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Posted on Sat. Feb. 16, 2013 - 12:01 am EDT

ALARMS AND DIVERSIONS FOR THE THINKING PERSON

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The reading list

“It was an idea long consigned to the dustbin of scientific history. 'Like a virgin consecrated to God,' Francis Bacon declared nearly 400 years ago, it 'produces nothing'. It was anti-rational nonsense, the last resort of unfashionable idealists and religious agitators. And then, late last year, one of the world's most renowned philosophers published a book arguing that we should take it seriously after all. Biologists and philosophers lined up to give the malefactor a kicking. His ideas were 'outdated', complained some. Another wrote: 'I regret the appearance of this book.' Steven Pinker sneered at 'the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker'. The Guardian called it 'the most despised science book of 2012'. So what made everyone so angry?

“The thinker was Thomas Nagel, the book was 'Mind and Cosmos,' and the idea was teleology. In ancient science (or, as it used to be called, natural philosophy), teleology held that things — in particular, living things — had a natural end, or telos, at which they aimed. The acorn, Aristotle said, sprouted and grew into a seedling because its purpose was to become a mighty oak. Sometimes, teleology seemed to imply an intention to pursue such an end, if not in the organism then in the mind of a creator. It could also be taken to imply an uncomfortable idea of reverse causation, with the telos — or 'final cause' — acting backwards in time to affect earlier events. For such reasons, teleology was ceremonially disowned at the birth of modern experimental science.

“The extraordinary success since then of non-teleological scientific thinking and its commitment to forwards-only 'mechanistic causation' would seem to support Bacon's denunciation of teleology. But it continued to bubble under the surface as a live problem for some, particularly regarding descriptions of life. Immanuel Kant wrote that, when observing a living being, we couldn't help thinking in teleological terms, and to do so was justified for its scientific usefulness.”

– From “Your point is?” at nmagazine.com

A quiz

The Earth is how many times heavier than the moon? (Within 5)

Wisdom of the ages

“Be sure you put your feet in the right place, and then stand firm.” – Abraham Lincoln

Cudrrent wisdom

“Clearly the president wants more revenue for more government. He's gotten all the revenue he's going to get. Been there, done that.” – Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., as President Obama is expected to press a politically-divided Congress to approve more tax increases and fewer spending cuts during his State of the Union address.

Quiz answer

81 times heavier.

Snob words

nice-REN-ik), adj. – tending to promote peace, peaceful, as in, “The editorial writer realized the debate on abortion was not likely to be an irenic event.”

Today in history

On this date in 1883, the “Ladies Home Journal” began publication; wow, print.

Now you know

Prior to the 1900s, male nurses were far more common than female nurses in nearly every country in the world. In current times, men now make up only 5.4 percent of registered nurses in the U.S. and only 13percent of new nursing students in the now-female-dominated field.


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