Monthly Archives: July 2009

Oop Bop Sh’Bam

I think I experienced a counter example this weekend.  Nothing painful.  No unusual neurosurgery, just the experience of having knowledge without justified true belief.  I think.  I’m not sure.

The thought that knowledge is JTB is as old as Plato, but a number of thought experiments formulated by Gettier seem to show that JTB is not sufficient for knowledge.  I might look at a clock which just happens to have stopped exactly 24 hours ago.  Perhaps this gives me the JTB that it’s 4 pm.  Probably I don’t really know that it’s 4pm, the story goes, so JTB is not enough for knowledge.

What might be considerably more weird are cases where JTB is not even necessary for knowledge, instances in which someone has knowledge but only two of the three conditions are in place.  There’s the example of the boy who studies all weekend for a history exam.  He’s under a lot of pressure, sweating feverishly, and when he’s asked, ‘When was the Battle of Hastings?’ he blurts out ‘1066!’, even though he doesn’t really believe it.  Still, maybe he knows that the Battle of Hastings happened in 1066 — all that studying is a good justification, and the claim is certainly true, but perhaps he lacks belief.  He knows p but does not believe p.  Weird.

People have different intuitions about these examples, and maybe I’ve never really been convinced by those which purport to show that JTB is not necessary for knowledge.  Until now.  I’m sitting in a darkened bar, listening to an ancient pianist bouncing jazz from a piano.  He plays something unfamiliar and sings, ‘Oop bop sh’bam’ and inclines his ear to the audience, encouraging us in the coolest possible way to join in.  ‘A klugle mop’ or something very much like that came unbidden from my lips.  I am profoundly uncool, never listen to jazz, and I have no idea where that came from, but if ‘Oop bop sh’bam’ were a question, ‘A klugle mop’ is undoubtedly the answer.  I knew it, I think, but I blurted it out with no conviction.

I have since looked all of this up, and while you think about whether or not it counts as a proper counter example, I invite you to dig the Diz.

Skeptic “Ataraxia”

Skeptic “Ataraxia”

We like the feeling of certainty. It gives us confidence and a sense of safety. Mathematics, geometry and logic give us a taste of certainty. We get another taste from the well tested results of scientific investigation. However, the world as we experience it is full of probability, chance, uncertainty and mystery. We are surrounded by what is doubtful, and this makes us anxious.

The goal of ancient skepticism is to produce a state of ‘ataraxia’ or ‘freedom of mind’ in the souls of its practitioners. It is not about eliminating doubt, but eliminating the cause of the mental distress people experience when doubts assail their minds. This cause contains a desire for the certainty of knowledge coupled with a belief that such knowledge is possible. A practical skeptic accepts the inherent uncertainty of most of our opinions and ceases to imagine that beneath the turbulent surface of experiences and events, reason, science or a mystical/religious vision can reveal an unchanging Reality or Absolute Truth.

How do we benefit by accepting a basic human ignorance? The reason is pragmatic. We benefit by releasing debilitating mental agitation. What, then, is the connection between the skeptic’s ‘ataraxia’ and ‘freedom of mind’? I must confess here that I have taken some liberties by translating ‘ataraxia’ as ‘freedom of mind.’ It literally means ‘painlessness’. The skeptic notices that people have a tendency to entertain ideas that bring them painful feelings, and that doubts are often among these ideas. The goal of a skeptic is to ‘suspend’ belief on doubtful matters that cause mental distress. These doubtful matters cause distress because they cannot be settled rationally.

Another way to translate ‘ataraxia’ is ‘peace of mind.’ The painless existence advocated by the skeptics for practical reasons does not extend to all pains, and certainly not physical pains directly experienced as distressing. I do not wonder if my tooth hurts and try to build up a convincing case that it does. I do not ask myself whether the pain is bad in itself, even if the pain is occasioned in a good cause, like dental health. So the skeptic’s painlessness has more to do with mental than with physical pains, and not even with all mental pains and pleasures. I expect that an ancient skeptic would be sad if a friend died, or elated on winning the lottery. This cannot be the sort of peace of mind involved in skeptic ‘ataraxia.’

The skeptic is trying to relieve us of distressing thoughts that disturb our peace of mind. What sort of ‘peace of mind’ are we talking about? Let’s call it ‘intellectual peace of mind’. The ancient skeptic is trying to relieve us of a particular type of mental pain. This pain is caused by the type of interminable intellectual debates so beloved by serious philosophers. One is so anxious not to miss the truth that the quest for the truth itself breaks up one’s peace of mind in a continual striving after what, in the end, is more a matter of conviction than a matter of proof.

Where knowledge is unavailable, we can only make a choice. The skeptic chooses not to choose in cases where there are no clear conclusions and opposing positions continue to be asserted even while everyone knows they cannot all be true. On my account, this turns skeptical peace of mind into freedom of mind. What is freedom of mind? It is the ability to think any thought that it is possible to think, without limits, without taboos, without constrictions. Not taking a final stand on the philosophical debates mentioned above, the skeptic is free to follow all lines of argument in a playful fashion. Taken in the right spirit, philosophical discussions are fun, insightful and thrilling, since it is a thrill to follow surprising ideas wherever they may lead. Good philosophical discussion is a genuine form of investigation. However, when the spirit of seriousness enters a philosophical discussion, the going gets competitive and philosophy becomes a game of refuting and temporarily silencing one’s opponents.

One of the best things that Hegel ever said was ‘Tarry with the negative.’ By the ‘negative’ he meant one-sided and false theories. Yet the ‘negative’ is never entirely false, and thus inhabiting such a position is a worthwhile exercise, even if, eventually, it would cramp one’s style. It is easier for a skeptic to tarry with the negative than a believer in truth and knowledge, since knowledge is the end of thinking and questioning. Skeptics are free to explore the world of thought in a way that those who are bound by knowledge and the search for knowledge are not.

Thus the ataraxia sought by the ancient skeptic is the painlessness that comes from rightly understanding the nature of philosophical (or theological) argument. This peace of mind is really a type of mental freedom. It is a peace that comes from finding no walls surrounding one’s thoughts; a peace that comes from the realization that we can try on the possibilities of the human spirit without conforming to the dominant shapes of the day.

God’s Love

I recently finished a section on faith & reason in my Introduction to Philosophy class. As per tradition, I included a discussion of the problem of evil and used David Hume‘s writings on the subject. Condensing down his argument, he contends that we cannot reasonably infer the existence of an all powerful, all knowing and supremely benevolent being from the nature of the world. After all, there seems to be a significant tension between all the evil in the world and the existence of such a perfect being. Hume does note that the existence of evil is consistent with God having the qualities commonly attributed to Him, but he thinks that this is not what we would expect.

Reflecting a bit on this, I think that Hume is correct on both points. After all, inferring that a perfect being exists based on the available empirical evidence seems like quite a leap. This would be like looking at a student’s tests and papers, seeing an average grade of D and inferring that despite all the evidence, the student really is an A student. While I have had students make such a claim (that they are A students, despite the lack of A grades), this is hardly good reasoning.

In regards to the second point, Hume does seem to be correct that the evil of the world is consistent with God being good and so on. After all, being good is consistent with being a bit rough. To use another teaching analogy, being a morally good professor is consistent with giving the students challenging and difficult assignments. It is also consistent with applying failing grades when such grades are earned. Naturally, a student who fails or dislikes the work will not see these things as good, but she would be wrong about this. Of course, the analogy does have some weak points. After all, I do not smite my students with random diseases, nor do I tolerate violence in my classroom. However, I do smite them with paper assignments and I do tolerate active discussions in which students sometimes strongly criticize one another. So, perhaps God is good, but he runs a very tough classroom.

Of course, many people hold that God is not just good. God is also supposed to be, on some accounts, a loving God. This raises the question of whether the available evidence can be reconciled with this claim.

While goodness is consistent with being a bit rough and also consistent with being objective, love seems to be different. While it is said that people hurt the ones they love, this seems to be a claim about what people do and not what love is really about. Love seems to involve a special concern for someone else and a desire to not only do well by that person, but also to be rather biased in his favor. As such, there is a difference in the behavior of a person who loves someone else as opposed to how that person would act towards someone he did not love.

To make the discussion a bit more concrete, I’ll use my own fall and surgery as an example. Back in March, I had a ladder go out from under me, thus dropping me about eight feet. My left foot hit the ladder and this tore my quadriceps tendon. While a good person watching me about to be hurt would have tried to help me, it could be consistent with a person’s goodness to let me fall. After all, doing so would certainly teach me to be more careful about ladders and such in the future. To use yet another teaching analogy, this could be seen as failing a student for making the bad choice of cheating-that will teach her. Likewise, my bad choice of getting on a ladder during a storm taught me to never do that again.

However, someone who loves me would not have let me fall, if she could have prevented it. After all, someone who loves me would not want me to suffer such an injury and have to endure such a long and painful recovery. Suppose, for example, someone who professed to love me was standing by the ladder and she saw it slipping. If she did nothing to try to stop it and just watched me fall, I would be inclined to say that she did not love me.

Obviously, if God exists, then He was aware of the ladder slipping and could have easily prevented this. However, He let it slip and hence let me fall. That hardly seems to be a sign of love. As such, if God exists, then I can be fairly sure that He does not love me.

Naturally, someone could counter by arguing that if being good is compatible with being a bit rough, then so  is love. After all, a parent who loves his children will let them endure the discomfort of getting their vaccines so as to keep them safe. A person might, also out of love, allow someone he loves to learn a lesson the hard way, knowing that is the only way the person will learn. And, of course, love hurts. So, perhaps it is consistent with God’s love that he allows us to fall, get terrible diseases, murder, be murdered, rape, be raped and so on. However, it certainly is a strange sort of love. I’m certainly glad my friends and family do not love me that way.

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Lucky Mental Voodoo

‘Chance gives rise to thoughts, and chance removes them; no art can keep or acquire them.’

I tripped over that from Pascal after breakfast and had to think about it all morning.  There’s a lot written about moral luck — a philosophical industry owed to Williams and Nagel.  We think we should morally evaluate people only on the basis of what is within their control, but in fact we assess each other on the basis of factors that depend on luck all the time.  (Compare our treatment of murderers with attempted murderers who were unlucky enough to equip themselves with faulty guns.)

Pascal is on about epistemic luck, but not the sort that gets a few philosophical headlines having to do wtih lucky routes to the truth.  I think he means that sometimes thoughts just pop into our heads and pop out again.  It can’t just be chance, can it?  Isn’t there something going on in there, something blank to us but nevertheless ours?  Certainly, as Pasteur put it, chance favours the prepared mind.  But is that it?  We read up, then cross our fingers and hope for some lucky mental voodoo to kick in.

Maybe parallel thoughts to those we have about moral luck lead to a slightly odd conclusion.  We shouldn’t give someone credit for a Eureka moment, a flash of inspiration, a brilliant but unbidden thought.  We should treat such people as merely lucky.   It’s not just Archimedes, by the way. Such mighty inventions as Cartesian co-ordinates, Post-It-Notes and Velcro are, so legend has it, owed to chance leaps of thought.  Should we praise Descartes?  Or just count him lucky?

Friday Amusement

The New Scientist fails to grasp the indiscernibility of identicals.  

A brain in a vat in a runaway trolly.

Heidegger or Giant Solar Energy Farms

The Guardian’s Manchester Report is getting some attention.  They brought a lot of people together to present solutions to the climate crisis, and a panel voted on them.  You can read about it here.

You’ll see that it’s mostly gee-whiz-look-at-what-the-boffins-are-up-to stuff.  We do this a lot, particularly when it comes to climate change.  We are smitten by the technological quick-fix, no doubt, but in this connection it takes the edge off of the uncomfortable thought that we can’t carry on consuming like this.   Maybe we can keep the long haul flights because someone, somewhere will invent a solar powered plane.  Or something.  It’s a dangerous thought to have, and it needs to die the death.

The Guardian didn’t invite philosophers.  If they had, they might have been treated to a seminar on Heidegger’s question about technology.  (Oh go on, read it if you haven’t.)  He argues that we are all enmeshed in a technological way of life — our problems, activities, agendas and so on happen in a social world where everything is regarded as a standing reserve, a stockpile.  (If you work in Human Resources, you’re part of the trouble.)  We see our problems as technological problems, and our solutions are technological too.  It’s all we can see because we’re stuck in the world we’ve thought oursleves into.  He tells us that we can maybe get out again by reflection on the senses in which we are enveloped by technology, instead of further attempts to save ourselves from it with yet more of it.  We can look to art, he says, and maybe build an aesthetic outlook into our way of life.  We can think of the mountain as beautiful, not simply as a source of coal.  There’s a sense in which this sort of thing can save us like no space mirror can.

Intriguing, but I don’t think Heideggerian reflection will grab headlines from thorium nuclear reactors.  Maybe rightly so.

Making Time for the Present

Making Time for the Present

In discussions of what makes for a good or happy life, we are often advised to “Live in the present.” It is hard to know what to make of this advice. At what other time might we live our lives but in the present? What kind of advice is it to ask us to do something we are incapable of failing to do? And yet, we hear of the power of the now and how meditation practice can provide us with the key to living in the present. We are told that countless people are more miserable than they might otherwise be because they do not or can not live more fully in the present.

So we have to figure out what ‘not living the present’ might be like, given that we are always already living in the present. I got a clue lying in bed the other night, unable to fall asleep. Observing what was going through my mind at the time, I noticed that it was very active. I was thinking about things. What sort of things was I so busy thinking about that I could not sleep? Most of them were about the past, and almost all the rest were about the future. For example, I might start thinking of my parents and how they died, and ask if there was anything more I could have done for them. There are many occasions in the past that call forth sadness, regret, guilt, anger or hate, when we think of them. There are many more that call up joy, mirth and gladness.

Looking toward the future, I found myself thinking about how to design an introductory philosophy course syllabus that conforms to the complex conditions attaching to General Education courses in my University, complete with detailed outlines, and explicit connections to the ‘Learning Outcomes’ mandated by bureaucratic committees and external authorities. I may not have to complete the syllabus for a month or so, but still it preys on my mind. So my thinking takes on the aspect of practical reason in which I work back from the desired end to what I can do now. Of course, in the middle of the night, there is nothing I can do, yet I gnaw away at it, and this robs me of a peaceful sleep.

Is thinking about the past and future compatible with ‘living in the present?’ Perhaps not, since ‘living in the present’ indicates a presence of mind to the passing moment, and a mindfulness of what is around and within us. If one tries to think about the present, then one has already distanced oneself from it. It becomes the abstraction of the so-called ‘specious present.’ To be called back to the now, I realized, is really to come back to your body without distracting thoughts about the past and future.

Now I understand why the elemental training in meditation is simply to breathe in and out, aware of the process, not in the sense of thinking about it, but in the sense of just breathing. This is hard to do. Thoughts intrude, and most, if not all of them, are of the past or future. So when that happens, we are to return our awareness gently to our breathing, breathing naturally the whole time. It is when you return to your breathing that you begin to see how the past and future haunt the present in the form of thoughts that take us away from the moment we are living. Hence, we can make sense of the idea that we must make time for the present in our lives. Anchoring ourselves to our living bodies is one way to live in the moment. We can cultivate this awareness of the present by setting aside some minutes to inhabit our own bodies in a conscious way, for our bodies are always in the present and have no other time in which to be.

Prince Charles, Philosophy and Climate Change

Prince Charles gave the Dimbleby Lecture last night.  I can’t find a transcript or a video yet, but you can read all about it here if you like.  It was called ‘Facing the Future’, and he said a lot about climate change and the importance of taking action.  What was a little astonishing, to me anyway, was that a considerable part of the lecture was about philosophy or anyway certain philosophical positions and the sense in which they led to the causes of climate change.  He really did seem to be arguing that a philosophical conception of the world and our place in it (owed maybe to empiricism, reductionism, scientism, the postwar worship of progress, belief in unlimited growth, or something like that — the terms really were flying) got us into this environmental mess.  He argued that a different conception might get us out.   Say what you like about HRH, but it’ s possible that he’s got a point.


Philosophers have most of the noun-ground covered.  They go on about the nature of persons and things, but they don’t say nearly as much about places.  I know there’s good stuff in the philosophy of science about space and such, but that’s not what I’m after.  I wonder what makes a place the place that it is.

Places can mean something, something to all of us or only a few of us.  Places can be sacred too.  Maybe they have been so since at least homo habilis — even an elephant is hip to this sort of thing, so the story goes, in its own elephantine way.  We make pilgrimages to places, remember the dead in places, pray in places.  (Even atheists whisper in churches.)  Some places are just the opposite.  They have a profane vibe, a nasty resonance.  There are places in London where plague victims were buried in mass graves.  There are old battlefields.  Those places are still dead, and they can feel dead whether you know the history or not.  In addition to sacred and profance places are no doubt places of all sorts of other kinds.  Those two sorts just bubbled up first.

Places of public significance are matched by places that can matter only to you in the way that they do.  It’s neither sacred nor profane, but you can smile to yourself in a place where there used to be a tree that you climbed a long time ago.  The place is significant to you, whether the tree is still there or not.

Places can be about something, certainly.  Like words and pictures, a place can point beyond itself to something else entirely.  But the intentional wallop of a place is not all that makes that place the place that it is.  There’s something else, but I can’t get at it without going circular.  I want to say that a place is the place that it is because of what it’s like for us to be in it.  I know that’s no help at all, but I still think it might be true.

Michael Jackson & Proper Emotions

I was recently asked how Michael Jackson’s death affected me. I had to be honest and report that it really had not impacted my life. I did feel a degree of pity. But, I would feel the same upon learning about the death of anyone who did not deserve to die.

In contrast to my rather limited response, some fans have shown incredible pain at his loss. From their responses, one would think that they had lost a parent, husband or dear friend.  My initial view was that they were overreacting and that their emotional response was simply not warranted or proper. This, naturally enough, started me thinking about whether my view had any actual merit or if I was simply engaged in biased thinking. In order to help settle this, I started by by considering the basis of my own rather limited feelings about his death and why I took his fans to be having improper emotions. In addition to dealing specifically with the matter at hand, this discussion also deals with the broader topic of proper emotions (or emotional responses, if you prefer).

In my own case, I like some of his music and I thought Thriller had a rather kick ass video (especially since it had Vincent Price).  However, I am not related to him I never met him in person, and never even exchanged emails with him. As such, I have no meaningful connection to him that would warrant a powerful emotional response to his untimely death. For me to react in a powerful way to his death would thus be improper, in that my response would far outweigh what I should be feeling. It would, to use an analogy, be like howling in pain because I merely pricked my finger. That sort of overreaction is not, as Aristotle might say, the right degree of emotion to feel for that situation.  This is not to say that his death was on par with the pricking of a finger, just that his role in my life was extremely limited (seeing a few videos and hearing some songs).

From my perspective, the fans who are emotionally devastated by his death are overreacting. After all, most of them had most likely not even met him in person. At most, they might have seen him on stage during a live show.  That hardly constitutes a meaningful connection between two people that would warrant such an extreme response. In my own case, I only form strong attachments to people I actually know and expect the attachment to be reciprocated.  Otherwise, the relationship would seem to be something of an illusion and a fantasy. But, perhaps that is a harsh thing to say.  So, what I feel upon the death of another person depends on the relationship we had. If there was no meaningful relationship, then it would not be  a proper reaction to feel terrible grief upon that person’s death. I should, of course, feel for other people-but my response should be a proper response, a fitting measure of grief for what has been lost to me.

One response to my view that his fans attached great importance to him and he was somehow very significant in their lives. Some people can form such one way emotional bonds to someone who would not know them from Adam or Eve. As such, his loss would hurt them deeply and thus it could be argued that their reactions are quite justified and proper. After all, people do get emotionally attached even to objects (such as cars or jewelry) and the loss of such items greatly upset them. Obviously, the objects cannot love people back. Likewise, one might argue, a person could be quite emotionally attached to the image or idea of a celebrity and thus feel a terrible loss when that person dies.

In reply, it seems unreasonable to get so emotionally attached to objects. They are, after all, objects. Likewise, for a fan to get emotionally attached to a celebrity seems to be unreasonable. It is not that the celebrity is not a person, but that the typical fan is not interacting with the person. Rather, they are merely experiencing the celebrity’s public presentation. In the case of Jackson, his fans saw his videos, listened to his music, watched the TV coverage of his life, and perhaps saw him in stage or caught a glimpse of him in public. What they became attached to was not the person-for they knew not the person. Rather, they became attached to that public presentation. As such, when he died they did not lose him-they never had him. What they lost, to be rather rough about it, is the chance to hear new songs, see new videos, and see live shows. They can still experience almost all that they experienced of him by watching the videos or playing his music.  As such, even though he is dead, their relationship can continue almost unchanged. As such, extreme grief hardly seems warranted.

Of course, an even easier response to my view is to just say that people feel what they do and there is no right or wrong when it comes to emotions. That does have a certain appeal, but is easily countered. For example, if a child is killed in car wreck and an onlooker started laughing about it and making jokes, we would certainly say that it was not right for him to feel that way about the death of a child.

It might be claimed that I am a cold person who is unable to appreciate the loss experienced by Jackson’s devoted fans. Who am I, one might say, to judge their grief and tears as proper or improper? An excellent question, to which I give an obvious reply: if I am not to judge them, then I am not to be judged for judging them.

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