Monday, February 28, 2011

Freakonomics and geeks

This article in the Boston Review is well worth reading, although not really packed with surprises. One part that caught my eye is this:
Posner brings the economics profession to task. The embrace of rational expectations and the efficient-markets hypothesis, and the tendency of the discipline to reward impressively sophisticated and utterly implausible models, contributed to the ideational environment in both business and government that led us off this cliff.
The reference to the "impressively sophisticated and utterly implausible" reminds me of some things that have been said about David Benatar's book Better Never to Have Been (see the discussion at The HEP Spot, for instance, as well as Christopher Cowley's paper.) Here's part of the description of the book from amazon:
David Benatar argues that coming into existence is always a serious harm. Although the good things in one's life make one's life go better than it otherwise would have gone, one could not have been deprived by their absence if one had not existed. Those who never exist cannot be deprived. However, by coming into existence one does suffer quite serious harms that could not have befallen one had one not come into existence. Drawing on the relevant psychological literature, the author shows that there are a number of well-documented features of human psychology that explain why people systematically overestimate the quality of their lives and why they are thus resistant to the suggestion that they were seriously harmed by being brought into existence. The author then argues for the 'anti-natal' view---that it is always wrong to have children---and he shows that combining the anti-natal view with common pro-choice views about foetal moral status yield a "pro-death" view about abortion (at the earlier stages of gestation). Anti-natalism also implies that it would be better if humanity became extinct. Although counter-intuitive for many, that implication is defended, not least by showing that it solves many conundrums of moral theory about population.
"Although counter-intuitive for many" is as fine an understatement as you are likely to read today.

My undergraduate degree was in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, and involved taking courses in all three of these subjects. After a year of this we had to choose just eight more courses to take, and these did not need to be in more than two of the three subjects. I dropped Economics, because it seemed to offer little more than incoherence. Most of the textbooks in the subject taught that Keynesianism was demonstrably false. The alternative (was presented to me as though it) involved monetarism, which was also (supposedly) demonstrably false. I was given a newspaper article with the headline "Monetarism is Dead" explaining why this policy was impracticable (and had been effectively abandoned by the officially monetarist government), as well as a long mathematical demonstration that it was based on faulty a priori reasoning too. So no one -- neither the Keynesians nor the anti-Keynesians -- seemed really credible, and the mathematics involved was all based on highly implausible assumptions of perfect information, pure self-interest, etc. No economist was so stupid as to insist that these assumptions were really true of the world, but they generally held that this did not matter because things tended to go that way. So the results of economic calculations should be roughly accurate. I think there is some reason to doubt that this is correct (and some economists share this skeptical view), which is why I think undergraduates should be taught economic history before they study economic theory, but even if we do put our faith in a priori  economics, there remains the question, Whose economics? The Keynesians or the anti-Keynesians (or the neo-Keynesians)? I remain skeptical about the whole business.

Anyway, the point I want to make is less about economics and more about what might be called geekiness or the love of the cool. The sophisticated but implausible is often found to be exciting by a certain kind of person. It is pretty much the opposite of what Cora Diamond has in mind when she talks about the realistic spirit. Philosophy done in the spirit of Diamond's work can be sophisticated and exciting too, but it is only going to be implausible in a limited sense, i.e. to someone in the grip of a theoretical picture. That might sound like begging the question, but Diamond's views (and those like them) do not have the kind of profound (or common sense) implausibility that one (seemingly--I still haven't read it) gets in Benatar's book, for instance. The idea that Wall Street does not need more regulation is commonsensically implausible too, it seems to me.

So really I have two points. The first is that, if Posner is right, then a geeky preference for the unrealistic has done real and immense harm to the world economy. The second is that maybe we could change this kind of preference, or ensure that disciplines are less dominated by people with such preferences, if we educated people differently.

I'm not sure about this, but I wonder whether courses in the humanities might serve as a useful kind of gatekeeper. Maybe that would be unfair. And maybe it wouldn't work because the humanities themselves are already influenced by geeky thinking--"there is no such thing as truth," for instance, seems both implausible and defended by sophisticated arguments, and it is an idea familiar to most professors of literature. But now I sound like a grumpy old man railing against ideas from France and the 1960s.

Another alternative might be to discourage (not ban or abandon, but draw back from) a priori reasoning and theoretical models and encourage empirically-based work instead. But that is too easily misunderstood as a rejection of the humanities. Empirical work without empiricism might be what I mean, so that ordinary experience and the kind of experience captured in literature would count as important too.               

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Best films of 2010

I finally watched The Social Network last night (the DVD from Netflix has been sitting at home for a week or so). It's pretty good, and worth seeing, but I'm surprised it's being called the best film of the year. So I checked Roger Ebert's picks from 2010:

  1. The Social Network
  2. The King's Speech (OK to good--almost nothing happens, but it's all very well done.)
  3. Black Swan (disappointing--once the hallucinations begin it's hard to regard anything you 'see' as worth caring about, and it's all very humorless)
  4. I Am Love (stylish, but not much more than that unless it's intended as Christian propaganda -- as in God is love -- showing that sins get punished. I can't remember the details, but I remember this thought crossing my mind when I saw it.)
  5. Winter's Bone (well made sadness)
  6. Inception (merely OK, in a Matrix-y kind of way)
  7. The Secret in Their Eyes (very good murder mystery and love story, which reflects also on Argentina's past)
  8. The American (a less stylish Day of the Jackal without the historical interest and with egregious sex plus a couple of pointless twists--rubbish)
  9. Kids Are All Right (OK, not quite sure what the point was, but the film stopped before the end when I saw it, and no one was around to fix it. Frustrating.)
  10. The Ghost Writer (like a good TV thriller/drama)
Looking at this list of 2010 movies, I would pick these instead:
  1. Dogtooth (surprisingly violent and incest-filled, but with images and ideas that burn onto your memory)
  2. North Face (German adventure story--a ripping yarn)
  3. Get Him to the Greek (surprisingly funny, but I had low expectations)
  4. Kick-Ass (comic-book type comedy)
  5. Iron Man 2 (comic-book type comedy)
  6. Agora (philosophy, history, and Rachel Weisz) 
  7. The Social Network
  8. 44 Inch Chest (British gangster film)
  9. The Girl Who Played With Fire (excellent TV-style murder story, saves you reading the book which is said to be badly written and very long)
  10. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (ditto)
Probably my favorite film of the year was Restrepo, but I'm sticking to fiction here.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Killing babies again

Peter Baron at Philosophical Investigations (which seems to be much less Wittgensteinian than I had hoped) asks:
"When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with the prospects of a happy life, the amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed," argues Peter Singer.  What's morally wrong with this view?
He gives several answers, but isn't the right one: because that's not how babies are made? Maybe that's not a moral objection, but it seems pretty relevant.

God and politics

This piece at The Partially Examined Life on New Atheism struck me. Not because the piece itself is odd, but because of this quote:
Political point scoring aside, serious talk that God is somehow involved in the daily workings of this world and that public life should be oriented toward pleasing Him and following His will has almost vanished. The New Atheism has succeeded in shifting broad attitudes towards public talk of this kind from one of mild amusement or irritation to one of outright fear and derision and has done so inside of just a decade. 
(From this article by Paul Pardi in The Huffington Post.)

Really? My immediate thought was of a series of YouTube videos I saw recently, possibly on Facebook (I can't find them now), showing various politicians talking about God in precisely this kind of way (as I recall). In the absence of a link to what I actually have in mind, try this, this, and this. There is plenty of God talk around in conservative politics, and Obama has been known to mention his faith from time to time too.

Presumably, Pardi would say either that the things people like Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and the Tea Party say about God do not constitute "serious talk" or else that their talk is met with "outright fear and derision." Defining what you oppose as not serious would surely be cheating, though. And since the Tea Party, etc. are regarded with fear and derision this seems like a better approach for him to take.

But does this fear and derision come from the influence of New Atheists? That just seems very implausible to me. The criticism of Glenn Beck here makes little mention of New Atheism. The same goes for the reasons for objecting to Palin that can be found here. And criticisms of the Tea Party don't focus on New Atheist themes either. If the religious views of people on the visible far right (i.e. not the far right in the sense of underground neo-Nazi terrorists) are regarded as irrational or crude, this is of a piece with how their political, economic, and moral views tend to be regarded. If the New Atheists deserve any credit for extremists being regarded as frighteningly or laughably extreme, then they at least surely need to share this credit with the likes of Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, and Jon Stewart. Not to mention common sense.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Spoiler alert

Inspired by MKR's comment, here's my cruder version of an analysis of secondary sense:

  1. words are used with their usual, primary meaning
  2. but in a novel, perhaps seemingly meaningless, context
  3. in such a way that no paraphrase is possible without loss of meaning or sense  
Wittgenstein gives the example of saying that 'Wednesday' is fat and 'Tuesday' thin. The idea is that the word 'Wednesday' really is thought to be fat, even though it cannot be literally fat, and that in saying it is fat one does not simply mean that it is a long word, or involves forming the mouth into a fattish shape, or anything else. One means simply (i.e. solely) that 'Wednesday' is fat.

There is a good chance that this will just strike you as nonsense, but consider the Kinks' singing about Lola's "dark brown voice." Lola's voice is not literally dark brown--it couldn't be. But the words 'dark brown' convey something that would be lost if they had sung instead of a 'masculine in a 1970s kind of way voice' instead. Whoever first used the word 'blue' to mean sad seems to me to have been doing the same kind of thing. If it's true that all reading used to be done aloud, then the first person to read silently was perhaps using the word 'reading' in a secondary way as well (Wittgenstein says that calculating in the head involves a secondary use of the word 'calculating'). Once you get the idea, I think, there's a tendency to see secondary sense (or secondary uses of words) everywhere. 

This makes me want to interrogate cases that I am tempted to think of as secondary. It also makes me wonder how we can distinguish between nonsense and secondary sense. Is secondary sense just nonsense that we like? When Wittgenstein talks about excluding certain forms of words from our language by calling them nonsense, would he equally say that one can welcome a form or use of words into the language by calling it secondary? And where else might we find nonsense/secondary sense?

Consider the spoiler. According to Wikipedia: 
 spoiler is an automotive aerodynamic device whose intended design function is to 'spoil' unfavorable air movement across a body of a vehicle in motion. Spoilers on the front of a vehicle are often called air dams, because in addition to directing air flow they also reduce the amount of air flowing underneath the vehicle which reduces aerodynamic lift. Spoilers are often fitted to race and high-performance sports cars, although they have become common on passenger vehicles as well. Some spoilers are added to cars primarily for styling purposes and have either little aerodynamic benefit or even make the aerodynamics worse.    
Spoilers on passenger vehicles are meant to make them look more sporty by adding something that race cars have. So they are meant to be the very thing that race cars have. Yet they are used in a context in which they have little to none of the intended effect, and can even have the opposite effect. They make the aerodynamics worse. This is all only like a use of language, and I'm not sure what the automotive styling equivalent of a metaphor would be, but it seems to me possible to regard the use of spoilers on passenger vehicles as a kind of nonsense. And I can just about imagine a lover of such things insisting that it was instead an inspired secondary use. Perhaps sense is in the eye of the beholder, so to speak.

One more example: the stars on the crest of Manchester City Football Club:   

The crest was introduced in 1997 and has always been controversial (i.e. mocked) because of the stars. Usually stars like these indicate major trophies won. For instance, England have a single star on their shirts to commemorate the time they won the World Cup. Manchester City's stars, on the other hand, "constitute a design element that relate a more continental feel to the design," according to the club's official statement when the crest was unveiled. Wikipedia sheds light on this continental feel and its likely origin: 
The first team to adopt a star was Juventus, who added one above their crest in 1958 to represent their tenth Serie A title. This was an extension of the existing convention by which the reigning champions are entitled to display the scudetto on their shirts for the following season. The star was later formally adopted by some organisations as a symbol for ten titles.

Brazil added three stars above their crest after winning their third World Cup in 1970. Italy did likewise in 1982. All world champions have since followed suit.
It seems likely that the club liked the "winny" look of the stars. So (if this is right) they wanted the significance of the stars, or that the stars convey, without claiming to have literally won anything of that significance. Again, this looks like a case of 'aesthetic nonsense'. But I can imagine a City fan insisting that the stars are apt (perhaps because the team "are winners to me" or some such thing).

I expect that this kind of analysis of aesthetics could be (and quite possibly is) done quite widely. It wouldn't prove that people who like spoilers or City's crest-designers have bad taste. But it would allow for a case to be made that went beyond "I just don't like it."

Monday, February 21, 2011

Haidt at VMI

Jonathan Haidt spoke at VMI today about hive psychology. As I understood him, and as I recall, here's what he said:

Why does selflessness occur?

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James describes conversion experiences in which people lose their sense of ego and want to give their lives to God. Emerson describes a similar-sounding loss of egotism and sense of oneness with God brought about by being in a forest. Others have supposedly similar "peak experiences" in all kinds of circumstances, or at least in a variety of places. Warriors sometimes lose their sense of individual identity, as J. Glenn Gray reports. Soldiers marching in formation, dancers at raves, people engaged in religious rituals, people who work for the same company and exercise together, crowds at sporting events, and others, all supposedly feel a similar sense of oneness with the group.

Haidt sees this as connected with religion, ethics, and politics. He also regards human beings as the only species to have found a way to fake the hive mentality that comes naturally to ants and bees, in which the individual is little more than an organ of the larger body that is the group. In humans, though, some degree of self-interest, if perhaps only in some members of the group, always remains. Self-interest has obvious survival value, but members of a group might increase their chances of survival if some are prepared to sacrifice for the good of all. So hive psychology makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. And that's why selflessness occurs.

A good leader, then, will do things that create a sense of membership in a group, a sense of all for one and one for all. Charisma helps, and being seen to be trustworthy and loyal to the group, prepared to make sacrifices on its behalf, is helpful also. But so can be less obvious things, like getting the people you want to follow you to exercise or dance together.

All this seemed to me to be interesting and very relevant to VMI, which is kind of like one big hive. But there is a lot going on here, about religion, ethics, politics, psychology, and biology. What does it all really mean?

I have no quarrel with the leadership lessons Haidt draws. These strike me as an empirical matter--if you can get workers to work better by having them exercise together then it might be good business to do so. Haidt said nothing about the ethics of doing so, and whether it works or not is something a philosopher cannot answer.

In terms of religion, I think we get little insight from all this. Maybe religion has survival value, maybe not. If it does, this doesn't tell us much about what religion is, whether (any of) it's true or not, etc. Nor does anything about ethics seem to follow.

Where there might be an interesting moral to draw is in connection with politics. The hive mentality seems best suited to rather simplistic or non-rational kinds of belief. Hives, like crowds and mobs, don't handle nuance very well. "Yes we can!" and "Drill, baby, drill!" can be chanted, but more sophisticated ideas don't fit the hive mentality. Hence the absurdity of one of my favorite pieces of graffiti: "War in the Gulf? Think it through, then act." It's hard to argue with the reasonableness of the last part of this, but it doesn't seem slogan-y enough for graffiti. It might be the very reasonableness, the intellectual sophistication that comes from wanting to track the truth, that makes liberals (here used in the Enlightenment sense, not as a euphemism for the left) unpopular with the hive-minded. Hence perhaps the lack of anything equivalent to Fox News for liberals. You could  have something like a Stalinist version of Fox News, but there's no market for it.* And maybe a hive-ish liberalism is somehow a contradiction in terms.

Maybe none of this goes much beyond Plato's political psychology, but Haidt has some interesting data, and maybe more than just that.  

*UPDATE: If this makes it sound as though I think Obama is a Stalinist of some kind, then I have expressed myself badly. To paraphrase Augustine: What, then, do I mean? So long as no one asks me then I know. But if someone asks me to explain it, then I don't know.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Political nonsense and secondary sense

People's thinking about political matters often seems tangled. For instance, Morrissey's rejection of David Cameron's being a fan of The Smiths seems to combine opposition to animal cruelty with opposition to monarchy and the general socio-economic system that goes with it. This isn't necessarily a mistake, but it might partly explain why some people in Britain are so opposed to fox hunting, while no one in the United States seems to care about it at all. I'm sure some defenders of hunting rights in the US are also motivated in part by their dislike of "Yankees," or "liberal elites," or "do-gooder hippies," etc. So there's the hunting itself, which people might support or oppose for various reasons, and then also the symbolic value or social meaning of hunting, which also stirs emotions for and against it. I'm not sure how far we can separate the two, since it's hard to see how we can understand a practice without understanding its role or place in our lives. But it seems a good idea to try to keep the two apart (as much as we can without distorting the facts) in thinking about the issues.

I wonder whether something similar is involved in understanding the strange beliefs many people seem to have about evolution, global climate change, Obama's "real" country of birth, and so on. There's a good post about these shibboleths of the Republican Party by John Quiggin at Crooked Timber. He writes:
My feeling (derived largely from observations on climate change and creationism, which raise similar questions) is that we can distinguish numerous different belief states that go along with birtherist answers to opinion poll questions. There are lots of nuances, but most are combinations of the following

  • A conspiracy-theoretic view of the world in which liberal elites (a term encompassing Democrats, unions, schoolteachers, scientists, academics and many others) are plotting to undermine the American way of life and replace it with some unspecified, but awful alternative. In this case, answers to these questions reflect actual beliefs
  • Partisanship as suggested by Weigel in which Republicans choose to give the most negative answer possible about Obama as an affirmation of tribal identity.
  • Doublethink in which people are aware that in some mundane sense Obama was born in Hawaii, but also believe that Republican ideology is true and implies the birtherist answer
  • Conformism, in which people know the truth but give the culturally preferred answer, or choose some evasive form of words, as with John Boehner recently.

The four possibilities listed here might be characterized as (in order) stupidity, lying, nonsense, and something like quibbling. But I wonder whether the last two might also, in some cases, be understood as cases of what Wittgenstein calls secondary uses of words. So the sentences "Obama was born in Kenya" and "Obama is a Muslim" are not believed in their literal sense, but are regarded as having a kind of symbolic value, and perhaps even as expressing a kind of truth other than the literal kind.

I am not suggesting that this justifies nonsense of this kind. I'm just trying to understand how so much bull is taken in and spouted by so many people. Perhaps we can understand the phenomenon better if we think of it as a (bad) kind of religious belief. And I think Wittgenstein's thinking is often helpful when trying to understand religious language and belief. But maybe 'doublethink' is a better term after all.

I might also need to do more to distinguish symbolic thinking from thinking that uses words in a secondary sense. They aren't the same thing. Morrissey might be failing to analyze the issues as much as he might, but he doesn't seem to be in the shibboleth business exactly. But I still feel as though there is a connection here that might be usefully articulated.

Or is this feeling an illusion?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Public Enemies

The new book by Bernard-Henri Levy and Michel Houellebecq was pre-ordered for me as a gift over a year ago, so it's fair to say I've been looking forward to it for some time. I'm grateful for the gift, of course, but I have to say I was a bit disappointed. I get the impression that the two (or their agents) cooked up the idea as an easy way to make money. Perhaps they also wanted more publicity, and to beef up their reputations a little, Levy by association with a bad boy and Houellebecq by association with a real philosopher. Who knows. There is no sense of animosity between the two, though, despite the title of the book and the cover illustration of them dueling with pens. What there is is a lot of griping about reviewers and casual references to literary and philosophical works that, presumably, they don't mind readers believing they have read. Name-dropping, in other words. I almost stopped reading about 20 or 30 pages in.

What got me through it was skipping the parts by Levy. I can't say they aren't worth reading, since I didn't read them, but I found that this made the book bearable and even worthwhile for me. Houellebecq talks about moving from Pink Floyd and Pascal (whom he continues to admire, I think) to the Velvet Underground, Dostoevsky, and Kafka. So that's good. And he's a big fan of Schopenhauer, which is also good. He's generally interesting without either trying too hard to be provoking or saying anything really deep or memorable.

The closest he gets to that is when he says, on p. 225: "What is humor, after all, but shame at having felt a genuine emotion?" This is arresting, but mostly, it seems to me, because it is so hard to find even a grain of truth in it. There is humor in recognizing a shameful truth. Homer Simpson is funny, at least partly, because we can see ourselves in him despite (or even because of) his obvious buffoonery. But if we ever feel genuinely (or perhaps I should say purely) sad or happy or afraid or angry, does this ever prompt shame? And, if so, is this funny? It sounds as though he is saying that it is the genuineness of the emotion that causes the shame. Because we so rarely feel genuine emotions? Maybe. But if that is ever funny (and I can sort of imagine its being smiled at) it hardly seems to be the whole or the essence of humor. Perhaps the translation is to blame.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

What is atheism?

I think it's hard to define 'agnostic' and 'atheist' well. Agnostics are often said to be people who think we can't know whether God exists or not, but this means that a great many believers count as agnostics (because they insist their belief is necessarily a matter of faith, not knowledge). It seems to me that agnosticism is more a matter of not being sure what you believe, or just having no beliefs either way about God.

Atheism is harder though. At In Living Color, Jean Kazez writes that "new atheists" like Dawkins and Harris are really anti-theists, unlike most atheists, who are more just skeptical, and might appreciate that religion offers people some good things. But if you are an atheist rather than an agnostic, don't you have to reject theism? You might not reject it rudely or with much confidence, but I think you have to reject it to count as an atheist. That doesn't mean you reject theists, of course, and perhaps that is what Kazez and Julian Baggini (whom she cites) have in mind. Or they might just mean that normal atheists do reject theism, but not as much as Dawkins, et al., do. And they seem to think that this is a good thing, since Dawkins (in their opinion and mine) goes too far.

Speaking of Baggini and a talk he gave, Kazez says:
Atheists come to be overly anti-theist, he said, when they don't try to understand what religion offers people. It doesn't so much offer doctrine as it offers practices --many positive, like expressing gratitude before meals, and creates communities.
This could be read as saying that religion consists primarily in practices or that what is good about it consists primarily in practices. But atheists can engage in these practices too, can't they? Unless the practices include things like saying sincerely that you believe in God, but then doctrine comes in again.

If religion is mostly practice but theism and atheism are beliefs, then atheists can be (to a large extent) religious. But that seems wrong. So should we think of atheism as a kind of practice, or as non-engagement in a range of practices? That seems promising to me. But it raises the question why atheists who see value in these practices do not engage in them. And the answer to that seems to be that the distinction between doctrine and practice breaks down here (or somewhere, anyway).

And maybe that is where Dawkins and co. go wrong. If there is no sharp distinction to be made between doctrine and practice and if, therefore, there is no sharp cut-off point between theism and atheism, then the kind of black-and-white thinking that says you are either a loony (who might as well worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Russell's teapot) or a Bright seems insufficiently motivated. It seems like a difference of taste masquerading as a difference of insight. But I'm not sure how sharply we can distinguish taste from insight either.  


Thursday, February 10, 2011

This one's from the hip

It's probably not wise to post ideas that are not properly researched or thought out, but then again this is only a blog. I sort of think that half-baked (but not necessarily worthless) ideas are what it's for. So here goes.

I'm sitting in on a seminar with Tal Brewer on the philosophy of action, which is a terrific experience. Consequently I'm reading and trying to think about philosophy of action quite a bit, and am likely to blog about it or else not blog, since I only have so much time. This week I re-read Davidson's "Actions, Reasons, and Causes" (page references below are to this paper as it appears in his Essays on Actions and Events). My impression is that many people object to his claim that reasons are causes because they think of causes in a rather mechanical sense. But I wonder whether this isn't a mis-reading.

Davidson (p. 3) is interested in “the relation between a reason and an action when the reason explains the action by giving the agent’s reason for doing what he did.” On p. 12 he says that “A primary reason for an action is its cause,” where a primary reason consists of a pro-attitude and a belief. On p. 17 he considers the objection to this view that we know causes by observation but our reasons for acting as we do non-observationally. But, he says (p. 18), “the only question is whether these oddities [involving first-person knowledge] prove that reasons do not cause, in any ordinary sense at least, the actions that they rationalize.” The ordinary sense he has in mind seems to relate to the word ‘because’ (see p. 9), which is a pretty broad sense (it might cover all four of Aristotle’s ‘causes’, for instance). So one question I have is whether Davidson is really saying anything precise enough to be helpful (or criticize-able) here. On pp. 9-10 he elaborates on the issue of ‘because’ by saying that, “When we ask why someone acted as he did, we want to be provided with an interpretation.” An interpretation doesn’t sound like an efficient cause, but it might be a cause in the ordinary sense. It certainly answers the question ‘Why?’ I’m not sure how far this takes us beyond common sense and/or Anscombe though.

The last objection Davidson considers to his argument (pp. 18-19) is that there is something wrong with talking about the causes of actions at all. I’m not sure I follow what Davidson says in the final paragraph, but his initial point seems to be that it can’t be true that actions are identical with bodily movements, that these bodily movements have causes, and yet that the actions do not have causes. So far so good, but I wonder whether he has missed the point of the objection (or perhaps Melden, to whom he is responding, made it badly). I would think that an action is a bodily movement under some particular description. So the man playing a tune on a squeaky pump might perform exactly the same bodily movements as a man pumping poison into a house full of Nazis, but their actions are different. Presumably the mere movements have causes in the brain, etc., but in what sense might an action (understood as movements under a particular description) have a cause? Would the agent be caused to conceive of his movements under that description? Or is it not the conceiving or particular understanding that is caused but rather the movements-under-that-description? I think I can make sense of the question “Why do you take yourself to be playing a tune?”, so there might be a ‘because’ here, but it surely won’t be the same as the answer to the question “Why are you playing a tune?” And the answer to the question “What are the causes of the movements we observe in this man’s body?” might be different again. I suspect that the problem is that people are inclined to think of causes as efficient causes within the body. And actions do not appear to have these. But if Davidson means ‘cause’ in a much broader sense then this criticism seems to pass him by because what he is saying has so little substance. Reasons give a because, i.e. they explain why someone did something. But didn’t we know this at the very beginning of the essay (i.e. its first sentence)?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

We are as yet uncertain of the effects the recent crisis will have.

I just received an email announcing this conference:
CfP: 7th CEU conference in Social Sciences:
The Normative Significance of the Crisis
Chair: Andres Moles (, Central European University
We are as yet uncertain of the effects the recent crisis will have. We have even less certainty about the extent to which it will challenge some of our normative views about what the global order should be or about how we should organize domestic political institutions. The panel reflects on how recent changes in the political arena impact on our normative views, and how our normative views can direct whatever changes need to be made to existing institutions and practices.
The organizers provide hotel accommodation (two nights) and meals for all presenters,
Refer to for further enquiries. Abstracts should be sent to the panel chair (
Deadline for paper proposals: March 1, 2011.
More about the conference:
Is Franz Kafka writing calls for papers now?

(If you have no idea what I'm talking about the following information might help: 1) I'm a little punchy after teaching and being in meetings all day; 2) I do not know which crisis this refers to; 3) the conference is at Central European University, which makes me think of Kafka in particular even though it's in Budapest and not Prague.)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

God and induction

Speaking of Stephen Colbert, Brian Leiter links to this clip of Colbert 'refuting' Bill O'Reilly's 'proof' of God's existence. I'm not a huge fan of O'Reilly, but I think there is more to his point than Colbert (and most of his audience) realizes.

O'Reilly says that he believes in God because the tides, the moon, the Earth, etc. move regularly. Colbert (who believes in God, in case that seems relevant) responds that the tides are regular because of the moon, and its movements are regular because of the laws of physics (e.g. gravity), and so there is no mystery to solve by positing God.

Positing God will not solve any mystery because God is mysterious. And the existence of a mystery does not prove the existence of a mysterious Being. But I imagine O'Reilly has been influenced (directly or otherwise) by GK Chesterton here. Chesterton does not offer an argument for the existence of God but does explain in his spiritual autobiography Orthodoxy that one reason he believes in God is because he was struck by the regularity of the universe. It won't do to respond that the laws of physics explain this regularity, because it's equally possible to be struck by the existence (or possibility) of these laws. In a nutshell: why should the universe behave regularly (i.e. in such a way that it is possible for us to identify laws of physics)? And why should they be such desirable laws, allowing (e.g.) for life on Earth?

Internalizing these laws as mental operations (as in some forms of idealism) just relocates the mystery in the mind instead of 'out there.' Perhaps there are other forms of explanation that might take away the sense of mystery, but it is something that has struck many people, including non-believers. If you're like Hume you can shrug it off as a curiosity and go to play backgammon with your friends. But this might seem a little shallow. If you're like Sartre you can be sickened by the experience of having to rely on a universe that there is no reason to trust. But that seems a little melodramatic, not to mention unpleasant. If you're like Chesterton you can express your amazement and gratitude by living a religious life. But that might seem superstitious or sentimental to some. (Wittgenstein expresses some concerns along these lines.)

So it isn't obvious what to do with this mystery, and O'Reilly's (perhaps rather too confident or even self-satisfied) response is not necessarily the best one. But wheeling on a physicist to talk about gravity doesn't really address it at all. Except to encourage laughter in place of amazement. Which beats nausea at least.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Philosophy and football again

I just watched Sean D. Kelly on The Colbert Report, where he says that one remaining place where the sacred can be experienced is at sporting events (he seems to include watching on TV, but perhaps only if this is with others). This reminded me of a post of mine where I talked a bit about this, but also of this essay on Liverpool Football Club and the religious devotion of its followers.

The closest comparison is with the Catholic Church and Islam. Both powerful religions obsessed with being big. Obsessed with the number of followers they have and obsessed with preserving their beliefs even when faced with evidence that disproves or just challenges their long-held assumptions.

Ritual, as we know, is a key element to religious behaviour. "You'll Never Walk Alone" is an incredible example of this. It is sung with religious fervour and is about surrendering individuality for the group. It is a defining moment for all Liverpool followers. No other football chant comes close. And they ask everyone who hears it to comment on it. They ask us to confirm that it is the loudest, most awe-inspiring, most spine-tingling, most religious moment we have ever experienced. And it is repeated word-for-word, note-for-note before every match as a gospel choir would sing in church. It does not behave like a football chant. There is no humour, no taunting the opposition, no jolly lads getting ready for 90 minutes of support and abuse. It is born-again, wide-eyed fervour.

Repetition is, of course, a central factor to the belief system and that is why every Liverpool follower (I choose this word above supporter), is primed to say exactly the same as every other Liverpool follower. There can be no deviation from the true path. Have you ever met a Liverpool follower who would dare to say that YNWA is a dreadful chant or that talking about "history" is a load of bunkum? This kind of deviation is not allowed and if someone dared to say such a thing then the simple answer would be that he is not a true follower because a true follower would not say such a thing.

History. What is this fascination with history? Football is really only about the present and memory. It is not about history. Most supporters know all about their team. They know the great players, cups won and disappointments along the way. But history? This is something that religions do in order to create a back story on which to build a myth. Liverpool has no more history than Crewe Alexandra or Queens Park Rangers, although it has certainly had more success. Success can be measured and although Liverpool's followers like to quote their successes (and fear being surpassed), it is something that is ultimately too risky to build a belief system upon. In fact, this season Manchester United could become more "successful" than Liverpool in domestic league titles. For this reason Liverpool's belief system is built on an abstract concept (history) rather than something that is scientifically provable (league titles). In fact, the more Liverpool stopped winning things, the more "history" became the currency for their beliefs.
The last part makes me at least somewhat sympathetic to the kind of logical positivist-ish spirit of the author. The rest of it is a reminder of the humourlessness of religion. Kelly quotes Nietzsche to the effect that the sacred is what you cannot laugh at. It might be very good for there to be such things, but they ought to be things that are worth taking that seriously. Liverpool are not that, and arguably no football team is (including the Packers).

I wonder whether Kelly means that at sporting events you can feel what the sacred is like rather than actually experiencing anything genuinely sacred. That doesn't sound quite right to me (in terms of what he would say), but it's odd to talk about the sacred without being concerned with distinguishing the genuine from the fake. Colbert hints at this.

I also wonder why we laugh at everything these days, why irreverence and political incorrectness are so popular. There is even a whole genre of humour based on shock, on going into forbidden territory. Quentin Tarantino (whose films I like) comes to mind. Why do we like this stuff so much? Are we bored? Or is it somehow that if we didn't laugh we'd cry? And why is that: the death of God, the Holocaust, the failure of the 1960s hippy dream, the failure of socialism? In the words of Philip Larkin, I don't know. 

It sometimes seems to have to do with the smallness of the world. I watched The Third Man last night, which contains a famous scene where people look down from a ferris wheel at the dots below and talk about how easy and tempting it might be to accept the death of one of these dots for, say, $20,000. It takes an act of imagination to see the dots as people, as mattering. This is work, and work that can cost us money. (There is a lot of money to be made in industries that a strictly ethical person might refuse to be involved with.) And you could go mad trying to take seriously the humanity of every single person that we know to be in trouble. How can you care enough about Sudan, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc., etc.? Ethics, perhaps mere humanity, requires us to care, but sanity seems to require that we not care too much. You almost have to turn the caring on and off, and never turn it up too loud. Perhaps the kind of irony that goes with irreverence is a necessary defense of our capacity to be human. Or perhaps that's just an excuse for a moral failing, a failure to be serious enough. And sport seems more like a distraction from what really matters than an instance of it.

Anyway, I hope the Packers win tomorrow.    

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What is a book?

Via OLP & Literary Studies Online I found Oskari Kuusela's review of a new book on Wittgenstein's Nachlass. I've been re-reading Wittgenstein's Koder diaries and thinking about what he says there about ethics. So I was struck by these paragraphs:
The borderline between philological and philosophical issues is blurred in a number of the volume's essays. An example is Luciano Bazzocchi's discussion of Wittgenstein's organization of the text of the so-called Prototractatus (an earlier manuscript of the Tractatus): how he composed the text and what light that composition throws on his thought. Although the discussion in this chapter is partly purely philological, the principles according to which Wittgenstein organized his text also have interpretative significance. The situation is similar in the case of Ilse Somavilla's discussion of Wittgenstein's remarks written in code and his possible reasons for using code. As she explains, although Wittgenstein's coded remarks are mostly on ethics, aesthetics, religion or are personal/autobiographical in nature, and may have been written in code simply to separate philosophical discussions from private discussions, their relation to remarks not in code seems more complicated than this. For example, there are coded remarks on his philosophical practice, and sometimes issues originally discussed in code are taken up for non-coded philosophical discussion. So the question arises what grounds lie behind Wittgenstein's use of code? What might the answer reveal, for instance, about what he regarded as philosophical topics proper, and how he understood the relation between the personal and philosophical? Did he see these as two different levels of writing?

I had difficulties understanding Somavilla's suggestion that the coded remarks might be on issues Wittgenstein regarded as ineffable. For, if we are talking about what the Tractatus regarded as unsayable, aren't these mostly issues at the core of his philosophizing? Similarly it remains unclear why a code would be a more appropriate expression for something ineffable than normal writing. Nevertheless, a very interesting suggestion is that Wittgenstein's coded discussions of ethics, aesthetics and religion can be seen as constituting a book to be construed out of the Nachlass that extends beyond remarks on these topics collected in Culture and Value.
I've known people to suggest we have no business reading Wittgenstein's coded remarks, but, as suggested here, there is little obvious difference between the kind of things he writes in code and the other things he writes. He also used a code that is very easy to crack, which might be taken to mean that he wanted to avoid being read by casual finders of his notebook but might not have minded its being read by people like, well, us. Who knows. I see no reason why Culture and Value should be treated as a work and these remarks not (other than the use of code).

The kind of thing he says in these diaries is similar to the kind of thing he says in the Lecture on Ethics. He also (as I might have mentioned here before) talks as if he feels that he ought to do whatever his inner voice tells him to do, if only because his reasons for not obeying this voice seem cowardly or lazy or otherwise shameful or vicious. But he doesn't want to do whatever the voice says, if only because it might demand anything or everything of him. It's as if he's living out, or through, a painful struggle between competing kinds of ethics: a kind of religious ethic of obedience to one's daemon versus a more independent and self-interested kind of perfectionism of some sort. So, for instance, on a boat it will occur to him to try to walk on a cable. He knows he would soon fall off and be laughed at. And of course he doesn't do it. But does he not do it just because he doesn't want to be laughed at? Or because he is afraid to fall? And so on. So he feels guilty or ashamed of himself. It's almost as if his conscience is on steroids, but he can't just ignore it. The best solution might be if he just did whatever he felt that he ought to do--this is usually something much more conventionally ethical than walking on a cable. But why do this if the 'instructions' are not actually coming from God? And he does not believe that there really is someone there. So the struggle continues. At the very least it's a fascinating insight into a kind of moral illness, something like the Euthyphro dilemma in real life.

There is more to it than this though. Because it all seems to be intertwined, at least in Wittgenstein's mind, with his other philosophical work. Juliet Floyd writes about these diaries in this review and seems to endorse Alfred Nordmann's view that it would be naïve to use "Wittgenstein’s diaries as a kind of magical key to the unlocking of his thought." Of course that's true. But I think that any interpretation of his thought ought to at least be consistent with what he writes elsewhere, including in these diaries. And I think there might be some light in them.