Tag Archives | Unethical Philosophy

Up With Teleology! Down With Anarchy! Sideways with the Hypothetical Calculus!

Ludwig Boltzmann

Ludwig Boltzmann

Three more blasts from the past (all a bit more recent than my blast from Oscarville):

First, two papers I wrote for a science course in college: “The Temptation of Ludwig Boltzmann” (a short sf story exploring the implications of Boltzmannian probability theory – though Amazon thinks it’s something else) and “Evolution: Chance or Teleology?” (an essay on the spontaneous growth of physical order).

Next, a blast from my statist past: “Financing the Non-Coercive State,” an essay I wrote in (though not for) grad school, in which I decisively refute free-market anarchism!

Why I Am a Destiny


Derek McDougall has posted a review of Kelly’s Wittgenstein anthology whereof I’ve previously blogged.

McDougall seems to like my own contribution to the anthology: he calls it “arguably the finest paper in the book … revealing full command of its material and exhibiting a sureness of approach that captures a distinctly Wittgensteinian point of view,” and says that it “manages to say more on this subject in 11 pages than some writers have achieved by allowing themselves the length of a short monograph.” So I self-indulgently link to his review. 🙂

Three from Vienna

My colleague Kelly Jolley’s anthology Wittgenstein: Key Concepts has just been published. I have a couple of pieces in it. Here’s the table of contents:

Wittgenstein: Key Concepts

Introduction: Kelly Dean Jolley [my AU colleague]
1. Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Remarks: Kelly Dean Jolley
2. Wittgenstein on Meaning and Meaning-Blindness: Craig Fox
3. Language Games and Private Language: Lars Hertzberg
4. Wittgenstein on Family Resemblance: Craig Fox
5. Ordinary/Everyday Language: Rupert Read
6. Wittgenstein on Rule-Following: Roderick T. Long
7. Thinking and Understanding: Phil Hutchinson
8. Psychologism and Philosophical Investigations: Kelly Dean Jolley
9. Moore’s Paradox Revisited: Avrum Stroll
10. Aspect Perception: Avner Baz
11. Knowing That the Standard Meter is One Meter Long: Heather Gert
[I went to high school with her (and enslaved her brother, but that’s another story)]
12. Therapy: Rupert Read
13. Criteria: Eric Loomis
[an APS colleague]
14. Grammatical Investigations: Roderick T. Long and Kelly Dean Jolley
15. Teaching and Learning: Arata Hamawaki
[another AU colleague]
16. Expression and Avowal: David Finkelstein

In related news, AU’s 3rd annual philosophy conference (3-5 March 2010) will also be devoted to Wiggy.

Finally, here’s one of Wiggy’s central insights set to music:


The entry on Ayn Rand that Neera Badhwar and I co-authored for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is now online.

Ayn Rand

While we each wrote a bit of everything, Neera was the principal author for the sections on ethics and social-political philosophy, as well as for the biographical section, while I was the principal author for the sections on metaphysics, epistemology, and aesthetics.

Looking the piece over I see that we devoted something like 35 paragraphs to metaphysics and epistemology, 34 paragraphs to ethics, and only 11 to social-political. That seems about right to me, but will probably surprise many readers who are accustomed to thinking of Rand as primarily a political thinker.

Itchy and Scratchy

I never actually knew what itching was for, so I looked it up. According to this article, it’s thought to be an evolutionary mechanism that is sending the signal something is happening on your skin that’s like a bug crawling on your skin, so go flick that bug off before it bites you. (Of course, as is often the case with such mechanisms, it generates more false alarms than genuine ones.)


Interesting. But this next paragraph bugged me (pun not originally intended):

The same fibers that send itching signals are also used to send pain signals to the brain, which once led some scientists to believe that itching was a form of light pain. That notion has since been dispelled by research, which showed that pain and itching elicit opposite responses. Pain causes us to withdraw and itching causes us to scratch.

Now I haven’t read the research the article refers to; there may be better arguments in it than the one described here. But the one described here is not impressive.

First, and most obviously: pain just doesn’t always cause us to withdraw; sometimes it does, but there are many different kinds of pain. People usually clutch their heads when they have headaches, for example; that’s the opposite of withdrawing.

Moreover, even if, counterfactually, all pains did in fact cause withdrawal behaviour, it’s not obvious that this fact should be regarded as part of the essence of pain. What’s essential to pain, surely, is that it makes us want to avoid doing whatever causes the pain; but wanting to avoid touching the location of the pain seems a distinct and accidental feature (since touching the location of the pain does not always necessarily increase the pain).

In any case, if you find that case X differs from standard cases of Y by lacking feature Z, you’re then faced with a choice of either denying that X is a Y or denying that feature Z is essential to being a Y. In this case, then, scientists were faced with the choice between either denying that withdrawal behaviour is essential to pain or denying that an uncomfortable sensation that inherently makes us want to get rid of it counts as a pain. Which is the more plausible choice?

You want proof?  I'll give you proof!

More broadly, while the question of what physiological mechanisms underlie pain is presumably an empirical, natural-scientific question, the question of whether a particular kind of sensation is a pain seems more like a conceptual, philosophical question to which scientific “research” is irrelevant.

Here’s my argument for that claim. Suppose that scientific experts announced tomorrow that headaches are not actually a form of pain. (I choose headaches because they’re more paradigmatically a form of pain than itches.). Headaches may feel like pains, these experts aver, but they’re really not pains, because they involve neuronal thingummy B instead of neuronal thingummy A. Would you take this seriously? Surely not, because feeling like pain is simply what we mean by pain – it’s part of the conceptual grammar of the term. Anyone who talks of something’s feeling like pain but not being pain would have to be using the word “pain” with a new, nonstandard meaning, just as someone who talked of something’s being a regular quadrilateral but not a square would have to be using the word “square” with a new, nonstandard meaning. (Or else using some of the other words in the sentence nonstandardly.)

The researchers described in this article may well have confused constitutive with enabling conditions. And that takes me to a broader grump about scientists, namely, that scientists tend to be unaware that there is such a thing as a philosophical objection to a thesis. They tend to assume that anything that sounds like a coherent hypothesis (such as the possibility of time travel, or the suggestion that the universe we live in is actually 2-dimensional – to pick a couple of actual examples) is thereby fit for empirical investigation, without considering that in such cases a) there is a prior question as to whether the thesis so much as makes sense (for if it does not, then those who take themselves to be performing an empirical investigation of it will actually not be investigating anything – or at least not that), and b) the training and tools to determine whether it does makes sense are the specialisation of a field other than their own.

(But then, a still more egregious problem is the philosophers who are confused about this.)

R.I.P. Paul Hoffman

I’m shocked to learn that Paul Hoffman, whom by eerie coincidence I’d just blogged about the other day (after never previously mentioning him in a decade of blogging), has suddenly died on the very same day as my blog post. He was only in his fifties. There’s some more info here and here, but not much.

Paul Hoffman

I was very fond of Paul; he was an excellent philosopher, a wonderful teacher, and a good person. Paul was the undergraduate philosophy advisor when I was at Harvard, as well as my professor for a Descartes-Locke-Leibniz course where he first converted me to his brilliant interpretation of Descartes. I was always amused by the contrast between his extreme interpretive charity toward Descartes’s darker sayings and his impatience with the same from Leibniz!

Paul was very egalitarian with his students and made them feel at ease; and I remember the festive atmosphere he provided when I climbed the stairs at Emerson Hall to turn in my senior thesis. He liked one of the examples I came up with in my honours exams for the major, and used to quote it in his classes. One of my roommates – not a philosophy major – took his modern philosophy course and spoke highly of it.

By another coincidence, Paul transferred to Cornell at the same time that I started my graduate studies there. (He’d also been one of my recommenders.) I took a Spinoza seminar with him that had just three attendees: a faculty member (logician Harold Hodes), a beginning grad student (myself), and an undergrad who’d never had a philosophy course before. Such a diversity of audience must have been a daunting prospect, but Paul amazingly kept all three of us engaged.

I also TA’d for Paul’s moderns course; I still remember two things he would tell the class on the first day. He’d recount Descartes’s theory of birthmarks (the expectant mother sees a cow and so produces a cow-shaped birthmark, etc.) as an example of how really smart people can believe really dumb things; and he’d urge the students to come to his morning class even if they fell asleep, because “it’s amazing how much you can take in when you’re half-asleep.” (I think that this last must have been a noble lie.)

I also vividly remember, from both Harvard and Cornell, the tall blue mug he would always use to demonstrate the relation between form and matter. I’m sure that for many generations of students hylomorphism and Paul Hoffman’s blue mug are indelibly associated.

I can’t remember when I last saw Paul; no doubt a quick handshake in passing at an APA meeting. I’m very sad for his family; but I’m glad that he at least lived to see his major lifework published.

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