Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Diet Soap on Zizek's Ontology

Two of the last three episodes of the Diet Soap podcast are about Slavo Zizek.

It's interesting stuff, worth listening to. (Part I is here and Part II is here. Alternately, of course, you can just download them for free from iTunes--just look for the "Diet Soap" podcast, and get episodes 79 and 80.) Actually, despite the title, the discussion barely touches on Zizek's views on ontological issues. The focus is, rather, on a broad-ranging discussion of the history of western philosophy from Descartes to Hegel, with some stuff interspersed about Zizek's views about all of that, some commentary on Zizek's style and output, and some clips of the man himself. (There's also host Doug Lain's thoughts about "The Blue Beam Conspiracy." People who are easily irritated by conspiracy theories shouldn't be too quick to stop listening when that part comes around. Doug's thoughts about it aren't going where they initially seem to be.) It's all good stuff, I found some of the explanations of Hegel refreshingly clear, and it's always interesting to hear from people that far outside what we sometimes call "the analytic tradition."

Two major caveats:

(1) Zizek doesn't seem to be aware of the existence of applied ethics, much less aware that its a large and thriving part of contemporary philosophy. Zizek talks in a clip about how philosophy per se isn't going to have anything directly to say about environmental problems, abortion, gay marriage, etc., and no one on the podcast corrects this extremely strange statement. Moreover, when Doug Lain and Adrian Johnson (the author of the book "Zizek's Ontology," and the subject of Lain's interviews) start talking about philosophy's relevance or irrelevance to everyday life, and whether the conclusions of philosophical arguments should ever cause anyone to move away from a conventional "bourgeois lifestyle," it would have been really nice if Professor Johnson had mentioned the existence of Peter Singer, who is, after all (a) one of the very most prominent anglophone philosophers in the world today, and (b) a long-time advocate of making dramatic lifestyle adjustments for philosophical reasons.

(2) In the discussions about free will and fatalism, there's a lot of running together of two quite distinct claims:

(i) That there are facts about what will happen in the future, such that some statements about the future are true and some are false, and
(ii) That some being knows which statements about the future are true and which ones are false.

Clearly (at least given the orthodox assumption that truth is a necessary condition for knowledge), (ii) entails (i), but (i) can absolutely and obviously be true without (ii) being true. By analogy, consider Claim C (about the past, rather than the future):

C: "Alexander the great's maternal grandmother's paternal grandmother accidentally cut her toe on a rock when she was six years old."

C is pretty clearly either true or false. Whatever one thinks about reference failures and all of that (i.e. whether a statement like "the present King of France is bald" is true, false or neither, given that there is no present King of France), Alexander the Great clearly had a maternal grandmother, and she clearly had a paternal grandmother, and at one point she was six years old. During that year, that lady either did accidentally cut her toe on a rock--in which case C is true--or she didn't (in which case the negation of C is true), and none of this is remotely philosophically controversial. Given atheism (and the absence of time machines) no one is in any position to have epistemic access to the fact of the matter here, but no one thinks that there isn't a fact of the matter about this issue. Why on earth should it be any different, re: future facts and the absence of any being with epistemic access to those facts?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Fun With Midterms

This is a question on a midterm I just gave.


2. When Simon Frith says that "Value arguments....aren't simply rituals of 'I like/you like'", what does he mean? What else does he think they are?

a. He thinks, in such discussions, we all make claims about what's good and bad is if this were some objective quality that's there in the music (or whatever) that's being discussed.

b. He doesn't mean anything. The whole passage was a long typo that resulted from his cat walking over his computer keyboard. It's amazing that the random keys pressed down by the cat's paws happened to result in a complete, grammatical sentence.


Two students got it wrong.

Now, granted, that means that 22 of them got it right, but still.....


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Quick Question For People Who Might Know More Than Me About Russell, Whitehead, or the History of Geometry

I just got to this paragraph in the first chapter of The Principia Mathematica:

"Definition and real variables. When the defiens contains one or more real variables, the definiendum must also contain them. For in this case we have a function of the real variables, and the definiendum must have the same meaning as the defiens for all values of these variables, which requires that the symbol which is the defiendum should contain the letters representing the real variables. This rule is not always observed by mathematicians, and its infringement has sometimes caused important confusions of thought, notably in geometry and the philosophy of space."

Anyone have any idea about what Russell and Whitehead might be talking about in that last sentence?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Fun With Kant


(I'm not necessarily endorsing any of Schwitzgebel's conclusions about withholding charitable assumptions from our interpretation of Kant's more philosophically significant work or any of that, but the information itself is interesting. And, y'know, horrifying.)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Simplified Version of My Revenge Paradox for Paracomplete Solutions to the Liar Paradox

I've played with versions of this sort of thing here a couple of times before, but right now this new version of the sentence seems best to me (in terms of denying the paracomplete theorist escape routes that may have been afforded by earlier, sloppier versions):

Sentence S: An omniscient and ideally rational being would not accept this sentence.


If you take S to be true, you're committed to the uncomfortable claim that an ideally rational being would reject a sentence that they knew to be true. If you take S to be false, then you're faced with an unattractive choice between being committed to saying that (a) it's also true, or that (b) sometimes an ideally rational being would accept a sentence they knew to be false. If you take S to be one of those sentences about which a good paracompletist recommends rejecting the relevant instance of the Law of the Excluded Middle, then you are committed to saying that some such sentences are also true, which would seem to defeat the whole point of the paracomplete manuever of switching from making claims about truth-values to making claims about acceptance and rejection.

Moreover, S also seems to pose a big problem for dialetheists who lean on acceptance/rejection talk to get around their difficulties with the notion of "just false." (The problem, of course, being that for whatever formulation you use to differentiate false statements that are also true from other false statements, you can always construct a sentence that says of itself that it is in the latter category--e.g. "this sentence is just false and not true.") At one time, Graham Priest was in this category--in the first edition of In Contradiction, he claims that dialetheists, despite their rejection of Disjunctive Syllogism, are still entitled to a Disjunctive Syllogism-like rule of reasoning expressed in acceptance-and-rejection talk rather than negation-talk. In the second edition, he renounces this claim, and in Doubt Truth To Be A Liar he has an extended discussion where he says that good dialetheists should accept that the ground for rational acceptance might sometimes overlap with the ground for rational rejection. JC Beall, on the other hand, still seems to think that he can avoid this conclusion. In Spandrels of Truth, he uses acceptance and rejection talk almost as much as Field does in Saving Truth From Paradox and for many of the same sorts of purposes, for example saying that he thinks that Curry sentences should all be rejected. (Basically, it looks to me paracompletists want to use "accept", "reject" and "neither accept nor reject" pretty much exactly the way truth-value-gap theorists use "true," false," and "neither true nor false," but without running into the revenge paradoxes, and that dialetheists like Beall or the previous version of Priest want to use "accept" and "reject" as stand-ins for the classical behavior of "true" and "false." In either case, the psychological concepts are substituted for the semantic ones, so that one can have one's cake and eat it too in terms of one's preferred non-classical solution to the paradoxes.) These purposes, it seems to me, are pretty well foiled if it turns out that (given his committment to thinking that paradoxical sentences are meaningful, have their apparent truth conditions and so on) he has no choice but to admit that either (a) some sentences both should and shouldn't be accepted, or (b) some true sentences shouldn't be accepted, or (c) some sentences should be accepted despite failing to be true.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Test Question I Just Wrote

5. When one is thinking about the more basic form of the Liar Paradox, called the Simple Liar—“This sentence is false”—one might think that the contradiction can be avoided by saying that the sentence is “neither true nor false.” The problem is that, when one tries to apply this solution to the version of the Liar Paradox called the Strengthened Liar—“This sentence is not true”—it generates a contradiction. How?

a. It just does.

b. If the sentence “this sentence is not true” is neither true nor false, then it’s not true, which is what it says of itself, and if what it says of itself is right, it’s true. Thus, if it’s neither true nor false, it’s both true and not true.

c. If you say that it is neither true nor false, the corner of the page on which it is written begins to smolder and burn, and deep, ominous laughter can be heard in the background.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Once More On The Stone Paradox (This Time With Symbols)

Last Wednesday, I blogged about the Stone Paradox.

A quick summary of that post:

I think the reductio argument against theism goes through, that the standard response (watering down the definition omnipotence) is ad hoc and unconvincing, and that the initially-more-promising-sounding response one ocassionally hears (that God could create such a stone, and if He did so, He wouldn't be omnipotent any more, but so long as he happens to contingently continue to choose not to do so, He's still omnipotent) is completely hopeless on closer examination.

In any case, for the ease of quick reference, we can refer to the former move as the Standard Defense (SD) and the latter as the Mere Possibility Defense (MPD).

In the comments, Emil pointed me towards this formulation of the Mere Possibility Defense, from Norman Swartz. At first, I was a bit annoyed at reading it, since he simply asserts that the MPD works, without bothering to argue for it.

On second thought, I actually find Swartz's formulation useful, since his symbolization of versions of the argument helps clarify nicely where the philosophical fault lines are. Here's his symbolization (where "God is omnipotent" and "M" = "God makes an immovable stone"), re-formatted slightly because of the limits of easy symolization on the Korean computer I'm typing this on at the moment:

1: G → ◊M
2: ◊M → ~G
3 (from 1 & 2): G → ~G
4 (from 3): ~G

Swartz admits, of course, that this is a valid argument, but he thinks that it's unsound, because he denies Premise 2. I think both premises are true, so I take the argument to be sound.

This is a nice, useful symbolic formulation, though, for several reasons. It certainly captures the way I think of the anti-theistic argument from the Stone Paradox, and also nicely demonstrates why the Frankfurt-type response ("God could create such a stone, and He could lift it! After all, if His omnipotence lets him do one impossible thing, why not another?") that seems to strike so many people as being so clever is actually quite silly and irrelevant. The whole point is that the notion of an omnipotent being existing is inconsistent. Frankfurt's recommendation that the theist joyfully embrace the inconsistency simply underlines the point. One can do that--just as one can respond to Russell's Pardox by continuing to embrace naive set theory but paraconsistentizing one's logic--but what of it? As an argument (assuming the principle of non-contradiction) against theism, it goes through.

Formulated in these terms, the Standard Defense revolves around denying the first premise. This requires adding an inconsistency-avoidance epicycle to the definition of omnipotence. In last week's post, I argued that there's no particular reason why such a move should be more plausible here than in naive set theory, or any other instance of a general principle producing contradictions. (Indeed, I argued that it would have been far less ad hoc if naive set theorists had done this than it is for theists do so.) Of course, as I said then, if a theist has sufficiently compelling external reasons to think that God exists, this move might still result in the overall best explanation of the data, despite the ad-hocness. That's fine. But the argument does give us a reason (albeit a defeasible one) to reject theism.

The Mere Possibility Defense revolves around rejecting Step 2.

(It looks like, if one is both a theist and a classical logician, and thus unwilling to follow Frankfurt's advice and simply accept the contradictions, one had better make at least one of these two moves.)

In last week's post, I argued that, if one thinks that God contingently hasn't happened to create an unliftable stone, His inability to lift it is still a limit on his powers. After all, "powers" are always and everywhere counterfactual. I gave two analogies, one quite long and developed, but the point was this:

If Object X contingently doesn't happen to exist, that's quite irrelevant to whether Agent Y could perform Action Z to Object X. If Object X exists, that's epistemically relevant--we get to test whether Agent Y has the ability to perform Action Z--but the non-existence of the test doesn't normally entail anything one way or the other about the power.

For anyone who doesn't feel like clicking through to last week's post , here's the relevant passage:


Take an obese chain-smoking alcoholic named John. Despite his many health problems, he has the ability to climb a few flights of stairs without having a heart attack and dying. It seems fair, though, to say that John's stair-climbing abilities are limited. He could not, for example, climb a hundred flights of stairs without having a heart attack. Whether or not either of these situations will ever actually come up--e.g. whether John ever climbs stairs or he exclusively frequents buildings with elevators and escalators, whether John lives close enough to a city with a hundred-story building in it that he could attempt this feat if he were unwise enough to try it, etc.--seems quite irrelevant to our talk about John's powers. If John is a North Korean whose government will never allow him to travel to a place with hundred-story buildings, that doesn't seem to impact the truth of our statement about the limitations on his stair-climbing abilities. Nor would it, indeed, matter if, as a matter of contingent fact, the tallest building in the world happened to be ninety-eight floors tall.

To brings things closer to the God case, imagine a possible world where John--still an obese chain-smoking alcoholic--is the undisputed absolute ruler of the planet. Nothing can get built without his say-so, and he refuses to allow any building on earth to be constructed higher than four stories.

One day, two of his subjects--Jim and Jerry--are having a quiet conversation, perhaps in a quiet stairwell in one of the many four-story buildings where, as far as they know, John's secret police hasn't bothered to install any CCTV cameras or listening devices. They like to go there sometimes to hold the kind of private conversations that Winston Smith and Julia enjoyed in the early parts of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

At one point, Jim boldly speculates that, based on how pudgy and red-faced and out-of-breath Emperor John looks in the newsreels, the reason why he never allows buildings to be built over four feet high is that he doesn't have the ability to climb more flights of stairs than that and he wants to avoid the embarrassment. Jerry responds that, well, he could imagine John climbing as many as five or six flights of stairs without having heart attack, but there's no way he's healthy enough to climb, say, a hundred flights of stairs without collapsing.

At this point, of course, just like the capture scene in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Jim and Jerry find out that the secret police was listening all along, and both are tortured with rats in Room 101 until they admit that two and three make six if the Party says they do, and that Emperor John has the power to climb thousands of flights of stairs without physical setback.

Now, how would we evaluate Jerry's original claim about the limit's on John's stair-climbing abilities?

Given the innately counterfactual nature of all ability/power/powerfulness talk, the fact that John hasn't happened to create any such stairs, and has thus deprived himself of the opportunity to expose this particular limitation on his stair-climbing powers, seems quite irrelevant to the truth of Jerry's claim. Just so for God and unliftable stones.


So....for anyone who wants to argue that the argument symbolized above valid but unsound, here's the challenge:

Either (a) explain the relevant disanalogy between the move made by theists who employ the SD and put a logical-consistency epicycle in their new, watered-down definition of omnipotence, and other cases where a general principle generates contradictions, and we all think that the rational response is to reject the general principle rather than stick in a consistency epicycle, (b) provide an argument for theism so devestatingly convincing that it justifies the SD as the overall best explanation even in the face of the ad hocness, (c) explain the relevant disanalogy between the contingent absence of hundred-floor buildings in the John-ruled world (which seems irrelevant to the limits on John's stair-climbing powers) and the contingent absence of an unliftable stone in the God-ruled universe (which, according to partisans of the MPD, is relevant to the limits of God's powers), or (d) provide an alternative way out, thus showing that (a)-(c) aren't jointly exhaustive of the options for defenders of the doctrine of divine omnipotence who want their beliefs to be closed under some sort of (non-paraconsistent) logical consequence relation.

Monday, October 4, 2010


Next week, I'm assigning an extract from Kant's "Critique of Judgment" to my Philosophy of Art class. Anyone out there have any suggestions for good secondary stuff to go with it, or to help explicate it to the (predominantly non-native-English-speaking) students?