Thursday, June 10, 2004

Wilkins Enters the Blogosphere! Philosopher of Science John Wilkins now has his own blog: Evolving Thoughts. Having read his magisterial take-down of ID windbag William Dembski (co-authored with Welsey Elsberry), published in the journal Biology and Philosophy, I have little doubt that he wil have interesting things to say on a regular basis. Wilkins is also a contributor to The Panda's Thumb.

Currently he has an interesting post up about how evolutionary theory can shed some insight into the age old question of why mathematics is such an effective tool for describing reality. Here's an excerpt:


In the late 19thC and early 20thC, thinkers like Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell held a view sometimes known as “logicism” - that mathematics reduces to logic. Under this view, the reason why maths works is that logic works, and the world is fundamentally logical. But what are these logical truths on which we build our mathematical edifices? Plato's account, as exemplified by the slave boy he tricks into working out a mathematical truth by asking leading questions, is that we remember them from before we were born, when we, or at any rate our souls, existed among the eternal forms.

But the way Plato gets this result is in itself a hint about what is really going on. Maths is a language, and what can be expressed in it, is what we need to express, based on how we live; what Wittgenstein called out “forms of life”, both biological and cultural. Hamming assumes that our biology is paramount - but I think he overestimates the biological implications of logic. And so we come to the book that inspires this little essay:

William S. Cooper, in a book entitled The Evolution of Reason: Logic as a Branch of Biology (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge UK, 2001, ISBN 0-521-79196-0), makes an even more remarkable claim - maths may reduce to logic, but there are a number of logics, and at base is decision theory, which is reducible to “life-history strategy theory”, which is reducible to evolutionary theory.

Logic works, in short, because it is an abstraction out of the principles of the way evolution works.