Rationality nihilism

I’ve been teaching epistemology this semester, and we’ve recently been talking about permissivism. The setup is this: Let E be the total evidence, and let P be some claim. One might believe P, believe not-P, or suspend judgement; call these doxastic attitudes towards P.

With that formalism in place, we can define Uniqueness: Given E, there is exactly one doxastic attitude that one may rationally adopt toward P.

In the article I’d assigned for class, Permissivism is defined as the negation of Uniqueness. The idea is that there are at least some situations in which, given E, one might rationally adopt different doxastic attitudes.1 For example, it might be rational to find the evidence convincing (and believe P) but also rational to be unconvinced (and suspend judgement).

Students found the readings less than clear, and I was trying to concisely formulate the opposition on the whiteboard. I stopped mid-sentence when I realized that I couldn’t just define Permissivism as the negation of Uniqueness. There’s a third possibility!

Call this Nihilism: Given E, there is no rationally permitted doxastic attitude that one may adopt.

I don’t know of an epistemologist who explicitly formulates Nihilism, nonetheless one who advocates it. I have a perverse impulse to write something arguing for it, just because it is a logically possible position, but that way lies madness.

Picture: Some logic books.

Pedagogy and the early modern syllabus

Ruth Boeker’s syllabus for teaching early modern philosophy is featured today at the Blog of the APA.

Ruth was a visiting assistant professor here in Albany several years ago, and her current practice reflects things she did here. Our campus teaching center has been a big promoter of Team-Based Learning for many years. She first encoutnered it here and recommends, as further reading on TBL for anyone interested, a pair of articles written by our local experts. (One of whom is Philosophy PhD alum Kimberly Van Orman.)

So, yay! Cheers to all.

An intermediate case between agent and double agent

This is a post I wrote back in November but for some reason didn’t post. I had learned from a then-recent episode of Citation Needed about Juan Pujol, a Spaniard who served as a double agent in WW II.

The beginning of Pujol’s career as a spy vexes the usual connotation of “double agent.” He wanted to help the Allied cause, but the British repeatedly declined his offer. So he reached out to the Nazis and offered to help them, with no intention of doing so. Instead of going to the UK and reporting back to the Nazis, he went to Portugal and lied to the Nazis about what was going on in the UK. He made up a network of contacts and things that he had learned from them. He bodged together these reports based on reference books and magazines.

British intelligence became aware of these reports going to Berlin and tried to track down this mysterious agent. Pujol was finally able to convince them of his usefulness, and they brought him to London. There he worked to create a whole fictional network of spies who systematically misled Nazi intelligence about things in the lead up to D-Day.

Clearly Pujol was a double agent in the latter part of the story, but what kind of agent was he in the first part? It would be wrong to say flat-footedly that he was a Nazi agent, because he was deliberately sending them rubbish. But he wasn’t coordinating with the British, either. Because he wasn’t a British agent, he lacked the second agency required for being a double agent.


Constitutivism and the foundations of ethics

My colleague Ariel Zylberman has organized a one-day academic workshop here at UAlbany, coming up on March 15. The topic is constitutivism about moral norms— the view that norms are presumed by the very nature of action and agency.

The powerhouse list of speakers comprises Matthias Haase (Chicago), Michelle Kosch (Cornell), Sharon Street (NYU), and David Velleman (NYU). The official commenters will be Hille Paakkunainen (Syracuse), Francey Russell (Yale), Jason D’Cruz (UAlbany), and Paul Katsafanas (Boston University).

If it sounds like your kind of thing and you might be in the capital region in mid-March, more information and the registration form are at the workshop webpage. It’s a free workshop, but Ariel is asking that attendees register by March 1.

conference poster for constitutivism workshop

Wombats and nineteenth-century opinion

Wombats were admired for their stumpy strength, their patience, their placid, not to say congenial manners, and also a kind of stoic determination. Occasionally they were thought clumsy, insensible or even stupid, but these isolated observations are out of step with the majority of nineteenth-century opinion.

Angus Trumble

In The Public Domain Review, Trumble recounts how Pre-Raphaelite artists were obsessed with wombats and attempts to suss out how they’d learned about them in the first place. Fitting the possible sources into the timetable of modern philosophy, it occurred to me that Kant might have known nothing at all about wombats.

A ridiculous wombat drawn by Edward Burne-Jones.

How blogging went in 2018

My minimal goal with this blog is to post something every month. I surpassed that in 2018, writing 46 entries which comprised over 16K words.

How does this compare to previous years?

The graph below summarizes the results. 2018 was a solidly middling year for blogging. Not the best, but not the worst either.

graph of blog output over time
Blog output per year, normalized so that entries and words can go on the same axis.

The curviness of the lines in the graph is just whatever meaningless smoothing Excel does by default.

At Footnotes on Epicycles, my old blog, I counted years from one blog anniversary to the next. I started the blog on October 4, 2005, so I counted words from one October 4 to the next. In the graph, numbers before 2015 are nudged to the nearest calendar year.

With 2015, I switched to counting by calendar years. So 2015 was worse than it looks in the graph, because I’ve added late 2014 and 2015 together to cover the gap.

When artists are terrible people

Aesthetics for Birds has reposted a symposium from Daily Nous on the question of whether we can separate considerations about artwork from considerations about the artist who created it. By way of my summer reading and current procrastinating at the end of the semester, here’s a comment on the topic.

Continue reading “When artists are terrible people”

Wombat facts

A. The name “News For Wombats” is a reference to a Monty Python bit.

B. Wombats poop cubes. There’s a recent study that’s been discussed widely on the internet about the mechanism by which they do this.

C. When I picked it as my Twitter handle, I didn’t realize how hard it would be to draw a wombat. The shaggy wombat sketch was my only successful attempt for the longest time. My attempts would end up looking like a bear, a monkey, or (sometimes) a pig.

After much practice, I’ve gotten a bit better. So today I updated the header graphic.

shaggy wombat sketch
The sketch that served as the blog header for a long time.

What’s so funny about credence, love, and understanding?

I can’t tell if Suki Finn’s Beyond Reason: The Mathematical Equation for Unconditional Love is meant to be taken seriously or not. Irony on the internet is usually indistinguishable from earnestness. The fact that there is an addendum with a mathematical proof may indicate that it’s serious, but maybe it’s a droll bit of farce?1

I read it with interest, in any case. Finn offers an analysis of conditional and unconditional love that is modeled on conditional and unconditional credence. As I’ve discussed in some recent posts, I think that recognizing the difference between conditional and unconditional value is crucial for understanding the relation between values and belief.2

Continue reading “What’s so funny about credence, love, and understanding?”