Posts filed under Metaphysics

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 @ slate.com


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.

  1. [1] In the Parmenides: I see, Parmenides, said Socrates, that Zeno would like to be not only one with you in friendship but your second self in his writings too; he puts what you say in another way . . . You affirm unity, he denies plurality. . . . Yes, Socrates, said Zeno… . The truth is, that these writings of mine were meant to protect the arguments of Parmenides against those who make fun of him and seek to show the many ridiculous and contradictory results which they suppose to follow from the affirmation of the one. My answer is addressed to the partisans of the many, whose attack I return with interest by retorting upon them that their hypothesis of the being of many, if carried out, appears to be still more ridiculous than the hypothesis of the being of one.
  2. [2] Since the 19th century, we’ve done a lot to really nicely rigorize the mathematics of infinites and infinitesimals, in ways that sometimes anticipated by but never fully available to ancient mathematicians.
  3. [3] If anything, this is even more true of late-modern mathematics than it was of classical mathematics. Contemporary mathematics constantly helps itself to a lot of the language of existence, actuality, etc., for mathematical objects, in areas where Euclid and other classical mathematicians were typically much more circumspect about making existence claims for mathematical objects that hadn’t yet been constructed.

Over My Shoulder #42: Kelly Dean Jolley on Augustine and the longing for a philosophical answer. From The Concept ‘Horse’ Paradox and Wittgensteinian Conceptual Investigations

Here’s the rules:

  1. Pick a quote of one or more paragraphs from something you’ve read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It should be something you’ve actually read, and not something that you’ve read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  3. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the quote. This is a passage from the penultimate chapter of The Concept Horse Paradox and Wittgensteinian Conceptual Investigations, by my teacher, Kelly Dean Jolley. Jolley has just finished a long examination of post-Kerry responses to Gottlob Frege’s Concept Horse Paradox (CHP). He finds that they fail to do what they set out to do — indeed, fail to do much of anything at all — and that they tend to fail in a very peculiar way, by trying to run up against a frustration in language with a host of new terminology and notational enhancements for English prose, which are supposed to accomplish something, to express something, that heretofore English prose was unable to express. Jolley considers what it is about the philosophical voice, and the philosophical mood, that prompts this kind of graphical anzurennen. Thus:

Consider, in closing, Augustine’s famous question, What is time?, and his famous recoiling upon his own question.

There was, therefore, not time before you [God] made anything, since time itself is something you made. No time could be eternal along with you, since you are always there; and if time were always, it would not be time. Then what is time? Who can give that a brief or easy answer? Who can even form a conception of it to be put into words? Yet what do we mention more often or familiarly in our conversation than time? We must therefore know what we are talking about when we refer to it, or when we hear someone else doing so. But what, exactly, is that? I know what it is if no one asks, but if anyone does, then I cannot explain it.

Augustine asks a question. And asked, he cannot answer. Part of the reason he cannot answer is that he longs for a certain kind of answer: a brief and easy one. But he has no brief and easy answer. Worse still, he doesn’t even have a conceptual draft on such an answer; he cannot even form a conception of time that he can (begin to) articulate. Augustine takes his confession of inarticulateness to be genuine confession: he’s searched himself before God and found no conception of time that he can (begin to) articulate. But Augustine cannot quite rest easy in his confession—after all, he must confess further that he is guilty of all sorts of temporal words and deeds. He has talked and been talked to of events that took little time, a long time or no time at all. He has judged things temporary and permanent. He has observed the hours; he has worshipped or mourned or fasted on days; he has battled the demon of the noontide. In the evening, in the morning, and at noonday he prayed, and that instantly. He has wished time away and hoped for time back. He has arrived early, promptly and late. He is a practical horologist. Even more, he has confessed and is confessing by biographizing, by looking into his own history: … [You] made me (but not my memory) begin in time …. In time I began to smile …, etc. So the first confession’s genuineness sits uncomfortably beside what must further be confessed. The tension is captured in his words: I know what it is if no one asks; but if anyone does, then I cannot explain it.

Augustine’s difficulty is that the anyone who might ask includes himself. When he asks of himself, he can give no answer. When he isn’t asking, he talks and does in ways that seem to him to require that he has an answer within him; we might say that when he isn’t asking, he seems to live an answer to the question.

And so, I think, he does. But he longs for a certain kind of answer, one that, though he cannot provide it, determines the space, as it were, into which an answer should fit. It determines the space that his knowledge should occupy That space is wrongly shaped for a life, for a lived answer to the question. What he does is the answer to his question, but he cannot see how to see it as the answer. And isn’t something of the same the problem for the respondents to the CHP?

— Kelly Dean Jolley (2007). The Concept Horse Paradox and Wittgensteinian Conceptual Investigations. Ashgate: ISBN #0754660451. 77–78.

The Passive-Aggressive Freedom-Lover’s Distibuted Book Club #2: Terence Irwin, Preface to Plato’s Ethics, vii-x

As I was saying the other day, I’ve been thinking that my readers might be interested in some of the topics that Terence Irwin raises in his book, Plato’s Ethics. The book is published by Oxford University Press. I thought you might enjoy thinking about some material which I’ve quoted here for educational purposes under principles of fair use, such as the material in the Preface, where he sets out his plans for the book and its relation to other work on Plato’s ethical theory. Thus:

Preface

Anyone who is interested in the contribution of Aristotle, Hume, or Kant to moral philosophy can turn to at least one book in English that tries to give a fairly full and detailed account of the philosopher’s main ethical views. The same cannot be said about Plato’s ethics. Admittedly, the questions that face the interpreter of Plato are different from those that face us in interpreting these other philosophers; still, I believe that what has been done for their ethical views can be done for Plato’s ethical views. That is what I have tried to do in this book. It is not comprehensive, since it leaves out several important aspects of Plato’s ethics, but it focusses on what I take to be central questions.

I have tried to present Plato’s reasons for holding his ethical views, his reasons for changing his mind about some of them, the content and implications of his views, and some reasons that might incline us towards accepting or rejecting them. With these aims in mind, I hav traced the development of Plato’s views in the earlier dialogues, laying special emphasis on the defence and (as I claim) re-statement of Socratic ethics in the Gorgias. I have devoted a large part of the book to the examination of Plato’s most important contribution to moral theory, in the main argument of the Republic. I have added a very brief discussion of some aspects of the later dialogues, to show how they throw further light on questions raised in the Republic.

A proper understanding of Plato’s moral philosophy requires some understanding of his views in moral psychology, epistemology, and metaphysics (the same is true, of course, of the other philosophers I mentioned), and so I have discussed these areas of his philosophy as well. Socratic method and Socratic ethics help to explain each other, and we can see the same sort of mutually explanatory connexions between Plato’s metaphysics and epistemology (growing out of his reflexions on Socratic method) and his ethical theory. My discussion of some features of Plato’s metaphysics and epistemology is evidently not a full treatment, but I hope it describes an aspect of the Theory of Recollection and the Theory of Forms that we may not appreciate sufficiently if we study these doctrines without reference to Plato’s ethics. The different threads in my argument combine in the discussion of the Sun, Line, and Cave in the Republic.

These claims about Plato’s development require a decision about the nature of Plato’s Socratic dialogues, and, more generally, about Plato’s relation to the historical Socrates. I have presented the early dialogues as embodying both the views of the historical Socrates and the views Plato held when he wrote these dialogues. This view of the early dialogues is defended briefly in Chapter 1.

My attempt to attribute an ethical theory to Plato may suggest to some readers that I have misconceived the character of the dialogues altogether. I have ascribed a relatively systematic body of doctrines to Plato on the strength of the dialogues; but some readers strongly reject this doctrinal view of the dialogues. I acknowledge an element of truth in those approaches that emphasize Plato’s distance from the characters in his dialogues; still, I believe doctrinal view is broadly correct, and that it finds strong support both in Aristotle’s comments on Plato and in a fair and scrupulous examination of the dialogues. It seems to me that a doctrinal approach will be most convincing if it allows us to attribute a significant philosophical position to Plato; and so my main aim is to describe the position that he holds.

I began this book intending it to be a second edition of Plato’s Moral Theory. The Press agreed to a moderate increase in the length of the earlier book, in the hope that a new edition would (1) offer a less one-sided presentation of some controversial issues than I gave in the earlier book; (2) expound the main issues less cryptically, with the hope of making the book more accessible to readers who are not specialized students of Plato; (3) include some discussion of the later dialogues; and (4) take account of what has been written on this topic since the publication of the earlier book. The constraints of lengt have meant that the first two aims have taken priority over the last two.

Recent discussion has influenced my decisions about the relative length of different parts of the book. Many critics of the earlierbook focussed on the chapters that dealt with the Socratic dialogues. Moreover, these dialogues have been intensively studied in recent years (largely through the influence of Gregory Vlastos); indeed, they seem to have been discussed more intensively than the Republic has been. This trend has been salutary in many ways, but I have not followed it. Much of the increase in length of this book over PMT results from a fuller discussion of the Republic. It seems to me that the changes Plato introduces in the Republic are—as far as concerns the topics of this book—changes for the better. If PMT made it difficult to see my comparative evaluation of the Socratic dialogues and the Republic, I hope this book will make my view clearer.

In this book I have added two short chapters on the Philebus, Statesman, and Laws. They are by no means a full treatment of the ethical argument of these complex and rewarding dialogues. I confine myself to some suggestions about what the late dialogues add to Plato’s views on some of the questions that I have explored in the early and middle dialogues.

To make room for the main text, I have (with some regret) deleted or curtailed most of the more discursive and argumentative footnotes I had written for this book. Many of the notes give bare references or the briefest indication of my reasons for taking a particular view; they do not attempt either a full report or a full discussion of the different views expressed in the secondary literature. On some points, then, the notes and bibliography are less full than those in PMT. In a few cases I have simply referred to one of the longer notes in PMT. The length of the notes has been determined, not by the importance of different issues for the understanding of Plato, but by their importance for the argument of this book.

Since the book is meant to be accessible to people who are beginning to thnk seriously about Plato’s ethics, I have not emphasized the differences between it and PMT. After writing an appendix describing the main objections raised against PMT, and the ways I now want to accept or answer these objections, I decided not to include the appendix in this book, since it would probably be more interesting to me than to most of my readers. I do not mean, however, to seem unappreciative of the helpful suggestions and objections of the many critics—friendly, hostile, or neutal—who have taken the trouble to explain what they thought was wrong with PMT. I am grateful for the stimulus that these criticisms have given me to think again about Plato’s ethics; even though I have probably learnt less han I ought to. I am sure that the present book has been improved by the criticisms of PMT, whether or not I have accepted them.

Though I began with the idea of a second edition of PMT, it has turned out a bit differently. None of hte text of the earlier book reappears in this book, and so it seemed reasonable to present this as a new book rather than as a second edition of an old book. In one important way, however, it is more like a second edition. I have not tried to achieve the degree of distance from PMT that would be necessary for a fresh examination of the primary texts and the secondary literature; instead, I have re-read the primary texts, and surveyed the secondary literature, in light of the earlier book.

In the notes I have tried to give some idea of the main contributions to discussion that have appeared since the earlier book was published. I have learnt a great deal from recent work, especially from the books of Julia Annas, Richard Kraut, and Gregory Vlastos, and from papers by Terry Penner, John Cooper, and Nicholas White. I have also indicated some new debts to older works that I have read or re-read in the course of writing this book. I had already used (for instance) Grote, Moreau, Joseph, and Murphy for the earlier book, but in re-reading them I found many suggestive remarks that had not made the proper impact on me before.

The task of working out some second thoughts on Plato’s ethics has been both more complicated and more interesting than I had expected it to be, and I am very pleased to be able to thank those who have helped me in it. The Delegates and staff of Oxford University Press have always been helpful and encouraging, by publishing the earlier book, by keeping itin print,and by agreeing to an extensive revision; I have especially benefited from Angela Blackburn’s advice and support at different stages. In 1990–91 I was fortunate enough to have a sabbatical leave from Cornell University and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. My views have developed in response to questions by undergraduate and graduate students at Cornell over several years, most recently in a seminar in the autumn of 1991. I have learnt so much from collegues in the Sage School of Philosophy that it is difficult to keep track of specific debts, but inthis case I am especially conscious of having learnt from Sydney Shoemaker, David Lyons, Harold Hodes, Nicholas Sturgeon, and Allen Wood. Jennifer Whiting and Susan Sauvé Meyer made useful comments and suggestions on particular points. Daniel Devereux and David Brink gave me detailed and searching criticisms of a draft of the whole book, and I have often benefited from their suggestions. My ideas on Plato have developed on many points as a result of Gail Fine’s work. She is responsible for so many changes that I cannot exclude the possibility that she has led me into new errors, but I am fairly confident that almost all the changes are improvements. Several drafts of this book have been benefited, in large and small ways, from her vigorous castigation and continual encouragement.

Finally, I must express my gratitude for the help of two colleagues and friends who have recently died. Michael Woods encouraged me in my work on Plato ever since 1974 when he read a draft of Plato’s Moral Theory and invited me to contribute a volume on the Gorgias to the Clarendon Plato Series, which he edited until his death in 1993. I benefited from his perceptive advice and comments on my efforts on the Gorgias, and on many other topics in Greek philosophy. In 1971–72 Gregory Vlastos supervised my dissertation on Plato’s ethics. Shortly before his death in 1991 he began to write a reply to my review of his book on Socrates. In the intervening years he was a constant, severe, sympathetic, and constructive critic of my views on Socrates and Plato. By precept and example, he, more than any other single person, has made the study of Socratic and Platonic ethics the flourishing activity that it is today. I would especially like to have known what he thought about my latest effort, in this book, to carry on a discussion with him that has been an important part of my intellectual life for over twenty years. I know I wouldn’t have convinced him, and I know his criticisms wouldhave thrown still further light on the questions.

T.H.I.
Ithaca, New York
September 1994

— Terence Irwin, Plato’s Ethics (Oxford University Press, 1995), vii–x

Silly season

This ad is nothing more than a series of strawmen. Still, it may be the most exciting race to watch in this campaign season. In any case a lot more turns on it than whether or not I personally choose to vote for Ron Paul.

(Via Majikthise 2007-12-10.)

Philosophers’ Carnival #24: an eternal golden braid

The Ministry of Enlightenment for this secessionist republic of one is proud to bring you the 24th installment of the Philosophers’ Carnival in the pages of the Rad Geek People’s Daily. The Philosophers’ Carnival has two primary purposes: (1) To provide lesser-known philosophy bloggers with the opportunity to gain some exposure and attract a wider audience, and (2) to showcase the best that a wide range of philosophy blogs have to offer, in one convenient location, for the benefit of philosophically-inclined readers. Some of the past carnivals have had a unifying theme; others have chosen to group related posts together by subject-heading. We here prefer to link each post in a chain by means of thin justifications for the transition, tenuous topical connections, and frequent red herrings. If you’re the type who likes to avoid that sort of thing (you probably hate candy and laughing babies, too), here’s the precis of what’s in the Carnival this time around:

  1. Henry Sidgwick @ Mind (April 1895): The Philosophy of Common Sense
  2. Jason Stanley @ Leiter Reports (2005-12-03): Scientific vs. Humanist Philosophy
  3. Will Wilkinson @ Happiness and Public Policy (2005-12-30): Is the Flat Trend in Self-reported Happiness a Problem?
  4. Roderick Long @ Austro-Athenian Empire (2006-01-06): The Value in Friendship
  5. Jerry Monaco (2005-12-18): The Break Between Sartre and Camus: Gossip, Invective, and the Meaning of History
  6. Aspazia @ Mad Melancholic Feminsta (2005-12-29): On Tolerance: Just Be Polite and Pass the Yams
  7. The Cynic Librarian (2005-12-15): Britian as New Islam Laboratory?
  8. Francois Tremblay @ Goosing the Antithesis (2005-11-14): Miracles and materialism
  9. Kenny Pearce (2005-12-22): Let’s Make Creation Science Not Suck
  10. Clayton @ Think Tonk (2005-12-31): Evolutionary naturalism undefeated?
  11. Chris @ The Uncredible Hallq (2006-01-02) in A Gambler’s Epistemology
  12. Richard Chappell @ Philosophy, et cetera (2006-01-06): Transcendental Arguments
  13. Doctor Logic (2006-01-03): More on explanation
  14. Ellis Seagh @ Consciousness and Culture (2005-12-21): Light and darkness: consciousness and reflex
  15. David Shoemaker @ PEA Soup (2006-01-02): Carnivores on the Run
  16. Rad Geek @ Philosophy, et cetera (2005-12-05): Freak intelligence, marginal cases, and the argument for ethical vegetarianism and Rad Geek @ Philosophy, et cetera (2005-12-07): The ends in the world as we know it
  17. Patrick @ Tiberius and Gaius Speaking… (2006-01-06): Capability and Potentiality

Fun challenge for the reader: try to guess what each post is about, and how I linked each one to the preceding post, before you scroll down and read the abstracts for yourself.

Ready? On, then, with the show:

Philosophers’ Carnival #24

  • We begin with post that’s been sitting in the queue for a little while: Henry Sidgwick @ Mind (April 1895): The Philosophy of Common Sense, recently brought to us courtesy of the Fair Use Repository. Sidgwick wants the Glasgow Philosophical Society (and, I suppose, us also) to consider how philosophy may be related to common sense, and how we should best understand philosophers such as Thomas Reid, who methodically and emphatically make appeals to the deliverances of common sense in order to do philosophical work. Far from being intellectual laziness in the name of unreflective gut feelings, Sidgwick notes how Reid refers to Hume’s account of the manner in which, after solitary reflection has environed him with the clouds and darkness of doubt, the genial influence of dinner, backgammon, and social talk dispels these doubts and restores his belief in the world without and the self within: and Reid takes his stand with those who are so weak as to imagine that they ought to have the same belief in solitude and in company. His essential demand, therefore, on the philosopher, is not primarily that he should make his beliefs consistent with those of the vulgar, but that he should make them consistent with his own; and the legitimacy of the demand becomes, I think, more apparent, when we regard it as made in the name of Philosophy rather than in the name of Common Sense.

  • Following on the theme of philosophy and common sense, Jason Stanley @ Leiter Reports (2005-12-03): Scientific vs. Humanist Philosophy offers a metaphilosophical guest post. Much of my blogging, he writes, has been devoted to trying to figure out which distinctions between kinds of philosophical approaches are merely sociological (e.g. reflections of the personal connections and academic credentials of particular philosophers) and which are genuinely substantive. I do think there are rather fundamental distinctions between kinds of philosophers, but (as I’ve been arguing this week) I don’t think they correspond to any kind of division between departments or nexuses that clearly divide two or three kinds of departments (such nexuses exist, but they are considerably more sociological in character). Nevertheless, I think that Brian Leiter has been on to something by his division of naturalistic vs. humanist philosophy. I just don’t think that this division explains anything about the sociology of department relations. I just haven’t been able to put my finger on what it is. He thinks that his finger has been moved somewhat closer to the mark, though, by Michael Strevens’ suggestion that the division is centrally concerned with the relationship that the philosopher sees between philosophy and our ordinary, common-sense self-understanding. Fodor, we are told, is a humanist insofar as his work on the mind is an attempt to vindicate our self-understanding, our human picture of the mind, but Stich, by contrast, uses the tools of philosophy to undermine our conception of ourselves, to alienate us from our own minds. Stanley goes on to consider some more typical points of contrast (such as the use of technical apparatus in logic or the appeal to the history of philosophy) that simply cut across the humanistic-scientific divide, and considers the points at which this division connects with Strawson’s division between descriptive and revisionary metaphysicians.

  • Reflections on our ordinary self-understanding, and of alienation from or comfort with that, easily bring us to questions about satisfaction, happiness, and our ordinary understanding of how happy or how satisfied we happen to be (or fail to be). Will Wilkinson @ Happiness and Public Policy (2005-12-30): Is the Flat Trend in Self-reported Happiness a Problem? looks at that, and specifically at studies of happiness based on self-reports. Wilkinson challenges a couple of presumptions that seem to be universal in the reports on, and analysis of, this kind of happiness study: (1) presuming that a flat trend in self-reports of happiness reliably indicates a flat trend in how happy people in fact are, and (2) presuming that a flat trend in how happy people in fact are would constitute some sort of deep problem that demands policy solutions. Why prefer we are getting no happier over we have been, and remain, extremely successful at creating happiness? The main reason why, I take it, is that it’s impossible to use the happiness data to drum up demand for one’s favorite unpopular policies without framing it in a way that makes it look like there’s some kind of problem that needs to be fixed. If you say that data show that we’re just as happy as our grandparents in America’s nuclear family, bowling together, Leave it to Beaver golden age, we’ll never socialize medicine! Anyway, the point is: at the very least, you need to at least try to eliminate the most plausible competing interpretations of the data before you move on to try to use happiness data to mount your favorite policy hobby horse. No. At the very least, you need to acknowledge that there are alternative interpretations. Until they do that, people trying to sell policy on the basis of happiness research don’t deserve to be taken very seriously.

  • Speaking of happiness, one of the many things — perhaps one of the most important things — that we’re inclined to connect — in some sense or another — with happiness — in some sense or another — is friendship — in some sense or another. But all three of those in some sense or anothers are tricky philosophical terrain. Roderick Long @ Austro-Athenian Empire (2006-01-06) recently posted an online copy of his essay from a roundtable on friendship, The Value in Friendship, which sets itself to learning how to ask the questions we need to ask about happiness, friendship, and the connection between them. The purpose of this essay is to ask a question. The question is: What is it that we value in friendship? The purpose of this essay is not to answer the question. That’s a more daunting task than I intend to tackle here. Rather, my purpose is simply to ask the question. You may think I’ve already asked the question; so my essay has achieved its purpose and I should stop right now. After all, didn’t I just say that my question was: what do we value in friendship? But I haven’t really succeeded in asking that question yet, because I haven’t yet clarified what question I am asking. That is, I haven’t yet distinguished the question I want to ask from other questions that are easily confused with it. So we’re not yet at the point of being able to ask my question. We need to wander about in the wilderness a little bit—though hopefully not for forty years—before we can get to the promised land of my question. As we get closer to the question, we see that there’s quite a bit of explaining that we need to do about what you value inside a friendship once you’ve got it, and what you value outside friendship that leads you to become friends in the first place, and the relation of both of these questions to happiness, to pleasure, and to satisfaction. Along the way, we also see how friendship (in both of the separate questions we’ve just posed) exposes thorny problems for two of the perennial candidates for theoretical understandings of how we should value people: strictly partial concern for yourself (represented by egoism) and strictly impartial universality (represented by utilitarianism, among others).

  • One of the reasons you might want to know better what it is that we value, in becoming friends and in being friends — or at least to know better how to start asking those questions — is to get a better grasp on the limits of friendship, on what it can (or should) survive, and when it can (or should) end. To take a very public example, Jerry Monaco (2005-12-18): The Break Between Sartre and Camus: Gossip, Invective, and the Meaning of History nicely takes us through the causes, the effects, and the historical and cultural context of the bitter end Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre’s friendship (as it proceeded from Francois Jensen’s fusillade-review on Camus’s The Rebel in Sartre’s journal Les Temps Moderns). Aside from the (very real, and very damaging) effects of an overheated intellectual culture of invenctive and literary celebrity in post-war Paris, Monaco also draws out some underlying differences of deep moral and philosophical principles, which were expressed in the feud and which ultimately made friendly engagement not only difficult but intolerable for Sartre and Camus: If one remembers that, at this time (1952), France was actively trying to recover its empire in Indochina and Africa, and that Sartre was actively opposing French colonialism, whereas Camus believed that the anti-colonialists had no moral legitimacy, then one can get a sense of what the feud was really about from Sartre’s point of view. If one remembers that Sartre was trying to existentialize Marxism and therefore not offering very acute criticism of the political acts of the Stalinists, then one can get a sense of what the feud was really about from Camus’ point of view. For both writers the basic principle was how to oppose oppression. For Camus collective resistance to oppression only leads to more oppression. For Sartre Camus’ quietism could only lead to the triumph of the oppressors. Camus believed that Sartre had become an ideologue giving cover to Stalinist domination, while he, Camus, was the advocate of individual human dignity. Sartre believed, that Camus was an apologist for French Imperialism, while he, Sartre was simply choosing to be in history and Camus was choosing in bad faith. Monaco argues that there are important senses in which they were both right and both confused; what he suggests is most important is the way in which the end of their friendship and the limitations of each’s thought came from an inability to work out a common understanding of what questions to ask, how to ask them, and thus what the debate between them was really about in the first place. For us, then The question of who was correct in this argument is not the correct question. The question is how can we come to an historical understanding of the moral issues presented by Camus and how can we come to a moral understanding of the historical issues presented by Sartre. In many ways, in 1952, each represented the missing center in each other’s thought.

  • These considerations on friendship, and how clash of deep philosophical and moral principle shattered the friendship of Sartre and Camus, brings us to the question of friendship, toleration, and the limits of each. We normally think that tolerance, especially amongst your friends and family, is a virtue—but also a virtue with limits, a virtue that must give way to confrontations with the intolerable. But how do we conceive of the virtue, and where do the limits come from? Aspazia @ Mad Melancholic Feminsta (2005-12-29): On Tolerance: Just Be Polite and Pass the Yams asks what we should make of tolerance: A few years ago I challenged my students to take tolerance seriously as a concept. I was witnessing wacky folks use this concept to push their questionable hypotheses, practices, and policies. In particular, I was concerned with the religious right’s determination to infiltrate school boards in order to bully well-meaning folks to be open-minded and teach Intelligent Design (aka Creationism). She investigates two different (even antagonistic) notions of tolerance — tolerance as respect and tolerance as politeness — and the role that appeals to tolerance played in her students’ linguistic practice: For them tolerance meant that you sort of put up with someone you didn’t like, you know, like your annoying great-Aunt who spouts utter nonsense and lives with 8 cats. My students taught me that most people understand tolerance to mean being polite. Perhaps, it’s a WASPy sort of relic. Don’t ruffle feathers, just smile and pass the yams. Thus, she wonders whether tolerance can be rehabilitated as a virtue, or whether We might be better served by a more robust notion than tolerance.

  • Of course, one of the original cases for which the question of tolerance arose was religious toleration within civil society. The Cynic Librarian (2005-12-15): Britian as New Islam Laboratory? takes issue with those rabid anti-Moslems who would say that a moderate, modern Islam is a contradiction in terms, but (with the help of an essay by Tahir Abbas) wants to take a hard look at the genuinely hard problems about the relationship between Islam, Muslims and modernity: not only how far modernity can tolerate Islam, but how far Islam can tolerate modernity. [T]he larger question, as I see it, [is the question] of what will happen to Islam as secularism and consumerist values seep slowly into the bones of the young. They will face the question of either rejecting the faith outright, watering the faith down to a shell of its former self, or reacting in fundamentalist rage at the surrounding profane society. Does the solution lie in politics? In civil society? In religion? Or in rethinking all of the above?

  • And from the debate over religious faith and modernity, where else could you go but a discussion of natural science and the concept of a miracle? Francois Tremblay @ Goosing the Antithesis (2005-11-14): Miracles and materialism reviews the Humean epistemological argument against believing in miracles, and then offers a metaphysical argument that the concept of a miracle (as something that contravenes materialistic natural causation) entails the non-existence of God, by virtue of the (materialistic) form of causal explanation that theists need to identify with natural law in order to make sense of the concept of a miracle: For a miracle to be a miracle, it must be miraculous, that is to say, it must break natural law. And natural law is the result of materialist causation. So the definition of a miracle itself implies that materialism is true ! For it includes both material causation and its break for a specific event. If there is no material causation, then the concept of miracle is meaningless. An embarassing predicament for the theist, if the argument works.

  • Meanwhile, Kenny Pearce (2005-12-22): Let’s Make Creation Science Not Suck offers a Christian attack on the notion of contra-causal miracles, drawing on arguments from Leibniz. He argues that both naturalist opposition to Christianity, and Christian opposition to natural science, are the result of bad theology and bad science; specifically the mistaken belief in a conflict between the scientific understanding of the world and the reality of miracles — as embodied in the very concept of a miracle as a contravention of natural law. Thus, with Leibniz, Pearce says, I continue to hold that it would essentially amount to God making a mistake if he had to break his own physical laws in order to bring about his will miraculously. Rather, the perfect wisdom and infinite power of God should lead us to conclude that he made a world in which his laws hold always, and that he is able to bring about his will, even in those things we consider miraculous, without breaking physical laws. If I am right about this, then the enterprise of science seen as the attempt to explain everything in the physical world by efficient causes is theologically legitimate. If Creation Science is not to suck, Pearce suggests, it has to give up the idea that it is confronting natural science with a conflicting (miraculous, revealed) explanation of worldly happenings, and instead return to a Leibnizian program of theology of nature, in which theists should make use of final causes in their investigations of nature as a means both to scientific discovery and a better understanding of the ways of God. As an example of how this might work, he points out Leibniz’s example of Snell (whose development of optics, Leibniz claims, depended in part on reasoning from God’s perfection), and also asks us to lee[ am eye on the aesthetic criteria which mathematicians and physicists increasingly make heuristic use of.

  • But even if the use of God-inspired heuristic principles produces good results, does having once made use of them require us to continue to take them seriously in order to avail ourselves of the results? Along these lines, Clayton @ Think Tonk (2005-12-31): Evolutionary naturalism undefeated? closed out the year by trying to kick the ladder out from under Plantinga’s argument that evolutionary naturalism (E&N) is epistemologically self-defeating; his response is to argue that even if Plantinga’s argument initially works, it gives us no lasting reason to insist on the hypothesis of an Intelligent Designer. Once we’ve reasonably determined that having reliable cognitive capacities (R) supervenes on a particular constitution (C), even if we have to begin with the hypothesis that God created us so that R is true in order to reasonably make that discovery, Clayton argues that, since Plantinga is not claiming that God makes it the case that the conditional probability of R on C is high, [but] that by accepting T, we learn that R on C is high, then if we take him at his word in this claim, the conditional probability of R on C is high enough that we can rationally believe R and can rationally believe that R would be true so long as C is true even if E&N were true, too. But if that’s so, it seems we’ve climbed the ladder and are ready to kick it away. And once we’ve done that, we have no reason to think E&N cannot be accepted. Thus, it may be Plantinga’s justification for theism, and not naturalism, that contains the seeds of its own destruction.

  • Questions about self-defeating hypotheses, intelligent design and the chances that our world would turn out to be the way it is tangentially inspired Chris @ The Uncredible Hallq (2006-01-02) in A Gambler’s Epistemology, where he considers how far a common response to radical skepticism can be rationally sustained. A common response to radically skeptical thesis (we can’t know if the sun will rise tomorrow, we can’t know whether we’re living in a Matrix-type world or not) is, well, true, but if the sun won’t rise tomorrow, there’s nothing we can do about it. [I’ve] toyed with a broader form of that idea in a previous post on proof. The broad form is reject possibilities that cannot be evaluated on the evidence, because if they’re true, there’s nothing we can do about it. For example, if there’s some evidence that we do in fact live in a Matrix-world, we could consider the evidence, but we must reject the idea of a Matrix-world that is impossible to identify as such. But, Chris worries, discarding a hypothesis just because it defeats our epistemological hopes seems shaky; it seems to rely on a postulate to the effect that a world without undiscoverable secrets are more likely to be the world we live in than a world with undiscoverable secrets. And if ID theorists don’t have a right to the apriori determinations of probabilities that they often lay claim to in order to justify their arguments against naturalism in general or evolution specifically, then it seems that anti-skeptics don’t have a right to apriori determinations of probabilities in order to defeat skepticism, either.

  • Meanwhile, Richard Chappell @ Philosophy, et cetera (2006-01-06): Transcendental Arguments also considers a form of argument from self-defeat, which he calls Transcendental Arguments, or Practical Arguments. (It’s unclear to me whether what Richard has in mind is identical with what Kant famously had in mind when he talked about transcendental arguments. I expect that it has a lot to do with how you spell out the details.) What I have in mind, he says, are those assumptions that we must make as a precondition to any sort of intellectual progress. Or, more generally, those things that we ought to believe because we’ve got nothing to lose by doing so. If they’re false then we’re screwed anyway, so we might as well just believe them and hope for the best …. it’s not as if the arguments do anything to establish the truth of the belief in question; they merely show that we might as well believe it. As an example, he offers arguments for believing in free will and the laws of thought based on the principle that if we can choose to believe anything, or if we can rationally demonstrate any belief, then there must be free will and the laws of logic must apply; and if we can’t, then we didn’t make the wrong choice or else we couldn’t gain a justified belief by believing otherwise (since without the laws of logic there is no rational justification at all). Wagering against them is in some important respect self-defeating (since at best it is no better justified than the competing view), so go ahead and place your bets on free will and logic. Richard closes by asking whether this sort of reasoning is in fact any good, and where else it might be applied if it is. This may be a good reply to Hallq’s worries as to where the evidential force of the nothing to lose comes from when we dismiss undiscoverable secrets (including radical skepticism) from consideration in looking for good explanations of the world; or it may be subject to exactly the objection to that strategy that Hallq raises. Beware: dialogue may be close at hand!

  • On the topic of good explanations and undiscoverable secrets, Doctor Logic (2006-01-03): More on explanation offers an attempt to work out just what explanation is, and how a good explanation might or might not relate to explainers that are beyond our ken. The good Doctor suggests that the essential feature of an explanation is a predictive function from causes to effects; he suggests that as long as the predictive function is there, the cause could be either visible or secret, but that purported explanations where the purported cause is such that it leaves no evidential trace, then what we have is not even a bad explanation or an unscientific one, but simply fails to give an explanation of the phenomena at all. If this account of explanation works, it would mean (among other things) that radically skeptical hypotheses fail to even offer an alternative explanation of our experiences for us to consider.

  • Thinking about explanation and the limits thereof naturally brings us to the explanation of thinking, and whether those limits can encompass explanations of conscious mental states by means of natural facts. Ellis Seagh @ Consciousness and Culture (2005-12-21): Light and darkness: consciousness and reflex takes issue with Chalmers’ claim of an inevitable explanatory gap between natural (neurochemical) properties and first-person phenomenal properties. Why is the performance of these functions [that are in the vicinity of experience] accompanied by experience? Chalmers asks, in the paper that re-introduced the idea of an explanatory gap in all attempts to construct an explanation of consciousness. A little later he puts the same question a bit differently: Why doesn’t all this information-processing go on in the dark, free of any inner feel? It was, presumably, his inability to find an answer to such questions that lay behind his use of the zombie thought-experiment to argue against a materialist, and in favor of a dualist, approach to comprehending consciousness as a phenomenon. My argument here, however, is that he gave up too quickly. Specifically, Seagh argues, there seem to be obvious differences between typical examples of unconscious mental functions and typical examples of conscious mental functions, and these differences seem to have a natural explanation: conscious experience. But if phenomenal properties play an explanatory role in natural processes, then Chalmer’s claim of a systematic explanatory gap seems to be premature.

  • From one sort of explanatory gap to another: we’ve looked at the purported gap between the natural and the phenomenal; now let’s look at the purported gap between the natural and the normative. It’s common enough to note cases in which an is fails to completely account for an ought; but David Shoemaker @ PEA Soup (2006-01-02): Carnivores on the Run looks at a case in which an ought fails to determine an is, even though it seems that it should — I’m a carnivore. Yes, I said it. But I’m finding there to be less and less of a rational justification for this position. (That’s probably an inaccurate way of putting it, for it may be that there just is no rational justification for it, and never has been, in which case the scalar dimension of this comment refers literally to the degree of scales that have fallen from my eyes, rather than to the degree of justification itself.) Nevertheless, I also find myself utterly unmotivated to change my ways. And I know I’m not alone here (I know for a fact that there’s at least one other PEA brain, for example, who is in the same situation). So what’s going on? David goes on to briefly outline the standard marginal case arguments for ethical vegetarianism, and then asks: if you find the arguments for ethical vegetarianism convincing, but keep on eating meat anyway, what sort of ethical and cognitive position might you be in? Broadly speaking, what do we say about everyday habits that go against the ethical principles we find intellectually convincing?

  • Marginal cases and meat-eating brings us to a couple of guest posts I recently contributed. There’s Rad Geek @ Philosophy, et cetera (2005-12-05): Freak intelligence, marginal cases, and the argument for ethical vegetarianism and Rad Geek @ Philosophy, et cetera (2005-12-07): The ends in the world as we know it. The first concerns the argument itself: I think that we have some pretty substantial ethical obligations toward non-human animals (hereafter: “animals”; sorry, taxonomic correctness). In fact, I think those obligations are substantial enough that we’re ethically bound, among other things, to stop slaughtering cattle, pigs, chickens, etc. for food. I can’t say, though, that I’m particularly thrilled with the state of the philosophical debate, and in particular I’m not particularly thrilled with a lot of the arguments that try to defend something like my conclusion. Part of the problem is a problem that’s general in a lot of applied ethics: the desire to make arguments that seem to be compatible with a lot of very different philosophical or meta-ethical views tends to end up with arguments that are actually compatible with only a very narrow view of what the world contains. (That’s because, by design, anything that looks too philosophically murky or controversial is pared away in order to make the argument’s appeal broad enough. But what if the world really does have philosophically murky or controversial features?) As a chief example, take the argument over so-called marginal cases and the ethical significance of belonging to a particular species. I go over marginal case arguments more closely and try to set out a response making use of Michael Thompson’s work in The Representation of Life on aristotelian categoricals (which are explored at greater length in the second guest post) and the natural properties of living creatures; the upshot is that carnivores might be able to defend themselves by an appeal to the natural capacity for rationality (of some kind or other) that humans have. (I don’t think the defense is convincing, but showing why requires detail work on the relation between moral standing and rationality, rather than a schematic marginal cases argument.)

  • The question of marginal cases and natural capacities brings us to Patrick @ Tiberius and Gaius Speaking… (2006-01-06): Capability and Potentiality: The philosophical debates over abortion and the rights of animals are beset by a common question: what characteristic(s), if any, can be listed and described to correctly pick out members of our moral community? In the abortion debates, the worry is that all the arguments that demonstrate the permissibility of abortion also establish the permissibility of infanticide. And since infanticide is pretty roundly condemned, that’s a problem. Similarly, many have argued that no account of what constitutes humanity will include marginal cases like infants or the cognitively disabled but exclude more sophisticated animals. Patrick suggests that a distinction among different kinds of natural capacity — specifically, between potentiality and capability, and then between physical capability and what he calls actual capability, may make some progress toward a solution. If the moral standing of human beings is connected with rationality (as is often suggested in both abortion and animal rights debates), then you’ll get different rules depending on whether you are citing the actual capability for minimal rationality (which would allow for killing fetuses, infants, adults with severe cognitive disabilities, and beasts), bare potentiality for minimal rationality (which would prohibit killing not only fetuses and infants, but perhaps even sperm, eggs, or skin cells under the right conditions), or physical capability for minimal rationality (which might—pending further results from developmental physiology, anyway—allow for killing beasts and aborting early pregnancies, but draw the line somewhere fairly late in pregnancy). Patrick favors physical capability for minimal rationality as drawing the line in something like the intuitive place.

As always, you really should read the whole thing.

The 25th installment will appear at The Uncredible Hallq, sometime in late January. Keep your eyes peeled!