Getting up to speed on my science (with reading recommendations!)

Update 12/2/2012: I’ve decided I’m going to be periodically updating this post. All updates (except this one) will be placed at the bottom of the post.

Luke, my boss, once said that “the only people allowed to do philosophy should be those with with primary training in cognitive science, computer science, or mathematics.” He was joking, but I’m not sure he was entirely joking. Certainly if you want to do good philosophy in any area with clear tie-ins to science (and not end up another Alvin Plantinga), you need to know your science.

This is actually something I got frustrated with myself over when I was in school. When I’d take philosophy of science courses, it was a struggle to both spend enough time on the philosophy and on the science, which would often be stuff I hadn’t studied before (even though I did take a lot of science as an undergrad). Now that I’ve started thinking about returning to graduate school, I’d really like to get up to speed on relevant science first. But it’s likely to be nearly two years if not more before that happens, so I’ve got time.

I’m hoping to blog my learning process, and the rest of this post is essentially going to be me consolidating for myself what I want to study, but it gives you all a preview of what may be ahead for me (time permitting), and may be useful to anyone thinking of embarking on a similar plan of self-education. So here it goes.

Luke has actually been great about providing recommendations to people who want to educate themselves about various topics. He started a thread at LessWrong to discuss the best textbooks on every subject, and his website contains recommendations on things like review articles, highlights in recent philosophy, and a “most productive living philosophers” page (which is mostly just a reminder that I need to read Judea Pearl). On Facebook, Luke recently recommended this as an example of good recent philosophy.

He’s also written reviews of two books that look useful, The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Cognitive Science and Philosophy in the Flesh. His post on Eliezer Yudkowsky’s sequences and mainstream academia also references lots of things that look worth reading. I should also probably revisit his posts on what he thinks is wrong with philosophy and what to do about it.

Finally, in terms of things I might want to be working on eventually, Luke’s articles So You Want to Save the World and Funding Good Research may provide examples.

Update 12/2/2012: I can’t believe I forgot to put these books on my reading list (even if they aren’t all strictly science).

Luke has also posted two more entries in his series on philosophy for LessWrong.

Not really for the reading list, but interesting comment from Anders Sandberg to keep in mind as I do this:

Over the history of my academic career my most useful courses have been linear algebra, all the statistics and probability theory I’ve been able to pick up, some basic computer science, and a course on natural disasters.

Update 12/10/2012: Okay, this post that Luke wrote pretty much gives me my reading list.

  • http://wordsideasandthings.blogspot.com/ Garren

    If you want a slightly-over-popular-level introduction to radiometric dating, I recommend Dalrymple’s The Age of the Earth. It’s specifically written to present the evidence that the Earth is billions of years old. As a bonus, Darlymple covers historical attempts to discern the age of the Earth and why they were wrong. (Without any Kuhnian nonsense about it just being a different scientific “paradigm” back then.)

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Age-Earth-Brent-Dalrymple/dp/0804723311/

    This was the book that converted me away from Young Earth Creationism, but it’s broader than that since it shows how real science works over time.

  • MNb

    “get up to speed on relevant science first”
    As far as physics is concerned I can recommend you a very accessible source: English Wikipedia. I know all the objections against that one, but being a teacher maths and physics I can tell you that I haven’t found a single error on my favourite subjects. There is enough prose, so you don’t have to be bothered too much with maths (though I guess you’re no slouch in this respect). Moreover all the references look reliable to me.
    Assuming you are familiar with Classical Physics (Newton and stuff) you can begin with Special Relativity followed by Quantum Mechanics. As a professional skeptc you probably want to check things. For this I refer to your former colleague Mano Singham first:

    blog.case.edu/singham/age_of_the_earth/index
    blog.case.edu/singham/relativity/index
    blog.case.edu/singham/big_bang_for_beginners/index

  • MNb

    “get up to speed on relevant science first”
    As far as physics is concerned I can recommend you a very accessible source: English Wikipedia. I know all the objections against that one, but being a teacher maths and physics I can tell you that I haven’t found a single error on my favourite subjects. There is enough prose, so you don’t have to be bothered too much with maths (though I guess you’re no slouch in this respect). Moreover all the references look reliable to me.
    Assuming you are familiar with Classical Physics (Newton and stuff) you can begin with Special Relativity followed by Quantum Mechanics. As a professional skeptc you probably want to check things. For this I refer to your former colleague Mano Singham first:
    blog.case.edu/singham/age_of_the_earth/index
    blog.case.edu/singham/relativity/index
    blog.case.edu/singham/big_bang_for_beginners/index

  • baal

    From the title I was going to suggest pretty much any college 101 level biology text book. It would cover how to look scientifically at the world as well as show how life is pretty damn explainable w/o the invocation of voodoo. After reading your post, I’ll sit back down and check out the links.;p

    The problem I usually see in philosophers regarding science is that they start at “materialism is really hard to justify philosophically and isn’t as elegant as other models of reality (there is choice here?!).” Science, writ broadly, as a way of knowing is really really good and not just on my say so. Its assumptions are constantly tested against reality (as best as it can be discerned) and leads to the amazing devices in our lives – like plumbing and electrification of entire countries. This ability to make things suggests science is the best way of knowing and should be accorded special privilege in epistemology (reality is real and there is only 1 meaningful one).

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