Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Werewolf blogging

People who are following this blog for werewolf-related reasons might be interested to see my brief review of New Moon, which I saw last evening with a group of people including several philosophers.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Secret identity

Dana McCourt and James Chartrand are like Hesperus and Phosphorus. In a world where astronomical facts could reveal a pretty horrendous level of sexism in society.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Reference magnets are as bad as primitive intentionality. Psychologize!

On Ted Sider's suggestion, I read Rob Williams' Phil Review paper "Eligibility and Inscrutability" with hopes that it would lead to my being less creeped out by reference magnets. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. I got more worried that we'd have to appeal to the darned things in building theories of reference, but I dislike them just as much as before. Depressing.

I take it that this is how the reference magnet strategy is supposed to work: Say we're trying to reduce intentional relations to something nonintentional. We do the whole Ramseyfication thing, and... uh-oh, we either have too many equally good candidates for what our terms refer to and many of them are counterintuitive, or as Williams' paper suggests, something counterintuitive ends up being the winner. So on the reference magnet strategy we say that the intuitive things have a certain kind of primitive naturalness to them, and that's why they get selected. Now we've reduced the intentional successfully to something nonintentional!

But it's hard for me to see any real theoretical gain here. We've avoided using primitive intentionality by introducing another primitive -- naturalness -- that's just as ontologically extravagant. If naturalness did some other interesting kind of theoretical work so we needed to appeal to it, there would be something to be said for it. But it's hard for me to see what kind of work it's going to do. A notion of natural kinds, which we might maybe be able to get out of the sciences, isn't going to do enough work for us, because we're going to need lots of primitive naturalnesses that go beyond what scientists use in explanation and prediction. We don't just need primitives like 'electron' and 'orangutan', we need 'corset' and 'film noir' and 'Optimus Prime.' We don't have primitive intentionality, but we have a bunch of primitives that are shadows of the intentional relations we were wanting to reduce. So in the end our overall theorizing ends up just as complicated, and the reduction of intentionality is a hollow victory.

I'm quite attracted to the idea of somehow psychologizing the naturalness out of the picture, so that instead of having primitive naturalness in the world, we have some kind of psychological state that does the work of selecting what ends up being the most intuitive referent for a term. There's good explanatory reason to posit something like this -- it explains people's behavior, namely, their yes- and no-saying behavior when you ask them whether this or that thing is the referent of their term (or in complicated cases that support semantic externalism, whether this thing or that thing would be the referent of their term if the world turned out to be a certain way). What's explaining their behavior when you ask them these questions has to be something in their heads, and it's there for us to appeal to.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Teaching Early Modern

I don't think they're going to make me teach a survey course on early modern metaphysics and epistemology anytime soon. But I thought this post by Dana at Edge of the American West on how to do it had all kinds of good stuff.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Travel observations

When you're at 30,000 feet wearing the clothes in which you're going to present a paper and you're opening a container of airplane-provided yogurt packed on the ground, it's best to open it away from you.

I looked down when the plane went over the Australian Outback, and it looked like I was flying over Mars.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Werewolf to meet koalas, kiwis

In three days, I'll be flying out to Australia to give a bunch of talks! There are two full-length papers I'm presenting, both of which have annoying rhymes in their titles. There's also a short paper I'll be presenting at the New Zealand AAP conference, which has its own absurd title. If you're interested in knowing where I'll be, here's the schedule:

December 1 - Australian National University - The Gap Between Thought and Ought
December 3 - University of Waikato - The Trouble With Double Effect
December 7-10 - New Zealand AAP - How Jenny and the cannibal desire Orlando Bloom
December 14 - University of Sydney - The Gap Between Thought and Ought
December 15 - Macquarie University - The Trouble With Double Effect
December 16 - University of New South Wales - The Trouble With Double Effect
December 17 - University of Western Australia - The Trouble With Double Effect
(Update: there was a Jan. 4 talk in NZ, but that probably won't happen.)

I'll be spending Christmas with colleague Ben Blumson in Brisbane. Apart from that, late December and early January are open, and I'll probably be wandering around New Zealand.

If you're curious what all these talks are about, here are some abstracts.

The Gap Between Thought and Ought
According to Nishi Shah and David Velleman, it is a conceptual truth about belief that it is governed by a norm of truth. They claim that their view helps to explain the difference between imagination and belief, and explains why the deliberative question "whether to believe that p?" inevitably gives way to "whether p?" They call this phenomenon "transparency." I argue that it is merely a synthetic truth about belief that it is correct if and only if true. First, their view does little to help us distinguish believing from imagining. Second, when people reject the norm of truth for belief, we regard them as substantively mistaken rather than incoherent. Third, we can give better explanations of transparency without regarding the concept of belief as having any normative content.

The Trouble With Double Effect
According to the Doctrine of Double Effect, it is worse to intend something harmful as a means to a good end than to intend the good end while foreseeing that it will cause harm. For example, it is worse to kill one person as a means to save five lives than it is to save the five in a way that then kills the one. I will argue that belief in Double Effect is produced by systematically misleading psychological processes. Intended harms seem worse because we imagine them more vividly than merely foreseen harms, resulting in more intense emotional responses. This is not a reliable way of forming true beliefs about which option is better. I will discuss recent experimental results from psychology and neuroscience that support this explanation and this criticism of Double Effect.

How Jenny and the cannibal desire Orlando Bloom
Michelle Montague argues that propositionalism, the view that all of our intentional attitudes are propositional attitudes, fails in the case of liking. I first discuss two advantages of propositionalism in the case of desire. Propositionalism correctly identifies the cases in which we regard two agents as desiring the same thing, and it also allows desire to do the explanatory work that it is supposed to. I then extend these arguments to propositionalism about liking. I conclude by considering ways for objectualists to defend their view in light of these arguments.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Nietzsche's Postmoralism is in Southampton

Or at least, that's where the conference is on July 7-9 of 2010. I think it's 2010, though the website says 2009 in some places. I hope they know that the eternal recurrence doesn't work that way.

This could be a nice stop on the trip back to Singapore after the summer 2010 run of talks.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

NIP Journal

The Northern Institute of Philosophy is thinking of starting up another Analysis-like philosophy journal that specializes in shorter papers. Philosophers can vote in their poll about whether they should do it. I think this is great! Sometimes I've been told that articles I've submitted were too short, and larded them up with not-as-important stuff to make them properly lengthy. That's a bad situation for everybody. Having another short-paper journal would really help.

I hope they make the journal open-access and free like Philosophers' Imprint! From what I've heard, librarians are eager to help out with that sort of thing.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

It's possible that MP3 pirates exist...

Me and Ben Blumson before a Halloween shindig in the NUS philosophy grad room. We're discussing the Barcan formula. I was an MP3 pirate for Halloween -- you can see the headphone wires running down my shirt.

Oxford's Neda Agha Soltan philosophy scholarship

Oxford, being awesome. Iran, denouncing the awesomeness.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Great deeds

I'm trying to keep politics on the other blog, but occasionally big awesome things happen. And I am just in awe of this woman. She beat Social Security privatization in 2005 by refusing to concede anything to Bush.

She used the John Murtha resolution to turn the Democrats into a wholeheartedly anti-Iraq-War party in 2006, over the objections of Rahm Emanuel and Steny Hoyer.

This year she's gotten the climate change bill through the House by a 219-212 vote.

And now we've won a 220-215 vote for health care reform. We've still got to pass it through the Senate, strip the Stupak amendment in conference committee, and get the conference report through both chambers. Conference reports are not amendable, so passing those ends up being easier. But this is a tremendous step, and we're further along than anyone has ever gone. In terms of getting good things done, Nancy Pelosi and her longtime ally Henry Waxman (who will spend the rest of his career taking us from this bill towards single-payer) are the best people in American politics.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Paper titles

Has anyone yet written a paper on demonstratives titled "What is the meaning of 'this'?" ? It needs to happen, but I don't know anything about demonstratives so somebody else will have to do it.

Friday, October 30, 2009

My contribution to linguistics

Longtime readers may recall my dance floor linguistics research from two years ago. I'm happy to let you know that that research has been cited in a conference presentation titled "An Eleméntàry Linguistic Definition of Upstate New York," by Aaron Dinkin and Keelan Evanini (pdf).

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Xenophobia, partisanship, and epistemic peer disagreement

[Cross-posted from my political blog, Donkeylicious]

A lot of smart people in America are uncomfortable with the idea that they should treat similarly educated folks from other advanced democracies as generally ignorant, deluded, or crazy on global political issues. Instead, we should treat them as 'epistemic peers' -- people just as intelligent as us, working from the same body of evidence, who are roughly our equals in ability to know the truth. In the case at hand, the bodies of evidence differ somewhat, since we have different news sources. But we can mostly solve this problem by sharing our evidence in discussion. If the evidence conflicts and we try to argue that their news sources are unreliable, all we usually have to go on is our news sources, and they can argue the same against us.

Similarly, a lot of smart Democrats are uncomfortable with the idea that they should regard Republicans as generally ignorant, deluded or crazy on global political issues. Many of the same considerations apply here. If we argue that their news sources are unreliable, they can argue that ours are, they're in possession of a basically isomorphic argument. Ordinarily, treating Republicans as epistemic peers would be a reasonable position, just as treating foreigners that way is. But the trouble at our historical moment is that we're no longer able to treat Republicans and educated people throughout the world as epistemic peers at the same time.

I think the following is a fair characterization of the reasoning that resulted in Obama's recent honor: The Republican Party has gone mad and become so destructive of world peace that you get a Nobel Peace Prize for removing them from power. That's an incredibly strong way to to put the point, and I don't know if the consensus of educated people outside America is willing to go quite that far. But if it stops short, it doesn't stop too far short. The 2008-2009 jump in favorable views of America, especially in Western Europe but including many other nations, is a sign of how differently people see Obama-era America from what preceded it. Foreigners will have many different views of what exactly is going on, but they're generally going to include the idea that Republican views on foreign policy are so tainted by the xenophobia, bloodthirst, and misinformation of influential people in the party that they can't be regarded as epistemic peers.

Republicans regard world opinion as badly as it regards them. You can see it even in their relationship with mainstream American opinion, where they've constructed an alternative news infrastructure in Fox News and talk radio that they regard as free from the distortions of the mainstream media. While Democrats have their own preferred blogs and websites, they haven't built full-fledged Fox-News-style alternative versions of mainstream news institutions. Globally, this becomes even stronger. Republicans' relation to respected international institutions like the UN (on the political side) and the BBC (on the news side) has long been hostile. When international weapons inspectors claimed that Iraq didn't have weapons of mass destruction, Republicans ridiculed them. Thinking the Wikipedia editors of the world are biased against them, Republicans created Conservapedia. If you don't regard educated people throughout the rest of the world as your epistemic peers, this is what you do, and maybe you start ordering freedom fries. Of course, this leaves you in a situation where the rest of the world isn't going to think you're an epistemic peer of theirs.

So where does this leave Americans who aren't Republicans? I don't think it's possible for us to treat both Republicans and educated people throughout the world as epistemic peers. This would involve having some level of trust each group's deeply held belief that the opposite group has gone totally off the rails. This leaves you suspecting that two different groups of people are deluded on the say-so of people who you suspect are deluded about issues like who is deluded. That's a pretty bad position, and not one we can stay in very long. We could also just regard global affairs as a huge area of general confusion where nobody knows what is going on, and withdraw from politics. If we're going to continue doing politics, however, we need to decide which group we're going to treat as epistemic peers and whose opinions we're going to regard as tainted by bias and misinformation.

There's plenty to be said about how exactly we should make that decision. But I'm going to conclude this post by observing that the noble intentions of Democrats and independents to treat both Republicans and educated foreigners as epistemic peers about global affairs can't be satisfied in our unhappy world. If we're going to engage in politics, we have to be either xenophobes or partisans. There are no other options.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


The St. Louis Annual Conference on Reasons & Rationality looks neat. I'm probably going to be in the States from May 23-25, so if I can get my stuff together in time, I'll go.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Reverse Polish sausage

I'm not enough of a logician to laugh at the latest xkcd, though I did manage to figure out the joke without looking anything up.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Hedonism FTW

I've just uploaded a new paper (and submitted it to a journal): The Epistemic Argument for Universal Hedonism. This one is pretty action-packed. First I give an account of moral judgment. Then I present an argument that pushes us towards global skepticism about morality. Then I save us from global moral skepticism by arguing that despite the big skeptical argument, we can know about the goodness of pleasure through phenomenal introspection. Then there's a part at the end where I clean up some stuff about how to go from the epistemic stuff to the metaphysical and moral conclusions. This is supposed to be the first and biggest step in the big argument for hedonic utilitarianism.

I gave this paper at a bunch of places this summer -- Arizona, Tennessee, Illinois State, and King's College London -- and people gave me great feedback everywhere. Thanks, folks!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Pulau Ubin

I went to Ubin yesterday! It's an island a ten minute boat ride from Singapore. Attractions included a wild boar and a mangrove swamp.

Depicted with me are super philosophy undergraduates Zi Wei and Ming De, as well as super philosophy colleague Ben Blumson. I'll be visiting Ben's native Australia in December, as well as New Zealand. I've heard that there is plenty of awesome nature down there, and I look forward to seeing it.

By the way, if you'd like me to give a talk at your department in Australia, let me know! NUS has given me a big grant that I'm supposed to use for exactly that purpose, and I'm told that I put on a good show.

Monday, August 31, 2009

My chocolate dream

I had a dream some years ago. I was in a candy store with a couple dollars in my pocket, deciding whether to buy another piece of chocolate. I decided to buy it, and ate it. It was yummy!

Then I woke up. As I thought about my dream, I felt happy about making the right decision, insofar as I made a decision at all. Sometimes dream decisions are real decisions, and sometimes they're not. Dream pleasure, however, is always real pleasure. Dream money is never real money.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Double-Humean paper up!

One of the papers I've been presenting this summer on the Moral Naturalism World Tour, "How Double-Humeans Can Make Room for Error", is now available for download. I'm going to send it off to a journal in about a week, so if you want to read it and correspond with me before I do that, now's your chance! Here's the introduction of the paper:
A concise way of spelling out the Humean theory of motivation is that an agent will do whatever maximizes expected desire satisfaction. And a concise way of spelling out instrumentalism is that it is rational for an agent to do whatever maximizes expected desire satisfaction. Instrumentalism is sometimes called the Humean theory of practical rationality, so one could call the conjunction of the Humean theory of motivation and instrumentalism the double-Humean view.

In “The Normativity of Instrumental Reason,” Christine Korsgaard argues that the double-Humean view makes practical irrationality impossible:

The problem is coming from the fact that Hume identifies a person’s end as what he wants most, and the criterion of what the person wants most appears to be what he actually does. The person’s ends are taken to be revealed in his conduct. If we don’t make a distinction between what a person’s end is and what he actually pursues, it will be impossible to find a case in which he violates the instrumental principle. (230)
If maximizing expected desire satisfaction is what it is rational to do (as instrumentalism says) and also what one will do (as the Humean theory of motivation says) it is hard to see how one can act irrationally. According to Korsgaard, Hume not only says that “people don’t in fact ever violate the instrumental principle. He is actually committed to the view that people cannot violate it” (228). If the instrumental principle is the sole principle of practical rationality, this will mean that practical irrationality is impossible. This would be a strange and surprising consequence, and to avoid having to accept it, we might be moved to reject either the Humean theory of motivation or instrumentalism.

First, I will explain why exactly it would be a problem for a double-Humean view if it left no room for practical irrationality. I will focus particularly on Douglas Lavin's logical interpretation of the error constraint, and Korsgaard's argument that the double-Humean view will have bad consequences for our ability to regard agents as capable of action. Unlike many recent commentators, I hold that an agent can be subject to a principle even if there is no logically possible action she could do to violate it, and I will present examples of such agents. Nevertheless, Korsgaard and Lavin are right that double-Humeans must account for practical irrationality. This is not because of any formal constraints on normativity, but because practical irrationality exists, and our theories need to reflect this fact.

Then I will lay out the two components of the double-Humean view in a more precise fashion and consider the best reasons for accepting them. The Humean theory of motivation should be accepted because it gives the best explanation of how we deliberate and act. While some philosophers have been moved to accept instrumentalism because the considerations it presents as normative have a role in explaining action, this is not a good reason to accept it. We should accept it because it correctly accounts for an important group of our normative judgments.

Finally, I will respond to Korsgaard by showing how the double-Humean view can account for just as much practical irrationality as there is. The Humean theory of motivation and instrumentalism should be filled out in ways that measure the agent’s actual desires differently. When determining how agents will be motivated, we should look at the balance of motivational forces that desire produces in them at the moment of action. When determining what it is rational to do, we should look at dispositional desires. As I will argue, this way of setting up the double-Humean view leaves exactly the right amount of space for practical irrationality, while achieving the desiderata that motivate both sides of the position.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


I fly to Seattle tomorrow! I'll be there from July 27-31, hanging out with Donkeylicious co-blogger Nick and grad school friends Justin and Ariela. Probably I'll be in Tacoma for the latter half of that. Then it'll be back to SF for a couple more days before I go back to Singapore.

Friday, July 24, 2009


I just had lunch with Brad DeLong!

The counterfactual in his post came up in conversation when I was explaining Possible Girls to him. Discussing that paper with famous people in academia will, I suspect, be a recurring source of joy in my life.

Friday, July 17, 2009

What is the answer to a riddle?

Julian Sanchez writes:
“In a riddle whose answer is chess, what is the one word you must under no circumstances use?” The question comes from Borges’ short story “The Garden of Forking Paths,” in which the narrator’s ancestor (we’re told) aspired to create an infinite labyrinth. He ultimately constructed his labyrinth not in space but through time and narrative, writing a great sprawling novel in which many possible—and contradictory—futures coexist, converge, and splay off into variegated chaos again. The forbidden word, of course, is “chess”—making that opening question a riddle in violation of its own rule.
I was thinking that the use/mention distinction would save the riddle from self-violation. We should regard the word "chess" as being mentioned and not used by Borges in stating the riddle. (For the time being, let's set aside the issue of whether the question actually counts as a riddle.)

Might we instead say that the locution "A riddle whose answer is X" involves the use of X, rather than the mere mention of X? Well, I would've thought that answers were linguistic entities, so when you talk about the answer to any riddle you're talking about a linguistic entity, and thus mentioning the term rather than using it.

Also, it would be a surprise if questions and answers had different ontological status. While there's a theoretical option of considering answers to be nonlinguistic entities, since they refer to things, I don't see a similar option with questions. A question has to be a series of words, or some abstract entity expressible in words. Unlike an answer, there's no object it can be taken to refer to. If there's good reason to regard answers as the same things as questions, we should regard both as linguistic entities.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Inter-philosophical sloth

After giving nine talks this summer, I'm now back in San Francisco visiting Mom and Dad. I've been sleeping and blogging about politics and generally being unproductive. Maybe later this evening after dinner I'll get to revising my paper on the double-Humean view. Or maybe tomorrow. Anyway, it's going to be revised and sent off to a journal before I go back to Singapore. Mark my words.

Today it turned out that conversations about my research (in particular, stuff on dispositional desires and rationality that's in my paper about the double-Humean view) informed other people's political blogging! They were talking about requirements that restaurants print calorie information on their menus. How is this relevant? Well, I wrote a big post at Donkeylicious explaining it so you can go there and see.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

England and Scotland

I'm in Edinburgh now, and I've got to pay my respects at Hume's tomb. And when I get back to London, I'll make sure to see Jeremy Bentham at UCL.

Mostly, I'll be hanging out with people at Oxford after I get back. If you're in the London or Oxford or Edinburgh area and want to hang out, I'd be happy to meet up! Send me an email or comment or something and I'll see if we can get in touch.

The talk at KCL went really well. I was happy to meet M.M. McCabe, the dissertation advisor of my senior thesis advisor, Raphael Woolf. It was also a nice feeling to give a big defense of hedonism not far from where Jeremy Bentham's body is displayed.

If I'd been to London earlier, I would've asked Bentham to be the external reviewer on my dissertation committee. We have similar views on a variety of issues, and I'm sure he wouldn't have said no. Getting him to provide comments on my work or write a good letter of recommendation would've been difficult, but that's always a risk when you have famous people as your outside committee members.

(Update: I couldn't find Hume's tomb, though I did find his statue and get my picture taken with him.)

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Holbo/Waring Plato Volume

NUS Philosophy colleague John Holbo and classics master Belle Waring have a Plato book online. It's intended for introductory audiences, and contains the Meno, the Euthyphro, and Book I of the Republic, along with lovely illustrations.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Song for Philippa Foot

This is Kate Nash covering the Arctic Monkeys' "Fluorescent Adolescent."  I first heard it around the time I was teaching Philippa Foot's "Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives."  Foot would give up the bold morality/reasons externalist thesis in that paper twenty years after writing it, having abandoned the Humean theory of practical rationality.  But I'm still totally into the young wild Philippa Foot who thought that all our reasons come from our desires.

You used to get it in your fishnets
Now you only get it in your nightdress
Discarded all the naughty nights for niceness
Landed in a very common crisis
Everything's in order in a black hole
Nothing seems as pretty as the past though
Bloody Mary's lacking in Tabasco
Remember when you used to be a rascal?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Aseel al-Awadhi goes to Parliament

Congratulations to Texas philosophy Ph.D Aseel al-Awadhi, who is among the first four women to win election to the Kuwaiti Parliament. I overlapped with her in grad school, and we once had a fun multiethnic Super Bowl party together. Kuwaiti women only got the right to vote and run for office in 2005, so things are moving fast. In other good news, Sunni fundamentalists lost a lot of seats.

Now when your students ask you what you can do with a philosophy education, you can tell them: become a member of Parliament in Kuwait!

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Moral Naturalism World Tour

Today I arrived in San Francisco. I'm going to be hanging out with Mom and Dad for a view days before starting what I called the "Moral Naturalism Project" in the big grant application that's paying for all my travel. So far I have two papers written -- "The Epistemic Argument for Universal Hedonism" (EA) and "How Double-Humeans Can Make Room for Error" (DH). Here's the places I'm going and the talks I'm giving, as far as I've planned:

May 9 - Fly from Singapore to San Francisco
May 12 - Fly from San Francisco to LA for USC talk on 12th (DH)
May 13 - Fly from LA to Tucson for University of Arizona talk on 13th (EA)
May 14 - Fly from Tuscon to Miami for University of Miami talk on 15th (DH)
May 17 - Fly from Miami to Knoxville for University of Tennessee talk on the 18th (EA)
May 19 - Fly from Knoxville to Austin
June 1 - Fly from Austin to Chicago to see my super-smart sister Supriya Sinhababu. Illinois State talk on the 4th (EA) and Illinois talk on the 5th. (DH)
[Now things get a little hazy. I have some free time between talks and I'll probably go somewhere on the Eastern seaboard for a few days but I don't know where.]
June 9 - Fly to London for King's College London talk on June 10. Chill at Oxford for a while, maybe Edinburgh. Return on June 19 or so.
[More haziness. Hopefully somehow involving girls.]
June 20something - Fly to Grand Rapids for Calvin College talk and subsequent Michigan talk.
Early July - Visit DC
Rest of July - Hang out with family in SF, or wherever they might be at the time.
Late July / Early August - Fly to Seattle for Puget Sound talk
August 5 - Fly from San Francisco back to Singapore

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Byron York needs black people to have non-actual modal parts

This Byron York post is being linked everywhere because it contains one of the most fascinating comments I've ever heard on race. It's not a throwaway line -- it's standing right there in thesis-statement position at the end of the first paragraph:
On his 100th day in office, Barack Obama enjoys high job approval ratings, no matter what poll you consult. But if a new survey by the New York Times is accurate, the president and some of his policies are significantly less popular with white Americans than with black Americans, and his sky-high ratings among African-Americans make some of his positions appear a bit more popular overall than they actually are.
"more popular overall than they actually are"? Usually, racism doesn't push people to say things that are flatly contradictory. Though we might be able to make it consistent if we take a racialized version of Brian Weatherson's view and assume that black people have non-actual modal parts while white people are wholly actual. It'll be hard to reliably poll people's non-actual modal parts, but that's never stopped Zogby before.

The real issue here is that York doesn't regard black people's input in the political process as having the same legitimacy as white people's. That's the only way you end up saying crazy stuff like that.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


My friend Ezra Klein has been surfing the archives of the Social Science Research Network, and he found "Fuck", a paper by Ohio State law professor Chris Fairman:
This Article is as simple and provocative as its title suggests: it explores the legal implications of the word fuck. The intersection of the word fuck and the law is examined in four major areas: First Amendment, broadcast regulation, sexual harassment, and education. The legal implications from the use of fuck vary greatly with the context. To fully understand the legal power of fuck, the nonlegal sources of its power are tapped. Drawing upon the research of etymologists, linguists, lexicographers, psychoanalysts, and other social scientists, the visceral reaction to fuck can be explained by cultural taboo. Fuck is a taboo word. The taboo is so strong that it compels many to engage in self-censorship. This process of silence then enables small segments of the population to manipulate our rights under the guise of reflecting a greater community. Taboo is then institutionalized through law, yet at the same time is in tension with other identifiable legal rights. Understanding this relationship between law and taboo ultimately yields fuck jurisprudence.
If I'm on a hiring committee for some kind of legal philosophy search and I see a CV that lists "Fuck Jurisprudence" as an Area of Competence, you can bet that I'll read the rest of the applicant's file with great interest.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Don't blame me...

...I voted for Hume.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Budget Reconciliation: The New Sensation That's Sweeping The Nation

I've mostly stopped using this blog for political posts, but a thrilling political development is taking place that nobody will otherwise notice because it sounds like the most boring thing in the world. Jon Cohn reports that House and Senate conference committee negotiators have agreed to let health care reform go through the budget reconciliation process if a plan doesn't pass by October 15. Time for debate on budget reconciliation is limited, so Republicans can't filibuster and 50 votes will get legislation through. Since breaking a filibuster requires 60, this development is basically worth 10 votes in the Senate.

To put it simply, the odds that Obama signs universal health care into law this year just got a lot better. As Ezra Klein says, "This could be the day that health care reform went from being unlikely to inevitable."

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Taking political philosophy back from the economists

Former Harvard philosophy undergrad and current superstar political blogger Matthew Yglesias had a nice response to the post below:
I think that the questions that political philosophers have taken to debating professionally in recent decades have a limited relevance to contemporary politics. But I think a number of fairly abstract misguided ideas in ethics, political philosophy, and economics have come to have extraordinary cultural and political power in the United States and to a lesser extent elsewhere in the English speaking world, all to incredibly pernicious effect. What’s more, though most of these ideas are propounded, originally, by people whose degrees are in economics most of them are really ideas of a philosophical character.

Which ideas?

Well I’d say one important set of ideas is the perverse notion that it’s wrong or inappropriate to subject people to moral criticism for making selfish decisions as long as the decisions don’t involve breaking the law...

...Another example is that, as Brad DeLong pointed out yesterday, economists’ protestations that they’re doing value-free social science actually embeds an implicit idea that “that shifts in distribution are of no account–which can be true only if the social welfare function gives everybody a weight inversely proportional to their marginal utility of wealth.” In other words, under guise of eschewing values, economics has adopted a philosophical value system which says that the well-being of rich people is more important than the well-being of poor people. Nobody ever says “social welfare function” when engaging in practical political debate, but the idea that not caring about distribution constitutes some kind of neutral middle ground is an important underlying premise of much practical political debate, and its viability stems from the fact that everyone remembers being taught that this is true in their Economics 101 courses.
The take-home message for you and me is that economists have managed to convince people of indefensible views on normative topics such as what it's rational for individuals to do, what's an appropriate object of moral criticism, and what would be a good distribution of resources. I don't know how many of them would, when pressed, defend these sorts of claims -- their discipline isn't supposed to be one that makes normative claims.

Saying you're not making any normative claims is, of course, a good way of getting people to accept the normative claims you make. A lot more in this sort of thing depends on the sorts of emotions that get communicated as people talk about stuff and the loaded words you use. Pareto optimality, for example, has 'optimality' built into it, and who doesn't like optimality? Of course, as Rawls tells us, a distribution where one person owns all tradable goods and services while nobody else has anything is Pareto optimal.

In any event, this is the kind of thing we ought to be concerned about, both as citizens and as philosophers. While ideas from other parts of academia can't get out to the public, economists are convincing people of ridiculous theses in moral and political philosophy that their research doesn't even support. (It probably helps that widespread social acceptance of these theses is favorable to the interests of very wealthy people.) I'm not really sure what we can do about the spread of bad political philosophy through economics 101, but there's got to be something.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Epiphenomenalism about Rawls and my CV items

[I posted this over at Donkeylicious, my generally nonphilosophical political blog, with a less geeky title. That's why I kind of rush through the political philosophy stuff below. Feel free to tell me why my objections to Rawls don't work or whatever, though.]

Asks Ezra: "If John Rawls had never existed, it's very clear that American political philosophy would look very different. But is it actually clear that American politics would look even a little bit changed?" Probably not, I think. The lesser reason is that his political philosophy actually didn't have very distinctive consequences relative to the American political environment. The greater reason is that we're in a political climate where intellectuals don't have much influence.

I was teaching two weeks of Rawls in my political philosophy seminar this semester, and on rereading it struck me how similar the practical consequences of his views are to the utilitarian views he displaced on the American political philosophy scene. Rawls' difference principle, which basically says that social distributions of goods are better insofar as the people on the bottom are better off, isn't a theory about how happiness should be distributed. It's a view about how social primary goods, like wealth and opportunity, should be distributed. Given the diminishing marginal utility of such goods, a utilitarian will be most concerned with helping the people with the least. There are still going to be differences between the distribution I want and the distribution Rawls wants. But given the existing distribution of goods in American society, Rawls and I are going to be pulling for basically the same political proposals.

Of course, the deeper you get into the theory, the bigger my differences with Rawls get. I think his justifications for why people in the original position would choose the difference principle aren't very good, and he'd do better to just appeal to diminishing marginal utility. His point about the separateness of persons and how you can't make up for harming one person by benefitting another -- his key objection to utilitarianism -- isn't respected by his own theory, which allows you to trade off harms and benefits as long as you do it within classes of people. At least as it's written, the methodology of reflective equilibrium doesn't allow for the sorts of debunking moves that my defense of utilitarianism depends on. But inside baseball stuff like that isn't going to have a popular impact.

(A relevant boast: we utilitarians may be almost as dead as the logical positivists on the US philosophy scene, but which philosopher does Nicholas Kristof sympathetically cover in a very nice column? Peter Singer, taking the side of animals against the meat industry. This is what happens when you have distinctive and striking commitments that touch diverse and sensitive aspects of human life. Which isn't an objection to Rawls -- it's just an explanation for why he wasn't as splashy.)

But the bigger reason why Rawls didn't make a big splash is just that the forces governing American politics at present don't put any premium on intellectual opinion, or show any interest in mainstreaming intellectual debate. The same circumstances that make it possible for George W. Bush to beat Al Gore in 2000 and Sarah Palin to be chosen as a vice-presidential candidate in 2008 prevent any current political philosopher from making an impact. If I saw a bunch of American TV pundits eagerly speculating about which candidate would win the intellectual vote, I'd make sure not to drive or operate heavy machinery in the next twelve hours. Rawls may have a nifty argument that you're not entitled to the things you get in the free market, since those things are really just products of other things that you didn't earn any more than a prince earned his hereditary title. But even though that argument was able to keep the young Texans in my Business Ethics section in their seats, trying to figure a way out, several minutes after the bell rang, it's not the sort of thing that you're going to see on cable TV anytime soon.

Being a philosophy professor who's interested in politics, you might expect me to be rather unhappy about this state of affairs. And, yeah! I'd really like it to change. The funny thing is that I've grown up so fully within this political environment that I've come to accept its constraints. My plans for having political impact generally stand apart from my research. It's kind of a weird thing to say now, just as I'm finally starting to write up my big argument for utilitarianism, the theory that stands at the foundation of my political views. But as awesome as I think the argument is, and as dramatic as its consequences are for how the world should be, I don't really think about it affecting the way anybody outside philosophy thinks about anything.

My teaching might inspire a few kids to do good things or turn their energies in socially beneficial directions, though I'm not under any illusions about my ability in that regard. I can give away a big chunk of my salary to people and causes that will make the world a better place. I can do the sort of thing that all of us bloggers do (thanks to all you for reading!) And hey, maybe the American political environment will emerge from the anti-intellectual shadow of whatever it was that made this happen. But until I see that happening, I'm not expecting to write any journal articles that change the world.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

NDPR Review: Luchte Zarathustra Volume

My review of a collection of essays on Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra is up at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. Zarathustra is one of my favorite books ever, so I was excited to review some secondary literature on it.

Unfortunately, some of the essays in the volume were pretty bad, and I got kind of angry at one of them. More often I was just highlighting the best parts of their papers, though, or gently making fun of them if they were really screwing up. The competitive friendship with animals paper, which I mentioned here a while ago, is the last one in the review.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Inference, perception, and babies

I think the thing people want to say in epistemology these days is that perceptual knowledge is non-inferential. This makes a good deal of phenomenological sense. Insofar as there's something distinctive that it feels like when we infer things from other things, it isn't going on in ordinary cases of perception. I don't look in the general direction of my desk, have a bunch of sense experiences, puzzle out what's going on with them, suddenly go 'Aha!' and arrive at the conclusion that that's my desk in front of me. Nor do I need to in order to be justified in believing that my desk is there.

There are lots of things for which we have this sort of noninferential phenomenology. It's not just the way things go with the size, color, and orientation of surfaces -- I can look at a sequence of letters and figure out what word it is in basically the same way. People extend this to all sorts of other stuff. Apparently experienced chess players can see who's winning a chess game in this sort of way. People talk about moral perception working this way too.

It's examples like the chess thing that make me less impressed with this point, however. That's something that probably started out with inferential phenomenology earlier in the players' chess careers, as people considered the positions and the values of the pieces and arrived at a decision about who was winning. They've just done it so many times that it's become second nature to them and there's no inferential phenomenology. Same with words -- you start out doing Hooked On Phonics or something and puzzling them out. Then after a while it all works automatically.

If I had to bet, I'd bet that perception of physical objects is the same way too. The puzzling-out part just gave way to automatic knowledge long ago when we were little babies, so we don't remember it. If people want to say that perceptual knowledge is noninferential for adults but inferential for really little kids, that's cool. But sometimes it sounds like they really want to make claims about this sort of knowledge as a general category, regardless of the age of the perceiver, and then I'd want to say that perceptual knowledge just involves an inference we've gotten real good at so we don't have to think about it.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Why φ? Here's why

Those who are new to debates about practical rationality may find it annoying that we usually use φ and Ψ when we want schematic letters with which to discuss actions, rather than using p or q or f or any of the other schematic letters familiar from other areas of philosophy. φ and Ψ are harder to create on your keyboard and beginners who don't know any Greek often don't even know what they are. (Regarding the keyboard issue, I usually just search 'phi' or 'psi' in Google, then copy and paste.)

There's a good reason why those of us working in practical philosophy use these letters, though. It's fine to talk about believing that p, but when you talk about an agent p-ing, it sounds like he or she is urinating. Consider this passage from Bernard Williams' "Internal and External Reasons", in which I have replaced all the φs with p's:
But we should notice that an unknown element in S, D, will provide a reason for A to p only if p-ing is rationally related to D; that is to say, roughly, a project to p could be the answer to a deliberative question formed in part by D. If D is unknown to A because it is in the unconscious, it may well not satisfy this condition, although of course it may provide the reason why he p's, that is, may explain or help to explain his p-ing. In such cases, the p-ing may be related to D only symbolically.
If philosophers were forced to read passages like this out loud at conferences, juvenile tittering would interrupt everyone's train of thought and no progress on substantial questions about practical rationality could ever be made. (The letter f, it should be mentioned, would cause its own problems.)

Perhaps those in other areas of philosophy would be wise to use Greek letters. I've been told of a lecture on some topic at the intersection of metaphysics and the philosophy of language which collapsed into uncontrollable laughter when a p-ness entered into a complex relation with an a-ness.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Believing that p, when you believe that you're not justified

If somebody believes it's morally wrong to φ, it may still be right for them to φ. People can be mistaken about what it's morally wrong to do. We have a great example in the Huck Finn case, where the title character firmly believes that he is wrong to not send his friend Jim back to slavery, and does the right thing even when he believes it's wrong. There are certainly many more prosaic cases.

If somebody believes it's irrational to φ, I think (contra Michael Smith) that it may still be rational for them to φ. They may accept a bad theory of practical rationality. If Humeans are right about practical rationality, Kantians may falsely believe that they're acting wrongly in a variety of cases.

Now it's looking to me like justification for belief will have to go the same way. If I believe that I am unjustified in believing that p (or even that I am justified in believing not-p), I may still be justified in believing that p. I could merely be in the grips of a bad theory of epistemic justification. Maybe I just talked with a very convincing and charismatic external-world skeptic. That won't make me generally unjustified in my beliefs about the world. (If it does, the skeptic is in a better position than we usually take him to be!)

I think this conclusion would probably be a little more surprising to people, because it sounds like some kind of Moore's paradox variant. And since the mental states in question here are both beliefs (a belief about justification, and a belief that p) we might think that they're supposed to interact with each other in the mind of a rational agent, with one causing the other to be revised. One needs some controversial stuff from moral theory and the theory of practical rationality to get the beliefs about justification and the motivational elements to interact appropriately in the first two cases, and this difficulty is absent in the third case. But even if one wants to accuse me of an error of rationality somewhere in my belief set, it's not at all clear that I'm unjustified in believing that p. Maybe the mistake is somewhere else, like in my acceptance of the normative principle.

I actually want there to be something wrong with believing that p when you believe that you lack epistemic justification for p or believe that you have epistemic justification for not-p, because there's an argument I'd like to build that relies on things going that way. But I don't think it's going to work, for the reasons in the third paragraph. So tell me why I'm wrong!

Saturday, March 14, 2009


I just turned 29. It's been a good year -- awesome job in Singapore, paper accepted at Phil Review, Obama in the White House. The girl situation wasn't usually miserable and was occasionally awesome. The future looks bright.

Sunday, March 08, 2009


I felt inspired to make Parmenides an Obamicon. I was going to do Zeno, but Parmenides made the same claims about whether change was possible, and they're both Eleatics, and I could find better depictions of Parmenides' head.

Practicing without a license

Brian Leiter asks whom we most wish the media would stop referring to as a philosopher -- Ayn Rand, Jacques Derrida, or Leo Strauss. Derrida at least was hired to teach philosophy at the Sorbonne, and Strauss did his dissertation with Ernst Cassirer. Can't say anything like that for Rand.

My thinking on this is that when Derrida or Strauss is thought of as a philosopher, that's an embarrassment to philosophy and a problem for the humanities. But when Ayn Rand is thought of as a philosopher, that's a disaster for philosophy and a problem for the world. So I voted Rand.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

What's So Wrong About A Cat In A Bong?

Everybody seems to be angry at the stoner from Nebraska who put his kitten inside a large bong a few times while he smoked. The cat was in no danger from fire, as far as I know -- it just got high off of the marijuana. The dude's reason is kind of amusing: apparently he "told deputies 6-month-old Shadow was hyper and he was trying to calm her down." She seems to be mostly fine.

For my part, I don't see what the problem is. Assuming that human biology and cat biology are similar in the relevant respects, Shadow probably just had a good if slightly disorienting time in there and liked the way her cat food tasted afterwards. I mean, what are people so upset about here? Is it that marijuana is a "gateway drug" and the kitten will start snorting coke? That she'll drop out of school and have trouble keeping a job? Giving euphoria-inducing drugs to animals seems a fine thing to do.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

PEA Soup

I've just joined awesome ethics blog PEA Soup! It shouldn't change my blogging habits much -- posting here will continue at the same frequency it has over the last month or two. I just expect that once in a while I'll post things over there that I won't be embarrassed about having major figures in the profession see. At least, until somebody blows them up in comments. (I'm guessing that "somebody" will be Jamie Dreier at least twice.)

Monday, February 23, 2009

New Philosophy Rankings! With Useless Commentary

The new rankings of philosophy departments are out! Unfortunately, I don't pay attention to the who's-getting-hired-where business enough to say anything particularly insightful. So I'll just offer totally worthless commentary.

-NYU wins again. Congratulations, NYU.

-Yale continues its trend of moving 8 spots at a time. Unfortunately, since its last move was from #16 to #8 and there's no #0, there's nowhere to go but down.

-I was worried that my friends at Texas would fall out of the top 20 and Michigan would fall out of the top 5 due to various faculty losses (partially offset by gains) but fortunately that didn't come to pass.

-Pittsburgh moves from #5 to #4, a feat achieved by their basketball team on Feb. 2. And where are the basketball Panthers this week? #1! Clearly, the philosophers should follow the hoopsters' path to success. They need to defeat the #1 department (NYU) head-to-head, have the big guy at the #2 department (Jerry Fodor at Rutgers) get injured, and have the #3 department (Princeton) prove themselves incapable of defending anything.

On a less stupid note, I'm guessing that there are structural reasons why philosophy is a field where an observer from the outside would be especially surprised by the names at the very top (for example, there's only one Ivy in the top 5, compared to two Big East schools). Building a top-ranked philosophy department is cheaper and faster than building a top-ranked Chemistry or English department. Philosophy departments tend to be smaller, and they don't need expensive equipment like the chemists do. So if you're a dean who wants to build one spectacular department in a field everybody has heard of, you can get lots of bang for your buck by buying philosophers.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

I want a competitive friendship with animals

I'm writing a review of a Nietzsche anthology for Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. I just read the introduction, which ends with summaries of each papers in the volume. From the end of the last summary:
Lemm contends that gift-giving is an animal virtue and that it is in a competitive friendship with animals that there will be an enhancement of life.
Clearly, this view is totally awesome and correct. My life would be tremendously enhanced if I could have a competitive friendship with, say, a bear, where we see who can eat more things and dance better. (I guess it depends on the animal. A competitive friendship with a sea snake might not be as good for me.) I really look forward to reading the paper, and you can bet that I'll be sympathetic to the author's position.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

All Growed Up

For the first time I have a student who's working on a Masters degree and taking an independent study with me. Suddenly I'm the old responsible one sitting across the desk whom she looks to for guidance about her project.

I'm trying to remember every sort of mistake made in advising me over the years to make sure I don't do those, and all the things people did right to make sure I do those. So far it seems like I'm doing okay.

Also, I feel sort of like an authority figure, which is really weird for me.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Railway Tunnel

I've got sort of an odd new trolley problem, and I'm curious to hear what people think. Post your answers in comments.
You look uphill into a very long railway tunnel and see five men working in the middle of it. You see two of them stand up, hearing something at the far end of the tunnel. “It’s a train!” one of them shouts. “Run!”

The train appears in the distance, outside the far entrance of the tunnel. Next to you, there is a button on the wall that you can push to collapse the scaffolding that is over the far entrance. You can’t see the scaffolding, since it’s on the other side of the tunnel, but an indicator beside the button tells you that one man is working on it. You know that if you push the button, that man will fall to his death and his body will stop the train from going into the tunnel. Whether you push the button or not, you’re safe, since you’re outside the bottom of the tunnel and you can easily move aside.

You see the five workmen, now running down the tunnel as fast as they can. You know that they cannot get out. They are too much far from you, and the train will speed up as it goes down the steep slope.

There was an accident like this many years ago. The bodies of the men in that accident were crushed so badly that they were unrecognizable. You know that each of the five men you see in the tunnel will meet the same fate unless you push the button.

Do you push the button?

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Hobbes, and giving up your rights to the Constitution

I've been thinking about some ways to fix Hobbes's view so that you don't end up giving up all your rights to a sovereign who then has absolute power and can do awful things with impunity. Hobbes was concerned that if you don't give up all your rights to a single individual or body, your divided government will be riven by internal power struggles and you'll end up in another English Civil War. (A lot of Leviathan is a "How to not be in the English Civil War" manual.) Hobbes claimed that an absolute monarch would rule in the best interest of his subjects because his power was constituted by theirs. Historically, this consideration hasn't been especially successful in aligning the interests of absolute monarchs with their subjects.

So here's a way to start from Hobbes' basic premises about the state of nature and meet all his major desiderata while incorporating goodies like separation of powers and the structures of liberal democracy. Rather than getting out of the state of nature by giving up all your rights to a sovereign, give them all up to a form of government embodied in a clearly written Constitution, which defines the roles of various branches of government, lays out procedures for governance, and guarantees a bunch of rights to the subjects. You're also going to have to do some voting to figure out who will fill the offices at first, but Hobbes grants that you can do that in his account of how a commonwealth begins by institution.

From then on, regard the Constitution the way that Hobbes would want you to regard the sole pronouncement of an absolute monarch. If people are violating it, they're denying the sovereign's authority, putting them at a state of war with everyone else. Assuming that the Constitution is clearly written and there's an agreed-upon framework for interpreting it, I don't see why you couldn't achieve all of Hobbes' major desiderata. (There are some minor things you couldn't get -- he thinks an absolute monarchy is superior to democracy because the absolute monarch has an easier time making secret plans. But I'm sympathetic to Yglesias' argument that in some foreign policy contexts, it actually helps if everyone knows you're incapable of secrecy.)

This isn't to say that there aren't problems with this account of government. The point is just that as far as I can tell, it'd accomplish everything Hobbes really cares about, while building in some extra goodies.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Roar T!

I've been a fan of the Philosophical Lexicon since I was an undergraduate. If you've read it before, they've packaged the new 2008 entries in one place. This one had me laughing:
Roar T, n. Loud conversational alternative to Convention T; also known as "the disputational theory of truth."
I actually haven't read anything of Richard Rorty's work since freshman year, but I've heard enough to get it, and it's really a Tarski joke anyway.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Moral intuition and linguistic intuition

Here's a disanalogy between moral intuition and linguistic intuition (for example, intuitions about what a word means or whether a particular construction is grammatical). I'm sure that something like this is true, though I may not be talking about it right. And who knows, maybe it's more controversial than I think...

We can imagine a community where everybody across all times has the same moral intuitions, and they're all wrong. But we can't imagine a community where everybody across all times has the same linguistic intuitions, and they're all wrong. If the community of Spanish speakers regards it as intuitive that 'arroz' means 'rice' in Spanish, that's what 'arroz' means in Spanish. When we imagine them all using it to mean 'beef', we're just imagining a situation in which 'arroz' means beef in Spanish. However, if all Spanish speakers (or all Puritans, if we want to make this be a community of moral co-believers rather than a linguistic community) thought it was wrong to use birth control, there still might be nothing wrong with using birth control. This is because the linguistic intuitions of the community play a role in constituting the language, while the moral intuitions of the community do not constitute morality.

I'm just using intuition in the sense of 'pretheoretical judgment' here. Obviously if you say it's a presentation of necessary truth to your nous or something that'll mess up the example.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Have grant, will travel

A couple months ago, I applied for a grant to fund travel around America between May 10 and July 25 so that I could give talks on my research at a bunch of places. Today I got some news from the nice granting people here in Singapore saying that they like my application and they actually want to give me more money so I can give more talks! They haven't officially approved the grant yet, but things seem to be on track.

So I thought I'd just kind of open this up. If you want me to come over to your philosophy department and give a talk defending utilitarianism or the Humean theory of motivation, send me an email (my address is at the top of this page). The papers are yet to be written, but I'd be happy to discuss stuff in more detail or send along a draft in a month or two when I've got them ready. And if you're at a place with an undergraduate philosophy club, I'd be happy to give them a reading of "Possible Girls", which never fails to amuse the kids. I know summer isn't the best time for this sort of thing, but if it turns out that your institution can host a talk in mid-June or the teens of July, that'll be wonderful.

Assuming the grant money comes through as expected, I'll be able to pay my own way. If you want to feed me something interesting, though, I won't turn it down!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Future selves and procrastination

I'm wondering if I'd manage my time more efficiently and procrastinate less if I saw my future selves the way I see other people.

Failing to do some task today so that it ends up having to be done by somebody else strikes me as more shameful than failing to do some task today so that I have to do it tomorrow. So I'm much more likely to slack off if I'm going to pay the price in the future than if somebody else will. Maybe if I felt similar obligations towards Neiltomorrow as I do to, say, my colleagues, I'd get more things done today.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Silence and John Kulvicki's stable property view of sounds

In "The Nature of Noise", John Kulvicki defends a 'stable property' view of sounds, on which sounds are "dispositions of objects to vibrate in response to being stimulated." They aren't the compression waves that pass through the air -- they're the dispositional properties of objects that make them vibrate and produce those waves in response to thwacking. (I give him points for using the word 'thwacking' liberally in the paper.) As Kulvicki says, this would make sounds a lot like colors, at least on some fairly intuitive views of color.

Two things. The minor point is that we're going to have to have a really complex view of thwacking in order to make this all work out. Intuitively, the sound of Roy Sorenson is the sound he makes when he talks, not the sound that he makes when you thwack him, unless you interpret his speech as some kind of internal self-thwacking. Kulvicki's distinction between having sounds and making sounds, which he uses to deal with cases like audio equipment, doesn't seem to do the necessary work here. While I suppose I could get into saying that my stereo makes sounds it doesn't really have, it sounds weirder to say that Sorenson is making sounds he doesn't really have when he talks.

But my bigger objection has to do with silence. It seems pretty straightforward that when it is silent, there are no sounds. This goes along perfectly well with the view that sounds are compression waves. But it's big trouble for the view that sound is a stable dispositional property of objects. On the stable property view, silence is compatible with there being lots and lots of sounds! Objects retain their dispositions even if those dispositions aren't being activated, and the presence of lots of drums or other objects with wave-making dispositions will make it the case that there are lots of sounds, even if nobody is beating the drums and all is totally silent.

Ending the paper JFPs / Proceedings And Addresses

If you're an APA member, they mail you 4 paper copies of Jobs for Philosophers and three book-shaped copies of the Proceedings and Addresses of the APA (one for each division's annual meeting) each year. I imagine that a big chunk of the APA membership fee goes towards funding the creation and distribution of all this paper.

In our internet-enabled times, I don't see good reason for mailing out all this stuff. The electronic versions of the Proceedings and Addresses are just plain easier to use -- you can instantly keyword search them with Ctrl-F and remind yourself when the session you want to heckle is meeting. If there's some way to push the APA to move to an online-only format, I'd be happy to do my part in the pushing. I'm guessing that the money we save by doing this could be put to better use creating public goods of some kind or another. Or you could just cut the membership fees.

Possible reasons that we're sticking with paper:
-There are some ads in the Proceedings and Addresses that may not translate very well to internet form (the JFP is all classified ads which should translate just fine to the internet with no revenue loss.) But I can't imagine that the revenue stream here is big enough to justify huge amounts of paper.

-Old-timers may not like the internet. But is that really such a big constituency these days? And if they don't like looking at screens, will they really be so unhappy to use their printers and print stuff?

-Paper copies of the Proceedings and Addresses are also used as programs at the conferences, and then economies of scale make it not such a bad deal to print out additional copies and mail them to everyone. I'd be surprised if the economics worked out this way, but I guess it's possible. Then I'd be interested in seeing if there's some way to get more streamlined programs.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Redesign almost finished / Turn Into

This blog has been redesigned! Since I've got a stable political blog now, I'll be able to turn this place into a proper philosophy blog. New features include the snazzy dynamic blogroll on the right (still incomplete, I have to add back all the people who were on the old one). That should make it easier for me to figure out when people are posting so that I can read/comment/respond here. Also, I've got my currently-published-or-accepted papers up there if anyone wants to download them. Any further design suggestions will be appreciated.

Apropos of nothing really, here's the song that's been obsessing me for the last couple weeks -- the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "Turn Into". There's so much cool stuff going on in this song that I've been playing it over and over again to get my fill of the acoustic part and the electric part and all the different melodies. This is sort of the 'Y Control' of the second album, which is a bit more lush and melodic than the first. (Some would say the 'Maps', and I dig on "they don't love you like I love you" as much as the next soft-indie-rock wuss, but Y Control was always my favorite.)

Sadly the video isn't synced to the audio right, so you see Karen O sing at you with a meaningful look in her eyes 4 seconds after you've heard the words. Well, her bouncy dancing still works for me.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Cass <3 Samantha

Add this to the list of things I didn't know: new OIRA head and legal academia heavyweight Cass Sunstein is married to Samantha Power! Apparently they met through the Obama campaign and got married this past July 4 in Power's native County Cork. I also didn't know that Sunstein had previously been in a relationship with Martha Nussbaum.

See, this is why we publish.