How to Do Things With Wars

We turn our attention here to a buzzing philosophical activity in post-war England, and primarily among Oxfords young dons, animated by Austin, but including a number of older and already influential colleagues like Gilbert Ryle, editor of Mind. Here, Oxford seemed to be cutting a way for itself, leaving Russell and his Cambridge colleagues — including their celebrated darling Wittgenstein — behind and out.[1] With Germanys defeat in WWII, an entire page in history was felt to have been turned. During the war, Austin had been recruited to set up, and ended up heading, the “order of battle” section of what became SHAEF the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force under Eisenhower. The section was responsible for collecting and analysing information from a variety of sources, including the top-secret Enigma at Bletchley Park, but also through the developing art of aerial reconnaissance which later became satellite imaging and human intelligence from the resistance across Europe, in support of the war effort generally and to prepare for the D-Day landing.It is said that when the German army surrendered at Frankfurt, Austin was the only person amongst the Allies who knew where all of the German army was actually located.[2] Returning to do philosophy at Oxford from this high-level Intelligence posting, it was natural for the young Austin to try applying this very special war experience in his resumed philosophical investigations. He set himself the task again, as he preferred it, and had found more effective during the war, through team-work of demystifying philosophical concepts in a somewhat parallel way, one imagines, to the manner he employed as scattered data e.g., pictures or separate pieces of information e.g., a train movement were painstakingly put to work in order to interpret the data being gathered — very much a bottom-up, piece-by-piece approach to finding out what these meant.


via When Words Are Called For: A Defense of Ordinary Language Philosophy // Reviews // Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews // University of Notre Dame.

Some Reflections on Leiter's Insult

What really bothered me about Leiter’s gratuitous crack at my competence to talk productively with philosophers on Bloggingheads TV (which he later softened) was his apparent assumption that somebody else would be talking to all those philosophers if I wasn’t. But I don’t think that’s the case. I don’t have the sense that I’m simply filling a niche someone else would be filling were I not in it. It’s the niche I’ve made.

I’m proud that Free Will is, I think, I fairly intellectually high-brow show, yet relatively accessible to non-experts. And I’ve made it a continuing project to try to introduce a slightly broader public to issues in contemporary moral and political philosophy, and especially moral psychology, which is a particular interest of mine. I would in fact be truly excited to talk to Leiter about his work on Nietzsche’s naturalism, which I admire very much, and which would fit very well with a few of the show’s main themes. It’s certainly true that I decided I did not want a career as a philosophy professor. But I do think of myself as a practicing philosopher, and a member of the philosophical community, if only a marginal one. The progress and reputation of philosophy as a discipline is important to me, and one of my aims with Free Will has been to do some small thing to show the interest and relevance of current of work in philosophy. It’s been really gratifying to me that a sizeable number of philosophers and philosophy students have told me they appreciate that.

And I guess that’s what really bugged me about Leiter’s crack. I’d like to think he would appreciate the small service I have done and am trying to do for philosophy and the community of philosophers. Like many others, I benefited from Leiter’s program rankings when I was looking at grad schools, and I’m grateful for all the work he’s put into it. I really don’t mind if Leiter abhors my politics. I certainly don’t care for his. (Let’s debate it!) And I don’t mind if he thinks there are other people who could do a better job talking with philosophers on BHTV. Probably there are. But this is an opportunity I’ve been given, and I have used it to bring a lot of philosophers on the show because I think what they do is important and deserves wider notice. I think Leiter and I should be able to agree about that.

Blame It on Gerald Dworkin for Blaming It on Ayn Rand

My apologies to Brian Leiter for crediting him for the guilt-by-free-association “Blame it on Ayn Rand” post that appeared on his blog. It was written by a different professional philosopher, Gerald Dworkin, who has replied on Leiter’s blog with some interesting dictionary reading. Leiter does think the “point in the original post was apt,” so perhaps he deserves partial credit.

Both Dworkin and Leiter are very interested in the fact that I left grad school in philosophy, but neither has anything intelligent to say in defense of Dworkin’s risible claim about the roots of the financial crisis — a causal claim that has nothing much to do with philosophy. Leiter adds with his typical threatening charm that I am incompetent to interview philosophers on Bloggingheads TV. It’s interesting that none of the philosophers I have interviewed have given any indication of my incompetence, and clearly that can’t be because philosophers are especially gracious as a class. If either Dworkin or Leiter would like to appear on Free Will and discuss Ayn Rand, the causes of the collapse of the financial system, or any other topic, I would be delighted to have them on. If I fail to keep up competently with either of these genuinely accomplished scholars, they will be able to expose my failings in real time. I really mean this. Here is the invitation… Prof. Leiter, Prof. Dworkin: I would very much like to have a civil discussion with each of you on a set of topics of your choosing. But I would especially like to explore your thoughts on the role of ideology as a cause of the financial crisis.

Contingency + Love = No Regrets?

Bryan Caplan’s argument in his post on “Parenthood as the Trump of All Past Regret” proves both too much and too little. The general form of the argument has nothing to do with children, but applies to anything contingent one has come to value highly. Bryan’s argument has the same form as this: “If I hadn’t murdered those six toddlers with a hacksaw, I never would have met my cherished wife, the public defender, so I don’t regret it.” But that’s just silly. If you think the unintelligibility of regret follows from the fact of a world in which there is both contingency and deeply-held values (i.e., follows from from the actual world), then you are probably making a mistake. I’d say the mistake is assuming that what you are doing when you regret having done X is wishing that all the events conditional on X hadn’t occurred. Regret is more forward-looking than that.

The Courage to Conjoin

Ramesh Ponnuru writes:

What renders atheism incompatible with a coherent account of morality, when it is incompatible, is physicalism (or what is sometimes described as reductive materialism). If it is true that the universe consists entirely and without remainder of particles and energy, then all human action must be within the domain of caused events, free will does not exist, and moral reasoning is futile if not illusory (as are other kinds of reasoning).

This is a stupefyingly widespread view that flows from an elementary error in thinking.

Suppose you know that there is free will or that moral reasoning is not futile. Next, suppose you find that the universe is made out of only whatever the universe is made out of. What do you infer? You infer that free will and moral reasoning, which occur inside the universe (or as aspects of the universe), whatever they may be, are made possible because of whatever it is the universe is made out of. And there you are.

Here is what you do not do. You do not start with a mystifying conditional like “If the universe is only physical (or whatever), then there is no free will,” because how do you know that? You don’t. But you may think you do and so you get caught in a retarded ponens/tollens showdown: the universe is physical, ergo no free will, or… free will, so the universe is not physical. But, again, through what method of divination do we validate this conditional? None. Because we already know it is false.

Here are two things you know:  free will exists (it is obvious: go ahead, touch your nose) and the universe is made of whatever it is made of (obvious, if anything is). Therefore, you know the conjunction of those two things. Therefore, you know that the crazy proposition that says that one of them must be false isn’t true! There’s no need to get hung up on an arbitrary conjecture about the trascendental conditions for the very possibility of the existence of something when things you already know rule it out. P & Q  implies ~ (P —> ~Q). Logic: try it!

If we find out tomorrow that the universe is made of jello, all we will have learned about morality is that it, like everything else, is ultimately jello-dependent. 

Thoughts on Rorty

There is no better way to memorialize a philosopher than argue with him. So here’s a bit from one of the only things I ever wrote about Rorty, from a 1999 Institute for Objectivist Studies online seminar. This, I think, would have been my first year in the PhD program at Maryland, so please keep that it mind. 

Richard Rorty’s “Objectivity or Solidarity” is a case study in the use of false alternatives for rhetorical gain. The essay begins by presenting us with an awfully weird and unappealing choice. Rorty claims that there are just two main ways to “give sense” to our lives. Either one can make up a story about oneself in which one’s life figures in the life of a bigger community, or one can think about standing in a certain direct relationship to the mind-independent world. If you go in for the first, then you like solidarity. If you go in for the second, you like objectivity. Now, reader, pick sides!

It really is a weird choice. First, we might not care that much about being embedded in a tradition or community. And so fitting into one might not be central to some people’s sense of meaning in life. But these people don’t thereby have any overriding interest in eyeball to eyeball contact with the world-out-there. I’m sure you can give meaning to your life without questing primarily for either truth-for-its-own-sake or my-place-in-something-bigger-than-me. How about giving meaning to your life by trying to do something that makes you, the individual, happy?

It is important for Rorty to cast his argument against objectivity in terms of the meaningfulness of our lives, because Rorty’s “pragmatism” will forbid him from saying that the ideal of objectivity is objectively unworthy of belief, because false. He will be required to say merely that objectivity is not so good for us to care about, that we’ll be better off if we don’t care about it and care about solidarity instead. His way of setting up the question in terms of what “gives sense” to our lives allows him to plump for solidarity by saying that seeking solidarity (without trying to ground solidarity in objectivity) lends itself better to a meaningful life. As we shall see, he really can’t coherently claim that either. But first things first.

And I think this bit is relevant to the Yglesias/Linker debate:

As it turns out, it does not look like Rorty is articulating the commitments of liberal, western intellectuals, such that when he speaks to that audience, they are bound by those commitments to endorse what Rorty says. Rather, it looks like he is trying to dictate those commitments, to cause us to revise them. It looks as though he is pretending to be a member of our community, but that in reality he is standing outside of it, looking in, and suggesting we change our commitments in rather radical ways to suit his ideals. Rorty himself refuses solidarity with the Western Enlightenment ideals and the community centered in those ideals. So he makes up a story that will disintegrate that community and its ideals by persuading its members that it has been committed to Rorty’s ideals all along.

When Rorty says, “There is, in short, nothing wrong with the hopes of the Enlightenment” he means that there is nothing wrong except for the entire picture of man’s relationship to reality through reason upon which the Enlightenment was based. He is saying that there is nothing wrong with the hopes of the Enlightenment, except for those hopes and ideals at odds with his own. Clearly, some notion of objectivity is essential to the Enlightenment vision. Rorty’s attack on objectivity just is an attack on the Enlightenment ideals based on its conception of objectivity. But he cannot put the debate in those terms, lest he show himself too clearly as a dissenter to our ideals. Rather, he must put the debate in terms that permit him to characterize himself as someone who is articulating Enlightenment ideals and making them coherent from within. But he is, in fact, merely a wolf in Enlightenment clothing.

I have since come some way in Rorty’s direction in seeing the contingency of the Enlightenment ideals of rationality and objectivity. (In my Objectivist period, I would have seen them as something like self-evident, or immanent in the very idea of thinking. I don’t now see it this way at all.) But I’ve hardly come to be ironic about them. Grasping a thing’s contingency can be the same as grasping its rarity and preciousness — can be a reason for treating it very seriously, without irony. The ideals of rationality and objectivity in practice actually are our means of discovering what the world is like, and actually do explain a large part of the enormous moral progress humankind has made in the last few hundred years. Because I now see these ideals as more contingent and fragile than ever, I now think Rorty’s assault on objectivity is even more discreditible than I did before, and even more a violation of solidarity with those who hold fast to the norms of reason, progress, and social hope. 

Stephen Stich: Quote of the Day

stephenstichsmall.jpgThe idea that philosophy could be kept apart from the sciences would have been dismissed out of hand by most of the great philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries. But many contemporary philosophers believe they can practice their craft without knowing what is going on in the natural and social sciences. If facts are needed, they rely on their “intuition”, or they simply invent them. The results of philosophy done in this way are typically sterile and often silly. There are no proprietary philosophical questions that are worth answering, nor is there any productive philosophical method that does not engage the sciences. But there are lots of deeply important (and fascinating and frustrating) questions about minds, morals, language, culture and more. To make progress on them we need to use anything that science can tell us, and any method that works.”

— Stephen Stich, from Steve Pyke’s lovely collection of philosopher portraits.

My kind of philosopher!

[Photo: Copyright Steve Pyke. I hope he won’t mind my borrowing the Stich picture if I promise to buy one or two of his prints, and tell my readers to consider it. I really think I could use a Quine!]

Sullivan's Meaninglessness about Meaningfulness

Andrew Sullivan publishes an intelligent letter from a reader on how Sullivan and Sam Harris are talking past each other — Harris talking about truth, Sullivan talking about meaning — and suggesting that they refocus and take this issues head on.

I, personally, as an atheist, find meaning in my own possibility and will to act in this world. I have the opportunity to interact with others and to create things. I have the chance to leave this world a bit better than when I came into it… for my children and for the rest of humanity. I don’t do this because a particular flying spaghetti monster ordained that I do it and will punish me with his noodly appendage if I don’t. I do it because I have the power and I believe that it is better for me if I help those around me. What else would give my life more meaning than that?

Sullivan replies:

But why is that more meaningful than flying a plane into the World Trade Center?

The obvious retort is: how is Catholicism more meaningful than flying a plane into the World Trade Center? Does Sullivan really mean to lob a meatball for Harris to hit out of the park?

The 9/11 terrorists were religiously motivated, and no doubt did what they did not out of a sense of secular nihilism, but out of deep and no doubt meaningful religious conviction. I think part of Harris’ point is: what’s so meaningful about a system of beliefs for which there is no evidence? Well, there’s no doubt that people find meaning in all sorts of false things, and those false things don’t have to be true to find meaning in them. If Sullivan is a Catholic, then he believes that all other religions are false. Does he deny that they are meaningful? Is his point just that you have to believe that the false thing you believe is true in order to find meaning it? But Muslim suicide bombers, and suicide pilots, believe, too. More importantly, if you believe that something is true, and it is, then why can’t you find meaning in that? It almost seems like Sullivan thinks that you have to believe something that is false is true, and also sort of believe it is false, but beautiful or good, at the same time, in order to draw meaning from it, which makes no sense.

It’s totally mysterious why something that is true and beautiful and good can’t be equally meaningful. Indeed, it’s mysterious why the commitment to something beautiful and good, like truth, can’t be exceedingly meaningful in its own right. Obviously, the problem with running a plane into the WTC doesn’t turn on whether or not it was meaningful. It turns on whether it was morally monstrous, which it was–and you don’t need Jesus to see that. And, the fact is, many of the most morally monstrous things people have ever done were meaningful to them–and often for religious reasons.

Anyway, what a totally stupid and disgusting thing for Sullivan to say.