Archive for January, 2013


Bailout stuff

I’ve been listening to a lot of chatter about bank stuff lately. It seems that again the narrative has been strengthened that we did nothing to make banks do anything to change their ways after 2009 and that our strategy with them going forward is still nonexistent. I heard on the radio the other day that the implicit guarantee of too-big-too-fail status gives large banks in the U.S. a .5% advantage on access to capital compared to smaller banks.

Here’s a new report from the auditing arm of TARP explaining how federal taxpayers are still on the hook for one part of the auto bailout with GMAC. Treasury never asked this entity to provide a plan for how it would pay loans back (as it did with Chrysler for example). Surprise surprise, they owe taxpayers about $14 billion and we own most of their garbage company.


the purpose of moral philosophy

I think most of philosophers ask themselves why their chosen field is valuable. We all feel that is valuable somehow, but showing why philosophy is valuable is ITSELF a philosophical task, by which I mean that appreciating the value of philosophy and explicating that value requires careful thinking and perhaps, a life long investment.

Recently, I’ve gotten a little closer to an explanation of the value of moral philosophy that satisfies me.

There are two parts to it. One part is an analogy that I recently heard about that I’m going to read about further. I was talking to a friend who was telling me about the game of “Go” and one of the game’s great players. This player had what we might call a strategy for winning, but in reality it was philosophy. His philosophy/strategy was that winning in Go was determined by which player had the greatest overall vision of the board. In other words, this player would not be overly concerned with mistakes here and there, giving up position or a few pieces. Instead, he built success out of how holistically he could envision his strategy.

Philosophy tells us, I think, that our lives are like this. It’s not about individual interactions. What we say to someone in anger, or what job we pursue or who we pursue. These are all important, but what matters the most for success, happiness, meaning — whatever you think life is about — is how you think of your general strategy overall.

The other thing I want to comment on is a difference between types of philosophy.

Philosophy has advanced a lot in terms of linguistic and logic. Not only did philosophy give us linguistics, which promises to help teach us about the brain, but it brought us computers. Both of these things have and will continue to have an enormous impact on the average person’s life. The reason that these disciplines can have such success is that their subject matter is impersonal. Studying logic, math, and language, can yield insights regardless of whether most people ever understand those insights. For example, I don’t understand (very well) how electricity works, but because electricity concerns matters of fact, advances in understanding it can benefit me (computers, lights, etc.) without me knowing how it all goes down.

Moral philosophy on the other hand does not study the external, impersonal world. It studies us. It studies how we create lives, deal with suffering, judge others, and refine our own conduct. Thus, it is my growing conviction that moral philosophy can deliver be anything unless it tries to teach ordinary people about the different ways overall plans that one can adopt for a life. What sorts of responsibility one should take.

Here’s an example. When I teach undergraduates, one of the most common things that will come up is selfishness. Most students say that people only do things that benefit the person his or herself. This seems like a natural starting point, but it’s dead wrong. The arguments in favor of treating human beings as essentially selfish I think are some of the worst in philosophy, and most philosophers have, in almost all cases, come to the opposite conclusion: that humans are deeply social creatures and depend, for their happiness and flourishing, on the hardships imposed on them by others and their desire to answer these hardships and alleviate the difficulties of others.

What all this means though is that philosophy of the moral variety cannot produce gains to human society unless it reaches out and touches popular culture and provides a model of how things can be different and how imagination and integrity can be part of everything one does.

Philosophy of science, and science more generally responds to nature (causality is the fundamental building block of scientific theories). If nature has gravity, then science can understand and perhaps harness that force. Just as humans have done with fire, electricity, and nuclear power.

Philosophy of life — ethics and its brethren generally — responds to humanity (thus, its fundamental relationships are those which cannot be reduced science, concepts like “action” and “reasons.”). The ongoing project of living introduces new challenges, oppression, exploitation, excellence, and moral philosophy, when it is on the cutting edge, tries to keep up.


March of Civilization

What fascinates me about history is that no matter how far we advance, we’re still, in a sense, in the same place. Of course our technology gets better. We live longer and we’re healthier. I don’t mean we stay the same in that way. What I mean is that no matter how far we come, we still find ourselves in the following situation: some people are on the bottom and some are on top, and problems beset our way of life from all sides. No matter how much we innovate — and don’t get me wrong, we do innovate and in doing so, SOLVE problems — we find ourselves with new problems.

In this post, I tried to give some reasons for this. Now I want to try to sharpen my picture of history a little bit. In that post, I talked about how increases in the scale of thing x, can make it the case that something other than thing x emerges. I tried to use physics as an example, but I don’t know muh about physics, so it felt like a poor example. But now I have a better example.

Nature, at the birth of the universe, consisted of particles. But the universe was so complex, that combinations of particles created something that was itself MORE than just a combination of particles, and that was life. Living things are a different category of type of thing than atoms or whatever. The system of particles in our universe was so complex  that it gave rise to something that was a new category of thing. Before life, there were just particles and more particles, but then “more particles” became “living thing.” This difference is reflected in the difference between biology and physics. But then the complexity of the system flipped to another level again, the level of perception. Perceptual states cannot be reduced to any biological category, because perception necessarily involves REPRESENTATION, which is not a biological category and introduces the idea of fidelity or veridicality. Things again move forward once perception moves to propositional thinking, which involves the manipulation of concepts not tied to the specifics of the organism’s specific situation (we can think about distant planets).

The pattern here is that a complexly interacting system of one type of thing (atoms), manages to flip to a new level of thing (a lizard).

But once we have that pattern in mind, we can see that human society accomplishes that SAME THING, just at a faster and constant rate. I think this is a beautiful explanation of the complexity of human life. Take the internet. It’s a new thing. Of course, it’s LIKE things that came before like the telephone, but it’s also NOT like that thing, it’s something else, it’s own thing. Or take something else. Some early counting systems didn’t have 0, but not we do. It’s not hard to see that introducing zero into mathematics changed the whole trajectory of science and human civilization.

And I think we can now see why humans are always behind, always essentially in the same, existential, place. The reason is that human civilization is UNBELIEVABLY complex and so keeps hopping up the latter of complexity. So, just when we figured out trench warfare in WWI, airplanes come along to give us WWII, which was an entirely different conflict. At the end of WWII, humans invented the atom bomb, which from that moment on introduced an entirely different type of conflict. For proof, note that the strategizing, technological advancement, and conceptual change that accompanied a war that was COLD rather than HOT. (not sure why war metaphors always stand out for me, they resonate with me because of the cliche that militaries are “always fighting the last war.”

So, my claim is that civilization is complex, so dense with information and so beholden to previous jumps in complexity, that the nature of human civilization is jumps in its own complexity. We’re always leapfrogging over ourselves and our brains are always rushing to keep up.


What do people think about Alex Jones on Piers Morgan?

I’m really interested in what people think about this debate between Piers Morgan and Alex Jones.

I thought Piers Morgan was generally right in the sense that his DEMEANOR and COMPORTMENT were right. I thought he stayed calm and civil. That’s not easy to do and it’s a victory when one is interested in coming up with a good plan.

I do think it’s odd that Morgan decided to have Jones on his show. As far as I can tell, Jones is one hair away from being a lunatic. I’m not sure if it’s a gracious move to give a voice to someone with so little to say or if it’s foolhardy to invite someone without argument in to an arena that badly needs to be more thoughtful and more deliberative. Was Piers Morgan just looking for the worst representative of the pro-gun side?

I also think it was a little patronizing for Piers Morgan to claim that it was a debate that he wanted, but he wanted to just ask questions that were kind of leading. I think it would have been better if he had just tried to put out a positive view about why the gun control restrictions he supports would have merit.

Jones had a video after the interview talking about his harassment by various security personnel. If such things happened, it’s a shame. That’s just garbage. There’s no need for it.

I didn’t get much from the arguments though. “Gun violence is down” was the big statistic that Jones was pointing to, but that doesn’t really tell us anything, because the question is whether gun crime would go down further if intelligent laws were put in place. Also, the risk of tyranny or disarmament is hugely overblown. There are so many guns in America already that disarmament would fail, and the fact that so many people are worried about disarmament means that democratically, such a measure would be impossible, and it seems, dangerous to carry out. Thus, we’re at no risk of being prevented from resisting a Hitler state should it come about. Our choice now then is between keeping the status quo or adjusting it in some way.

Then again, Piers Morgan’s statistics weren’t really that helpful either. He never said why closing the gun show regulation or whatever would help.


What do philosophers do?

I usually don’t have a pat answer for what philosophers do. I mean, there are a lot of puzzles that philosophers try to set up and then attack, and usually an inquisitive person has only a few minutes of attention in them to try and understand a conceptual entanglement. For example, the Hesperus and Phosphorous issue, as an issue is usually a hard one to motivate for people. It also has the added difficulty of requiring a discussion of what direct reference is and why modern philosophy treats names as directly referential.

Going forward though, I think I’m going to start using the following puzzle from philosophy of probability (of all places). I think I’ll explain this puzzle and then say that ordinary concepts are RIFE with such problems. Philosophers try to work out those problems.

Here it goes.

A machine makes squares. It can make squares with an area as large as 4 or as small as 0. The size of the square it makes on any given occasion is random. What is the probability that the square will have an area between 0 and 2? The answer is 1/2.

Now consider the length of a side of one of the squares that this machine makes. The lengths will range in size from 0 to 2. What is the probability that the square will have a side length between 0 and 1? 1/2 again right.

But now there is a problem. We said that there is a 1/2 probability that the machine will make a square with an area between 0-2, but since we also said that there is a 1/2 probability that the machine will make a square with a side length between 0-1. But since a side length of 1 will create a square with area 1 (1 squared is 1), then we have said that there is a 1/2 chance that the machine will make a square with an area between 0-1 and a 1/2 chance that the machine will create a square with an area between 0-2. This is a contradiction. Thus, our concept of probability needs to be revised.


0 ——2——- 4  (.5 probability that the square will be to the left of the 2)

Side length

0 ——-1—— 2 (.5 probability that the square will be to the left of the 1)


fantastic article

This is a great article. It sums up pretty much my entire philosophy. Happiness is what our culture teaches us, but it’s an empty doctrine. It teaches us to fulfill our desires rather than use them to create a personality or to build a legacy. And even if we embraced a more complete notion of happiness, then we would be at risk for aiming directly at something that must be approached obliquely. Happiness cannot be induced, it must be had for a reason. One must be happy about something and in fact really see that thing as something to be happy about. Thus, happiness is a justificatory notion. Happiness is the right response to something worthwhile. 

This article talks in terms of meaning, but I think that term is slippery and slightly confusing. I think it would be better to think in terms of value. Happiness is a feeling that comes about when there is something worth being happy about, and such a thing depends on what value we see in the things we are doing. And the way in which we see the value of something must be immediate. We have to simply see something as worth doing.


Looper is good

I avoided seeing “Looper” in the movie theater because it just looked really suspect. It was really good though, and I think they could have made a better ad campaign for the movie by talking about or at least showing clips of some of the other aspects of the movie. 

Artistically, I think most of the movie is superb. The movie is set in the future (two futures actually) but trying to cater visually to that fact does not overwhelm the simple spare acting that is required of the leads. There are some slightly weird looking cars and some skyscrapers and weird vehicles, but mostly, the point is all about recreating a kind of a simple future. Most of the movie takes place on a farm and so the movie hides the fact that it is out of time with our timeline.

Also, the way that Loopers kill is really interesting and

Philosophically, there are a lot of interesting parts to the movie. 

One concerns personal identity. Are we the same person as ourselves in 30 years? In one way, the answer is obviously yes. I will be myself in 30 years just as I am now, just (hopefully) wiser. In another way, I might be very unlike my younger self. We may value different things and so in one way, be considered separate people that are nonetheless by a certain type of psychological relationship (think Parfit’s relationship R). Elder Joe has completely different cares than younger Joe and so the two disagree about what should be done. They both want their lives to continue and so find themselves in conflict despite the fact that they are just two slices or representatives of the same life. 

There is also the interesting discussion of cycles of violence. Time travel necessarily lends itself to discussing cycles and this movie is no different. At the end of the movie, Joe (Gordon-Levitt) realizes that there is no choice other than his own destruction that can stop the cycle of violence that has begun (Bruce Willis is the bad guy, which is something else the previews did not prepare me for). I like how all of the components of the cycle of violence has a compelling reason for doing what they do (Willis wants his life, Joe wants his life, Emily Blunt (is her character ever named in dialogue?) wants her kid). Everyone wants something that is right to want, but nonetheless the combination is dire. In a very existential, Nietzschean moment, Joe realizes that he is the source of the problem. His very existence, desires, and strivings are responsible for the problem. So he kills himself. 

I really wanted to see at least a few seconds of what the future would be like now that the young telekinetic child will grow up in a loving environment. Does humanity enter a new golden age? That much is hinted at by a bit of dialogue where Emily Blunt tells Gordon-Levitt to imagine what could happen if she could be with her child and guide him. The idea of a powerful but benevolent human rising up to help humanity reminds me of the Warhammer 40k in which the emperor (the “god-emperor”) comes to rule and guide humanity owing to his telekinetic ability.