The mallet and blank cartridges 
I have refrained from writing anything about so-called Intelligent Design (ID) for the same reason I have refrained from hitting myself with a mallet. I have been teaching William James' Pragmatism lectures for the last couple of weeks, however, and he takes up the topic of design. The mallet beckons.

\begin{mallet}

In Lecture III, James considers what a pragmatist must say about the question of whether or not the universe is designed by a divine craftsman. If everything were a "lubberland of happiness already" then there would be no dispute. In a perfect world, religious conceptions that reach beyond our immediate, satisfying experience would never occur to us. So the question of design only arises because the world is a complicated, imperfect place-- the kind of world in which some things do not seem to serve a higher purpose. When we consider "a cosmic mind whose purposes are fully revealed by the strange mixture of goods and evils that we find in this actual world's particulars... we cannot by any possibility comprehend it. The mere word 'design' by itself has no consequences and explains nothing. ... Pragmatically, then, the abstract word 'design' is a blank cartridge. I carries no consequences, it does not execution."

The passage resonates a century later. IDists plead that ID is science and not religion, because it concludes that there is a designer but not does stipulate that the designer is the divine smiting trinity of the Christian tradition. Consider this site, which claims: "There is nothing mystical, supernatural, religious, or non-scientific about intelligent design theory. In its current form, intelligent design theory also can say nothing about the designer other than that the designer was intelligent." The contemporary arguments are more intricate than the older creationist gambits, but the upshot is the same. This bare claim of design leads nowhere. It fails as a scientific research program, because it does not tell us in any way what we might do next.

A different page on the same site ventures into theology. For example: "Theistic models of intelligent design define optimality as that which matches God's purpose, which is ultimately loving and wise." It then has to do the shuffle step that James anticipates: God must have some really complicated long range plans such that this modest rock ball Earth figures as an optimal component of them. These plans are beyond our ken. Which is to say, we cannot say why this or that apparent sub-optimality is really optimal.

Now we are well into 'blank cartridge' territory. ID is severed from being a contentful account of the natural world, and is just a propaedeutic to a sermon on hellfire, the devil, and original sin. As James says, "When we look at what has actually come, the conditions must always appear perfectly designed to ensure it." To put the point differently: The hypothesis that an unfathomable mind means for things to go just this way will confer a higher probability on the present state of the world than any comprehensible hypothesis, regardless of how things turn out. To quote James again: "The question of whether there is design is idle. The real question is what is the world, whether or not it have a designer-- and that can be revealed only by the study of all nature's particulars."

\end{mallet}


Addendum Nov27:

Shortly after I wrote the post above, Ron suggested that ID does have empirical content: It predicts that some features of the world will ultimately resist natural explanation. On the one hand, any modest naturalist will agree. No matter how far science progresses, there will still be unanswered questions. On the other hand, this is not a prediction of bare ID. A designer might well create things that, although artificial, could be explained in terms of natural causes. To say that the products of the designer will be inexplicable is to specify some of the craft of the designer; in short, to do theology.

Another specimen of the character that James effectively skewers, IDist Richard Buggs is quoted in today's Guardian: "Intelligent design looks at empirical evidence in the natural world and says, 'this is evidence for a designer'. If you go any further the argument does become religious and intelligent design does have religious implications." Buggs' ID is just the content-free creationism. Any feature of the world could be taken as evidence for a designer that would make it thus.

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Happy blogiversary! 
It has been about a year since I launched Footnotes on Epicycles; the one year mark is Wednesday. According to the statistics maintained by the blog software, I have posted over twenty-five thousand words in that time.

Zow.

Facing that datum made me wonder: What if I had written a pentad of five-thousand word research articles instead? Of course, that would have been a better use of my time. But the question is wrong-headed. Whatever writing FOE does, it doesn't trade off word-for-word with writing publishable papers.

The 'news' posts have replaced my old, handcoded rss feed: Time saved.

Some posts have fed directly into papers. I worked through issues in distributed cognition here while revising my d-cog paper; that paper is now forthcoming in Social Studies of Science. I only wrote my Wikipedia paper after blogging several times on the topic; if it weren't for the feedback that resulted from those posts, I never would have written the paper.

Some posts have made points which are worth making explicitly, but which do not have a home in any paper I'm writing. The title of the blog is not just a poetic flourish.

Some posts have allowed me to work through issues that I am still thinking about: natural kinds, scientific significance, the status of fictional claims, and so on. Whether I ever write papers on these topics or not, these posts are not competing with polished papers. They are more akin to notes that I would probably be writing longhand if I didn't have a blog. Whereas the notes would just be interred in a filing cabinet and never seen again, the posts are stored in a searchable database and sometimes elicit interesting comments.

Some posts allow me to blow off steam. Better that than base jumping off the Humanities building.

Although that justifies most of my posting, there is admittedly an occasional post that is a total waste of time. Like this one.

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URL grey 
I have been migrating between servers and, in the course of doing so, made the decision not to renew fecundity.info after the next year of registration runs out. As such, Footnotes on Epicycles has a new URL. The old one should forward for the next thirteen months or so, so you may change over bookmarks at your convenience.

Also, I've updated to the new version of SimplePHPBlog. If you find that the change has broken anything, I'd appreciate a heads up about it.

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The Doors for dogs 
I am teaching Peirce's "How to Make Our Ideas Clear" in a course on American philosophy. In one passage, Peirce draws an analogy between music and belief. In the course of the analogy, he notes that you can play a song in a higher or lower octave. When you do it is still the same song.

There are some physical reasons why a musical work's identity is preserved if you shift it by a whole octave but not if you shift it by a fraction of an octave. Nevertheless, the fact that it remains the same work-- rather than just a perceptually similar work-- is clearly a contingent fact about the Western musical tradition. We can easily imagine a musical work that is constituted by absolute pitches.

Imagine a musical piece that is about memories of a specific train and in which the opening note is at exactly the same pitch as train's whistle. It is plausible to think that the exact pitch is constitutive of that piece, as an homage to that train. Once the first note is fixed, then the relative positions of the rest of the notes make it impossible to shift the song up or down an octave. Of course, you could begin an octave higher, but it seems plausible that you'd be playing a different work: a derivative work, mind you, but not the original train homage.

Most musical works are not like the imagined train homage, and Peirce is right about an ordinary tune written in the Western tradition. Note also that there are whole-octave transformations that you cannot perform without making a new work. For example, you would get a different work if you shifted every other note up one octave while leaving the notes in between the same.

I asked the class about this case: Suppose I took Ray Manzarek's keyboard solo from The Doors' Light my Fire and transposed it into the first octave above the range of human hearing, so that dogs could hear it but people could not. Would it still be Light my Fire? or would it be a different (admittedly derivative) musical work?

Most of my students chose the former option: same piece.

However, I think my students are wrong. The conventions of Western music do allow us to transpose a musical work up or down an octave. They do not allow us to transpose it outside the range of audible sound entirely.

When I was discussing the example with Cristyn, she pointed the obvious consequence that the resulting ultrasonic ditty would be a different piece. Since I came up with the idea, the new piece was composed by me-- much in the same way that John Cage composed a piece comprised of all of the Beethoven symphonies played simultaneously.

So I wrote a new musical work.

A work that only dogs can hear.

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When is a planet not a planet? 
When it's a dwarf planet.

The voting is complete. The definition of 'planet' approved today had an additional clause: A planet must have "cleared the neighborhood around its orbit."

This means that Ceres (in the asteroid belt), Pluto, Charon, and Xena (out in the Kuiper belt) do not count as 'planets' simpliciter. Only the eight biggies are 'planets.' However, Ceres et cetera are 'dwarf planets.' This is roughly what I predicted would happen eventually given the broader definition, but it has happened immediately and officially.

The New York Times story on this ends with a comment from Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium:
Dr. Tyson said the continuing preoccupation with what the public and schoolchildren would think about this was a concern and a troubling precedent. "I don't know any other science that says about its frontier, 'I wonder what the public thinks,' " he said. "The frontier should move in whatever way it needs to move."

To put it bluntly, this is bupkis. Whether or not Pluto counts as a planet is not a matter of what we know about the universe, but a question of how we choose to express our knowledge. There is a class of entities that meet the criteria agreed upon today, and Pluto is not a member. There is a class of entities that meet the criteria proposed earlier in the month, and Pluto is a member of that.

The word 'planet' predates modern astronomy, and it belongs in part to ordinary language. If scientists were simply to ignore ordinary usage in decide which words to use in designating various kinds, then they would not be moving the frontier of science "in whatever way it needs to move"-- they would be deliberately misusing words.

To put the point with a bit more subtlety: There is an advantage to using existing terms for new or more precise concepts, because people will immediately have a rough idea of what you mean. There is the disadvantage that the connection with previous meanings may be confusing or distracting. If that disadvantage is too great, then coin a neologism. The frontier of science would not be stopped by schoolkids, if it needed to say something schoolkids did not want to hear.

Now we get to watch and see whether people actually accept the outcome of today's vote. Ron is already on board.

UPDATE: More news over at space.com. Without quoting anyone verbatim, they say that the decision is "billed as a victory of scientific reasoning over historic and cultural influences." Piffle, I say. [Repeat the above arguments.]

Yet the opposition is already maneuvering for high ground:
"I'm embarassed for astronomy," said Alan Stern, leader of NASA's New Horizon's mission to Pluto and a scientist at the Southwest Research Institute. "Less than 5 percent of the world's astronomers voted. ... This definition stinks, for technical reasons." ... He expects the astronomy community to overturn the decision.

Of course, that is just what the leader of an expensive project studying Pluto would say. Even though the decision might go either way based on the science, there is prestige and possibly even funding at stake.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Janet's kids are happy to infer from Pluto's being a dwarf planet that it is still a planet. This must be taken with a grain of salt, since they are also prepared both to promote Xena and to demote Pluto. If toy stores invest in redesigning plastic orreries, planetariums change their displays, and textbooks are rewritten, then one usage rather than another may become entrenched without any further centralized decisionmaking.

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