Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Caras vemos, corazones no sabemos

In the comments to the post on the Kate Lindemann interview, Pensans says:

As a civilization and in our society, we systematically doubt the testimony of interested persons. From ancient times, rhetoricians noted that interest undermines credibility. From then until the present, the formal practice of doubting interested testimony has played a role in the law of evidence. It is still embodied today in many areas from jury instructions to standards of summary judgment. I neither think, as you say, that I am starting this line of reasoning nor do I fear that it leads nowhere good.

We doubt self-interested testimony because, whether there is an intentional lie or not, interest shades both the recollection and framing of events. We are weak in judging and remembering things that strongly affect us. Of course, in formal logic, the interest of the speaker cannot be raised against an argument. But practical judgment proceeds by different rules in dealing with testimony.

There is, I think, a fairly straightforward confusion here. When we talk of an 'interested person' or a 'personal interest' we may mean two entirely different things:

(1) this person has a prejudice potentially able to be a source of falsehood in the testimony they give (let's call this a distorting interest)
(2) this person has a personal stake in the matter with regard to which they are testifying (let's call this a personal stake)

The two are not the same thing at all. (1) is a matter of subjective distortions; (2) is a matter of objective relevance. It is clear in the context -- Lindemann's testimony about a professor's remark about woman -- that Pensans has no evidence of distorting interest. The only reason given for suggesting that Lindemann has a distorting interest is that

It is strongly in her interest that there be lots of evil resistance to women philosophers. Otherwise, the Women-Philosophers project sounds like a pathetic special-interest group.

As I pointed out, the assumptions behind the 'otherwise' are problematic at best. But let that be set aside. Is this a serious argument for distorting interest? No. The only point it brings forward merely shows that Lindemann has a personal stake in the Women Philosophers project.

As I've noted before, with Hume's use of Pensans's principle in his arguments against miracles, the sort of principle presented here, combined with the conflation, leads to utter absurdity. Experts by definition have a fairly hefty personal stake in most of the public claims they make, because they put their reputations and sometimes their careers on the line with them; if this personal stake were treated as a distorting interest, it would require us always to doubt the testimony of experts when pitted against those with less personal stake -- quacks and conspiracy theorists, for instance, or Joe at the bar who is just mouthing off.

Another example: if someone is accused of a crime, but gives his own account of events in which he was framed, it would be utter stupidity for a newspaper columnist, for instance, to dismiss it by saying, "Of course, it is strongly in his interest to claim that someone framed him. Otherwise, he'll go to jail. So there is some ground for doubting his testimony." But the journalist has provided no ground for doubting his testimony at all, only a reason for thinking it's very important matter which way the ultimate decision goes. The only grounds for doubting his testimony are reasons for thinking the testimony might be false. But the purely hypothetical scenario that if he's guilty he would have reason to lie gives us no reason whatsoever to think one way or another about the man's testimony. It is a purely hypothetical scenario, and it can only provide reasons for anything if we have reasons suggesting that it might not be so hypothetical after all.

Consider another case: Some members of one of the poorer black communities in a large city come forward with testimony of harassment and racist actions by the local police. And someone, hearing about this, but knowing nothing about the matter except the testimony itself, says, "Of course, there is some ground for doubting their testimony. They have a strong interest in claiming that the police are racist; otherwise they have to take the blame for the fact that so many of their members are getting into trouble with the police." What has happened here? Is it not, in fact, that the person who says this has committed an injustice against the people who gave the original testimony, by casting aspersions on their claims on the basis of no evidence at all? Testimony should not be treated lightly. Pensans is right that practical judgment enters into the matter; but whenever practical judgment enters into the matter, so does ethics. And testimonial injustice is injustice.

When we recognize this, we see that Pensans is wrong to say that the principle is applied systematically. If no distinction is made between distorting interest and personal stake, it is not applied systematically at all, and could not possibly be short of society going insane; rather, it's applied when people find it convenient to short circuit serious investigation or to cast aspersions on other people. Instead of being evidence-based, it involves people making things up on the basis of purely hypothetical situations that they can't prove. If we have evidence that there is a distorting interest, then we can cite it as reason to doubt the testimony. Under certain circumstances (police investigations, historical research, etc.) we may investigate the question of distorting interest as a matter of course for each bit of testimony we come across, because we know by experience how much it can lead that sort of investigation astray. Of course, in the Lindemann case, none of those circumstances obtain. Lindemann brings up the personal anecdote for no other reason than to explain why she's interested in the history of women in philosophy. And thus Pensans's whole argument in this particular case turns out to be an argument that we have grounds to doubt her testimony about how she became strongly interested in the subject because she's strongly interested in the subject, which is absurd.

But even outside this case, suggesting distorting interest without evidence is always unjust, and what is more, it is dangerously close to being a pretense that one can, God-like, peer into the hearts of others, even if only probabilistically, without having to bother with the external signs. And that would be hubris. That's something we need to take steps to avoid in all our argument and reasoning.

Incidentally, it's important to recognize (although it often is not) that the personal stake in an argument raises ethical questions about how we handle ourselves in reasoning and discussion for all of reasoning, not just inference from testimony. To the extent that a person has a personal stake in the point we are arguing about, we must take that into account in the way we publically reason and argue about it, because their personal stake raises the risk, which must be avoided or at least compensated for, of treating them unjustly in argument. In many particular cases, these ethical issues are easy to miss, because we can presume or postulate that everyone has a strong personal stake in the truth whether they like it or not; but the ethical issues are not nonexistent, and the truth should not be put forward as an excuse for mistreating people during an argument.

I raise the point because it's clear that we all, and especially academics (who learn to argue in a conclave where it's in everyone's interests to allow truth an even greater trumping force than it ordinarily has), have difficulty engaging in the ethical self-critique that responsible (and therefore rational) argument requires. And so it seems to me worth mentioning it so that we might all, and this includes myself, have a reminder that this self-examination continually needs to be there if we are to be rational in our arguments at all.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Nae so Mony as Thot!

Augustus De Morgan, A Budget of Paradoxes, p. 180:

A friend of mine heard the following (part) dialogue between two strong Scotch Calvinists: 'Noo! hoo manny d'ye thank there are of the alact on the arth at this moment?--Eh ! mabbee a doozen--Hoot! mon! nae so mony as thot!'

Strong Scotch Calvinists indeed.

The Four Waters

Today is the feast of Teresa of Avila, one of my favorite theologians. From her Life:

A beginner must look upon himself as making a garden, wherein our Lord may take His delight, but in a soil unfruitful, and abounding in weeds. His Majesty roots up the weeds, and has to plant good herbs. Let us, then, take for granted that this is already done when a soul is determined to give itself to prayer, and has begun the practice of it. We have, then, as good gardeners, by the help of God, to see that the plants grow, to water them carefully, that they may not die, but produce blossoms, which shall send forth much fragrance, refreshing to our Lord, so that He may come often for His pleasure into this garden, and delight Himself in the midst of these virtues.

Let us now see how this garden is to be watered, that we may understand what we have to do: how much trouble it will cost us, whether the gain be greater than the trouble, or how long a time it will take us. It seems to me that the garden may be watered in four ways: by water taken out of a well, which is very laborious; or with water raised by means of an engine and buckets, drawn by a windlass--I have drawn it this way sometimes--it is a less troublesome way than the first, and gives more water; or by a stream or brook, whereby the garden is watered in a much better way--for the soil is more thoroughly saturated, and there is no necessity to water it so often, and the labour of the gardener is much less; or by showers of rain, when our Lord Himself waters it, without labour on our part--and this way is incomparably better than all the others of which I have spoken.

Teresa interestingly associates the water with the tears of repentance or, alternatively, inward devotion. The first way, laboriously drawing water from a well, is the way of the beginner in spiritual prayer. It takes effort, and often difficult effort, to still the mind, quiet the passions, focus without distraction on what is to be loved. Many who are faced with this labor are tempted to stop, because it is so difficult, and sometimes the result is so small in comparison with the effort, and sometimes, just as the person always drawing from a well may reach the point where his arms ache so much he cannot pull anymore, so may the beginner in prayer reach the point where she can't think even one more good thought. This, Teresa thinks, is one of the things meant by bearing the Cross of Christ. The second way is when the one who prays has received the gift of the prayer of quiet, and therefore can refresh the garden of the soul in a peaceful and restful way, without struggle. This prayer of quiet may be occasional or constant, depending on how much the one who prays has grown. In the third way, prayer flows naturally and abundantly, so that the only trouble is to direct the water this way and that to where it needs to go. It is a sort of sleep or miniature death to the world in which the faculties become wholly absorbed in contemplating and loving God, but it falls short of full union and so exhibits curious properties: the soul is in a state of "delectable disquiet", and it wants to praise God actively and verbally ("it would be all tongue if it could" Teresa says), but it (so to speak) trips over itself and can't give its words orderly form; if she manages to do so it is more with God's help than on her own. In the fourth way, the one who prays is caught up in the prayer; in a sense it is God who prays, and she is merely swept along with His prayer, overcome and overwhelmed. It is a state of total union.

One can't choose, of course, which way is available to the garden, since that is in the Lord's hands. But the garden still needs to be watered.

Women Philosophers Website

The Florida Student Philosophy Blog has an interview with Kate Lindemann, who runs the Women Philosophers Website, the one I previously noted. I thought this part was particularly interesting:

Of course part of my interest in the HISTORY of women philosophers arose from an experience when I was a sophomore in college. I took my first philosophy course and loved it. One day after class the instructor asked me what my major was. I said, "English but I am thinking of changing to philosophy." He said that I could not do that and among his reasons was that "There are no women philosophers. Women can not do philosophy." So I have ALWAYS been interested in women philosophers and ever since I knew of their existence, I wanted to be sure that their lives and work are widely known so no other young woman could be told what I was told.

Apparently there is a surprising number of instructors who will say things like this, which is insane.

In any case, in the interview Lindemann gives a number of ways you might be able to support the project, so go and read it.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Of Hume's Infamous Footnote

Chris Mathews has a nice weblog called Philosophical Misadventures (ht) which exists "to collect, document, and comment upon the various missteps, mistakes, and plain absurdities of prominent philosophers, from it’s earliest beginnings to the present day." This is a dangerous sort of endeavor, since history is filled with attributions of missteps, mistakes, and plain absurdities that are themselves missteps, mistakes, and plain absurdities (due, for instance, to a failure to take into account shifts in language, or precise phrasing of texts, etc.). But the attempt here is very sober and balanced, which is the best one can ask for in facing such issues.

One of the posts from several months ago discusses Hume's infamous footnote, which I have discussed several times before, and in particular looks at Eric Morton's paper, Race and Racism in the Works of David Hume, which I've recommended as a good beginning for inquiry on the subject, although criticizing it for its tendency to move from point to point without adequate development.

Morton claims that "Hume’s theory of knowledge is driven by Hume’s racism and the built-in racism in his philosophical and conceptual worldview." To this Mathews replies,

Morton may show that Hume’s racism taints his own conceptual worldview (hardly a difficult task, given the evidence) but fails to justify philosophically how “the conceptual framework of empiricism itself may be racist.” Is it not possible to simply apply the abstract principles of Humes’s philosophy without the empirical prejudices the philosopher himself held?

This is an interesting question to ask, but I think we need to make some distinctions if it is to be properly answered.

(1) There is a sense in which one can agree 'abstractly' with a philosopher but hold what is a very different philosophical position. A very good example of this, which I've pointed out a number of times, and which is always fascinating, is from Hume himself. Hume agrees 'abstractly' with a great many of Malebranche's principles in the theory of causation. You can even find Hume repeating Malebranche's arguments on the subject word-for-word (allowing for translation). But the 'abstract' level glosses over some serious differences in how the two understand those very principles. Malebranche makes his argument about balls hitting other balls, which Hume adapts into the billiard balls argument, to do in some sense what Hume later wants to do: namely, to show that we cannot perceive causation. But what a very vast chasm lies between them on both of these points. Malebranche is a rationalist: the sensory perception he has in mind has rationalist features. Hume is an empiricist, and the impression he has in mind is that of sensory impressions, which are related to certain kinds of 'ideas' examined by Locke and Berkeley. Malebranche is a devout Catholic who brings up these causal arguments as a twofold project of driving people to recognizing their dependence on God and purging philosophy and theology of elements of pagan philosophy. Hume's motivation, of course, is very different. Is Hume using the abstract principles of Malebranche's philosophy? In a sense it is undeniable that he is. But, on the other hand, there's a sense in which he means something different by the same words, and it's a legitimate question to ask -- and some of my academic research has been devoted to asking -- how different and how similar their views really are. So it's a legitimate question to ask what has to be changed in order to avoid a Humean conclusion.

And the question will get asked anyway. I cannot count the number of times I have been defeated in an attempt to explain to my colleagues that Malebranche's arguments are philosophical interesting despite and even because they are part of an ethical program for destroying idolatry and increasing piety, which they tend to regard as suspicious and unphilosophical -- and this, again, despite the fact that no one has any problem with Hume's arguments, many of which (particularly in Section VII of the Enquiry) are just taken over from Malebranche. The contexts in which people find philosophical arguments do make a big difference on how they perceive them, even where they themselves cannot give a clear account of what the difference of an apparently similar argument in two different contexts is. Malebranche makes the arguments as a Catholic reformer; Hume makes the arguments as a skeptic; they are often word-for-word the same but I am continually being forced to justify studying Malebranche's arguments in their context despite the fact that if you substitute 'Hume' for 'Malebranche' no one thinks the study needs justification -- it's just obviously relevant and contemporary and whatever other standard they apply for justification. The moral for this case is that at the very least we need a close examination of how the principles change and how they remain the same when they are taken out of the context of Hume's whole philosophy.

(2) We tend to divorce Hume's theory of knowledge from his ethical theory. It is clear that Hume himself saw no divorce, despite the fact that it's sometimes difficult for us to see precisely what he saw as the connection. But it's important to understand that Hume's investigations in Book I of the Treatise are not necessarily ethically innocent. This is because Book I can be seen as (in part) a portion of a larger attack on the rationalist worldview, which undermines not just the rationalist view of the world, but the rationalist view of reason -- the same view of reason that undergirds ethics of a rationalist type. If a rationalist comes to us and points to Hume's infamous footnote as an example of why you need to accept the rationalist view of reason -- as one that allows for a priori ethical principles that rule out racism out of hand in a way no empirical principles can -- this question is also worth taking seriously. One person's modus ponens is another person's modus tollens (as I half-jokingly noted with regard to an instance of Hume's sexism, since he unwittingly gives women an interesting argument for the immortality of the soul).

(3) It's fair enough, however, to ask whether Hume was consistent in making these racist claims. And this in turn needs to be divided into several possible answers. (3a) One might argue that Hume was consistent in making these claims in such a way that his principles in some way require him to have racist conclusions. (3b) One might argue that Hume was consistent in making these claims, only in that his principles taken all together gave him no way to reject these conclusions. (3c) One might argue that Hume was inconsistent in making these claims, in that his principles are naturally anti-racist. (3d) One might argue that Hume was inconsistent in making these claims, not because of any particular anti-racist bent to his principles, but because he simply had the empirical facts wrong, in which case his having them wrong was either (3d1) excusable because he couldn't have had the right facts; or (3d2) inexcusable because a reasonable person could easily have gathered the right facts. Beattie, I think, has shown conclusively that if we take the (3d) position we have to reject (3d1), because Beattie, a contemporary of Hume, attacks Hume, and rightly, on all his empirical claims and shows in a very vivid way how absurd they often are. The rest are all positions worth considering. Morton obviously accepts (3a). I've endorsed a counterpart of (3b) for some of Hume's sexism, and would therefore be inclined to accept it for his racism until some argument comes along to convince me otherwise. (It's interesting, to consider another issue of a similar sort that's worth comparing to this one, that I've argued that Heidegger's association with the Nazis is at least (3b)-like and very likely (3a)-like.)

All of these are interesting questions worth asking.

Citing Weblogs

Bora provides information on citing weblog posts in NLM style. It makes less difference in philosophy, which is a discipline that has no unified citation style at all, but I thought I would note the three common ways of citing blog posts that most people writing in philosophy are likely to come across (not that it happens often, but it's worth knowing in these blogospheric times):

Last Name, First Name, "Blog post title." [Weblog entry.] Blog Name. Sponsoring organization (if any). Date Posted. (URL) Date Accessed.

Last Name, First Name. (Date Posted) Blog Post Title. Weblog entry. Retrieved on Date Accessed from URL.

Last Name, First Name, "Blog Post Title," Blog Name, comment posted Date Posted URL (accessed Date Accessed).

There are variations, of course; unsurprisingly, since in philosophy no one actually cares about citation format as long as you're close enough to whichever standard (MLA, APA, Chicago, or other) is proposed that you are not obviously wrong.

Propositional Logic with Literal Diagrams

I had been hoping to have a post on this much earlier (I think it's quite cool); but I have been a combination of busy, tired, and not feeling well for several days now. Having a bit of breathing space, I can finally note it. Propositional logic is often taught as if the only ways to test groups of statement in propositional logic for consistency were truth tables and truth trees. But we can also easily handle simple statements with Carroll's literal diagrams, in a way that is far more clear than either truth tables or truth trees.

A literal diagram is a diagram that recognizes combinations of terms. The standard biliteral diagram looks something like this, with the boxes given labels:


In propositional logic this is understood to represent possible ways the whole world can be, given the truth (+) or falsehood (-) of p and q. Information about p and q 'black out' possible ways the world could be given that information. With this insight we can easily represent all the propositional connectives:


This is the biliteral diagram for p & q. The biliteral diagram for p v q is:


The biconditional p ↔ q is:


The conditional, p → q is:


Now, take the following pair of sentences: p ↔ q, p, -q. The result is a world blackout, i.e., the conclusion that there is no possible way for the world to be given these three statements together:


p blacks out the -p+q and -p-q; -q would black out out +p+q (and -p+q, but p already blacks it out). This only leaves +p-q. But this (along with the redundant -p+q again) is blacked out by p ↔ q. World blackout: the statements taken together are inconsistent.

Another example. The statements (p v -q), (-p), and (-p & q) lead to world blackout as well. -p blacks out +p+q and +p-q. -p&q blacks out all except -p+q. But -p+q is precisely what (p v -q) blacks out.

Diagrams with world blackouts always indicate inconsistent statements; diagrams with at least one space open are consistent. And if we are dealing with 3 propositions we can do the same thing with a triliteral diagram, and so forth.

It's also easy to do two other useful things with literal diagrams. First, we can easily tell whether two statements are equivalent, by seeing whether they are diagrammed the same way. Second we can easily tell that statement B is not implied by statement A by diagramming them and determining whether B is part of A. If B, for instance, has information not contained in A, then it is not implied by it. If, on the other hand, B's diagram is nothing more than part of A's diagram, A implies B. (In effect doing these comparisons is like making a higher-order diagramming showing A ↔ B or A → B, whichever is being considered, and whatever A and B might be.)

Of course, it is no mystery why literal diagramming works in this case; the literal diagram, interpreted for propositional logic, is logically equivalent to a truth table. We can think of them as truth diagrams. The advantage to working with them is that they make explicit and visual the concepts of inconsistency, equivalence, and implication. Their only disadvantage in comparison with standard truth tables, actually, is that they quickly become unwieldy as you multiply the number of propositions you work with. But one can easily imagine beginning with truth diagrams, and using them to introduce truth tables.

A Valediction Forbidding Mourning

I'm currently listening to some songs by Kareem Salama (country/Western). Some splendid music. On his website, he gives his favorite poem as John Donne's "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning". Here it is.

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
"Now his breath goes," and some say, "No."

So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
'Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.

Moving of th' earth brings harms and fears;
Men reckon what it did, and meant;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers' love
—Whose soul is sense—cannot admit
Of absence, 'cause it doth remove
The thing which elemented it.

But we by a love so much refined,
That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assurèd of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to aery thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two ;
Thy soul, the fix'd foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th' other do.

And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th' other foot, obliquely run ;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

(Of course, as you might expect, I'm partial to Salama's song, "Aristotle and Averroes," a song about friendship in which the chorus goes:

I was like you and yes you were like me
We were so much alike but unique as can be
Friends till the end and we were quite the right team
Like those two men Aristotle and Averroes.

An excellent simile.)

Academic Mini-Celebrity

I always find it interesting when academics simply pursuing their own research suddenly, and briefly, become mini-celebrities in the broader public for unexpected reasons. Sometimes the reasons can be rather unfortunate, as with the recent Madonna Constantine case, but sometimes they can be rather more amusing. Scott Aaronson, for instance, recently discovered that a passage from his quantum physics lectures was plagiarized by a Ricoh printer commercial.

What are some other cases in recent times?