Posts filed under Dialectic

Shocking results

Many psychological situationists[1] like to push social-psychology experiments as proof that most people don’t have, or perhaps even couldn’t have, robust character traits. So, for example, they’ll cite the Milgram experiment, supposedly to show how people mostly do not stick to traits of compassion or kindness towards the learner when the lab-coat authority tells them that they have to hurt him.

And maybe this does show that a lot of middle-class Americans lack a particular character trait. Perhaps a lot of middle-class Americans aren’t as reliably compassionate and as kind as you might hope. But hell man, I already knew that. On the other hand, if you’re trying to push the idea that studies like Milgram undermines the idea that people have, or that they could could form, robust character traits, that seems like a non sequitur. One of the obvious results that Milgram himself took from his study is that a lot of people (including a lot of middle-class Americans) have a really robust, situationally-insensitive character trait of obedience, a trait which is so robust that for a large minority it persisted even up to the point where they honestly believed they were torturing or killing a person in the other room.

The fact that this character trait is a vice doesn’t mean it’s not a robust and stable character trait. It looks like quite a robust and stable character trait. The question is whether it’s possible to make that trait less robust; and also and whether it’s possible to cultivate different traits, which might look more like decency and virtues. If it’s possible to be so hella committed to obedience at all costs, then maybe it’s possible to become committed to other things which are not genocidally awful.

Overtaking Zeno

Shared Article from Slate Magazine

Zeno’s Paradox Is a Trick—But a Very Interesting Trick

The Greek philosopher Zeno wrote a book of paradoxes nearly 2,500 years ago. “Achilles and the Tortoise” is the easiest to understand, but it’s …

David Plotz @

O.K., so, briefly: If you think that the point of Zeno’s Paradoxes of motion is to prove that the arrow never will reach its target, or that Achilles never does pass the tortoise, &c. — then I think that you are mistaken about the point of raising the paradox in the first place. Of course, it’s hard to be confident about the motives of dead philosophers who have no surviving books. But what we do know is that Zeno was a student of Parmenides; and Plato tells us that his books were written to defend Parmenides’s doctrines, by negative means,[1] showing that the views of his opponents led to contradictions.

So the most charitable understanding of Zeno’s aims is not that he’s trying to show you that Achilles can never catch the tortoise. Of course he does; just watch them race and you’ll see it happen. His point is to ask, given that Achilles passes the tortoise, well, how is that possible? And, for good or for ill, to argue from the paradox that you can only make sense of Achilles passing the tortoise if you reject presentism, and accept eternalist and Parmenidean conclusions about the nature of time and being.

Maybe he’s right about that, and maybe he’s wrong. (I’m inclined to think he’s wrong.) But note that if your solution is to try and settle the issue by introducing a lot of mathematical notation and conceptual apparatus from modern calculus — for example infinitesimal limit processes, convergent and divergent series, etc. — as is done in the Slate article here, and as is probably the overwhelmingly most common first response to Zeno’s paradoxes by mathematically-trained writers — then probably you are doing a better job than any pre-classical Greek philosopher could do in elaborating the precise nature of the problem.[2] But you’re not obviously refuting Zeno’s claims in any way, at least not yet. At the most you’re kicking the can down the road, and really you’re sort of strengthening Zeno’s own position. After all, naive formulations of mathematical notation are more or less always going to involve you in all kinds of specifically eternalist language, for example about moments in past and future time actually existing, instantiating the value of functions, etc. You cannot normally take the limit of ΔS(t) over values of t that don’t exist (no longer exist, do not yet exist).[3]

Or perhaps you can. But if you can, then doing so, and explaining what you’re doing when you do it, will take some very non-naive reinterpretation of ordinary mathematical language — and some nice metaphysics, too, to justify your reinterpretation. In any case the solution is going to have to be deeply philosophical, not just a matter of applying a technical innovation in maths.

Philosophical Tastes

This is a note from quite a while back, over at Kelly Dean Jolley’s common-place blog, which I stashed to chew on later, and which I’m chewing on a bit now. Here’s Jolley:

I’ve been thinking again about Wittgensteinian reminders, and, while I was doing so, I ran across the following from Henry James.

There are two kinds of taste, the taste for emotions of surprise and the taste for emotions of recognition.

It strikes me that much of the power of Wittgenstein’s work in PI is only available to those who have the taste for emotions of recognition. In fact, I wonder if the juxtaposition of PI 127[1] and 128[2] is not itself a juxtaposition of the two tastes: in 127 Wittgenstein engages the taste for emotions of recognition and in 128 he denies the taste for emotions of surprise.

— Kelly Dean Jolley, Reminders and a Kind of Taste
Quantum Est In Rebus Inane (March 20, 2012)

Wartime Logic

Suppose that you have — somehow or another — conclusively proven that there is just no way to have a modern war without bombing cities and massacreing innocent people.[1] That leaves you with a hard incompatibility claim between moralism and militarism — so if you go around morally condemning military tactics (like the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, say, or the firebombing of Tokyo) because they killed innocent people, then you’d end up having to condemn any modern war at all as immoral, no matter who fought it or how it was fought.

Many people, when they reach this point in the argument, want to shove it at you as if the incompatibility made for an obvious reductio ad absurdum of any kind of moralism about military tactics — Oh, well, if it’s always immoral to bomb cities then you couldn’t have any wars. That’s why it must not always be immoral to bomb cities. I honestly don’t know why so few of the people who give this argument ever even seem to have imagined that their conversation partner might take the incompatibility as an obvious reductio ad absurdum of any kind of militarismOh, well, if it’s always immoral to kill innocent people, you can’t bomb cities, and if you can’t bomb cities, you can’t have any wars. And that’s precisely why you shouldn’t have any wars.



Show me an axiomatic approach to ethics, ideology or anything else in the marketplace of ideas, and I’ll show you a recipe designed to produce a specific result. . . . Besides, everyone since Gödel’s proof knows formal systems degenerate into mental masturbation at some point.[1]

Groundbreaking developments in the history of mathematics and logic: In 1931 Kurt Gödel published “Über formal unentscheidbare Sätze der Principia Mathematica und verwandter Systeme I”[2] in the journal Monatshefte für Mathematik. The paper is famous among logicians and mathematicians for the two “Incompleteness Theorems” it contains,[3] logically demonstrating that no formal system rich enough to express truths of ordinary arithmetic can be both consistent and deductively complete while having a finite number of axioms.

The paper is famous among almost everyone else for containing a multi-page Rorschach inkblot, allowing a projection test in which the reader-subject can discern an easy dismissive response to whichever deductive argument they happen to like the least; or, if they prefer, to the exercise of deductive logic as a whole.