Monday, October 31, 2011

Accidental identity

Maverick has a long post about ‘truthmaking’. I’m not certain I followed it, but will try to summarise it as best as I can. The identity of Socrates with a sitting being makes the sentence ‘Socrates is sitting’ true. But this identity is accidental, because if Socrates stands up, he is no longer identical with any sitting being. Therefore what makes the identity true at one time, and false at another, is something different from Socrates, given that Socrates always remains identical with himself. Therefore Socrates alone cannot be the truthmaker of ‘Socrates is sitting’.

Is the summary correct? If so, what do we make of this argument?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Repetitive labour and Wikipedia

In an effort to understand the different ways in which 'editors' contribute to Wikipedia, I have been using this tool to survey the average number of edits per page of the current 726 active administrators on the English Wikipedia.  I completed this rather tedious task this morning.

The result is that there is a wide range of edits per page from a low value of 1.21 at one extreme, to a high value of 20.51 at the other.  The value distribution, as a percentage of the sample, is shown in the table at the bottom.

What does this mean?  Clearly an editor with a very low edit/page count will be spending very little time on individual articles. The limiting value is 1, meaning that an editor  never returns to a page once they have done something to it.  The upper value is limited by the maximum number of edits to any single article, and will occur if one editor entirely wrote that article, with no help whatsoever.

What else can we say?  My main question is the different value contributed by editors with radically different edits per page.  Are the contributions of those with a high count, of a higher or lower value than of those with a low count?  Before you leap to conclusions, consider the following thought experiment.  Suppose that the article on Caspar David Friedrich, which is not a bad article, and is indeed a Wikipedia 'Featured Article', had been written by about 1,700 different editors.  Thus (since there have been about 1,700 edits to this article) each editor would have contributed no more than one edit.  The article would have grown to its present good quality entirely from the separate and probably disconnected contributions of the different editors.  And then extend the thought-experiment by supposing that all the Featured Articles - which are supposed to be the very best quality that Wikipedia has to offer - were written in this way.

As a limiting case, suppose there are 1,000 Featured Articles, and only 1,000 editors working on them, that each has 1,000 edits, and each editor has edited each article exactly once.  It is theoretically possible that all Featured Articles grew to their currently 'good' state by such a process.  In that case, edits per page would not be a good metric to determine whether the editor was what Wikipedians call a 'content contributor'.  All editors would be 'content contributors', but they would distribute their content thinly and evenly across many different articles.  This would be the 'classic crowdsourcing' that I discussed earlier articles such as this.

But this is clearly not the case.  More research is needed, but there are several bits of evidence suggesting that when 'value' or 'content' means the sort of quality assessed by the Wikipedia 'Featured' or 'Good' article assessment, it is editors with a relatively high edit per page who contribute this.  For example, look at the page here which tells us who contributed to the Caspar David article.  Three editors stand out, namely Ceoil (8.43 edits per page), Modernist (8.07) and Fpenteado (9.29).  Not only did these editors contribute significantly to this article, they contributed significantly to many other articles on Wikipedia.

Another piece of evidence is the type of contribution made by those with low edits per page.  For example, the lowest edit per page of my sample was Andre.  If you look carefully at what he is doing, he is simply adding links to articles on the Estonian Wikipedia, something which he seems to have been doing for a very long time.  That doesn't mean he is not adding something of value to Wikipedia, but you clearly couldn't build an article like the one on Caspar David simply by adding links to the Estonian Wikipedia. Clearly not.  Or consider the contribution history of 'Gaius Cornelius'.  He is using what is called a 'bot' on Wikipedia, i.e. a robot or mechanised editing tool. As you see from its description here, it is a tool 'designed to make tedious and repetitive tasks quicker and easier'.  This is mainly formatting and linking to other articles.  Again, this doesn't mean he and his robot are not adding some sort of value to Wikipedia, but it's clearly not the sort of value that could build an article like the one on Caspar David.

Now we could go further and bite that very difficult bullet: what is the economic value of the different contributions?  That is, what would be the market value of the labour corresponding to the different edits per page?  There are a number considerations here, and please note I am not an economist.  The first is that if quality of articles was a prime consideration, where 'quality' is measured by the Featured Article process, and where quality is the prime objective of the project, you would want to attract more 'content contributors' to increase quality.  Second, given that the table above suggests that content contributors are scarcer than mechanical contributors, you would want to pay more to the content contributors.  Finally, the principle that repetitive labour is easily learned, and thus less well paid than labour whose skill is difficult to acquire, would suggest paying the content contributors more, perhaps much more.  Which is the case in conventional encyclopedias, of course, where the bulk of the work is done by poorly paid penny-a-liners, often using custom-built databases such as Crystal, and the remaining 'flagship articles' are commissioned to skilled subject-matter experts for a premium fee.

This begs the question of why content contributors exist on Wikipedia at all, but that's a subject for another discussion, and I have rambled on enough for today.

By the way, Beyond Necessity is approaching a record number of page views this month.  3,848 views to today, compared to 3,490 last month, and looking to hit the 4,000 barrier by the end of this month. So, please feel freer than usual to click on some of the internal links here.  With best wishes to all.

Edits per pagePercentage of sample
greater than 91%

Friday, October 28, 2011

Music night: free jazz

In an earlier post I mentioned standardisation, the first of the two features which characterise popular music, according to Adorno.  All popular music is written to a stock formula which never varies in its essentials, although individual pieces may differ by various accidents. The second feature, which is a corollary of the first, is what he calls pseudo-individualization. This is a way of imparting a fake individuality to mass produced music, thus imbuing it with a 'halo of free choice'.  Standardisation is a form of mind control that does the listening for the consumer.  Pseudo-individualization makes them forget that what they are listening to is 'pre-digested'. 

Thus the popular interest in popular music is a form of false consciousness.  It makes the masses forget that they are oppressed and exploited by the capitalist-consumerist system. Worse than that, it gives them the illusion of free choice: it makes them the unwitting architects of their own subjugation.

Adorno says that jazz improvisation is the most extreme example of this. 
Even though jazz musicians still improvise in practice, their improvisations have become so "normalized" as to enable a whole terminology to be developed to express the standard devices of individualization: a terminology which in turn is ballyhooed by jazz publicity agents to foster the myth of pioneer artisanship and at the same time flatter the fans by apparently allowing them to peep behind the curtain and get the inside story. This pseudo-individualization is prescribed by the standardization of the framework. The latter is so rigid that the freedom it allows for any sort of improvisation is severely delimited. Improvisations — passages where spontaneous action of individuals is permitted ("Swing it boys") — are confined within the walls of the harmonic and metric scheme. In a great many cases, such as the "break" of pre-swing jazz, the musical function of the improvised detail is determined completely by the scheme: the break can be nothing other than a disguised cadence. Here, very few possibilities for actual improvisation remain, due to the necessity of merely melodically circumscribing the same underlying harmonic functions. Since these possibilities were very quickly exhausted, stereotyping of improvisatory details speedily occurred. Thus, standardization of the norm enhances in a purely technical way standardization of its own deviation — pseudo-individualization.
This is in marked contrast to the view of jazz in the 1940s that Kerouac gives us, through the eyes and ears of his protagonist Dean Moriarty, in his seminal On the Road.
It was a sawdust saloon with a small bandstand on which the fellows huddled with their hats on, blowing over people's heads, a crazy place; crazy floppy women wandered around sometimes in their bathrobes, bottles clanked in alleys. In back of the joint in a dark corridor beyond the splattered toilets scores of men and women stood against the wall drinking wine-spodiodi and spitting at the stars — wine and whisky. The behatted tenorman was blowing at the peak of a wonderfully satisfactory free idea, a rising and falling riff that went from "EE-yah!" to a crazier "EE-de-lee-yah!" and blasted along to the rolling crash of butt-scarred drums hammered by a big brutal Negro with a bullneck who didn't give a damn about anything but punishing his busted tubs, crash, rattle-ti-boom, crash. Uproars of music and the tenorman had it and everybody knew he had it. Dean was clutching his head in the crowd, and it was a mad crowd. They were all urging that tenorman to hold it and keep it with cries and wild eyes, and he was raising himself from a crouch and going down again with his horn, looping it up in a clear cry above the furor. A six-foot skinny Negro woman was rolling her bones at the man's hornbell, and he just jabbed it at her, "Ee! ee! ee!"
We don't know exactly what the tenorman was playing, but it was certainly a form of the be-bop idiom that emerged in the 1940s.  For example, in another part, Kerouac mentions 'Congo Blues' which I discuss here. Very little music was actually composed by be-bop artists.  They would take a 'standard' number, written in the standardised form of 1930s jazz that Adorno mentions, and would 'improvise freely' around it.  A favourite subject was "All the things you are", a show tune written by Jerome Kern.  Here is Richard Tauber singing it, and here is Joan Morris.  Both versions appear utterly unlike any form of be-bop.  By contrast, here is the renowned version by Gillespie, Parker, Stewart and Cole.  Somewhat later there is the Sonny Rollins version

The first two are awkward and stilted and old-fashioned, the second two seem progressive and, from the point of view of the 1940s and 50s, modernist.  Or so it seems: but was Moriarty just a victim of the false individualisation that Adorno despises?  Is there any real improvisation, given that the harmonic structure is identical in all versions?  Is the freedom that excited Kerouac, the 'wonderfully free idea', merely an illusion, a melodic circumscription, nothing more than a cadence?

Indeed: is the story of popular music in the 20th and 21st century no more than a form of false consciousness?  Be-bop gave way to completely free jazz, when absolutely nothing remained but the cadence.  Pop music gave way to 'progressive music' in the late1960s and 70s.  In the 1980s there was 'Indie', short for 'independent' music.  The 1990s saw the massive growth in popularity of rap and hip-hop and gangsta music, still dominating the charts. Are all these 'progressive' versions of popular music simply a vehicle for Adorno's standardised forms, painting a halo of free-choice and individualism, but nothing more than a form of mind control that make us the instrument of our own distraction from our oppression and ultimate alienation from the means of production?  A way of forgetting that we are not free?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Maverick gives an interesting symmetry argument that Ockham’s maxim about not multiplying entities according to the multiplicity of terms does not support classic nominalism, namely the view that there is no singular entity, no 'universal', signified by a common term. He writes
If the Razor forbids the multiplication of categories of entity according to the multiplicity of categories of terms, then I agree, but fail to see how this supports nominalism. There are singular terms and there are general terms. Someone who maintains that only general terms, but no singular terms, enjoy extralingusitic reference would be well within the stricture laid down by the Razor as your formulate it.
I don't disagree. Clearly more is required, and we have to look to Ockham’s semantics to get classic nominalism. Ockham, in common with most 13th and 14th century philosophers of language, held that there is a relation of ‘supposition’ between terms and extra-mental objects. Thus ‘man’ supposits for Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and so on. Exactly the same relation holds between singular terms like ‘Socrates’ and the object they supposit for (in this case, Socrates). The only difference between common and singular term is that the latter are naturally suited to supposit for only one individual, whereas the former can supposit for as many as you like.

Given this, and given the Razor, classical nominalism certainly does follow. It is fruitless to posit a singular entity designated by the common term ‘man’, which Socrates, Plato, Aristotle etc., fall under in some odd way, when you can explain it in the simpler way above. A common term does not signify a singular entity. Rather, it signifies many entities.

In summary, Ockham's maxim does not on its own support classic nominalism.  We have to add his semantics as well.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

On not multipying entities

There is a nice post today by the Maverick on “The Use and Abuse of Occam's Razor: On Multiplying Entities Beyond Necessity” There are few points to raise. Maverick writes “Occam's Razor is standardly taken to be a principle of theoretical economy or parsimony that states: Do not multiply entities beyond necessity.” True, it is standardly taken thus, but as Thorburn showed nearly 100 years ago, Ockham did not say exactly that. He actually said that plurality is not to be posited without necessity (Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate). Moreover, it is not ‘his’ razor. Scotus (on the lines of whose thinking Ockham’s thinking is largely developed) used it, and it is probably earlier than that. He also says that is vain to bring about through more what can be brought about by fewer (frustra fit per plura quod potest fieri per pauciora).

Furthermore, the maxim does not really capture the spirit of Ockham’s nominalism, which is better expressed by his claim that one cause of error is ‘to multiply entities according to the multiplicity of terms, and that every term has a (corresponding) real essence’ (Secunda radix est multiplicare entia secundum multitudinem terminorum, et quod quilibet terminus habet quid rei).

He says this at the end of chapter 51 of the monumental and magnificient Summa Logicae, of whose structure you can get a flavour here. Chapters 40-62 are a long discussion of Aristotle’s categories, and Ockham’s objective, after some essential preliminaries set out in chapters 1-17, is to show that most of the ten categories are not really types of being at all, but really types of term. For example, chapter 51 is part of chapters 49-54 on Aristotle’s category of relation (ad aliquid, relatio). Ockham wants to show that the term ‘relation’ is not a name for a particular type of thing, outside the mind, really distinct from some absolute thing (res extra animam, distincta realiter a re absoluta). Otherwise, whenever a donkey moved down on earth below, every heavenly body would be changed in itself, because of the change in its spatial relation with the donkey. Or we might mistakenly suppose that a father is a father by some extramental thing such as ‘paternity’.

We are led into these errors from the ease with which Latin (and other romance languages, but Ockham rarely talks about these) is able to construct abstract terms like ‘fatherhood’ from concrete terms like ‘father’. He discusses this in chapter 5 and subsequently. Such terms have a similar beginning verbally, but different endings, and the abstract nearly always has more syllables than the concrete. Ockham argues that the concrete and the abstract are really synonyms. To say that Socrates has humanity is no more than to say that Socrates is a man. For this reason there are no abstract names corresponding to many concrete names. E.g. though we frequently use the names ‘cow’, ‘donkey’, ‘goat’, there are no corresponding abstract terms like ‘cowhood’ or ‘donkeyness’. And the ancient philosophers did not use this diversity “except as an ornament of speech, or for some other accidental reason, just as in the case of synonymous names.” [--]

How Objectivism informed Wikipedia

I have been reading Jeff Howes' Crowdsourcing and Andrew Lih's The Wikipedia Revolution. More on Lih's book at some point, but I was gripped immediately by this curious passage (p.36):
The three of them [i.e. Jimmy Wales, Larry Sanger, Tim Shell] were attracted to Objectivism for a reason.  The Objectivist stance is that there is a reality of objects and facts independent of the individual mind.  By extension, a body of knowledge could be assembled that was considered representative of this single reality. Put simply, objectivity relates to what is true, rather than ruling whether something is true or false. And their encyclopedia could detail what is true in the world without judgments. Sanger would put it this way: "Neutrality, we agreed, required that articles should not represent any one point of view on controversial subjects, but instead fairly represent all sides".
Considered as a whole, this makes very little sense.  Many philosophical systems, and many non-philosophical ones, such as basic common sense, consider that there is a reality of objects and facts independent of the individual mind.  It's not that Objectivism has a monopoly on this idea. It follows (given a few other assumptions, such as reliable sense perception) that a body of knowledge could be established or documented which was representative of external reality.  More common sense.

And then he writes "Put simply, objectivity relates to what is true, rather than ruling whether something is true or false."  This is at best incoherent, and at worst a non sequitur.  What is meant by 'relates to what is true'?  Does it mean that the assembled body of knowledge is true?  Well of course it must be, otherwise it wouldn't be true (first year philosophy students learn that 'knows that p' implies 'p').  And why 'without judgments'?  Isn't judgment required to assemble a 'body of knowlege'?  Finally, there is the statement quoted from Sanger, which I discussed earlier here, about not representing any one point of view.  Larry Sanger is a competent philosopher, and I'm sure that whatever he said to Lih when he was interviewed got pretty garbled and mixed up by the time it reached the printing presses.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Adorno on popular music

I am working on the Wikipedia book, and starting with pre-1960s attitudes about high and low culture, i.e. those pre-contemporary prejudices to which the whole Web 2.0 world-view is utterly opposed.  I discussed Reith's view in an earlier post.

The Marxist sociologist Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) cannot be left out here. Adorno was passionate about music as a child, growing up in a wealthy and cultured family. He came to the United States in 1939 to join the Princeton University Radio Research Project as chief of the music division. The project was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, for understanding the effects of mass media on society.

Adorno was highly critical of the effects of popular music. One of his essays is here, where he tries to capture the difference between highbrow and lowbrow music.  There are two. The first is 'standardisation'.  He makes the interesting point that the difference between high and low is not simply a matter of complexity and simplicity.
All works of the earlier Viennese classicism are, without exception, rhythmically simpler than stock arrangements of jazz. Melodically, the wide intervals of a good many hits such as Deep purple* or Sunrise Serenade are more difficult to follow per se than most melodies of, for example, Haydn, which consist mainly of circumscriptions of tonic triads and second steps.
However, the complicated in popular music never functions as "itself" but only as a disguise or embellishment behind which the scheme can always be perceived. The whole structure of popular music is standardized, "even where the attempt is made to circumvent standardization".
Standardization extends from the most general features to the most specific ones. Best known is the rule that the chorus consists of thirty two bars and that the range is limited to one octave and one note. The general types of hits are also standardized: not only the dance types, the rigidity of whose pattern is understood, but also the "characters" such as mother songs, home songs, nonsense or "novelty" songs, pseudo-nursery rhymes, laments for a lost girl. Most important of all, the harmonic cornerstones of each hit — the beginning and the end of each part — must beat out the standard scheme. This scheme emphasizes the most primitive harmonic facts no matter what has harmonically intervened. Complications have no consequences. This inexorable device guarantees that regardless of what aberrations occur, the hit will lead back to the same familiar experience, and nothing fundamentally novel will be introduced.
'Serious' music, by contrast, is an organised whole in the context of which every detail must be understood, and which is never the simple enforcement of a musical schema. This cannot happen with popular music. No removal of detail affects its musical sense.

The second feature which distinguished the popular from the serious is pseudo-individualisation.  More later.

* The song from which the hideous rock group took their name.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Truthbearers and truthmakers

According to my commenter Anthony, "reality exists". I assume this is a reference to Ayn Rand's principle that 'existence exists'.  His idea seems to be that when we assert anything, what we assert must exist. Therefore we cannot assert anything false, for there is no state of affairs corresponding to a false statement.  If I utter 'Anthony is sitting', and Anthony is standing, there can be no state of affairs corresponding to my utterance. Therefore I cannot state anything.  The utterance exists, but what it tries to state does not.

There are many problems with this idea.  For every true statement, there is a corresponding negation.  Assume that Anthony is standing, and so the sentence 'Anthony is standing' states something true.  What about 'Anthony is not standing'?  It cannot be true, for it cannot be true that Anthony is both standing and not standing. But it cannot be false, for if this 'objectivist' account is true, there are no false statements.  Yet it seems to be a statement for all that.  If I can meaningfully assert that Anthony is standing, why can I not equally deny that?

What about beliefs?  Can I believe that Anthony is not standing, when he is standing?  Apparently not, for the object of my belief is a state of affairs (Anthony-not-standing) that has no existence, and according to Rand, only existence exists.  So I believe nothing.  Only when Anthony sits down can I have such a belief.

What about questions?  I ask 'is Anthony standing?'.  The person who says 'yes' has agreed to something.  The one who says 'no' has disagreed with the same thing, and so disagreed with something that exists.  So you can say 'no' to a true statement, yet you cannot make the corresponding negation.  You can say 'no' to 'is Anthony standing?', but you cannot say that Anthony is not standing.  That is quite puzzling.

The Stoic philosophers resolved the problem by distinguishing between utterance (phone) which may be mere noise, e.g. 'arxas grexurgh', articulate speech (lexis) which may be meaningless, e.g. 'green is happy', and discourse (logos) which is meaningful speech.  They also gave the name lekton to that which is signified by meaningful speech.  Lekton is derived from the Greek verb legein, which signifies 'to mean' as well as 'to say' (somewhat like that Latin dico).

Sextus Empiricus* gives the most complete account of their theory:
The Stoics say that three things are linked together, that which is signified, that which signifies, and the existing thing. That which signifies is the utterance, e.g. 'Dion'. What is signified is the thing indicated by the utterance and which we apprehend as subsisting with our thought, but the barbarians [i.e. non-Greek speaking] do not understand, although they hear the utterance. The existing thing is that which exists outside, e.g. Dion himself. Of these, two are corporeal, i.e. utterance and the existing thing, while one is incorporeal, i.e. what is signified, i.e. the lekton, which is true or false.
Thus we can distinguish between the state of affairs asserted by 'Anthony is standing', which some modern philosophers call the truthmaker, and the lekton, which some modern philosophers call the truthbearer.  The truthmaker exists in reality, given that Anthony is standing.  No truthmaker exists for 'Anthony is not standing'.  The truthbearer, by contrast, is an immaterial, nonphysical entity, the meaning of 'Anthony is standing'.  This has the value true.  A truthbearer also exists for 'Anthony is not standing', but that has the value false.

There is nothing in Rand's theory that precludes the existence of such non-physical truthbearers or lekta. So long as such non-physical things exist, they are a form of reality (albeit a non-physical form).  I don't know, of course, whether Rand's theory does preclude non-physical things.  But if it does, it faces the difficulty of explaining statements which are false.

*Adv. Math. viii 11, 12.

Friday, October 21, 2011

What does not agree with reality, does not exist.

We might have got there at last with Anthony, who now says "what does not agree with reality, does not exist".  I rather thought it was heading in that direction.  What a false statement asserts, does not agree with reality.  "Snow is black" says that snow is black. But snow being black does not agree with reality. Ergo, snow being black does not exist.  Ergo, "snow is black" does not state anything at all, for if it did, it would have to express a state of affairs that is not real, a non-enity, a nullity, a void.  Ergo, there are no false statements: all statements are true.

Nailed it at last.

Bad music night: cod gaelic

It's Friday and bad music is with us again!!!  This week, cods scots and cod irish music.  Plenty to choose from, but we'll start with Killarney, by Michael William Balfe (1808-1870), sung by John McCormack.  Of Balfe, the wonderful Oxford Companion to Music rather back-handedly says he had "an instinct for easy-flowing melody, unembarrassed by any subtleties of harmony or orchestration".  See what you think.  I think it's absolutely hideous, as is Roamin' in the Gloamin', in this version by Harry Lauder.  Billy Connolly is very rude about this ('singing shortbread tins'), somewhat unfairly given that Lauder really was Scots, although he soon moved to London (and lived in our road for a bit) to make his fortune.  (Also what is this thing about 'the Blue Misty Hills of Tyree?' at 1:30? A Google search reveals only Connolly's version. Was there ever really such a song?)

Nor must we omit the awful and hideous Donald where's your troosers.  And finally, something slightly (but only slightly) more authentic, some Jimmy Shand.  I saw a pile of Jimmy Shand 78s in a junk shop years ago, and always regret not buying them.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Joy of Antique Wikipedia Entries

There is a nice piece at Big Think on The Joy of Antique Wikipedia Entries.
It’s sheer magic: flyblown tomes you'd otherwise never encounter are suddenly thrust under your nose. People and events with zero impact on the modern world somehow become relevant again. Need to learn about New Hampshire conchologist Augustus Addison Gould? Of course you don’t, but thanks to the zombified 1911 Britannica, you can!
My father was obsessed with encyclopedias so I grew up in a house that was heaving to the rafters with all kinds of them.  There were even some volumes of the very first Britannica lying around in the stair cupboard.  So I appreciate the sentiments.  But it's a bit disappointing when a hundred year old source is the only information on the subject, as I pointed out here and here.  It's also irritating, as I have said hundreds of time, that Wikipedia is celebrated as some mystical magical emergentist phenomenon that has produced the sum of human knowledge by the underlabour of millions of uneducated volunteers.  This is simply not true, as I have argued.

And disappointing, again, that the horribly flawed Nature study is still being cited as evidence of Wikipedia accuracy.

William Kane Craig

Buddy Kane is a fictional character in the film ‘American Beauty’. He is an extremely successful estate agent, the "king" of real estate, who has persuaded many people to buy the homes that he is an agent for. William Lane Craig is a character in real life. He is an extremely successful theologian and public speaker who has persuaded many people to buy the claims of fundamentalist and literalist Christianity that he is a spokesman for.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Some questions for Anthony

Some questions for Anthony, who is still not convinced that any statements are false, yet (paradoxically) seems inclined to disagree with absolutely anything I say. I.e. for pretty much any x that I say, he strongly disagrees with x, yet will not admit that x is false (for he sees that if he says that what I say is false, he will have contradicted himself, given his implicit position that no statement is false, not even the statements of mine that he disagrees with). Well, some more questions for him.

Anthony, please remain seated (I assume you are sitting at a computer terminal while you are reading this).

1. Do you agree that ‘Anthony is sitting’ is true?

Now stand up, please.

2. Do you agree that ‘Anthony is sitting’ is no longer true?

3. If so, do you also agree that ‘Anthony is sitting’ is now false?

Craig on an infinite old universe

I listened to some of the podcast of the Craig-Law debate.  Craig's argument is in stages.  (1) An argument that the world had a beginning in time. (2) That the world therefore had a creator (3) that this creator is good (4) that this good creator is the very being whose son is the Jesus who was resurrected.

Taking the first, I was surprised by his arguments about an infinitely old universe.  He seemed to be arguing that there are parodoxes associated with a denumerable infinity. For example, if you take away all the odd numbers, you are left with infinitely many even numbers, so an infinity subtracted from an infinity still equals infinity.  Is this a paradox, or just a feature of infinite domains?  He seems to acknowledge this, but then says that this means that infinity is simply a mental construct, and nothing real.  Therefore an infinitely old universe, which would have to be real, cannot exist.  That is also odd.  Most mathematicians, who are Platonists to the core, would hold that the natural numbers are real, but have no difficulty with the 'features' associated with a denumerable infinity. 

Did anyone else find this odd?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Craig Law podcast

Is here.

On living forever

A thoughtful post from the Maverick here.
The problem is not that our lives are short; the problem is that we are in time at all. No matter how long a life extends it is still a life in time, a life in which the past is no longer, the future not yet, and the present a passing away. This problem, the problem of the transitoriness of life, cannot be solved by life extension even if, per impossibile, physical immortality were possible. This problem of the transitoriness and vanity of life is one that religion addresses.
I'm sure he knows the bit where Wittgenstein asks rhetorically (at the end of the Tractatus, I don’t have the reference with me) whether any problem is solved by the idea of my living forever.

Law vs Craig update

I didn’t make it to the debate at Westminster last night, having been lazy and left it too late to get tickets. You can get a flavour from the comments here, though, and a podcast will be available soon. The consensus seems to be the Law lost the argument because he did not even attempt to reply to Craig’s ‘kalam’ argument (The kalam argument is that the universe has a beginning, that everything has a cause for beginning, and that the cause is God. I believe Aquinas rejects this argument). Law’s argument was that if God exists at all, he must be an evil God, and therefore Craig’s god (who is perfectly good) does not exist. I argued in an earlier post that perhaps God is not fair, in leaving many clues (e.g. dinosaur bones) that suggest that the universe was designed in a different way that he has said it was designed, and thus designed it in a way that invites punishment of the inquisitive and intelligent.

Further update: Stephen Law has now posted his version of the debate on his site, with the following sections, with transcripts of his opening speech, and his criticism of Craig's moral and Resurrection arguments.

I summarise Law’s opening speech as follows. Law begins with the standard argument from evil, including a graphic description of the suffering that has existed in the world. If Professor Craig’s god exists, there must be, not just some reason, but an entirely adequate reason for every last ounce of all this suffering and horror.
He turns to an interesting twist on this argument (I don’t know whether this is and original twist or not, I shall ask). An evil god hypothesis is as well supported by Professor Craig’s cosmological and fine-tuning arguments as is belief in his good god hypotheses. Yet, if you believe in an evil god, you face the mirror problem of explaining why there’s so very much good. But if the evil god argument is absurd, so is the good God. (This is essentially an appeal to identical logical form, which we at Beyond Necessity like very much).

He forestalls an objection. Some Christians try to explain certain evils by saying that, being good, god gave us free will. Law flips this around. Why couldn’t the evil god have given us free will in order to choose evil? By means of similar ‘flipping’ arguments, he argues “if the evil god hypothesis can, solely on the basis of observational evidence, be ruled out as highly unlikely, why can’t we similarly rule out the good god hypothesis?”. He concludes “That’s the challenge I am setting Professor Craig tonight. To explain why belief in a good god is, on the basis of the available evidence and arguments, not just a bit more reasonable than belief in an evil god, but very significantly more reasonable.”
It seems clear from this that the Facebook commenters here did not understand Law’s point. One of them says “The kalam was not challenged once, only the moral nature of the Creator of the cosmos”, as though this was an objection, and quotes Craig as saying several times that “it’s a strange form of atheism that holds to the existence of an uncaused, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, powerful, transcendent and personal being who just isn’t morally perfect”.

This is not a reply to Law’s argument. As Law makes clear above, his evil god argument applies equally to the kalam argument as to the fine tuning argument. Law is not challenging these arguments themselves, but rather challenging the fact that they do not support the existence of an uncaused, immaterial, timeless, spaceless being who is good, rather than evil.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Do false statements exist?

Commenter Anthony questions whether false statements exist, and says
In order for me to concede that false statements exist, I would need clarification of what is meant by "statements" and what is meant in saying that they "exist". If the answer I receive is "they just do" or "most people accept that they do", you can argue all you want about "burden of proof", but I will not be convinced, any more than I would be convinced by the same "arguments", that "red unicorns exist".
OK then.  Starting with the definitions.  There are various definitions of 'statement' but I will go with 'declarative sentence' for this one.  As for 'exists', I will read 'false statements exist' as equivalent to 'some statements are false'.  See my earlier remarks about Brentano equivalence.

So we need to demonstrate to Anthony's satisfaction that some declarative sentences are false.  That is easy.  The sentences "The sky is red" is a declarative sentence, and it is false.  So, some declarative sentences (i.e. at least one) are false.  If Anthony denies that "The sky is red" is false, there is an equally easy reply.  If you deny something, you are denying that it is true. But if you are right in denying this, it must be false. So in order to make the objection at all, you have to concede that at least one declarative sentence, in this case "'The sky is red' is false" is false, and thus concede the point.  More generally, to affirm "no declarative sentence is false" is to deny "some declarative sentence is false". But if that denial is right, "'some declarative sentence is false' is false" is true, and so at least one declarative sentence is false, namely "no declarative sentence is false".  Slightly more formally:

(1) No declarative sentence is false (assumption)
(2) "Some declarative sentence is false" is false (E and I are contradictory opposites)
(3) "Some declarative sentence is false" is a declarative sentence (definition)
(4) Some declarative sentence is false (substitution)
(5) Contradiction (1 and 4)

I doubt this will be the end of the matter.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Hot chicks explain philosophy

I didn't realise these were on the internet.  This one is pretty straightforward*. A chick in a bikini says "To make abstractions hold in reality is to destroy reality".  It's Hegel (Vorlesungen über der Geschichte der Philosophie, Berlin, 1836), but that's not the point. It's Hegel as quoted by an attractive girl in a bikini.  It's a setup: the intended point is that hot chicks in bikinis and profound Germanic philosophy are an inappropriate combination. But why?  Is it the bikinis, or the hotness, or both?

This one is more difficult.  It looks like a setup again, particularly when she gets to the definition of Philosophy: "Philosophy comes from 'Philo', to love, and 'sophy', hearing yourself talk".  But then the same person gave us this, which appears to be entirely serious, even when she says "what the concept of God comes down to is that God is a concept".  There is no bikini, but there is a fair amount of pouting.  Or this - more existence of God plus cleavage. Is the combination of the ontological argument plus pouting and beauty appropriate?  **

Is physical ugliness the only suitable handmaiden of philosophy, and is physical attractiveness a distraction?  That would be the traditional view. Aristotle was reproached for paying attention to his clothing, as though attention to physical appearance was an bad thing in a philosopher.  Kant was said to be so ugly that his face was 'a reproach to physiognomy', as though this did not matter, even a good thing.  But our modern view is more enlightened. There really shouldn't be anything inappropriate about quoting Hegel, dressed in a bikini.  Why does it seem there is?

But enough of that.  I'll leave the problem to Bill Vallicella, who we know lurks around here occasionally, and has more Platonistic tendencies.

* Thanks to commenter 'The Blind Dog' for reminding me of this.
**This is nothing to do with gender, by the way, and the same applies to the idea of any of these guys deconstructing Wittgenstein.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Bad music night: La Gasolina

My previous examples of bad music were mostly things I have a soft spot for.  It is very difficult to find examples of really bad music.  Here is an exception: Daddy Yankee- La Gasolina.  I really hate this.  I hate it beyond hate itself. The female members of my family insist on playing it in the car.  I tell them it is forbidden and that the patriarch should have authority in the family, but they do not listen.  They do not understand how very awful it is. 

The words are bad - the whole song appears to be the words 'I love petrol' uttered in Spanish, first by a guy, and then by the chicks in the backing band.  But the words are immaterial: the whole point of this series was to find music that is without any possibility of salvation.  Imagine this music without the words, as it would be if there existed a Karaoke backing version (hopefully not).  Exactly.  It is unembarrassed by any modulation, any harmonic shift, any progression to different tonal environment.  It is simply horrible beyond words. 

The badness of this is fundamentally similar to the badness of 'modern jazz', about which I have been meaning to talk for a while. Perhaps more next week.

Have a good weekend, everyone.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Dangerous children's books

Stephen Law is writing a children's book.  I was entertained by this part
The discovery that electricity is what makes our muscles move was discovered a long time ago – back in 1791, by Luigi Alysio Galvaniby. He found that the muscles of dead frogs twitched when they were struck by an electric spark.
In fact, when someone’s heart stops beating, doctors sometimes use a machine to restart their heart with a jolt of electricity. The patient is brought back to life with an electric shock.
Why does electric shock work? Well, the heart is a big muscle that pumps blood around the body. Your heart beats each time it gets a little electric shock from your brain. So when it stops beating, it can sometimes be restarted with an extra big shock of electricity.
But beware. A big shock of electricity can stop your heart beating forever. Electricity is dangerous stuff.
The writer's train of thought is almost in neon.  Kids, electricity, wires, applying high voltage to body parts, electrocution of young ones, lawsuits against author of children's book, disappearance of any profit from book, possible homelessness etc.

Stephen (judging from the photo on his blog) is from that generation who remember plugs that you could unscrew and thus easily get access to copper wires with high voltage, so you could see which things explode when you electrocute them. First, this is no longer possible, as plugs are just solid plastic now.  Second, kids aren't interested in stuff like electricity any more, except insofar as it powers computers and moronic video games.

Also, why is anyone writing a book for kids, these days?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Paradox and contradiction

Remind me never to contribute to an internet discussion forum on any subject save the most uncontroversial or simple (say, gardening). "No, it is not a paradox. Contradictions do not exist." There are two mistakes here.

(1) Mistake one is that the existence of a paradox implies the existence of a contradiction. Not so. A paradox involves an apparent contradiction, i.e. two statements that appear to contradict. Thus a paradox does not imply a contradiction any more than any statement of the form 'it appears that p' implies a statement of the form 'p'. For the antecedent can be true with the consequent false. It can appear that the sun is going round the earth, without the sun going round the earth.

(2) Mistake two is that contradictions do not exist. Not so.  A contradiction is two statements, one of which denies the other.  Since such pairs of statements exist, it follows that contradictions exist.  For example, the statements 'the earth is flat' and 'the earth is not flat' are a contradiction. The statements exist, ergo etc.  Probably the claimant meant that no state of affairs expressed by a contradiction exists, which is true, if you believe the Principle of Contradiction.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Three million dollar Wikipedia

Jay Walsh of the Wikimedia foundation writes
SAN FRANCISCO, CA – October 5, 2011 – The Wikimedia Foundation announced today it has been awarded the largest-ever grant in its history: $3.6 million from the Stanton Foundation. The purpose of the grant is to fund major investments in the technology infrastructure that supports Wikipedia and its sister projects, in order to successfully serve their growing readership. The Wikimedia projects currently reach more than 422 million unique visitors around the world every month (comScore, August 2011), making Wikipedia the fifth most-popular website in the world. The grant will fund development of a new editing interface that will make it possible for people to easily edit Wikipedia without needing to learn special wiki syntax. It will also support development of new technical features to make Wikimedia a friendlier and more understandable environment for new editors.
Goodness.  Nearly four million dollars, but how is that going to solve the problem of people being scared off by a site that coddles vandals and trolls, insults experts, and is generally run by pricks?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Arguments from similarity

I thought some more about the evolution argument I discussed yesterday, and decided that, the argument is sufficiently general to be addressed by general logical principles, and does not require detailed knowledge of the science of DNA. The argument is that Unqualified appeals to similarity do not demonstrate common descent any more than they demonstrate common design. Which is absolutely correct. The argument “X’s are similar, therefore X’s have a common descent” lacks a middle, and is therefore invalid. To make it valid, we need a premiss that connects the term ‘similar’ to the term ‘have a common descent’. The premiss ‘X’s that are similar have a common descent’ would clearly do, but is clearly untrue. For example, pebbles that have been washed over by the tide for many years are all similar in that they are smooth, but they have no common descent. Snowflakes all display a common form, but have no common descent, etc.

The real principle we need to appeal to is that things which are similar are (or are highly likely to be) similar by a common nature or cause. The scholastics had a wonderful word for this: ratio, which has a common meaning that cannot be translated by any single word, but which in the present context would be translated by ‘reason’ or even ‘explanation’. When we see things with an identical or similar structure, there should be a explanation or reason for this. Pebbles washed by the tide are smooth for the very reason that they are washed by the tide, being knocked against other pebbles, smoothing the pointy bits. Snowflakes are similar because they are all water, which has a consistent molecular structure (at least I assume so, otherwise I’ll leave this to experts).

Primates and humans share similar DNA. There should be a reason for this. One reason is that God made the DNA similar. But is there a simpler explanation? Surely there is. Science tells us that DNA is a highly complex molecule. Common experience tells us that DNA is very ‘weak’ – it degrades quickly outside its natural environment, which is a living organism. So DNA cannot randomly occur. We also know, from common experience, that it can occur by reproduction. Humans reproduce other humans, primates reproduce primates, plants reproduce plants. (I have a spider plant in the attic that I have replicated for more than 20 years by the usual well-understood techniques). So, one simple explanation for the similarity of DNA is that it replicates itself. It reproduces its form in matter (Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen etc. molecules).

Thus, the simplest explanation of the similarity of form of DNA is by replication or reproduction. This does not require invoking a designer who caused the similarity.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Did Apple change our lives?

A nice article yesterday in the mail, by once young fogey, now officially old fogey, A.N.Wilson.
Einstein fundamentally altered how we look at the universe. Jobs merely developed nice-looking gadgetry which enabled us to do things we did already – listening to music, sending messages and garnering information.

Whereas we once looked information up in a book, we now search for the (often inaccurate) information online. Whereas we once sent telegrams, we now send emails. Yes, Steve Jobs made shopping online easier and more attractive. But it is still only shopping.

Evidence for evolution?

An interesting article here.  Interesting because, though apparently by a Christian fundamentalist anti-evolutionist, who in my experience are not the most cogent or reasonable of apologists, it does indeed appear cogently and reasonably written.  For example, he says "Unqualified appeals to similarity do not demonstrate common descent any more than they demonstrate common design".

Since I know practically nothing about evolution, and rarely watch nature programs mainly because I dislike animals (smelly, poor conversationalists), I leave it to others to comment.

The Politics of Knowledge

Any book about Wikipedia must confront the issue of what Larry Sanger has called The Politics of Knowledge.  There is a nice piece by him in The Edge which gives you the general flavour.  Should we be told what knowledge we need?  Or do we know what we need already?  It's  a difficult paradox, that Plato would have appreciated.

Sanger's view is clear:
In the Middle Ages, we were told what we knew by the Church; after the printing press and the Reformation, by state censors and the licensers of publishers; with the rise of liberalism in the 19th and 20th centuries, by publishers themselves, and later by broadcast media—in any case, by a small, elite group of professionals.  But we are now confronting a new politics of knowledge, with the rise of the Internet and particularly of the collaborative Web—the Blogosphere, Wikipedia, Digg, YouTube, and in short every website and type of aggregation that invites all comers to offer their knowledge and their opinions, and to rate content, products, places, and people. It is particularly the aggregation of public opinion that instituted this new politics of knowledge.
We should not be told what we know.  This whole approach to knowledge contrasts strikingly with the view of education that I grew up with, which I shall attempt to characterise, and which I shall try to defend.

When I grew up in 1950s Britain, when broadcasting was under the shadow of a man called John Reith.  Reith's whole philosophy of broadcasting was unashamedly anti-populist or 'elitist' (if you like).  His endeavour was to carry to the greatest number of people everything that was best in every department of human knowledge, endeavour and achievement, and to avoid whatever was harmful.  The arbitrators of 'best' and 'harmful', of course, were the elite group of producers who ran the BBC.  Reith was often criticised for setting out to give the public not what it wanted but what it needed, to which he replied "the answer was that few knew what they wanted, fewer what they needed".  As if to say, the public, the crowd, do not know what they need to know, and so must be told.

So, in the 1950s, there were only three BBC stations, all state-controlled.  There was the 'Light Programme', the most popular, devoted to what is now called 'British Light Music', of which Puffin' Billy and Barwick Green are archetypes (interesting how these tunes are engraved in the collective subconscious of my generation), as well as 'variety shows' and comedy. The "Home Service" was the channel for news, features, and slightly more demanding drama . Finally there was the "Third Programme" which was unashamedly highbrow and 'elitist', consisting of classical music concerts and recitals, and scientific and philosophical talks, poetry readings and classic or 'experimental' plays. Anna Kallin (who naturally has no Wikipedia biography) was responsible for much of the philosophical and cultural programming, of which this page gives you a strong sense.

It's easy to be critical of this approach now.  Yet it had a wonderful effect. It was on the radio, free for anyone to listen to, and brought directly into the living room the contrast between between 'high' and 'popular' culture. The very idea of 'high' culture, and the idea that some kinds of knowledge are better, was made manifest.  It must have inspired many young people to get an education.

If you believe in the distinction between high and popular culture, you cannot avoid the Reithian  approach to broadcasting, or something like it. It is a logical consequence.  Popular culture by definition is what the populace want, or think they want.  High culture by definition is higher and better.  It is what the populace needs, and is what they should want (even though they think they don't want it).  If you believe in the distinction at all, you cannot avoid an 'elitist' approach like this.  That is the Reithian politics of knowledge.

If you don't believe in it, you may as well get the general public to write down what they know, or what they think they know.  That is the Wikipedian politics of knowledge.

Which is right?  I welcome Larry Sanger's views.

Saturday, October 08, 2011


Surely we cannot agree with what the Maverick says here.  Is the word 'surely' a device of literary bluster, to be used when one is unsure about something, or sure about what one has no right to be sure about?  Surely not. 'Surely' frequently occurs in English translations of Aristotle, and practically every sentence of scholastic philosophy contains the word 'patet' (it is clear, obvious) or 'manifeste' (manifestly, clearly) or 'certe' (certainly, surely).  Surely these writers cannot have been unsure in using these words, or sure about what they had no right to be sure about?

Though Bill's point certainly raises the interesting question: why say that something is sure, or certain or obvious, when it clearly is sure or certain or obvious?  Surely it is redundant?  Perhaps it indicates a residual uncertainty after all.  I don't know.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Nothing about ants here, please move on

The blogger statistics are telling me that 270 people have come to this site this year searching for information about ants.  This easily beats the next popular search term, "existential import" (128 searches).  Puzzling in light of the fact that the ranking of this blog for 'ant' on a Google search is about 200th.

I mentioned this oddity before, but I think I now understand the reason.  Of all the 10 billion people in the world, about 128 are interested in existential import.  Since few other blogs or sites have anything about this, all those 128 people have ended up here.  By contrast, probably 60 million of the world's population have some interest in ants - perhaps they like to fry them and eat them, or perhaps they got stung.  Of those 60 million, only 270 managed to get through the 20 or so Google pages before they found this blog.  I.e. everyone who looks for existential import, finds it here.  Only a tiny tiny fraction of the people looking for information about ants will get to here.  But a tiny fraction of a very large number is a number for all that.

Stephen Law versus William Lane Craig

I’m thinking of going to the debate between ‘Christian Apologist’ William Lane Craig, and atheist philosopher Stephen Law:

17th October 2011 from 7:30pm – 10pm
Westminster Central Hall, Storeys Gate, London, SW1H 9NH
Premier Christian Radio Debate on the existence of God against atheist philosopher Stephen Law, who is also editor of the magazine of the Royal Institute of Philosophy THINK.
Law discusses it on his blog in several posts, the latest of which is here. One of the commenters on Stephen’s blog says
This is not being regarded as a game or some dry academic exercise by them. You are there to be beaten, defeated, humiliated and ridiculed, and, by extension, so is the whole atheistic worldview that you represent.
But then again, perhaps not. In what sense one can ‘win’ a debate like this? A show of hands is foolish, given who will be turning up (diehard supporters of Law, diehard supporters of Craig, neither side likely to be convinced by any argument on the opposing side). The only way to ‘win’ at logic is to survive careful analysis of your arguments, performed in a dark and quiet room, for at least five hours, alone. Logic and debate are quite different things, as is obvious from the following comments at an atheist website 

William Lane Craig is a prolific Christian philosopher, apologist, author, and public debater. He is the best debater – on any topic – that I’ve ever heard. As far as I can tell, he has won nearly all his debates with atheists. When debating him, atheists have consistently failed to put forward solid arguments, and consistently failed to point out the flaws in Craig’s arguments.
I.e. it is conceded that Craig is a good debater, yet his arguments are flawed.

Also, I was really not sure who to support. I studied Craig as part of my theology diploma, and I thought his arguments were slippery and crowdpleasing. On the other hand, I have a visceral dislike of atheism. In the end, Michael Sullivan decided it for me. In an excellent post here, he says that “One does not reason to Christianity or reason to Catholicism in the sense that philosophy ever proves (in any sense) that the Christian doctrines are true.”

That is entirely Ockham’s position (as I understand it). So I shall support Law against Craig, as if it mattered. Is Michael right? Well, Thomas thought you could reason to Christianity, and perhaps prove it in some sense. And Phillips has this to say:

Just as in S. Thomas's day there were those who maintained that the existence of God is to be accepted by faith alone, and so is not to be demonstrated, so there are also in our own. It is, in fact, felt by those who take this view to be, in some sort, impious to attempt to prove what they firmly believe; and possibly there is mixed with this attitude a kind of false mysticism, as if they had already a kind of direct intuition of God. All that has been said earlier as to the nature of the human intellect and its proper object runs counter to such an idea as this, for we are convinced that we know the immaterial and supersensible by means of the material and sensible; the proper object of man's intellect being the natures of material things. Moreover, it is clear that to say that we know God's existence by faith is to make an assertion which refutes itself, since no one can accept anything on the authority of God, i.e. by faith, who is not first convinced that there is a God. Hence S. Thomas says here in answer to this objection, that the existence of God is not an article of faith, but one of the 'preambula' to the articles of faith, natural knowledge being presupposed by faith, as nature is by grace, and in general that which is perfectible by perfection. (my emphasis)

Music night

For Sarah, who is getting better, I hope. Variations for the Healing of Arinushka by Arvo Pärt.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Is bullshitting the same as lying?

Failing to tell the truth is not necessarily lying.  We can sincerely believe what we are saying, as Augustine says, and thus not intend to deceive, even though what we say happens to be false.  Or we can say what we know to be false, without deceiving, as when our audience knows that it is false, and we know that they know. "Now for the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth".  Conversely, we can tell a big lie by telling the truth, but not the whole truth, and thus deceive in effective ways.

What about bullshitting (the coarse phrase is an American one, which has the same meaning as the now almost archaic defunct British English 'flannel' - to talk evasively)?  Is it lying? I haven't looked at Harry Frankfurt's excellent 'On Bullshit' for some time, but I know he develops a 'theory of bullshit' in a very philosophical way -giving necessary and sufficient conditions of bullshit, and so on.

Looking at it again, it is wonderfully funny.  "Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth." (my emphasis).

Now, Frankfurt claims that the essence of bullshit is a lack of connection to a concern with truth, and  indifference to how things really are.
This is the crux of the distinction between [the bullshitter] and the liar. Both he and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. The success of each depends upon deceiving us about that. But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is  anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.
And he says that "it is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth".

Is that right?  I don't think so.  The essence of bullshit is the project of conveying a falsehood without articulating it.  Proof:  when you spot the falsehood that the bullshitter is attempting to convey, and try and force him (or her, usually him) to articulate it, the bullshitter will immediately move on from that place, to avoid it becoming occupied by the truth.  He, or she, will use various methods and means - sometimes accusations of bad faith, sometimes professing ignorance or misunderstand, and very often a move to a higher level of generality ("let's step back for a minute").  Bullshitters of the unsubtle and unskilled and ephemeral variety frequently descend into complete nonsense.

Therefore, their evident consciousness of the place to avoid - such a consciousness, in fact, that the place becomes clear and obvious, by dint of the trampled ground around it, is proof that they are not unconcerned with the truth, and that they do have an interest in it.

Further proof: nearly all people hate a barefaced lie. This may be because their parents told them it was wrong, perhaps it is part of our genetic code.  It may be simply the fear of being found out.  One liar who lied to me quite recently said to me "I do not think I ever lied to you".  He could not bring himself to say 'I lied'.  Nearly all ordinary liars are bullshitters, on this understanding.

I assume Harry Frankfurt has spent a great deal of his time in an academic department, indeed, a department of philosophy.  Such people have a deep concern for the truth, and generally little reason to lie.  Moreover, their whole training is intended to eliminate the vagueness and unclarity of ordinary discourse.  This may be the cause of his mistake.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Crowdsourcing philosophy

I am starting work on the Wikipedia book.  One of the central themes will be the ideology of crowds: are they mad, or are they wise?  Probably a little bit of both.  Wikipedia is good at handling matters of detail. But as I have said before, if Wikipedia tried to write the decline and fall of the Roman empire, which requires assembling the right 'little facts' in the right order, and placing a narrative around these, the result would be very bad.  I periodically return to the philosophy article itself, looking for evidence of progress.  Here it is at the end of Wikipedia's first year of existence.
The definition of philosophy is a philosophical question in its own right. But for purposes of introducing the concept, we can say that, approximately, it is the study of the meaning and justification of beliefs about the most general, or universal, aspects of things--a study which is carried out not by experimentation or careful observation, but instead typically by formulating problems carefully, offering solutions to them, giving arguments for the solutions, and engaging in dialectic about all of the above. Philosophy studies such concepts as existence, goodness, knowledge, and beauty. It asks questions such as "What is goodness, in general?" and "Is knowledge even possible?" Some famous philosophers include Plato, Aristotle, Rene Descartes, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant.
The article lacks any of the formatting that Wikipedia developed later, and there are no pictures, and it is short. But the definition is as good as you are likely to get for such an abstruse and difficult subject. As it points out " the question "What is philosophy?" is itself, famously, a vexing philosophical question.  That was probably the high point of the article, more than ten years ago.  It has had some spectacular low points, in particular here, when two rather deranged editors took control of the article ("As a consequence of the collapse of colonialism and imperialism in the twentieth century, philosophy now is classified according to three major geographical regions, Western philosophy, Eastern philosophy, and African philosophy").  The worst degradation is prevented largely because of two academically trained editors who try to take care of it. However it seems to be reaching a low point again.  Someone has arranged the article around geographical headings, which makes no sense.  As one of the better editors remarks on the talk page.
I notice some editor(s) have hamhandedly integrated the history sections with the previous "Geographical" sections of the article. Since the geographical sections were very poorly written (i.e., terribly sourced, tendentiously written, riddled with dubious claims, huge WP:UNDUE problems), this has the net effect of seriously degrading the quality of a half-decent section of the article. Can we revert to the prior organization, or substantially rewrite the entire section to repair these huge problems? To put it simply: if you open almost any reference book on philosophy, or encyclopedia article on philosophy, you will see in the corresponding "history" section a far, far better treatment than the eyesore this article is currently burdened with. And such treatments will be substantially closer to the previous "history of western philosophy" section than the current revision. 271828182 (talk) 00:13, 16 September 2011 (UTC)
Take a look at a previous version, ... compare it with the current version, which is barely coherent. Or, as I suggested, compare it to virtually any "history" section of a competent encyclopedia article or reference source on philosophy. The "non-western" sections have always been rubbish, and this just embeds the rubbish front and center. 271828182 (talk) 22:29, 16 September 2011 (UTC) 
Quite.  It makes little sense to organise philosophy geographically.  It is a single subject with a single tradition that begins with the Greeks, passes to the Romans, and to the Western medieval philosophers by way of North Africa, Persia, Moorish Spain and many other places.  The geography and history are interesting, but incidental to the subject matter. As Larry Sanger (who wrote the 2001 version referenced above) wrote in 2004
One has only to compare the excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy to Wikipedia's Philosophy section. From the point of view of a specialist, let's just say that Wikipedia needs a lot of work. (Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism by Larry Sanger  Kuro5hin, Fri Dec 31, 2004)

Tuesday, October 04, 2011


A busy week in real life (blogs are not real life, of course). Meanwhile, some links. An excellent, if long, post by Michael Sullivan on ‘narrative’ here.  And the Maverick on consciousness, on truth, and on Kerouac.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Logically ripped off

In an earlier post I argued that the purveyors of New Age mumbo-jumbo depend on logic to further their claims.  Here's an example.  Release Technique, a positive thinking product promises to show you "step by step, how to remove the negative blocks that prevent you from living a fulfilling life of ease and abundance."  The promise is a carefully formulated proposition that involves living a rewarding life, in ease and abundance, i.e. lack of want.  It also promise that "The Release Technique's Self Help Program will help you get control over your health and finances and live in certainty."  It is advertised as "the greatest advancement in the history of behavioral science.

It goes further.  It says "Many graduates have doubled and tripled their income, became a partner with their employer, climbed the corporate ladder, retired wealthy, gained a competitive edge, taken charge of their lives, overcome serious problems, gotten a clear direction in life, and achieve financial freedom. They have gone into business for themselves and are doing spectacularly well! They have moved into brand new homes and have gotten better jobs, become healthier." These are all easily verifiable criteria.

The point being that all this does not depend on abandoning the laws of logic.  On the contrary, the promises have reasonably clear truth conditions, and make claims that could be shown to be true or false, and thus depend for their very meaning and intelligibility on the existence of standard or ordinary logic.

Reasons are given for believing this technique will be effective.  A satisfied customer writes "This is my first encounter with the Release Technique. I feel I have gained a lot from this course, I became aware I had a lot of my hidden agendas, negative thoughts and beliefs that were running my life. As I was releasing, I got more clear and light, feeling more relaxed and more quiet, more peaceful and more serene. I received $425,000 since using the method. Thank you, thank you."  This is a standard part of the scientific method.  Always question the claims being made, and seek evidence of their truth (in this case, the evidence being a customer statement of having made $425,000).

This all justifies our going to the check-out counter here and forking out $279. Though I don't recommend going any further, folks, given what it says in Ripoff Report here.

The point is, scammers rely on ordinary logic to make their claims, and to back them up.  Warning: check the soundness, as well as the validity of their arguments.  A valid argument is one whose premisses cannot be true with the conclusion false.  It can be valid even when the premisses are false.  A sound argument, by contrast, is a valid argument with true premisses.  If you are going to part with $279, go for soundness every time.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

So farewell September

Vallicella links to Dinah Washington here. But surely Peggy Lee's version is better. A voice like no other, and the little piano break at 1:13 is exquisite.

Logic and male status

Pamela Gerloff has commented on my earlier post with some remarks that deserve to be taken seriously.  Her main points are as follows (I hope I have summarised them correctly).
1.  That the discussion on this site is  male-dominated.
2. That research (such as by sociolinguist Deborah Tannen) shows that male conversation typically serves a different purpose than female, leading to misunderstanding.
3. Male discussion is characterised by jockeying for position and establishment of status, which is different from how women tend to approach discussion.
4.  Likewise, discussion on this site is about commenters asserting their own status as superior thinkers and logicians and not about fruitful intellectual inquiry.
How do we answer this?  In one sense, it is easy. Logicians are concerned about the validity of arguments alone, and the complaints by the commenters here were about exactly that.  Pamela's arguments simply weren't valid.  Now even if it is correct that the men's comments were motivated by positioning and status, in order to establish themselves as 'superior thinkers and logicians', that hardly invalidates their position.  If an argument is invalid, it is invalid, whatever my motivation in affirming its invalidity.  The reply to Pamela seems clear: her first argument was invalid, and so was her reply to critics, which was a form of ad hominem (addressing the person, not the reasoning).

In another sense it is more difficult.  I am sure Pamela will reply that my objection remains stuck on the rails of 'male logic'.  Calling ad hominem is just another move in the game of patriarchal domination. Why, after all, is it called 'ad hominem' (to the man)?  There is a nice observation by Robin Turner along this line.
If women reject logic and rely solely on feelings, they are left in the weak position of having to argue with feelings. Feeling that something is true does not make it true, and it will not convince anyone else that it is true either. You can say, "I feel X", but the person you are arguing with can just as well reply, "Well I don't." The result is that the argument usually goes nowhere. This is particularly damaging in arguments between men and women, since both sides are likely to go away with their prejudices strengthened; the men think women are subjective, emotional and illogical, and the women think men are impersonal, cold and over-intellectual.

To justify their feelings of hurt at being "beaten" in an argument, the women concerned may go further and dismiss the whole thing as "male logic", as though there were two types of logic, on for men and another for women. This then places the men in an impossible position, since if they attempt to be reasonable, they are accused again of using "male logic", in the same way that if a woman gets upset in an argument, it is taken as proof that she is overly emotional, and hence irrational. This does not only lead to a lack of communication between the sexes, it leads to a lack of communication in which women come off worse, since policy is generally made as the result of argument, not sharing feelings. [link]