08 Dec

Forgotten Genius: George Boole

A five minute documentary on George Boole, creator of Boolean algebra and forefather of the digital age. The memorials mentioned are those in Lincoln where Boole was born. Click here for the Lincoln Boole Foundation, who encourage citizens of Lincoln and the world to celebrate George Boole’s digital legacy -especially in 2014 & 2015, his binary bicentenary.

Also see UCC’s commemoration here.

08 Dec

Ones and Zeros: George Boole

Mathematician and logician George Boole died 150 years ago today, on 8th December, 1864. Today also marks the start of the year-long schedule of events UCC are running to commemorate Boole, culminating in the bicentenary of his birth on 2nd November 2015 (see GeorgeBoole.com for more).

George Boole was born in Lincoln, the eldest son in a family of modest means. For details of his life as a self-taught mathematician to first professor in UCC (then Queens College Cork) in 1849, where he lived until his death see the detailed biography here.

Boole had a large impact on mathematics, providing the basis for invariant theory, and working on differential and difference equations, and probability. Developments of his work such as set theory and boolean algebra are taught to school children today.

However, of most interest philosophically are The Mathematical Analysis of Logic, and its successor An Investigation of the Laws of Thought, on which are founded the Mathematical Theories of Logic and Probabilities published in 1854. These proposed that ideas expressed in language can be expressed in algebraic form. This combination of philosophical logic and algebra, as DeMorgan said “would not have been believed until it was proved.
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03 Dec

Reciprocal Referencing: Hutcheson and Swift

At the end of a downpour on a Dublin street
At the end of a downpour on a Dublin street

“Now in contiguous drops the flood comes down,
Threatening with deluge this devoted town.”
Downpour in Dublin (c) Phil Burns/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I came across an article, An image from Francis Hutcheson in Gulliver’s Travels, book IV, chapter 5 by Arnd Bohm, in which he points out the similarity between a passage by Swift and a passage by Hutcheson.

In Gulliver’s Travels (book IV, Chapter 5) Gulliver tells the gentle, horse-like Houyhnhnm master about wars among humans, and the death and destruction it involves:

And to set forth the valour of my own dear countrymen, I assured him, “that I had seen them blow up a hundred enemies at once in a siege, and as many in a ship, and beheld the dead bodies drop down in pieces from the clouds, to the great diversion of the spectators.”

The Houyhnhnm is horrified, as we might be well be, at the thought of wholesale death being a “great diversion”. Bohm suggests that the moral indifference shown is emphasised when we realise the likely source of the example Swift is using.
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01 Dec

C.S. Lewis, Irish philosopher?

A photograph of C. S. Lewis hanging in The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford

A photograph of C. S. Lewis hanging in The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford
(c) Freddie Phillips/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

C. S. Lewis was born in Belfast on 29th November 1898, and a festival in that city celebrating him is in its second year.

So for the purposes of this, he’s Irish. But is C. S. Lewis a philosopher? A piece in the University of Oxford Practical Ethics blog argues that he is, in C. S Lewis as a moral philosopher:

All decent people believe essentially the same things, he thought. There is, in other words, not just a Universal Moral Grammar, but a Universal Moral Vocabulary. This is an old idea. It’s inherent in the idea and language of natural law. ‘[T]aking the race as a whole’, wrote Lewis, those who referred to the “Law of Nature’ ‘thought that the human idea of decent behaviour was obvious to every one. And I believe they were right.’ Our moral norms are hardwired. ‘It seems, then, we are forced to believe in a real Right and Wrong. People may be sometimes mistaken about them, just as people sometimes get their sums wrong. But they are not a matter of mere taste and opinion any more than the multiplication table.’

Readers may see a certain similarity to the ethical theory of another Ulster man, Francis Hutcheson.
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27 Nov

Thoughts for Feelings

What too many people in Ireland mistake for thoughts are feelings. It is enough to them to vent like or dislike, inherited prejudices or passions, and they think when they have expressed feeling they have given utterance to thought. The nature of our political controversies provoked passion, and passion has become dominant in our politics. Passion truly is a power in humanity, but it should never enter into national policy.

Chapter I, The National Being (1916), by (A.E.) George William Russell.

26 Nov

Moon Illusion

berkeley moon

When, therefore, the Horizontal Moon is said to appear greater than the Meridional Moon; this must be understood, not of a greater Visible Extension, but of a greater Tangible Extension; which, by reason of the more than ordinary Faintness of the Visible Appearance, is suggested to the Mind along with it.

Berkeley on the Moon Illusion in his 1709 An Essay towards a new Theory of Vision. These lines are from section LXXIV. The Moon Illusion is discussed from section LXVII – note in LXXV his mention of the “gross blunders” of Descartes, Hobbes and Gassendi, shown up by Mr Molyneaux (not William but his brother Thomas.) Thomas Molyneaux’s paper in Philosophical Transactions is here.

Both the 1709 and the 1732 versions of An Essay towards a new Theory of Vision are available here , more on the Moon Illusion from Nautilus Magazine here.

23 Nov

Eriugena without any gaps

John Scottus Eriugena
John Scottus Eriugena

John Scottus Eriugena,
Wikicommons

The podcast series The History of Philosophy without any Gaps has arrived at the early medieval period. The first major philosopher to be covered is Irishman John Scottus Eriugena.

Episode 197: “Charles in Charge: The Carolingian Renaissance” gives an introduction to the growth of learning in France in the years before Eriugena. The focus is on the star of Charlemagne’s court, the philosopher Alcuin of York. The court was also home to many Irish scholars such as Clemens Scotus (teacher, at court before Alcuin), Joseph Scottus (a poet and scholar who probably accompanied Alcuin), Dungal of Bobbio (teacher and astronomer), Dicuil (geographer), Donatus of Fiesole (teacher), Cruindmelus (teacher), and Cadac-Andreas (scholar). This reflects the focus the Carolingian Court had on education and learning, which drew in scholars from all over Europe. It also shows the wide range of learning held by Irish monks.
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20 Nov

What ish my nation?

"Yet could we turn those years again" illustration from Yeats' "September 1913" (c) lusciousblopster/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

“Yet could we turn those years again”
 illustration from Yeats’ “September 1913”
(c) lusciousblopster/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

 

MacMorris, gallivanting
around the Globe, whinged[…]
“What ish my nation?”
And sensibly, though so much
later, the wandering Bloom
replied, “Ireland,” said Bloom,
“I was born here. Ireland.”
Traditions, Seamus Heaney

Bloom may have been sensible, but his simple statement was not undisputed. A spit on the ground is the response to his reply in Ulysses. MacMorris, the original stage Irishman in Henry V declares “Ish a villain and a bastard and a knave and a rascal”, a admission unsurprising, Heaney suggests, to an English audience with a low opinion of the Irish. Identity is complicated, Irish identity perhaps especially so.

“[T]he histories of dependant, colonized nations are for the most part histories of ‘accidents'” – whether of births at home, ventures abroad, fortunes of war (Duddy, History of Irish Thought, p. xiii). Simple criteria to try and define the products of such a complicated history inevitably exclude – something Joyce was deliberately targetting when he wrote the words of Bloom’s reply. Could Bloom, nonCatholic and nonChristian, be accepted as Irish?
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12 Nov

The Need for Audacity of Thought

The intellect of Ireland is irreligious. I doubt if one could select from any Irish writer of the last two hundred years until the present generation a solitary sentence that might be included in a reputable anthology of religious thought. Ireland has produced but two men of religious genius: Johannes Scotus Erigena who lived a long time ago, and Bishop Berkeley who kept his Plato by his Bible; and its moral system, being founded upon habit, not intellectual conviction, has shown of late that it cannot resist the onset of modern life. We are quick to hate and slow to love; and we have never lacked a Press to excite the most evil passions. To some extent Ireland but shows in an acute form the European problem, and must seek a remedy where the best minds of Europe seek it — in audacity of speculation and creation.

William Butler Yeats, The Need for Audacity of Thought p 201 of The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats Vol X: Later Articles and Reviews. (First published in Dial, LXXX, Feb 1926)

04 Nov

John Stewart Bell: The Nature of Reality

CERN / ATLAS Particle Collision

CERN / ATLAS Particle Collision
(c) Ars Electronica/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

On the 4th November 1964, the physicist John S. Bell published a paper called On the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox. This was an important paper for both philosophy and physics with implications for our understanding of reality and freedom.

When quantum theory was developed in the early 20th century, the philosophical implications troubled some, including Einstein. The “Copenhagen interpretation” put realism in science under threat. Although the “macro” world (people, planets, plates and platypuses) were argued to be real existing things, electrons and other particles were held not to be. The world was therefore divided into the “classical” and the “quantum” worlds, or as John S. Bell later called them, the “speakable” and the “unspeakable”.

In 1935, Einstein published a paper with Nathan Rosen and Boris Podolsky (known collectively as EPR) arguing that quantum mechanics was not a complete theory, but required additional “hidden” variables to preserve realism and locality. “In the vernacular of Einstein: locality meant no instantaneous (“spooky”) action at a distance; realism meant the moon is there even when not being observed.” (wiki)

Bell also argued for realism, thus rejecting the Copenhagen Interpretation. He worked with realist theories such as de Broglie–Bohm theory, but the theory violated the EPR locality criterion. This fact was used to argue that it was on the wrong track, but Bell’s 1964 paper showed that “any serious version of quantum theory (regardless of whether or not it is based on microscopic realism) must violate locality. This means that if nature is governed by the predictions of quantum theory, the ‘locality principle’ is simply wrong, and our world is nonlocal” (American Scientist)
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