Saturday, June 26, 2004

On People Who Are Not So Sure They Are Not Brains In Vats

At "Certain Doubts," yet another philosophy weblog (these philosophy weblogs stick together, so if you ferrer out one, you ferret out dozens), there is an interesting post on the Brains-in-Vats argument I was so cynical about earlier. The claim is that the argument is worth study; after discussing how people respond to the argument, the author (Keith DeRose) concludes:

"All of this can lead one to think that AI really is a remarkable argument. Any argument whose weakest link is that intuitively powerful and yet has such an implausible conclusion is something of a wonder."

I remain unconvinced. There are lots of arguments that are intuitively powerful in the sense he describes with implausible conclusions; they are called sophisms. My position is as it was before: worth study in the way any philosophical argument might be, but not a wonder.

Flickering Knowledge

There is an interesting epistemological thought experiment at "Close Range," a philosophy weblog.

The thought experiment is phrased in needlessly difficult terms, particularly given the trickiness of the problem, so here's my (suggested) rephrasing.

Kurt, a theoretical mathematician, has developed a very difficult proof for a particular conclusion (we'll call the conclusion P). The proof is so difficult Kurt can only see the cogency of the proof when he is at his very sharpest. He then goes through a sort of vacillation:

1. Immediately on finishing the proof, he is at his sharpest, so he believes P.
2. Then, almost immediately after this, he loses his grasp on the proof, and doubts it.
3. Then, he grasps it again, and believes it.
4. Then, he loses it again, and doubts it.

And so it goes, until finally, at some point (we'll call it N) his belief becomes stable, so even when he can't grasp the proof he believes P, given that there have been times when he could grasp it.

The question asked is, Does Kurt know P at (1)?

The author (Marc Moffett) suggests three possibilities:

A) He knows it at (1), doesn't at (2), knows it at (3), doesn't at (4), knows it at (N).
B) He doesn't know it prior to (N) because he isn't justified in believing P.
C) Kurt has justified true belief at (1) and (3) but doesn't know it until (N).

There are, I think, variations other than these three (especially variations on (A)), but we can stick with these. Marc opts for (C). (B) seems blatantly false; I would say Kurt is justified in believing P at stages (1) and (3) ex hypothesi: he has a proof for it. Marc is also right that there are problems in thinking our being justified in believing something at any one moment is contingent on our mental acuity at other moments. Drowsiness, sleep, the fullness of gluttony, distraction, and so forth would destroy almost any justification if (B) were true.

Marc suggests that (A) is "an immensely unattractive position" because it allows knowledge to flicker in and out, and, moreover, he thinks it is "intuitively wrong." I don't see why, on either point. The response on "Blogosophy" (another philosophy weblog) seems about right. There is another response on "Musings from the Lehigh Valley" (yet another philosophy weblog), more complicated, but, I think, on the nose.

As to (C), I think a case can be made for it; in particular, I think there is a sense of 'knowledge' in which (C) would be exactly right. I don't think, in fact, that all the things we call 'knowing', or, indeed, all the things commonly called 'knowing' in analytic epistemology, are all the same sort of thing, so a better answer would require a deeper analysis of the different sorts of things that can be considered knowledge.

All this reminds me why I dislike philosophy-by-thought-experiments; thought experiments are, at best, beginnings of arguments. Nonetheless, this is an interesting thought experiment, which is why I put it up despite the fact that it falls outside my usual philosophical interests.


People who write in the margins of library books are, I think, crazy. I have never, in all the myriads of library books I have checked out (I average about five a week when I'm busy and ten to fifteen a week when I'm not), come across any sign of a sane marginaliast. I am exaggerating a bit; mostly marginaliasts are stupid, not insane.

I've been reading Chesterton's Heretics, and the marginaliast (I hereby christen him 'Marginaliaster') is one of those unfortunate people who think they understand the English language but do not.

* In the margin beside Chesterton's sentence, "At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down" (in the Introductory Remarks), Marginaliaster writes: "G.K.C.'s great weakness." Since "somewhat excusably" is underlined, I suppose it has something to do with that phrase. It is, of course, perfectly legitimate. Consider Milton's Lycidas, which has a parallel construction: "Begin, and somwhat loudly sweep the string." There is a bit of awkwardness in the sentence, of course; I suspect it is deliberate, since it is the sort of chummy awkwardness that arises in ordinary conversation when joking among friends, but I might be wrong. In any case, the awkwardness does not seem to be what Marginaliaster is judging, since "somewhat excusably" is not the source: the source is the combination of that with the passive form of a complex verb.

* Beside Chesterton's phrase "set forward" in "On the Negative Spirit" Marginaliaster writes: "put forward or set forth." But, of course, "set forward, while less common and less standard than "put forward" or "set forth" is perfectly legitimate, too.

* Marginaliaster crosses out "in the least" in Chesterton's phrase, "the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress" (in the same essay). This is clearly a detrimental move, since 'in the least' is actually pulling double duty here. First, it is an emphatic; removing it changes the emphasis of the sentence. Second, it is parallelistic, since "in the least [degree] doubtful about the direction" is intended to balance "in the same degree doubtful about the progress." This is one of those utterly idiotic moves made by people who have been taught that good English style means never using more words than absolutely necessary. If we did that, we would never be able to say anything stylishly. There is good wordiness and bad wordiness; the mark of good writing is knowing the difference. (It is an immensely difficult skill to acquire, and even the best occasionally fail in its application.)

* Marginaliaster, on the same page, changes "the direction may have been a good or a bad one" to "the direction may have been good or bad." This is not unreasonable, but "a good or a bad one" is just as good as "good or bad" even in most contexts. In this context, I have to decide for Chesterton yet again, because "a good or a bad one" puts the emphasis of the phrase where it should be. Chesteron is in the middle of an argument that you can only have a genuine idea of progress if you first have a direction of progress. It is reasonable, then, to say "a good or a bad one" because it puts the weight of thought on what is good or bad, namely, direction, thus keeping the flow of thought circulating around the topic under discussion. (Marginaliaster does this one a lot; Chesterton, in fact, is very good at only using the construction when it makes the sentence better.)

* Marginaliaster is shocked by Chesterton's phrase (in the essay on Rudyard Kipling) "the grocer and the cobbler are not poetic," saying "Oh!!?" and something I can't quite read. This is, I suspect, inexcusable reading. He is not claiming that grocers and cobblers are not poetic (Chesterton would be the last to claim such a thing) but arguing that the last name 'Smith' is poetic because it evokes the smithy. In arguing this, he says, "Even the village children feel that in some dim way the smith is poetic, as the grocer and the cobbler are not poetic, when they feast on the dancing sparks and deafening blows in the cavern of that creative violence." Nothing in this implies that the grocer and the cobbler are not in any way poetic, but only that the smith is poetic in a way the grocer and cobbler are not. It's a fair enough claim; compare how many times smiths are found in great poetry with how many times grocers or cobblers are found.

* At the end of the Rudyard Kipling essay, he comments on the following passage:

And under all this vast illusion of the cosmopolitan planet, with its empires and its Reuter's agency, the real life of man goes on concerned with this tree or that temple, with this harvest or that drinking-song, totally uncomprehended, totally untouched. And it watches from its splendid parochialism, possibly with a smile of amusement, motor-car civilization going its triumphant way, outstripping time, consuming space, seeing all and seeing nothing, roaring on at last to the capture of the solar system, only to find the sun cockney and the stars suburban.

Marginaliaster underlines "possibly with a smile of amusement" and comments, "It doesn't: another huge weakness of GKC." I confess myself utterly perplexed by this comment; for a "huge weakness" it is in no way obvious what it is. My best guess is that he doesn't like the metonymy, but I'm not sure.

* In the essay on Bernard Shaw, he manages three hits on one page; and, surprisingly, there is something to each of them, although none of them are bad enough to justify a margin-writer's time. Chesterton says:

They go out against a bird with nets and against a fish with arrows. There are several modern examples of this situation. Mr. Chamberlain, for instance, is a very good one. He constantly eludes or vanquishes his opponents because his real powers and deficiencies are quite different to those with which he is credited, both by friends and foes.

Marginaliaster underlines "birds with nets" and writes "bad". It is true that there are birds that can be caught with nets, but there are birds that cannot. Chesterton would have been better writing "hawk" (or somesuch) rather than "bird," but everyone knows what he means anyway. Marginaliaster writes "poor" beside "examples and "instance" bracketed together; there is unnecessary repetition here, but it is barely noticeable, the sort of thing that might accidentally slip out and not be noticed by anyone. The third note Marginaliaster makes is to change "to" to "from" in the phrase "different to." "Different to" is one of those phrases that are impossible to eliminate from the English language. "Different from" and "different than" are much better. Chesterton, however, is consistent throughout Heretics in using "different to"; it's perhaps too colloquial, but it doesn't harm the meaning.

Note on "Different than": I was once told that John McDowell, the British philosopher, called the phrase "different than" (as opposed to "different from") "an American barbarism." Sorry, but like most American barbarisms it was invented by the best British minds; the OED mentions some of the writers who use it: "Fuller, Addison, Steele, De Foe, Richardson, Goldsmith, Miss Burney, Coleridge, Southey, De Quincey, Carlyle, Thackeray, Newman, Trench, and Dasent, among others." This is good company. So much for linguistic snobbishness. Both "different from" and "different than" are excellent constructions.

* He writes "Rot" beside Chesterton's claim (in the essay on H. G. Wells) that "there never was a man in love who did not delcare also that he ought not to have it," that is, his desire. Apparently Marginaliaster had never been in love.

* He changes "obtain" to "achieve" in the phrase "we'll obtain it," that is, success. Either, of course, would work.

* He diligently corrects the spelling of every mention of "Dionysius" to "Dionysus." Either spelling is OK in English.

* He does correctly change "statu quo" to "status quo" on the two occasions Chesterton uses it. "Statu quo" should in general only be used in the phrase "in statu quo"; otherwise, status quo is better. Again, it is a quibble with which no good reader would bother, or, if a good reader, would not fuss over (as Marginaliaster does, since he writes "again!" by the second correction).

* He seems to have difficulty wrapping his mind around the idea that Richardson might be considered a literary great; he puts one exclamation mark by Chesterton's listing him as one of "the most typically English men of letters" along with Shakespeare and Dickens. I see nothing particularly surprising about this judgment. He puts three exclamation points beside the phrase, a page or two later, "the great Richardson." Again, I see nothing surprising about this; "the great Richardson" makes a good pairing with "the great Fielding."

* He writes "bosh" beside the claim that Johnson was "all the more healthy because he was morbid." I see no "bosh" here; indeed, it strikes me as a clever formulation of the paradox that is Samuel Johnson.

* He writes "bad idiom" beside the phrase "an exception that proves the rule." There is nothing bad about this idiom. The original meaning of the phrase "the exception proves the rule" is perhaps better than ours (it originally meant "the exception puts the rule to the test"), but it identifies an important unit of rational discourse, namely, the exception that shows the rule to be a fairly good one. That is, sometimes the only exception to a rule is so odd or unique or peculiar that it means the rule is a good one for most purposes. The best example of this I've ever run across is Hume's 'missing shade of blue', which he admits would form an exception to his general rule that all ideas derive from impressions that they copy; but the conditions under which the exception could arise are so rare and unlikely that the 'missing shade of blue' is in effect a good argument for accepting the rule. (I could go off now on a tangent about the stupidity of certain sorts of 'counterexamples' in analytic philosophy that exhibit a failure to understand this basic point of reasoning, but I won't.)

Looking back over the list, what is it? A lot of quibble, and most of it is wrong or doubtful. This seems about par for the course, given other marginalia in library books that I have seen. So why do people spend so much time writing in the margins of library books?

Two Poetic First Drafts

We need a word for 'what is dashed off'; neither off-dasheds nor dashed-offs really quite cuts it. Here are two things I dashed off last night; they need work, but I'm pleased enough with them that they might be worth it.

The Striving

The Sea strove against the Shore:
'Let all be Sea, and Sand no more!'
The Shore strove against the Wave:
'Destroy the Sea, the Sand to save!'
Sea to Shore and Shore to Sea,
A jousting for eternity,
Nor one nor other can gain command -
This must be Sea, that must be Sand -
For before the world, the sages say,
The Lord prepared the world's third day:
To make that Water, to form that Land,
He set the Bound with His own hand.
Yet may we not think there more to say?
The striving continues till Judgment Day,
The battle is waged till Kingdom come,
But can that be the finished sum? -
I have dreamed the Shore will win
When all the world begins again.


The honeysuckle before the rain
Sends out its scent;
The sky, a gentle gray with cloudy banks
Looks down in meditation.
Its philosophical study prepares the thunder,
Rendering the air electric,
Charged with the passion of ages.
All is patient with consideration;
each blade of grass is a scholar,
each blossom on the vine.

They are both a bit rough; I don't quite like the rhythm and cadence of either. I'm not sure I like the line "Its philosophical study prepares the thunder" but I haven't yet come up with anything better; and "a jousting for eternity," while a nice phrase, sometimes makes me think I'm just a bit above doggerel at that particular point. The strength of the former is allusion; and I like the way the latter ends. I think the former could be improved if it were lengthened a bit, to allow for smoother transition of thought. I also have the sneaking suspicion that I've read a poem on a theme similar to first, and can't remember it. If anyone has any thoughts for the improvement, or can help me out with the poem I seem unable to remember, you can drop me a line at bwatson{at}chass{dot}utoronto{dot}ca. Make sure your subject heading is very clear or it might get deleted in the daily spam-dump.

Musing on This Whole Weblog Thing

One of the tricky things (for me, at least) about this blogging business is that I am primarily doing it for my own benefit - slowly working out various ideas on all sorts of issues, gathering resources together, etc. - but, naturally, it's published as well. I am scarcely so egotistical as to think that my interests, except under a very broad level of description, coincide with anyone else's, nor would I be much bothered if no one were interested at all in what goes on here. It's all just a notebook for ideas, so there's no great loss in no one reading it. At the same time, it would be a shame if no one who came across it found it interesting.

There's no help for this, I suppose. It seems like a number of other things. I dabble in poetry; mostly I do it for my own sake, to improve my language skills and rethink the way I look at things. I would not be bothered if they were never considered great or even better than mediocre. Nonetheless I would be a bit put out if no one enjoyed them. Moral of the musement: Human beings are social creatures even in the things they do primarily for themselves.

Friday, June 25, 2004

And Yes, I Say 'Weblog' Rather than 'Blog'!

Weblogs are ultimately rather monotonous - superficial diaries, deep pools of social cynicism, endless political bickering. The topology of the so-called 'blogosphere' is almost always the same, and the only surprises it holds is that there are an astounding number of Catholic Republicans writing weblogs and that people are actually fairly ingenious when it comes to thinking up names.

Nonetheless, there are some interesting weblogs out there. Here are some that I have found; naturally, they tend to follow my interests. (Naturally, their being listed here is not a mark that I agree with everything they say; in particular, I eschew partisan politics and I like cats enough to know that dogs are the cat's meow.)

Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise: The weblog of The New Yorker's music critic.

Everyday Elitism...maybe: Good taste in books.

Ravishing Light: A pro-U.S. Canadian in Ottawa.

Infinity Ranch: Musings about law, politics, and other things.

Chris' Bible Study: Very insightful.

The Never Ending Story Blog: This reminds me of the story-telling game in Alcott's Little Women.

The Terrorists: A dog's stand against the Great Cat Conspiracy.

Have a Little Peppered Moth with Your Science....

I have just recently finished reading Judith Hooper's Of Moths and Men, which receives my high recommendation. In saying this, it is worth noting that I have become very picky about pop-sci books. Picky? Cynical is the better word. This is especially true of pop-biology, which is the bane of all good reason. This is sad, since it does not have to be this way. Pop-physics, for instance, even when it exhibits all the flaws of pop-sci (e.g., a scientist's notion of what good literary writing is * shudder *), tends to be reasonably good. Most pop-sci suffers from an inability to reason properly, but pop-biology takes this sometimes to bizarre levels. Note to all people inclined to write scientific popularizations: Keep it simple, straightforward, and let the charm of the science (and scientists) do the real work in adding charm to the writing.

Hooper's book follows this advice quite well. There are a few weaknesses. For instance, her discussion of "scientific creationism" lacked a genuine insight into the dispute, and her appeals to falsifiability are too uncritical. Nonetheless, the weaknesses are astoundingly few. What chiefly impressed me was that the book gets its primary interest from the (hint of) scandal of the peppered moth, but does so with considerable sympathy for all those involved in it (this is particularly true of Kettlewell, who despite being the center of the (possible) scandal is almost the hero, both flawed and admirable, of the book). This was the right way to go, and Hooper deserves kudos for it. It enables her to show, to a degree rare in such books, the course of science as a genuinely human endeavor, with all our foibles, charms, faults, and ingenuities thrown into the mix. What we often call 'science' is usually just its residue in books and articles; Hooper goes some way toward introducing people to the real nature of science. Some way; there is much more to be done.

-> Here is a much more critical review. It seems to me they have missed the point of the work, since Hooper bends over backward to avoid alleging fraud. The book, in fact, ends with a praise of Kettlewell's work, despite the problems with the standard peppered moth account that arose out of it. Hooper, in fact, does not argue that Kettlewell cheated; she argues that there are signs that Kettlewell tweaked the experiment as he tweaked most of the things he did: he wanted his experiment to work, so he nudged it a bit in an attempt to get a clearer result. One thing that comes out of the book is Kettlewell's innocence: it is impossible by the end of the book, assuming the reader actually has reading skills, to conclude that its message is that Kettlewell committed fraud. It is worth reading, however, the Matt Young essay to which the Wikipedia article links, since it adds information that suggests the matter is more complicated than Hooper suggests. Since much of Hooper's book is devoted to showing how the matter is much more complicated than the standard account allows, this is not the knock-down rebuttal Young seems to think it is. And the rational conclusion for the paper would be not, as Young seems to think, "The peppered moth properly remains a valid paradigm -- no, an icon -- of evolution." First, because Young does not deal with all of Hooper's questions, and second, because Young's own argument does not show that Kettlewell was right but only that if other factors have the effect he thinks they might have, Kettlewell could be right. The conclusion Young should draw from this is, I suggest, the following: We have reason to think the problems attributed to the peppered moth experiment may not be problems; further research is needed to clarify the matter. (A good example of the way Young's argument, almost right, goes wrong, is in the moonlight issue, which I found to be a fascinating discussion. Young's argument on this point relies wholly on his statistical analysis of the Kettlewell case, and requires that he conclude of the actual research done on the effect of moonlight on recapture rates, "I do not think that the conclusion of Clarke and colleagues is necessarily pertinent" - not a strong conclusion. Young is reasonable in concluding it, but it is not strong enough to support the conclusions with which Young finishes the paper. Young should have instead concluded, perhaps, by noting that there is good reason to think moonlight might affect recapture rates in a way that deals with this particular issue, and pointing out how Kettlewell could be supported on this by actual experiment.)

Samuel Johnson on Lady Macbeth's Sophistry

The arguments by which Lady Macbeth persuades her husband to commit the murder, afford a proof of Shakespeare's knowledge of human nature. She urges the excellence and dignity of courage, a glittering idea which has dazzled mankind from age to age, and animated sometimes the housebreaker, and sometimes the conqueror; but this sophism Macbeth has for ever destroyed by distinguishing true from false fortitude, in a line and a half; of which it may almost be said, that they ought to bestow immortality on the authour, though all his other productions had been lost.

I dare do all that may become a man,
Who dares do more, is none.

This topic, which has been always employed with too much success, is used in this scene with peculiar propriety, to a soldier by a woman. Courage is the distinguishing virtue of a soldier, and the reproach of cowardice cannot be borne by any man froma woman, without great impatience.

She then urges the oaths by which he had bound himself to murder Duncan, another art of sophistry by which men have sometimes deluded their consciences, and persuaded themselves that what would be criminal in others is virtuous in them; this argument Shakespeare, whose plan obliged him to make Macbeth yield, has not confuted, though he might easily have shown that a former obligation could not be vacated by a latter: that obligations laid on us by a higher power, could not be overruled by obligations which we lay upon ourselves.

Quoted in Arthur Sharbo. Samuel Johnson's Critical Opinions: A Reexamination. U of Delaware Press: Newark (1995), p. 161. (The speech to which Johnson is referring, and to which this is appended as a note, is in Macbeth I.vii.)

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

One Small Civilian Step....

Mike Melvill and SpaceShipOne recently made space history; but, as Donald Sensing notes in his weblog "One Hand Clapping," he is not the first civilian astronaut. Neil Armstrong was. He signed on to NASA as a civilian test pilot. When people refer to Melvill as the "first civilian astronaut," they mean, of course, something along the lines of "the first astronaut not to be so via NASA." But that isn't quite so elegant a description.

Superata Tellus Siderum Donat

I went to my mailbox today and found there the Spring 2004 issue of the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly which, to my delight, is on Boethius. It will be great reading, I'm sure.

One thing that surprised me (that always surprises me about discussions of Boethius) is the failure to point out what 'the consolation of Philosophy' in his little work The Consolation of Philosophy really is. Or, rather, I should say, what it primarily is, since, as Fortin's article in this issue rightly notes, there are several different senses of 'consolation' at play in the work. Fortin does not really note the real thrust of the reasoning of the work, though. What is the consolation of Philosophy, the real consolation? That there is a providential God able to answer prayer, so prayer is worthwhile. How this meshes with the various ironies about consolation Fortin notes is a complicated issue, but the thrust of the work, and the reason it was so loved by so many is precisely that it argues that the consolation of philosophy is showing the possibility of the consolation of prayer. Such is my thought, anyway.

Monday, June 21, 2004

"Contrary to most history, it is true...."

I just found one of my favorite novels on-line, The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas.

There are so many great passages it's hard to pick one. Here's one choice:

"Yes, sir," replied the count; "l have sought to make of the human race, taken in the mass, what you practice every day on individuals - a physiological study. I have believed it was much easier to descend from the whole to a part than to ascend from a part to the whole. It is an algebraic axiom, which makes us proceed from a known to an unknown quantity, and not from an unknown to a known; but sit down, sir, I beg of you."

Monte Cristo pointed to a chair, which the procureur was obliged to take the trouble to move forwards himself, while the count merely fell back into his own, on which he had been kneeling when M. Villefort entered. Thus the count was halfway turned towards his visitor, having his back towards the window, his elbow resting on the geographical chart which furnished the theme of conversation for the moment, - a conversation which assumed, as in the case of the interviews with Danglars and Morcerf, a turn analogous to the persons, if not to the situation. "Ah, you philosophize," replied Villefort, after a moment's silence, during which, like a wrestler who encounters a powerful opponent, he took breath; "well, sir, really, if, like you, I had nothing else to do, I should seek a more amusing occupation."

"Why, in truth, sir," was Monte Cristo's reply, "man is but an ugly caterpillar for him who studies him through a solar microscope; but you said, I think, that I had nothing else to do. Now, really, let me ask, sir, have you? - do you believe you have anything to do? or to speak in plain terms, do you really think that what you do deserve being called anything?"

(From Chapter 48, "Ideology")

Lecture Summaries

I have decided to put (brief) summaries of my lectures up on the Houyhnhnm Land weblog, starting with the guest lecture I gave last Wednesday.

Early Modern Resources Website

Came across an interesting website on the early modern period:

Early Modern Resources,

which has its own weblog:

Since I have, I suppose that makes us neighbors, to the extent weblogs have neighbors.