A paradox arises over beer 
A productive synergy of being a visiting fellow at the Center is that most of my social life consists of interacting with other fellows, and so philosophy gets done even in leisure time. Not all of it is serious philosophy, however, as evidenced by the following item that Bert Leuridan and I concocted over pizza and beer.

The Visiting Fellows Paradox


Step one: Note that there are things which are considered to be paradoxes, things which are commonly referred to as the such-and-so paradox, which nevertheless are not paradoxes. As one example, consider the Birthday Paradox: it only takes 23 people for the probability of at least two people having the same birthday to be greater than .5. As another, consider Simpson's Paradox: variables which are positively correlated in each subpopulation of a population p can be negatively correlated in p itself. A common thing to say about such things is that prima facie these are not really paradoxes at all. Rather, they are just surprising facts.

Step two: A paradox arises when a plausible line of reasoning leads to a contradictory conclusion. It is easy to show that the cases described in step one are secunda facie paradoxical. The proof goes like this:

Take one of these so-called paradoxes. Either it is after all a genuine paradox or it is not. If the former disjunct obtains, then the matter is shown. If the latter, its being called `the such-and-so paradox' gives us reason to believe that it is a paradox; yet it is not a paradox, by assumption. Letting P be `this is a paradox', we have a reason to believe P and also to believe not-P. So we have a paradox.

The latter disjunct, in which the commonly-called paradox's not being a paradox produces a paradox, shifts from using to mentioning the original alleged paradox. Rather than showing that the original statement about birthdays was a paradox, for example, it shows that the Birthday Paradox figures in a distinct but derivative paradox. Call this a second-order paradox.

Step three: In the proof above, we derived a paradox by cases. It was either an ordinary, first-order paradox or a meta-level, second-order paradox. In this step, we propose a paradox which does not require the disjunction, one which is exclusively a second-order paradox. We call this the Visiting Fellows Paradox.

We rule out the first disjunct - that it is paradoxical in the usual way - by refusing to explain to you the ordinary, first-order content of the Visiting Fellows Paradox. It is not, however, at all paradoxical on its own. We assure you of that.

The second-order paradox arises from the juxtaposition of reasons for thinking it is a paradox (because it is called one) and reasons for thinking it is not (because of our assurances). We provided our assurances in the previous paragraph, so all that remains is for it to be commonly called a paradox. One natural way to accomplish this is to publish a paper describing the new paradox so-called in a respected, scholarly journal. The success of our construction, and so the Visiting Fellows Paradox actually being a paradox, relies on the paper's being accepted by qualified referees of that scholarly journal. Yet, quite naturally, qualified referees will only accept the paper if it describes an actual paradox.

It follows from this that the authority of philosophers (referees, in this case) allows them to make something a paradox which would otherwise be merely a curiosity. Surely, this is a surprising fact. We decline to give a name to this fact, lest we unwittingly contribute to a further paradox.


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A bad diagnosis [or] Autism implies canism 
The New York Times has an item by Andy Martin which suggests that philosophy and autism are somehow connected. The idea is that "autism can be defined, at one level, by a lack of understanding" and that "given the way humans interact with one another, there is always a potential mystery concealed within the most elementary statement. ... [T]he possibility of misunderstanding lurking at the core of every sentence." Reading Martin unsympathetically, I might reconstruct the line of thought as the following fallacious syllogism:

1. Autism involves not understanding.
2. Philosophy involves not understanding.
3. Therefore, autism is philosophy.

A more sympathetic reconstruction is this: Because of the limitations of language and comprehension, there is always a limit to understanding. Philosophers, especially the ones he mentions, are concerned with this phenomenon. We can never fully understand one another, so (Martin suggests) we are always somewhere along the autism spectrum.

Martin's central example is Wittgenstein, who was certainly a pathological case. He gives the following as an example of Wittgenstein's inability to understand people:
An illustrative true story: he is dying of cancer; it is his birthday; his cheerful landlady comes in and wishes him "Many happy returns, Mr. Wittgenstein"; he snaps back, "There will be no returns."

This is a story about a bitter, dying misanthrope. I find it charming, in a way. Some anecdotes are revealing of a person's character, and there must be space in the world for some people to be bitter misanthropes. For Martin, however, it becomes a symptom Asperger's Syndrome. By diagnosing Wittgenstein's condition, Martin domesticates the uncomfortable Wittgenstein. He suggests that we can understand Wittgenstein as afflicted.

In this respect, however, Martin's own practice overturns his thesis. If understanding is really impossible, then the feeling of familiarity and safety we get by diagnosing someone is just an illusion. If a deep metaphysical fact blocks us from understanding a philosopher by doing philosophy, then doing clinical psychology won't do any better.

Martin also gives the example of Sartre:
Consider, for example, Sartre's classic one-liner, "Hell is other people." Wouldn't autism, with its inherent poverty of affective contact, go some way towards accounting for that?

Ack! The "one-liner" is not just a free-floating bon mot that appears in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. It's the punch-line of the play No Exit, and, in the play, it is not just any other people that are hell. Rather, there are three specific characters who constitute hell for one another. As the characters say explicitly, the problem is that they understand one another too well. Martin's interpretive framework misses the whole point of the play. He misunderstands, not because the metaphysical form of autism as such precludes understanding, but just because he's obsessed with the rubric of 'autism'.

As a footnote: As Carl Sachs points out (in a FaceBook thread) there is also a sexist middle-bit to Martin's rambling article. Martin uses the fact that more men than women are autistic to explain why more men than women have been philosophers. As Carl notes, however, this elides the oppressive politics which have kept women out of academia.

Addendum: Brian Leiter rounds up other excoriating comments about Martin's piece.

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A note on Alice and Paul 
Jender points to "The Royal Society's lost women scientists", an interesting article in today's Guardian by historian Richard Holmes. He mentions, among other people, "Alice Bodington, the fearless Darwinian author of Studies in Evolution."

My curiosity piqued, I searched the web to see if Bodington's Studies was available on-line. The first page of links was mostly to Holmes' article and mirrors of it. A bit further on, there was a mention of Bodington in Philosophy as a science: a synopsis of writings of Dr. Paul Carus. Carus is an american philosopher whose fame is preserved mostly because the Carus Lectures are named for him. The volume that includes abstracts of his entire corpus is available via Google Books; the essay that addresses Bodington is summarized thusly:
In answer to Mrs. Alice Bodington, an agnostic. The nature of our religious ideal is as much predetermined as man's reason...

I'll explicitly mention the irony of dressing down Mrs. Bodington for violating man's reason; I'm heavy handed like that.

To be fair, a different search term eventually turned up excerpts from Bodington's Studies.

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A prickly example [or] Cholla at ya' later 
I began working on several papers when I arrived in Pittsburgh. They have spiraled out of control and - gathering mass like the proverbial snowball - are on their way to being a book manuscript. The draft now totals up to about 50K words.

Even in a book, there are nice bits that do not fit in. One of these is about T.E. Wilkerson, an essentialist who insists that biological species are characterized entirely by intrinsic and essential properties. When he first advocated this position (in the 1980s) John Dupré replied with standard examples of how the biological world does not line up as neatly as the periodic table. Rather than adjusting his metaphysics to better fit the science, Wilkerson bites the bullet and spins out a wacky view according to which only genetic individuals constitute proper kinds.

Wilkerson does not actually seem to look at biology, and instead takes all of his examples from Dupré. For example, "Americans easily distinguish between prickly pears and chollas, but the distinction corresponds to no taxonomic division."* It is nice to note, although I don't see a sensible place to do so in the book, that biologists have changed the taxonomy to acknowledge just this distinction.


* 'Species, essences and the names of natural kinds', The Philosophical Quarterly, January 1993, p. 4

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Metaphysics grad conference 
The UAlbany philosophy grad students have announced the theme and date for this year's grad philosophy conference. This is their 4th annual conference.

These conferences are pretty much entirely student organized, and they have worked well. The students (both ours and the ones who come to give papers) seem to get a lot out of it. I have attended most of the papers in past years and plan to do so again. It's a good way to spend a day.

The keynote this year will be Ted Sider (NYU). The CFP is below the fold.
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