Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category


Pretty Close to Reality

July 9, 2010

Happy Friday!

Vodpod videos no longer available.



June 8, 2010

Philosopher’s Carnival is up.


Reaming Critchley

May 20, 2010

Brian Leiter links to other blogs and their reactions to the new Critchley column. Since I’m on-and-off in-and-out of camping this week and next, I’m not in a position to offer very many comments. However, if you’ve already read the inaugural Critchley column, which you should, this synopsis from STFU is pure genius:

What is a philosopher? This one philosopher, Thales, fell into a well. He was looking at the sky. This is a metaphor. Silly philosophers. Water clocks are stealing your time, except only if you’re a lawyer. Lawyers have no souls, but they are successful, unlike PHILOSOPHERS. Silly philosophers, you have time, but you also don’t, but mostly you do. Your heads are always in the clouds. This is important: PHILOSOPHY KILLS. This is because Socrates once died, and he was a philosopher. Also, Bertrand Russell didn’t get a job once. Because of blasphemy! Silly philosophers. You are so anti-establishment and whatnot. This is why the Athenians killed Socrates. Were they right? I dunno. Whatevs.

Also, I should give props to my friends Roman Altshuler and Michael Sigrist for their blog, also discussing the Critchley column. I didn’t even know the blog existed.


What is a Philosopher?

May 16, 2010

Simon Critchley has a new series of articles at the NY Times. The first installment comes today, titled “What is a Philosopher?”

What is a philosopher, then? The answer is clear: a laughing stock, an absent-minded buffoon, the butt of countless jokes from Aristophanes’ “The Clouds” to Mel Brooks’s “History of the World, part one.” Whenever the philosopher is compelled to talk about the things at his feet, he gives not only the Thracian girl but the rest of the crowd a belly laugh. The philosopher’s clumsiness in worldly affairs makes him appear stupid or, “gives the impression of plain silliness.” We are left with a rather Monty Pythonesque definition of the philosopher: the one who is silly.

Sounds about right to me.


Grounding Morality In Science

May 4, 2010

Ranger RickA turned me on to this fantastic blogpost over at DiscoverMagazine. I’m a bit bummed that I’m only just learning of it now. Sean Carroll, the author, undertakes to dismantle this turkey, by arguing that “morality is not part of science.” His first few posts are spot on, but since I’m entering this game late, I’m afraid I’ll have to start halfway through.You should really read the whole string. Here’s a snippet from Carroll’s most recent missive (to be read with exasperation):

What would it mean to have a science of morality? I think it would look have to look something like this:

“Human beings seek to maximize something we choose to call “well-being” (although it might be called “utility” or “happiness” or “flourishing” or something else). The amount of well-being in a single person is a function of what is happening in that person’s brain, or at least in their body as a whole. That function can in principle be empirically measured. The total amount of well-being is a function of what happens in all of the human brains in the world, which again can in principle be measured. The job of morality is to specify what that function is, measure it, and derive conditions in the world under which it is maximized.”

All this talk of maximizing functions isn’t meant to lampoon the project of grounding morality on science; it’s simply taking it seriously.

Carroll then goes on to say this:

The point is simply that the goal of morality should be to create certain conditions that are, in principle, directly measurable by empirical means. (If that’s not the point, it’s not science.)

I disagree with a fair bit of how Carroll characterizes morality, but I will agree that most of the project of ethical justification doesn’t admit of scientific analysis, and that Sam Harris — the aforementioned turkey who kicked it all off with his TED talk — is bumbling through the brambles of ethics with what can only be described as a cacophony of blind assertions. (For starters, I’m not at all sure that we don’t have ethical obligations toward rocks. Moreover, I’m not at all sure that even if we don’t have obligations to rocks, then the reason that we don’t have obligations to rocks is because rocks “don’t suffer” — which is only the very beginning of the noise that he clangs on about. As it happens, suffering is exactly what I was doing as I listened to Harris’s meaningless belching; but hey, he was wearing a nice purple shirt, which left me one dolor shy of Pain’s Royal Flush. Harris pulls some other crap shortly thereafter about the relationship between well-being and the brain, and he goes on ad barfium about it, but it’s way too stupid to analyze. Plus, it’d be unfair — like shooting undergrads in a barrel. What is it with these TED talks?)

I have to agree with Carroll’s observation that there are many more ways to slice the salami than to isolate a consequentalist predilection for human or animal welfare, and then, somehow, to draw conclusions based on empirical observations about welfare. Kudos to him for pushing this position. I just want to correct Carroll on one small point.

Here’s where he starts to go a little haywire:

It is true that the tools of science cannot be used to change the mind of a committed solipsist who believes they are a brain in a vat, manipulated by an evil demon; yet, those of us who accept the presuppositions of empirical science are able to make progress. But here we are concerned only with people who have agreed to buy into all the epistemic assumptions of reality-based science — they still disagree about morality. That’s the problem. If the project of deriving ought from is were realistic, disagreements about morality would be precisely analogous to disagreements about the state of the universe fourteen billion years ago.

That’s not, actually, the problem. One can also find numerous people who agree about the morality, but still disagree about the metaphysics and epistemology.

The problem, in part, is that metaphysics and ethics are fundamentally different enterprises, just as he says. One aims at truth, and the other at the right. There’s some substantial overlap, to be sure, so I guess on that count, Harris isn’t entirely off base, but it’s not clear (to me, at least) even that the project of uncovering the right, or isolating the right, is one that can be conceptualized as one that admits of the “true,” in the realist sense of the term. Harris seems to insist upon this, so he’s obviously wrong. Carroll doesn’t challenge this, but instead pushes hard on the is/ought distinction, thereby accepting the view that ethical claims have a truth value in the same way that truth claims have a truth value. Maybe claims about the right are just…right.

The other problem, and I think this is a big one for the scientific community, is that the nature of the truth engaged by the empirical sciences is by no means established.  That’s what this whole journal (among many, otherjournals) is dedicated to unearthing. It’s not like, after all, science has settled the question of truth. People still work on those questions too… and they’re not all scientific realists with a few crazy solipsists thrown in to screw things up. There is substantial disagreement among the parties.

I’m only just getting caught up in this whole sordid affair — and wouldn’t you know it, it happens to strike immediately during exam week; damn you, students! — so I have only very little time to address these concerns now. Still, you should also head over to Massimo Pigliucci’s blog and see what he has to say about Harris.


Mama’s Boy

April 10, 2010

Crooked Timber and FeministPhilosophers both have posts about the case of a female colleague of mine — no, not a CU professor; in my wider community of colleagues — who has been given all manner of inappropriate run-around in response to revealing that she (a single mom) would need to bring her pre-teen son with her to an NEH seminar. You can read about the case at either of the above blogs.


Rocky Mountain Phi

April 5, 2010

Our local philosophy grad students are now in the blog-house. They launch their blog with a question sure to draw readers: “Is metaphysics possible without synthetic a priori reasoning?”


Dancing with Particularism

April 2, 2010

Wheee! All the fancy philosophers are going public nowadays. Here’s a nice clip of moral philosopher Jonathan Dancy, superstar representative of moral particularism. Frankly, I think Dancy kicked some tuchas, but I’ll leave you to make that determination. As it happens, I’ll be having drinks with a visiting particularist tonight, so this should make for some fine boozey conversation.


Say Something Philosophical

March 30, 2010

I was once out to dinner with some friends when an acquaintance, whom I had just met, paused and asked me to “say something philosophical.” Occurrences like that happen more often than I care to recount, but here’s a nice overview of a recent poll distributed to philosophers (including me) that tells much the same story.

The PhilPapers study, by David Chalmers of the Australian National University and David Bourget of London University, surveyed academics at 99 leading philosophy departments around the globe, over 90% of them in the English-speaking world and nearly two-thirds in America. Some 91% of the respondents thought they belonged to the analytic tradition and 4% the “Continental” one. When asked which dead philosopher they most identified with, a clear winner emerged, with 21% of the votes: David Hume, the 18th-century thinker, historian, sceptic and agnostic who was a close friend of the economist Adam Smith. Aristotle, Kant and Wittgenstein took second, third and fourth places. The next six spots went to philosophers from the 20th century, most recently Donald Davidson, an American who died in 2003. Plato made 13th place and Socrates limped in at 21st.

Read the article for more… and if you’re really brave, you’ll check out the actual poll results.



March 18, 2010

I often tell my students that if they study philosophy and learn the canonical and contemporary theorists, they’ll win praise and affection from prospective partners at cocktail parties. Basically, I’m using the sex line to entice them into thinking hard about complex ideas, but what I mean is that studying philosophy will help them become engaging and interesting people, which is definitely one way to find and attract partners. Turns out, there’s another upside to thinking and talking about deep subjects. People who do so are apparently happier (whatever that means).

It’s hard to say whether thinking and talking about deep subjects actually makes a person happier or whether, what I suspect, is that people who are inclined to think and talk about deeper subjects are those who tend to be in positions with greater reflective control over their lives, but it’s still an interesting result…not anywhere near as amorphous and ridiculous as this cockamamie “experiment.”