Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Straw Men, Weak Men, and Mind Messing

Wednesday, February 13th, 2008

Getting Duped: How the Media Messes with Your Mind” is an article in February 2008’s Scientific American Mind by two philosophers who, long ago, were philosophy undergrads at William Paterson: Yvonne Raley and Robert Talisse.


The straw man is used in countless other contexts as well. In his acceptance speech at the 1996 Democratic Convention, for instance, Bill Clinton opined: “… with all respect [to Bob Dole], we do not need to build a bridge to the past. We need to build a bridge to the future.” Dole did discuss restoring the values of an earlier America, but Clinton falsely implied that Dole was only looking backward (whereas Clinton was looking forward). People may use a straw man to discredit theories to which they do not subscribe. Characterizing evolution, for example, as “all random chance” is a straw man argument; it misrepresents a complex theory that only partly rests on the randomness of mutations that may lead to better chances of survival.

Recently, in a 2006 paper co-authored with Scott F. Aikin, one of us (Talisse) documented a twist on the straw man tactic. In what Talisse dubs a weak man argument, a person sets up the opposition’s weakest (or one of its weakest) arguments or proponents for attack, as opposed to misstating a rival’s position as the straw man argument does.

Reading Two Posts

Wednesday, January 16th, 2008

The following two items recently culled from the blogosphere merit simultaneous reading by the optically dexterous (see accompanying figure):

Item 1. “What Kind of Philosophy Gets in the News?” @Leiter Reports (w/ guest poster Jason Stanley).

The popular press will not be producing articles on Field, Fine, Raz, or Stalnaker’s recent work, despite the fact that these philosophers produce work that is among the most admired by other philosophers.

Item 2. “Opinion Leaders Impotent in Ideas Economy” @Mind Hacks

[L]arge numbers of people would embrace a particular idea when a certain number of their more easily influenced peers started to champion it.

William Wegman (American, b. 1943). Reading Two Books, 1971. Gelatin silver print.


Thursday, November 29th, 2007

Thanks, Eric Steinhart, for emailing me the following. Hail Satan!

TI: God, the Demon, and the Status of Theodicies.
SO: American-Philosophical-Quarterly. Ap 90; 27(2): 163-167.
JN: American-Philosophical-Quarterly;
IS: 0003-0481
AB: Consider an omnipotent, omniscient, all-evil creator of the universe and an argument against its existence based on the presence of good in the world. “Demonists” can respond to such arguments with “demonodicies,” arguments that the demon’s existence is compatible with the good in the world. Given that there is a demonodicy isomorphic to every theodicy, the theist, in addition to establishing the possibility and consistency of God’s existence with the amount of evil in the world, must further establish the existence of a good supernatural being rather than an evil one. No current version of theism gives such an argument.

The Man, Knowing Everything, Smarter than You

Thursday, May 31st, 2007

An earlier version of the Wikipedia entry for Robert Stalnaker states “Stalnaker is widely known for being The Man, for knowing everything, and being smarter than you” (link).

His Locke Lectures, Our Knowledge of the Internal World, are being made available as mp3’s here: link.

The Man
Photo by Dave Chalmers of Bob Stalnaker diagonalizing in Barcelona.

Crushing Puppies, Superman

Sunday, April 29th, 2007

His only weakness……….

Originally uploaded by Samsauce.

Picking up on my Kripkenite puzzle post, Richard Chappell nicely formulates it as an inconsistant triad:

(1) Kryptonite is (numerically identical to) the mineral “sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide” [according to the label shown in the film Superman Returns]

(2) Kryptonite is essentially fictional

(3) Sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide is actual (and so not essentially fictional)

Chappell argues for ditching (1), but my inclination is against (2). I figure that ficitonal entities don’t literally have any properties yet alone essential ones. As I argued in “Dear Watson” there might be an attenuated sense in which fictional entities have properties in virtue of authorial intent, but they will seldom have, in this sense, the property of being represented. For similar reasons, they won’t have the property of being fictional.

One worry I have about the specific example of Kryptonite is that there is too much divergence between the AP reported substance and the various properties attributed in the Superman stories. I hoped to get around this with a chemically pure (pun!) version of the puzzle: The Puppy Crusher. From the previous comments thread:

Suppose that in a James Bond novel, a character mixes a drink that no one has ever mixed before - say it’s three parts gin and one part maple syrup - and they call it “The Puppy Crusher”. Suppose at some later date an actual bar tender mixes up three parts gin and one part maple syrup. Is it necesarily true that that drink isn’t a Puppy Crusher?


Wednesday, April 25th, 2007

Kryptonite Handbook

Originally uploaded by urbanbohemian.

From the Associated Press:

New mineral found has same composition as fictional kryptonite

Associated Press

LONDON — A mineral recently discovered in Serbia has the same composition as kryptonite — the fictional substance that robs Superman of his powers — the British Museum said today.

While the material is not a perfect match, its chemical breakdown is strikingly similar.

A drill core of the unusual mineral was unearthed in Serbia by the mining group Rio Tinto PLC, which turned it over to mineral expert Chris Stanley at the Natural History Museum for analysis.

“Towards the end of my research I searched the Web using the mineral’s chemical formula, sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide, and was amazed to discover that same scientific name written on a case of rock containing kryptonite stolen by Lex Luthor from a museum in the film Superman Returns,” Stanley said.

The material is white, powdery and not radioactive — unlike the glowing green crystals usually depicted in the Superman comics. It will be formally named Jadarite when it is described in the European Journal of Mineralogy later this year.

Approximately 30 to 40 new minerals are discovered each year, the museum said, although usually only in the form of a few grains only visible under the microscope.

From Kripke’s Naming and Necessity p.: 156

There were two theses: first, a metaphysical thesis that no counterfactual situation is properly describable as one in which there would have been unicorns; second, an epistemological thesis that an archeological discovery that there were animals with all the features attributed to unicorns in the appropriate myth would not in and of itself constitute proof that there were unicorns.

So…kryptonite remains undiscovered?

Abusing the Being-Knowing Distinction

Tuesday, November 28th, 2006


Originally uploaded by Pete Mandik.

Here’s a caricature of a familiar exchange:

Smith asserts P. Jones asks “yes, but how do you know P?” Smith says “Bah!” and “Do not confuse epistemology with metaphysics.”

In defense of Jones, consider these principles Jones can appeal to:

(A): It is observed that P. Scientific theory T explains P. But scientific theory T is inconsistent with the fact that P was observed. Too bad for T!

(B): It is intuited that P. Philosophical theory T explains P. But philosophical theory T is inconsistent with the fact that P is intuited. Too bad for T!

(There are weaker principles than A and B that Jones might appeal to. I have in mind here principles in which T is consistent with P but fails to explain the perception of/intuition of P, or, alternately, leaves utterly mysterious the explanation of the perception of/intuition of P.)

Example of A: I observe that a bright light has just flashed outside my apartment window. T = A nuke exploded just outside my window. T would explain a flash of light. But it certainly would not explain a flash of light observed by me. T instead implies my destruction and thus failure to observe that P. Too bad for T!

Examples of B? Clear examples are going to be a bit harder to come by, since the concept of intuition is much less clear than the concept of observation. Let’s stipulate a definition of intuition.

Intuiting P means believing P not as a consequence of observing that P and not as a consequence of any learned theory that includes or entails P.

So, if P is believed simply as a consequence of learning a language, and knowing a language isn’t knowing any theory, then that would be intuiting P. Also, being born believing P would count as intuiting P.

I’ll save the B examples for a later post. Brain Hammer readers are invited to provide their own in the comments.

Carl’s got a good point about the SSPP

Tuesday, September 12th, 2006

Carl Gillett, posting @ Brains, writes:

Just a quick post to encourage people to submit papers to the SSPP conference, April 5-7th 2007, in Atlanta (deadline Nov. 15th). Everyone knows how good the SPP conference is, but I think folks are less aware of the recent rejuvenation of the Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology. In recent years, the contributed program at the SSPP has been attracting a lot of good papers in the philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, epistemology, metaphysics of science and ‘naturalistic’ philosophy generally. Since the SSPP has always been an especially open and friendly conference, this has made for philosophically lively meeting. I strongly encourage people to submit a paper, especially since this year’s Philosophy Program chair, Chase Wrenn, has put together a great invited program:

Keynote: John Searle

Invited Speaker: David Rosenthal

Invited Speaker: Colin McGinn

Symposium on Realization: Gene Witmer, Carl Gillett and Ken Aizawa, Chase Wrenn

Symposium on Normative Naturalistic Epistemology:David Henderson, Charles Wallis, Michael Bishop and J.D. Trout

Symposium on Intentionality: Chris Gauker, Pete Mandik, John Tienson.

Details on the conference are here (see the links for the CFP or the latest newsletter):

Intelligent Design

Saturday, August 12th, 2006

Intelligent Design

Originally uploaded by Pete Mandik.

I snapped and photoshoped this (former) critter I saw at the American Museum of Natural History.

Here are three fun papers by Roy Sorensen that arguably have something or other to do with this photograph (though probably nothing to do with intelligent design):

The Aesthetics of Mirror Imagery, Philosophical Studies 100/2 (2000) 175-191

Mirror Imagery and Biological Selection, Biology and Philosophy 17/3 (June 2002) 409-422

Para-reflections, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 54 (2003) 93-10

What is the point of experimental philosophy if philosophy isn’t conceptual analysis?

Tuesday, August 8th, 2006

Experimental philosophy is largely taken up by experimental methods to find out what peoples’ intuitions are concerning topics of philosophical interest. Why should philosophers care about experimental philosophy? As best I can tell, the answer to that question is bound up with an answer to the following question. Why do philosophers care about intuitions? As best as I can tell what the answer to that question is, it has something to do with philosophers’ (perhaps tacit) acceptance of the following analogy between philosophy and natural science: intuitions are to philosophical theories what observations are to scientific theories. Scientific theories are supposed to offer simple and coherent explanations of past observations and are tested by their ability to predict future observations. Mutatis mutandis for philosophical theories and intuitions. Suppose that it is indeed intuitive that on TwinEarth “water” means XYZ not H20. Explanation: meanings are determined by causal-historical chains. Prediction: we would say of Swampman (a creature bearing no causal historical relations to anything) that his utterances mean nothing. If that Swampman proposition strikes lots of people as highly un-intuitive, then externalism faces, if not a refutation, then at least a challenge. So the story goes. And if the story had a title it would be something like “Philosophy is Conceptual Analysis”.

The view that philosophy is conceptual analysis is a hypothesis that is supposed to explain how philosophers can come to know stuff by just thinking. Philosophers, I guess, are different from natural scientists who know stuff by looking. (This is, of course, a terrible distinction, but let’s run with it for the sake of argument.) It might turn out, though, that the hypothesis that philosophy is conceptual analysis is a bad hypothesis. One consideration against it is that maybe concepts don’t have analyses. Another consideration is that maybe there are no such things as intuitions (as a distinctive kind of mental state). I won’t pursue these sorts of considerations much here. More interesting to me is the following. There are lots of times in which knowledge is gotten by thinking. Lots of math answers to this description. And parts of physics, like the thought experiments of Galileo and Einstein, answer to this description as well. However, in neither case is the hypothesis that what’s going on is conceptual analysis very promising. And more to the point concerning experimental philosophy, in neither case would a scientific survey of people’s intuitions help us learn anything about math or physics. To be sure, such surveys could yield data of interest to cognitive scientists re folk-math and folk-physics. Similarly, I’ll grant, surveys of the folk concerning their intuitions about knowledge, meaning, and free-will might yield data of interest to cognitive scientists re folk-philosophy. But assuming that philosophy is as distinct from folk-philosophy as physics is from folk-physics, I still wonder why philosophers should care about experimental philosophy.

One intriguing answer to that question might be that the point of experimental philosophy for philosophy is to help us see that philosophy is not conceptual analysis. So if we didn’t know whether philosophy was conceptual analysis, then, for example, finding out that people’s intuitions vary widely about what names refer to might help convince us that the conceptual analysis hypothesis is a bad metaphilosophy for the philosophy of language. But suppose you are already convinced that philosophy isn’t conceptual analysis. What point then, would there be for philosophers in the continued collection of data about people’s intuitions? Perhaps the best answer is “none” and this can be brought out by a reassessment of the analogy between philosophy and natural science. Scientific observation in, e.g., chemistry, isn’t collected by simply surveying the folk as to what they’ve observed about chemicals. The observations that scientific theories answer to are made by trained experts following procedures that are themselves highly informed by the bodies of theory the procedures are designed to test. An analogous view of philosophy casts it as the formulation of theories in light of judgments made by experts. In neither case should the snap judgments of non-experts count for much more than as data for a science of the snap judgments of non-experts.

Fig. 1. Socrates. Just standin’ around. Thinkin’. Not surveying the intuitions of all the slave-boys in Athens.