Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Interesting debate between philosophers of biological science

There's an interesting debate going on in the comments section of a critique of Fodor's and Piatelli-Palmarini's new book on evolution and natural selection. It takes place among some other philosophers of science, some of whom are defending Fodor's Piatelli-Palmarini's work and other criticizing it.

Part of the debate touches on old debates between those who think that evolution is primarily driven by filters like genetic drift, and chemical and physical laws and those evolutionary theorists who posit that natural selection is the primary filter. This has been fiercely debated for over 40 years and there is no consensus yet.

I think philosophers have a lot to contribute here because I think ultimately it will be largely settled on conceptual reconfigurations and clarification. Fodor and Piatelli-Palmarini seem to also levy much more broadly philosophical skeptical criticisms at natural selection which doesn't seem to be successful as the article and some of the posters in the comments section point out.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Marilyn McCord Adams on god and rational optimism

In this podcast, McCord Adams claims that it is a necessary condition to be a "rational optimist" to believe in god. The first time I heard this podcats, I couldn't help but be impressed with this line of argument as it does have its appeal to me despite the fact that I thought it very much wrong. I was impressed by its originality and its odd perspective on things. I couldn't at first put my finger on specifically what was wrong with it but now I know. It's wrong for several possible reasons. Since I've never read her books or papers, I have to go on what she said in the podcats but it seems to me to be a wholly fallacious argument due to an equivocation on the word "optimism" or because it makes the fatalistic fallacy.

First of all, her argument doesn't purport to argue for the existence of God based on ontological or cosmological or even, strictly speaking, ethical considerations like most traditional theistic arguments (it's a "practical" argument much like Kant's). It seems that her argument is aimed at a charge of irrationality of holding both that one can be optimistic and atheist. So it's only directed at optimistic atheists and will not work against those who are pessimist about the chances for future human goodness and the reduction of evils. She says that it's inconsistent to both be rational and optimistic given the history of horrendous evils in the world. This history is supposed to count as evidence of the future state of things. She claims it's a necessary condition to believe in god if we are rationally optimistic because history has shown that things won't likely turn that much better in terms of evils committed. It will take a supernatural will to right all the wrongs and truly make a better world. That's what I take her argument to consists in. So if it is necessary to believe in god to be rationally optimistic in this world, optimistic atheists must abandon either their optimism or their atheism or else concede that their non belief in god is irrational! Since atheists aren't likely to abandon their optimism, to avoid charges of irrationality, they must bite the bullet and adopt a belief in god to justify that optimism.

My first response to her argument for God's existence is for "existential" reasons. She seems to equivocate on "optimism." I understand optimism to be either an affective attitude (or feeling) for a positive outcome or it could be a belief in the likelihood of that positive outcome. So she seems to argue that a rational and realistic atheist is forced to concede that since humans have not improved that much in our basic bad treatment of each other (which is a huge and largely unsubstantiated assumption), we must adopt a negative belief based on our history that we will not be able to improve and that our affective state of positive feelings about improvement and redemption of evils should follow our "pessimist" but wholly justified belief.

Now for the sake of argument, I won't deny that humans have not bettered themselves in regard to the evils we commit.

I also would say that for the most part our attitudes whether positive or negative on life should follow our (rational) beliefs. In other words, normatively, we should have affective states concordant or at least not at tensions with our beliefs. If I know that house cats are safe, tend to be nice, and make good pets, I should not fear them or have negative attitudes (or affective states towards them) regarding potential for harming me. If I know that the president is a mean, nasty and untrustworthy person, I should not still have warm gooey feelings of inspiration regarding his character traits. That much is clear.

But on occasion, we should not have belief concordant affective states associated with our beliefs (or the affective aspect of "aliefs") and in fact we should have discordant affective states.

Consider if your wife or husband had cancer and all the best doctors based on the latest scientific findings on the current state of his/her condition said he/she had little chance of recovery and will die soon. So even though we should, in some sense, have a pessimistic outlook on the chances of survival of our spouse, we should adopt a more roseate affective state towards their full recovery. We should have positive feelings towards their chances of recovery even though we believe (and it is possible that they will rationally believe too) that their chances are slim. We should have these positive feelings towards full recovery despite the justified beliefs. In fact, we wouldn't be good spouses, friends, family members, etc if we didn't adopt these feelings in just these kinds of circumstances.

Consider the concept of hope. I can hope that you, my best friend, will win the lottery the next time you buy a ticket despite the fact that I know you will have little chances of winning and I can be fully wanting you winning it. There's nothing irrational about this. In some sense, that's being optimistic about you winning the lottery. So the concept of hope involves a lot of these optimistic feelings (attitudes or affective states)without there even being a necessity built into the concept for an optimistic belief. Indeed, we hope for things all the time for ourselves and our loved ones without believing they are likely to befall us. We also sometimes hope that the wicked will get their just deserts even on occasions when we believe that there's little chances of it happening. Reality is simply irrelevant to this kind of attitude. The expression of the positive "optimistic" attitudes in hoping for the best is a gesture of good will and required for our being good human beings.

Even when there is no chance of a positive outcome, we may still have good reason to be hopeful. Consider the doctor protagonists in Camus' The Plague. He can work like he does and presumably have the same optimistic attitudes (despite his actual beliefs) as he does as if his situation had not been that dire without being irrational. We may have "existential" reasons to adopt such feelings despite knowing there is no chance of a positive outcome not because we know it will make a difference in the outcome but because we are doing what's required to be worthy of that positive outcome.

So I would argue that an atheist can be rationally optimistic because we can hope for much better even if we believe there's little chances of that happening. I'll call this kind of optimistic atheist the "hopeful atheist". So this shows that McCord Adams is wrong on the necessity part of her claim but maybe she is right that most or many atheists should revise their beliefs on god because most atheists optimism is based not on this kind of reality irrelevant attitude from hope but based on not being able to come to terms with reality? That is, if they fully embraced rational beliefs about reality, they would come to see that their attitudes had been wrong. I'll call these atheists "blinders atheists". Then her argument would only be aimed at these blinders atheists and would be ineffective against hopeful atheists. This then is a much more plausible albeit far less strong a claim (again, assuming that her claim that history shows there is no improvement in the perpetration of evils).

I think that McCord Adams also makes a fatalistic fallacy because we can argue that even though it's unlikely that there will be much less evil in the future, for that possibility to happen, it will be much more likely if we adopt a more optimistic attitude. So that will gives us rational reasons to adopt it because it will raise our chances to improve the world even if that improvement will not make it probable that it will.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Definition of Genocide

What does 'genocide' mean? The legal definition (according to the jurist and legal scholar Raphael Lemkin) is

Genocide is the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group.

and includes

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

There are several conceptual difficulties in this interesting and ethically and politically important concept. Thus philosophers (political, language, social, and ethical philosophers) should be interested in this topic but there doesn't seem to be much.

Take forcible sterilizations of a group or the forced transferring and adoptions of a group to another. What happens if these sterilizations are not at all effective? Then is this an incidence of "attempted genocide"?

What about political "genocide"? Was the systematic extermination of the Kulaks during Stalin reign or the mass persecution of "counter revolutionaries" during the Cultural Revolution genocide?

What about the deliberate and systematic "destruction" of a group through cultural assimilation? The group's identity is lost but the group continues to exist qua some other identity.

I think racism is a fundamental aspect of what makes genocide evil and thus political/cultural "genocide," unless the political/cultural affiliation of a victimized group is also inextricably conflated with an ethno-racial identity in the eyes of the perpetrators and that this group is targeted because of their affiliation with that group qua ethno-racial group, it is not real genocide. The hallmark genocide of the 20th century is the Holocaust. It is a prototype for genocide. Jews were killed not because of their religion but because of their ethno-racial classification in the eyes of the Nazis. You can change your religion but your ethno-racial classification is due to your "essence" and is passed down through "blood" from generation to generation. So the intent (mens rea) has to be of a racist nature as depicted within the viewpoint of the perpetrators of genocide. Race and racialist thinking has to be part of the intent in a true genocide.

Additionally, genocide must be "systematic". But what does this mean? What if a non political body such as the entertainment industry suddenly decided to conspire against a minority group and portray individuals within that group as evil which then influences individuals in society to form mobs and lynch members of that minority group on a massive scale? Is that systematic enough? Does the "deliberate and systematic" nature of committing genocide have to be originating within a governmental body? What about racist grassroots organizations composed of nothing but ordinary citizens that happen to gain power and influence? What about a society that's a participatory democracy that has a referendum about whether or not to genocide one of its minority groups and then decides to do so?

There's lots of gray and ambiguity here.

Friendship and moral luck

Think about how friendships are formed. They are highly contingent. If you had not gone to that party/class/mall-store, etc, etc at that specific time, you'd never have met that best friend. Friendships are very much serendipitous and dependent on the "accidents" of life. But many "falling outs" of friendships are also quite dependent on contingencies. They especially draw out this contingency in a very interesting way I think.

Most friendships of course breakup not because of bad blood or due to changes in personalities/values of one or more of the persons involved but because one friend will move away or get married or fall into a different social circle, etc. But I am interested in the falling out of friendships due to a fight and subsequent bad blood. It seems that people give excuses as to why they now do not wish to be friends with their former friend. They will say that their former friend is no longer the person they befriended or that they never had been that person but they mistakingly believed their former friends were and after the fight, it was revealed that there's not much to like about their former friends.

But it seems that many of these fights that result in these types of falling out are highly contingent and chance circumstances could have easily resulted in them not having the fight in the first place (e.g., they could have not had a particular discussion, not borrowed money at a certain time, not said a particular thing, in a particular mood or that it might not have been misunderstood because it was worded in some way, etc). If circumstances did not result in that fight, the friendship would have continued in its happy course, perhaps even indefinitely. However, once it happens, former friends seem to reappraise their former friend's qualities. Whereas before, they might have given reasons for liking their friends, they now see them as having negative qualities they did not "see" before.

The forming and reforming of friendships are also highly contingent (and thus the associated feelings of positive/negative evaluation). Do characters change that suddenly? Are we that easily deceived by our friends' qualities? No, likely not; it's our viewpoints that have changed and are so easily and contingently changed. The meaning of the relationship has changed itself.

Now since the fight that resulted in this falling out was sudden and contingent, it couldn't likely have been the person that changed that resulted in the different reappraisals. So people might say that "I was wrong about X. He's really a terrible person. Now I know better." Whereas just before the fight he would have had very good things to say about X. In other words, the person would have to say that he was wrong about his former feelings for X. But is he now right or is his former self right about X? The luck aspect of breaking friendships in the way I've described seem to render evaluation's of the positive/negative qualities of friends highly dependent on contingencies (luck). There's always some counter-factual that very well will reduce all friendships to a falling out of this sort in some possible world. Had your blond haired "Aryan" friend lived in Nazi Germany and you happened to have been a Jew, there's a real chance he could have been a Nazi and turned on you and persecuted you. Even knowing and contemplating this vividly could weaken the emotional bonds between you two. Little circumstances that result in "beef" and long-term bad blood usually get started by events far less dramatic but more mundane than this example.

So it seems that our appraisals of people such as our friends are highly contingent are perhaps not even subject to accuracy or truth evaluations as they seem to be. We just like many of the people we like and dislike many of the people we dislike not so much because they are, in reality, such and such but because of mere happenstance in a certain perspective that has evolved the way it has.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Moral luck and Moral appraisal of action

It can be argued (and has) that the moral worth of an action, that is, whether or not it is blamable or praiseworthy (or neither) is determined not just by the rightness or wrongness of the action but by the motives and the deepness of the concern for those motives. These are criteria by which actions are judged: motivation by good or ill will, whether there were moral reasons behind them and whether it comes from someone's moral character (instead of something out of the ordinary for the agent), and the degree with which moral effort is applied (the more effort applied to accomplish an act deemed morally praiseworthy, ceteris paribus, the more so it is).

However, I think there's another criteria. The effort in which the agent has towards finding out whether or not her moral reasons were, indeed, good ones (real morally good reasons as opposed to just what she believes morally good but really are not). I know many people that have deep passion for morality and doing good but may do the wrong things because they have bad reasons (though they may imagine them to be good moral reasons). Some people are very complacent and dogmatic in their "morality" (some very religious people might come to mind). They never stop to wonder if they really are doing the right things. This is a kind of epistemic hubris. They may do things behind reasons that are in some sense, moral reasons but just false moral reasons. I think most people who are this way (and they may constitute the majority of the population of even educated adult Americans) don't care about getting their moral conceptions right. They just care about acting on moral reasons (whether they are right or wrong reasons, whether or not they really do reflect true morality are of less concern to them).

But this brings up a question: Even if a person performs an action passing all these criteria, she may still not do the right thing if he doesn't do the right action. Say she is very motivated by a good will to do the right things in this case. She also has the moral character of a good person and tries very hard to dig at her own moral assumptions and thoughts questioning them often and rigorously to test for their quality and soundness. She does that in deliberating to do this action. But if in fact her actions spring from bad reasons (say she lived in 1920s Germany and supports the NAZI party thinking they are good people despite the signs of evil), it is reasonable to say that she has not done good.

But she may be limited by other factors like limited intelligence, e.g. There is nothing or very little that she could do to possibly raise her intelligence. She may not have the cognitive resources to evaluate the matter at hand despite the fact that ex hypothesii, she is motivated to do good, has moral reasons for doing so, is doing it out of her character and putting lots of effort to do what she takes to be good. Additionally, she cares deeply about getting her moral reasons right. Therefore, the blameworthiness of her action in the example here shows that her action's moral quality is (partly) decided on luck. She will not be blamed, perhaps, if she really is quite stupid and gullible for her support of the NAZI party but certainly, her actions are not good even though she tried very hard to do good things in this case.

But there is nothing she could have done for herself to make her actions any better in this case if she had good motives, reasons that for someone with her intelligence are good ones and she may even have a history of concerted attempts to question her own reasons and to arrive at the real morally correct motives if they so differ from her own. But now since she did about as much as she could towards goodness of action, her action is still not good (I don't think people will say they are indicators of the badness of her should but her actions are none the less blamable).

Monday, February 8, 2010

What does 'the presumption of innocence' mean?

I'm interested in the semantic content and coherence of a "presumption of innocence" in our legal statutes. We have legal rights including a presumption that we are "innocent until proven guilty." Since guilt is legally proven after the crime (say, a murder) is committed, do we say that the person became guilty of murder at the time of conviction? That seems absurd since the convicted murderer was inside a courtroom and not committing the crime at the time of the ending of the presumption of guilt.

Lawyers and legal scholars say that this presumption is only towards legal guilt or innocence and not actual guilt/innocence of the crime. I'm not sure that interpretation would be all that philosophically kosher. Still, what happens when a conviction is overturned? Say a person had been convicted in a court of law for a crime, X. Later, evidence surfaces that there was prosecutorial misconduct and that it warrants a dismissal of the convict's case. Do we say that the (ex)convict has his conviction overturned and thus had never been (legally) guilty in the first place?

That don't seem satisfying at all. First of all, that seems like a case of spooky backward causation. How could actions in the present change past judgments? Second, we would have to say that he is innocent even though the courts had, at that time, proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" cannot be the ultimate standard for guilt in law because you can have evidence for it and still be legally innocent if and when your case is later overturned by further revealed evidence.

I think Wittgenstein made a similar point about the difference between the makers of truth (facts) and the evidence of truth. The evidence of truth cannot provide the grounds for truth; only the facts themselves can provide it.

But if evidence cannot be the truth-maker of legal statements then that would render our legal judgments incoherent. Should we say that a person who had their convictions overturned had once been guilty of the crime but is now innocent of that same crime? That's crazy talk even a lawyer might find indefensible and incoherent. If so then they don't seem to deserve any restitution for "false" imprisonment even in cases where it's discovered later on that there was gross prosecutorial misconduct. In fact, legally, there couldn't be such a thing as "prosecutorial misconduct."

The heart of the matter seems to be that whether or not someone is guilty of an act is a not a tensed matter, it's untensed, while available evidence is.

The victim relativity of harm (or "hedonic damages")

This may be relevant to those interested in jurisprudence but it can be a separate moral question. Just to what degree is a person that has immorally committed harm against someone (by violating some of their rights e.g.) responsible for that harm?

In tort law, people can sue for psychological damage. But it seems that the amount of harm may be different as a function not only of the kind of act done but also of the psychological makeup of the victim. Some people are just more psychologically frail and more prone to develop problems when harmed by others. Much as the physical constitution of people differ quite a bit interpersonally and even diachronically (such as when we are in the extremes of age range) I imagine people's psychological constitutions differ just as much or more. Some people are very prone to physical injury, injury resulting from actions others will not be severely or at all harmed by.

Let's say that there's a group of people with an analogous tendency towards severe psychological injury. Let's also say that sometimes some cruel people are clearly responsible for psychologically harming them through emotional abuse by (illegally) harassing them. The same kind of abuse which simply result in momentary anger, resentment, and emotional distress in normal people will result in much more severe symptoms in these people. They might suffer debilitation because of their abuse (say they develop PTSD).

How much of their suffering will offenders be responsible for? Will they have to pay all their medical bills and pay pain and suffering for the restitution stemming from slights that most of us will simply shrug off in a day or two? What if these sensitive individuals can prove that they have suffered for years or decades from the symptoms?

A judge might adjudicate this by an appeal to counter-factual "normal" "baseline circumstances." That is, how well could these people have gotten on in society even if there had been no particular case of abuse in this case? Their particular sensitive constitutions would likely render them not very well adapted to our society and that is not the fault of the perpetrators who had offended them. Judges may also use history and cases involving the same injurious actions in the past for a standard to determine the degree of harm done. So they might determine that perps are only responsible for the harm done up to a point which renders it "reasonable" and "fair" to burden the perps as restitution instead of complete restitution.

But that appeal is relative to the society, the type of people that happen to live in it. Neither the perps nor the victims are responsible for the society in which they live in. If we award the victims full restitution through the punishment of the perps, we seem to do an injustice to the perps since they cannot be responsible for the sensitive constitutions of the victims. That was out of their control. If we do not award the victims full restitution, we seem to do an injustice to the victims for they are not responsible for this society and its people which has as a normal baseline, significantly less sensitivity to psychological abuse than they.

What more stable and invariant standard can we use to judge culpability for that harm? Had the society contained more people like the victims, the standard would have been higher. In that society, more sensitive types would exist like the victims and so presumably, more people would look out after each other and be more careful to avoid harming each other psychologically through harassment, etc. In this society, sensitive types might flourish more readily because more people would be able to empathize and protect their interests. In fact, their sensitive constitutions might be the norm and acts of emotional abuse seen as far more morally abhorrent, harmful and requiring of remedy in that culture than ours.

Would the acts of harassing them been a graver injustice simply because there would be more people like the victims in these alternate societies than our normal society? The acts would be the same; the only thing that would change is the surrounding society and the proportion of people similar to the victims.

Alternatively, sometimes victims can turn the harm perpetrated immorally or illegally upon them into fortune. A victim of harassment might turn her experiences into a popular book and make millions of dollars while those in similar circumstances might linger and continue to suffer in anger, resentment and distress from their experiences. Whether they do so may depend on either the constitution of the victim or dumb luck. Still, how should we evaluate the degree of harms or damages done by the perps without appealing to such cultural and individual variable standards or history relative standards?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Aura and food production

Look at this outrageous quote by Heidegger.

Agriculture is now a motorized food industry, the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same thing as blockades and the reduction of countries to famine, the same thing as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs.

That's obviously hyperbole.

But the quote reminded me of the book Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan.

Pollan is an excellent writer and describes the processes of modern food production. He tries to make a point that our relation to food and how it's grown, processed, harvested, and what kinds are eaten in the modern world has serious social, economic, political, ethical, implications.

The first time I read the book was for an environmental phil class. I wanted to write a paper on the German Jewish cultural critic Walter Benjamin's notion of aura in works of art and food. But the professor wasn't having it so I wrote on something else.

Benjamin's notion of aura has been used and developed very fruitfully and interestingly in 20th century aesthetics among the continental philosophers (especially the Frankfurt school). Basically, Benjamin argues in his classic The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical reproduction that our relationship to art has fundamentally changed through the industrial production (such as the production of film, photography, sculptures, etc). Previously, art provided a richer kind of experience for us in that it had a ritualistic and religious or cultural relationship with us. We had more of a personal history with the work of art. This was because prior to the modern industrialization of art, art had been mostly handcrafted, or largely handmade or individually customized for our use. Sculptures were not made using diecast molds, but by hand. Pictures were painted using laborious methods, not produced by cameras. Architecture not only served practical and religious functions but were built by hand and had very conspicuous marks or symbols of their makers or inhabitants.

As art loses this more personalized aspect and become a commodity produced and sold for more trivial kinds of entertainment, e.g., it looses much of that aura. I don't think Benjamin would say that they lose all of the aura, art will always have some, or that this is necessarily a bad thing to lose aura. But I think Benjamin would say that we would do better to notice this change because once art is "liberated" from its ritualistic and "bourgeoisie" uses and become "fetishized" in the capitalistic market system, besides being used as petty entertainment, it has the potential to be used as an effective kind of propaganda to indoctrinate the masses.

Art had once been used primarily to form, strengthen and maintain familial, amicable, conjugal, tribal, cultural, religious bonds or attachments. But now it has the more liberalized power to form, strengthen and maintain attachments to nations or states or even ideologies. He thought modern art had been used to supplant that kind of traditional role with the ability to form surrogate relationships with entities (such as nation states and to ideologies) as opposed to people. That's what the Nazis and the Communists (agit prop) did especially with film to devastating effectiveness.

Benjamin wrote his treatise in 1935, at the height of Nazi and Communist propaganda (and hysteria) and he was acutely aware of the change in art's usages and power. He said that one experiences the aura of a work of art when one gets the canny, palpable feeling of someone looking back at them through the work of art. Modern mass produced art has very much lessened the likelihood of producing this feeling.

The concept of aura is situated in a much broader ethical outlook of Benjamin's. Benjamin had a ethical orientation that was decidedly "historical." It may be described as an ethics of remembrance (though it is not suggested that it is an ethical system, it is more like the articulated sentiments of the ethical value of remembrance). He probably viewed art as capable of serving this role well, of remembering the injustice there is in the world. This capturing of injustice in remembrance, may be Benjamin's way of redemption of that injustice. That's how I interpret his ideas, anyway, but I may be taking some hermeneutical liberties. (He personally collected thousand of old books by obscure, unpopular writers. In a way, he was "remembering" those who wrote them by not letting their ideas fade into oblivion. I think this may be construed as his way of doing them justice in a way, of saying that they do matter.)

In my profile picture, I have an image of the Paul Klee painting Angelus Novus.

Benjamin commented on this picture as depicting the "Angel of History". Here's his touching description of what he understood to be the essence of the "Angel" depicted.

His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

I wondered if a look at food, how it's grown, produced, cooked, eaten etc, can benefit from this concept? Food production, cooking etc, can be viewed as a form of art can it not? I am not aware that an analysis of this using aura had been done.

I would have liked to explore these questions in my paper had I written it:

1. Does food have a particular artistic aura? Many people do agree that food cooked by familiar and loved people from ingredients home grown are usually more tasty than food from restaurants or preprocessed food. Is this appreciation from a psychosomatic effect of the gustatory aura infused into the food by it mode of production?

2. When Benjamin said that one takes notice of an aura when one get's a weird sense that someone is looking back at you through the work of art, is there a similar phenomenon from the aura in food and if so who is that person looking back? Is it the person who grew it, who cooked it or the person who is serving it or all of them or some other person or thing? I remember seeing some exotic dishes such as fish-head soup and other foreign culinary creations where there is, literally, something looking back at you. The feeling I get when I see stuff like the later snake-head dish is disgust and some fear, not any kind of aesthetic or spiritual or cultural appreciation. Some people might become more aware of their own conscience "looking back at them" if they were made more aware of how their food's organismic history. But I don't think this is properly Benjamin's aura. Furthermore

3. What ethical implications of aura in food are there? Does modern food production mask aura and what does this masking have to do with ethical implications? If people were more aware of how food is processed (especially the meat industry) would more people become ethical vegetarians and vegans? Would more people be more socially and environmentally conscious from having such an aesthetic experience?

Any comments?

Balaguer responds to my email

I emailed Mark Balaguer about my observation of his entry on Mathematical Fictionalism. In the response email, Balaguer admits that it is one possible way to interpret the fact that both CH and ~CH, e.g., may be consistent with our notion of set and that this would entail that mathematics is, some sense, in trouble.

But he went on to say that mathematicians will likely have recurse to fall back on to render this possibility benign (that is, they will precisify our notions of set in a way that will not entail contradictions). In fact, he used a really interesting analogy that I once had used for a paper on feminist epistemology and realism in the philosophy of science (planet-hood and the case of Pluto).

This was one approach I had envisioned it going and the likely rout taken by mathematicians if no obvious additional axioms are found that would entail the possibility of a proof of either CH or ~CH. But further questions remain. What if we find this additional "obviously true" axiom regarding our precisified notions of our set and then we find another "obviously true axiom" which we may also add to ZFC which renders a proof of ~CH possible (or some alternative theorem and its negation)? There's no way to guarantee this happening and so the possibility of our set theoretic notions being ineluctably imprecise (i.e., any precisifications would just end up pushing the problem back to another level), in a robust and foundation-shaking way will always remain. I feel that this possibility is at least a blow to Platonists by showing that their belief in the complete objectivity of mathematics is an article of faith for at least some of the most interesting problems. There just might not be a fact of the matter about them.

In my paper, the reason I introduced the problem of planet-hood was to give a way for the possibility of objectivity together with some degree of relativism.

Consider the (ex) planet Pluto. It was classified as a planet by Astronomers once but now it is not. The criteria for planet-hood had changed in 2005 and set (arbitrarily) to standards that would disallow classifying Pluto as a planet. Astronomers did this because of the recent discovery of several large objects in our solar system that would, under the old criteria, be classified as planets. Faced with the choice of either adding all of them as planets, they decided by a vote (I think it was about 80% "yea") to reset the criteria so that they would not be classified as planets. One upshot of doing this however, was the now Pluto would fall short of those new standards. This implication was something astronomers were willing to accept.

But let's say that some Martian civilization had astronomers that were willing to accept these other solar planet-like objects as planets, and hence, still able to ascribe Pluto's planet status under their conception. Would we say that they are wrong or that they simply don't have a notion of planet in general?

I don't think we would. I think we'd say that they do have a notion of planet, just that it is slighty different from the astronomer's precisified notion but that they do understand what planets are, etc. Our notion of planet is vague and I argued that this was because planet-hood, like many other natural kinds of things, are vague (I was arguing for vague objects). But this would not mean that anything can be a planet. Floating space debris the size of basketballs are not planets. Anyone that insists they can classify them as such simply do not understand what planets are or have in mind some other concept (though they just use "is a planet" to denote such a concept, it wouldn't actually be one). So I maintained that planets are natural kinds but that planets are vague objects.

Now vague objects are quite controversial, as I understand it. Many philosophers don't believe in them and dismiss them outright (such as Ted Sider in his Four Dimensionalism, if I remember correctly). They think it a "fallacy of verbalism." But at least two very outstanding metaphysicians have defended the thesis: David Lewis and Gareth Evans (making Sider's almost flippant dismissal rather puzzling). I'm not an expert in vagueness so I'll leave it be and hope that it may be defended to save my argument!

But getting back to vagueness, consider this analogy. Hilary Putnam once argued that we, by our linguistic-conceptual faculties, "cut" the world up into conceptually coherent kinds of objects much like a cookie-cutter cuts cookie-dough into cookies. The cookies don't exist before our conceptual renderings (and thus scientific and many commonsense "truths" are not really "mind independent"). In other words, nature has no "joints" but we make them using concepts to "cut" the world (arbitrarily).

This has huge problems. One, it runs against our realist intuitions. Two, isn't the pre-conceptual "dough" of the world a conceptual rendering thereby undermining this kind of theory? By using an understanding of vagueness like I have in my paper, that is, as inherent in the actual world, thus justifying our vague concepts, we can bypass this problem and have a degree of objectivity plus a degree of socio-cultural relativism I argued was desirable (and this would have political implications for feminist and cultural studies).

On my view, cookies already exist in the cookie-dough mind independently, but their borders are not clear-cut as they are when we use the cookie-cutter to cut them free of the surrounding dough. Rather, there are smooth gradients separating the surrounding dough from which the cookies are encompassed therein. We only precisify when we use the metaphorical cookie-cutter such as when the astronomers use precise criteria to classify and reclassify planets. Nature has "joints" but they are smooth, not clear-cut.

What does this have to do with mathematical fictionalism discussed at the beginning of the post? Well, I argued that nature has a way of constraining our beliefs about the world, that is, we can't just completely arbitrarily cut the world up however we like but that doesn't mean we don't have at least some flexibility. But my point was that the objective, physical world constrains us. What in the world could possibly constrain us in one precisification over another in mathematics even when they are dramatically different precisifications? Saying that the abstract "mathematical universe" does so simply begs the question! Besides, wasn't the whole logicist and set-theoretic foundational project started by Cantor and Frege and that carries on today for the purpose of finding mathematics a precise foundation that will eliminate possibilities of ambiguity and thus possible contradictions?

Mark Balaguer's Entry on Mathematical Fictionalism

In a previous post about the book The Big Questions, I argued that the writer seem to naively and glibly treat a very serious and controversial current issue in philosophy (the "immutability" of mathematical truths). I looked up the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on mathematical fictionalism (written by Balaguer) and it has this passage ('CH' is Continuum Hypothesis):

For it could be that our conception of set is not entirely precise and, in particular, that it is consistent with both CH and ~CH, so that neither of these sentences is part of the story of mathematics.

I think Balaguer doesn't realize here that there is a much more radical and disturbing interpretation of that possibility other than that neither CH nor ~CH are "part of the story of mathematics". If both CH and ~CH are consistent with our conception of set, then that could also be interpreted as saying that our conception of set is inconsistent or that both are consequences of our conception of set (and thus by ex falso quodlibet, our notion, i.e., our "story" of just about all of mathematics is inconsistent). That would be disastrous for mathematics. How would we go about our mathematical business then? Should we give up and accept it or should we try to establish non set-theoretic foundations for math?

Temporal Asymmetry of Punishment?

Punishment is a very interesting subject: it's justifications, definition, practical applications etc. However, must punishment always occur after the crime (or moral transgression) to be punishment? That is, can there be prepunishment?

Now consider a fatalistic world and the case of a clairvoyant in this world. Fatalism is not to be confused with determinism. The former is basically the thesis that no matter what anyone does at some time, a certain event will obtain at a later point in time. Determinism on the other hand, is the thesis that any event is necessitated by prior events (that given those prior events, no other outcome is objectively possible). Alternatively, one way we can think of the difference is that in fatalism, the fated event is not be determined by prior events; it will happen regardless of what happens before it whereas in determinism, events are strictly determined by prior events. (I point out the difference to obviate some possible confusions or objections)

Back to punishment. Let's say that there is a clairvoyant in some fatalistic world. This person forsees a crime by a perpetrator. Now the question is, does society have a right to punish this perp before he commits his crime (prepunish)?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Schadenfreude (again)

Maybe a good general test (though there may be exceptions to it) to see if one is joyous at the suffering of another person is due to sadistic or other rather reprehensible reasons or due to reasons I gave that are not reprehensible is if the person feeling it really desire that the object of the misfortune suffer? If they don't really desire it then their delight is due to these other reasons as opposed to the reprehensible ones.