’s definitely giving a talk on that subject at 7:30 this Thursday night, in 1315 Chemistry.) A very vulgar version of the design argument looks like this. The probability that intelligent life would arise, if there were no divine guidance, is nonzero but spectacularly small. The probability that intelligent life would arise, if a divine being created it, is 1. Now Bayes says you should think that divine origin of human life is very likely, even if it was very unlikely in your prior. Sober’s new book, Evidence and Evolution, takes on the design argument and its many more sophisticated variants, and more generally tries to work out what we mean by “evidence” about the origins of life. Bayes flies everywhere.

Sober is also credited with the following joke:

A boy is about to go on his first date, and is nervous about what to talk about. He asks his father for advice. The father replies: “My son, there are three subjects that always work. These are food, family, and philosophy.”

The boy picks up his date and they go to a soda fountain. Ice cream sodas in front of them, they stare at each other for a long time, as the boy’s nervousness builds. He remembers his father’s advice, and chooses the first topic. He asks the girl: “Do you like potato pancakes?” She says “No,” and the silence returns.

After a few more uncomfortable minutes, the boy thinks of his father’s suggestion and turns to the second item on the list. He asks, “Do you have a brother?” Again, the girl says “No” and there is silence once again.

The boy then plays his last card. He thinks of his father’s advice and asks the girl the following question: “If you had a brother, would he like potato pancakes?”

(This philosophy joke, along with many others, appears here.)

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In which I like brutalism

The campus of UW features a few buildings in the brutalist style; these hunker uneasily between the older buildings and are complained about by everyone, though they have some hesitant defenders. Last week I gave a number theory seminar at UIC, a campus built from scratch in the late 1960s, at the height of the vogue for concrete. Huge rectilinear concrete towers set into vast concrete plazas, not an acute angle or a brick or a natural landscape contour in sight. What’s more, I was there on a freezing cold day with overcast skies and a kind of punchy, angular snow which might have actually been extremely small hail. And you know what? It looked terrific. I take back the bad things I’ve said about this style — when your whole field of view is made out of brutalism, it ends up, if you can believe this, kind of nice. It’s like being inside a futuristic diorama. (Pictured: Walter Netsch, designer of UIC.)

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