The mysterious island

Deep within these grooves of Academe,
In quiet cubicles, white and bare,
Hunched homunculi strain and labor
(Like monks of old in cloistered cells
Balancing angels on needles’ points)
At tasks bizarre with tools outrageous
Through days and nights of anguish unrelenting.

Edith Eliot1
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Putnam correspondence

Over on my website, I’ve posted an e-mail exchange I had with the late Hilary Putnam in 2011-12. The text of it has been knocking around on my hard drive, and it’s apt to get lost if I don’t put it somewhere. So posting it is as much for my own record keeping as for anything else.

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Measuring influence

At The Splintered Mind, Eric Schwitzgebel gives what he describes as “a rough measure of current influence in … ‘mainstream Anglophone philosophy’.” His method starts with citations in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Considering only authors born after 1900, he tallies up the number of distinct articles in which they are cited.

The highly-influential Hilary Putnam is cited in 168 articles. Using that to ostensively define a unit, identify that as 1 Putnam of influence.

Putnam is in third place on the list, behind WVO Quine (1.14 Putnams of influence) and David Lewis (1.59 Putnams).

The inevitable vanity search and a little math reveals that I have 77.4 milliPutnams of influence.1 Should I be chuffed about that? Can I put it on my CV?

The buzz, the bees, and belief

I’ve found that evil usually triumphs unless good is very, very careful.

Leonard McCoy

I posted yesterday about what I called the Positive Buzz fallacy:

  1. Activity z is the best way to accomplish goal y.
  2. Therefore, activity z is the best way to accomplish goals.

I realized today that it is closely related to a fallacy that people often commit in misunderstanding natural selection: An organism is fittest in a given environment, and the fallacifier infers that it’s simply best.

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All abuzz with fallacies

Over at the Blog of the APA, Mark Satta coins a new fallacy.1 He calls it the Buzz Aldrin fallacy, riffing on a quotation he attributes the astronaut:

When President Kennedy wanted to get to the moon, he didn’t invite poets and philosophers to the White House, he called upon scientists and engineers. That’s how you get stuff done.

This shifts from the obvious (that philosophers and poets don’t do the detail work of building rockets) to a sweeping claim (that calling scientists and engineers is what you do when you want to get stuff done). Satta supplies an implicature, reads it as an inference, and extrapolates a general pattern:

  1. Activity x does not contribute to goal y.
  2. Therefore, activity x is not valuable.

This is a fallacy, which he names and talks about. But here’s another fallacious pattern closer to the surface of the quotation:

  1. Activity z is the best way to accomplish goal y.2
  2. Therefore, activity z is the best way to accomplish goals.

To distinguish these, we might call the first the Negative Buzz fallacy and the second the Positive Buzz fallacy.

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The Springtime in Paris View of natural kinds

In March 2014, I attended a workshop on natural kinds in Paris. Other attendees included Matt Slater, Muhammad Ali Khalidi, and Thomas Reydon. It seemed to me that, although we disagreed about many of the details, we shared a core conception of natural kinds.1 I mooted the idea of writing a consensus statement. We could give it a flashy name, refer to in our writing, and then maybe other people would start using the phrase too.

Today, while moving the last papers out of my old office, I came across an outline from the conference. Here I’ve quoted it exactly, including the all-caps title.2 Despite agreement from at least some of the others, nobody else assented to sign on.

THE SPRINGTIME in PARIS VIEW

  • NKs should be understood by way of scientific classification
  • they are natural to the extent that the world constrains classificatory categories3
  • metaphysical depth is attained by starting superficially and, by considering evidence, making contingent a posteriori claims of greater depth
A game store in Paris.

Theory of knowledge done and gone

Anything we say will be facile, so I think we can admit the inadequacies and go with what we have.

I just turned in grades for my Theory of Knowledge course. It’s only the second time I’ve taught the course, and it’s been more than a decade since the first time. I didn’t do any of the same readings, so it might as well have been a new prep.

From my point of view, the course was a grab bag of issues about knowledge. I didn’t have a narrative arch that held it all together. However, one of my standard last-day discussion exercises is to have students break into groups and try to describe what the course was about. One stage of this is to have them state the essentials in one sentence.

Here was one answer: “We looked at what knowledge is and how that knowledge can be applicable to everyday life, including skepticism about knowledge, whether context matters when understanding knowledge, and the relationship between ethics and knowledge.”

Here is another: “The course is about if we can know some things, how we might come to know those things, and when we are justified in believing said things (including the testimony of others).”

And a third: “Theory of knowledge addresses the skeptical challenge of explaining how humans can know anything by offering accounts of how knowledge claims can be justified.”

As they were working out their sentence, I overheard a member of the third group comment, “Anything we say will be facile, so I think we can admit the inadequacies and go with what we have.” This struck me as being a fair summary of the course.

I structured the course around recent rather than historical literature. We read parts of Miranda Fricker’s Epistemic Injustice, and it was a big hit with students.

I feel like it would have helped to have an article that actually advocated for scepticism, but I’m not sure what the candidate would be. Without such a reading, it’s too easy to treat scepticism as a rhetorical bugbear. We can’t accept that (an author writes) because it would be tantamount to scepticism— but so what?

There were no topics or readings which students really hated. That’s good in one sense, but it doesn’t provide any guidance about what to drop. And I feel like it would make sense to swap some of the topics next time.

Only tenuously related to the post: The Salmon of Knowledge (Wikimedia Commons)

Nothing on my mind

I’ve been thinking more about nihilism.

Consider a schematic case in which your total evidence is E and you are trying to determine whether you should believe P, believe not-P, or suspend judgment. Uniqueness is the view that exactly one of these choices would be rational. Permissivism is the view that more than one of these choices would be rational. Nihilism is the view that none of these options is rational.1

That’s how I posed it in an earlier post, anyway. Then I stumbled across a forthcoming article by Elizabeth Jackson & Margaret Greta Turnbull. Nodding to Feldman, they define Uniqueness as “the thesis that there is at most one rational doxastic attitude toward a proposition.” In my terms, this is the disjunction of Uniqueness and Nihilism. Ugh.

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