Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Harry Potter and the Curmudgeon's Capitulation

Usually when I go back to my parents' house, I read fantasy novels and relax. I tried to work over Thanksgiving break but was completely scatterbrained, so instead I read Harry Potter vols 2 through 6, and uh..

Well, I enjoyed them. I'd always admitted to enjoying the first one, but I shamelessly enjoy a lot of bad fantasy. Anyway, they're pretty freaking funny, moreso as the series goes on, and a lot of the obnoxious things from the first book make more sense as time goes on. They're well above par for the genre, though I still don't quite what the huge fuss is about.

You happy, Megan? I won't be getting any less half-hearted, so don't hold out.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Semantic Paradoxes In Natural Language

There hasn't been a lot of philosophy here recently.

In "Truth and Meaning" Davidson attempts to extend the Tarski style definition of truth in a formal language to natural language, and use this as a theory of meaning. In the case of the formal language, you have an object language "L" and a metalanguage, which is capable of expressing everything expressible in L, and which also contains a predicate "true-in-L." You give a recursive algorithm for translating sentences in L into the metalanguage. If s is a sentence in L and p is it's formulation in the metalanguage, you get a sentence of the form
"s is true iff p"
The reason that you have to do this in a metalanguage is to avoid the liar paradox, in which you have a sentence of the form
"This sentence is false."
Since the metalanguage only defines truth in L, rather than truth generally and L has no truth predicate, there is no possibility of having a liar sentence in either language. Davidson's extension of Tarski's proposal gives you sentences of the form
" 'Snow is white' is true iff snow is white."
The account looks completely vacuous in English, but there are at least some more interesting sentences in the vicinity
" 'Der schnee ist weiss' is true iff snow is white"
" 'Snow is white' est vrai si et seulement si la neige est blanche"
Moreover, the theory of meaning itself is given not by these sentences, which are theorems of that theory, but rather the meaning postulates attaching to individual words and composition rules which tell you how to give the truth conditions of any sentence in terms of its constituent parts.

Now, most logicians had thought that Tarski's idea was inapplicable to natural languages, in part because natural languages seem to have a universality that makes the proposal untenabile. That is, English is it's own metalanguage, "true-in-English" seeming to be an English predicate. Davidson's answer is decidedly odd. Without claiming to have a decisive answer, he puts forth the following suggestion.
The semantic paradoxes arise when the range of the quantifiers in the object language is too generous in certain ways. But it is not really clear how unfair to Urdu or to Wendish it would be to view the range of their quantifiers as insufficient to yield an explicit definition of 'true-in-Urdu' or 'true-in-Wendish.' Or to put the matter in another, if not more serious way, there may in the nature of the case always be something we grasp in understanding the language of another (the concept of truth) that we cannot communicate to him."
Your ability to translate Urdu into English implies that the resources to define 'true-in-Urdu' in English are available (and they can define the same thing about English in Urdu). But that seems to create an obvious problem. An Urdu speaker can just say "['snow is white' is whatever those British people mean by]'true-in-Urdu'[iff snow is white]" putting everything in brackets into Urdu, and they have seemingly just reintroduced the possibility of generating semantic paradoxes. It is therefore quite unclear to my how Davidson's project is supposed to avoid the semantic paradoxes (he does say he feels justified in proceeding without having definitively shown that there are no semantic paradoxes in natural language).

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Fish in a barrel pt 2

The torture ban passed 90-9, and the Bush administration has been threatening to veto. 90 votes isn't even close to the cutoff for overruling a veto, so the administration has to have known for a long time that they didn't stand a chance. So why did they veto it? "We'd just like to make a symbolic gesture that we approve of torture, and also exacerbate divisions within our own party by forcing Republicans to help overrule the President." This could not make less sense.


I'm in the middle of deciding where to apply to graduate school. Roughly, the three stages are
Beginning: Ask professors where to apply, generate large list based on all of their recommendations.
Middle: Stare at the websites of relevant institutions, hoping for insight.
End: Buy a dart-board.

What currently irks me is the way some departments are less than forthcoming about who is exactly on their faculty. Stanford, in particular, lists everyone you could possibly associate with the department on the website, and you have to click on individual links to find out that they are emeritus or better yet, "former faculty," having moved on to a job at another institution.

Update: Does Stanford read my blog? Either that, or I'm illiterate (this is a very real possibility). I returned to their website today, and saw that they're now listing the former faculty so that you needn't look at the personal websites. Also, philosophy placement records are depressing.

How Not to Interview One of the World's Greatest Minds

There's something over a controversy over a Chomsky interview with the Guardian. Chomsky claims he's been misquoted, which wouldn't surprise me, but I can't really tell from here. Leiter has the basic set of links. What I did notice in the interview was the astonishingly stupid and petty attempts of the interviewer to discredit Chomsky. Here's a gem:
So I am surprised when he says he only goes online if he is "hunting for documents, or historical data. It's a hideous time-waster. One of the good things about the internet is you can put up anything you like, but that also means you can put up any kind of nonsense. If the intelligence agencies knew what they were doing, they would stimulate conspiracy theories just to drive people out of political life, to keep them from asking more serious questions ... There's a kind of an assumption that if somebody wrote it on the internet, it's true."

Is there? It's clear, suddenly, that Chomsky's opinion can be as flaky as the next person's; he just states it more forcefully. I tell him that most people I know don't believe anything they read on the internet and he says, seemlessly, "you see, that's dangerous, too."

Far be it from me to prove that people are more credulous while on the internet than when dealing with other media, but they certainly are more credulous than they should be. Probably most people say they don't believe much of what they read on the internet, but they generally don't have the metacognitive skills to identify reliable sources. Extra points to the interviewer for not realizing that Chomsky's glib response was just to avoid getting in a petty fight with her.

Update: I regret not reading to the end of the article. It was intellectually dishonest of me not to get a complete picture of the interview before commenting. Forget everything written above. What you really need to know is that Chomsky is a hypocrite for having a stock portfolio.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Police State, Yes?

According to the Times, New York City is investigating the possibility of imposing congestion tolls. The idea is that whenever you drive into the the most heavily trafficked areas of the city during the day, you pay $7 for the privilege, with exemptions for residents and individuals with disabilities. It's a good idea, but it's not worth it. London is typically mentioned as the model for this policy. To sell the public on the idea, the mayor of London made all sorts of promises that the camera system involved would not be used by general law-enforcement. By the first day the system was on line, he was on the radio trumpeting the fact that law enforcement could use the system to nab potential terrorists. I don't think the promises will even be made in the United States. The Times article didn't even mention civil liberties concerns.

That's all, folks

I sent my thesis to the committee via email at 6:00 AM on wednesday and dropped off a pair of photocopied figures today. I'm not very confident in it, so don't count on seeing it unless you're writing a philosophy thesis which I've had a look at. Strict quid pro quo concerning embarassment and all.

The rest of the semester will be largely devoted to relaxing. Remaining tasks include:
1) Play more Go. Sadly, I've got my priorities enough in order that my devotion to the game was suffering as a result of the thesis.
a) On which note, look what I ordered!
2) Fill out a ton of applications.
a) read a lot of justifications of the use of intuitions in philosophy, and incorporate this into my paper/writing sample on Brutal Composition.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

20 hours left

David got home and we had a huge team rant about health insurance and also a level headed discussion about the flu killing us all. Oddly, this was just what was needed to get me in the mood to finish my thesis. Let's do this.

Monday, November 07, 2005

What objectivity entails

From an article on the American Museum of Natural History's exhibit on Darwin:

An ongoing federal trial in Harrisburg, Pa., may determine whether a local school board can compel teachers to inform students about the theory of intelligent design - the idea that life on earth is too complex to have arisen through evolution alone. And though there is no credible scientific support for this position, President Bush, when asked in August about evolution and intelligent design, said that "both sides ought to be properly taught." (Nytimes, my emphasis)

I guess I'd been too hard on the Times. I'd previously said that they were just following the standard "he said, she said" model that is the typical journalist's mangling of the concept of 'objectivity.' That's not the case in this article.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Limits of non-discrimination

The story that Target allows its pharmacists to refuse to dispense emergency contraception on religious grounds checks out. It's not surprising, given that several states may well pass legislation to extend this supposed right to all pharmacists. This seems worthy of no longer shopping at Target, or rather contacting Target to tell them they will not be receiving my business, while neglecting to mention that they didn't in the first place. You might consider doing the same.

It's clear to me that pharmacists do not, and should not, have the right to refuse to fill prescriptions on religious grounds. The reason religious anti-discrimination has nothing to do with it is that the pharmacists aren't being discriminated on the basis of their religion, rather, they're not being allowed to hold a job while acting on beliefs that prevent them from meeting the requirements of the job. So far, so good.

Here's a test case that shows things to be a little more complicated. The job description of a doctor(1) is to provide patients with medical care necessary to alleviate or prevent illness and improve the quality of life, while also making the patients feel comfortable and inspiring confidence. Now transition to the south in 1960 or 1950, and imagine the following line of argument "Refusing to hire Black doctors is not discrimination on the basis of their race, it's just refusing to hire people who are not capable of discharging the function of their job. If we hire Black doctors, patients will be uncomfortable, and won't trust that their doctors can help them." I take it this argument is wrong, whereas the first was correct. But it's also obvious that the premise about how patients would react was correct.

What this shows is that we ought to think very carefully about the reasons underlying what constitutes discrimination (and the limits of state and corporate power in general). As liberals, broadly defined, we've usually got the right intuitions, but we don't know exactly why we have them. Belle did a good job of exhibiting this by posting one of the best arguments against same sex marriage (at least outside of queer theory, if you give those arguments any credence) and then quickly taking it back, but leaving a skeleton of it behind. Though I'm not sure Belle draws this moral, what her exercise shows is that it's worth thinking about whether you aren't just another "handwaving Burkean conservative" who just happens to believe in gay marriage and reproductive rights.

It's times like these when I want to do ethics and political philosophy. *sigh*

(1) Was going to say waiter, focusing on the comfort of the diners, but then I realized that most southerners were probably perfectly comfortable being waited on by Blacks.


[Updated and reposted]

I'm afraid the upcoming weeks are certainly going to suck.

Oct 25th Philosophy of Language Paper
Oct 25th Algebra Homework
Oct 27th GRE
Oct 31st Paper on Benjamin
Nov 1st Bastard gave us Algebra Homework for the day before the test
Nov 2nd Algebra Test
Nov 4th Writing Degree Zero
Nov 7th Mythologies
Nov 8th Algebra Homework (maybe)
Nov 9th Draft of my thesis
Nov 16th Thesis Defense

Pretty much everything takes a backseat to the Thesis.