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Showing posts from 2017

The Velocity of Time

Raymond Tallis, the fellow portrayed here, has an article in the current issue of The New Atlantis about time.

I won't discuss his views on this topic, but I will offer something of a tease. He begins with a passage on his own sense of mortality that I found moving.

"On each January 1 the number designating the year just past looks less used up than its predecessor. By the time 1960 had arrived, my 1959 was worn out and its replacement overdue. When 2011 was announced, I was still not used to 2010 and even 2009 and 2008 looked scarcely touched. It is hardly surprising that I sometimes feel — as I imagine you, reader, do when yet another day, another week, another summer, another year has melted away — as if I were being swept, log-like, towards a cataract dropping into oblivion."


Personal Identity

The following observation arose in the course of a critique of philosopher Derek Parfit.  

"Even if the lower-level facts [that make up identity] do not in themselves matter, the higher-level fact may matter. If it does, the lower-level facts will have derived significance. They will matter, not in themselves, but because they constitute the higher level fact."

The quote is from Mark Johnstone, as part of a critique he wrote of Parfit's work on personal identity for a collection called DEREK PARFIT AND HIS CRITICS. 

Parfit didn't believe in personal identity. That is, he didn't believe there is any important sense aside from social convention why an "I" of 15 years old is the same person as an "I" of 45, thirty years later, however firmly the latter has memories that might be traced ultimately to the sensory organs of the former.

Parfit can perhaps best be understood as bringing into the Anglo-American analytical philosophical tradition a touch of…

The Conceptual Foundations of Transitional Justice

The headline of this blog entry is the title of a newly published book by Colleen Murphy, out from Cambridge University Press.

Murphy is a professor of law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Here is a link to the amazon page for her book.

If I understand it, the question that concerns Murphy is the old one -- how should revolutionaries, who have taken power on a promise to pursue broader social transformation, understand their job? What do they do next?

The constitution established in South Africa in 1993, with the success of negotiations to end apartheid, was specifically called the "Interim Constitution." Two years later the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, passed by the parliament pursuant to that interim constitution, created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was both truth finding and amnesty granting.

That TRC is at the heart of what Murphy has in mind by "transitional justice." But she doesn't want revolution…

Substance versus Reactions

I have now and then wondered, as my mind wandered, whether there can properly be said to be such a creature as the "philosophy of chemistry."

Biology has philosophical controversies specific to itself: the explication of the concept of natural selection for example, or the age-old reductionism-versus-holism thing.

Physics, likewise, has its own philosophical controversies. Indeed, much that goes by the name "philosophy of science" seems actually to be a philosophy of physics.The nature of space and time. Statistical mechanics, etc.

But chemistry? Wouldn't any effort to assign specific philosophical controversies to chemistry inevitably veer in one or the other of those directions? So I mused.

But it appears there really is a "philosophy of chemistry." Philosophers working this field debate whether chemistry is the study of substances or reactions -- stuff or events. In the words of Joachim Schummer, "Substance philosophers define a chemical reac…

Other Minds and Autism

The dominant model in research on autism is that of a hard-wired "theory of mind" that operates in neurotypical folks but that doesn't operate (maybe the wires get crossed in some more-or-less literal sense) in those developing children who end up "on the spectrum." Whereas the neurotypicals come to understand without reflexion that there is another person behind the various human faces they encounter, this never comes easily to those with the crossed wires. On this theory, (call it the meta-theory of mind) many if not all of the characteristic symptoms of the disorder derive from that point.

It is a neat (meta-) theory, but it is worth mentioning now and then that it isn't established fact. 
Indeed, the more neurologists get to work trying to home in on this wired-in theory of mind, the more evasive it seems. And (assuming the paradigm) there are theory-of-mind deficits that one would not call autistic. 
OTOH, I'm sure there is something to it.

Amartya Sen and Capability

As I believe I've mentioned in this blog before, I contend that there are four components that must go into an complete and accurate ethical (and metaethical) philosophy, but to my dismay, few if any contemporary philosophers combine them.

Such a successful ethics would be cognitivist, intuitionist, teleological, and pluralist.

That is: it would see right and wrong, good and bad, as issues open to knowledge, not mere taste; it would allow room for intuition (a direct apprehension analogous to but not in fact sensory perception) at the base of this cognition; it would see the right as the way to get to the good; it would allow for more than one goodness, and perhaps then more than one right, too.

I believe that Isaiah Berlin combined all these features But he's been dead for 20 years, and his period of "flourishing" requires that one go back somewhat further than that.

A figure of more recent vintage? The Indian philosopher Amartya Sen, who is still with us, and the …

Republic of Equals

The title of this blog entry, Republic of Equals, is also the title of a new book on political philosophy.

The author, Alan Thomas, a philosophy professor at the University of York, and the head of the department there puts forth a theory of justice he calls "predistribution." The underlying idea is that a republic is valuable and sustainable only to the extent that the ownership of property and/or "access to capital," is widespread, that is, to the degree that there are institutional checks in place to prevent a drift toward oligarchy.

Further, it is Thomas' contention that this "stable management of capital dispersion ... require[s] relatively extensive involvement by the state."

The term "predistribution," which Thomas adopts from other thinkers, is a name for the idea that it is better to keep the horse in the stable than to try to chase down the horse after it has run away. Thomas' notion of justice, derived largely from a critical…

James versus Hume on Belief

David Hume on the nature of belief, and especially on a comparison of belief with imagination:

"Belief is nothing but a more vivid, lively, forcible, firm, steady conception of an object, than what the imagination alone is never able to attain."

I disagree. And I disagree on Jamesian authority, drawing on The Principles of Psychology.

The problem is that Hume presumes belief is more than imagination -- it is imagination with more liveliness, force, etc. But a better understanding is that imagination is the more, not a more lively but a more complicated state of mind. It is the holding together of a conception AND a reason to doubt or deny that conception.

I imagine a unicorn in my barn. Or I believe there is a unicorn in the barn. On a Jamesian reading of this pair of possibilities, I conceive of the unicorn in the barn in either case, but in the imaginative case that conception is accompanied by my understanding of the mythical character of the beast.

Belief is that same c…

Hume's Cutlery

David Hume is renowned for two pieces of cutlery, the guillotine and the fork.

Hume's guillotine is the sharp cut he makes between "is" statements and "ought" statements, to make the point that the former never ground the latter.

His "fork" is the division between what later came to be called "analytic" and "synthetic" statements, with the ominous observation that any books containing statements that cannot be assigned to one or the other prong should be burnt.

Actually, I should acknowledge that there is some dispute as to how well or poorly the dichotomy Hume outlines really maps onto the analytic/synthetic dichotomy. Some writers maintain that Hume meant something quite different and has been hijacked. Personally, I've never seen the alleged difference however hard they've worked to point it out to me.

The guillotine makes for a more dramatic graphic than a mere fork, hence the bit of clip art above.

I'm curious whe…

Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell wrote somewhere (probably in The Problems of Philosophy) that the problem with adopting "common sense" as a philosophy is that "common sense leads to science and science undermines common sense."

That seems to me both true and important.

So much so that I won't ruin it with gloss.

Risk, Language, and Terrorism

The use of the words "risk" and "uncertainty" in vernacular English leaves the relationship between the words imprecise.

That is, if I were to ask you, dear reader, what is the difference between risk and uncertainty, there would be no univocal "right" answer, though the words clearly are not synonyms. In general, we think of risk as a less-than-certain loss, so uncertainty figures into it, but uncertainty figures into a lot of other words too (such as "hope," which we think of as a less-than-certain gain).

In finance, and in other areas as well, there has been some movement toward using the two words in a rigorously paired way, such that, to borrow a formulation from the George W. administration, "risk" represents the known unknowns of a situation, "uncertainty" represents the unknown unknowns.

Here's a straightforward example: I know that a certain stock is interest-rate sensitive. I know that the Federal Reserve is m…

Market's Inflationary Expectations

Investors in the spring of 2016 could have gotten ahead of events by aligning their portfolios to “a world of lower expected capital market returns and higher forward volatility.” That, at any rate, was the upshot of a thoughtful analysis by Eric J. Wiegel of Global Focus Capital, a Boston based asset allocation advisor. Why does Wiegel think so? Because the market’s inflationary expectations are/were too low. With the benefit of a year of hindsight ... was Wiegel right? So far as I can tell ... no. In particular, the market's inflationary expectations as of the spring of 2016 for the following year were accurate, and following Wiegel's effort to outguess the market would nought have availed. There was no upsurge in inflation numbers in the months after Wiegel wrote, and in fact investors have since then benefitted by higher than expected capital market returns.

In the five months before and contemporaneous with Wiegel's article, the inflation rate (annualized, that is, mu…

The De-monetization of Politics?

Donald Trump's election as President of the United States in November 2016 may have changed the nature of the political game in several ways, not least by its demotion of the importance of Big Money. Big Money is receding from the scene, leaving a vacuum, and Big Data is poised to fill that space.

The people who worry about Big Money in politics - as well as the people who shrug and accept it - have agreed in recent decades that the key connection between such money on the one hand and electoral success on the other is advertising: especially broadcast advertising

Yet the Hillary Clinton campaign spent a good deal more than Trump's campaign did on advertising. In the first two months of general election political advertising (mid-June to mid-August), her campaign spent $61 million on broadcast ads, while allied independent groups spent another $43 million in her cause.

Trump's campaign didn't spend a dime on broadcast ads during that period, and its independent allies s…