Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

Fool proof

November 25, 2008

A temptation so powerful that nobody is immune to it, especially no philosopher. What if you could make it such that nobody can disagree with your core thesis? Wouldn’t that be wonderful? And so, year after year, paper after paper, they try.

For a while it looked like Timothy Williamson had good chances of winning the contest. Witness: “If the original question, read literally, had too obvious an answer, either positive or negative, that would give us reason to suspect that someone who uttered it had some other meaning in mind, to which the overt compositional structure of the question might be a poor guide. But competent speakers of English may find themselves quite unsure how to answer the question, read literally, so we have no such reason for interpreting it non-literally.” (from: The Philosophy of Philosophy)

So, basically, anybody not gripped by the problem of vagueness (hidden in the “original question” referred to) is most likely not a competent speaker of English. But notice that Williamson fails to really rule out all other options. He consciously weakens the claim about linguistic competence to a ‘may’. (Of course, competent English speakers may also “find themselves quite unsure how to answer the question” not because they are unsure what the answer, if any, to the question is, but because they “find themselves quite unsure” about what the hell the original question was supposed to mean, literally understood. But that’s a separate issue.)

Williamson’s attempt, at any rate, is toppled by Theodore Sider’s more concise and less cautious claim: “The very idea of distinguished structure itself, once grasped, is one that must surely be acknowledged.” (from: Ontological Realism) Marvellous. If you disagree with the idea of distinguished structure that just shows you haven’t really grasped it (yet). It’s not just that you are not a competent speaker. It’s more like: you are not a competent thinker. The ‘surely’ gives it away, a little bit, but other than that: there’s really nothing left to argue about, is there? Davidson would be proud.

Here we go again…

February 23, 2008

… yet another article that begins with the overused sentiment that yet another question philosophers (gosh, these people must be really stupid!) have been unable to make any progress on has finally been addressed (successfully, naturally) by SCIENCE, and hence there is hope for an answer, at last.

While the question “Whence morality?” has been addressed by many thinkers, it is not the question “which has troubled philosophers since their subject was invented.” The question that underlies most philosophical reflection about morality (or ethics, rather!) is: what should we do? how should we live? The question is not primarily about why we engage in moral judgment, but rather which moral or ethical judgments to make. Such questions have prompted further questions about the meaning and epistemic standing of moral claims, and many interesting philosophical answers have been developed. Naturally, we do not see any of them mentioned in the article.

But note the rhetoric: philosophers are TROUBLED by questions – they don’t investigate questions, or give answers to them, no it is questions who trouble them. They are similarly passive with respect to their entire subject: it was invented. By whom, one might ask. Nor has their been any development in the subject – which presumably makes it permissible to ignore contemporary philosophers.

Aside from some serious questions about the science in this particular case, the most annoying fact about the article is not just that it fails to mention any of contemporary philosophical normative theory or meta-ethics, but that the author can be certain to get away with it. Why is that?

Determining translation

January 27, 2008

It is customary, in introductory logic courses, to treat logic as some sort of language in which we can express, more clearly, statements of ordinary language. Accordingly, students will be asked to translate ordinary language into logic and vice versa, which only becomes interesting in the context of quantifier ambiguities. Philosophers, always in need for yet more examples to give as exercises to inquisitive students, need look no further than the movie “Zero Effect”. Mid-way through the movie you will come across a particularly puzzling passage (to use no earlier than the mid-term, but preferably in the final):

“When you go looking for something specific, your chances of finding it are very bad. Of all things in the world, you’re only looking for one of them. When you go looking for anything at all, your chances of finding it are very good. Because of all the things in the world, you’re sure to find some of them.”

Sample solutions welcome! Extra points: translate the statements in such a way, as to make the argument valid. Avoid free variables.

Where are the philosophers?

December 19, 2007

Glancing over this article from the NYT one begins to wonder, whether philosophers are just keeping a low profile, or are simply not perceived as potential contributers to a debate that is clearly philosophical. What is a law of nature? Not: which laws of nature are there, but: what is a law of nature? Sounds pretty philosophical, doesn’t it?

And yet, the only philosophers mentioned in the article are great old dead ones, not contemporaries.  Philosophy probably came to an end some time in the 17th century. Instead just about any physicist with a philosophical view gets his two lines of fame (or rather: two more lines of fame). But seriously, this debate is old and, in philosophical circles, pretty sophisticated. Maybe philosophers should start writing more popular books?

Biking philosophies

December 13, 2007

If Carnap and Quine had been the sorts of people to compete in various bike races, what gear would they have chosen?

Quine would have brought his dad’s bike to every single race, whether road or dirt, hill or track. Sure, he would have modified it every time, changed the handlebar here, the tires there. In fact, he would have even been willing to exchange the frame, in case he encountered a particularly recalcitrant route.

Carnap, on the other hand, wouldn’t even have owned a bike. He would have rented the latest specialty just fit for the particular route. He wouldn’t have minded that others made other choices – everybody gets to choose whatever suits them, as long as they don’t cheat. Of course, like Quine, he would have hoped that one day there would be a bike which worked best for all routes, but in the meantime he wouldn’t have settled for any one bike in particular. Different routes require different bikes.

The interesting question of course is this: who would have won more races?

A nasty habit

November 25, 2007

The presentation of philosophers and philosophical thought in popular science articles. All too often it goes something like this: for centuries, philosophers have been puzzled by this question. Now scientists have found the answer.

The most annoying thing about this is actually that it usually doesn’t serve any particular purpose internal to the article — it is just some random way of introducing the subject matter — but that it nevertheless has devastating effects on the public perception of philosophy and philosophers. Philosophers, we learn, are mostly puzzled creatures, wondering about the world while trapped in their ivory tower. Fortunately, one of these question has now been taken on by scientists, who of course produced a solution in no time. There you go. So philosophers get bad publicity, and all just because some mediocre journalist couldn’t think of a better introduction to the topic at hand.

What is furthermore annoying is the blatant anachronism. The strict distinction between philosophers on the one hand, and scientists on the other, dates back only to the 19th century. Many of the questions philosophers have been puzzled by for centuries are actually the same questions that scientists have been puzzled by for centuries, in part because science was just a way of doing philosophy: natural philosophy. Not infrequently, the same person (Descartes or Newton, for example) would make contributions in areas we now call ‘science’, as well as in areas we are now inclined to call ‘philosophy’.

Add to this the equally anachronistic idea that ‘the question that has been around for centuries’ is in any straightforward way ‘the same question’ answered by the particular scientific result presented in the article. Questions that have been around for centuries tend to be very general (is there a beginning to the world, or no?/is there a smallest possible bit of matter, or no?/how free are we in our decisions?), whereas answers given by any particular scientific discovery tend to be rather narrow in scope. They furthermore tend to presuppose a great deal of theory. The question whether or not two particular genes are to be found on the same chromosome is not one we would expect to have been around for centuries. Sure, there may be some interesting connection between a question which has been around for a long time, and a particular scientific discovery. That’s great. But let’s not pretend that scientist (or anybody else for that matter) simply addressed ‘the same question’. In fact, in a way it might not make very much sense at all to claim that there is such a thing as ‘the same question’ that has been around for centuries. Instead it might be wise to say: here is a question which can be understood as a transformation of an earlier question (which in turn was a transformation of an earlier question…), and here is an answer we can give to the particular twist we put on this question.

If post-modernism has taught us anything, it is to be wary of anachronism. But let’s leave this for some other time.