Tuesday, May 19, 2015

First and final post

Back in July 2004, when I was a grad student at UT-Austin, I started a blog called "The Ethical Werewolf". I wrote mostly about politics and philosophy, since that's most of what I spent my time thinking about, apart from smart ladies from various possible worlds. The blog unexpectedly propelled me into 2008 Democratic primary politics, thanks to interest from a bunch of smart young bloggers who are now superstar journalists at Vox. Later on, it basically became my academic homepage, with occasional posts outlining my travel plans and making silly philosophy jokes. I also wrote at a lot of other places with a lot of nice people, most notably at Donkeylicious with Nicholas Beaudrot. 

I called the blog "The Ethical Werewolf" in part because I've always identified with helpful wolfy characters (Oz from Buffy, Perrin Aybara from Wheel of Time, and Remus Lupin from Harry Potter who is a role model for teaching). It also had to do with my views concerning moral motivation. David Brink once emailed me about why I gave my blog that name, and after making the Buffy / Harry Potter references, here's what I told him:
...I think humans have a lot more in common with the higher mammals, at least as far as the psychology of motivation is concerned, than most philosophers thinking about motivation allow. This is a basically Humean view -- we're all passion-driven, desire-belief-motivated creatures.  The differences between humans and animals aren't to be found in the structure of motivation -- they concern other things like our capacity for abstract concepts which allows us to have a theory of mind, and how much working memory we have.  Our motivational continuity with the animals is kind of werewolfy.  I also think that if an animal had a strong desire to avert others' suffering and promote their pleasure, it would be a perfectly good example of a moral agent. And that's what I am -- a mostly-animal moral agent, or to be poetic, an ethical werewolf. (If I actually turned into a big powerful beast under the full moon and did socially beneficial deeds, that would be awesome, but unfortunately I haven't been bitten by the right person yet.)
Christine Korsgaard attacks a "picture of the virtuous human being as a sort of Good Dog, whose desires and inclinations have been so perfectly trained that he always does what he ought to do spontaneously and with tail-wagging cheerfulness and enthusiasm". But that's exactly the kind of animal I aspire to be! And I guess the ultimate Good Dog would be an Ethical Werewolf.

I still like the name, the view about motivation, and the fictional werewolves. But now I'm planning to start blogging again, I'm thinking it's best to set up an eponymous blog that's better integrated with the new Neil Sinhababu academic homepage. So I'm putting this up as the final Ethical Werewolf post, and the first post at the new Neil Sinhababu blog. If you're looking for the kinds of posts you used to see at The Ethical Werewolf ten years ago, that's the place to go!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

"The Backward Clock, Truth-Tracking and Safety" in Journal of Philosophy

I got some good news a little while ago from the Journal of Philosophy, which accepted "The Backward Clock, Truth-Tracking and Safety", a note from me and fellow Singapore philosopher John Williams.

There's a wacky story behind the paper. 2012 was my first time teaching intro epistemology, and I wanted a new Gettier case on the exam. So I modified the old stopped clock case so that the clock was running backwards, and asked the students what Nozick's truth-tracking view of knowledge said about it. I expected Nozick's view to correctly say that it wasn't knowledge. But as I graded, students showed me that Nozick's view incorrectly treated your belief about the time as knowledge! So I went back and re-graded all the papers I'd already graded. I was generous, because I'd messed it up too.

That would've been the end of it if my student Bernadette Chin hadn't talked about the case with his student Min Ying Lee, who discussed it with him. John (who teaches at Singapore Management University) emailed Weng Hong since he usually teaches epistemology, and then the message came to me. Soon John was telling me that he was abandoning Nozick's view because of the example, and I should write a paper on it! But I've never written anything about this, so I suggested co-authoring. To my surprise, he sent me a short Analysis-length version of the paper a few weeks later.

Two years later, we're revising this for our JPhil R&R and watching it cut through every analysis of knowledge we put in front of it. Every safety condition we've found in the literature is useless against this stupid clock! You can check it out and tell us what you think.

Section 1 has the backward clock example. Section 2 of the paper displays John's mastery of the literature; you'll see more of my handiwork in the basis-related stuff in section 3. When you're a young guy doing creative stuff outside your area, it's nice to have a co-author who published his first epistemology paper before you were born. 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Eternal return tickets for one-way fares?

Does Uber have a customer loyalty program? I'd ride it a lot if I could reach Ubermensch status.