Mar 292010
David Hume

Reading David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.

David Hume thinks that all we can know are our own impressions, i.e. what our moment-to-moment experiences tell us. Funny thing, though: he thinks that no experience shows us one event causing another event. We only experience one thing happening, then another, and these sequences tend to display a lot of uniformity. So, if we have any legitimate idea of causality at all, it must just be that: regular patterns of conjoined events.

We discuss what Hume thinks this view implies for the free will question, belief in miracles, whether external objects are actually there, Seth’s experience of Towlie, and more.

Read with us:

End song: “Twitch” by by The MayTricks, from the 1994 album Happy Songs Will Bring You Down.

Mar 252010

Via, Sam Harris seems to think he has come across oughts in the wild. We just needed a big enough microscope to see them.

As physicist Sean Carroll notes, there once was a man named Hume:

Morality and science operate in very different ways. In science, our judgments are ultimately grounded in data; when it comes to values we have no such recourse. If I believe in the Big Bang model and you believe in the Steady State cosmology, I can point to the successful predictions of the cosmic background radiation, light element nucleosynthesis, evolution of large-scale structure, and so on. Eventually you would either agree or be relegated to crackpot status. But what if I believe that the highest moral good is to be found in the autonomy of the individual, while you believe that the highest good is to maximize the utility of some societal group? What are the data we can point to in order to adjudicate this disagreement? We might use empirical means to measure whether one preference or the other leads to systems that give people more successful lives on some particular scale — but that’s presuming the answer, not deriving it.

Sam Harris is one of these popularizers of science — specifically, of its implications for such subjects as faith and morals — who (like, for example, Richard Dawkins) displays little deep curiosity about the philosophical problems he thinks he’s addressing, and no awareness of the vast amount that has been written about them. He makes the very newbie assumption, for instance, that the only alternative to grounding morality in empirical science is moral relativism — moral realism does not require this, and one can think there are moral facts about the world without trying to derive ought from is; there are philosophers who try to overcome the ought-is barrier — but these are highly problematic and much debated.

Mar 242010

In honor of the death of one of my biggest musical influences, Alex Chilton, here’s me from the summer of ’94 performing his Big Star song “The Ballad of El Goodo” in an Ann Arbor coffee house. I’ve digitized it and done my best here with a heap of processing to mitigate the fact that the guitar was recorded too loud as compared to the vocal.

I discovered Big Star some time in the year before that, which was an especially depressing/angsty time for me, when I was done with college but hadn’t yet started grad school, and it (Big Star, all 3 CDs of them… the 2005 reunion one is a different fish, though with some of the original charm, and the 1993 live reunion one is kind of a mess) was a kick in the gut for me. The combination of despair and snarkiness continues to inspire to this day, as does their version of the big guitars/nice harmonies model, which somehow they did better than others in the same vein. This gig took place I think soon after I met my wife, and this was a tune I’d play for her and make her cry.

So: death. My best friend from grade school, whom I’d only recently reconnected with after close to 20 years via Facebook and talked to once since then on the phone, died of a massive heart attack this year. One of my favorite artists, here, frustrating though he was with his recent, infrequently released 30-minute albums of mostly covers, has died now in his 60s. Not too far long before starting this podcast, I learned that my grad school advisor, Bob Solomon, had died since last I checked on him. All of my relatives’ pets seem to be dying of late, though my 16-year old chihuahua/dachshund keeps hanging on somehow, increasingly grumpy, deaf, and medicated.

How sad am I supposed to feel? I’m not even sure how sad I do feel. Of course, I feel abstractly very sad for the immediate loved ones of those listed, and bummed that I’ll not have more experiences with these folks, but they weren’t my immediate, current associates whose loss would devastate me. I make it a policy not to invest myself in tragedies that are not mine–Haiti, Katrina, Tsunami, 911–because if you’re going to be sad when something happens like that, you’ll always be sad, and your life will suck. Still, how much grief do we owe people, or does the question even make sense, and asking it just reveal that I’ve become way too disconnected from myself?

Mar 202010

This is an animated but polite discussion between Jerry Fodor and Elliott Sober — very interesting, and I think I understand Fodor a little better now (i.e., motivates what I believe to be his error — other than the fact that he’s worried about problematic teleological notions like function being necessary to natural selection as a theory). And I do believe I’ve come up with an argument that addresses Fodor’s central argument more directly than Block’s review (superb as it is). I think it may involve a confusion of the concepts of explanation and cause. Here goes.

Fodor demands of a theory that it provide general laws that cover all phenomena within its domain. Newton’s laws, for instance, cover all bodies in the universe and explain the trajectories of their movements, regardless of their rich phenotypic (so to speak) diversity — ellipses, parabolas, and so on. According to Fodor, natural selection is not a theory because it doesn’t provide a predictive law for all phenotypes. It doesn’t tell you that trait x (such as speed) will increase fitness (defined as greater reproductivity relative to alternative traits in a given environment) for all organisms. And when speed helps zebras yet slowness helps sloths, there is no overarching law that explains each case in the same way that Newton’s laws explain both a parabola and an ellipse. Where Newton can give us something like f=ma, natural selection can only say that trait x will increase fitness when in fact it increases fitness.

As Sober points out, biologists can and do create models that predict phenotypic expression in given circumstances; if some organisms in a given ecology produce only males and others produce only females, and there are many more males than females, we can predict that there will be selection for female-producing organisms. So we have a local law here, in which change in a population is explained by selection for female-producing organisms.

Why does Fodor believe natural selection must involve a more general law to be explanatory? I’m not sure. On the one hand the motions of bodes are explained by Newton’s laws. On the other evolution is explained by natural selection. The former gives us general laws predictive for all bodies; the latter gives us no general predictive laws. Is Fodor’s point a semantic quibble about what we call a theory? Or is he saying that natural selection has no explanatory power? If the former, then it seems to matter very little–we could call it a meta-theory or anything we like. And the latter seems demonstrably not to be the case. After all, we are to take local models concerning selection as instances of the general theory. And clearly natural selection, because it is an explanation, rules out alternative explanations such as Lamarckianism (apparently with some exceptions)  and intelligent design. Biologists are not busy developing models explaining changes of traits of a population based on God’s aesthetic preferences.

Newton’s initial insight, incidentally, was that all bodies are covered by a single principle, gravity, which explains both the dropping of an apple and the movements of the planets. Suppose Newton’s subsequent fleshing out this principle led to mathematical laws that were not universal: that there were different and unrelated equations to explain the movements of different sets of bodies, and a very specific line dividing two domains of applicability — let’s say a spherical plane 50 miles from the surface of the earth (so that if I rocketed an apple into space it would go from behaving according to the first set of laws to the second). Incidentally, Newton himself entertains all sorts of interesting alternative theories in his Principia Mathematica to show that only an inverse square law creates a nice stable solar system and that other laws can be ruled out almost a priori; an inverse cube law, for instance, describes a death spiral; what’s required is to find a Goldilocks force that in some cases, if we want to explain the revolution of planets, can just balance the centrifugal force caused by their motion without always simply sucking them in or letting them go on their merry way.

Would this mean that there is no theory of “gravitation”? Against this view, we might note that there are still some common concepts and central principles whether we’re talking about inverse cube laws or inverse square laws: mass, inertia, etc. These things by themselves do not give us laws of motion (as the inverse cube example points out). Rather, they imply that in the cases of both apples near the earth and planets far away from it, we take their motions to be a function of mass even if those functions are different. If this were not the case — and if close to the earth the paths for the movement of bodies were a function of mass and gravitation and outside the fifty-mile mark it were a function of the will of God, then I’d say we don’t have a single theory. But in the case I’ve described, we can have two laws not related by a more general predictive law but involving the same terms and concepts–and so say that they belong to the same theory. That’s because these terms and concepts point to a single causal mechanism, mass (avoiding all our thorny Humean epistemological problems, which apply equally to any scientific theory). And likewise with evolution, it seems clear that we take natural selection to state its general mechanism (by implicating reproductivity rather than than Lamarckianism) — even if in both cases we suppose there are no predictive universal laws but only a universal mechanistic concept. And in fact, I think it’s the case that the applicability of a single mechanism to a domain is a better criterion for something’s being a theory of that domain than the universality of laws employing that mechanism.

In the case of natural selection, that mechanism is reproductivity. Fodor doesn’t like the fact that it leads only to local laws and is triggered by differing circumstances (lions in the case of slow Zebras, soot in the case of white moths, etc.). But that doesn’t make it, as he claims, “empty”–whether or not he wants to use the word “theory” to describe it. And so he makes the seemingly absurd claim that natural selection can’t tell the difference between heart pumping and heart thumping (or zebra running and zebra thumping) as the survival-relevant trait. I think I finally understand this claim, and it is true insofar as we think that there must be a universal mechanism (lions, soot, etc.) acting on a particular trait in every case, when those mechanisms are obviously very local. But the relevant universal mechanism is reproductivity and the other mechanisms are varying triggers; just as we might think of mass as a universal mechanism and the throwing of an apple as a trigger. I can’t give a theory in which the movement of apples is always explained by people throwing them, or in which a given trait is always explained by the presence of lions in the environment. But I still have a theory as to why it is that the apple moved in the way it did after it was thrown and why it is that zebras became fast (and why it is that throwing and lions are even relevant to what happened next). This theory is based on a universal mechanism in each case (mass and reproductivity). In the former case, we get predictive laws covering the entire domain of explanation and in the latter we do not.

There’s a reason, by the way, that I chose mass as the relevant mechanism and not gravity, and I think this is relevant to Fodor’s confusion. Mass is a mechanism in the sense that the presence of mass x causes movement in mass y (and vice versa). The presences or absence of gravity itself is not the relevant counterfactual here, because it’s the law we’re using counterfactuals to describe. To test whether body 1 caused body 2 to move, I add or take away body 1; not gravitation itself. Likewise, I’m not asking precisely whether natural selection caused evolution. I’m asking whether or not it explains evolution insofar as reproductivity causes changes in traits. Fodor seems to be conflating explanation and cause, or demands that a theory or general law be the latter rather than the former. But a general law describes something for which there is a mechanism; natural selection “itself” need not be able to “distinguish” relevant traits (heart pumping) and free riders (heart thumping) in order to be a theory. Rather, it must be the case that reproductivity is causally related to the one and not the other.

Mar 202010

The epistemology vs. epidemiology (Odds Are, It’s Wrong – Science News):

“There is increasing concern,” declared epidemiologist John Ioannidis in a highly cited 2005 paper in PLoS Medicine, “that in modern research, false findings may be the majority or even the vast majority of published research claims.”

Nowhere are the problems with statistics more blatant than in studies of genetic influences on disease.

Statisticians perpetually caution against mistaking statistical significance for practical importance, but scientific papers commit that error often. Ziliak studied journals from various fields — psychology, medicine and economics among others — and reported frequent disregard for the distinction.

Such sad statistical situations suggest that the marriage of science and math may be desperately in need of counseling.

“What does probability mean in real life?” the statistician David Salsburg asked in his 2001 book The Lady Tasting Tea. “This problem is still unsolved, and … if it remains un solved, the whole of the statistical approach to science may come crashing down from the weight of its own inconsistencies.”

Mar 192010

Not music, this time, but music commentary (sort of), a philosophy of music, if you will: “On Music Appreciation.”

One of the tasks of this weekly routine is to digitize old cassettes, and this is a bit of “Mark’s Diary” from 1978-79, so I believe I was in 3rd grade at the time. I’ve edited it so as to keep it from being totally unbearable. Here I lament the current anti-artistic climate pervading current sleepovers and treat you to some musical comedy stylings. The straight man is my dad. I had no idea until listening back to this that apparently my “favorite song” of the time was an elevator music version of “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel.

Mar 182010

I had been looking forward to Jerry Fodor’s What Darwin Got Wrong (co-authored with Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini), not because I have anything against Darwin but because Fodor is a superb writer, the well-respected cognitive scientist who “laid the groundwork for the modularity of mind and language of thought hypotheses,” and a worthy opponent of the idiocy of evolutionary psychologists who seem to think that every phenotypic trait must have been subject to selective pressure (no).

The book is extremely disappointing, and I don’t have the heart a the longer post analyzing it. It’s enough to read Ned Block (fantastic philosopher of mind guy) and Philip Kitcher‘s review–that is, complete dismantling of a thesis that just seems bizarrely wrong.  F&PP’s response and B&K’s reply are also very interesting. I will say that B&K’s accusation that the book shows “no detailed engagement with the practice of evolutionary biology” is an ad hominem overreach. The book gives a competent (and extremely informative) overview of the field, even if it is mistaken about its implications. Earlier in the review, F&K merely call it “biologically irrelevant”–an accurate claim if the relevance is to F&PP’s philosophical argument. But this merely highlights the fact that the book’s problems are philosophical, not biological.

(I’m going to apologize in advance for the intemperance of the rest of this screed).

These claims are particularly unfortunate in that they have encouraged an outpouring of zealous and  anti-intellectual scientism by reviewers (not to mention comment section trolls) who make no claims even to have read the book and assume its flaws must be scientific rather than philosophical. The they-just-don’t-understand-science claim has become a rationale for berating philosophers for their pie-in-the-sky impracticality (historically inducing in a certain species of self-hating philosopher the kind of it’s-not-science insecurities that lead to patently self-inconsistent theories as verificationism, not to mention the bevy of other views amounting to: “I’ve found the solution to all philosophical problems! There are none!” (Premise: any problem that threaten to limit the domain of scientific inquiry must not be a problem for science)).

So let me say this (first thesis): that you are a scientist does not mean he understands what your endeavor entails, any more than being a soccer player means understanding the physics and anatomy involved in the playing of soccer. That understanding requires reflection on the doing of science, not merely the accumulation of laboratory hours. Further, Ruse and others seems not understand or even be curious about issues in the philosophy of science or mind about which they are emboldened to spew by virtue of a kind of diplomatic immunity involved in calling themselves “scientist” (Ruse absurdly accuses Nagel, for instance, of being a “vitalist,” and assumes that physicalism is an easy solution to the mind-body problem–it would help him to familiarize himself with the literature and the fact that Nagel wrote the seminal anti-reductionist paper on the subject, What is it Like to be a Bat? If he thinks its claims are absurd, he ought to produce an argument, not a mere “that don’t sound scientific.”). So, second thesis: being a scientist does not immunize you from the requirement to think. Nor is being a scientist relevant to the soundness of your claims--it is not a slam-dunk in every science-related dispute. The (ad hominem) concept of that immunization is itself highly anti-rational (many scientists, of course, make no bones of their anti-intellectualism beyond the boundaries of the petri dish–and arguably this motivates some reductionist accounts).

I’m now going to apologize again for the intemperance of my screed, and I’d like to point out that I have a longstanding love of science (one of my undergraduate majors is the history of science). I have no truck with creationists/intelligent design adherents on the one hand or post-modern relativists on the other. But just as love of country entails honest self-critique … well you get the picture. This sort of credential-offering shouldn’t be necessary–it’s just a kind of preparation for being called the kinds of names that members of a loyal opposition get called. Suffice it to say that I simply believe scientism and anti-philosophical zealotry do nothing for science, any more than teabagging with a sign saying “freedom” does something for freedom. And in general, reductionism is just bad philosophy and has no bearing on the everyday practice of science or its esteemed status, except insofar as recognizes a limit to the domain of empirical scientific inquiry based on … whether or not the relevant data is susceptible to empirical scrutiny. Whether or not a neuroscientist believes that brain states are identical to mental states (as opposed to having some other sort of relation) will make no difference to his everyday work; but it will be relevant to his extra-curricular spoutings on God and Mind and Free Will and the rest–spoutings which which lead the dumb reductionist mythologies that pervade popular culture.

Mar 172010

The New York Times (my emphasis):

Dog domestication and human settlement occurred at the same time, some 15,000 years ago, raising the possibility that dogs may have had a complex impact on the structure of human society. Dogs could have been the sentries that let hunter gatherers settle without fear of surprise attack. They may also have been the first major item of inherited wealth, preceding cattle, and so could have laid the foundations for the gradations of wealth and social hierarchy that differentiated settled groups from the egalitarianism of their hunter-gatherer predecessors. Notions of inheritance and ownership, Dr. Driscoll said, may have been prompted by the first dogs to permeate human society, laying an unexpected track from wolf to wealth.

via Finding Puts Dog Origins in Mideast –

Plato’s Republic:

Is not the noble youth very like a well-bred dog in respect of guarding and watching?

Like the ideal Guardians of the City “well-bred dogs are perfectly gentle to their familiars and acquaintances, and the reverse to strangers.” And:

Why, a dog, whenever he sees a stranger, is angry; when an acquaintance, he welcomes him, although the one has never done him any harm, nor the other any good. Did this never strike you as curious? … And surely this instinct of the dog is very charming; your dog is a true philosopher. … Why, because he distinguishes the face of a friend and of an enemy only by the criterion of knowing and not knowing. And must not an animal be a lover of learning who determines what he likes and dislikes by the test of knowledge and ignorance? … And is not the love of learning the love of wisdom, which is philosophy?

This is an ironic play on substantives (a form of Socratic cheating frequent in the dialogues — which another way of saying what Socrates says elsewhere, that mythological hypostatizations are favored over logical validity): Ignorance is the enemy and Knowledge the friend, but what philosophers are ignorant of and do not possess is what they desire and seek without end (knowledge, wisdom (sophia)). And their enemies are the doxa (opinions) and doxosophia (conceit of wisdom) that arguably hold together societies, tribes, and families. Tribalism and patriotism are a matter of blind loyalty — to country and values. The rest is youth-corruption and making the lesser argument seem the better. So if we take the stranger as representing ignorance in general, the dog and the philosopher are the same; if we take it as representing something unknown, then reverse that. The dog-stranger conflict either represents a confrontation with one’s own (and so one’s City’s) dearly held beliefs (to be excised by dialectic), or a confrontation with everything foreign, unknown, and generally other. The conflict inherent in the City is that it requires both a tough cell membrane to ward off invaders, and tolerance for the kind of free-thinking that founds sophisticated institutions but in its skepticism might be interpreted as treasonous. Think of someone telling you, “you better be happy the troops are fighting for your right to say that.” The paradoxical implication — one highlighted in Machiavelli and Hobbes — is that pockets of civilized order (and such concepts as “rights”) are founded in violence and brute force of one kind or another. The philosophical dog, by the way, is a favorite of some Straussians, as a kind of mascot for realpolitik (and if some critics are right, neoconservatism): we must reward our friends and hurt our enemies, without regard for justice (in this case we read between the lines and don’t take the Socratic rejection of Thrasymachus’ might-makes-right at face value).

Incidentally, the tough-exterior/soft-interior paradox is a far-reaching theme: the tough route is the practical one (wage war against the world, join the rat race, get rich) and the soft route the idealistic one (starve in humanities grad school or while finger-painting in a Manhattan loft). It also goes to the general question of psychological boundaries and the economy of letting the outside in without falling apart as a result (like a cell that can’t maintain homeostasis); the City after all is for Socrates just a large scale model of the soul. And to take up a theme also addressed in the Gorgias and other dialogues, we must make decisions about the thickness of such membranes: the outward-directed violence (towards potential invaders of all kinds, ideas included) has inward costs. In the extreme case, to be a perpetrator of injustice is worse than being its victim because of the inner deformity it causes: it’s one thing to be invaded from without, it’s another to destroy oneself from within via too-rigid and consequently brittle defenses. Witness the question of whether the idea of “fighting terror” by morally repugnant (but outward-directed) means has consequences for a society’s institutional integrity (the softer and finer structures involving law, due process, and civil liberties). To move back again to the psychological — or psychoanalytic — view: psychological defenses (including repression and projection) are useful up to a point. After that point, they may become a debilitating sickness. Likewise, your autoimmune system may go postal on you. And so the ideal proposed in the Republic involves purely outward-facing guardians — anti-philosophical in one direction and philosophy-grounding in the other. If they fail to maintain their position, the city or the soul are in big trouble. It’s a precarious balance.

And so I like the idea that the dog may have quite literally played this role — that this Platonic metaphor, at a critical and foundational moment, was instantiated; with dogs implicated in an abiogenesis for civilization, spontaneously aligning themselves like the hydrophilic/phobic poles of the lipids that form cell membranes.

If this sounds like so much pretentious bullshit, I’ve saved the best part for last (the scraps, tossed from the very edge of the campground):

His team has also used the dog SNP chip to scan for genes that show signatures of selection. One such favored dog gene has a human counterpart that has been implicated in Williams syndrome, where it causes exceptional gregariousness. Another two selected genes are involved in memory. Dogs, unlike wolves, are adept at taking cues from human body language, and the two genes could have something to do with this faculty, Dr. Wayne said.

The cure for exceptional gregariousness: philosophy.

Mar 172010

The Web seems to have broken out in a bad case of Ayn Rand in the last month or so. The original sin seems to have been The New Criterion’s rebuke of philosophical adolescents everywhere:

Rand’s hero-worship is also Nietzschean in inspiration. It is deeply unpleasant. She entirely lacks the literary ability to convey anything admirable, or even minimally attractive, about her heroes, who are the kind of people one would not cross the road to meet, though one might well cross it to avoid them. They partake fully of her humorless monomania and have all the human warmth of a praying mantis. We are told that they are geniuses, but their genius seems mainly to consist of an unswerving adherence to their own ideas.

Humanity, according to Rand, is divided into heroes, creators, and geniuses on the one hand, and weaklings, parasites, and the feeble-minded on the other.

via Ayn Rand: engineer of souls by Anthony Daniels – The New Criterion.

This month The New Criterion responds to the vitriolic comments they received in response to the piece:

Sensible people have a low opinion of human nature. They know that human beings are often vain, selfish, calculating, and ungrateful. But to universalize cynicism is not wisdom but folly.

Jared Keller of the Atlantic Wire finds this amusing.

Michael Lind thinks the Randy tone of Glenn Beck and some Tea Party-goers is “great news for American progressivism” insofar as it will ensure their “minority status.”

So bring it on, geeky disciples of Ayn Rand. Gird thy loins and put on thy Spock ears. Demand the abolition of Social Security and Medicare! Call for reducing the U.S. military to the Coast Guard! Insist on tolling every highway and street in America and selling America’s infrastructure assets to foreign corporations and foreign sovereign wealth funds! Go Galt!

Bring it on! Even confined to a wheelchair, Franklin Roosevelt can defeat Ayn Rand.

Reason‘s Brian Doherty is vaguely offended and points us to his own three page Aynjaculation.

Daniel McCarthy also counters Lind: “What establishment conservatives are doing now, however, is giving rein to libertarian and populist discontent in the form of the tea parties in order to encourage the delusion that Obama is substantially more pro-big-government than the likes of Bush, McCain, or Romney.”

Don’t miss Alternet contributor Mike Ames’ linking of Rand with a 1920s serial killer

One reason most countries don’t find the time to embrace Ayn Rand’s thinking is that she is a textbook sociopath. In her notebooks Ayn Rand worshiped a notorious serial murderer-dismemberer, and used this killer as an early model for the type of “ideal man” she promoted in her more famous books. These ideas were later picked up on and put into play by major right-wing figures of the past half decade, including the key architects of America’s most recent economic catastrophe — former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan and SEC Commissioner Chris Cox — along with other notable right-wing Republicans such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Rush Limbaugh and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford.

Digby gets in his dig:

The biggest problem is that this foolish tea party ignorance is having the effect of normalizing the adolescent “individualism” of the Ayn Rand cult beyond the boardrooms and estates of the Master of the Universe. The “parasites” are now anyone who has the misfortune to lose his or her job in the worst recession since the 1930s — a recession that was caused by millionaire con men who are reaping big bonuses these days.

All of that’s just a small sampling of the chatter. To sum it all up in a flowchart:

Mar 152010


Their daughter goes to graduate school, earns a doctorate in comparative literature from an Ivy League university, everyone is proud of her, and then they are shocked when she struggles for years to earn more than the minimum wage. (Meanwhile, her brother—who was never very good at school—makes a decent living fixing HVAC systems with a six-month certificate from a for-profit school near the Interstate.)


Choosing to pursue that life—as irrational as it may seem, as hopeless as the prospect of achieving it might be—can still be a sound choice…. Instead, we must think of graduate school as more like choosing to go to New York to become a painter or deciding to travel to Hollywood to become an actor. Those arts-based careers have always married hope and desperation into a tense relationship. We must admit that the humanities, now, is that way, too.

My advice: grow some balls, steel yourself, screw your courage to the sticking point, drink some Steel Reserve, and pursue an academic career if that’s what you want (or even to figure out if that’s what you want). Just be ready … gasp … do something else.

If you drop out or even go all the way and can’t get tenure, then you can enter the same rat race that all your friends entered eight years before. In twenty years it won’t matter: there are only so many rungs on the ladder, and  (mutatis mutandis) they will almost certainly have been forced to wait for you while you catch up. And by the time the universe is just about to come to an end, all of humanity will share the same Web Development job anyway. On your way to that brave future, think about doing something brave.

You may swallow some pride along the way, you may have some additional struggles, you may delay your ascension to the future spouse/house/couch, but in the end you’re not going to end up working at McDonalds, you’re not going to end up homeless and alone, and you’re not going to be eternally banished from the church of middle class comfort or the sweet, sweet routine of the office job–if eventually that’s what you think you want.

It’s one thing to be aware of the costs of choosing one path over another–and there are costs to both the more and less adventurous routes; it’s another to be discouraged from doing anything courageous or taking any risks by imagining these costs in Manichean, irremediable terms.

So please don’t forgo your attempt to become the next great poetry critic because you think you will miss your last chance to get into fucking HVAC systems.

There will be time yet for a hundred HVAC systems.

Mar 102010

A surprising number of people google “partially examined life.” And then we get quite a bit of traffic from searches like “philosophy podcast” and “wittgenstein podcast.” But we also get hits from “grandpa bought a rubber.” Here are few more of my favorites:

  • District 9 and Nietzsche
  • Chuang Tzu Pronunciation
  • Half examined life
  • Partially good life

And last but most:

  • did you bullshit today? did you try to bullshit today?
Mar 102010

Another for the same album: “Not Too Late.” I added the vocals, acoustic, bass, percussion, and the big distorted background guitar all in the last couple of days, after not working on this since 2000.

Written in late ’98 as my time in philosophy grad school was ending. Even as I entered grad school, I had a fatalistic “Nothing is going to come of this, and I’m just living for the moment doing reading I like and trying to get my band to take off, which won’t happen” attitude, and as I edged towards its endpoint, that became less funny, or maybe more funny, but in a gallows humor kind of way.

So, this tune is about facing that upcoming wall, maybe trying to figure out how to not completely destroy myself on it.

Mar 102010

Pennsylvania may get rid of a number of its Philosophy (and other useless) departments because they graduate fewer than 30 majors over five years.

Unless they justify their existence.

That’s an ironically philosophical task. Scheherazadian (a word which justifies its existence as legitimate by having 1,410 occurrences on Google, despite the fact that there no Merriam Webster definition). I suggest department heads accept their fates and submit copies of Plato’s Apology as their self-justifications: we’re ready to drink the hemlock, philosophy is just a form of dying anyway! Or tell the powers that be that philosophy is merely a given. Or that foundationalism is bunk.

Crooked Timber takes the self-justificatory bait–which just seems to me to be very sad and very desperate:

Like most Philosophy departments we have an informal logic/critical reasoning course, which teaches students how to identify various kinds of fallacious reasoning, and targets instruction to contexts which the students are likely to find themselves in in the course of their lives. We teach aesthetics, environmental ethics, and philosophy of religion, all of which courses attract students with other majors who want to think at a higher level of abstraction than their regular courses allow about what they are doing in their major.

Sheherazade told beautiful stories, and Socrates said “fuck you.” Today it’s: “I really do think you’ll be less inclined to stick it to me once I teach you about ad hominems.”

Mar 102010

Pennsylvania may get rid of a number of its Philosophy (and other useless) departments because they graduate fewer than 30 majors over five years.

Unless they justify their existence.

That’s an ironically philosophical task. Scheherazadian (a word which justifies its existence as legitimate by having 1,410 occurrences on Google, despite the fact that there no Merriam Webster definition). I suggest department heads accept their fates and submit copies of Plato’s Apology as their self-justifications: we’re ready to drink the hemlock, philosophy is just a form of dying anyway! Or tell the powers that be that philosophy is merely a given. Or that foundationalism is bunk.

Crooked Timber takes the self-justificatory bait–which just seems to me to be very sad and very desperate:

Like most Philosophy departments we have an informal logic/critical reasoning course, which teaches students how to identify various kinds of fallacious reasoning, and targets instruction to contexts which the students are likely to find themselves in in the course of their lives. We teach aesthetics, environmental ethics, and philosophy of religion, all of which courses attract students with other majors who want to think at a higher level of abstraction than their regular courses allow about what they are doing in their major.

Sheherazade told beautiful stories, and Socrates said “fuck you.” Today it’s: “I really do think you’ll be less inclined to stick it to me once I teach you about ad hominems.”

Mar 072010

So I have been established, or established myself, as the Heidegger ‘guy’ on this blog/podcast.  Why?  I read a bunch of his stuff in grad school, studied with one of his students (at the time a professor) in Germany, and wrote my Master’s thesis on “Ereignis”.  Wes just sent me a link to this review at The Time Higher Education of a new book by Emmanuel Faye on Heidegger and Nazism:   So the author claims to have access to unpublished letters & papers that prove Heidegger worked Nazism into his philosophy…oh, wait.  I don’t give a shit. 

Smarter, more well read, more articulate and generally better people than me have weighed in on the topic for 40+ years.  It mattered to them.  It might have mattered culturally at some point.  It did matter to me 20 years ago, but it doesn’t now. 

First, a distinction.  There’s Heidegger the man, and Heidegger’s ‘thought’, which is to say his texts and other writings.  Not in question are these facts:  he joined the National Socialist party, he did reprehensible things in their name and defended his actions, he was kind of a douche.  This isn’t about the man.  What’s at issue in Faye’s book and all the others is whether Heidegger’s thought is fascistic or national socialistic.  It’s all about interpretation of the texts, but interpretation with intent.

With regard to Nazism, you can make the attempt to ‘read’ it into his texts as an illuminating interpretative strategy, or you can do it to prove his philosophy was an underpinning for Nazi ideology.  The former I find uninteresting, the latter only matters if you are going to do something with the result.  The implication is that an answer in the negative means we are allowed to keep reading him, in the positive and his thought becomes ’tainted’, ‘fascist’, ‘anti-semetic’, whatever and, presumably, his texts are consigned to the flame.   This isn’t about proving a thesis, it’s about establishing a disposition towards his philosophy that implies some kind of action.  Let’s say Faye (and others) prove the point – what are you going to do?

It’s a normative question about the interplay of ideas.  We’ve already granted that Heidegger the man acted consentually and didn’t repent.  If you take the position that morally objectionable actions by the person invalidate their work, the point is already moot.  And you can then throw Niezsche, Schopenhauer, Picasso and Tiger Woods into the hole with him.  If you move from the person to their ideas, the question is more complicated.  In the case of a straight-up apologist hack, where the ideas have no merit other than to justify an objectionable ideaology, it’s easy to say that because X supports Y, I’m not going to read any of X’s work.  What we’re saying in that case is:  X’s stuff is one-note, and that note is tedious and objectionable, so I’m invalidating X’s thought by ignoring it.   In the case of a body of work more prolific, nuanced, thought provoking and less clearly implicated like Heidegger’s, I don’t think that move works. 

I think something like this motivates the Heidegger/Nazism debate now.  People who argue one side or the other want you to do something about his thought and texts.  Keep reading him or don’t.  Censure him or don’t.  Villify him or don’t.  Include him in the canon or don’t.  Blame him for something or don’t.  Take a stand…

So here’s what I’m going to do:  keep reading him (or not) without regard to the outcome of the debate.  As you’ll hear in the Danto episode and as befits someone tied to the tradition of pluralistic hermeneutic reading, I respect authorial intent but it’s only a gateway into interpretation for me.  And I’m quite OK with multiple, contradictory and difficult readings of texts.  In fact, the more you can read into and get out of a text, the better.  And I think there’s a lot to be got from Heidegger – useful, interesting, stimulating, thoughtful, relevant, meaningful things that stand independent of a) less useful or even censurable things you can get out of his work and b) they way the useful stuff might be employed.  Hence, re: Heidegger’s thought and Nazism, mir ist egal.

I’m surprised this debate even has currency anymore.  It does appear to be dying a slow death and perhaps with the last of Faye’s generation of intellectuals it will finally be put to bed.  Immediately after the issue came to light, there was real Angst on the part of intellectuals who were influenced by and had strong personal ties Heidegger as they tried to come to grips with his participation in National Socialism.   Early work on the subject reflected painful moral and philosophical struggles by people for whom the events of the War and Holocaust were recent and personal.  His stature as leading European thinker needed to be questioned and legalities around his ability to participate in German academic life needed to be resolved. 

That’s 60 years in the past now.  If you want to make this something personal for you, go ahead.  If you want to talk about the normative question above, feel free.  But the debate itself lacks currency and relevance and I’m just not interested.  –seth

Mar 062010

Another tune destined for the Mark Lint & the Simulacra album: “Night Before the End.”

If you’ve listened to the podcast ep. 16, you’ve heard that Seth thinks that it’s boring when musicians interpret songs for you, so I won’t to that, and leave you merely to wonder what it would mean to be “bold enough to bend” and “cold enough to mend” or whether these are just rhyming devices.

This was written back in early 1994 during a period of pretty substantial emotional turmoil, where I still entertained the suicide fantasies of the very young, and this was a song I would play very late at night with my vision shrunk to a point boring through my wall and a harsh night calm set all over me, when it seemed like THIS WAS IT, whatever IT was. Music is nice at capturing one’s visions of personal Armageddon.

I started this particular recording (the only one of this song) in maybe 1997 and decided in 2000 to add it to the Simulacra album via my friend (and philosophy student!) Mark Doroba’s awesome trippy guitars (and drums… double tracked at the beginning for extra clickery by Armando Reyes, who played in my previous guitarist’s new band). I managed to record bass w/in the next year but didn’t get around to doing the singing and mixing it down until now.

Mar 062010

An unanticipated benefit of doing this podcast is getting the opportunity to analyze my speech when I do the editing (we rotate that responsibility).  Even though I find it painful at times, I use the word ‘benefit’ because it’s truly interesting and educational to hear the sound of one’s voice.

I have known for some time that my voice is at the pitch of ‘background noise’ and that my cadence is, let’s call it, deliberate.  In my professional life I have witnessed on numerous occassions men nodding off during my presentations or while I am talking.  I say “men” on purpose, as oddly, this seems only to apply to men.  In any case, this is what made me very good at delivering bad news to big institutional customers – I know how to bore an angry mob into submission.

So I’m particularly sensitive about how I come off in this podcast and when I edit, I pay particular attention to how I sound and the way I speak.  What I have found is that while ‘on tape’, my voice appears to be substantially less soporific, I am still terribly paced and deliberate in the way I speak.  Worse, I imagined myself as ‘thoughtful’ and coming out with extended but complete and coherent thoughts, which is not the case.  I get lost, go on tangents, restart, “um” and “you know” like everyone else. 

So I’m trying to be more responsive, speak more directly and be more succinct.  Easier said than done, but that’s my commitment to you.  And I highly recommend that you record one of your own conversations or an unrehearsed monologue – it’s an enlightening experience in self-awareness.

Mar 052010

If you’d like to have links to our postings sent to you via Twitter, you can now do that; follow us at

If you re-Tweet our episode posts to the millions of Twitter followers you undoubtably have, then you’ll have our eternal gratitude.

While I’m on the subject of spreading the word, why don’t you scroll ALL the way to the bottom of this page and hit the “Stumbleupon” or “Digg” icons at the bottom under “Share with your friends on…” This will nominate our page for wider circulation via those sites and will also make you cool. Note that you can do this with any one of our blog posts here as well; just click on the title of the post, and when a page comes up with just that post on it, then click the sharing icon. You’ll have to sign up for an account with those sites, but they’re kind of cool regardless.

More importantly, if you’ve not already gone onto iTunes and given us a steamin’ hot awesome rating (a review is nice too), go do that! I’m unclear re. what rating resources are available to you Zune users and other non-traditionals, but I encourage you people to do something as well… perhaps just stand in the street holding a sign with our URL on it. …Or better yet, buy a freakin’ T-shirt already!

Mar 042010

What effect should the avant garde have on our understanding of what art is? We read three essays by modern, first-rate American philosopher Arthur Danto, all published in The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (1986): the title essay, “The Appreciation and Interpretation of Works of Art,” and “The End of Art.”

I understand you may not have heard of Danto, and you may think modern art is goofy, but you’ll definitely enjoy this discussion and the reading anyway. Danto gives a picture of philosophy and art at war throughout history: philosophy says that art can’t get at truth and is otherwise useless, yet philosophers like Plato seem afraid of the power of art to corrupt. What’s the deal?

Also, Danto claims that art is over; the end of art has happened. So suck it, artists. (Actually, artists can keep on doing what they’re doing; they’re fine, yet art is still over.) Plus, can you stare at a urinal and thereby make it art? What if it’s in a museum? Danto loves them crazy ass post-modern artists, and thinks that their work shows that art was not what we thought it was.

Plus, Seth talks about the plane crashing into the IRS building near his house, and we respond some listener postings.

This work is unfortunately not available free on the Internet, but is worth purchasing.

End song: “This Night Before the End,” by Mark Lint and the Simulacra, recorded mostly in 2000 but finished just now. Here’s more info about the song.

Note that after this was posted, Danto listened to it and liked it.