userpicLemons
16.01.08, 11:42 AM

I'm teaching Kripke's "Naming and Necessity" as part of my Mind and Language class this semester. In reviewing it, I was struck by footnote 2, in which Kripke acknowledges some of his influences. He writes: "[Rogers] Albritton called the problems of necessity and a prioricity in natural kinds to my attention, by raising the question whether we could discover that lemons were not fruits. I also recall the influence of early conversations with Albritton and with Peter Geach on the essentiality of origins." This is quite a strong acknowledgment to Albritton, especially given the centrality of these ideas to some characteristically "Kripkean" doctrines; indeed, the question about lemons contains the key idea of the Kripkean view of natural kinds. I mention this not to take anything away from Kripke but only to note the important role of Albritton, which I haven't seen duly noted. Since Albritton published so little in his life, despite his philosophical fertility, I thought this footnote to him worth mentioning. And he was a friend of mine when I was visiting at UCLA. I wonder how much of this stuff he had figured out without ever publishing on it...


Ethics and Politics
userpicTed Honderich in the New York Times
14.01.08, 11:43 AM

Perhaps this “dispute” between Honderich and me has gone on too long already—has any worthwhile philosophy emerged from it?—but one thing stood out for me in the generally sensible and fair article by Patricia Cohen. Namely: Honderich speculates that the editors at the Philosophical Review might have been motivated to publish my review by their political opposition to his “moral defense of Palestinian terrorism against neo-Zionism”.

This strikes me as so far into the land of paranoid fantasy as to defy belief, unless it is merely a cynically insincere attempt to discredit the editors. As the chief editor points out, for one thing they didn’t even know about his political views on this subject. He might also have added that such a thing would be political blacklisting and hence against all standards of moral and intellectual decency. It is plainly ludicrous, as well as grossly insulting. But it is actually not much more ludicrous than Honderich’s strange attributions of ulterior motives to me (the business about the ex-girlfriend, for instance, is utter rubbish: for one thing, the woman in question was rather good looking). What also strikes me is that Honderich doesn’t try to accuse me of the same political motive that he so recklessly ventures in respect of the Philosophical Review editors. Why would he suggest such a thing for them and not for me?

The question is worth pondering (in so far anything in this “dispute” is worth pondering). I could wish the newspapers of the world would find other philosophical matters more newsworthy.


userpic2008
02.01.08, 11:44 AM

Speaking of value, I've just finished my book about the value of sport. Instead of giving my view here, I invite others to submit their answers to this question.

I also invite opinions on who is your favorite reviewer of philosophy books (I've recently had occasion to think about the art of book reviewing).

I noticed on Brian Leiter's blog that Carlin Romano was excoriated for his ignorant article about analytical philosophy and Rorty. Just by chance he reviewed my recent book on Shakespeare and showed a comparable lack of knowledge. Why is it that people who know nothing about philosophy are regularly asked to comment on it?

Where is consciousness headed in 2008? Will people start to lose interest in it, once the lack of progress becomes even more evident?

Will Roger Federer continue to dominate tennis?


userpicThe paradox of infallibility
14.12.07, 11:45 AM

It has been generally supposed that certain self-ascriptions, such as "I am in pain", are infallible. This seems right. However, it is clear enough that the self-ascriptive thought is not identical to the state ascribed: the pain isn't the same as the thought about it. This means that these are "distinct existences", in the Humean sense. But if they are distinct existences, they can be conceived apart, which implies that they are contingently connected. So there must be worlds in which the ascription occurs without the state ascribed--which would make the ascription false. So the ascription is fallible. How then can we maintain infallibility while accepting that distinct existences are contingently connected? This is the puzzle of infallibility. How can the metaphysics (distinct existences) be made to fit with the epistemology (infallibility)?


userpicWhence Value?
03.12.07, 11:46 AM

Is something valuable because we value it or do we recognize value in something that it has independently of being valued? (Compare: is something good because the gods say it's good or is goodness something that the gods in their wisdom recognize?) One way to answer this question is to ask if there can be mistakes of value--this suggesting that value is logically independent of valuing. Consider a tribe that eats both carrots and broccoli. Both nourish them and taste equally good. They have value. However, the religion of the tribe decrees (for no good reason) that carrots are the godlier vegetable and dedicates a good deal of reverence and ritual to the act of carrot eating. They regard carrots as of far more value than broccoli. Aren't they simply wrong about this? Carrots and broccoli have equal value, in fact ("objectively"), but they are mistaken about this; they have been misled by their religious ideology. (Compare the value placed on chastity in our religious tradition.) Thus, value is not determined by valuing.


userpicThe Constitution of Value
26.11.07, 11:46 AM

It is often held that something has value only in virtue of being valued by some evaluative being: value is conferred on something by the attitude of valuing. This is supposed to be true even of pleasure. But is the act of valuing itself something that has value? If not, it is hard to see how it could confer value on other things. But if it does have value, then it must do so in virtue of some further act of valuing. Then that valuing in turn must either lack value or have it in virtue of a further act of valuing. An infinite regress results from the latter horn of the dilemma. Therefore, not all value can be had in virtue of acts or attitudes of valuing. Pleasure, for example, is valuable in itself, irrespective of whether anyone regards it as valuable.


userpicCelestial Ethics
10.11.07, 11:47 AM

Some superpowerful aliens arrive one day and offer to ship us off to their galaxy if we'd like. It's really nice there, they assure us, and they have the photographs to prove it. Our standard of living will go up at least 20% and we can all live at the beach. But if we accept they will have to destroy planet earth (something about an intergalactic highway they're building)--the choice is ours. We can take all the animals with us, if we prefer; transportation isn't a problem. We decide to take them up on their offer. As we leave earth in their spacious space ship we watch as a planet-sized jet of flame incinerates earth behind us. The oceans instantly evaporate, the atmosphere blows away, all traces of life are destroyed; what remains is a smoking expanse of melted rubble. And it will stay like this for all eternity. Wouldn't you feel bad about about this act of cosmic vandalism? Wouldn't you feel you had done something wrong? Something of great value had been destroyed--something of beauty, interest, and fecundity (see my Climate Change entry). This shows that the earth is valuable for reasons that transcend its instrumental value to us.


userpicMeta-Physics
10.11.07, 11:47 AM

If physics needs an interpretation, in rather the way a formal language does, if it is to be meaningful, doesn't that show that metaphysics is indispensable? Physical knowledge can't be all the knowledge there is, because the formulas of physics stand in need of interpretation. Are electrons continuant particulars or are they just sequences of events? Are there categorical properties lurking behind the dispositions to motion we observe? Are particles really nothing but fields? Is consciousness present even at the most fundamental level? Physics itself doesn't answer these questions, so that complete knowledge of the physical world requires metaphysical knowledge in addition to physical knowledge in the strict sense. You can't know the nature of the physical world by knowing physics alone.


userpicClimate Change
31.10.07, 11:48 AM

I'm about to go to Chicago for a conference on global warming and like environmental issues (part of the Chicago Festival of the Humanities). I'm appearing with Peter Singer and Chris Stone, with Dale Jamieson as chair. For me there will be some local cooling--going from Miami to Chicago. My thesis will be that the earth is intrinsically valuable, not merely valuable because it houses us. Therefore the earth can be harmed and its value compromised--say, by rendering it barren. I think the value of the earth depends upon three main factors: its physical beauty, seen from up close or from a distance; its ability to support life in all its forms; and its inherent interestingness (much more so than the moon, say). When we damage the earth we run the risk of destroying its value-conferring properties. So climate change is potentially bad not merely because it threatens the well-being of future humans but also because it right now offends against the earth's intrinsic value.


userpicDeontological Pluralism
26.10.07, 11:50 AM

I like W.D. Ross's mixed deontology of irreducible prima facie duties, like keeping promises and repaying debts and exercising beneficence. Ross takes these duties to be self-evident and known with certainty, while he acknowledges that we can have no more than "probable opinion" about the rightness of a particular action. He also accepts that the several duties can conflict with each other and that we have no recourse except to use our "judgment" in such cases, with no overarching criterion of rightness to resolve such conflicts. Critics have found these to be weaknesses in his position. I, on the contrary, find them to be strengths. It really is true that the right act is often the fortunate act, and that ascriptions of absolute rightness are hostage to unforseen consequences. Also, it is a philosopher's illusion to think that there can be any escape from conflicts of principle: moral directives don't always harmonize and decisions will require the use of context-bound judgment. How can we weigh the wrongness of telling a lie against the potential benefits of lying? There's no litmus test.


userpicDispositions and Reality
26.10.07, 11:49 AM

Dispositions don't tie down meaning and reference (Quine, Kripke). Dispositions don't tie down qualia (pace functionalism). And dispositions don't tie down matter (Russell et al). Neither language nor mind nor matter can be explained in terms of dispositions. Dispositions are a superstructure suspended over these three realms, but not their essence. Reality is not subjunctive.


Sport
userpicForehand and Backhand
24.10.07, 11:49 AM

Lately I've found that as my backhand has improved my forehand has deteriorated. Now my backhand is my best shot, while in the past I struggled with it (as most players do). There seems to be what psychologists call negative transfer of training from one hand to the other. The forehand used to feel natural and the backhand unnatural, now it's the other way round. I plan to use my ball machine to get my forehand back into shape. Will my backhand suffer a corresponding decline? (David, my instructor, thinks I've just got lazy and complacent about my forehand. "Move your feet!" he shouts at me, while drilling me mercilessly.)


userpicThe Raccoon
19.10.07, 11:52 AM

I'm putting a story about a raccoon and me on the site. It happened this summer, and every detail in my telling is factual--strange as some of it may sound. Make of it what you will.


userpicKant
19.10.07, 11:52 AM

I've just been teaching Kantian ethics. The idea is that a right action is one the guiding maxim of which can be universalized without contradiction, and a wrong action is one that cannot be so universalized. So it is wrong to break your promises because if everyone did so there would be no institution of promising. It is contradictory to will universal promise-breaking, since there can be promises only when there is trust in them--which requires that they generally be kept. It's a very clever idea, but one that only a rationalist philosopher could approve--that it's actually contradictory to act immorally. The fault of the bad person is thus purely intellectual: he can't see that his actions are guided by contradictory principles. Immorality is a form of incoherence. If only!


Sport
userpicBall Machines
19.10.07, 11:51 AM

Last weekend I for the first time played tennis against a ball machine. It was quite an experience. I hit balls by myself on the court for a full three hours, working on my technique (half volley backhands, down the line side to side forehands). I'm sure I improved my game considerably. Then I played a couple of hours with lads of 17 and 13. All in all, I was on the court for six hours. At the end my right arm was killing me and my legs were shot. Excessive? Sure, but that's the way to get good at tennis. You just keep doing it till you get it right.


userpicMastic Beach, Long Island
19.10.07, 11:50 AM

The first thing that confronted us on our return to Long Island, after eleven months away, was a rat in the sofa. More precisely, the nest, remnants, and droppings of what was most likely a rat (the squirrel hypothesis had a moment in the sun). The rat had obviously come into the house during the winter and made a nice little home for itself; much the same thing had happened five years earlier. We had even left a large supply of cat food for it to feed on—and its little ones too, in all probability. The home was a pocket sized hole in the cushioning, carefully constructed, quite cozy looking--with bits of stuffing torn out and mingling with the dried droppings behind the sofa. Cathy was highly displeased, not to say disgusted, and wanted to spend the night in the car, in case our guest felt like returning. But she relented, firmly closing the bedroom door instead. The next day I cleaned up the mess with brush and pan and lugged the heavy sofa outside, to be picked up by the town. You expect some animal inconvenience in Mastic—but rats in the sofa?


Philosophy
userpicAlien Matter
28.09.07, 12:02 PM

How alien is objective physical reality compared (a) to its perceptual appearance and (b) to our own consciousness? As to (a), it seems to lack secondary qualities like color; in which case, what makes it capabable of occupying space? As to (b), unless we go in for panpsychism it seems very remote from the nature of experience. So it must be quite alien to the things we know about most directly. Is it SO alien that we couldn't represent it in our experience in principle? We're accustomed to the strangeness of matter from contemporary physics, but is it so far removed from what we are familiar with that we have no hope of adequately representing it? Is it as remote from our understanding as a bat's experience? Or is it remoter, because at least a bat has experience, which we also do--while matter sits at an opposite ontological extreme? Is the entire universe an alien form of life--though completely dead?

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Philosophy
userpicU and I
28.09.07, 12:01 PM

The odd thing about utilitarianism is that what makes it most attractive is also what makes it most implausible. It seems good to require impartiality, so that no one is treated as privileged in making a moral decision--hence U doesn't discriminate with respect to whose happiness is maximized. But this very feature of the theory is what leads to its hyperbolic demandingness--as when it obliges us to give away all our money to charity and neglect our own children in order to benefit remote individuals. The altruistic aspect of U comports well with the intuitive content of morality, but the slide into excessive altruism is immediate. To prevent this, we have to insist on partiality, but then we are back discriminating against certain people. Stressing special relationships quickly leads to favoring our own tribe at the expense of others. It's either demandingness or discrimination.


userpicLucky Jim
28.09.07, 11:53 AM

I just finished re-reading Kingsley Amis's first novel. If you haven't read it, you should. It is the most anti-literary literary tour de force ever. The language is flawless while flaunting its "inelegance". It reminds me of J.L.Austin's style: challenging you to find a mistake, while grammatically impeccable. It is designed to intimidate and amuse. Yet the Amis novel manages to find, amidst the pseuds and bastards, the liars and creeps, a vein of morality that is completely authentic and totally unselfadvertising. Jim is no one's idea of a saint, but he's a better specimen of humanity than those deemed his betters. Notably, Gore-Urquhart, the richest and poshest of the lot, is the most discerning and decent man in the book--and has the most in common with the "common" Jim. Kingsley is off to the side, stoically amused, pulling faces of his own, laying down those sentences that don't seem to care whether they end elegantly but always do.


Philosophy
userpicPossible Matter
20.09.07, 12:01 PM

Consider the following thought experiment. You go to a possible world and encounter some space-occupying objects. They appear just as our space-occupying objects do--with shapes, colors, masses, and so on. Does it follow that they are made of the same material stuff as our objects? Mightn't they be made of same strange ectoplasm that merely simulates the superfical properties of we call material things; or of some other variant of the general category "matter"? In particular, these possible entities have the same causal properties and dispositions as our objects, despite their different constitution. If this is a real possibility, then the knowledge of matter we now have cannnot include its actual intrinsic constitution, since if it did we could know that the entities in this possible world are not of the same stuff as our entities. In short, we don't know the intrinsic nature of matter.



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