Give me a ping, Vasili 
Some cogno-intellectual blog monkey posts asking for people to link to him in the name of memetic science:
People write in general (typically truimphant) terms about how swiftly a single voice can travel from one side of the internet to the other and back again, but how often does that actually happen?

You can read the rest of it for yourself.

As I understand it, he wants to collect data on how many links he can score by begging for them and asking others to beg in his stead. If money were involved, it would be a Ponzi scheme. If he claimed that there would be mystic retribution for failing to link, it would be a chain letter. If he were google-bombing, it would be the Brian Leiter project. None of those antecedents obtain, so it is just an uncontrolled social science experiment that will produce some anecdotal numbers for a conference paper he is writing.

Even if it won't produce robust phenomena, linking to him costs nothing. As per instructions, I hereby encourage you to link.

I picked up the meme from Janet.

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War between the states 
A recent item in the New York Times asks if the present conflict in Iraq is a civil war or not. A "common scholarly definition" is given, which includes the operationalized requirement of at least 1000 dead including at least 100 from each side. These numbers give a gratifying formal weight to the pronouncements that, yes, it is a civil war. According to a dissenting scholar, a civil war requires having parties meet in "set-piece battles while wearing uniforms."

There is a good deal of distinction mongering, with various criteria entertained as perhaps necessary-and-sufficient for a conflict's being a civil war. This seems like the bread and cheese of philosophy...
Alcibiades: Please tell us, Socrates, about the ideal form of civil war?

Yet one may object that the game of discovering necessary and sufficient conditions, an eccentric preoccupation at the best of times, amounts to the worst wankery here. It matters not to the dead whether they died in a civil war. The article ends with an answer to this worry, offered by Stanford professor David Laitin:
Why should we care how it is defined, if we all agree that the violence is unacceptable? Here is my answer: There is a scientific community that studies civil wars, and understands their dynamics and how they, in general, end. This research is valuable to our nation's security.

His point is that identifying something correctly allows you to consult the right sort of experts in dealing with it. With the rubric civil war, one consults experts on civil wars. With the rubric financial opportunity or political posturing, one consults different people.

That is all a practical matter, and Plato scoffed at craftsmen. I am still puzzled about what makes for a civil war.

The OED lists 'civil war' on the same line with 'civil strife' and 'civil troubles.' The early specimens contrast civil war with external or foreign war. This suggests that 'civil war' is not sui generis, but rather a species of the more general 'war.'

Is the present conflict in Iraq a war? There is some debate about this, but the present US administration insists adamantly that it is.

Is the war foreign or civil? For the United States it is foreign, but the US is not the presiding power in Iraq. As the administration is quick to point out, Iraq has a nominally sovereign government. The conflict between that government and various military forces is certainly not a foreign matter. So the war is a civil war.

It might fail to be a civil war if one side is not a politically organized force, but then it fails to be a war at all. If it is a war, then it is a civil war. The curious dialectical situation is that the same parties presently insisting that the conflict is a war are also insisting that it is not a civil war. As a conceptual matter, that is untenable.

The war which is civil but not a civil war belongs in the philosophers' box of bric-a-brac along with chimera and the square circle. So it is our bread and cheese, after all.

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3... 2... 1... Logic! 
Three items of forall x news:

1. I am teaching with again it this semester. Students have turned up a few typos, but nothing major.

2. For about a year, there were 2-3 downloads of forall x per day. Since mid-September, that has shot up to an average of about 15 downloads per day. Some of these may be by students in my Intro Logic class, but the class only has 50 students. Perhaps some downloads are by way of the Wikipedia entry on 'Logic.'

3. forall x has been selected for inclusion on the Liberty Textbook CD, a project in coordination with the PIRG affordable textbook campaign. By judging that it meets their criteria, they recognize that forall x is "a finished, high-quality book designed for practical use in the classroom."

4. A review of forall x will appear in the December issue of Teaching Philosophy.

5. Two of the items on this list do not count as news.

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The mallet and blank cartridges 
I have refrained from writing anything about so-called Intelligent Design (ID) for the same reason I have refrained from hitting myself with a mallet. I have been teaching William James' Pragmatism lectures for the last couple of weeks, however, and he takes up the topic of design. The mallet beckons.


In Lecture III, James considers what a pragmatist must say about the question of whether or not the universe is designed by a divine craftsman. If everything were a "lubberland of happiness already" then there would be no dispute. In a perfect world, religious conceptions that reach beyond our immediate, satisfying experience would never occur to us. So the question of design only arises because the world is a complicated, imperfect place-- the kind of world in which some things do not seem to serve a higher purpose. When we consider "a cosmic mind whose purposes are fully revealed by the strange mixture of goods and evils that we find in this actual world's particulars... we cannot by any possibility comprehend it. The mere word 'design' by itself has no consequences and explains nothing. ... Pragmatically, then, the abstract word 'design' is a blank cartridge. I carries no consequences, it does not execution."

The passage resonates a century later. IDists plead that ID is science and not religion, because it concludes that there is a designer but not does stipulate that the designer is the divine smiting trinity of the Christian tradition. Consider this site, which claims: "There is nothing mystical, supernatural, religious, or non-scientific about intelligent design theory. In its current form, intelligent design theory also can say nothing about the designer other than that the designer was intelligent." The contemporary arguments are more intricate than the older creationist gambits, but the upshot is the same. This bare claim of design leads nowhere. It fails as a scientific research program, because it does not tell us in any way what we might do next.

A different page on the same site ventures into theology. For example: "Theistic models of intelligent design define optimality as that which matches God's purpose, which is ultimately loving and wise." It then has to do the shuffle step that James anticipates: God must have some really complicated long range plans such that this modest rock ball Earth figures as an optimal component of them. These plans are beyond our ken. Which is to say, we cannot say why this or that apparent sub-optimality is really optimal.

Now we are well into 'blank cartridge' territory. ID is severed from being a contentful account of the natural world, and is just a propaedeutic to a sermon on hellfire, the devil, and original sin. As James says, "When we look at what has actually come, the conditions must always appear perfectly designed to ensure it." To put the point differently: The hypothesis that an unfathomable mind means for things to go just this way will confer a higher probability on the present state of the world than any comprehensible hypothesis, regardless of how things turn out. To quote James again: "The question of whether there is design is idle. The real question is what is the world, whether or not it have a designer-- and that can be revealed only by the study of all nature's particulars."


Addendum Nov27:

Shortly after I wrote the post above, Ron suggested that ID does have empirical content: It predicts that some features of the world will ultimately resist natural explanation. On the one hand, any modest naturalist will agree. No matter how far science progresses, there will still be unanswered questions. On the other hand, this is not a prediction of bare ID. A designer might well create things that, although artificial, could be explained in terms of natural causes. To say that the products of the designer will be inexplicable is to specify some of the craft of the designer; in short, to do theology.

Another specimen of the character that James effectively skewers, IDist Richard Buggs is quoted in today's Guardian: "Intelligent design looks at empirical evidence in the natural world and says, 'this is evidence for a designer'. If you go any further the argument does become religious and intelligent design does have religious implications." Buggs' ID is just the content-free creationism. Any feature of the world could be taken as evidence for a designer that would make it thus.

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Happy blogiversary! 
It has been about a year since I launched Footnotes on Epicycles; the one year mark is Wednesday. According to the statistics maintained by the blog software, I have posted over twenty-five thousand words in that time.


Facing that datum made me wonder: What if I had written a pentad of five-thousand word research articles instead? Of course, that would have been a better use of my time. But the question is wrong-headed. Whatever writing FOE does, it doesn't trade off word-for-word with writing publishable papers.

The 'news' posts have replaced my old, handcoded rss feed: Time saved.

Some posts have fed directly into papers. I worked through issues in distributed cognition here while revising my d-cog paper; that paper is now forthcoming in Social Studies of Science. I only wrote my Wikipedia paper after blogging several times on the topic; if it weren't for the feedback that resulted from those posts, I never would have written the paper.

Some posts have made points which are worth making explicitly, but which do not have a home in any paper I'm writing. The title of the blog is not just a poetic flourish.

Some posts have allowed me to work through issues that I am still thinking about: natural kinds, scientific significance, the status of fictional claims, and so on. Whether I ever write papers on these topics or not, these posts are not competing with polished papers. They are more akin to notes that I would probably be writing longhand if I didn't have a blog. Whereas the notes would just be interred in a filing cabinet and never seen again, the posts are stored in a searchable database and sometimes elicit interesting comments.

Some posts allow me to blow off steam. Better that than base jumping off the Humanities building.

Although that justifies most of my posting, there is admittedly an occasional post that is a total waste of time. Like this one.

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