05 August 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.08.04

Wednesday: MIT's OpenCourseWare; Barnes & Noble is up for sale; is shared intentionality the foundation of human uniqueness?; experiments in language evolution; cognitive dissonance and conspiracy theories; philosophy and faith; copyright on sound recordings even more absurd than that on books; Tommasini reviews Lulu in Salzburg; two new books on early Bach reception; Werner Herzog reads Curious George.


Deric Bownds points to a new article in Science that surveys the current state of MIT's OpenCourseWare project.

The article is:
Cecilia d'Oliveira, Stephen Carson, Kate James, and Jeff Lazarus (2010), "MIT OpenCourseWare: Unlocking Knowledge Empowering Minds," Science, vol. 329, no. 5991.
The article is freely available online, and as a pdf download.  A quote:
... MIT Open-CourseWare (OCW) ... contains the core academic content used in ~2000 classes, presenting substantially all the undergraduate and graduate curriculum from MIT's 33 academic departments. A selection of courses, including introductory physics, math, and engineering, contain full video lectures. Partner organizations have created more than 800 translations of OCW courses in five languages. The OCW team has distributed over 200 copies of the entire Web site on hard drives primarily to sub-Saharan Africa, where Internet access is limited. OCW has grown into a global educational resource.


Julie Bosman writes in the NYT that bookseller Barnes & Noble is up for sale

The Human

Two excellent posts from a replicated typo, which seems to be making a habit of excellent posts.

Michael Pleyer has published the fourth and last part of his series "What Makes Humans Unique?," with the subtitle "Shared Intentionality—The Foundation of Human Uniqueness?" An excellent summary (in spite of a few editorial lapses) of recent work on the topic, much of it stemming from Michael Tomasello and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, where I often wish I worked.  This line of research is of fundamental importance, I believe, to work on the evolution of music (about which, see my post later today on music evolution and cognition).

As usual for this series, Michael has included an outstanding bibliography (although unfortunately without direct links to the research articles or to sources for the books that he mentions).


Hannah Little at a replicated typo has posted a good summary of a new review article surveying current experimental laboratory work on language evolution.  The article is:
Thomas C. Scott-Phillips and Simon Kirby (2010), "Language evolution in the laboratory," Trends in Cognitive Science (in press).  The article is, unfortunately, behind a paywall at Science Direct, and costs $31.50.
Here is the abstract:
The historical origins of natural language cannot be observed directly. We can, however, study systems that support language and we can also develop models that explore the plausibility of different hypotheses about how language emerged. More recently, evolutionary linguists have begun to conduct language evolution experiments in the laboratory, where the emergence of new languages used by human participants can be observed directly. This enables researchers to study both the cognitive capacities necessary for language and the ways in which languages themselves emerge. One theme that runs through this work is how individual-level behaviours result in population-level linguistic phenomena. A central challenge for the future will be to explore how different forms of information transmission affect this process.

Jonah Lehrer at The Frontal Cortex (now at Wired) has an good post on cognitive dissonance and the psychology of conspiracy theories.

Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, has a post at the Opinionator blog at the NYT, "Philosophy and Faith," which seems to me more thoughtful than is typical for this genre and may be of interest to some of my readers. 

For my part, Gutting doesn't even mention what seems to me to be the logical elephant in the room: that the notion of "God" itself is incoherent (what I have called an "infinitely malleable marker" without denotation), and thus not an actual thing that can be the subject of belief or existential argument.  It is an undefined term in an argument that requires a defined term. (See also my miscellaneous comments under the "atheist" category, especially those on Rosenbaum and Wilkins.  I haven't been able to persuade myself so far that the topic is worth a major separate post.)

A couple of quotes. Gutting writes:
In these popular debates about God’s existence, the winners are neither theists nor atheists, but agnostics — the neglected step-children of religious controversy, who rightly point out that neither side in the debate has made its case.   This is the position supported by the consensus of expert philosophical opinion.
Saying that the angostics are "right" is simply argument by fiat, and appeal to "expert philosophical opinion" is an argument from authority.  Expert philosophical opinion has not infrequently in the past reached consensus about positions that today everyone would reject.

Gutting (unusally for this genre) gives a kind of definition of god.
Through experiences of, for example, natural beauty, moral obligation, or loving and being loved, we may develop an abiding sense of the reality of an extraordinarily good and powerful being who cares about us.  Who is to say that such experiences do not give reason for belief in God as much as parallel (though different) experiences give reason for belief in reliable knowledge of the past and future and of other human minds?  There is still room for philosophical disputes about this line of thought, but it remains the most plausible starting point of a philosophical case for religious belief.
An "extraordinarily good and powerful being who cares about us" is, of course, very much a particular kind of Christian notion (and has not been universal even there), and is not something that appears very often on other world religions.

The argument that belief in god is somehow logically equivalent to other types of belief based on incomplete evidence (belief in "knowledge of the past" or "other human minds") is an old one, but seems to me to have no merit.  The terms "the past" and "other human minds" are at least reasonably well defined, and one can talk sensibly about what sorts of evidence might be relevant to the case. This is not the case with "God."

And I'm surprised that a philosopher would make the elementary error of seeming to claim that anyone has a belief in "reliable knowledge about the future."  Only charlatans claim this.  Oh, and perhaps also some who believe to have received the knowledge from "God" or some other supernatural agent.


Mike Masnick at Techdirt has an enlightening (and depressing) post on sound recordings and the pubic domain.  Because sound recordings were explicitly not included in the Copyright Act of 1909, recordings made before 1972 will not, it is said, come into the public domain until 2049 at the earliest. This is said to be true of all sound recordings from that era, regardless of how long ago they were recorded.  Thus recordings from the era of World War I and before are not in the pubic domain, and very likely won't be during my lifetime.  Bizarre and absurd.

(In fact, the date 2049 seems, so far as I can tell, to be incorrect and too early. Compare the Cornell table cited below, which suggests that the earliest date in nearly all cases for sound recordings published before 1972 is 2067.)

Masnick gives helpful links to further information, including one to this comprehensive (and depressing) table hosted at Cornell University, "Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States."  The section on sound recordings begins about halfway down the page.

Anthony Tommasini at the NYT reviews Vera Nemirova's new production of Lulu at the Salzburg Festival.  The production features Patricia Petibon in the title role, with Mark Albrecht conducting the Vienna Philharmonic.

Walter Schönenberger at Codex flores reviews (auf Deutsch) two new books published by the Bach-Archiv Leipzig:
Peter Wollny: «Ein förmlicher Sebastian und Philipp Emanuel Bach-Kultus». Sara Levy und ihr musikalisches Wirken. Mit einer Dokumentensammlung zur musikalischen Familiengeschichte der Vorfahren von Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Band 2 der Beiträge zur Geschichte der Bach-Rezeption, herausgegeben vom Bach-Archiv Leipzig. Verlag Breitkopf & Härtel, Wiesbaden 2010. BV 390. 148 Seiten. Mit Abbildungen. € 24,–. Fr. 39.90.
«Zu groß, zu unerreichbar». Bach-Rezeption im Zeitalter Mendelssohns und Schumanns. Herausgegeben von Anselm Hartinger, Christoph Wolff und Peter Wollny. Band 1 der Beiträge zur Geschichte der Bach-Rezeption, herausgegeben vom Bach-Archiv Leipzig. Verlag Breitkopf & Härtel, Wiesbaden 2007. BV 386. 488 Seiten. Mit Abbildungen und Notenbeispielen. € 32,–. Fr. 56.90.
Wollny's book on Sara Levy (née Itzig) looks particularly interesting. Levy was the younger sister of Mendelssohn's grandmother Bella Salomon and wife of banker Samuel Salomon Levy; she was also a skilled keyboard player and patron of music in whose Berlin salon the music of the Bach family was particularly cultivated.  I used to work closely with Wollny when I was at the C. P. E. Bach edition, and I congratulate him on his new book.


Werner Herzog reads Curious George.

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