Friday, September 21, 2007


According to the Golden Compass daemon selector, my daemon is the Ocelot, Artemidoris. Her profile is flexible, modest, softly spoken, solitary, and inquisitive. (ht: Enigmania)

Incidentally, it does seem worth reminding some of the critics of Pullman's books that, whatever their problems (and there are a few), the books are overwhelmingly a mythological expression of an argument for the inestimable importance of each and every human soul.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Simple Logic Machines

Babbage's Analytical Engine started me thinking about simple (very simple, since I have no great mechanical imagination) logic machines. For instance, one could have a tool for propositional logic consisting of a rod on which seventeen wheels had been placed, and each of the wheels was engraved on four sides (which we can call, N, E, S, W) with the full truth table. This rod could then be put in a casing in which the wheels associated with v, &, etc., would be identified. The following table gives standard symbol on the left and common name on the right (these would be marked on the casing) and the truth values on the wheels (N, E, S, W in each case):

pq[TT, TF, FT, FF]
&[T, F, F, F]AND
v[T, T, T, F]OR
¬&[F, T, T, T]NAND
¬v[F, F, F, T]NOR
¬→[F, T, F, F]
¬↔[F, T, T, F]XOR
[T, T, T, T]
[F, F, F, F]
[T, T, F, T]
[F, F, T, T]
[T, T, F, F]
[T, F, T, F]
[F, T, F, T]
[F, F, T, F]

As I said, this works because it's basically a complete truth table for pq put on a cylinder. Finely done, it need not be bulkier than a big pen (it would make a good gift for philosophy and computer science students). With more than two letters this method becomes unwieldy. Perhaps you could adapt the Jevons Logic Piano for such cases?

One thing I've introduced my intro students to is Lewis Carroll's Game of Logic, which is, in effect, a primitive logic machine for handling categorical syllogisms. It consists of two diagrams, a Triliteral Diagram and a Biliteral Diagram, which are both essentially Venn Diagrams modified into squares and placed on a sort of game board. You then represent premises on the Triliteral Diagram using counters to indicate presence and absence (Carroll used red for presence and grey for absence), transfer information about the quarters of the diagram to the Biliteral Diagram, and read off the possible conclusions. One of the advantage Carroll Diagrams have over the more popular Venn Diagrams is that Venn Diagrams for more than three letters become very unwieldy -- even to get four letters you have to switch from circles to ellipses, and beyond that the geometries get strange and the diagrams hard to read. Carroll Diagrams can be adapted to handle a much larger number of terms; in his Symbolic Logic, Carroll gives an example of an Octoliteral Diagram, which can handle groups of premises with eight terms all told. (And to handle nine terms, you can use two Octoliteral Diagrams; to handle ten terms, you can use four; etc.) The Diagrams are usable at a much greater degree of complexity than you could ever get with Venn Diagrams (which is one reason why we should use Venn Diagrams less often and Carroll's Literal Diagrams more often).

An application of Carroll Diagrams that I don't think has been considered before is propositional logic. It would work exactly the same way; as Englebretsen and others have noted, p → q is logically exactly like 'All x are y' if we make the assumption of a singleton universe. (I.e., 'p → q' should be interpreted as something like, "All the world being such that p is the world being such that q.") p & q is like 'Some p is q'. Disjunction is more complicated but can be handled as well. Of course, we don't need to translate from propositional logic to categorical logic in order to use Carroll Diagrams for the former; it's intuitive enough once one learns how to represent the connectives on the board, although it is sometimes slightly harder to read than in the categorical case. It's very easy to handle hypothetical syllogisms (including modus ponens and modus tollens) and disjunctive syllogisms this way. But you can also handle a number of other introduction and elimination rules. (Incidentally, it is noteworthy, given my recent post on disjunction, that while disjunction introduction is easily represented in a natural way, that representation is different from the way to represent disjunction to make the disjunctive syllogism possible. So this can be taken as an independent confirmation of my argument in that post.)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Analytical Engine

A nice website devoted Babbage's Difference Engine #2. The Difference Engine was Babbage's design for a machine that could calculate polynomials, a forerunner of the modern-day computer. Definitely something to look into for those interested in machines and gadgetry. Another great source, in some ways even better, is John Walker's Analytical Engine page; it has original texts relevant to Babbage's designs by Babbage himself and by Lady Ada Augusta. (The Analytical Engine was a generalized Difference Engine; i.e., the idea behind it was to do more than could be done with a Difference Engine. Of course, even the Difference Engine was not built at the time, although a working version was recently made by the Science Museum in London. They had to correct a few minor errors in the design, but as everything they did could have been done by the Victorians they proved conclusively that the problem with the building the machine was not, as some had thought, the limits of Victorian engineering.) Fascinating stuff.

Incidentally, Babbage was probably the first to try to apply what we would today call computer science to major philosophical questions; the interesting, sometimes insightful and sometimes very odd, result is his Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, which (as Babbage notes right away) is not a Bridgewater Treatise at all, but some notes and remarks gesturing at how he would write such a work. He also responds to the greatest and philosophically most important Bridgewater Treatise, the third (first in order of publication), by none other than William Whewell, the great philosopher and historian of science. The Calculating Engine, as Babbage calls it here, makes an appearance in a number of arguments about providence and miracles -- Babbage thinks of providence in terms of what we would call algorithms.

Of Folk Values and Government and Rama's Bridge

It seems to me that Ed Brayton is, unusually for him, saying some irrational things. The occasion for this is a news report noting that Hindu activists have been protesting -- fairly successfully, as protests go -- a canal project because it would lead to the destruction of one of their holy sites, Rama Setu, a set of limestone shoals that they attribute to Rama; according to the Ramayan, Rama built the formation in order to rescue his wife Sita. (The Hindu activitists, it should be noted (although Ed never mentions it) are not the only ones who are worried; the World Monuments Fund, for instance, has urged the Indian government to have the site for the canal changed in order to preserve the formation.) What essentially seems to have happened is that the Indian government, foreseeing this sort of problem, tried to forestall it by issuing a report saying that there was no evidence that Rama had built the formation. As I see it, this is essentially a dismissal tactic: it's a way for a government to move ahead with a project by dismissing potential protestors from the get-go. Of course, activists, supported by the Bharatiya Janata Party, have protested, and at one point brought traffic for almost a whole region to a standstill during a protest. (Since Ed just identifies the BJP as a religious party, which is true as far as it goes, but doesn't really give one an idea of what's involved, it might be useful to note that the BJP is a bit more than that. The BJP, one of India's largest political parties, is a Hindu nationalist party; its primary party positions are the developing of Indian scientific and technological infrastructure, economic protection of Indian business, and general religious tolerance on the Hindu principle that there are many ways to truth. Its explicit goals are to make India a developed nation and a major player on the world stage, to improve quality of life throughout India, developing a world-class infrastructure in India, and preserving Indian cultural traditions. A great deal of this uproar seems to me to have less to do with religion than with yet another political power struggle between the BJP and the socialist and secularist Indian National Congress; but I'm not an expert on Indian politics by any means.)

In any case, Ed dismissed the protestors, saying, "Yet another example of faith-based thinking standing in the way of progress."

Now, my thought on this was that what is really at dispute here is whether the canal project is really the route of progress or not, and that what has really happened here is that the Indian government has tried to dismiss the views of some of its citizens out of hand. So I commented:

I hardly expected you to be taking the totalitarian line here; surely it wouldn't matter whether they wanted the bridge preserved because it is a religious landmark or because it gave them warm sentimental feelings to contemplate on walks: it's not an impediment to any kind of progress for people either to express their wishes in this regard, whatever their reasons, or to expect that they should be taken seriously in those wishes (regardless of whether one thinks the reasons for them judicious), to the extent of at least taking them into account in the decision-making progress, rather than merely dismissing them as irrational.

Suppose a non-religious example. A dam project has been proposed; but as it turns out building the dam will lead to the flooding of a portion of land that contains a landmark widely associated with a local folk hero (who exists only in popular tall tales, but who is often taken to have actually existed). The locals rise up in protest because of this association; they don't want the folk hero's landmark destroyed. Now, one may regard this as an irrational reason for protesting a dam, but it is at least as irrational to think that merely because the folk hero doesn't exist that the locals can legitimately be dismissed as merely standing in the way of progress because of a silly belief. And the reasons for this irrationality are clear:

(1) It is often not an absolute necessity of progress like this to proceed along only one path, and thus one cannot regard any sort of opposition to this particular path as an opposition to progress as such; the natural policy question in such a case is, "Is there any way we can avoid this particular path and get more or less the same benefits?" And even if no, the question that still has to be asked is, "Given that these people hold this landmark in such high esteem, are the potential benefits such that we cannot seriously forego them when we have taken everyone's good into account?" Only if so can they seriously be said to "stand in the way of progress", because otherwise the whole dispute is whether this particular path really is progress.

(2) When we are considering whether this or that landmark should be protected, the overall value of any landmark is determined wholly by the sentiment of the people with regard to it, and this is true whatever reasons they may have. It doesn't matter, for instance, whether the reasons are purely sentimental (e.g., if instead of a folk-hero landmark it were simply the popular make-out spot), or if they have something to do with cultural heritage and common narratives (as with the folk hero example), or if they are purely utilitarian. Any reason, regardless of its grounds, increases the value in the market of policy; and whatever the worth of the grounds, the value of it in the eyes of the people is real, and it is there that serious consideration of policy begins, not with their reasons, which are their own to keep private or to use to try to persuade others.

The 'totalitarian' remark seems a little unfortunate in retrospect, since Ed seems to have fixed on it and not read anything else I've said. He responded:

The totalitarian line? Are you seriously suggesting that I'm taking the totalitarian line? The only ones acting remotely like totalitarians here are the BJP, who are bringing the region to a standstill, disrupting the lives of millions of people, impeding the economic vitality of the region and demanding the firing of archaeologists for daring to say that their religious beliefs are false. If that isn't irrational, nothing is.

To which I replied:

I am dead serious; it's why I found this whole post surprising since you are usually more evenhanded and think through the implications. Here you seem to be siding with a government that arrogated to itself the power to dismiss the views of its people out of hand, and against people who, however injudiciously, are protesting something that they think is wrong; and you seem to be suggesting that merely because they are misled that their values don't count at all. If we were to extend this principle consistently to other cases like those mentioned in my above comment, you get a situation that is totalitarian in the basic sense that people's views may be dismissed entirely, a priori, from policy making simply because someone thinks they are wrong. And since when can one say that public protest by ordinary citizens is totalitarian? Again, it may be injudicious, but I say it's entirely within the rights of people to protest what they think should not be done. And by no stretch of the imagination can popular rights, even imprudently exercised, be counted as totalitarianism. It looks to me like you are letting your disagreement with these people cloud your judgment on the role of popular values, whatever their grounds, in good public policy. It would be one thing to say that, after due process, and careful consideration of the question of whether there is seriously any other option in light of what is best for everyone, the canal project should go through as the proper route for progress. It is another thing entirely to suggest that we can take a massive technological project automatically as progress, and dismiss those who deny that it is progress simply because they believe in myths. It is no different from the folk hero case: building dams without any regard for the value of what is being destroyed is not progress; likewise with canal projects. And the value of what is being destroyed in a case like this cannot be anything other than the value that people actually place on it. I don't see how anything else could be regarded as consistent with a recognition of the importance of the people. Whether the people are right or wrong or (as almost always) some mix, policy has to start with them.

If a project to raze Devils Tower in order to build a superhighway, or what have you, was greenlighted, would you seriously dismiss the concerns of a group of Native Americans who protested because it's a sacred site to them, being the final resting place of the Cheyenne folk hero Sweet Medicine, or being the place where a giant bear helped the Lakota fight off their enemies, simply because Sweet Medicine may never have existed and the natural monument wasn't carved by the claws of a giant bear?

The last paragraph, incidentally, is my primary point here, as the folk hero argument was in the original comment; having said that Ed was favoring the 'totalitarian line', which confessedly is a bit harsh, I can entirely grant that some explanation was needed. But Ed was unmoved, replying to my 'dead serious' comment:

Then you're a moron. Only a moron would think that criticizing someone else's irrational beliefs is "totalitarian."

Of course, I didn't say that criticizing someone else's irrational beliefs is totalitarian; nor would it have been reasonable for me to do so because Ed never once in his post (although he seems to have forgotten it) actually criticizes the activists' beliefs, although it's clear by implicature that he does consider them irrational. The only thing he does criticize is their political activity (and when called on it, he again focuses on the political activity), and in this, as I've already noted, I think he has let his judgment about the irrationality of their beliefs interfere unduly with the question of whether they are, in his words, "standing in the way of progress." I don't think Ed's position is reasonably sustainable; and, in particular, I stand by my Devils Tower analogy. If I may make so bold as to borrow Ed's words, "only a moron" would think that razing Devils Tower for a technological project, with no other serious defense than that it was not carved by a giant bear, is progress, particularly if that defense were put forward by the government; and the no-giant-bears defense certainly wouldn't be a rational response to public protests over such a project. But I don't see that the cases are different -- and Ed has certainly provided no reason to think they are different. If the U.S. government were to OK a project to destroy Devils Tower in order to reduce travel times, despite the fact of a vociferous protest on the part of Native Americans, whose concerns were only addressed so far as to be told that they were simply wrong, I suspect Ed would be among the first to say that the government was at least not doing things in the proper way, regardless of whether the project were a good idea or not. At the very least I hope he would recognize that the U.S. government would not be providing a proper justification for its actions. But here, apparently, the flying monkeys of Rama get in the way of such a recognition.

I think I may have failed a bit in tact, since Ed, who usually sits back and criticizes other people's irrational views, seems a little sensitive to the suggestion I've made that his own is irrational on this point, to the extent that it is glossing over a dubious political move by the government of India. But I do think that if you're going to criticize other people for irrationality, you should have, at the minimum, reasoning ready to be presented to show that you are not yourself doing something irrational, and I haven't seen any serious argument by Ed anywhere on this issue, even when arguments are brought up against his view. [ADDED LATER: To bring out the point a little more clearly, what I see as the irrationality -- and the somewhat totalitarian-tending vector -- here is that consistent application of this type of judgment across similar cases would effectively give the government the right to ignore any of its citizens at all if only it can find sufficient experts to say that they are wrong. But while Ed is focused only on the government's being right in this case, in politics the rational approach is not to assume that the government will always be right, but to frame one's attitude toward government actions, whether based on correct information or false information, with a mind for what consistent application of principles will lead in times of corruption, when, for instance, experts are bought or bullied. And the only consistent principle I can see here that is consistent with democratic government is to say that it is irrelevant whether Rama actually existed and built the shoals; what is relevant is that a great many Indian citizens think so, and because of that value Rama Setu very highly, and the Indian government's attempt to ignore that by focusing on the first is a dangerous precedent to let slide. Nothing that comes from such a move can seriously be regarded as progress, because it puts a smaller value -- some travel time saved -- ahead of a larger value -- a government that takes its citizens' evaluations seriously.]

If anyone agrees with Ed, by the way, and wishes to argue for his position, I'll gladly put up the arguments.

UPDATE: Sudha Shenoy in the comments notes, among other important things, that the canal project was originally proposed by the BJP. I wouldn't know about this, but it sounds very likely and I'm willing to accept it, barring evidence otherwise -- the canal is the sort of nationalist technological-supremacy project that they seem generally to be very supportive of. What has chiefly happened, I think, is that the government has handled the situation in such a way that it has given the BJP popular ammunition against the Congress -- as I noted, I think a great deal of the furor has to do with the political power struggles between the BJP and the Congress, although the basic dispute itself has to do with the Congress's handling of this matter, which has been taken by some to involve a semi-official assertion that Rama did not exist and that Hindu beliefs can be ignored as false.

In any case, I don't know if Sudha Shenoy's comment is intended to be the sort of argument I asked for in my last paragraph or just a few points to be added to the mix, but in case it's the former, here's the comment in full:

1. The BJP are descended intellectually from the Fascists. They are fanatically anti-Muslim & anti-Christian, on the grounds that their 'holy places' lie outside India. A 'true Hindu' owes undivided religious & political loyalty to the Great Motherland. The BJP are intellectual obscurantists, rejecting all historical & linguistic discoveries that contradict their notions.

2. The first proposal to build the canal came from the BJP themselves, when they were in power...

Consumer Consequences

An interesting little game: Consumer Consequences (ht: Lee). I came in at (approximately, since I guessed on a few things) 2.8 earths -- i.e., it would take about 2.8 earths to supply what was needed for everyone on earth to live my lifestyle.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Ring of Truth

One thing I've wanted to do for a while is to do a philosophical analysis of vague-sense forms of truth-judgments, i.e., the sort of thing that's expressed by "That has the ring of truth" or "That feels true" or, more broadly, "It seems like that would be true". Who knows whether I'll ever do anything with it (outside my specialization in early modern philosophy, and even to some extent within it, my approach to research is the Method of Whatever Comes Up, or, as I like to call it, the method of divine providence), but it would be interesting to look at what grounds it, how it functions in reasoning, what norms should be put into place to govern it, etc. I also suspect it would tie in with theories of good taste, which, as you know, is one of my longstanding interests. In any case, Chris at "Mixing Memory" has a post on the truth effect, which is the sort of thing that you'd have to look at from the psychological side.

Monday, September 17, 2007

A Thought from Plotinus

For to say "Look to God" is not helpful without some instruction as to what this looking involves: it might very well be said that one can "look" and still sacrifice no pleasure, still be the slave of impulse, repeating the word 'God' but held in the grip of every passion and making no effort to master any. Virtue, advancing towards the Term and, linked with thought, occupying a Soul, makes God manifest: 'God' on the lips, without good conduct of life, is just a word.

Plotinus, Enneads, II.9

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Links and Notes

* A fascinating post, from the Christian perspective, on the Muslim doctrine of tahriif.

* Stephen Matheson has a post on what he calls "an extraordinary example of evolutionary thinking that drives a specific experimental analysis." It's a very readable guide to this interesting paper in Science.

* Jender discusses the Haslanger paper on philosophy and women, and argues for anonymous editing for philosophy journals.

* John Pourtless has a discussion of Hegel on conscience.

* Jeremy has a post on an assignment he tried out for an ethics class.

* I've often thought, in a vague way, of designing an ethics course around what I call the '5 R's' of ethics: rights, responsibility, risks, recourse, and reparation. It occurred to me that it might be a beneficial exercise to ask my readers if they have any favorite texts on ethics that they think would enrich discussion of one of the five. I'm interested in a diverse assortment of texts, so they might be abstract or concrete, theoretical or historical, hypothetical or programmatic, etc. For instance, I think a text that does a good job with the issue of ethical risks, is "Effective Crisis Management, " by Mitroff, Shrivastava, and Udwadia (reprinted in Brooks, ed. Business and Professional Ethics for Directors, Executives, and Accountants, third edition. South-Western (Mason, Ohio: 2004), pp. 404-412). It focuses on issues relating to ethical crises in business ethics, and would provide an immense amount of material for class discussions. Sophocles' Antigone is a good text for dealing with responsibility. What sort of valuable texts have you come across for dealing with these topics?

* Alexander Sakharov's Sequent Calculus Primer.

* Phil Snider discusses patrology at "hyperekperissou". A selection:

Theology and patrology represent an inversion of the common academic approach. That is, its stance is within a living faith tradition in which the contributions of one's predecessors are developed and amplified in order to increase one's understanding of a worldview which differs substantially from the tradition behind modern academe. The concern of a patrologist is to ask questions about how the Fathers thought in order to provide resources to evaluate and re-evaluate our theology within the Christian church today. It is not to add to the database of some kind of abstract history-as-it-was database whose purpose is both unclear and, hence, represents, at best, a body of interesting reading and, at worst, unconnected (and, hence, trivial) antiquarian lore.


* Philosophers' Carnival 53 at the "Florida Student Philosophy Blog"

Divine Command and Euthyphro

I was interested to read this on Colin McGinn's blog:

In my ethics class divine command theory went the way of ethical relativism. There was some squirming from the students as God was removed from the grounds of ethics. Actually, I respect DC theory more than relativism, despite my atheism, because at least it’s a theory with some philosophically interesting aspects, and not simply a confusion of the descriptive and the normative. The problem with it is that you cannot base moral principles on a stipulation, no matter who the stipulating authority might be. That would make morality entirely arbitrary—as if it were like driving on the right rather than the left. God commands us to keep our promises because it is right to do so; it’s not that it’s right because he commands it (would it be right to break our promises on God’s say-so?). Socrates’ “Euthyphro argument”, that the gods love the holy because it’s holy and not because they love it—or that God commands the good because it is the good and not because he commands it—is one of the best arguments ever produced. It shows the power of clear analytical thought. What is amazing is that after over two thousand years his incontrovertible point hasn’t yet sunk in to everyone’s mind—with so many people still thinking that morality results from God’s naked will. God doesn’t create the good; he recognizes it (assuming he exists).

I think this is a common view, but also think that things are rather more complicated than this suggests. Employing the Euthyphro argument in this way requires an overly quick conflation of 'the good' with 'moral principles'. In fact, very few divine command theorists accept this conflation in practice, and no sophisticated divine theorist -- e.g., Warburton or Adams -- does in theory, either. The point that is made by someone like Warburton, for instance, is that when talking about 'moral principles' we tend to mix up three very different things: obligations, rules of moral taste, and prudential calculations. Warburton wants to say that only obligations are moral principles in the proper sense, and that the only type of obligation for which we have any adequate account are the obligations imposed by someone superior on someone subordinate. Thus on his view, God doesn't create the good, but recognizes it; but what is recognized is not morality, but a set of vague factual principles about the nature of the good that have to be converted into morality by deliberate application to practical particulars. It's all the difference between recognizing the general rightness of 'It's good to be nice to people' and your parent telling you, 'Be nice to that kid down the street even though he isn't nice to you', between recognizing that it's good to be fair in one's dealing with others and the law establishing procedures and appeals for contracts. On such a view, only when the material (the things recognized in recognizing the good) is put into form fit for actual practice (by the will of God) do we have morality.

Thus to handle divine command theory properly, Euthyphro is simply not enough. One needs something along the lines of Cockburn's response to Warburton. In essence this requires arguing that the material is already fit for actual practice. I think this can be done, but it's an argument that becomes rather tricky in places, because it requires a good account of the normativity or authority of moral principles.

Sign of Contradiction, and a Sword

Yesterday was the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows.

The child's father and mother were amazed
at what was said about him;
and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother,
"Behold, this child is destined
for the fall and rise of many in Israel,
and to be a sign that will be contradicted
(and you yourself a sword will pierce)
so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed."

Luke 2:33-35 (NAB)

And his father and his mother marveled
at what was said about him;
and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother,
"Behold, this child is set
for the fall and rising of many in Israel,
and for a sign that is spoken against
(and a sword will pierce through your own soul also),
that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed."

Luke 2:33-35 (RSV)