Skip to main content


Showing posts from 2017

The defeat of the Sasanian Empire

This is an important day in the history of the Middle East. It is the anniversary of the final day of the four day Battle of al-Qadisiyyah, in Iraq, in 636. 

The Sasanian Empire, centered in what we now call Iran, first came into existence in the middle of the third century AD, and became at once the great eastern rival of the Roman Empire.  

The fatal blows to the Sasanians in the 7th century came not from the west, from what by then was known as Byzantium, but from the growth of new Moslem Arab powers. Qadisiyyah was the decisive five-day battle that led to the defeat of the Sasanians, the loss immediately of Iraq and ultimately Persia/Iran itself, Sasanian homeland, to the new militantly Islamic wave in the region.

The battle was a ferocious enough struggle and story tellers began embellishing upon it immediately. In recent times, it is invoked within the Arab/Moslem world as a great victory over a people who were not "of the book." Saddam Hussein of Iraq invoked the memory …

The Life or Death of Marion Wilson

It appears that the life or death of Marion Wilson Jr., pictured here,may turn on a dry-seeming point of appellate procedure, and an even more obscure seeming question in the interpretation of a precedent.

First: should a federal appellate court look through a "summary decision" to review the last REASONED judicial decision in the hierarchical chain?

Second, did the Supreme Court decision in HARRINGTON v. RICHTER implicitly answer that question "no," silently abrogating an earlier look-through rule?

Here's a link to a brief discussion of where the case of WILSON v. SELLERS now stands. 

Wilson's appellate attorney petitioned for a new trial on the basis of the alleged incompetence of his original trial attorney. There were other arguments too, which I'll ignore for the moment. The superior court denied that petition, and the attorney then appealed to the state Supreme Court. The state high court issued a one sent…

The Error Theory of Metaethics II

Relying on yesterday's prelude, let's dive right in.

If I understand it correctly, the error theory holds that (1) cognitivism is right about what ethical statements try to do but, (2) cognitivism is wrong in that ethical statements ALWAYS fail to do it, to convey knowledge.

Error theorists rather boldly refuse to re-interpret such errors in non-cognitivist fashion to turn them into anything that could be non-erroneous.

An ethical statement in the pertinent sense says that some normative predicate is true of some subject.

The classic text for error theory is J.L. Mackie, ETHICS: INVENTING RIGHT AND WRONG (1977). It contends that there are no true statements with normative predicates -- that is, of the form "X is just" or "X is a breach of trust."

In arguing for this view, Mackie coined the phrase, "the argument from queerness." He contended that ethical statements could possibly be right only if ethical facts somehow "supervene" over na…

Adam Smith on economy of explanation

"By running up all the different virtues to this one species of propriety, Epicurus indulged a propensity, which is natural to all men, but which philosophers in particular are apt to cultivate with a peculiar fondness, as the great means of displaying their ingenuity, the propensity to account for all appearances from as few principles as possible. And he, no doubt, indulged the propensity still further, when he referred all the primary objects of natural desire and aversion to the pleasures and pains of the body."


The one "species of propriety" of Epicurus is temperance, the ability to refrain from the pursuit of particular pleasures out of a reasonable concern that they will cause harm later. For example, temperance is the ability to refrain from drinking so as to avoid a hangover. That, to Epicurus, WAS virtue.

Smith is here criticizing the drive toward monism. After all, his book's title says "sentiments&q…

Catalonian bonds

Some politics, some finance, and yes some philosophy here. Would you buy a bond for your portfolio that had been issued by the Spanish province of Catalonia?

Would you do so in the expectation that the local government, which issued the bond and which now considers itself to be the leadership of a sovereign state, would be ready, willing, and able to continue to make payments? Or, in the expectation that Spain, which has now asserted direct control of the province, would be making the payments?

The worry, of course, is that neither will happen -- that the situation will continue to be unsettled, that the government in Madrid won't make these payments as a way of undermining the legitimacy of the folks who issued these bonds, that those folks won't be able to make payments either, and thus that the buyers will be left holding the bag.

The website CREDIT SLIPS has noticed something odd about these bonds:…

The Double Slit Experiment

I simply want this to be expounded once in this blog.

I've alluded to the double slit experiment in some of my recent remarks on quantum theory and its philosophical overlay, and I even pasted an image of one hypothetical result of the experiment onto my most recent such discussion. But for this once I'll be explicit.

Imagine that electrons, or photons, are little tiny particles, as Democritus might have imagined. Imagine shooting them (in Chicago-movie machine-gun fashion) at a wall that had two parallel slits in it, and that there is a screen behind the wall, such that each particle that gets through the slit leaves a mark on the screen.

What would you expect to see on the other side of that wall? You'd likely expect to see marks directly behind each slit, corresponding top the shape and size of the split. Some portion of the screen that lay between the two slits would presumably be left unmarked.

That's not what happens. Consider light first. Thomas Young did this …

How We Can Know the Good and the Right

An essay on the fundamentals of ethics. Long enough for a short book, perhaps.

Pulling together things I've written on this blog and elsewhere on the subject, but not an anthology of stuff I've already written.

Drawing on the history of philosophy, but not historical in focus.

Organize like this?

I. Is morality beyond the reach of knowledge?
  a) non-cognitive understandings of ethics
  b) a special case: the error theory
  c) the central case for a cognitivist understanding
  d) related but perhaps less central considerations here
II. Is too much knowledge a threat to morality?
  a) stating the problem carefully
  b) dismissing the "faculty" of the will
  c) randomness and the understanding of time
III. So we can know moral truths: how?
   a) what might serve as the foundation for ethical knowledge? Intuition!
   b) what we mean if we answer "intuition"
   c) what we don't mean, but may wrongly be thought to mean
IV. The Good and the Right
   a) deont…

Attack on Academic Freedom in the UK

This is alarming:

The government of the UK is committed to the exit from a broader entity, the EU. I believe on the basis of my own limited study of the matter, that that is a rational decision. Also, it is the decision mandated by a referendum. Well and good.

But ... The Guardian reports that a high ranking MP in the ruling party has sent letters to honchos in the country's universities asking them what they are teaching about the subject of Brexit and asking for a list of lecturers' names.


Bryan Leiter discussed this on his blog, and drew an intriguing email from a well known political philosopher, Thom Brooks, dean of Durham Law School.

Brooks wrote:

Cancer Breakthrough

Hopeful news in recent days about an old and dear desideratum: a cure for cancer. Or at least for a cancer, and a nasty one at that.

The news comes about because investors in GlaxoSmithKline are greedy for profits, and has already inspired a bit of deregulation to boot. 

The FDA has paved the road for a speedy review of a new BCMA drug for multiple myeloma, essentially cancer of the bone marrow. This means that the US govt has removed some of the hurdles that would otherwise (by decision of the same govt) face a company trying to proceed with these trials expeditiously. 

This has been done because the Phase I clinical trial results have been very promising. The report I've seen indicates that details of these results will be shared with the world on Dec. 11 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology. 

The European Medicines Agency has also given priority treatment to the drug in question. 

GSK's website identifies the drug at issue as "GSK2857916," althou…

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge II

So: if it isn't the consequence of a push by the oil companies, why ARE parts of ANWR on the verge of being opened for drilling?

Three closely related reasons come to mind. First, because the Murkowski family has a long memory.  Second, because the US budgetary/legislative process is badly broken. Third, because even if the corporations are not enthusiastic, once the opening takes place there WILL be bids for the rights to drill specified parcels, and the US government badly needs new revenue streams given its state of indebtedness.

Late in the Clinton administration (back when Big Oil WAS pressing the point) the House of Representatives voted in favor of a bill to allow some drilling, and Alaskan Senator Frank Murkowski pressed for Senate passage, but couldn't pull it off. Alaska is n

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge I

An odd twist has appeared in our long national debate about opening portions of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil firms for drilling..

The twist is this: at a time when the oil companies themselves aren't pushing for any new rights in the area, they're about to get those rights handed to them anyway. One of those you'can't-get-it-until-you-no-longer-want-it gifts.

Today I want to focus on why the oil companies no longer want this. Tomorrow we'll talk about why they may be about to get it.

This part is easy: they don't want it because they're holding too much oil already. The world is awash with the stuff.

Recall that in early 2013 the price of Brent (North Sea) crude was above $110 per barrel. It stayed in that neighborhood, which seemed normal at the time, until mid 2014 and then began a historic collapse, getting to $50 a barrel by the end of 2014, then it firmed briefly until the summer of 2015 and collapsed again, getting below $40. (I'm o…

QBism is not Cubism, Exactly

I discussed Quantum Bayesian theory here about three weeks ago. But now that I know what to look for, it has become easier to find more about it, so I come back to it.

Early this year, theWilliam & Mary blog ran an interview with Hans Christian von Baeyer, who believes that QB-ism (which he pronounces "cubism" as in Picasso) is nothing less than the "future of physics." He regrets that advocates of QBism have yet to get it into physics textbooks. But there are "hundreds of articles and conference proceedings" that deal with it, so he is hoping admission into the canon, with the dozen or so older interpretations of quantum mechanics, will come soon.

Von Baeyer also makes reference to "an excellent article" that was added to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy in December 2016. So, after finishing up the interview, I went there. The actual title of that article is evidence that this is an appropriate thing to be discussing in a blog named…