Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Still a nerd

I returned to Francesca's for Go again tonight. I played two games, the first an even game against a player of unknown rank named either "Fish" or "Phish," not kidding about the name: he's from Asheville and is going to Duke. Lost by two points. Then I played a 5-stone handicap game against the same 15 kyu as last week which I won by 13 points. Still looks like I'm around 20 kyu.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Honestly, I'm a little squeamish about the subject, but...

A 22 year old man from Nebraska named Matthew Koso is being charged with statutory rape after he impregnated and then married a 13 year old girl last year. What makes the case newsworthy is that normally marriage is de facto protection from statutory rape charges, even if it's marriage after the conception or birth of a child. The New York Times profile of the case is surprisingly sympathetic to him, if I read it correctly.

I was going to post about all the interesting features of the case, but was struck by the fact that in a number of instances, I can't decide whether a given feature of the situation is exculpatory or damning (in terms of prosecution, mind an ethical level the situation seems clearer). What makes this aspect of the law intellectually interesting is the presence of a fairly strong intuition that the law needs to exist without the well-developed rationale necessary to make a case like this clear.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Nussbaum v. Butler

About 5 years ago, Martha Nussbaum published an article critiquing Judith Butler that has served to convince many an analytic philosopher that they were doing just fine by not paying Butler any attention. Our very own John McGowan has published one post and then another discussing Nussbaum's critique. McGowan's posts are deliberate and insightful, and on balance, he comes off as defending Butler against the most tendentious parts of Nussbaum's critique, while saying he's substantively on Nussbaum's side. More importantly, he says a good bit about the relationship between personal perfectionism and collective political action. Read the posts if you have any interest in theory and politics, even if you haven't read Butler or Nussbaum (the Nussbaum article is short enough, easy enough and of enough sociological interest to make reading it worthwhile, imho).

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Trip home

I had to be in Raleigh yesterday morning, so I spent a short afternoon doing laundry in my ancestral estate. In Chapel Hill, I keep my intellectual interests pretty focused: mainstream analytic philosophy and analytic history of philosophy, math, and whatever my humanities course du jour is giving me (Barthes and Benjamin this semester, yay!). But my old room is the repository of each and every temporary interest of my high school years as far out as the Tao Te Ching. A few books have been decisively abandoned (Eastern mysticism, yes), but most of them are just waiting. Sometimes, as with Derrida, I expect that I'll confidently write them off, but it takes time to be sure of that.

And so, on top of the more ordinary melancholy that my room inspires, there's another source of unease, because if I ever knew how it all fits together, I don't anymore. The work that I'm doing in analytic philosophy is what most interests me now. What's more, I'm confident that I can make some contribution to the field, if not with my honors thesis now, with my doctoral dissertation or my work after I have a teaching position, or once I'm tenured...

Yet I don't see how it relates to everything else I'm interested in. It should. I think about the nature of belief ascription, the nature of rationality, the nature of representation itself. Surely those things can't be irrelevant to all my other intellectual concerns? Nevertheless, there's every reason to think that my work would remain irrelevant to everyone outside the ghetto of analytic philosophy, except perhaps a linguist or cognitive scientist. Don't be confused about what I'm saying--I'm not worrying that I'll be a second rate philosopher, a hack who doesn't matter to his colleagues because he doesn't have any ideas worth mentioning. I'll worry about that tomorrow. It's not even literally a question of who else reads my work. The problem is that I would write my work as a philosopher and then forget about it in every other context.

Nor am I precisely worried that the demands of professorial life will prevent me from studying culture in general. You can be a professional philosopher and comment on politics in front of a large audience (another: more tendentiously a philosopher, but with a bigger audience). Right now, I don't feel like that's enough. Those two men essentially do politics on the side, and their politics doesn't have much to do with their work (1). I think the same thing would be true even if I went into political philosophy or applied ethics. Besides, my concern isn't really about political relevance.

(I find myself rambling, even more so if I try and continue, so I'm going to stop and leave this here as a draft of sorts).

What I would have said to a verizon customer service agent had my phone not said it was roaming in the middle of UNC's campus so that I could not call

"My fucking phone says that it's roaming. I am standing outdoors in the middle of UNC's campus. I am NOT roaming. Can you please inform me of whom I need to murder in order to solve this problem?"

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Yes, I am a nerd

I made the pilgrimage to Fransesca's in Durham to play go tonight. I took a 9-stone handicap from a 15 kyu player and easily won, then took a 9-stone handicap from a 10 kyu player and lost miserably after a few blunders. Let's say I'm 20-22 kyu.

If time permits, I'll continue being a nerd this coming semester.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Fitch's Paradox

Bill Lycan once attended a talk attempting to explain what licensed us to be paternalistic to our children in Kantian ethics. His observation was that when a theory must employ complex arguments to accomodate the obvious it's a problem for the theory even if the defense works.

I have a related suspicion of results where extremely simple methods are used to prove something extraordinary. Fitch's paradox is an example. There's an appealing principle that all truths are knowable: in principle, for any true statement, someone would be able to know it. Some things that could have been known can no longer be. I think there would be literally no way to know where the atoms that make up my body were 1000 years ago even given perfect knowledge of the laws of physics and perfectly accurate measuring instruments. In other cases, knowing one thing rules out knowing something else. Suppose I cat-sit breakbeat and bossanova. Kittens move around a lot, so I might have to choose to either know the location of Breakbeat at 10:53 or Bossanova is at 10:53. Any of these individual things could have been known but the principle doesn't imply that one person, or even everyone put together could simultaneously know every true statement.

Yet, suppose there is an unknown truth, call it p. That p is an unknown truth is unknowable: if we knew "p and nobody knows that p" then p wouldn't be unknown. So, the existence of an unknown truth, p, implies the existence of an unknowable truth. Dilemma: either every true statement is known (by someone at some time), or there are unknowable truths. Given this choice, you should accept that there are unknowable truths. The dilemma can be formally presented in quantified modal logic without any difficulty--I don't really know modal logic at all but can follow the proof. The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy explains in more detail.

There's a promising line of challenge to the above argument made by Dorothy Edgington, based on distinguishing between "knowing in a situation that p" and "knowing that p in a situation." The distinction goes as follows. Let p = "Anna is walking to the door of Johnson St," and no one in Johnson St. knows that p. So "p and no one at Johnson St knows that p" is true. But I, sitting on the curb, know "p and no one at Johnson St. knows that p." You can scale things up from Johnson St. to the entire world and attempt to dissolve the paradox. Roughly, in our situation, no one will ever know that p, but there are alternate situations in which someone could know that p. Call him Peter. If Peter is capable of finding out that no one in our situation ever knew P the problem is dissolved. As always, there are a lot of epicycles to be had here. In particular, the talk of Peter knowing about people in our situation is extremely problematic given the standard treatment of modality. Every so often, I try to wade into the literature surrounding this solution, but inevitably get depressed by its dreariness and the way that the central issues seem to very quickly get lost.

What I really want to say in response to the Fitch's paradox is this: you have missed the point by the way you're treating the knowability principle. It's attractive to treat the principle as the bare assertion that for any truth, that truth is knowable. Certainly that is sufficient for the knowability principle to be true.

I think the real assertion of the knowability principle is that there is an entirely general conceptual scheme, capable of representing any aspect of the universe. This scheme is capable of representing the objects that make up the universe, the patterns that relate them, as well as evaluative discourse surrounding them (the disciplines of ethics, aesthetics, epistemology). Moreover, a culture blessed with this conceptual scheme would be in principle able to acquire evidence about any aspect of the universe implicated in their conceptual scheme. I'm firmly committed to the existence of such a conceptual scheme. More contentiously, it's my opinion that the contemporary western world's science and humanities are potential ancestors of this conceptual scheme. Our competence as representers of the world is capable of increase without bound. Performance limitations will always prevent us from knowing a great many things that we'd like to know. Since it requires quite a great deal of knowledge to even have a given conceptual scheme, performance limitations will almost certainly prevent us from even acquiring the ideal conceptual scheme. I can't argue for these claims here, though.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005


I ran into my old macroeconomics professor at the Daily Grind today. It's a tactical mistake, but I'm both too literal and too vain to substitute "I'm a bum" for "I'm working on my thesis." So for the sake of my self-respect, I need to get better at my pitch. Here's the first draft:

I'm trying to defend Daniel Dennett's theory of how we attribute beliefs and desires to other people. He says we attribute beliefs and desires by assuming people are fairly rational. To start off with, we assume people want what they need to survive: they want food, water, shelter, they want to avoid things that are dangerous. We also assume that people know about obvious features of their environment. The reason we attribute those beliefs and desires is so that we can predict people's behavior. This also works by assuming that people are rational. If you've I'll predict that you do whatever is rational to satisfy your desires given what you believe. That's the basic outline, and it's pretty plausible at first. The first real problem is that Dennet isn't very detailed. He gives us this story that works for the obvious cases: you think I believe there's food in the refrigerator, so you think I'll open the fridge when I'm hungry. But, if you know me, you might also think I believe the war in Iraq is hopeless or that the theory of relativity is true. It's hard to see how you get from the obvious beliefs all the way to the really complicated ones. The other big problem is defining rationality, because it's a very slippery concept, and also because it really seems that people do irrational things: they smoke or they play the lottery, maybe. Or they think we're winning the Iraq war.

I know they'll stop me before I get through all that, but whaddya think? Is it comprehensible? Do I sound like I'm wasting a year of my life?

Sunday, August 07, 2005

I get stronger while you sleep

Products of my all-nighter:
2 emails sent to professors
1 hazy recollection of reading the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy article on Edmund Burke
1 desire to read Reflections on the Revolution in France
1 desire to read In the Beginning (Go book)
1 frustration with the UNC library for being closed on Sundays during the summer intersession
1 beautiful 7:45 AM run
1 posting of something I wrote 15 hours ago
1 breakfast (first in months)

I ran continuously from the time I left my apartment stoop to the moment I returned for the first time ever. I ran much more slowly than usual, and proper running form eluded me after being awake for 20 hours: I'm sure I resembled nothing so much as a bobblehead doll. But the distance is the really important thing for now: doing intervals and other speed training involves being able to run long distances without collapsing.

I'm arguably more productive when I don't sleep. Get some coffee in me, and it's thesis-gibberish time. Bill will never know what hit him.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

James Doyle has a post at some place called normblog that I'm unfamiliar with. Wander away from the link I sent at your own peril. Based on an analysis of our ordinary conception of human agents as causing their actions, as it appears in common sense and (so we're told) legal doctrine, he argues that we can't say Blair caused the London bombings. Chris Bertram has a nice reply, even if he doesn't think his reply constitutes an argument. Not only is Bertram right that there's an alternate way of thinking of causation as it relates to persons within the social sciences, it's probably true that this way of thinking is much better suited to the case at hand, since we're examining a political

The other part of Doyle's post is an argument that we cannot hold Blair even indirectly responsible for the London bombings unless we antecedently assume that his decision to go to war was wrong. That would remain true even if Blair had been almost certain that the war would result in the bombings. There is a huge suppressed premise here. This assertion is only plausible if you assume that going to war with Iraq should be evaluated on deontological grounds.

The problem is that justifying the war on deontological grounds appears to be an absolute non-starter. Given the manipulation of intelligence, the defiance of international law and the constantly shifting rationales for war, the only option for someone interested in defending the war is to insist that it all doesn't matter, the war will be justified by the future stable, democratic Iraqi nation that's just waiting to appear. We killed a lot of people, and lied about it to boot, but everything turned out right--that's the exact form of a consequentialist argument.

Friday, August 05, 2005


*ahem* anyone out there? anyone listening?

I have once again entered into the world of posting my thoughts to a publicly accessible website on a semi-regular basis. I believe they call the fad "blogging." I've tried it before, with predictably mediocre results, and nothing about that experience screamed "you absolutely must try this again once a year has passed you by!"

Instead, quite perversely, my mediocre writing skills have motivated this enterprise. My prose is decidedly uninteresting. My sentences are almost always too long, full of various crutches and qualifiers that I can never resist using. My grammar is a very weak sort of "above-average," which makes it positively atrocious in the rarefied air that I inhabit. The lexicon and orthography do a bit better, but not by much. As you see, pedantry is also a problem.

So I hope I'll get some writing practice from this blog. I can write something that falls in between my typical academic paper and "lolz, that are soooo funny" as delivered over AIM. Ideally I could attach my full name to this and let quasi-strangers read it without overwhelming shame. Heavy on the philosophy, light on the personal details. Preferably nothing that involves the phrase "and I was so drunk." Lover-safe, ex-lover-safe. Perhaps even mom-safe.

Or that's the plan, in any case.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Test post

Blogger has a new interface that doesn't require me to use html.

Let's see how it works.

If this posts properly, I may start blogging soon.