Friday, April 28, 2006

Fish in a barrel pt 5

Someone insults Atlas Shrugged over at the Volokh conspiracy, and we get the following defense from a Randian:
Somebody thinks it's the worst, most pretentious, etc., but in polls it ranks second to the Bible as one of the most inspiring books ever written. Don't take a leftist's word for it. Read it and see what you think.
Oh my.

The bad news is that the thread started because there may be a movie in the works.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Prima-facie incompatibilities

In class last Tuesday, Bill Lycan was discussing the free will debate and the common thought that there is a prima facie incompatibility between free will and determinism. Bill made the following methodological point: prima facie, anything is compatible with anything. For two propositions to be incompatible, there has to be some deductive argument, with one as a premise and the negation of the other as a conclusion. So there should be no such thing as a prima facie incompatibility. Moreover, it's the proponent of the incompatibility who has to establish a necessary truth. So above and beyond the absence of any prima facie incompatibility, the burden of proof is always to prove the incompatibility.

Ignoring the burden of proof argument, I think that prima facie incompatibilities are much better off than Bill gives them credit for being. There's two ways to see this. First, as a psychological fact, you can often guess that you could formulate an argument for a given proposition, and these guesses are better than chance. But if the proposition in question is "the existence of free will entails the falsity of determinism" this guess just is a prima facie incompatibility. This isn't something deviant and isolated either. Much of philosophy (science, math, etc) works like this: you hear a statement and immediately think it's true or false. Then you search for an argument. We do revise our opinions--overturn our prima facie judgments--when the arguments fail to pan out, but that's why it's a prima facie judgment.

Second, most epistemologies compatible with our knowledge of necessary truths would license judgments of prima facie incompatibility. Both Bealer and Sosa's defenses of philosophical intuition hold that a necessary proposition can just seem true to you, and thereby confer justification on that proposition. So the proposition "necessarily not both p&q" can have a prima facie justification. This sort of seeming is prima facie because intuitions are fallible, the canonical example being that the naive comprehension axion of set theory seems true. Lycan's own epistemology endorses of a principle of credulity: at the outset, believe each thing which seems plausible to you. So if you find that you are inclined to think that free will and determinism are incompatible, you have a prima facie justification for believing that they're incompatible.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Patriotic Awesomeness

I read a recent NYTimes article concerning Bush's diplomatic meetings with China. Apparently, one of the major issues was China's growing demand for oil and American concerns that (1) China might enter into partnership with unsavory regimes in order to secure future supplies of oil and (2) If China would like to maintain its present rate of growth, it would have to rein in its consumption of oil.

Obviously one has to read between the lines and consult external sources to discover that China's ratio of GDP to petroleum consumption is half that of the United States'. China's GDP is ~8 trillion, the USA's is ~12 trillion, while the USA uses 3 times as much oil as China. This is another problem with the notion of objectivity in American journalism--neither one of the political parties has a genuine wish to be fair or truthful about the States' consumption of oil, so the mainstream press is even more free than usual to shrug off the truth.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Dennett as public intellectual

Over at leiter reports, they're debating the merits of philosophical specialization. There have been a flurry of posts on related subjects in the past few weeks, actually, so one might have a good time perusing the archives. One thing that caught my eye was the requisite mention of contemporary philosophers who have had roles as public intellectuals (the good guys that is, no evil ones like Derrida and only half credit for Habermas as a chaotic neutral). One fellow mentions Dennett and Nussbaum. I think Dennett is interesting, because his work bifurcates. The work of Dennett's that I find most interesting is exactly the stuff that hasn't become popular-The Intentional Stance and Consciousness Explained (I take the bestseller status of Consciousness Explained to be a weird anomaly--this is not a public intellectual's work). What has given him a place in the public culture are his books on Free Will and Evolution/Memes/Religion. I wish I'd paid more attention to these so that I could comment, but I'm sceptical whether this represents an important part of his philosophical thought. One claim that I've heard is that Dennett has given up philosophy for the limelight, and I think this might be the commonplace attitude.

This is all so much hand-waving. It's also not meant to be mean to Dennett-he's one of my philosophical heros. But I'd be less than shocked if it turned out that his serious work and the rest of it just split right down the middle.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

What to say to a soldier?

Even saying "thank you" to a soldier carries a political message, since you wouldn't say: "thank you for the fact that our nation has abused you by sending you to fight a worthless and unjust war."

It's not as overt a political message as many of our other national fetishes, but it is an interesting conversational implicature.

Unfortunately, it's not clear what else one could say, and in the absence of an easy alternative, I see no reason why one couldn't just say "thank you." There is definitely a sense in which the troops deserve respect, even if you consider the majority of them to be victims, as I do. Sadly, our nation has again produced honest to god war criminals, but these are a minority, and though many of the rest support the war, that makes them no more culpable than our many friends and relatives who support it.

(This is prompted by a carolina support the troops organization which bills itself as non-partisan. My initial thought was "I have a bridge to sell these people," but their web presence and the articles about them really do make it appear that they are as non-partisan as a support the troops organization can be. Pointing out the presuppositions of saying "thank you" to the troops is the most loaded thing they do as far as I can tell).

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Brass Balls

"When I came to Texas, my main two goals were to get started on earning my degree and to have the opportunity to play in the NBA," Aldridge said. "I've accomplished both of those and the opportunity is there for me right now to begin the next stage of my basketball career."
I tip my hat to Aldridge--the kid has got style, vaguely tipping his hat to the ideal of the scholar athelete while obviously not giving a shit.

In other news, how come most of my posts are about sports?

Monday, April 10, 2006


Hey! I got a job! I need a roommate! If you yourself need a roommate in Chapel Hill or proximal parts of Durham or know someone who does (who's even remotely capable of living with me), please do tell me!

Update: this is for the summer, June-August ideally.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Missing links

I'm pretty excited by the discovery of Tiktaalik roseae skeletons, and not just because if the models are correct, this fish looked awesome. From the times article:
In the fishes' forward fins, the scientists found evidence of limbs in the making. There are the beginnings of digits, proto-wrists, elbows and shoulders. The fish also had a flat skull resembling a crocodile's, a neck, ribs and other parts that were similar to four-legged land animals known as tetrapods.
So the fossils appear to be one of the best examples of a transitional form discovered to date. This should be bad news for creationists, and to a lesser extent, proponents of intelligent design.

The bad news for us is that the discovery won't really do that much. For a long time, the missing link argument has been a bad argument bolstered by a lie. The obvious points are that we have no strong a priori reason to expect a complete fossil record, and much less of a reason to expect a discovery of the complete fossil record. But while the anti-evolution argument requires that we have a complete fossil record, with missing links, claims about common ancestry can be established in spite of huge gaps in the fossil record. Given some large number of species with gaps present, we may be unsure of certain details of descent, we can identify evolved traits and get a course-grained image of the phylogentic tree sufficient to confirm the hypothesis of common descent. There's more wiggle-room for intelligent design here, as they don't question common descent, but even they would lack any strong argument from missing links.

The lie concerns the status of the missing links. While it is true that we don't have many transitional fossils similar to Tiktaalik roseae, creationists are fond of asserting missing links that are not missing. To take an example, some estimates show as many as 20 early hominid species, not all of whom are our ancestors, and quite a number of species who are not obviously either hominids or other apes (this isn't to say we could use a few more fossils). And yet creationists are fond of asserting that there is a problem of missing links between early apes and man. The argumentative strategy goes something like this: if you say there's a missing link between A and C, once a scientist finds B, you just proclaim one missing link between A and B and another missing link between B and C. That this rhetorical strategy has some force relies on neatly forgetting all previous claims about unbridgable missing links and completely ignoring the issue of what a problematic missing link would be, as in the last paragraph.

So I think it's safe to say that while this discovery might help convince some people who are sitting on the fence in this whole discussion, it won't have a serious effect on creationists and even less of one on the ID folks.