Thursday, June 29, 2006

Tell us what you really think

More reading than writing going on at the moment here at DRHQ, I'm afraid. For now here are someone else's thoughts (Ed B. at Dispatches, on the recent brouhaha about the Times's disclosure of government anti-terror activities):
Every single side of the story is represented by people who are, frankly, completely full of shit. The New York Times is full of shit, their critics are full of shit, and the right wingers calling for treason charges are completely full of shit. Every single facet of this thing just screams hypocrisy on the part of every single person involved.
Plenty more here.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

My language, right or wrong

As is well known, grammarians (and other non-philosophers) fall into two types: prescriptivists and descriptivists. The former feel free to tell everyone else how to talk, and the latter tell the former to lighten up and go with the flow. (The novelist David Foster Wallace has an amusing, characteristically footnote-ridden piece about his own membership in the prescriptivist marching society, for which body he has an equally amusing but alas unmemorable neologistic acronym - "floot"? "froot"? "snoot?")

This is a non-issue, or should be anyway, for philosophers. Language changes, at a speed and in a manner to be determined by its users on a case by case basis. In the face of perceived linguistic anarchy, prescriptivists are right that there are indeed objective "linguistic facts" -- that word X means "y" and not "z", or that string W is not well-formed -- but any imperatives (prescriptions) we may derive from same are what you might call "hypothetical" rather than "categorical." That is, while it is (as they say) a true fact that "dog" means "one of those [indicating Fido]" and not "one of those [indicating Garfield]", the only sense we can ultimately make of this sort of "semantic normativity" is that IF you wish to speak in the way that English speakers (as a matter of empirical fact) typically do, THEN (and now comes the normativity) you must say "dog" when speaking of Fido and his canine kin, and "assassinated U. S. President" when speaking of Garfield, Lincoln, et al. (A related point is that IF you wish to be understood by English speakers (or perhaps to keep from annoying them), THEN you must speak in the way that they typically do, or at least refrain from improvising freely.)

Or so we Davidsonians say (locus classicus: "A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs," now available in Truth, Language, and History). This means that in particular cases the issue is not whether there are linguistic facts, but whether our purposes are best served in this case by speaking this way or that. In general, useful distinctions are retained while useless ones fade away. The problem arises when some people let distinctions become obscured while others are still using them (and hoping to do so in the same way they had been doing up to now, by saying this and not that). The proper philosophical attitude to take here is again that it'll all come out in the wash (which is often, I find, the proper philosophical attitude to take).

So we should be neither hard-line prescriptivists nor hard-line descriptivists (as neither position is coherent). The sympathy I have for either is limited to the empirical fact that proponents of the other can be annoyingly dense. If language currently allows a useful distinction, then let's not just let it go out of sheer carelessness. Common courtesy suggests that if someone is using something, you don't just throw it out just because you can't be bothered not to (and maybe you'd like to use it too - try it and see). We all have our favorites, but I appreciate the semantic distinction between "jealous" and "envious", and of course I have a professional interest in keeping "imply" and "infer" straight. And some things are just eyesores (quotation marks for emphasis, possessive "it's"; again, we all have our favorites).

On the other hand, there's nothing quite like doctrinaire prescriptivists for cluelessness. They make me appreciate the existentialist notion of "bad faith": I don't have to use my judgment, there's a rule I can follow (and berate others sanctimoniously for not following)! It's like (and indeed I imagine in some cases this really is it) they want to be able to feel justified in inferring social class (and thus ultimate worth) directly and reliably from forms of speech - how can we distinguish Us from Them if you insist on talking in a way in which (even if there is no other reason not to do so) They do and We do not?

What's particularly galling is the (not at all unusual) cases in which prescriptivists are (ironically enough) just wrong. Again we all have favorite examples (mine is the ridiculous kneejerk rejection of singular "they," which is just fine, thank you). I ran across another today, which I don't think I'd ever seen before. Baldo is perhaps the most annoying and reliably unfunny comic strip I've ever seen, but I can't help sparing the 2 seconds it takes every day to read it. Today's jape features the pretentious Anglo (naturally) English teacher upbraiding car-parts shop employee Baldo:
Baldo: Can I help you?
PAET (snarkily): I don't know – can you?
... the point being, of course, that what B. "should" have said was "May I help you?" Now of course this latter is a traditional greeting and perfectly idiomatic, employing a locution that people do in fact abuse in the form our man no doubt usually hears it (his response here is, verbatim, that my 4th-grade math teacher regularly gave to "Can I go to the bathroom?"). But Baldo's actual question makes perfect sense on its own terms. For if he were to return snark for snark, we might hear:
Baldo: I don't know either – tell me what you want, and I'll see if ... (wait for it) ... I can help you.
At least that's better than "Whom should I say is calling?"

Thursday, June 15, 2006

UK agrees to jail Charles Taylor

It's childish, I know, but my philosophy-nerd sense of humor is tickled by such headlines (see here). I know Taylor's phenomenology-based criticism of McDowell's conceptualism is a little harsh, but the same could be said of Dreyfus, and nobody's throwing him in jail. (Cue Emily Litella.)

Monday, June 12, 2006

Hot off the presses

As of 10:20 P.M. EDT, when I clicked on it, this edition of the Philosophers' Carnival had been up for all of ten minutes. Watch it, it's still hot! (Thanks Kenny!)

Friday, June 09, 2006

Gimme some truth

Many people nowadays, including or even especially philosophers, seem to think it important that we acknowledge the value of truth. I was reminded of this by the recent release of Ophelia Benson's and Jeremy Stangroom's Why Truth Matters, but this is a familiar theme not only in the works of the usual pomo-phobic culture warriors, but also those of philosophers such as Michael Lynch and Simon Blackburn. In his 2004 book, itself called True to Life: Why Truth Matters, Lynch compares philosophic indifference or hostility to truth with complacent acceptance of the Bush administration's alleged blithe rationalization of insufficiently justified claims of Iraqi WMD as instrumentally valuable (e.g. for fostering consensus). As George Will would say (and it is not often that I quote the man, so listen up):
Should we indeed make a point of valuing truth? Not surprisingly, that depends on what we mean. Sometimes "truth" is used (usually – but not only, alas – by non-philosophers) as a name for a kind of commodity or stuff, like knowledge is, rather than for a property that a proposition has, or not, in virtue of the relation between its content (meaning) and the way the world is. Although this usage can be innocent (as in the pragmatist motto "seek truth, avoid error"), it can also blur the very real conceptual difference between truth and knowledge, thus making the following points more controversial than they should be. (It can also lead to confusing talk about "kinds of truth," which would be better thought of as domains of inquiry or discourse.)

First, perhaps it is too obvious to mention, but it can't be that what is to be valued is that there is such a thing as truth, i.e., that there are truths. All that would mean is that we are speaking a language; but while I suppose I'm glad we're discursive creatures, that can't be what truth-valuers value. What use is it to me, for example, that "Eto ne moy plotok" correctly denotes a certain state of affairs if I don't know which state of affairs that is? In order for truths to be valuable, or for truth to be a goal, I need to have access to them somehow, and it is that that must be the locus of value, not the truths themselves; so maybe it is the value of knowledge that we are meant to affirm.

However, this doesn't seem right either. The value of knowledge, while more easily debated, is a fairly straightforward matter, philosophically speaking. Naturally we can think of plenty of things we are better off knowing than not knowing (or being deceived about). But clearly not every particular thing is worth knowing; indeed, the vast majority of truths are entirely worthless as knowledge. It is presumably either true or false (pace verificationists) that the word "marble" was used at least once on October 12, 1977 within a six-meter radius centered at a particular spot in the Fulton Fish Market. But who cares? (Of course we could make up a story in which we might need to know this. But so what.) Some knowledge is even downright dangerous. On the other hand, we can hardly make sense of a choice between knowledge and ignorance in general. Believing only falsehoods – having no knowledge at all – isn't even conceptually possible. Even Thomas Anderson (Neo pre-red pill in The Matrix) has plenty of true beliefs (but let's not go there today).

If the value of knowledge in this (uninteresting) sense is the value of belief (that P) given the truth of P, maybe we can do better switching it around: what is the value of the truth of P given belief that P? This keeps the focus on the value of truth, while preserving the connection to belief without which, as we saw up top, the question makes no sense.

So, do we really want our beliefs to be true? This too is ambiguous. In one sense, it's not an issue about truth at all, but about our desires. Given that you believe the world to be a certain way, do you really prefer (what you see as) the actual state of affairs to, say, this other one? I believe that the hurricane was devastating, but I would be happy to be wrong about that; I would prefer that my belief be false (but it isn't, alas). In another sense, this reverts to the question about knowledge – the value of true belief. If my beliefs are true, then, just as when truths are believed, the epistemic connection to the world is made; but we've already seen that this may or may not be valuable.

A third sense must be what is intended. As the aletheiaphiles present the matter, the issue is one of the threat of instrumentalism, or skepticism, or nihilism, or all at once. Richard Rorty famously denies that justification-transcendent truth is a goal of inquiry, or even that there is any such thing in the first place; and this will never do. The question is this: given that you believe something (i.e., because it pays to do so, and has established its value already, say in terms of prediction and control), do you place an additional value on its being true as well as useful? Rorty claims that he cannot see what point there could possibly be to this. But if you do not go beyond valuing utility, we are encouraged to complain, you are (if I may borrow a phrase from elsewhere) an epistemic "free rider": belief without ontological commitment, that is, has all the advantages of doxastic theft over honest ontological toil. But does this accusation, and the accompanying apotheosis of truth, get at our real interest here?

Now I agree with the truth-lovers in a certain limited sense: we should indeed reject instrumentalism, skepticism, and nihilism. This may not seem to be a limited sense, but as we shall see, it amounts to somewhat less than they suggest. Again, our claim cannot be that there is no such thing as a useful fiction (or even a pious fraud); clearly there is. Rather, it must be that we should not elevate this fact into a general attitude toward truth, like that what matters in inquiry is the consequences of believing P, rather than that P is true. But this – rightly claimed as a "truism" by Lynch, but brandished as if it were a substantive result – is simply a condition of having beliefs at all. (In fact, Lynch's "truism" is that "truth is a worthy goal of inquiry," which is confused – it's like saying that "arriving at the solution is a worthy goal of doing a puzzle." If you're not trying to get the solution, you're not "doing the puzzle" at all.) It makes no sense to deny the "value of truth" in inquiry; but by the same token it makes no sense to affirm it either (i.e., as something that transcends what is normally available to us as the result of inquiry). One inquires, and forms beliefs, or one does not; and one cannot not believe.

The anti-skeptical point, as shown for example by Myles Burnyeat some time ago re: ancient skepticism, is that it is incoherent to take a third-person point of view on your own beliefs (although Burnyeat himself did not press the matter any farther). If you believe something, inquiry is over: the issue is settled. This doesn't mean you're stuck with your beliefs, as you may always reopen the matter. But to do so is to remove the proposition in question from your beliefs and put it into doubt; and doubt is only intelligible against a background of settled belief. So (at least on the pragmatist cum Davidsonian view I recommend) we never say: this belief of mine might be false; for to say of something that it might be false is to regard the issue of its truth as no longer settled – and thus no longer a belief at all.

Making a similar (but not identical) point (and ironically providing Rorty, who is otherwise not a big fan, with pragmatist cover), Peirce claimed that the goal of inquiry is not truth but belief: you may think you want truth, but once you believe, you find that that is sufficient (I can look up the quote if you want). The thought is right, but the conclusion is not – because once you believe, you thereby ipso facto believe that you know the truth; so of course fixation of belief is sufficient. What would be superfluous would be a purported philosophical demonstration that our beliefs are true, either individually or collectively. If you really do believe, you feel no need for such a "demonstration"; and if you don't believe, then such a demonstration wouldn't apply (as it applies only to beliefs).

As may be evident by now, an important confusion (or systematic conflation) that can cause trouble here is between "belief" as a) a proposition qua believed (never mind by whom), and b) a proposition actually believed by the agent in question. These must be kept distinct. Again: take a belief of mine, any belief. If I cease to believe it, now I see it as possibly false. So the belief is possibly false? No, the proposition is possibly false as far as I'm concerned: I'm in doubt. Once I give it up, it's not a "belief" at all. Maybe someone else believes it; then it's a belief of theirs.

Once the anti-skeptical point is in place, the anti-instrumental and anti-nihilist points follow quickly (or are superfluous; on the other hand, this is not to say that related metaphysical and methodological unconfusing – of realist and anti-realist alike – isn't necessary to keep the anti-skeptical point in place, as skepticism naturally reactivates in the presence of dogmatism). So, to sum up: the value of truth has to mean the value of true belief, lest it mean the value of there being truths at all; but it turns out to be impossible to isolate the truth component of true belief as the object of value – the value of true belief ends up being either 1) the value of the world's being a certain way, or 2) of our knowing that the world is the way it is (either for the informative value of true belief or for the instrumental value of lacking false belief), or 3) of our believing what we believe given that we believe it (or something). The first two aren't what we were after, and the third doesn't make any sense. Our concern is really with belief and inquiry properly construed; but that noble goal is remarkably poorly advanced with such slogans as "truth matters."

I was going to run through Lynch's WMD example, but there are so many conflations and confusions in there that we better save it. Next time.

New (home for) science blogs

Totally awesome science blogs The Loom, Mixing Memory, and Evolving Thoughts are moving to (how about that) There are other new additions as well: check out the home page here. Must ... update ... blogroll ...

Spanish castle magic

Here's another optical illusion - a nice variation on an oldie but goodie. (Make sure your mouse is off to the side.) Bonus: this one's free! (HT: Unfogged.)

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

That's four hears

At Dispatches, Ed gives us a long excerpt from a recent speech by Judge Jones (yes, that Judge Jones), explaining the concept of judicial independence. Ed's comment: "hear, hear." To which I add: hear, hear. The entire speech is here. (Ooh, almost had five.)

Friday, June 02, 2006

For the time, being

If you have too much of the one and/or not enough of the other: beware. See you there! (Maybe.)

(HT: Mormon Metaphysics)


I'm not sure I've mentioned this fine site yet. Now I have.

It's a streaming web radio show (one per week, *no archives*), featuring (as our host puts it) "Experimental / Ambient / Electronic / Ethereal" music, all from netlabels. I listen even now, to a very tasty track from an artist (Gyges, as in "ring of") previously unknown to me (as they usually are). Check it out!

Thursday, June 01, 2006

You are getting sleepy, too

Check out this optical illusion. You won't believe your eyes! (Obviously.) Then, you will send me a check for a great deal of money. (HT: Mixing Memory).