Saturday, May 27, 2006

Without chemicals, life itself would be impossible (redux)

Remember that one? Ah, corporate disingenuousness; is there anything more heartwarming than that hardy perennial? Today, however, is a different day, so here is more of the same, uh, material. Our source, Truth Tables, is a new blog which displays a taxonomist's love for the logical fallacy. Check it out!

Ah, I see they got it from Wonkette, so it's already out there, making this post somewhat redundant. But I wanted to plug the new blog.

Friday semi-random ten (recently retrieved edition)

Okay, it's Saturday now, but I won't tell if you won't.

1. Eleni Kairandrou – Ulysses' Gaze (ECM New Series)
2. Bill Laswell/Terre Thaemlitz – Web (Subharmonic)
3. Jeff Pearce – Vestiges (Hypnos)
4. Francis Bacon in conversation with Melvyn Bragg (Sooj)
5. Hal Willner et al – Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus (Columbia)
6. Sheila Chandra – ABoneCroneDrone (Realworld)
7. The Hafler Trio – Walk Gently Through the Gates of Joy (Touch)
8. Astor Piazzolla – Tango: Zero Hour (IRS reissue (!))
9. Maeror Tri – emotional engramm (i-Light)
10. Hiroki Okano – Heaven in the Koo (Brain-Food-Music)

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Canon or cannon?

The painters have been here for the last couple of days, and for much of this time their besplattered boombox has been tuned to a "classic rock" station. Listening involuntarily with half an ear, I have identified (in rough order of descending frequency): Pink Floyd, Who, Led Zeppelin, Dylan (birthday tribute), Beatles, Eagles, Tull, Clapton, Springsteen, Stones, Queen, Clash, Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2, Bowie, Ramones, Yes, Billy Joel, Jackson Browne, Elton John, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Steely Dan, AC/DC, Styx, Creedence, Green Day, the Dead, Blondie, the Doobie Brothers, and Janis Joplin, plus a few (otherwise unremarkable) things I didn't recognize.

At one time that would have looked like a relatively diverse list, and that a popular radio station would play all of them might have seemed a triumph of pluralism (if not quality exactly) over narrowcasting. Yet now it takes an act of imagination not to see it as exactly the opposite. It doesn't help that in each case the tracks selected were utterly predictable. I understand the motivation, and even the appeal, behind the "canonical" approach (thus the name, "classic rock"), but Aqualung is not the only Tull album (nor the best one, but that's another story), and I don't think we really need to hear The Wall twice daily (double album though it be, and much as I liked it in 1979). If I had to hear this every day I would surely go mad.

Yet sometimes I'm glad there are such stations. One chilly day we were out at the storage locker moving some furniture around, and a car with radio cranked came by long enough for us to hear two things -- "New Year's Day" and "Rock 'n' Roll" -- and it was just the thing for energizing weary limbs (mine anyway). Small doses at opportune moments: that's the key.

So while part of me thinks it would be great to have, say, an Atom Heart-only radio station (not least for its potentially infinite playlist), I really would not appreciate the sinking feeling I might come to have on hearing even the glorious opening digital stutters of "Supertropical" for the umpteenth time.

This is so illegal

But it won't last. Behold the glory here -- until you can't. (HT: Unfogged)

Monday, May 22, 2006

OPC IV plus PC XXX = my brain hurts

The Online Philosophy Conference continues here, while the latest Philosophers' Carnival convenes here (and note considerable cat-blogging at the latter site, featuring multiple kitties).

Sunday, May 21, 2006

DVC smackdown x 2

On Thursday film critic A. O. Scott of the local broadsheet took aim at, as he put it, "Ron Howard's adaptation of Dan Brown's best-selling primer on how not to write an English sentence," and he gets off a few good ones, which I reproduce here for your amusement. Since director Howard is merely a hack and not an outright disgrace, Mr. Scott's best lines concern neither him nor Tom Hanks's hair ("long, and so is the movie"), but the source material. The screenwriters, he says,
have streamlined Mr. Brown's story and refrained from trying to capture his, um, prose style. "Almost inconceivably, the gun into which she was now staring was clutched in the pale hand of an enormous albino with long white hair." Such language — note the exquisite "almost" and the fastidious tucking of the "which" after the preposition — can live only on the page.
Later he notes that said albino – neither enormous nor long-haired on the screen – "may be the first character in the history of motion pictures to speak Latin into a cellphone" (I wouldn't be so sure about that, actually ...). The best line does concern our cast, however:
Through it all Mr. Hanks and Ms. Tautou stand around looking puzzled, leaving their reservoirs of charm scrupulously untapped.
Also weighing in on this celluloid marvel is the American public, as canvassed by The Onion. Here's Matt Medsker, Dramaturge:
I've been waiting my whole life to hear, 'Oh, no, Jesus ditn't!' shouted in a movie theater. Perhaps now that dream may come true.
So say we all.

P.S. For more about DB's inimitable (Deo volente, he said into his cellphone) prose stylings, check out the posts collected here (scroll down).

Friday, May 19, 2006

O come, o come, Immanuel

I recently ran across two new blogs (HT: Transcendental Philosophy and Naturalism, itself an excellent blog) dedicated to the philosophy of Kant.

At Kant Blog, Andrew asks how many of us support "two-world" rather than "one-world" readings of Kant's transcendental idealism. One problem with "two-worlds" readings has always been that they make Kant look like a skeptic, when it seems clear that skepticism (or, as Kant puts it, "skeptical idealism," i.e. Descartes) is one of his targets. Or they just make him look flatly inconsistent – as Andrew says, the charge is that "transcendental idealism is “inconsistent Berkeleyanism,” since it seems like Berkeleyan idealism + un-Berkeleyan things in themselves". These mysterious noumena supposedly somehow cause us to create phenomena affect us, the result being that our minds create phenomena, which we are thus in a position to know (seeing as they are not radically independent of us, as noumena are would be if we could say even that much about them). But now it seems that whatever reality there is in the objects of our knowledge (i.e. phenomena) actually resides in their ultimate cause, um, source. And then the question arises, how come we can't know the real world, instead of this merely phenomenal knockoff? Instead of an answer to skepticism, Kant's story looks like a restatement of it.

The "one-world, two-aspect" reading (e.g. Allison, Bird) is supposed to help us avoid this problem. If there is just the one world, which can be considered either as it appears to us or "as it is in itself," then this lessens our sense that when it turns out we can know only the former (that is, know the one world only under the former aspect), there is something else still out there behind the scenes that remains unknown. Instead, we know things in the only way in which it makes sense to think of us as knowing them – that's all.

I am sympathetic with this line of thought, but I think it's somewhat hasty to think that it solves our problems just like that. And I agree with Bader, the proprietor of our second Kant blog, Transcendental Idealism, that the two-worlds/one-world distinction shouldn't be thought of as one between "ontological" and "epistemological or methodological" readings of Kant. Whatever the noumena/phenomena distinction amounts to, Kant clearly has ontological fish to fry here (he'd better, or we're still stuck with the Cartesian "transcendental-realist" conception of the objective world). Bader agrees with James Van Cleve that "the distinction between appearances and things in themselves is a distinction between two separate universes of discourse - not between two ways of discoursing about the same class of objects." (Problems from Kant, p. 150). I would agree with this as well if all it means is that (as we just said) it's not true that Kant is concerned simply with knowledge and language and not with ontology. However, I take his (Kant's) point to be that the three cannot be so cleanly separated (as they are on the Cartesian picture – in fact that's what gets the skeptical problem going: the idea that we can have perfectly contentful beliefs about what might not actually be out there at all). Still, I think we have to say that there's only one world, or we run straight into the problem we started with. So in some sense we are indeed concerned with "two ways of discoursing" about the same thing (if not "the same class of objects" exactly). Again, a key Kantian point is that part of what it is to be an object at all is for it to be the object of our thought, as we conceptualize it.

Here's how I like to explain why simply pointing to the one-world reading as an answer to skepticism (i.e. so that there's no transcendent world to be worried about not being able to know) cannot work. The original question was: "why can't I know the real world instead of (just) the world of appearance?". On the one-world reading, the question does not just go away, but instead becomes: "why can't I know the world the way it really is, instead of (just) how it appears?". The virtue of the two-aspect reading is that it allows a better answer to that question (but you still have to give it, not just say "but there's only the one world, so there's no problem"!).

What we should say is this. When we know the world as it appears (say by observing the cup on the table, and inferring that the cup is on the table), we do know the world the way it really is. If you don't think that that's how things really are, then you have no business saying that you believe it; and if you don't believe it, then you need to take another look. If you still don't believe it, then you are letting Cartesian theoretical requirements dictate your beliefs (or lack thereof, qua skeptic). In particular, it is the Cartesian identification of "how things are in themselves" with "how things really are" that is causing the problem – or in other words, the Cartesian conception of objectivity as radically independent of subjectivity. That's the target of Kant's argument.

Again, objectivity is an ontological matter, not one (simply) of semantics or epistemology. But it is indeed (as the original crude identification of one-world/two-aspect readings with "epistemological or methodological" ones was meant to bring out) in explaining the role of the concept of objectivity in semantics and epistemology (that is, in speaking and knowing) that we see what objectivity is (and thus what sort of thing we should think of as "objective").

I will make these points in my own pragmatist-cum-Davidsonian language, rather than Kant's own tangled idiom, but the anti-Cartesian point is essentially the same. See for example the "Refutation of Idealism" section of the first Critique (B 274-79), where Kant speaks in terms not of language but of experience, i.e. self-consciousness. But (in this context at least) being a self-conscious agent and being a language user are the same thing, for the very Kantian reasons we are discussing: each, contra Descartes, commits you to dependence on an independent world for the content of your thoughts.

The central concept of epistemology is that of belief. The truth of your belief that p depends not on anything having to do with you, but instead on whether p is really (objectively) the case. My belief that the cup is on the table is true iff the cup really is on the table, independently of my believing it. The concept of belief marks the conceptual difference between actual knowledge of the objective world and possibly false subjective impressions of it. Belief, we say, doesn't make it so; yet if things are indeed as you believe them to be, then your knowledge is perfectly objective. This is why relativism is false: the truth of our beliefs depends on how the world is.

Analogously, the central concept of semantics is that of meaning. My statement "the cup is on the table" means what it does in virtue of its being true when things really are as it says they are when it is so construed (here, as meaning that the cup is on the table). Or, in a non-homonymous case (and omitting a few complications), taking "the slod is on the kovep" as being true in virtue of the cup's being on the table (and not otherwise, whether I said so or not), would be to take it as meaning "the cup is on the table" (and, presumably, that "slod" means "cup" and "kovep" means "table"). This is why idealism is false: the content of our thoughts depends on how things are when our beliefs (that they are that way) are true.

That's all there is to the concept of objectivity (i.e. things being really one way and not another, independently of what we say or believe). It is a Cartesian distortion to identify "objectivity" with the world as seen from no particular point of view (itself a distortion of the idea of the world as seen through mathematical eyes, as the new science demands). This is the point of the Kantian rejection of noumena (i.e. as "nothing to us"). For Kant, the phenomenal world is the (one and only) objective world; and when we speak truly, we see things as they really are. (There are different kinds of "noumena," and Kant sometimes backslides, but I think it undeniable that this is generally Kant's view: that noumena are to be rejected as a Cartesian fantasy.)

Seen from a Cartesian point of view, this looks like idealism – that what is objectively the case depends essentially on our practices of speaking and thinking, rather than being so "anyway" (as Bernard Williams puts it). But of course that's one of the things wrong with the Cartesian view: that seen from it, the correct view looks unacceptably idealistic. (But it isn't.)

We can indeed put the Cartesian fantasy in terms of there being an "independent world" (i.e. "beyond appearances," metaphysically speaking), as in the two-worlds version of Kant's philosophy. That's why it's hard to see that reading as helping: it seems to leave the Cartesian thought in place. Then it looks like the mystery of the noumenal world is Kant's doing, not Descartes's. (For example of this sort of reading, see Barry Stroud's uncharitable reading of Kant in The Significance of Philosophical Skepticism).

I have thus interpreted Kant's "transcendental idealism" as not being idealism at all (as I would Hegel's "absolute idealism" too, for that matter). It's as "realist" as we should want, once we give up the Cartesian fantasy of "absolute" objectivity. Some philosophers embrace Kant's "empirical realism" as allowing us to put metaphysics behind us (and become "scientific realists"). However, I tend to reserve the term "realism" for the "transcendental realist" position Kant enables us to reject (or, in contemporary terms, "metaphysical realism"). So we should embrace neither realism nor idealism, which should be rejected together as jointly committed to an untenably dualist picture. ("Scientific realism" has its own problems.)

This doesn't mean that I think we can accept Kant's position as it stands. From our present position on the far side of the "linguistic turn," we can see Kant as a key predecessor, but only once we know what to look for. To be "Kantian" nowadays is to apply Kantian insight to our contemporary situation, not to drag Kantian doctrines whole into the present (or to join them in the past). For various reasons (including his obsession with the problem of freedom (agency, rationality, morality, etc.) and his somewhat less successful solution to it, not to mention his equally obsessive systematicity), Kant seems to have left a certain amount of residual Cartesianism in place (or even, in some places, reinforced it), and it is natural for us to turn to subsequent critics (Hegel, various Romantics, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche) for help. Still, the "critical turn" remains an essential part of the glorious Nietzschean story (even if Nietzsche himself understates Kant's role in it, relegating him to an earlier phase than I would) of How the True World Became a Fable.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

We are devo

When I was at Penn, I remember sitting one day with a friend in the Allegro Pizza on 40th and Spruce (I actually used to call it Andante Pizza; you know, not quite allegro, if you know what I mean), and I related to him the following dire statistic (NB: I'm not sure where I heard this, so I might not have it right). They took a poll, and asked: "Should it be illegal to criticize the government?" Answer: 75% said yes. Now, my point is not that that number is remarkably high (although it certainly is that). For this poll was conducted in tandem with another poll (they can't possibly have asked the same people), in which they asked: "Should people be allowed to criticize the government?" Again (gulp), 75% said yes. So at least 50% of respondents had no idea what they were even saying. (Yes, I know it's not a strict contradiction, but even so!) So help me, that was the story as it was told to me. I certainly hope it's apocryphal. By the way, as we were marveling over this folly, there in Andante Pizza, a middle-aged lady came over to us and said she was happy there were some people our age who weren't just talking nonsense all the time. Faculty maybe? Who knows.

I thought of that today when I saw this. Over at EvolutionBlog (check out the new digs!), Jason tells us about a new Harris poll about evolution, creation, and all that. Check the Harris link for all the numbers, but here are three results that Jason cites.
We find that 65% of conservatives vs. 37% of liberals reject the idea that humans developed from earlier species. 56% of conservatives vs. 31% of liberals reject the idea that man and apes share common ancestry. And 58% of conservatives vs. 35% of liberals reject the idea that the fossil record confirms evolution.
Okay, we've seen these numbers before. But check this out (and it seems they did ask all these questions of the same people): at least 9% of conservatives and 6% of liberals (that's about 70 people, 7% of the sample) rejected the idea that humans developed from earlier species, but did not reject the idea that man and apes share common ancestry. So humans were created in their present form, but (maybe) they share an ancestor with apes. If so, that ancestor can only be human. So humans didn't descend from an ape-like ancestor (that'd be crazy!): apes descended from humans. (Maybe.) So do people really believe this, or was this poll conducted in the morning hours, before people have had their coffee?

UPDATE [mere hours later]: This morning's Times tells us that humans and chimps may have interbred, and that contemporary humans may be descended from that hybrid. Interesting – but that still doesn't mean apes descended from humans.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


Oh, and the Online Philosophy Conference continues. There's a paper this week called "The Concept of Valuing." At first I thought it said "the concept of vaulting," which would have been interesting. Also interesting, I should say.

Another link to something exceedingly clever, while we wait for the next substantive post

A "cheat sheet" for those confused about Christianity. (Not offensive.) HT: Dispatches.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Oldie but goodie

If you've been in the biz for a while you've seen some version of "Philosophers' proofs that P" (HT for this version: Scottish Nous). But you don't really get them unless you know the philosopher. Now I've been reading Joseph Margolis lately, and I can confirm that this, Margolis's disproof that p, is very good:
The assumption that P -- indeed, the belief that P is so natural and obvious as to be beyond dispute -- is so deeply woven into Western thought that any attempt to question it, much less to overthrow it, is likely to be met with disbelief, scorn, and ridicule. The denial of P is a deep thesis, a theme of courage, a profound insight into the fundamental nature of things. (Or at any rate it would be if there were a fundamental nature of things, which there isn't.) Anyone unfamiliar with the hidden brutalities of professional philosophy cannot imagine all the nasty things that will be said about someone who dares to mount an assault on P. (Just look at how neglected Protagoras is now -- they even cut his writings up into tiny little bits!)

It has repeatedly been alleged that the denial of P is self-refuting. Extraordinary! As if one bold enough to deny P would feel bound by the conventions of dialethism on which alone any charge of self-refutation rests! Once we have seen through this delusion, we are free to dismiss as nonsense our current vision not only of philosophy and science but also that quaint notion of 'the good life.' We are also free to discard antiquated Hellenic prejudices as to what counts as proof and disproof, whilst retaining (of course) a proper sense of logical rigor. Hence, the foregoing constitutes a disproof of P.
Except for the last sentence of each paragraph, this could be cut and pasted from the man himself.

Some of them aren't so funny, but others are excellent (I like Kripke's). Check it out if you haven't.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Ribonucleic bourbaki, indeed

I love spam poetry, but this one seems a little, I don't know, unimaginative, compared to some I've seen:
dodecahedra delmarva andorra ahmadabad shelby electronic carey montreal bantus
casualty oratoric circumcise gaylord hump depositary govern archival canary
bustard lucius positron universe swanlike coxcomb allegate onrushing capstone
saline formate
inadvisable arginine elision ribonucleic bourbaki various analogy nasturtium
newsmen oilcloth cologne arabesque deed von logician grenoble
sane dissension dugan chaucer ecuador needful take sancho
After a blah beginning, it reaches for some lyricism with "swanlike coxcomb allegate onrushing capstone/ saline formate"; but that clunky "ecuador needful take sancho" ending just ruins it. And no, I am not interested in your product.


The Online Philosophy Conference continues here. Gird your rational loins, for there is rigor there!

You want results? I got results

As a slimy mollusc (actually, I seem to have been evolving and devolving wildly over the past few weeks – today it seems I am a flippery fish, but I doubt that'll last), I tend not to bother linking to interesting or amusing things, assuming that readers are much more likely to see the thing where I saw it than to need me to point it out to them. But what's the harm, right? If you've seen it already then don't bother.

Here is manifested a standard of candor in student papers (physics division) that we all wish were more common (or at least occasional). HT's: Evolving Thoughts, Pharyngula.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Friday semi-random ten (Monday edition: the other room)

1. Dots (Rather Interesting)
2. Vir Unis – Aeonian Glow (GreenHouse)
3. Marco Cerletti – Random and Providence (soundways)
4. Natacha Atlas – Diaspora (Beggars Banquet)
5. Björk – Homogenic (Elektra)
6. Philip Jeck – Stoke (Touch)
7. va – label compilation (Vertical Forms)
8. Xenakis – Electronic Music (EMF/INA-GRM)
9. Arcana – Arc of the Testimony (Axiom)
10. Burnt Friedman & Jaki Liebezeit – Secret Rhythms (Nonplace)

That Vertical Forms compilation has some tremendous material on it: Delay, Bola, Múm, Monolake, Isan, etc. I think I'll have to listen to it now.

Monday, May 01, 2006

An embarrassment of riches

Not only has the new Philosophers' Carnival begun, so has the first On-line Philosophy Conference, with real papers and responses and everything. Rigorous arguments abound here. Each round lasts only a week, so don't delay!