Sunday, March 29, 2015

The World Since 1945

Random reading....

In the February issue of HARPER'S, Rebecca Solnit works to relate the Second World War to ... every environmental disaster since.

The following may be the money quote.

"In crucial, material ways, the technological modernization of World War II never ended. Pesticides, nuclear engineering, and plastics -- all developed during the militarization of industrial production -- are now part of a war by other means. All three industries sought profitable postwar applications and found them in agriculture, in energy production, and in the creation of untold disposable plastic items, the ubiquity of which was aided by he rise of advertising and marketing."

The reference to pesticides there brought me up short. Are pesticides the consequence of that war in the same  sense as nuclear engineering? Sulfur was used as a pesticide by the Chinese back around 1,000 BC. My understanding is that the modern and highly marketable nature of pesticides dates back to the days of Walter Reed, in the 1890s and early 1900s. It was Reed who determined that yellow fever is caused by mosquitoes, creating an obvious demand for ever-better ways to kill the carriers of that and (as it turns out) other diseases.

Solnit says nothing more on pesticides in her essay, and little on nukes or plastic either, but soon focuses on the issue of moving carbon from the ground into the air. A matter where her WW II connection is even less obvious.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Shopping Malls and Consolidation

The business of owning and leasing out shopping malls ain't what it used to be.

I'm old enough to remember when malls themselves were the hot (and worrisome) new trend, popping up in the suburbs and decimating the business activity in the nearest city. Nobody would bother to go downtown to shop anymore, with such an inviting alternative. How unfair!

I remember the sometimes heated lawyerly discussions about the first amendment implications of the way that malls had become 'functionally' public property, i.e. town squares.

Of course, in the cycle of life one decade's up-and coming phenomenon becomes another decade's old and lagging loser.

Shopping malls are still good hang-outs for teenagers, I imagine, but they aren't such vital places for shopping as they used to be. Many of the once-prominent bookstores, record stores, cinemas, and video retailers that once gave people a reason to go have disappeared as people buy books, music, movies, online. Even clothing stores these days are coming under siege, the advantage of real-space fitting rooms notwithstanding.

Which brings us to the matter of consolidation, and brings us for example to this story on Simon Property.

It seems likely that there will still be some market for malls for some time to come, though it will shrink. And in that shrinking market, former competitors will consolidate. The law will almost certainly allow them to do so.

The interesting questions that arise from the Simon/Mecerich negotiations are about the fiduciary responsibilities of corporate managements in such shrinking industries.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Quote from Parfit

Recently  I wrote a little about ethicist Derek Parfit.

I've been doing further research on him since, and will now describe his Big Picture as I've come to understand it.

Parfit believes that the western world only started taking ethical philosophy seriously (as a domain separate from theology) around the time Nietzsche declared that God was dead. There are only three possibilities, in terms of the God/morality issue:

1) You believe that God exists and that His commands define morality
2) You deny that God exists and, like Nietzsche, infer from this that in the absence of commands there is no right or wrong, or
3) You deny that God exists yet persist in believing and attempting to discern right and wrong.

From a certain point of view there could be a fourth category, for people who believe that God exists but that His existence is irrelevant to morality, He doesn't issue commands at all, etc.  Still, from DP's perspective that sort of God is equivalent to No-God, and someone who holds to the existence of such a God must still fall into either (2) or (3) above.

Parfit places himself in category (3). But he finds himself in the company there of a lot of thinkers who see morality as "inter-subjective." I have my subjectivity, you have yours, we have to work together so we build bridges, and an inter-subjective, still not-quite objective, morality ensues. Parfit sees the work of John Rawls as typical of that approach. It is still what he calls as "subjective theory about reasons" in the passage I'm about to quote.

If that is 3(a), Parfit is 3(b).  H sees 3(a) as uncomfortably close to 2.

With that much context offered, I believe I'll give him this platform to say something. The floor is yours, DP.

"If we want some event as an end, but this event's intrinsic features give us strongly decisive reasons to want this event not to occur, our wanting this event is contrary to reason, and irrational. It would be irrational, for example, to prefer to have one hour of agony tomorrow rather than one minute of slight pain later today. These claims may seem too obvious to be worth making. But such claims are denied by some great philosophers, and they cannot be made by those who accept subjective theories about reasons."


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Chesterton on Thomism

Image result for Chesterton

In a famous passage, G.K. Chesterton described the philosophy of medieval Catholicism as the common sense of the human race, the philosophy to which we all tend when we aren't poisoned by ... any of the alternatives.

"Since the modern world began in the sixteenth century, nobody's system of philosophy has really corresponded to everybody's sense of reality: to what, if left to themselves, common men would call common sense. Each started with a paradox; a peculiar point of view demanding the sacrifice of what they would call a sane point of view. That is the one thing common to Hobbes and Hegel, to Kant and Bergson, to Berkeley and William James. A man had to believe something that no normal man would believe, if it were suddenly propounded to his simplicity: as that law is above right, or right is outside reason, or things are only as we think them, or everything is relative to a reality that is not there. The modern philosopher claims, like a sort of confidence man, that if once we will grant him this, the rest will be easy: he will straighten out the world, if once he is allowed to give this one twist to the mind."

One of the things that bugs me about this passage is the disparity in the two lists. There is first a list of the six philosophers that Chesterton proposes to use as foils. They are each given as proper names.  Then there is a list of various "abnormal things" that they propound, creating a sense that the latter list is the same as the former: those philosophers propound these abnormal views. 

But that can't be the case, because there are only four abnormal opinions listed, after the list of six proper names. So either the lists aren't as closely related as the organization of the paragraph suggests, or two of the philosophers have been unceremoniously dropped. 

My best guess is that Hegel and Bergson have been implicitly dropped. The "law is above right" sounds like a more-or-less fair reading of Hobbes' view of the social contract. My guess is that the phrase "right is outside reason" is a reference to Kant's distinction between the noumenal and the (rationally comprehensible) phenomenal. 

Here though we've begun to go off the rails, for to no one familiar with Kant will that seem quite right. Indeed, Chesterton seems to be playing on two meanings of the word "right" here. The word can be used in English to mean either "an accurate description of reality" or "what a person ought to do." For Kant, there is a sense in which descriptively right is outside reason, but no sense at all in which prescriptively right is outside reason. 

Meanwhile, as I read the passage, Bergson like Hegel is forgotten when the second list comes along, and the third and fourth terms of the shorter list are fairly common jibes against Berkeley and James respectively.

Why were Hegel and Bergson introduced at all if they were going to be so summarily dropped?  

Separately, there is something peculiar about the list chronologically. Hobbes is the oldest figure there and is he only one cited for a social/political point.  Then comes Berkeley (18th), Kant (late 18th), Hegel (19th). James and Bergson were contemporaries of GKC himself.   

Why is this peculiar? Put together some pieces here: GKC's overall emphasis in this passage is metaphysical/epistemological. He is talking about what the world is and how we know it. The "sense of reality" and -- in a couple more paragraphs-- the simple proposition that an egg is an egg.  Hobbes is the only thinker here who is best known not for such fundamentals but for a social/political argument. and indeed if GKC refers back to him with the phrase "law is above right" then Hobbes got onto this list precisely for that political argument. which makes him rather an odd man out.

Another fact about this puzzling passage, another piece of the puzzle: GKC is saying that a disaster happened to Europe's intellectuals in the 16th century. He is clear about the century. What was that disaster and why did it happen? He [also clearly] wants to say that it was a disaster to that class' "sense of reality," not -- or not in the first instance -- to their political convictions. So Berkeley is the earliest name on the list who seems directly germane. And Berkeley comes rather late to the game to tell us anything about the supposed change two centuries before his day.

A third puzzle piece: GKC knows perfectly well how to make himself clear, making more significant that ambivalence in the phrase "right is outside reason" I mentioned earlier. It isn't ambivalent by accident. Chesterton seems to be using the word "right" as a bridge between metaphysical and ethical philosophy as if to make it more difficult for casual readers to notice that Hobbes, and his one-phrase summary of Hobbes, is the only real instance of the latter here.

It appears that Chesterton has something on his mind here he isn't saying, but is rather finessing.  Some further speculation on what that might be, within the next two weeks.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Kant, Gewirth, and Prinz

Alan Gewirth

In a 1994 essay, Alan Gewirth (pictured here) admitted that Kant's argument to the categorical imperative had flaws, and he attempted a patch-up job.

In a 2007 book, another philosopher Jesse Prinz, reconstructed Gewirth's reconstruction of what Kant might have meant. In Prinz' version it has an economical two premises, everything else is a conclusion. 

I present the Prinz version without further comment, except for one bracketed correction.

P1. I am an agent.
P2. If I am an agent, I accept that freedom and well-being are necessary for me.
C1. Therefore, I accept that I must have freedom and well-being. (From P1 and P2.)
C2. Therefore, I accept that it is impermissible to not have freedom and well-being. (From C1, because its denial is the contradiction of that premise.)
C3. Therefore, I accept that it is impermissible for others to remove or interfere with my freedom and well-being. (From C2.)
C4. Therefore, I accept that others ought to refrain from removing or interfering with my freedom and well-being. (From C3.) 
C5. Therefore, I accept that I have a right to freedom and well-being. (From C4, because of the correlativity of oughts and rights.) 
C6. The same argument applies to all agents. (Universal generalization of P1.)
C7. Therefore, all agents accept that they have the right to freedom and well-being. [Here I believe that there is a misprint in Prinz' text, but presumably this comes from combining C5 and C6.] 
C8. Therefore, I accept that all agents have the right to freedom and well-being. (From P1 and C7). 

Friday, March 20, 2015

A confusing book

Image result for standing roulette wheel clip art

Some random reading again.

Probability in the Philosophy of Religion. 2012. Much of the text is available on Google books.

One big question in the P of R that involves probability in some sense is the evidence for miraculous events.

Suppose a theist puts it forward as one of his reasons for belief in God that "only this belief can explain the parting of the Red Sea." One classic response, formulated for example by David Hume, is that the historical evidence for the event can never be greater than the improbability of the event. So it is always more rational to believe that the alleged miracle didn't happen, and the chain of testimony that has brought us news thereof is at fault, than to believe that it did happen, and qualify our belief in laws of nature in the process.

This seems, then, squarely an argument about probability, and some of the contributions to this collection address it.

One of the contributions that does is written by Benjamin C. Jantzen, of Carnegie Mellon University.
Jantzen argues that Bayesian approaches to this question fail. Bayesianism has two parts: the identification of probability with rational degrees of belief on the one hand and a rule for inductive inference on the other. Jantzen argues, following Peirce in this, that (Jantzen's words), "the Bayesian computation is structurally biased, and the very sampling process of history renders this bias ineliminable."

Peirce doesn't call it Bayesianism. He calls it MBL, the "method of balancing likelihoods," and it is his view that this was Hume's method in the essay on miracles.

Anyway, it should be said that Peirce isn't really trying to resuscitate an argument for theism from miracles, which would fit rather poorly with his sort of theism. Peirce thinks of God as real, but not existing, where "existence" involves interaction. So Peirce's theism anyway has to get along without miracles in the classic sense of the term. Peirce is contending, though, that Hume anti-miracles argument was invalid, because MBL is invalid. In terms of Peirce's bigger picture, this is motivated by his view that probability, and so an element of randomness, is an objective fact about the world, not merely the acknowledgement of human limitations. And Jantzen seems to agree.

BUT ... I find the explanations confusing. Because the Peirce/Jantzen arguments, applied to the Red Sea or anything similar, seem to me if I understand them at all, to be to the effect that testimony is biased by the method of its preservation. The testimonies came down to us because religious traditions have coalesced around them. So isn't this an argument that Hume was if anything too tolerant of religious testimony?

That doesn't seem to be where Jantzen wants to go with it....