sawyl: (A self portrait)
Via the Guardian, the surprising news that AJ Ayer once took on Mike Tyson. According to the ever reliable wikipedia:

At a party [in 1987] same year held by fashion designer Fernando Sanchez, Ayer, then 77, confronted Mike Tyson who was forcing himself upon the (then) little-known model Naomi Campbell. When Ayer demanded that Tyson stop, the boxer said: "Do you know who the fuck I am? I'm the heavyweight champion of the world," to which Ayer replied: "And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men". Ayer and Tyson then began to talk, while Naomi Campbell slipped out.

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From today's Pasquale, a nice charade for a famous philosopher: I am university fellow brought in, big beast seen by social worker maybe as a philosopher (8,4). I guess that it parses something like, "I am" = Im, "fellow" = man, "unversity" = u, big beast = "elk", and "social worker" = ant.
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Via a Guardian environment blog piece, an paper [pdf] examining the ethics of bioengineering humans to mitigate the effects of climate change. Although the authors deny it, the ideas seem to skirt the edge of a reductio ad absurdum argument against geo-hacking — but then, one person's absurdity is another's perfectly sensible.
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Following on from my recent realisation about application versus focus, I find, as ever, that Montaigne has gone before me:

As we see some grounds that have long lain idle and untilled, when grown rich and fertile by rest, to abound with and spend their virtue in the product of innumerable sorts of weeds and wild herbs that are unprofitable, and that to make them perform their true office, we are to cultivate and prepare them for such seeds as are proper for our service; and as we see women that, without knowledge of man, do sometimes of themselves bring forth inanimate and formless lumps of flesh, but that to cause a natural and perfect generation they are to be husbanded with another kind of seed: even so it is with minds, which if not applied to some certain study that may fix and restrain them, run into a thousand extravagances, eternally roving here and there in the vague expanse of the imagination—

              "Sicut aqua tremulum labris ubi lumen ahenis,
               Sole repercussum, aut radiantis imagine lunae,
               Omnia pervolitat late loca; jamque sub auras
               Erigitur, summique ferit laquearia tecti."

     ["As when in brazen vats of water the trembling beams of light,
     reflected from the sun, or from the image of the radiant moon,
     swiftly float over every place around, and now are darted up on
     high, and strike the ceilings of the upmost roof."—
     AEneid, viii. 22.]

—in which wild agitation there is no folly, nor idle fancy they do not light upon:—

                    "Velut aegri somnia, vanae
               Finguntur species."

     ["As a sick man's dreams, creating vain phantasms."—
     Hor., De Arte Poetica, 7.]

The soul that has no established aim loses itself, for, as it is said—

          "Quisquis ubique habitat, Maxime, nusquam habitat."

     ["He who lives everywhere, lives nowhere."—Martial, vii.  73.]

(I note that in Michael Screech's more modern translation he prefers the word semen to seed and includes a footnote on the quite peculiar 16th century idea of reproduction to which Montaigne alludes, giving the opening paragraph a wonderfully screwball feel).

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The closing paragraph of Julian Baggini's piece on judicial punishment in yesterday's Guardian sums up the current situation rather well:

The right response to this outbreak of exceptionally harsh sentencing is therefore pretty much the same as the right response to the outbreak of exceptionally anarchic violence. We need to understand why it has happened and the real social problems and issues that led otherwise decent people to support, or at least be sympathetic, to it. But in the end, calmly and with good reason, we need to explain why it is wrong, and put an end to it.

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Meant to mention this yesterday: Tim Adams had an interesting Observer piece on internet anonymity, trolling and, yes, Arthur Schoepenhauer:

Put your name to something and your words are freighted with responsibility. Arthur Schoepenhauer wrote well on the subject 160 years ago: "...when a man publicly proclaims through the far-sounding trumpet of the newspaper, he should be answerable for it, at any rate with his honour, if he has any; and if he has none, let his name neutralise the effect of his words. And since even the most insignificant person is known in his own circle, the result of such a measure would be to put an end to two-thirds of the newspaper lies, and to restrain the audacity of many a poisonous tongue..."

Whitehead was right: philosophy really is just a series of footnotes to Plato.

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As part of a series of more general comments about the singularity, Stross makes the following comment about the religious implications of uploading:

However, if it becomes plausible in the near future we can expect extensive theological arguments over it. If you thought the abortion debate was heated, wait until you have people trying to become immortal via the wire. Uploading implicitly refutes the doctrine of the existence of an immortal soul, and therefore presents a raw rebuttal to those religious doctrines that believe in a life after death.

Which is exactly how Richard Morgan plays things in Altered Carbon. When Kovacs arrives on Earth, after a lifetime in the Envoy Corps bringing shock and awe to the extra-solar colonies, he's surprised by the large numbers of Catholics. When he asks Ortega about it, she explains that because of their commitment to dualism, they can't accept than an uploaded mind is the same as the original person and this makes it impossible for them to travel via DHF — essentially just an upload, an FLT transmission to another planet, and a download into a new body — that everyone else uses to hop from one place to another.

In response to Stross' provocations Scalzi notes that if you're committed to something as crazy as two substance dualism, you might as well go the whole hog and say that the soul — or whatever you want to call the non-extensible component — is associated with the software not the hardware and allow it to migrate with your mind as you transfer yourself to a new platform — something that, at a first guess, I suspect might be compatible with occasionalism, epiphenomenalism, etc.

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Prompted by Nicholas Lezard's review in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago, I've been reading Sarah Bakewell's wonderfully enjoyable How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer, a loose and rather Montaignesque biography of both Michel and his Essays. After setting out Montaigne's fascination with the question of how to flourish and lead a fulfilled life, Bakewell tries to come up with some rough answers by drawing on Montaigne's life and writings.

The book begins with the riding accident that convinced Montaigne to give up his career as a magistrate, jumping back to learn more about his strange upbringing, and forward again to learn about his great friendship with Étienne de La Boétie. It then follows Montaigne as he travels around Europe, trying to find a cure for his chronic kidney stones — his journal apparently includes precise details of his bladder and bowel functions — before eventually being called back to become mayor of Bordeaux.

Interwoven with biography of the man is the biography of the Essays. How they were written when Montaigne decided to step back from the world and concentrate on describing his life, how they came to wander around the point, and how he came to borrow his philosophy from the Greeks. It also describes the impact the Essays had on Montaigne's immediate intellectual successors — especially Blaise Pascal, who became completely obsessed with Montaigne's scepticism which he found both dangerous and frustratingly difficult to combat — his English admirers, including the Hazlitt dynasty, and stylistic successors such as Lawrence Sterne and James Joyce.

The whole thing rounds off with a rather delightful image of Montaigne, in his prime, taking time off from writing to play with his cat:

[The cat] was the one who, by wanting to play with Montaigne at an inconvenient moment, reminded him what it was to be alive. They looked at each other, and, just for a moment, he leaped across the gap in order to see himself through her eyes. Out of that moment — and countless others like it — came his whole philosophy.

There they are, then, in Montaigne's library. The cat is attracted by the scratching of his pen; she dabs an experimental paw at the moving quill. He looks at her, perhaps momentarily irritated by the interruption. Then he smiles, tilts the pen, and draws the feather-end across the paper for her to chase. She pounces. The pads of her paws smudge the ink on the last few words; some sheets of paper slide to the floor. The two of them can be left there, suspended in the midst of their lives with the Essays not yet fully written, while we go and get on with ours — with the Essays not yet fully read.

Which certainly makes me feel less guilty about the fact that I've only read a handful of the Essays...

ETA: Thanks to [ profile] doctor_squale for noticing that I'd consistently misspelt "Montaigne"...

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I'm rather taken with this description of philosophy from a article on The Moral Landscape over at Butterflies and Wheels:

In a sense, then, philosophy is the rational exploration of hypothetical space, where science is that of real space.

Far more glamorous than Mary Midgley's description of philosophy as intellectual plumbing...

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I've finally noticed that John Holloway's Crack Capitalism was one of Steven Poole's non-fiction choices in yesterday's Guardian Review. Although I couldn't quite work out whether the review was positive or negative, I rather liked some of the examples it cited:

...because nouns ("car", "wall", "food") hide the activity that gave rise to them, "anti-capitalist literature should abandon nouns and just use verbs". The author hastens to add: "but that would be very difficult to write and probably difficult to understand." That "probably" is infectiously optimistic, much like the suggestion that we should use a car "as a receptacle for planting flowers or carrots".

Perhaps I'll see if I can mooch a copy from someone.

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A fun quiz in The Philosophers' Magazine which attempts to determines the consistency of the player's attitudes to God. I came through relatively unscathed, despite taking a hit on the question of omnipotence and biting the bullet on the question of proof. However, being a disputatious philosopher, I maintain that neither of these is really an example of inconsistency.

On the question of omnipotence, my view is more nuanced than the quiz allows. Accepting that anything called God can do impossible things means, in my view, accepting that God can do the contingently impossible, but not do the necessarily impossible. As Aquinas says somewhere, it should not be said that there are things that God cannot do but rather that there are things that cannot be done. Thus, it is not reasonable to expect God to be able to create a square circle because the impossibility of such a thing stems not from a limit on God, but the internal incoherency of the notion being expressed.

On the question of proof, I'll bite the bullet and admit that demanding strong proof for the existence of God may open me to accusations of inconsistency. But again, I'd argue that this is only because my view is more nuanced than is allowed for by the quiz. I'd argue that any proof for the existence of God should be as rigourous as any other scientific proof. I'm not sure, on balance, that I'd agree that a proof should be irrefutable — as nothing ever really is — but I'd argue a la Hume, that if a claim makes extraordinary demands then it requires extraordinary evidence.

Thus it is quite reasonable to consider evolutionary theory a settled issue (but not an irrefutable one!). There is a great deal of fossil evidence for the theory. We can draw upon it to make predictions in the form of both lab experiments and retrospective predictions based on where in the fossil record we might expect particular forms to appear. It explains particular quirks of biology which only make sense in the light of evolution. So although the claims made by the theory are relatively strong, it fulfills all the requirements of a testable scientific hypothesis, and is supported by the facts.

However the claims about God are stronger than those made for evolution, touching as they do on almost ever aspect of existence. But the evidence is largely equivocal, depending on the subject and the circumstantial, and the predictions the idea makes are weak and difficult to test. So it does not seem unreasonable to expect an idea that makes grand claims and offers little evidence should, given current levels of knowledge about the world, be subject to a greater degree of scrutiny than an idea that has strong foundations and that has repeatedly stood up to challenges.

It is clear, then, that two ideas are not equal and therefore it is false to impose an equal burden of proof on each. Which means that although I've bitten the bullet and accepted that there might be an inconsistency, I think there are reasonable grounds to believe that I might be able to catch the shot in my teeth...
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My day has been greatly enlivened by John Holbo's wonderful post over on CT, which points some of the problems with associated with a thin, property based form of libertarianism:

To maximize freedom by locking everyone up, I suppose you would try to build the very most open-ish, least restrictive sort of jail you could devise. To maximize freedom by punching noses, I guess you would study the ways of the Batman, or something. What is far from obvious, obviously, is that doing either of these things equates to maximizing individual freedom. Period. And the same goes for maximizing individual freedom by accounting everyone their own property. You can set out to do this by attempting to devise the most smooth and efficient system for treating everyone as their own property. But it obviously doesn’t follow that this is the way to maximize individual freedom. Period. It’s more plausible that you will maximize freedom by treating everyone as their own, alienable property than by punching them in the nose, but it’s not self-evident that you can do it either way. Maybe people would be more free, on the whole, if you do something else entirely.

I also enjoyed Mili Popova's piece, reposted on Stross' blog, which examines the economonic problems associated with the idea of intellectual property and suggests that the situation might be improved by some sort of new model patronage:

We're going to see a wider variety of distribution models. My favourite example at the moment is the just-released Indelicates album which comes as a "pay-what-you-like" download, CD, iTunes type formats, CD plus various levels of extras such as art books, and the super special edition where Julia and Simon Indelicate rock up at your house, perform the album, record the performance and sign over the rights to the master. (I'm thinking that'd make a great 30th birthday present - hint-hint...) Amanda Palmer is also experimenting with different ways of making money, including pay-what-you-like releases and webcasts where she auctions off her finance's daughter. Ditto Zoe Keating. Kickstarter looks like a great way of funding art too.

Joanne Rowling, too, has risen in my esteem thanks to her opinion piece in The Times:

I chose to remain a domiciled taxpayer for a couple of reasons. The main one was that I wanted my children to grow up where I grew up, to have proper roots in a culture as old and magnificent as Britain’s; to be citizens, with everything that implies, of a real country, not free-floating ex-pats, living in the limbo of some tax haven and associating only with the children of similarly greedy tax exiles.

A second reason, however, was that I am indebted to the British welfare state; the very one that Mr Cameron would like to replace with charity handouts. When my life hit rock bottom, that safety net, threadbare though it had become under John Major’s Government, was there to break the fall. I cannot help feeling, therefore, that it would have been contemptible to scarper for the West Indies at the first sniff of a seven-figure royalty cheque. This, if you like, is my notion of patriotism. On the available evidence, I suspect that it is Lord Ashcroft’s idea of being a mug.

All of which, given the current moral acceptability of tax avoidance, seems most commendable.

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I received salutory lesson in the power of Web 2.0 over coffee this morning.

Discussing Martin Heidegger, as we often do, I mentioned that I felt slightly guilty at not having read Being and Time. [ profile] doctor_squale, who had obviously memorised the contents of my LibraryThing, surprised me by informing me that I already own a copy (I don't. I haven't actually got a copy of B&T itself but rather Existence and Being, which contains an outline of Being and Time and translations of four of Heidegger's essays).

All of which reminded me of a particularly nice quote from Jessa Crispin, which I happened across earlier this week, which recommends a method for rendering Heidegger comprehensible:

William James once wrote that he only felt like he truly understood Hegel when he was high on nitrous oxide. I feel the same way about Heidegger.

Which, I think, explains where I've been going wrong...

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Todays Big Question is an old favourite, courtesy of a half-remembered scene from Stanislav Lem's Solaris: is it possible to convince yourself that you're not being dreaming the outside world using some form of predictable signal?

After his first encounter with the hallucinations on Solaris Station, Kelvin becomes worried that everything might simply be a dream and comes up with a way to test his hypothesis. He locates a satellite that produces a signal that he knows varies according to a mathematical function. The function is too complicated to solve with an intuitive calculation, but simple enough to be soluble with a few hours of hard work. Kelvin measures the signal and then calculates the expected value, taking care not to use the station's computers. The two values agree. Has he proven that he is not dreaming the station?

I think the answer is yes, but only in a very limited sense.

Kelvin's specific concern is that he has entered some sort of dream world; that the station has been created entirely from the things already in his own mind. If this was the case, then his mind would have created a random value for the signal and this would not match the calculated post hoc value. Thus, he has proved that he himself is not the source of the station. But he has not proved that he is not being deceived by the world in general, since it is quite possible that the Solaris ocean could have performed exactly the same calculation to generate the signal in the first place.
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Via Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell has a really good piece on essay writing techniques that, although written with political science in mind, seems to me equally applicable to philosophy/sociology.

Well worth reading.
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Via Pharyngula, a video of Bertrand Russell dismissing religion in typically Russellian fashion:

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Back in rain-lashed Exeter, following my latest Trappist-like retreat, I'm slightly regretting my decision not to attend this year's Historical Materialism conference as I'd originally intended. Although I was only really interested in one of the sessions, China Mieville's Marxism and science fiction, I've since discovered that John Holloway is over from Mexico. Oh well.
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I've been rereading Al Reynolds' novel The Prefect and, with foreknowledge of where the plot was headed, I enjoyed even more on a second read through. In particular I enjoyed the parallels between Aurora and the Wolves in Revelation Space, which probably should have noticed earlier, and the sheer sinister joy of the gradual revelation of the Clockmaker — there's something genuinely creepy about the Clockmaker's mechanical timepieces that, while marking the passage of time, may at the same time be counting off the seconds until they kill the person nearest to them.

But what also struck me, given my current (largely involuntary) immersion in Rawlsianism, was the process of demarchy as practiced by the people in the Aubusson habitat:

'All of us take our issues seriously. That's what citizenship in Aubusson entails. You don't get to live here unless you can hold a weighted voting average above one point two five. That means we're all required to think very seriously about the issues we vote on. Not just from a personal perspective, not just from the the perspective of House Aubusson, but from the standpoint of the greater good of thentire Glitter Band. And it pays off for us, of course. It's how we make our living — by trading on our prior shrewdness. Because our votes are disproportionately effective, we are very attractive to lobbyiests from other communities. On marginal issues, they pay us to listen to what they have to sasy, knowing that a block vote from Aubusson may swing the result by a critical factor. That's where the money comes from.'

'Political bribes?'

'Hardly. They buy our attention, our willingness to listen. That doesn't guarantee that we will vote according to their wishes. If all we did was follow the money, our collective indices would ramp down to one before you could blink. Then we'd be of no use to anyone. '

'It's a balancing act,' put in Caillebot. 'To remain useful to the lobbyists, we must maintain a degree of independence from them. This is the central paradox of our existence. But it is the paradox that allows me to spend my time designing gardens, and Paula to breed her butterflies.'

The Aubusson approach strikes me as very similar to the original position. They choose to put aside their own interests and make the best decision — where "best" is determined by a post-hoc between the eventual democratic result and its effectiveness — for the entirety of society — but only because doing so is to their own advantage. But the idea of lobbyists lobbying people who, if they accept a case that turns out to be wrong, will effectively have destroyed themselves as a commodity? Truly, wonderfully bizarre.

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Stross has an interesting, if wrong, post on transhumanism and the future of equality. My problem with his take on things is that he seems to see technologically induced differences between individuals as essentially different from any inequalities that exist today. I can't see it myself. I mean, sure, in future it may be possible to improve your childrens' prospects by cramming their heads full of smart metal, but I can't see how this is any different to improving their prospects by paying for them to go to private schools.

I'm also not sure that I agree with Stross' version of enlightenment equality. The point, it seems to me, isn't so much that people are equal because they're manifestly not — think about trying to out-sprint Usain Bolt. Rather, the concept of equality is a normative one: that we should behave as if other people are of equal value and equal worth, regardless of any accidental differences that might seem to mark them apart.

Looked at in this way, I can't see that transhumanism presents any more or less of a problem than our existing problems with equality. I certainly can't see why, simply because any future inequalities might be due to technology rather than accident of birth, there might be a categorical difference between the two.
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After a discussion on negativity and nihilism, [ profile] doctor_squale put me on to the philosophy of Emil Cioran. Already impressed by his gloomy taken on things, I particularly liked these two quotes on Bach and God:

without Bach, God would be a complete second rate figure


Bach's music is the only argument proving the creation of the Universe can not be regarded a complete failure

Both claims which seem to me to be completely indisputable...


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