Saturday, September 18, 2004

Keeping Up with the Neighborliness

I've been a bit lax in the weblog neighborliness department, so here's an update on various blogs who have linked to me in one way or another.

First, those that have put me on their blogroll:

* wood s lot: this is a good site for those interested in poetry and portraits;

* Mormon Metaphysics: I confess I don't know much about Mormonism beyond occasional contact with the Mormon branch of my dad's side of the family, but this weblog is very well done, and I'm learning interesting things while digging through the archives;

* Doing Things With Words: a new philosophy blog that's getting a good start;

* Giornale Nuovo: easily one of the coolest blogs in the blogosphere

I'm picky about who goes on my sidebar, but all these are candidates in varying degrees, some closer than others. DTWW is a bit political at present for my taste, but I'll be keeping my eye on them all. And then I'll have to get around to revising my sidebar, at which I've also been a bit lax. Also, I'm on the 'blinks' page for emptydog, which appears to be still under construction and not yet sorted out. I don't know if I mentioned it before, but I'm similarly on one of the bloglinks pages at Scott's Space.

Several linked to my "Blogscholars" post (it was a rather lightweight contribution; but it apparently helped clarify a point in the discussion, so that's good):

* The Little Professor

* Amardeep Singh

* The Conquering Poet

Several people also have linked to my "Spiritual Almsdeeds" post, including Commentariat and Under the Sun.

In addition, from my sidebar, Cliopatria, Rebecca Writes, and Early Modern Notes have linked to me several times; and some sort of acknowledgment seems in order.

I think that's it; as I said, I've been a bit lax about keeping up with this and so might have missed a few (but I haven't listed any of the ones who linked to me entirely because of the Philosophers' Carnival).

The World of Tomorrow

I saw Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow yesterday. It's fairly good, but I think it didn't entirely come together in the way it should have. It would make a better radio play than movie. But people don't listen much to radio plays anymore, do they? One of the radio stations here had classic radio theater for an hour every Sunday night, until they moved it to an AM station I can't get where I'm at (I was so annoyed that I switched radio stations entirely and never went back). We need more radio theater....

In any case, as a movie it manages to work fairly well. The heroine should have a bit more moxy, but Paltrow isn't bad. Law is quite good, and ends with a quip that, in the theater I was in, at least, had the whole audience laughing and clapping.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Cooperative Distributed Argumentation

One of the things I find interesting about the recent arguments on the Killian memos is the sort of argument for the conclusion of forgery that was manifested. It was, if you did not keep a close eye on it, rather difficult to follow because 1) it was in motion; 2) it was distributed.

I think we can see the argument by thinking about it in terms of its exploratory frontier. This (continually changing) frontier consists of the arguments and counter-arguments that are currently in play at a given time, each of which functions as a sort of vector. Unopposed, the vector moves the argument forward; met with an opposing vector in a counter-argument, the argument on that point can be stalled or moved in the opposite direction. Throughout much of the past week, new vectors have been added by both sides (with the side arguing that the memos were forgeries massively outpacing their opponents in laying down new vectors, both completely new vectors and vectors designed to neutralize their opponent's vectors). At the edge of the frontier there's considerable floundering on both sides - both sides are struggling to find a good formulation of what they are trying to say, both are trying to filter out misinformation, both are trying to correct their misunderstandings of the facts, etc. Things get tried out and discarded because of objections; other things endure objections to move the frontier forward (whichever direction one might consider 'forward' to be).

This is complicated by the fact that the argument was highly distributed: in other words, there was no one place you could go to find "the argument"; it was a complicated argument whose basic points were scattered among many different sites. To some extent the problems arising from this were neutralizing by establishing nodes of information that turned the scattered distribution into an argumentative net: e.g., some weblogs did very high-quality postings on particular issues in the argument and became heavily linked to because of it; some did a bit of metablogging and kept track of news; others did simple communication, notifying readers of their sites as to new elements they had found. Nonetheless, it's still the case that pinning down the precise argument and how it fit together became very complicated very quickly. Nonetheless, the elements of the argument did hang together, in great measure because of the information nodes; one of the major mistakes made by critics of the forgery claim was that they did not recognize the distributed character of the argument, and therefore treated each element as if it were an element of its own. (Another mistake, I think, was that they failed to recognize that the supporters of the forgery claim were developing their arguments by assimilating new information.)

The argument was able to be distributed because it was not deductive. I suppose one way to characterize it would be as an eliminative argument, although that makes it sound (given the restricted way in which we normally use the label) as if it were somehow an argument from ignorance rather than an attempt to marshal positive evidences in favor of one conclusion to the exclusion of the others. So my recommendation is that we call this sort of argument a "circumscriptive search" or "search by cumulative circumscription": it is an argument that uses positive considerations in a cumulative way to "zero in" on one solution.

(Incidentally, were I to give an award for the most unforunate post on the argument(s) from someone who should know better, it would have to go, alas, to this post by Brian Weatherson at "Crooked Timber." First, the particular element of the argument he is discussing is clearly not deductive; why Weatherson thought it could only be interpreted as a deductive argument, and therefore charged with a deductive fallacy, is beyond me. Second, the particular element is clearly only one element in what is a more extended argument; evaluating the element requires placing it in the context of the larger argument, which Weatherson does not do. Third, by his own lights he doesn't translate the argument correctly, because he drops the 'virtually' from the translation (and then - and here I must assume that I am just missing something in his reasoning - criticizes the argument for it?!). Fourth, even on the assumption that the argument was intended as a deductive argument, this is not a freshman logic class. When we find arguments that apparently commit formal fallacies in the real world, we need to consider the possibility that they are enthymematic, i.e., that they only appear to commit the fallacies because of a premise that is not explicitly stated. This Weatherson doesn't seem to do, either. This is all quite unfortunate, because Weatherson is a top-notch mind; he could do better.)

For an exercise in seeing how this distribution of the elements of the arguments works, see how the argument starts fitting together by looking at this small, incomplete sample of some significant nodes in the argument (listed in no particular order):

* CBS Killian Document Index at "Little Green Footballs"

* CBS Against the World at "blogicus"

* Typographic Problems with the Bush Memos at "Digitus, Finger, & Co.

* The IBM Selectric Composer at "The Shape of Days"

* (non-blog node)

* Power Line (several different blog posts, all of them very influential; start at September 9)

And some of the counter-vectors (which respond to, and have responses, among some of the above):

* Bush's Exam Doc -- Real or Fake at PC Magazine (non-blog node)

* TANG Typewriter Follies; Wingnuts Wrong at "Daily Kos"

* IBM Executive Typewriters at "Amygdala"

* and, of course, CBS News (lots of links; non-blog node)

The complicated character of the discourse is almost enough to give one a headache. And yet, if we think about it, this exploratory frontier, focused as it is on one particular issue and occurring in a very accessible medium, is very small and simple compared with many of the cooperative distributed arguments we deal with as a society. In my view, this is an issue that needs to be considered at greater length by philosophers and others who do work on the use of argument in social discourse.

Christian Carnival XXXV

The newest Christian Carnival is up at Rebecca Writes. My submission is here. This Carnival is organized on a George Herbert theme, which is nice; Herbert, I think, is one of the best short-poem writers in the English language. His poetic diction has the quality that is the perfect blend of what would have once been called courtesy and homeliness - roughly, nobility like that of the royal court and at-home-ness like that of everday life. This is great for religious poetry, and indeed, for religious prose, as Julian of Norwich's works show. In any case, some of the entries I found especially interesting:

* Conditions of Love at "CowPi Journal," on unconditional love, of course

* Even a Drugstore in the Middle of Nowhere Can Be a Teacher at "Belief Seeking Understanding," about Wall Drug at Wall, South Dakota. I've been there (I spent two years of high school in South Dakota)

* Sunday Shopping at "ChristWeb," a reflection on blue laws and shopping on Sunday.

* "Parableman" has The Name of the Trinity

* There are also several remembrances of September 11; I recommend reading them all

Go see!

I'm a Caring, Thoughtful, Confident, Humbly Intolerant Good Listener....

You are MOSES!
Which Old Testament Character are you?

brought to you by Quizilla

You are the Lighthouse of Alexandria!
You are the Lighthouse of Alexandria!

Always there to help, you are a caring and
thoughtful person. A good listener and loyal
companion, you avoid the spotlight and any
confrontation. As the Lighthouse of
Alexandria, you strive to give support to
others and to be a friend during times of
trouble. Dependable and trustworthy, you are
the one person that anyone can talk to when
they need an ear. Often indecisive, you prefer
to give in rather than to fight.

What Wonder of the Ancient World are you?
brought to you by Quizilla

I suppose I never really thought about lighthouses avoiding the spotlight....

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Resident Evil (But It's Not a Resident of This Blog)

I keep intending to say that I saw Resident Evil 2: Apocalypse last Friday because 1) I wanted a break from thinking; 2) I misremembered the date for Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow; 3) I had seen Resident Evil on TV earlier that week. My brief review:

Obviously, the RE movies are not going for prestige-piece awards, but for simple, straightforward video-game action. I think they both succeed very well in this. The chief flaw in the first movie was an occasional cheesiness to the special effects (I mean beyond the cheesiness one would expect from a non-horror zombie movie). RE2 avoids this, I think; however, it substitutes another flaw in its place. In RE Jovovich's character, Alice, does surprisingly little for an action heroine; in RE2 her action is the real center of the movie. But the actual scenes I found to be way too fast and chaotic: it was very difficult at times to tell what was going on. One reason slow motion special effects have become so popular in action movies is that they allow you to have, as far as the imaginative participation of the audience is concerned, extremely fast action sequences in which the audience can clearly see at every moment what is going on. RE2, surprisingly, never uses slo-mo for any major fight sequence. It would have been improved by a judicious use of slo-mo. Another weakness is that it's a bit talky for a cinematic video game. But other than that it's an enjoyable pause from anything serious. (If you're expecting any profundity from a movie based on a video game and called Resident Evil: Apocalypse, I'm not sure what to say to you.) The ending sets up for a sequel, and I've heard that it's in the works (condional on this one doing well). I'll go to see it, of course, although I expect the usual deterioration that comes with the Third Movie. As long as they keep showing Jovovich's eyes, I'm sure I can bear it.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

New PLoS Biology Issue

PLoS Biology -

This month's issue of PLoS Biology is an especially worthwhile read. Some recommendations:

* The Case of the Noisy Neurons, which summarizes the equally interesting (but much more technical) Amplification of Trial-to-Trial Response Variability by Neurons in Visual Cortex.

* The Conservation Business, on the increasing tendency of conservationism to use economic categories

* From my favorite PLoS Biology feature, "Unsolved Mystery," What Is Life—and How Do We Search for It in Other Worlds? There's some great food for philosophical thought here. (I notice, though, that the article by Pace which he cites actually has a much stronger argument for the universal nature of biochemistry than one can get from the article. McKay makes it sound as if Pace argues for it by appeal to natural selection: "because there is one best way to do things and that natural selection will ensure that life everywhere discovers that way." This would be an extremely bad argument. But having looked it up online (it's free only in extract but I can see the full article because I'm looking at it at the University of Toronto, which has a subscription), I don't see that this is Pace's argument at all. Pace's article (which is worth reading) argues that we should expect all life in the universe to have more or less the same biochemistry for chemical and physical reasons. He mentions natural selection as a qualification to this, citing it as a reason to expect some definite biochemical variation. This is clearly a much better argument.)

* Paradoxes of Difference, on the politics of sex and race in scientific research as portrayed in the play "Relativity"

* Bridging Psychology and Mathematics: Can the Brain Understand the Brain? an interesting article that seems marred, alas, by a rather absurd ending

* the two primers, Adaptation and Immunity and Hormonal Regulation of Plant Growth and Development

This issue's even better than usual. I can't wait until PLoS Medicine comes out (19 October). In the meantime, I'll be perusing the articles above at a more leisurely rate.

Spiritual Almsdeeds

Traditionally, there were seven corporeal acts of mercy: to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to harbor the harborless, to visit the sick, to ransom the captive, and to bury the dead.

There were also seven spiritual acts of mercy: prayer, doctrine, counsel, solace, correction, remission, and support (they are sometimes given different names, depending on how the Latin is translated).

The idea is this. Acts of mercy, or almsdeeds, are ways in which we give out of our own abundance to meet another's needs. The seven corporeal works of mercy are the more famous set, but we clearly have spiritual needs, too, and these are, in fact, more important. Because of this, the spiritual acts of mercy are more important than the corporeal ones. (In some cases, of course, the corporeal need is more immediate: a starving man may need advice or rebuke, but in general you should feed him first.) The most important spiritual need is for help from God; and thus the most important spiritual almsgiving is the gift of prayer.

Besides help from God, we also need human assistance. Such a need may be due to a deficiency or a disorder. We have two sorts of spiritual deficiency: deficiency in the intellect due to not knowing what to do, and deficiency in the will due to some undesired ill that is suffered. The spiritual act of mercy that remedies deficiency in the intellect is doctrine (instruction), if the deficiency is more a matter of what to believe, or counsel (advice), if the deficiency is more a matter of what to decide. If the deficiency is a matter of will, the remedy is solace or consolation (comfort).

If our need is due to some disorder or sin, the gift that is needed depends on what part of the problem is considered. If we are considering the sinning itself, the proper act of mercy is correction (rebuke) of the sinner. If we are considering the person sinned against, the remedy is remission of the sin or pardon (forgiveness) of the sinner. If we are considering the effects of the sin, the remedy is support of the sinner, both by bearing with the sinner himself and by helping the sinner to bear the consequences of the sin.

Now, naturally, one may have acts that mimic any of these but which are not acts of mercy at all. For instance, instruction out of pride is not a work of mercy, even if you happen to be teaching the right things (which is unlikely: the sort of instruction required by mercy is instruction in the most important and vital things, i.e., the things we genuinely need; pride, however, distorts our sense of priorities and therefore is likely to make us misjudge what is really needed). Likewise, it is generally dangerous to rebuke sinners for sins we ourselves are definitely committing; usually the proper act of mercy in such cases is support, and, in cases where correction is genuinely necessary (e.g. failure to recognize the act as sinful), it can only be done with great self-critique and a fair and open admission of one's own failings. Likewise, no one can forgive any sins not committed against themselves. This bears repeating, because people tend to forget this.

Consider the following story. A former Nazi feels immense guilt for his participation in the Holocaust, and sincerely wants to be forgiven. He seeks out a Jew whose parents were killed at Auschwitz and asks for forgiveness. I remember reading once that a story like this was given to two groups, one Jewish and one Christian, along with the question: Should the Jew forgive the man? The Jews, to a man, said he should not; the Christians, shame to say, all said he should. But clearly the most that can be forgiven by the Jew in the story is any harm he, himself, may have suffered from that particular former Nazi's actions. People do not have the right to forgive sins that are not against themselves. And it cannot be required of him that he do this; the reason we Christians are required to do it is not that it's an objective moral necessity but that 1) we, being abundantly supplied by divine mercy, are called to be charitable; and 2) it is part of being Christlike, and thus a key part of our work as a Church. The whole point of almsgiving is that it is freely given, to a genuine need, out of an abundance we legitimately possess. You cannot be merciful by pretending to have authority you do not have, any more than you can be merciful by pretending to have lots of good advice that you don't, or by pretending to give property that you don't own to the poor. So, for all acts of mercy humility is a necessary condition.

Spiritual almsgiving is immensely difficult, and we will all fail to do it properly more often than we will succeed. But God acts mercifully toward us in all these ways: through prayer, in Christ's mediation; through instruction and counsel, in Scripture; through correction, in Law; through remission, in atonement; and through solace and support, in grace. The least we can do is share the goodness about a bit, to the extent we can.

Forgery and the Morelli Method

It seems just about everyone and their dog is talking about the Killian memos and the allegations that they are forged. A useful selection of links on the subject can be found at "blogicus" here.

In any case, I've been intending to put up a post about the Morelli method for ages; one with links that I can use (this weblog, after all, is in great measure intended to be a collection resources for my own use; naturally, if any of you know of any errors in anything below, or have further resources, I'd love to learn them). So this provides a great opportunity.

The Morelli method, invented by Giovanni Morelli, was a revolution in the detection of art forgery. Prior to Morelli, determination of whether a work of art was a forgery or not was decided by the general impression of someone thoroughly familiar with the artist in question about whether this work of art was the sort of thing that the artist could have, and would have, painted. Morelli's revolution was to recognize that the obvious characteristics were precisely the ones forgers could most easily forge; the ones the expert forgers slip on are not the things we notice on general impression, even on expert and careful general impression, but the trifles. A competent forger can paint like Fra Angelico; but it would require another level of competence entirely to paint so like Fra Angelico that you paint even the eyes, fingers, and ears like Fra Angelico. It's the little slips that mark the forger. God is in the details. Some resources:

An extract from Morelli's work on the subject.

A very readable introduction to how the Morelli method would actually be used.

A general introduction to the method.

The Morelli method is easily adapted to other fields. One of the instances I find most interesting is A. Q. Morton's work on literary authorship. By analyzing occurrences of minor words - things like 'the', 'of', 'an' - vowels, sentence length, etc., Morton is able to identify differences in authorship to a reasonable degree of probability (assuming there's enough text to analyze). This involves text analysis (CUSUM), although other things need to be added to it (expert knowledge about the writing material, etc.). There are limits to this, of course; the method only detects differences in immediate authorship. For instance, Morton's work showing that Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, and (perhaps) Philemon are the only Pauline Epistles that match Galatians doesn't mean (assuming, as Morton does, that Galatians is certainly Paul's) that the other Pauline Epistles are not Pauline, but only that whoever is the immediate author of the others would probably have to have been different (for a good discussion of this, see here). Beyond this additional evidence would be needed. It would be entirely possible, for instance, for the difference in authorship to be merely a difference in the scribe dictated to, if the scribe had considerable freedom to put it all into good literary form. This is important to keep in mind because in the ancient world scribes often did have considerable freedom; they didn't take dictation, they provided a product given the information they were given. Thus, in Morton's work on the gospels this social fact, that scribes standardly compressed and expanded what they were told to write in order to fit as exactly as possible the 'page limit' (e.g., the length of the scroll) the client had paid for, turns out to be key to a number of the arguments. It's important to recognize this: some have treated the CUSUM technique as, in and of itself, sufficient to determine authorship; but it's clear that other knowledge must be added to the mix. It has limits and complexities. But it's clear that combined with other evidences, this sort of analysis has immense potential. See here, for example, with regard to some of Francis Bacon's writings and Thomas Hobbes; here, with regard to Shakespeare and Fletcher.

And, of course, word frequencies and the like are not the only sorts of trifles useful in detecting forgeries, frauds, and differences of authorship - depending on what exactly you have in front of you, there are things like handwriting, typography, ink type, etc. (One of the problems in the Killian memos controversy is that CBS doesn't appear to have ever had the originals, nor even close copies, but only copies several places removed. This degrades the evidence and sharply reduces the trifles one can use to help decide the issue.)

I first became interested in the Morelli method while reading Eco & Sebeok's The Sign of Three, which is on precisely the semiotic and evidential importance of trifles.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Philosophers' Carnival II


"I will not (as I might) point to the strong moral purpose of this poem itself, to the arithmetical principles so cautiously inculcated in it, or to its noble teachings in Natural History...."

Welcome to Siris (the name and description, of course, allude to Berkeley's work of the same name) and the second Philosophers' Carnival. Since we extended the submission time, I had time enough to consider a theme for this carnival. I had to pick a fairly flexible theme; and who allows for more philosophical connections than Lewis Carroll? And what metaphor could possibly convey the adventure and glory (and occasional snarkiness) of the philosophical pursuit than The Hunting of the Snark? There were several great submissions, and several great nominations, this time around. So get out your thimbles and rail-way shares; we're going hunting!

[Drolleries are borrowed from Mr. H's Giornale Nuovo in conformity with the conditions of the Attribution-Sharealike 1.0 Creative Commons License. This license opens the work to public use; however, all use must properly attribute the work and be in conformity with the original license. Hat-tip to Carnivalesque (the Early Modernists' Carnival) and particularly to Issue #1 for the discovery of these delightful little creatures.]

Fit the First
The Landing

Our story opens in Fit the First with the landing of our noble adventurers.

  "Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
  That alone should encourage the crew.
  Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
  What I tell you three times is true."

Andy at Under the Sun has a brief reflection on Nietzsche, Emerson, authenticity, and God in Two Conceptions of Self:

"The terminology--Apollonian, Dionysian--is Nietzsche's. The book under discussion is a reading of two attempts to resolve that tension: Nietzsche's and Emerson's."

Since in Fit the First we are introduced to the crew, it seems a good place to view some of the difficult questions of personhood. In Abortion and Personhood, Jeremy Pierce at Parableman does just that, with his usual ability to set out a difficult subject clearly:

"The assumption is that moral status has something to do with developed intelligence, ability to think and plan, and moral reasonsing. I've never seen a decent argument for that sort of concept of personhood and the resultant claim that a fetus is not a person. In most ordinary speech, 'person' and 'human being' have always seemed to me to be synonymous, and even an embryo is clearly a human organism at least. I've been around enough pregnant women who talk about the little person inside them that I can't believe this use of 'person' matches up with the ordinary one, and I think the burden of proof lies with those who think they differ. The only reasons I've seen for the view that personhood involves extra traits not possessed by a fetus are question-begging, such as the claim that a brain-dead person (though no one will put it that way) is not really a person, something I would never grant."

Fit the Second
The Bellman's Speech

In Fit the Second we learn the ins and outs of Snark hunting.

   "Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
   But we've got our brave Captain to thank:
   (So the crew would protest) "that he's bought us the best--
   A perfect and absolute blank!"

A blank map is so much easier than one with all sorts of shapes like landmasses, with all the complications they bring! But Richard Chappell considers the importance of multiplicity in Multiplicities at Philosophy, et cetera:

"I hope that this synthesis of seemingly unrelated sources and ideas may help to highlight the common thread which runs through them all: namely, multiplicity. The world is full of it. Everyone and everything is so incredibly complex - so much more than "just one thing" - that we cannot even begin to understand them without employing some degree of abstraction. But we inevitably lose something in the process: the potential to consider something from a different perspective, and so attain an alternative understanding of it. The moral, I suppose, is that we need to recognise our cognitive shortcomings in this regard."

   The Bellman perceived that their spirits were low,
  And repeated in musical tone
  Some jokes he had kept for a season of woe--
  But the crew would do nothing but groan.

The new philosophy blog Doing Things With Words tackles a perpetual puzzle in the post, An open question: why aren't philosophers funny? Reflecting on Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Dan suggests that we should expect philosophers to make more use of comedy:

"Much of our comedy is there to help us deal with our frailty. Philosophy often has the same aim, and there's no reason not to use the same means. Philosophers ought to be funny, I think, not only as part of being more accessible but also in order to gain some insight into the human condition."

   "The fourth is its fondness for bathing-machines,
  Which it constantly carries about,
  And believes that they add to the beauty of scenes--
  A sentiment open to doubt."

Bathing machines as abstract art, perhaps? In Whatever Happened to Exemplification? at Philosophy of Art, Brian Soucek suggests that Goodman's notion of exemplification should be more fully pursued:

"So why is this concept so important for aesthetics? For one thing, because it allows works to mean without requiring that they refer to anything outside of themselves. It thus avoids a standard formalist prohibition on reference "outside the frame". And yet it does so without sacrificing the notion that works of art might mean something."

Fit the Third
The Baker's Tale

In Fit the Third the adventurers learn of the terrible peril of hunting a Snark; for although most snarks are perfectly harmless, some Snarks are Boojums!

   " 'But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day,
  If your Snark be a Boojum! For then
  You will softly and suddenly vanish away,
  And never be met with again!' "

One of the great perils of Snark hunting is our fallibility in identifying whether Snarks are Boojums. This issue arises at Certain Doubts when Jon Kvanvig looks at Openmindedness:

"Wayne Riggs has a new paper up on his website that has me thinking about openmindedness again....Two questions are central here: what is openmindedness and why is it a valuable character trait? On the latter score, I recall Pappas’s answer was metaphysical: openmindedness is important because the world is in flux, and without openmindedness, our belief system would be frozen while the world changed. This answer seems to me mistaken on two grounds. "

   "But if ever I meet with a Boojum, that day,
  In a moment (of this I am sure),
  I shall softly and suddenly vanish away--
  And the notion I cannot endure!"

The Baker has strong intuitions on the matter. Brian Weatherson tackles the difficult issue of Intuitions at Thoughts Arguments and Rants:

"The main point I want to defend is that intuitions about particular cases are not of that much evidential value in doing conceptual analysis. Intuitions about borderline particular cases are of even less value. Moreover, most of the cases epistemologists look at, including the cases that WNS investigate, are somewhat borderline. So even if everyone’s intuitions lined up with these cases, we should be suspicious of their evidential value."

Fit the Fourth
The Hunting

In Fit the Fourth the hunt begins!

   "You may charge me with murder--or want of sense--
  (We are all of us weak at times):
  But the slightest approach to a false pretense
  Was never among my crimes!"

At Philosophy of Art, Adele Tomlin considers the ethics of deception as it relates to certain kinds of provocative conceptual art in the post Conceptual Art: Deception, provocation and 'bad' jokes:

"Goldie claims that the deception involved in an artwork can increase its aesthetic merit even though it is an ethical demerit. In my opinion, although it is clear that deception was involved in the production of both the artworks mentioned, Goldie has given the deceptive element way too much priority over the central content and aim of the works which is 'provocation'. To discover that one has been deceived is ultimately to be provoked in some way."

  "For England expects--I forbear to proceed:
  'Tis a maxim tremendous, but trite:
  And you'd best be unpacking the things that you need
  To rig yourselves out for the fight."

In a slightly older post at The University Without Condition, à Gauche examines the argument of an essay by Anthony Burke on "The Perverse Perseverance of Sovereignty" in Response to Burke (1): The Emergence of Empire. This one is hard to excerpt; but here's just a sample of the discussion:

"We should not ignore the argument about the uniqueness of the US Constitution and of the Republic which, according to Hardt & Negri, contained the germ of the now-emerging imperial sovereignty: it replaced the medieval transcendent constitution with an immanent body-politic and united this more representative state form with a citizenry understood primarily as agents of production. As capitalism developed and expanded, it forced gradual changes in the structures of the republic - they mark the importance of Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations - until we find that the present-day expressions of US sovereignty only appear 'modern' in the instance of a fantastically regressive (and probably one-term) administration."

Fit the Fifth
The Beaver's Lesson

In Fit the Fifth the Beaver and the beaver-killing Butcher become friends when, faced with the terrible cry of the JubJub bird, the Butcher is forced to teach the Beaver mathematics and natural history.

   It felt that, in spite of all possible pains,
  It had somehow contrived to lose count,
  And the only thing now was to rack its poor brains
  By reckoning up the amount.

Uriah at Desert Landscapes considers the possibility of Modal Realism without Possible Worlds:

"Here’s a view: modal statements have truthmakers, but there are no possible worlds other than the actual world. How does this work? I am brown-eyed, but it’s true that I could have been blue-eyed. “Uriah could have been blue-eyed” therefore has a truthmaker. Traditionally, most people think of this truthmaker as the fact that it is possible for me to instantiate the property of being blue-eyed. But I have a different suggestion: the truthmaker is the fact that I *do* instantiate in the actual world the property of *being possibly blue-eyed*. The property of being blue-eyed is one that (allegedly) I *possibly* instantiate, but the property of being possibly blue-eyed is one that I *actually* instantiate."

  "Taking Three as the subject to reason about--
  A convenient number to state--
  We add Seven, and Ten, and then multiply out
  By One Thousand diminished by Eight.

  "The result we proceed to divide, as you see,
  By Nine Hundred and Ninety Two:
  Then subtract Seventeen, and the answer must be
  Exactly and perfectly true."

Ontologically discusses an problem that has been raised about naturalized philosophies of mathematics in Putnam, Lewis, and the Necessity of Naturalized Mathematical Truth:

"Ask the naturalist: are the truths of mathematics necessarily true? Quine famously argued that mathematical and even logical truths are revisable given the right evidentiary pressure. Revisability is a modal concept, so to assess this claim we need to begin with a solid philosophy of modality. How about David Lewis' modal realism?"

  And when quarrels arose--as one frequently finds
  Quarrels will, spite of every endeavor--
  The song of the Jubjub recurred to their minds,
  And cemented their friendship for ever!

The voice of the JubJub is perhaps found elsewhere: The Picket Line has a reflection on Gandhian politics in the post Satyagraha - do certain means protect against certain ends?:

"Satyagraha includes a more radical limitation than the renunciation of violence – in its purest forms it also includes the renunciation of force – except perhaps persuasive moral force – and sets much loftier political goals. It does not claim victory in the defeat or subjugation of its foes – victory comes when those foes, under no threat aside from that of their own awakened consciences, willingly and gladly change their behavior."

Fit the Sixth
The Barrister's Dream

In Fit the Sixth the Barrister dreams that the Snark takes over a surreal court.

   "The fact of Desertion I will not dispute;
   But its guilt, as I trust, is removed
  (So far as related to the costs of this suit)
  By the Alibi which has been proved."

Neil Levy discusses Pathologies of volition, attributability and responsibility at The Garden of Forking Paths:

"Intuitively, it seems that attributability (the degree to which an action can be attributed to an agent) and responsibility are, if not synonymous, nevertheless inextricably linked. That is, the higher the degree of one of them, the higher the degree of the other. When I am compelled to act by an outside force, if I am not responsible for the action it seems that this is because it is not attributable to me. Here I shall argue that though attributability and responsibility come in degrees, they can come apart. I shall use some pathologies of volition (as I shall call them) to illustrate."

   The Judge left the Court, looking deeply disgusted:
  But the Snark, though a little aghast,
  As the lawyer to whom the defense was entrusted,
  Went bellowing on to the last.

The Snark took over the entire trial (and misused a number of words in doing so). In On Dissent, Bill Vallicella at Maverick Philosopher looks at the issue of dissenting from such linguistic hijacking:

"Dissent is a good thing and we need more of it. We need dissent against professional activists and agitators; against the fetishizers of dissent; against those who allege that consent is manufactured, as opposed to arising spontaneously by the individual exercise of good judgment; against those who value diversity to the detriment of unity; against those who prefer the BSA (Balkanized States of America) to the USA; against the identity politicians; against the cultural relativists, und so weiter."

Fit the Seventh
The Banker's Fate

In Fit the Seventh, the Banker meets the terrible Bandersnatch, and goes insane.

   Down he sank in a chair--ran his hands through his hair--
  And chanted in mimsiest tones
  Words whose utter inanity proved his insanity,
  While he rattled a couple of bones.

Some have thought that there's a bit of an inanity (and perhaps a bit of insanity) involved in the use of the word 'knowledge'. Wo's weblog has a discussion of whether slight differences in the way people use words like "knowledge" is really so earth-shattering for epistemology in the post Conceptual Differences:

"But anyway, suppose knowledge (that is, what we Western, High-SES philosophers mean by "knowledge") really plays a central role in epistemology. Does it matter if other people lack a word for it, and use "knowledge" for something else? I don't think so. Why should it? Supervenience plays an important role in metaphysics despite the fact that most people don't have a word for it."

Fit the Eighth
The Vanishing

In Fit the Eighth the Baker finds the Snark! Alas, it is a Boojum, and he softly and silently vanishes away, just as he thought he would.

   They hunted till darkness came on, but they found
  Not a button, or feather, or mark,
  By which they could tell that they stood on the ground
  Where the Baker had met with the Snark.

How do we know what happened to the Baker? We can only make a causal inference on the basis of the evidence available. This puts me in mind of Lady Mary Shepherd's causal theory, which I summarize in the imaginatively titled post, A Summary of Lady Mary Shepherd's Causal Theory at Houyhnhnm Land.

In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away---
For the Snark *was* a Boojum, you see.

And so we come to the end of our adventure. Be sure to submit, or keep an eye out for nominations, for the next Philosophers' Carnival.

Also, hosts are still needed. If you would be interested in hosting the next the Philosophers' Carnival, contact Richard Chappell at:

r {dot} chappell {at} gmail {dot} com

(with, of course, . for {dot}, @ for {at}, and no spaces).

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Thinking about Tar-Water

The Newton's Alchemy post (Ralph Luker at Cliopatria has a deeper discussion of Newman's work) has left me thinking about Berkeley's interest in tar-water. While not quite as interesting as Newton's alchemy, it would be great if there were work done on this point. The project actually has quite a bit of potential. The basic historical facts seem to be these:

1. Berkeley discovers tar-water being used as a folk remedy while in America waiting for the grant to build a College in the Bahamas. (The grant, of course, never materialized, being re-appropriated to buy presents for a member of the Royal Family.) It is not (as far as I can recall) very clear how he came across it, but he later seems to be fairly knowledgeable about different variations of its use in America, so must have researched. This would be in keeping with his character; we know from his journals in Italy that he did this sort of thing -- in Italy he researched the tarantula (both the spider and the dance, and how they were connected in folklore).

2. As Bishop of Cloyne, a very poor Irish county, he makes research and dispensation of tar-water a major priority. (From what I understand this wouldn't be very surprising; because he had book-learning and was a clergyman, he would likely have been the person to whom the poor in the county would have turned for help in medical matters when nothing else seemed to work.) He keeps trying to tweak the procedure for optimum effect; but he's heartened by its apparent success.

3. He writes several works advocating the use of tar-water and thereby becomes involved in controversy with the apothecaries of the time. Berkeley's own assessment of the situation is that they are protecting their purses: apothecaries' wares are expensive, and tar-water is very cheap (given Berkeley's lifelong and almost saintly interest in helping the poor, this was undoubtedly one of the recommendations of tar-water), and, if its use spreads, it would put the apothecaries out of business. In Siris, Berkeley connects his interest in tar-water with his other philosophical interests, and attempts to fit it into the the alchemical work of Boerhaave and others (including Newton!).

4. The use of tar-water spreads; it is used both as a tonic (cf. its brief appearance near the beginning of Dickens's Great Expectations) and (this I think is particular interesting) as a substitute for 'strong spirits', both of which were originally advocated by Berkeley.

The scientific fact seems to be that tar-water consists of ordinary water, plus minute amounts of carbolic acid, acetic acid, and wood creosote (which is not to be confused with the carcinogenic tar creosote). What I find intriguing about this is that all three of these substances have antiseptic properties. So, taking all these apparent facts together, we would have the rudiments of a rather elaborate interdisciplinary project that would require (in all cases assuming the relevant work hasn't been done already):

* historical work on folklore in order to find out whatever can be determined about the status of tar-water as a folk remedy in the 17th and 18th centuries;

* historical work on the situation of the poor in Cloyne in the 18th century;

* scientific work on tar-water to clarify the situation (e.g., by drinking large quantities of tar-water every day was Berkeley genuinely helping himself, or poisoning himself, or something in between?) Some work has been done on wood creosote (see, for example, this paper; and this one, and the properties of acetic acid and carbolic acid (a.k.a., phenol) are, I think, fairly well known. But I don't think there's been anything that looks particularly at the sort of dilution of these substances one would get in tar-water. As I noted above, all three substances have antiseptic properties (Lister used carbolic acid as his primary antiseptic), and it would be interesting if it had the potential to improve water quality or as a mild antiseptic when used as a wash (one of the uses Berkeley advocates); but given how diluted they would have to be this might not be possible (on the other hand, carbolic acid is no mild antiseptic, since a stronger solution is still used, from what I understand, as part of the process for denaturing biological weapons).

* historical work on Berkeley's own researches (we have, in addition to his published works, a number of letters, although for the most part our information on this point is rather obscure);

* historical work on the alchemical tradition to which Berkeley appeals in works like Siris in his attempt to find an explanation for tar-water's apparent properties as a panacea;

* historical work on the spread of tar-water use do to Berkeley's efforts, in particular its role in early attempts to deal with (for example) the Gin Problem.

This is quite a hefty potential research project; I'll have to think about it more. In particular, I think I'll need to look into the question of how much work has actually been done in each of these areas (fairly little, I would imagine, but there's bound to be something relevant in several of these areas). Interesting food for thought; as I said, I'll have to think about (and research) it more. Naturally, if any readers of this blog happen to be experts on the properties of carbolic acid, or on American folk remedies in the 18th century, or anything else, I'd be interested in your thoughts.

A Summary of Lady Mary Shepherd's Causal Theory

On this weblog I have been dribbling out bits of the causal theory of Lady Mary Shepherd (1777-1847). Here's a bit of recap to give a taste of how it fits together.

At the heart of Shepherd's causal theory is reflection on the causal principle, namely, that every beginning of existence has a cause. Her full analysis of our development and application of this principle is something like this:

1. A new quality appears to my senses.

2. New qualities are differences; and thus the appearance of a new quality is the introduction of a difference; the introduction of a difference is causation.

3. This new quality could not be caused by itself (it would not then be an introduced difference).

4. In the environment of this new quality there are not any surrounding objects except such-and-such object(s) that could affect it.

5. Therefore such-and-such occasioned it, because there is nothing else to make a difference and a difference cannot begin of itself (3 and 4).

She notes that this sort of reasoning is standard in scientific work, and insists that one trial is all that is necessary to establish the general principle. If she is right about this, then, as she rightly notes, Hume would be wrong in his claim that the causal principle is based on custom. All we actually need in practice, Shepherd thinks, is to reason on a single case involving an introduction of a difference; this serves as an occasion adequate for our deriving the general principle, which is, if she is right, necessary.

(3) is a significant move in the analysis, so it is worthwhile to look more closely at her reasoning on this point. Suppose we have an object that 'begins its existence of itself', i.e., just begins, uncaused. This beginning of an object is "an action, which is a quality of an object not yet in being, and so not possible to have its qualities determined, nevertheless exhibiting its qualities". In other words, she thinks "beginning to be, uncaused" involves a contradiction; beginning to be is necessarily an introduction of a difference, and therefore requires something from which it may be introduced. As she puts it elsewhere, objects cannot begin their existences except as having the nature of effects.

This is perhaps made clearer by the way she thinks differences are usually introduced. Shepherd sees causation as a "mixture of qualities." Suppose you have a cause (C) and an object (O) or co-cause. Each of these has a number of properties or qualities. When C acts on O (or combines with O), the qualities 'mix'. The mixed result is the effect. So, for instance, I punch my fist into clay, the resulting impression is a 'mixture' of some of the properties of my fist and some of the properties of the clay.

Take another example, which will perhaps give a clearer idea of the significance of the view. There is a book on a sturdy table. That the book does not fall through the table is necessitated by the combined properties of the book and the table. It is not impossible, of course, for books to fall through tables; but it is only possible if some of the properties of either the book, or the table, or both, are changed. That is, a change can be induced in the situation only by introducing new properties into the mix. These new properties are causes of new situations. On this view of causation, the causal principle is necessary, because every change of properties requires the introduction of new properties. On the mixture view of causation, Shepherd thinks, anything new is necessarily an effect of a new introduction of properties. This, of course, is exactly right; you can't change the properties of a situation without changing its properties; if you have a new set of properties, it can only be because some properties in the set are new.

Shepherd, always very perceptive as to the implications of her positions, notes that this means that cause and effect, properly speaking, are simultaneous. If causation is the introduction of difference, and effect is the beginning of existence of the introduced difference, cause and effect are strictly occurring at the same time. They entail each other, and therefore cannot be separated by an interval. Likewise, she notes that on her view one can often call the same thing 'cause' or 'effect' depending on how you look at it. For instance, the entire set of properties involved in the interaction can be regarded either as the effect (given that it is newly different because some of its properties are newly different) or as cause (given that it is the whole set of properties in union that makes the new difference). This means that Shepherd's causal theory has an immense capacity to capture the various ways we actually do tend to use the words 'cause' and 'effect'.

This is all very rough; Shepherd has been unduly neglected, and, indeed, has been virtually ignored. Nonetheless there is an astounding amount of interesting analysis in her work, and I hope this brief, rough summary is enough to intrigue people into looking at her a bit.

(Cross-posted to Houyhnhnm Land.)