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Monday, November 30, 2009

Philosophical Tales

Recently my favorite method of procrastination involved reading Philosophical Tales: Being an Alternative History Revealing the Characters, the Plots, and the Hidden Scenes That Make Up the True story of Philosophy. Even if not always charitable and not always historically adequate, it's quite amusing. Below, some fragments that I find entertaining (the selection is slightly random, though):
Thomas Aquinas was very overweight, suffered from dropsy, and had one large eye and one small eye which made him look lopsided. As a child he was silent most of the time and, when he did speak, it was often unrelated to the conversation. So, he decided to become a philosopher-monk. And, as such, he was very successful.

After he [Aquinas] drove away the temptress, two angels came to him and fastened a chastity belt around his waist.” Or so at least embellishes our other theological expert at Trinity Communications on the Internet, along with advice to readers to “Buy or fashion your own chastity belt, easy to make from braided yarn or thin, soft rope.” (Adding that “St. Joseph chastity belts are available at some Catholic shops,” which Aquinas would not have approved of, being against shops and trading generally.) But at least there is agreement on Aquinas’s good character, albeit it still remains a challenge for people who think that sex is that bad to work out how to continue existing once the present batch has died out....
In the afternoon, Kant would take a long walk along the river, accompanied by his servant, Lampe, carrying an umbrella in case it rained. Kant’s rule that everyone must be treated as an end in themselves and never merely as a ‘means’ to an end (“there can be nothing more dreadful than that the actions of a man should be subject to the will of another”) evidently did not apply to servants carrying umbrellas
Even in bed, the rules had to be followed: Kant had a system for rolling himself up in his sheets so that they fi tted tightly around him. Kant, it will be noted, slept for less than seven hours. He wrote a little booklet about health matters, warning against the dangers of too much sleep. He explained that as each person had only a certain amount of sleep in them, if they used it all up by lying in bed, they WOULD DIE EARLY. (My parents should have told me that ...)
In the Critique of Practical Reason (1786) Kant’s thought leaves the physical universe behind to find a proof for the existence of heaven and the afterlife. He points out that since justice is the good flourishing and the wicked being punished, and that this does not happen on Earth, as we can see by looking around us, then it must take place “in the next world.” This is sublime reasoning. And so to the less than fully appreciated Kantian treatise on the beautiful and the sublime. Night is sublime, day is beautiful. The sea is sublime, the land is beautiful, men are sublime, women are beautiful – and so on. Lots of professors wrote treatises like that at the time, it was almost compulsory.
...the best known is what he calls the categorical imperative:

Act only according to a maxim by which you can at the same time will that it shall become a general law.

...when Kant’s version appears in the Metaphysic of Morals (1785), the imperative is also offered to decide all moral issues. Curiously, though, it seems to collapse at the most easy tests. For example, it allows things that surely should be banned, while outlawing things that don’t seem to matter very much. A rule, for instance, that all children under 5 who disturb philosophers should be beaten with a stick and have their tongues cut out is approved by the ‘rule’ since it is universalizable, but borrowing is forbidden, as if everyone borrowed, it would lead to a run on the bank.
Pompous Footnote

1 Prior to Kant, as Bertrand Russell also notes, philosophers were gentlemen, addressing an audience of amateurs in the language of the everyday. After Kant, philosophy became a dialogue (indeed, often a monologue), conducted in technical language and obscure terms.
Montaigne constantly referred to himself as a way of both ridiculing and excusing his views. Des Cartes uses the same device to distance himself from anticipated criticism, and also to create the dramatic story of the author’s ‘enlightenment’ after some six days reflecting on the nature of the world in a warm oven room.
The famous words cogito ergo sum (which render themselves so elegantly in English as “I think, therefore I am”) never appear in the original version of the Meditations, only in a later and indeed rather casual translation. The actual words used are better translated as: “let the Demon deceive me as much as he may, he will never bring it about that I am nothing so long as I think I am something. So, after considering everything very thoroughly, I must conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true, every time that I say it, or conceive it in my mind.”(1)

Pompous Footnote
1 Ego sum, ego existo, quoties a me profertur, vel mente concipitur, necessario esse verum is the original Latin text of 1641, for purists. The French version of the principle in the Discourses is superficially nearer to “I think, therefore I am,” being “Je pense, donc je suis,” but an accurate translation of this is not “I think, therefore I am,” but “I am thinking, therefore I exist.” Anyway, the ‘cogito’ does not refer to this text but to the argument in the Meditations. So that’s clear.
Bertrand Arthur William Russell, Third Earl of somewhere or other, son of a Victorian prime minister, and Professor of Philosophy at Trinity College, Cambridge, is still considered there, if not much anywhere else, as “profoundly infl uential in the development of philosophy in the twentieth century.” His special expertise is said to have been in the area of philosophical logic; indeed, he is credited with having coined the term, although as the words have long currency individually, and the activity preceded him by 2,000 years, it is hard to see how his arrangement can count as a novelty. Nevertheless, says Nicholas Griffin, writing in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, he was indisputably responsible for a number of “important logical innovations,” prime amongst which was a way to “reparse sentences continuing the phrase ‘so-and-so’ into a form in which the phrase did not appear.” Such achievements deserve further examination.
As a philosopher, Russell sometimes speaks absolute nonsense. Russell seems to have been aware of this, hence his “impish grin” whilst offering increasingly ludicrous examples. Not so his heirs. They issue their dull arrangements with a seriousness born of a serene lack of self-knowledge. Fortunately aside from his logic, Russell did other things. The same is not true of his followers.
Whilst there at Cambridge, Wittgenstein became an institution within an institution, celebrated both for his unorthodox personal style and for his revolutionary approach to teaching. Refusing to lecture but offering only to hold seminars, his ascetic office had few books, equipped instead with the famous deckchair. Those who attended his seminars became his ‘disciples’, and showed their commitment by dressing the same way – tweed jackets, fl annel trousers, no ties. (The clothes, like the philosophy, were not for girls . . .) After each session, he would invite selected confidants to join him at ‘the flicks’, where he would sit in the middle of the front row (nearest the screen) munching on a pork pie. As for Cambridge’s official social gatherings, Wittgenstein declined to attend the ‘dinners’ of the university, although he did agree to participate in the ‘Moral Science Club’ from time to time, including one infamous evening when, to murmurs of approval from his disciples, he demanded of Karl Popper that he provide an example of a ‘moral rule’, gesticulating with a poker for emphasis. Popper supposedly said, “Not threatening visiting speakers with pokers,” and Wittgenstein threw the poker down and stormed out (followed by disciples).
... today the official hagiography neglects some facts. Wittgenstein did give away ‘control’ of his inherited millions, but only to his sisters, and so it was that during World War II, even as the Nazi project was at its most clear and most appalling, he was still able to arrange that a large chunk of the Wittgenstein family fortune – not, say, three ingots of gold (as we all might send) but three tons of the stuff – was made available to the Nazi war effort. In return, the family received official ‘non-Jewish’ status.
Yet, despite favoring one absolute authority, Hobbes dismantled the claims of kings to divine favor, and for doing this (amongst other reasons) he was considered by many of his contemporaries to be, if not actually an atheist, certainly a dangerous heretic. After the Great Plague of 1666, when 60,000 Londoners died, followed by the Great Fire straight afterwards, a parliamentary committee was set up to investigate whether his writings might have brought the two disasters on the realm. As a result of its findings, he was forbidden to write any more books about matters relating to “human conduct” and so had to publish his work abroad instead.
A report in the Journal des Savants of March 4, 1686, records that one young lady had refused “a perfectly eligible suitor” because “he had been unable, within a given time, to produce any new idea about squaring the circle.”
No one knows now exactly what he was accused of, but one of his early biographers, Colerus, describes how Spinoza, relaxed by smoking a pipe, or when he wanted to “rest his mind” rather longer, looked for some spiders which had gotten into a fight with one another, or (failing that) he put flies into a spider’s web, “and then watched the battle with so much enjoyment that he sometimes burst out laughing.” Such diversions there were before there was telly.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Miscellanea Logica: new series

Through Philos-L I've learned that the new series of Miscellanea Logica is out - for a while I though the enterprise was pretty much dead, but the new series is up and running, chief-edited by Jaroslav Peregrin, a cool logician, known also to some as the - brilliant - logician - who - made - us - make - unintended - loops - on - an - otherwise - marvelous - hike - in - Czech - mountains - in 2007 - nevertheless ("hey, haven't we passed by that tree-cutting machine some time ago?" - "No, there's plenty of those around here" - "all of them with a blue blouse inside and this sticker?") ... anyway, I see that the new series is available online for free! HERE! Check it out. :)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Managing pdfs with Mendeley

Recently, I've been playing around with Mendeley, a pdf file manager. It does have some very neat features: it allows one to catalogue their pdf files in one database, it keeps a copy of the catalogue (and files, up to 500 MB) online, it inludes an internal pdf browser and provides nice search & filtering options, it allows one to share groups of pdfs with up to 10 other people; it is also possible to comment on pdfs and share those comments as well. Another nice feature is that the package includes a file manager which (if you want) can organize copies of imported files, so that you end up with one organized folder with all your pdfs and positions in your catalogue are linked to them. You can also decide to generate a bibtex file (or bibtex files) as you go, if you like to use LaTeX. When you add files, you can automatically do a google scholar search for file details, it works pretty well. Overall, I think the authors have done a pretty good job. I decided to import all my pdfs into the database. The whole thing, however, is in its beta stage and there are some minor issues - here are some remarks:

  • There is no explicit "work offline" option, and if you change the library and restart the program, it connects automatically with the server and uploads the changes. Sometimes, I'm connected with internet only by a wireless stick, and I don't want my library to automatically synchronize with the server while adding pdfs and editing pdf intro.
  • The program crashes once in a while (in my case, it's more like 3-5 times a day). Luckily, no data loss occurs.
  • The bibtex file that the program generates is kinda weird, you have to take a look at it and correct it by hand. File links in Bibtex don't work when you open the file with JabRef. In the original database it's difficult to make a distinction between those capitalizations that are to be preserved in Bibtex. If you imported your files from a bibtex database, in the new database most likely the entries will get new keys. Still, it's easier to correct the entry and copy it to your "real" bibtex file than to create a new one, so I rather enjoy the bibtex-related features.
  • The internal pdf browser isn't too elaborate - I wouldn't mind having at least "go to page", "go to next page", "go to previous page" buttons. Also, it would be nice if the browser supported bookmarks.
  • The file organizer options, even though they include organizing files into folders by journal, author or year, don't allow you to organize files by collection.

I do think, however, that overall this is a pretty cool stuff and I'm sure, given some time, it will become even better.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

What we don't need to save ordinary conditionals from

It’s been a while since I posted anything. Mostly this is because life has been pretty hectic lately. In September we spent a few weeks in Gdańsk, but now we’re moving every few weeks between various places in the UK, visiting different universities and trying to get some research done meanwhile. This semester I’m mostly based in Bristol as a British Academy Visiting Fellow, working with Oystein Linnebo on the dynamic approach to abstraction principles, and doing some directed reading (on groundedness with Hannes Leitgeb and on axiomatic theories of truth with Leon Horsten). These days, however, we’re hanging out in Scotland, currently visiting Arche Research Centre in St. Andrews, taking off for a few other places tomorrow.

I gave a talk here on Tuesday about nominalistic approaches to neologicism, and decided to stick around for the Arche/CSMN graduate conference. Today, I managed to catch a talk by Ernest Lepore followed by an interesting talk about counterfactuals by Daniel Berntson (with a commentary by Guðmundur Andri Hjálmarsson). Daniel’s talk was titled Saving Ordinary Counterfactuals and was devoted to the problems that quantum indeterminacy (or related phenomena) are supposed to raise for our intuitions about ordinary counterfactuals. The whole thing was very clear and quite interesting. I do have one minor worry, though - I don’t think the problem that Daniel is trying to address exists... Counterfactually: if there were such a problem, Daniel’s approach would be a neat way to approach it. But let’s start from the beginning...

The problem

Intuitively we accept the counterfactual:

(1) If I were to throw a champagne glass off the top of Empire State Building, it would break.

Supposedly, quantum mechanics informs us also that:

(2) There is some chance that a glass thrown off the top of the Empire State Building will quantum tunnel to the moon without breaking.

If indeterminism is true and (2) expresses objective probability, (2) seems to entail (3):

(3) If I were to throw a champagne glass of the top of the Empire State Building, it might safely quantum tunnel to the moon.

This entails:

(4) If I were to throw a champagne glass off the Empire State Building, it might not break.

Now, Daniel suggests that "(4) puts pressure on us to give up (1)" and that there is an "inescapable clash" in the infelicitous assertion (5):

(5) If I were to throw a champagne glass off the Empire State building, it would break; and furthermore, it might not break.

The strategy

In order to save the truth of (1) within the Lewis-Stalnaker approach, Daniel suggests replacing:

A>B iff all of the closest A-worlds are B-worlds.

with

A>B iff the vast majority of the closest A-worlds are B-worlds.

The underlying idea now would be that (1) is made true because most of the closest worlds where the glass is dropped are worlds where it is broken, whereas (4) emphasizes that not all closest possible worlds are worlds where the glass is broken.

Say we put aside the issue of how we are to count possible worlds and they ratios if there are infinitely many of those. There still are some problems that come along with this solution. Most prominently, agglomeration (A>B, A>C hence A>B&C) and transitivity (A>B, A^B>C hence A>C) fail. To fix these issues, Daniel introduces the notion of being almost true, and says that certain claims, even though they aren’t strictly speaking true on this semantics, are still almost true, like when we have a counterfactual which doesn’t preserve probability ratio, but whose consequent is only slightly less probable than the antecedent. There are some bells and whistles to play around with here, but this should be enough for the set-up.

The worry

First, observe that a necessary (but not obviously sufficient) condition for thinking that (5) is a problem is the acceptance of (1) and (4). Strictly speaking, so far Daniel has shown how to preserve the truth of (1), but didn’t say explicitly how to make sense of (4).

In fact, Daniel introduces might-conditionals by saying:

A >m> B iff ~(A>~B)

That is, a might conditional A >m> B is supposed to come out true iff it is not the case that ~B is true in the vast majority of the closest A-worlds.

Alas, this reading of might-conditionals doesn’t support the truth of (4), because given that all the relevant worlds where the glass is broken are worlds where it is not the case that it tunnels safely to the moon, (4) still comes out false if it is to be read as a might-conditional.

Second, it’s not clear where the clash really is. I would certainly be worried if I had intuitive reasons to believe:

(5’) If I were to throw a champagne glass off the Empire State building, it would break; and furthermore, it wouldn’t break.

But so far, I don’t. (5) certainly doesn’t entail (5’). Given that (4) shouldn’t be constructed as a might-counterfactual if its truth is to be preserved, what job exactly is "might" doing in (4) and (5)?

Well, I’m inclined to say that that are at least two ways to accept (1), (4) and (5) even if we play along with non-probabilistic Lewis-Stalnaker semantics.

Story 1. (1) says that in every closest possible world, where I drop the glass, it’s broken, whereas (4) says that there are still some accessible but less similar worlds, where even though the glass is dropped, it’s not broken.

Story 2 (1) says that in every closest possible world, where I drop the glass, it’s broken, and (4) says that it is possible that the glass is dropped and not broken.

Personally, I prefer story 2, because it assigns less content to "might", and because (5) as it is, when read along the reading suggested in story 2, entails that the world where the glass is broken is not the closest one anyway.

I don’t even have the intuitions that (5) displays any sort of clash to start with. Imagine I say:

If I were to join you for conference drinks tonight, I would be hungover the next day. Well, in fact, it’s highly unlikely that I would decide to drink only water, in which case I might feel good the next day even if I go. So if I were to join you for conference drinks tonight, I might feel good the next day, but I think I wouldn’t.

This doesn't seem to contain any contradiction whatsoever.

Interestingly, we did a poll and around half of the audience thought that (5) was problematic, and around half that it wasn’t.