Monthly Archives: July 2011


Detail of a sprinkler.

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The matter of house sprinklers might not appear worthy of philosophical discussion, but appearances can be deceiving. Interestingly enough, there is considerable debate over sprinklers and this debate has philosophical significance.

One key debate regarding sprinklers is whether or not people should be required by law to have sprinklers in their houses.

One argument that is both practical and moral in character is the cost argument. The average cost for sprinklers in a new 2,000 square foot two story house (with a basement) is $4,000. If the house in question is not connected to the municipal water supply, the cost can increase by $3,000 or more.

The practical argument is, obviously enough, that this increased cost would make it harder for people to afford houses and this would have a negative impact on potential homeowners, builders, sellers and others associated with the housing industry. Given that the economy is currently in rough shape, it would seem unwise to require sprinklers.

The moral aspect of the argument is consequentialist in character: the harms imposed by forcing people to have sprinklers outweighs the benefits of doing so. If it is assumed (or argued) that what generates more harm than good is wrong, then it would be wrong to compel people to have sprinklers.

One reply to this argument is that the safety provided by the sprinklers would offset the cost. A second reply is that making and installing sprinkler systems would create jobs. Of course, the key question would be whether or or not the benefits of the sprinklers would outweigh the negative aspects. On the face of it, the safety advantages would seem to rather significant. After all, sprinklers can keep people from being burned to death.

A second argument is a rights based argument. The idea is that the state has no right to compel people to install sprinklers. This falls under the general subject of whether or not the state has a right to compel people to take positive steps in regards to safety.

While it is generally accepted that the state can rightfully compel people to prevent them from inflicting harm on others (outlawing murder, for example), there is far more disagreement in regards to the state having the right to compel people to protect themselves from harm.

One basis for this distinction is as follows. Harming others can be seen as infringing on their rights and it would be odd for a person to claim that he has a right to violate the rights of others. As such, the state would seem to be in the right to compel people in such cases. In the case of forcing people to protect themselves, this does does seem to involve protecting people from the harm of others and would seem to fall under the realm of choice rather than compulsion. As such, forcing people to pay for such safety would seem to violate their rights.  If an argument is wanting, it is easy enough to appeal to Mill’s classic arguments on the matter.

One obvious reply is that the homeowner’s choice does not just impact him (or her). For example, it would also have an impact on any children or neighbors who live close enough for the fire to spread. However, these factors could be dismissed as being less important than the right of the homeowner to decide what degree of safety she (or he) finds acceptable.

Naturally, if this sort of reasoning is acceptable, it would seem that people would thus have the right to make a broader range of safety choices. For example, they could presumable decide that they are willing to do without the added cost of such things as proper wiring, firewalls (the physical kind), and adequate structural strength in the house. This should also extend to other matters as well, such as automobile safety features, food safety and so on. Naturally, companies should not be allowed to pass off dangerous things to people, but it would seem to follow that people should be able to voluntarily and knowingly do without safety features if they chose to do so.

I do find this line of reasoning rather appealing-after all, Mill’s arguments for liberty are rather compelling and the idea of being an adult seems to involve the right to make poor choices when they primarily impact only oneself.

That said, it can also be argued that an individual does need to be protected from himself (being treated as both the actor and the acted upon) and such poor choices regarding safety could be taken as evidence of mental incompetence, thus warranting compulsion.

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Mind-Body Interactionism

It seems natural to speak of physical occurrences and mental processes interacting. I step barefoot on a tack. Unless my foot is asleep, I will feel a pain where the tack has entered. The tack is logically distinct from the sensation of pain caused by stepping on it. Stepping on the tack precedes the feeling of pain. It happens regularly and predictably. Is there something philosophically wrong about speaking this way?

Going in the other direction, imagine waiting for your beloved at the station. The whistle of the approaching train makes your heart go pit-a-pat in anticipation. This would probably stop if Uncle Henry got off instead. Our thoughts, desires and feelings are regularly followed in time by changes in body chemistry and neural activities. We can learn to predict what effects having certain thoughts will have on our bodies.

I remember as a teenager climbing a steep switchback trail rising over 4,000 feet. Trying to keep up with the other back packers, I began to get out of breath, my heart raced and I started to feel dizzy. A friend advised me to listen to my body and find a rhythm of walking that suited me. This turned out to be slow but steady. I was told to count my steps over and over, one to four, in a time that brought my heart rate down and calmed my breathing. This was good advice. My thoughts about hiking changed and so did my body’s response to the task.

From a common sense point of view, there is nothing wrong with talking about physical events causing mental events, or vice versa. Philosophically, however, the theory that mind and body interact is difficult to maintain. One reason may be that the problem arose in the context of Descartes’ dualism. Given his metaphysical position, it is hard to see how there can be any interaction between mind and body, since they do not share any properties. Descartes’ own solution is hard to accept, since it requires occult entities called ‘animal spirits’ that somehow run messages from the mind to the body and the other way around.

However, speaking about mind-body interactions the way we do seems most apt in the examples I have given and many others. Does using the language of mind-body interactions require a commitment to a metaphysical dualism of substance between mind and body? Surely not. When we speak of mind and body, we are not speaking of two separate things. There is only one thing that is in question.

How, then, can there be mind-body interaction if mind and body are really one? I grant that there is a problem here. If mind and body are one, then it is misleading to speak of them interacting as of they were different things. There may, in fact, be no interactions on some metaphysical level, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to describe in any other way the ordinary cases of what we pre-reflectively call ‘mind-body interactions.’ It is sufficient for my purpose to remain at the level of phenomenological description. Looking at how we experience the world, it seems that philosophical identity theories of mind and body make it harder to say what we want to about common appearances of mind body interactions.

It would be so much easier to square identity theories with our experience if we were not inherently temporal beings, living through a sequence of times. In this contingency, we find the mind-body distinction useful to us in a rough and ready way. This is all we need to register the patterns of mind-body interactions that commonly appear to occur in life. We can learn from experience which patterns to cultivate and which to avoid. If I drink too much, I will get a hangover. If I think too long about a personal insult, my heart rate will increase and nasty chemicals will be injected into my body.

The mind-body distinction is ‘thought constituted’ and not a distinction in reality. However, we use the distinction because we find ourselves in a situation where mental processes precede bodily processes, and vice versa. We find it useful to distinguish ‘things’ from ‘consciousness of things’. Experience teaches us the connections. So, in conclusion, we do not have to feel philosophically embarrassed to speak loosely of mind-body interactions. On the contrary, it is for those who hold that mind-body interactions are either senseless or impossible, to explain why it appears that mind-body interactions happen all the time,

microphilosophy podcast #3

In the latest microphilosophy podcast, tpm’s editor-in-chief Julian Baggini talks to John Gray about some of the ideas that emerge from his latest book, The Immortalization Commission: The Strange Quest to Cheat Death. Download from this link or iTunes. The podcast was recorded at the Bristol Festival of Ideas in May, at the Arnolfini.


Icon from Nuvola icon theme for KDE 3.x.

Image via Wikipedia

Having recently written a post on artists selling their ideas of art, I have been thinking about the matter of what I call DIY art. Or perhaps it should be called “kit art” or “some assembly (and parts) required art.”

Traditionally, when someone buys art they are usually buying a finished product such as a painting, sculpture or play. There are, of course, exceptions such as when people buy works that were left unfinished by the death of the artist. However, the usual intent is to buy a completed work.

However, as I noted in an earlier post, there are artists who sell works that are incomplete. In some cases, the “work” is merely a short description such as DeWitt’s “Alternate Yellow Ink and Pencil Straight, Parallel Lines, of Random Length, Not Touching the Sides.” The person who purchases such a work has to provide both the materials and the labor in order to have the work instantiated. Interestingly, these works do not come cheap-there seems to be no “discount” of the sort one expects to get when buying a set of plans for something as opposed to the completed object.

There are arguments in favor of taking such directions as being art. First, they could be seen as being on par with other DIY art such as paint by number or art kits for various items. True, the paint by numbers sets and art kits provide materials as well as the directions, but this could be regarded as a modest difference. After all, if something can be sold as art that requires the purchaser to add labor, it would also seem that requiring the purchaser to also  provide the material would not change matters much.

One obvious reply is that it could be argued that when one buys a paint by number set or an art kit, one is not buying art. To use an analogy, if you buy eggs, flour, milk and a recipe for a cake, you are not buying a cake. Rather, you are buying what you will need to make a cake. Likewise for the art-buying the idea is no more buying the art than buying a cookbook is buying meals.

Second, it could be argued that what makes a work a work of art is not the matter that composes it nor the labor that constructed it. Rather, it is the idea or concept behind the art. To use the obvious analogy to Plato’s forms, the true art lives in the realm of ideas and not in the instantiation of the idea. As such, it does not matter which hands complete the work, it is the mind that conceived it that is the artist.

One obvious reply is that while this does have some appeal, the creation of art seems to require more than merely thinking of a brief idea. In some cases, the substantial idea can be considered art-such as the writing of a song or conceiving a poem. However, merely coming up with a description or short directions such as the example above, hardly seems to count. To use a rather obvious example,  if I say “a story in which suspense builds until the twist ending blows the audiences’ mind” I have not thereby created a novel: I actually have to do the work for it to be a work of art. If I merely provide a title, such as “Brittle Soul”, I also do not create art.  Likewise, merely providing a short description of how to make a work of art would not itself be art, but merely a possible recipe (or even just a potential title) for art.

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By the numbers

Kit Fine

Kit Fine

I’m writing an interview with Kit Fine for the next issue of The Philosophers’ Magazine.  Fine works at the seriously abstract end of logic and metaphysics, on such things as vagueness, parts and wholes, modal logic, and the objects of mathematics.  Before you pass out, let me reassure you:  it’s possible to get a grip on it, even if you couldn’t find your biconditionals in the dark.

What kind of things are numbers?  Do they really exist independently of us or do we invent or construct them?  There’s something to be said for both possibilities.  On the one hand, numbers seem to have a “reality” that merely imagined objects lack.  If you close your eyes, you can sort of “see” numbers, intuit them– they’re presented to us in a certain way, and there’s nothing we can do about it, just as objects are presented to us in vision.  On the other hand, mathematicians have an extraordinary freedom to invent or extend the number series, and just “make up” such things as negative numbers or irrational numbers as and when they need them. 

You’d think those two possibilities would be it – either we apprehend numbers or invent them – but Fine argues for something else entirely.  Here’s part of what he said, “Mathematical objects are not exactly of our own making, but we actually have to do something to get them there.  There’s something out there which we prod, but there’s the prodding that’s also required.”  That’s marginally spooky, but maybe also right.  What do you think — intuited, invented, or prodded?

The most bad tempered preface ever written?

Just because it amuses me, here’s part of a fantastically bad tempered preface to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. It’s written by J. M. D. Meiklejohn, the translator, and it really is worth reading: it won’t take long!


The difficulties which meet the reader and the translator of this celebrated work arise from various causes. Kant was a man of clear, vigorous, and trenchant thought, and, after nearly twelve years’ meditation, could not be in doubt as to his own system. But… he had never studied the art of expression. He wearies by frequent repetitions, and employs a great number of words to express, in the clumsiest way, what could have been enounced more clearly and distinctly in a few. The main statement in his sentences is often overlaid with a multitude of qualifying and explanatory clauses; and the reader is lost in a maze, from which he has great difficulty in extricating himself. There are some passages which have no main verb; others, in which the author loses sight of the subject with which he set out, and concludes with a predicate regarding something else mentioned in the course of his argument. […]

A previous translation of the Kritik exists, which, had it been satisfactory, would have dispensed with the present. But the translator had, evidently, no very extensive acquaintance with the German language, and still less with his subject. A translator ought to be an interpreting intellect between the author and the reader; but, in the present case, the only interpreting medium has been the dictionary.

Indeed, Kant’s fate in this country has been a very hard one. Misunderstood by the ablest philosophers of the time, illustrated, explained, or translated by the most incompetent,— it has been his lot to be either unappreciated, misapprehended, or entirely neglected. Dugald Stewart did not understand his system of philosophy—as he had no proper opportunity of making himself acquainted with it. […]

More recently, an Analysis of the Kritik, by Mr. Haywood, has been published, which consists almost entirely of a selection of sentences from his own translation :—a mode of analysis which has not served to make the subject more intelligible. In short, it may be asserted that there is not a single English work upon Kant, which deserves to be read, or which can be read with any profit, excepting Semple’s translation of the "Metaphysic of Ethics." All are written by men who either took no pains to understand Kant, or were incapable of understanding him.*

The following translation was begun on the basis of a MS. translation, by a scholar of some repute, placed in my hands by Mr. Bohn, with a request that I should revise it, as he had perceived it to be incorrect. After having laboured through about eighty pages, I found, from the numerous errors and inaccuracies pervading it, that hardly one-fifth of the original MS. remained. I, therefore, laid it entirely aside, and commenced de novo. These eighty pages I did not cancel, because the careful examination which they had undergone, made them, as I believed, not an unworthy representation of the author. […]

No edition of the Kritik is very correct. Even those of Rosenkranz and Schubert, and Modes and Baumann, contain errors which reflect somewhat upon the care of the editors. But the common editions, as well those printed during, as after Kant’s life-time, are exceedingly bad. One of these, the "third edition improved, Frankfort and Leipzig, 1791," swarms with errors, at once misleading and annoying. […]

* It is curious to observe, in all the English works written specially upon Kant, that not one of his commentators ever ventures, for a moment, to leave the words of Kant, and to explain the subject he may be considering, in his own words. Nitsch and Willich, who professed to write on Kant’s philosophy, are merely translators; Haywood, even in his notes, merely repeats Kant; and the translator of "Beck’s Principles of the Critical Philosophy," while pretending to give, in his "Translator’s Preface," his own views of the Critical Philosophy, has fabricated his Preface out of selections from the works of Kant. The same is the case with the translator of Kant’s "Essays and Treatises," (2 vols. 8vo. London, 1798.) This person has written a preface to each of the volumes, and both are almost literal translations from different parts of Kant’s works. He had the impudence to present the thoughts contained in them as his own; few being then able to detect the plagiarism.


If you can think of a more bad tempered preface, then do let me know about it.

(Crossposted from JeremyStangroom.Com.)

Buying the Concept of Art

Pablo Picasso 1962

Image via Wikipedia

Since I have taught Aesthetics since 1994, little that occurs in the strange world of art surprises me. One of the more recent trends is the selling of the ideas of artists, as opposed to the selling of an actual work of art. For example, Lawrence Weiner put a $160,000 price tag on his idea  of “2 Metal Balls + 2 Metal Rings (Set Down in the Groove).” For the $160,000 you do not get any balls, rings or a groove. Rather, you would receive a certificate that permits you to write the phrase in a room or create/commission the sculpture that you think it happens to describe.

Works, if that term can be used, were also sold by Sol LeWitt before his death. While he did create art objects, he also created “works” that were just vague instructions for creating a piece. For example, “Alternate Yellow Ink and Pencil Straight, Parallel Lines, of Random Length, Not Touching the Sides.”

Tino Sehgal tops both DeWitt and Weiner. Sehgal does not even offer a certificate or set of instructions, he apparently just makes odd things occur and permits no recording of the event. These “works” are sold for cash in front of witnesses, but no documentation is provided. One of his “works”, which was purchased for around $100,000 is the concept of a museum security guard slowly undressing. Naturally, the money does not buy an actual security guard or an undressing, merely the concept as put forth by Sehgal.

On the face of it, this sort of art seems to be either an amazing scam or a profound, but sincere, delusion (or perhaps something else). First, the “art” described does not seem to amount to anything that would seem to actually be worthy of being regarded as art. At the very least, it surely cannot be regarded as meaningful or significant. As proof,  I can easily create something on par with Weiner’s “art”, such as “three wooden cubes and six ceramic hoops, placed within a depression.” For those who think what Weiner does is art, they can prove it by offering to buy my work, bargain priced at $1,600. In the case of Sehgal, there seems to be nothing artistic about a museum guard undressing. After all, they presumably do that at the end of the day anyway and, of course, strippers have been doing that sort of “art” for quite some time (and for far less money). Second, even if these things are art, the prices seem clearly absurd for what the purchaser acquires. The concept of a museum guard stripping down hardly seems worth $100,000. For those who think so, I would gladly sell the concept of a philosopher stripping down for $1,000. I’ll even top Sehgal by providing a certificate of authenticity.

That said, an argument can be made that this sort of art is, in fact art.

Imagine, if you will, that you have found a Picasso in your attic. You make arrangements to auction it and then get a thrill as the bids escalate ever upwards. But, then the dream is shattered. The multi-million dollar painting turns out to have been done by your uncle rather than Picasso. True, it is brilliantly done and, the experts agreed (before finding it to be a fake) that it was better than all of Picasso’s other works. But, since it was done by Uncle Ted and not Picasso, it is only worth $10.

But, in a strange turn of events, you find what seems to be a duplicate of the painting in your attic and the experts confirm that this was painted by Picasso, who happened to have copied Uncle Ted’s painting for fun. This painting sells for millions, since it is deemed a genuine Picasso. As a small joke, you donate Uncle Ted’s painting to the museum that buys Picasso’s painting and ask them to display them side by side. When no one is watching, you switch the labels and are amused to see how people react.

If this intuition play has merit, what makes the difference between the two works is nothing about the works, but rather about who created the work. That is, the Picasso painting is great and valuable because it was by Picasso while the other painting is lacking in value because it was done by Uncle Ted. As such, what is being sold is not so much a work of art but the artist who created the work. If this is true, then the artists who sell their concepts are being treated essentially the same way that other artists are being treated: what matters is not what is being sold, but who created it. The work itself, one might claim, is not particularly relevant.

Another argument that can be used is based on analogy to the sale of other ideas, such as patents. When a company or person buys a patent, they are not buying a specific widget, gizmo or even a specific piece of paper. Rather, what is is being bought is the concept that has been patented. Such concepts can be very valuable indeed. Likewise, when someone buys the concept of an artist, they are doing the same sort of thing. Of course, patents generally tend to provide something useful that required some actual thought and effort to create and the value of a patent generally depends on what can be done with it, as opposed to what name merely happens to be associated with it.

Overall, I regard the sale of these “art” concepts as either a brilliant scam or a sincere delusion (possibly both). But, perhaps I would change my mind if someone bought my great work, “Philosopher Undressing.”

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Same Sex Marriage (Revisited)

May Hansen celebrating the vote on the same-se...

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New York recently passed a law legalizing same sex marriage, which once again brought the matter into the public eye. Opponents trotted out the stock appeal to tradition and also made the slightly better argument that passing the law would have dire consequences.

Although I am in favor of legalizing same sex marriage and think that the arguments for it are compelling, as a philosopher I think I am obligated to consider the best possible opposing arguments.

One stock argument is the appeal to tradition: marriage has always/for a long time been between a man and a woman, so same sex marriage should be illegal. As noted above, this line of reasoning is fallacious. The mere fact that X has been around a long time does not make it right. After all, slavery was an accepted practice for a very long time, yet it hardly seems reasonable to accept that it is correct. Also, the “traditional” marriage that people point to is not, in fact, the traditional form of marriage. Marriage as practiced in 21st century western countries is rather different from what was practiced 100 or even 50 years ago, let alone in biblical times.

A second stock argument is the slippery slope argument: if same sex marriage is allowed, then people will then be allowed to marry turtles, dolphins, trees, cats or iPads.  Since this would be bad/absurd, same sex marriage should not be allowed. Obviously, this slippery slope is a fallacy since the folks who claim these dire results do not make the causal link needed to infer, for example, that allowing same sex marriage will lead to people marrying goats. Also, a slippery slope argument could be made against allowing same sex marriage: if we allow different sex people to marry, the next thing you know, same sex couples will get married and then people will be marrying flying fish. Since this is absurd, by parity of reasoning the original argument would seem to be absurd as well.

A third stock argument is the religious argument, namely that God forbids same sex activities of this sort. One problem is that if the religious argument is accepted as the basis of law, then the same principle would need to apply across the board. So, for example, there should be laws against unclean foods (like lobster) and it should be legal to stone disobedient children to death. Imposing such religious laws would seem far more harmful than allowing same sex marriage. Another obvious problem is that God is a big boy and He gets what He wants. If he did not want people to be gay, there would presumably be no gay people. In any case, if God does exist, surely He’d pop in and let us know what He thinks about a matter so obviously important to Him. At the very least, He’d throw down a smite or burn a bush.

A fourth stock argument is the procreation argument: marriage is for procreation, same sex couples cannot procreate, therefore they should not be allowed to marry. The stock reply is that straight people who do not or cannot have children are still allowed to marry. Consistency would require that if same sex marriage is banned on these grounds, then straight couples who cannot or will not produce offspring must be denied marriage. This seems absurd.

A fifth stock argument is the moral argument: being gay is evil, evil people should not be allowed t0 marry, so same sex marriage should not be allowed. As with the procreation argument, the obvious flaw is that there are plenty of evil straight people and they are not denied the right to marry on this basis. A person who is a convicted rapist, mass murderer, serial killer, and arsonist can still get married. On a less extreme note, liars, cheats, bullies, and petty thieves can also get married. As such, this argument has little merit.

A sixth catch all argument is the consequence argument: allowing same sex marriage will have dire consequence D, inflicting D is wrong, therefor same sex marriage is wrong. This argument is the strongest of the lot and does have a certain appeal. After all, if same sex marriage were to cause dire harms, then it would seem reasonable to ban it on the same grounds that dangerous things like alcohol and tobacco are banned. I mean, rather on the same grounds that dangerous things like cars and junk food are banned. Um, I mean on the same grounds that heroin and driving drunk are banned.

The main problem with these sorts of arguments lies not with the reasoning or the moral theory (consequentialism). The main problem is that they all seem to suffer from false or dubious premises. Some examples include that it has been claimed that allowing same sex marriage will lead to anarchy, that it will destroy marriage, that it will harm children and so on. However, these claims never seem to stand up to scrutiny. That said, if a harm can be shown and this harm outweighs the benefits of allowing same sex marriage, then it could be argued that it should be banned on the basis of the harm principle. However, the harm has to be properly established and it needs to be the right sort of harm. After all, if some people claim that legalizing  same sex marriage will make them very sad, that is not adequate. If it can be shown, for example, that anarchy and chaos will result, then that should suffice.

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