Tag Archives: Philosophy

Risk and rationality

I had the privilege of attending the 2016 Australian Academy of Science Theo Murphy High Flyers Think Tank in Canberra just recently. I’d only heard about it via a single tweet the day before applications were due, but with the topic of “An interdisciplinary approach to living in a risky world”, my response was: yes please.

We were also asked to choose our preferred topic for breakout-group discussion, and I got my obvious favourite, the technical theme of “Uncertainty, ignorance and partial knowledge”, which turned out to have some focus on decision theory. The session would chaired by Prof. Mark Colyvan, a professor of Philosophy at my alma mater, The University of Sydney, who had recently responded to Luke Barnes’s recent fine-tuning of the universe talk. Some of the recommended reading got me thinking about matters we didn’t get to cover (like how much I don’t like maximin), but I’ll discuss with Mark, and I’m sure I’ll blog about that later. In the meantime, our breakout group spent a couple of hours throwing around our thoughts and ideas and have begun to craft a report and recommendations for the Academy regarding decision-making and risk communication in the face of uncertainty.


Wrap up from chair Prof Hugh Possingham

My fellow delegates were such interesting people from diverse backgrounds like health, maths, stats, philosophy, history, law, geology, ecology, microbiology etc, and absorbing ideas from these amazing people over the two days provided a complete mental recharge. It was like NYSF for grown-ups. Even the conference dinner speech by emergency doctor David Caldicott was so stimulating, leaving my laughing and crying, I’d dare say it was the “best event speech ever”.


Slide from Prof Terry Speed’s talk at the AAS Think Tank

Actually one of the things I most enjoyed at the Think Tank was finding out people’s thoughts on rationality during tea break, as always. As it turns out, most people I spoke to (about this topic, sample size ~5) were adamant that people are at heart, irrational creatures. Only one person (besides myself) thought otherwise. I’ve been told I have to read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow to hear more arguments against the assumption of rationality. Apparently there are tests for this sort of thing…

Outliers are people too

I confess: I like Tom Stoppard because his plays highlight all the intellectually stimulating but somewhat pretentious (aren’t they all?) discussions I’ve had over the last 15 years. His latest, The Hard Problem, was no different. It follows Hilary, a psychology student who we meet as she applies for a job at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science, hoping to inject some humanity into their research. As always, Stoppard treats us to some witty banter, this time about altruism, animal behaviour, coincidence, consciousness, ego, evolutionary biology, morality, neuroscience, religion, and the worlds of academia and finance. The Hard Problem is perhaps less clever and fresh than Arcadia or RosenGuild, but fun and thought-provoking nonetheless. Some of the characters are true to the bone while others, disappointingly, feel typecast, but there is definitely some familiar truth in all. Overall, I’m pretty happy with the brain-lit Hytner production that we saw streamed live from the National Theatre in London – worth seeing.

Parth Thakerar (Amal), Vera Chok (Bo), Lucy Robinson (Ursula), Rosie Hilal (Julia), Olivia Vinall (Hilary) and Damien Molony (Spike) in The Hard Problem by Tom Stoppard @ Dorfman, National Theatre. (Opening 28-01-15) ©Tristram Kenton

Parth Thakerar (Amal), Vera Chok (Bo), Lucy Robinson (Ursula), Rosie Hilal (Julia), Olivia Vinall (Hilary) and Damien Molony (Spike) in The Hard Problem by Tom Stoppard @ Dorfman, National Theatre.
(Opening 28-01-15)
©Tristram Kenton

Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You

recent interview with George Ellis, from the University of Cape Town, had him confront the potential for his religious faith to affect his scientific views. (Part of) his response:

“Many key aspects of life (such as ethics: what is good and what is bad, and aesthetics: what is beautiful and what is ugly) lie outside the domain of scientific inquiry”

appears – at first glance – to concur with Stephen Jay Gould’s vision of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA). NOMA demands that moral values lie in the domain of religion, a claim heavily criticised by Richard Dawkins in his book, The God Delusion. Not a huge fan of the book, but I’m definitely less of a fan of NOMA. For completeness, according to NOMA, art and beauty then belong to yet another “magisterium”. Ellis argues, rather, that ethics “what is good or bad” is “a philosophical or religious question”. [Edit: to clarify, my qualms are regarding whether this is a religious question, not whether it’s a philosophical question.]

“Scuola di Atene”/“The School of Athens” Raphael

“Scuola di Atene” or “The School of Athens”, fresco by Raphael 1509-1510

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