Science news at the speed of thought

Glossary

July 11, 2009

Animism
A philosophical, religious or spiritual idea that souls or spirits exist not only in humans but also in animals, plants, rocks, natural phenomena such as thunder, geographic features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment.

Argumentation Theory
A cognitive theory which proposes that reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments.

Artificial Intelligence
The branch of computer science which aims to create intelligent machines; the study and design of intelligent agents, where an intelligent agent is a system that perceives its environment and takes actions which maximize its chances of success.

Artificial General Intelligence
Machines engineered with the autonomy and self-understanding to come to grips with novel problem domains and solve a wide variety of problem types; machine intelligence that matches or exceeds human intelligence; a machine that can successfully perform any intellectual task that a human being can.

Atheism
Either the rejection of theism, or the assertion that deities do not exist. In the broadest sense, it is the absence of belief in the existence of deities.


Biocentrism
Biocentrism—also known as the biocentric universe—is a theory proposed in 2007 by American scientist Robert Lanza. In this view, life and biology are central to being, reality, and the cosmos—life creates the universe rather than the other way around. Biocentrism asserts that current theories of the physical world do not work, and can never be made to work, until they fully account for life and consciousness.

Bright
A social movement that aims to promote public understanding and acknowledgment of the naturalistic world view, co-founded by Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell in 2003. The noun "bright" was coined by Geisert as a positive-sounding umbrella term, and Futrell defined it as "an individual whose worldview is naturalistic (free from supernatural and mystical elements)."


Category Mistake
A semantic or ontological error by which a property is ascribed to a thing that could not possibly have that property. Example: "Most bananas are atheists."

Cognition
The process of thought. Its usage varies in different ways in accord with different disciplines: For example, in psychology and cognitive science it refers to an information processing view of an individual's psychological functions. Other interpretations of the meaning of cognition link it to the development of concepts; individual minds, groups, organizations, and even larger coalitions of entities, can be modelled as "societies" (Society of Mind), which cooperate to form concepts.

Coherentism
Coherentism is concerned with the internal consistency of a given account, eschewing any reference to correspondence with a reality that, by definition, we can only access indirectly.

Compatibilism
Championed by the ancient Greek Stoics, Hobbes, Hume and many contemporary philosophers, is a theory that argues that free will and determinism exist and are in fact compatible.

Computational Functionalism
The premise that anything that can be computed by a brain can be computed by a digital computer.

Consequentialism
Consequentialism is the class of normative ethical theories holding that the consequences of one's conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness of that conduct. Thus, from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right act (or omission) is one that will produce a good outcome, or consequence.

Crazyism
According to philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel, crazyism about a topic is the view that something crazy must be among the core truths about that topic. Crazyism can be justified when we have good reason to believe that one among several crazy views must be true but where the balance of evidence supports none of the candidates strongly over the others.


Deism
A religious and philosophical belief that a supreme being created the universe, and that this (and religious truth in general) can be determined using reason and observation of the natural world alone, without the need for either faith or organized religion.

Determinism
The philosophical proposition that every event, including human cognition and behavior, decision and action, is causally determined by an unbroken chain of prior occurrences.

Drake Equation
A probabilistic argument used to estimate the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy. The equation was written in 1961 by Frank Drake not for purposes of quantifying the number of civilizations, but intended as a way to stimulate scientific dialogue at the world's first SETI meeting, in Green Bank, West Virginia.

Dualism
A theory or system of thought that regards a domain of reality in terms of two independent principles, especially mind and matter.


Eliminative Materialism
A materialist position in the philosophy of mind. Its primary claim is that people's common-sense understanding of the mind (or folk psychology) is false and that certain classes of mental states that most people believe in do not exist.

Embodied cognition
Philosophers and artificial intelligence researchers who study embodied cognition and the embodied mind believe that the nature of the human mind is largely determined by the form of the human body. The embodied mind thesis is opposed to other theories of cognition such as cognitivism, computationalism and Cartesian dualism.

Epistimology
The branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope (limitations) of knowledge.

Essentialism
In philosophy, essentialism is the view that, for any specific kind of entity, there is a set of characteristics or properties all of which any entity of that kind must possess. Before evolution was developed as a scientific theory, an essentialist view of biology posited all species to be unchanging throughout time. Some religious opponents of evolution continue to maintain this view.

Eternal Recurrence
A concept which posits that the universe has been recurring, and will continue to recur in a self-similar form an infinite number of times.

Evolution
The change in the genetic material of a population of organisms from one generation to the next. Though the changes produced in any one generation are small, differences accumulate with each generation and can, over time, cause substantial changes in the organisms. This process can culminate in the emergence of new species. Indeed, the similarities between organisms suggest that all known species are descended from a common ancestor (or ancestral gene pool) through this process of gradual divergence.


Faith
Belief regardless or despite the evidence.

Firmi Paradox
The apparent contradiction between high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilization and humanity's lack of contact with, or evidence for, such civilizations.

Futurism
An artistic and social movement begun in Italy in 1909 that violently rejected traditional forms so as to celebrate and incorporate into art the energy and dynamism of modern technology.


Gedankenexperiment
A thought experiment.

Gene
The basic unit of heredity in a living organism; a locatable region of genomic sequence, corresponding to a unit of inheritance, which is associated with regulatory regions, transcribed regions, and or other functional sequence regions.

Gnosticism
A set of diverse, syncretistic religious movements in late antiquity consisting of various belief systems generally united in the teaching that the material cosmos was created by an imperfect god.


The Hard Problem of Consciousness
The term hard problem of consciousness, coined by David Chalmers, refers to the difficult problem of explaining why we have qualitative phenomenal experiences. It is contrasted with the "easy problems" of explaining the ability to discriminate, integrate information, report mental states, focus attention, etc. Easy problems are easy because all that is required for their solution is to specify a mechanism that can perform the function. That is, their proposed solutions, regardless of how complex or poorly understood they may be, can be entirely consistent with the modern materialistic conception of natural phenomenon. Hard problems are distinct from this set because they "persist even when the performance of all the relevant functions is explained."

Holism
The idea that all the properties of a given system (physical, biological, chemical, social, economic, mental, linguistic, etc.) cannot be determined or explained by its component parts alone. Instead, the system as a whole determines in an important way how the parts behave.


Idealism
The philosophical theory that maintains that the ultimate nature of reality is based on mind or ideas. It holds that the so-called external or "real world" is inseparable from mind, consciousness, or perception.

Innatism
A philosophical doctrine that holds that the mind is born with ideas/knowledge, and that therefore the mind is not a 'blank slate' at birth, as early empiricists such as John Locke claimed. It asserts therefore that not all knowledge is obtained from experience and the senses.

Integrated Information Theory
A theory of consciousness developed by Giulio Tononi, in which consciousness arises as a property of a physical system, its 'integrated information'. Consciousness is therefore an exact quantity that can be measured, given the proper means.

Internalism | externalism
According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "the internalism-externalism (I-E) debate lies near the center of contemporary discussion about epistemology. The basic idea of internalism is that justification is solely determined by factors that are internal to a person. Externalists deny this, asserting that justification depends on additional factors that are external to a person. A significant aspect of the I-E debate involves setting out exactly what counts as internal to a person."


Luddite
A member of any of the bands of English workers who destroyed machinery, especially in cotton and woolen mills, that they believed was threatening their jobs. In modern times, Luddite refers to one who destroys technology thought to be threatening.


Maes–Garreau law
The latest possible date a prediction can come true and still remain in the lifetime of the person making it.

Materialism
The philosophical theory that holds that the only thing that exists is matter. Fundamentally, all things are composed of material and all phenomena (including consciousness) are the result of material interactions; therefore, matter is the only substance.

Mechanism
A system of parts working together in a machine.

Meme
A postulated unit or element of cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which is transmitted from one mind to another through speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena.

Miracle
A suspension of the laws of nature, presumably actuated by a supernatural being.

Monism
The doctrine that only one supreme being exists.

Moore's Law
A long-term trend in the history of computing hardware. The number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit has doubled approximately every two years. The trend has continued for more than half a century and is not expected to stop until 2015 or later.

Moral Relativism
The position that the truth or falsity of moral judgments is not objective. Justifications for moral judgments are not universal, but are instead relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of an individual or a group of people.

Mysterianism
The philosophical position proposing that we do not know and can never know the nature of consciousness.


Naturalism
A philosophical viewpoint that "nature is all there is, and all basic truths are truths of nature." All things and powers commonly regarded as supernatural, for example, God, souls and witchcraft, are asserted to be nonexistent.

Natural Selection
The process whereby organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring. The theory of its action was first fully expounded by Charles Darwin and is now believed to be the main process that brings about evolution.

Nihilism
The rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless and that nothing in the world has a real existence.

Normalization of Deviance
The gradual process through which unacceptable practice or standards become acceptable. As the deviant behavior is repeated without catastrophic results, it becomes the social norm for the organization.


Ontology
The philosophical study of the nature of being, existence or reality in general, as well as of the basic categories of being and their relations.

Operationalism
The view that we do not know the meaning of a concept unless we have a method of measurement for it.


Pantheism
A doctrine that identifies God with the universe, or regards the universe as a manifestation of God.

Pluralism
A theory or system that recognizes more than one ultimate principle.


Property dualism
a category of positions in the philosophy of mind which hold that, although the world is constituted of just one kind of substance—the physical kind—there exist two distinct kinds of properties: physical properties and mental properties. In other words, it is the view that non-physical, mental properties (such as beliefs, desires and emotions) inhere in some physical substances (namely brains).

Quantum Mechanics
A set of principles underlying the most fundamental known description of all physical systems at the submicroscopic scale (at the atomic level). Notable among these principles are simultaneous wave-like and particle-like behavior of matter and radiation ("Wave–particle duality"), and the prediction of probabilities in situations where classical physics predicts certainties.


Realism
The belief in a reality that is completely ontologically independent of our conceptual schemes, linguistic practices, beliefs, etc. Philosophers who profess realism also typically believe that truth consists in a belief's correspondence to reality. Realists tend to believe that whatever we believe now is only an approximation of reality and that every new observation brings us closer to understanding reality.

Reductionism
An approach to understand the nature of complex things by reducing them to the interactions of their parts, or to simpler or more fundamental things; a philosophical position that a complex system is nothing but the sum of its parts, and that an account of it can be reduced to accounts of individual constituents. This can be said of objects, phenomena, explanations, theories, and meanings.

Relativity (General)
The geometric theory of gravitation published by Albert Einstein in 1916. It is the current description of gravitation in modern physics. It unifies special relativity and Newton's law of universal gravitation, and describes gravity as a geometric property of space and time, or spacetime.

Relativity (Special)
The physical theory of measurement in inertial frames of reference proposed in 1905 by Albert Einstein (after the considerable and independent contributions of Hendrik Lorentz, Henri Poincaré and others) in the paper "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies." It generalizes Galileo's principle of relativity–that all uniform motion is relative, and that there is no absolute and well-defined state of rest (no privileged reference frames)–from mechanics to all the laws of physics, including both the laws of mechanics and of electrodynamics, whatever they may be. Special relativity incorporates the principle that the speed of light is the same for all inertial observers regardless of the state of motion of the source.

Religion
An organized approach to human spirituality which usually encompasses a set of narratives, symbols, beliefs and practices, often with a supernatural or transcendent quality, that give meaning to the practitioner's experiences of life through reference to a higher power, god or gods, or ultimate truth.

Reverse Engineering
The process of discovering the technological principles of a device, object or system through analysis of its structure, function and operation.


Science
Any systematic knowledge-base or prescriptive practice that is capable of resulting in a prediction or predictable type of outcome.

Scientism
The idea that natural science is the most authoritative worldview or aspect of human education, and that it is superior to all other interpretations of life; a way of thinking in which the virtues, scope or benefits of science are exaggerated or extended to the point of cultishness, ideology or fanaticism.

Secular Humanism
A philosophy that upholds reason, ethics, and justice, and specifically rejects the supernatural and the spiritual as the basis of moral reflection and decision-making. Like other types of humanism, secular humanism is a life stance that focuses on the way human beings can lead good, happy and functional lives.

Skepticism
Resistance that can be overcome with sufficient evidence and reason.

Solipsism
The philosophical idea that one's own mind is all that exists. An epistemological or ontological position that knowledge of anything outside the mind is unjustified; the external world and other minds cannot be known and might not exist.

Substance dualism
The view that there exist two kinds of substance: physical and non-physical (the mind), and subsequently also two kinds of properties which adhere in those respective substances.

Synthetic Biology
A loose term encompassing a variety of methodologies and disciplines--having in common the design and construction of new biological functions and systems not found in nature.

Synthetic Life
A term used to describe attempts to recreate life from non-living (abiotic) substances.

Subjective idealism
A theory in the philosophy of perception that describes a relationship between human experience of the external world, and that world itself, in which objects are nothing more than collections of sense data in those who perceive them.


Techno-immortalism
A term coined by John Gray; the belief that technology will someday defeat aging and death.

Technological Singularity
A prediction in Futurism that technological progress will become extremely fast, and consequently will make the future (after the technological singularity) unpredictable and qualitatively different from today.

Theism
The belief that at least one deity exists; a doctrine concerning the nature of a monotheistic God and his relationship to the universe.


Uncanny Valley
The uncanny valley is a hypothesis which holds that when robots and other human facsimiles approach the look and behavior of actual humans--without quite reaching them--it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The "valley" in question is a dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot's lifelikeness.

Utilitarianism
The idea that the moral worth of an action is determined solely by its utility in providing happiness or pleasure as summed among all sentient beings.


Vitalism
A doctrine that the functions of a living organism are due to a vital principle distinct from biochemical reactions; proposes that the processes of life are not explicable by the laws of physics and chemistry alone and that life is in some part self-determining.