Mar 312011

For our atheism episode (which has, incidentally been pushed back to be recorded in late May or possibly June… sorry, Russ!), I’m trying to read through the most popular of the “new atheist” books, and I’m sure we’ll only end up discussing some select portions of the books in any detail, so as I’m going through these, I’m going to generate a few blog posts to fill readers in on some additional points and help myself remember what I’m reading. My point here is primarily to give points from the books, not to cast judgment upon them, so don’t take this as an endorsement (or rejection).

Daniel C. Dennett is the only actual philosophy professor among the most popular of these folks. (Sam Harris was a philosophy undergrad when he wrote his major works and has just recently earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience; Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, and Hitchens is a “columnist and literary critic.” I know Peter Singer also argues for atheism, and he’s as famous a philosopher as they come, but he’s not been considered part of this movement for some reason.) We read a little bit of him and devoted maybe 10 minutes of our discussion to him in our philosophy of mind episode, which didn’t go very well, in that Wes at least really dislikes him, yet we didn’t go into enough detail on the arguments of his article to clearly convey why Wes dislikes him. To sum up the critique, he’s not known for, say, clearly and charitably presenting the views of past philosophers and saying exactly how his position differs from them. Instead, he uses a popular style to make his points, with a heavy emphasis on specifically citing scientific work

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Mar 302011

When we did the Frege episode, we read “The Thought”, which was a new text to me and I found it quite interesting.  Even though we were supposed to be talking about other things, we got caught up on Frege’s notion of ‘The True’.  Specifically, we were asking ourselves what kind of ontological status ‘The True’ or ‘Truth’ had for Frege and why he didn’t seem to care.

To walk myself through his reasoning, I did my usual note taking and then tried to recreate his argument.  As I am a visual person and a corporate tool, I did so in PowerPoint.  Please to enjoy:

Frege’s The Thought – The PowerPoint

Basically, Frege gives a pretty good critique of a correspondence theory of truth, and then makes Truth linguistic: that is, he claims that truth is always referring to a sentence, not to things.  In fact, he says, Truth is the truth of the sense of a sentence, which is what he calls a thought.  I’ll skip to the punchline and tell you that thoughts are not wholly subjective (like ideas), but also not part of the material, external world.  They are, however, how meaning gets conveyed through language in that two people can share one thought, which is expressed linguistically.  Check out the PPT, which I now realize has way more text than I remember, but uses colors and big fonts so it’s not too bad.



Mar 302011

What gives a government the right to rule over its citizens? John Locke in his Second Treatise of Government (1689) says that government requires the real (though often implicit) consent of the people, which means it has to be in the people’s interest. Unlike Hobbes, Locke thinks that the state of nature (i.e. the alternative to having a government) isn’t completely chaotic and without normativity.

In the state of nature, basic laws of fairness apply (i.e. because God created us all equally, though maybe you don’t strictly need that rationale to argue Locke’s point), and for Locke, this includes ideas about familial rights and responsibilities (parents don’t have absolute dominion over their kids but have the responsibility to guide and care for them until they’re independent), land ownership (if you work the land, it’s yours by right), property (you can legitimately trade things, and so, for example, collect vast hoards of gold if people around you find that stuff valuable and are willing to give it to you in exchange for things), inheritance (your property goes to those in your family you designate), and justice (each and every one of us has the right to kill those who “make war” on us, even preemptively).

All this social stuff is there for us, says Locke, before government enters the picture, so when we buy into the social contract, we’re really only giving up this right to execute justice in exchange for getting an authority which can decide our disputes and act as our emissary to other governments. This doesn’t give government the right over our lives (unless we break the law and “make war” on the society) or our property (though the government can tax us if it legitimately represents us), and if government officials overstep the authority given to them and act in any way against the common good, so that we as citizens would be better off not having accepted the social contract that put them in power, then they’re no longer government officials, meaning we can deal with them the same way we would any private individual in the state of nature who transgresses.

We’ll be trying to distinguish here between those parts of this obviously attractive to us as Americans, i.e. nobody likes tyranny, and those parts of both his argument and his resultant system that are just plain goofy.

Read along with us with the free online text or buy the book.

Mar 292011

I just stumbled across an 8 part series on Spinoza (discussed by us here), completed today and begun here on 2/7/11, written by U. of Liverpool lecturer Clare Carlisle, who I see has written some books on Kierkegaard,which will give you some idea where she’s coming from.

I’ve not read the whole series, but it seems pretty clear and cogent, and will remind you (or fill you in on) terms like “conatus,” that were dropped in our podcast, i.e. the striving to persevere in existence, and to enhance its own power, that constitutes the essence of every individual being.”

Part 7, for instance, is about a topic that will be relevant to your enjoyment of our soon-to-be-posted Hegel discussions on the self:

Unlike many other philosophers, Spinoza does not think that living an ethical life involves overcoming our natural self-centredness. For Spinoza, the main obstacle to virtue is not egoism, but ignorance of our true nature. When we are subject to strong emotions, which we attribute to imagined causes, we are unlikely to act in a way that is good for ourselves, or for other people. Add to this our misguided belief in free will, and the messy, antagonistic reality of human relationships seems inevitable.

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Mar 262011

Against both my better judgment and the hue and cry of many, I will continue my semi-informed-by-past-years-of-studying “exposition” of predicate logic which I started here.  If I accomplish nothing else, I will give Burl something to complain about for the next week or so.

In the previous installment, we talked about how syllogistic statements about “all x’s” assert the truth of a conditional statement.  “All dogs bark” asserts that for all x’s, if x is a dog, then x barks.  Formally expressed, that’s:

∀x(Dog(x) –> Barks(x))

or something similar.  It doesn’t say anything about whether there actually are any dogs.  Additionally, the ‘For all…’ symbol – ∀ – doesn’t allow you to say anything about only some dogs.  Let us address that issue.

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Mar 252011

We derisively brought up modal logic, “possible worlds” talk, on our Frege episode, and we’ll likely do an episode on that if we’re still podcasting a couple of years down the road, but if you want to know a bit more now, you could look at Wikipedia here, or better yet, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Really, though, why not take the easy route and learn about David Lewis from the Philosophy Bro?

Think of all the ways things could have been. The mundane ways, sure: you could have preferred tea instead of coffee, that lightbulb could have been blue instead of yellow, Steve Jobs could have founded Windows. Whatever. But shit could have been way crazier than that. We could have tentacles. Gravity could have been twice as strong. Geometry could be parabolic. Electrons could be replaced with – who the fuck knows, really.

Are you ready for the fun part? Because here comes the fun part: there are uncountably infinitely many worlds, and there’s a world for every single fucking possibility. Remember how Hume said that nothing was ever necessarily connected to anything else? Yeah. As long as something doesn’t contain any blatant contradictions, there is a world in which it’s reality.

Peace out, bro.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Mar 242011

Bryan Magee and A.J. Ayer, a famous philosopher in his own right, here give an overview of Frege’s project and Bertrand Russell’s reaction to it.

Watch on Youtube.

The whole first clip here is just an overview of Frege, with his sense and reference distinction coming in around minute 8. In part two, Ayer and Magee talk up Michael Dummett just like I did on the podcast, and then close to minute 4, the conversation shifts to Russell and stays there through most of the rest of the series of clips.

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Mar 232011

When we recorded Episode 35, we got quickly submerged into the complexity of Hegel’s project as a whole and had recorded our allotted 3 hours or so before even getting to the famous “Master and Slave” part of our selection, so we held another discussion later in the same week, which will be issued as episode 36.

Though there will be some delays in your seeing these discussions due to our slow and laborious editing, this didn’t result in additional weeks added before episode 37 will be recorded, meaning you should see #36 as a bonus episode and not as another three weeks to sit and think about Hegel.

This goofy picture of Hegel was snatched from Win Corduan’s blog via my usual method of doing a quick Google image search and copying the URL of the weirdest looking thing I immediately see. However, I see that Corduan, who is a Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Taylor University in Upland, IN, has posted a pretty long (12 parts as of now) discussion called “Understanding Hegel” there that you might find interesting (it starts here). If anyone wades through a substantial chunk of it, please post a comment here and let us know if it was useful/informative. I immediately noticed this interesting tidbit there:

The First Review of the Phenomenology
From the Jenaer Allgemein Literatur Zeitung in Kaufmann, p. 327)

“Whether we have completely understood Herrn Hegel, we leave for him to judge. We have understood ourselves, but this is precisely the author’s most profound intention in his work. Regarding the author’s manner, however, we have often missed that necessity which should strike us as we consider each moment in turn. His manner is often harsh, dry, and more difficult to cope with than the subject matter; nor is it rare for it, this this is easily comprehensible at the beginning of such a work, to move around the subject uncertainly and hesitate anxiously before it finally hits it squarely. The fruit is delectable enough: the shell will fall off by itself as it grows ripe.”
(K. J. H. Windischmann (1775-1839), who crowned his career as professor of philosophy in Bonn)

-Mark Linsenmayer

Mar 232011

RussellIn the recent Frege episode, Mark related the famous anecdote of how Bertrand Russell, the man who “discovered” Frege, later confounded him by pointing out a paradox apparent within his logical system. As Wes recounted, Russell’s own attempt to ground mathematics in logic was also later frustrated by a young Kurt Gödel, whose early incompleteness theorems crippled the central purpose of Principia Mathematica.

Anyway, those of us who suffer nausea upon seeing the character ∀ can nevertheless relive those heady days with Logicomix. A comic book about the quest for absolute logical certainty makes an unlikely choice for an award-winning New York Times bestseller, but I must say its an entertaining read. To steal a brief recap from the NYT book review:

The story spans the decades from the late 19th century to World War II, a period when the nature of mathematical truth was being furiously debated. The stellar cast, headed up by Bertrand Russell, includes the greatest philosophers, logicians and mathematicians of the era, along with sundry wives and mistresses, plus a couple of homicidal maniacs, an apocryphal barber and Adolf Hitler.

Spoiler alert, per Seth: “Founding anything always fails.”

-Daniel Horne

Mar 212011

We’ve received a nice donation from Russ Baker, who is a Christian who claims not to be offended by our podcasts.

I asked him if he wanted to “target” a Personal Philosophy at someone, and he replied that while he was not interested in targeting anyone, he does want us to hurry up and do an episode on the “new atheists” as we’ve long been threatening to do. [The eventual episode is here.]

In response to this request, I’ve composed this philosophy for use by anyone looking to become rich and famous by jumping on this bandwagon.

I’m not saying that there’s not a defensible social reason to vociferously argue atheism (Wes and I have had plenty of posts and discussion on this), or that there’s nothing to the arguments themselves (even if they’re not “new”). However, given the crowded field of minor celebrities already in on the game (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris, Grayling… I see “Victor Stenger” listed here, and I know Peter Singer argues on this topic too), to milk further fame and cash out of this particular cow requires some ingenuity and a definite raising of the bar in terms of offensiveness to believers. I therefore provide this public service via:

The Personal Philosophy of [Insert Budding New-New Atheist's Name Here]*

The time to rise is now, unbelievers! I’m sure you’ll all agree that there is no place for so-called “theism” in our time, a time when science is revealing all truth to us, like the truth of iPads!

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Mar 202011

So Matt Teichman was kind enough to post a primer on basic logic, showing with syllogisms how informal logical inference was turned into formal notation by Frege and thus predicate calculus was born.  There is a wealth of stuff to learn about the predicate calculus and many serious logicians (as well as frustrated mathematicians) have developed and extended systems in a number of different ways.

One of the things that was interesting about developments before and around the time we were in grad school was how people got wrapped around the axle on the implications of formalism for ‘the real world’.  Mark pointed this out in his post about ‘The True’ and we discussed it when talking about Frege:  what kind of object was Truth in his ontology and why didn’t he seem to care that much?

What happened in the 20th century was that you had people that continued with the formal endeavor without regard to ontology, metaphysics and epistemology.  You also had people that would call out the ‘philosophical’ consequences of formal systems, which some of the formalists cared about and some didn’t.  Then you had people like David Lewis who thought that the fact that we could create formal systems implied that the corresponding ontologies must exist.  Witness the birth of possible world semantics!

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Mar 192011

A reader asked me:

As a Wisconsinite, how about a blog post with (at least a bit of) your philosophical analysis of what’s been going on there?

Here’s why I won’t do this: not because I don’t have a position or in any way want to remain neutral as far as this blog is concerned, but because deep down in my gut, I feel like political problems are in most cases too bleedin’ obvious to require a philosophical analysis.

The claim that the budget crisis here is manufactured, and comes entirely out of misplaced priorities in favor of giving businesses tax breaks, is not a philosophical claim as I understand the term. Yes, I have beliefs and ideas about the role of government, but when do these rise to the level of “a philosophy?” Well, certainly on a broad use of the term, anything you think about is philosophy, but to me, the task of philosophy is to dig at the foundations of something or other. If I believe that when I drop things, they fall, that’s not a philosophy. Even trying to say why they fall doesn’t count as philosophy, unless you have a crazy-ass, non-verifiable theory about why they fall (“God’s love pulls them!”). If you’re working within some tradition of explanation that you see no reason to question, then your analysis can be scientific, or aesthetic, or theological, but will likely not be philosophical.

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Mar 162011

I made heavy mention on the Frege episode of this book by Michael Dummett.

I want to try to give a couple of textual references over a few posts here to elaborate points from Dummett I was trying to make during the discussion. For instance, one of the pieces we picked on Frege about was his designation of “the True” and “the False” as objects in his ontology, which was done to make sense of the idea that concepts are functions: e.g. “is green” is a function that maps green objects to “the true.” Here are some bits from pages 183-185:

It is generally agreed that, if Frege had to ascribe reference to sentences at all, then truth-values were by far the best thing he could have selected as their referents: at least, he did not go down the dreary path which leads to presenting facts, propositions, states of affairs or similar entities as the referents of sentences…

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Mar 162011

Editor’s Note: Matt Teichman, our guest on the Frege episode, has been good enough to provide this primer on logic for our listeners who’ve not already had to sit through a class on it or who might need a refresher:

One of the things we said at the beginning the episode on Frege was that he is the father of modern logic.  But what is logic, anyway?  For those of you who never heard of logic before, here is a quick primer.

Logic is the study of what philosophers call valid reasoning.  In everyday conversation, valid just means ‘good’ or ‘appropriate.’  But in logic, valid has a special technical meaning.  To see what it means, let’s look at an example of an argument:

Argument 1:

All people drink water.
Matt is a person.
Therefore, Matt drinks water.

Argument is also a term we’re going to use in a special technical sense.  Here, rather than referring to e.g. a dispute between me and my wife about whether to get a new car, it refers to a line of reasoning meant to convince someone of something.  More specifically, we’ll think of an argument as a sequence of sentences broken down into two parts: first come the premises, then comes the conclusion.  (You can also have an argument with just one premise, or even an argument with no premises!  But all arguments need to have a conclusion.)  In the above example, the premises are All people drink water and Matt is a person, and the conclusion is Matt drinks water.

Anyway, let’s get back to validity.  An argument is valid just in case it is impossible for its premises to be true and for its conclusion to be simultaneously false.  Consider the above example: if all people drink water, and Matt is a person, then there’s simply no way that Matt could fail to drink water.  It’s absolutely, positively guaranteed.

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Mar 132011
Gottlob Frege

Discussing Gottlob Frege’s “Sense and Reference,” “Concept and Object” (both from 1892) and “The Thought” (1918).

What is it about sentences that make them true or false? Frege, the father of analytic philosophy who invented modern symbolic logic, attempted to codify language in a way that would make this obvious, which would ground mathematics and science. Applying his symbolic system to natural language forced him to invent strange entities like “thoughts” and “senses” that are neither physical nor psychological, and we pretty much spend this episode kvetching about the metaphysical implications of this and the fact that Frege didn’t care about them.

Featuring guest podcaster Matt Teichman, who also hosts Elucidations.

Read along: “The Thought,” “On Sense and Reference,” “On Concept and Object,” and we also read
Frege’s introduction (p. 12-25) to his book The Basic Laws of Arithmetic: Exposition of the System (1904), or just buy this book.

End song: “The Great Forgotten Lover,” from the 2011 New People album, Impossible Things.

Mar 112011

More donations = More custom-crafted Personal Philosophies.

Our sponsorship this time is by someone who wants to remain anonymous (but whom I can tell you has actually appeared as a guest on the podcast). He recommended three targets for such a Personal Philosophy, one of whom was Robert Wright, who “plays himself on” I have not researched this fellow, as my gift for gifting these Philosophies is God-given and intuitive and has no need for mediation of that sort.

The Personal Philosophy of Robert Wright*

When ze American pig dog government comes to me, I will haff guns to meet them with! Everyone, I say, should own a gun, for ze American pig dog government is trying to encroach upon us, and that will not stand!

When I am washing ze dishes, yes? Who says “no phosphates in your detergent!” And ze dishes, zey are still dirty, no? Bullshit American pig dog government do that to me! (Son of bitch!)

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Mar 102011

Courtesy of listener Matt Gantner, here’s a Scientific American article on “Why Information Can’t Be the Basis of Reality.

The author, John Horgan, criticizes information theorists like James Gleick who posit that information is somehow the basic structure of the universe (which seems to be a modern variation on Anaxagoras’s idea that mind, or Nous, is the fundamental component). Horgan argues that information requires someone to be informed, i.e. requires consciousness, which is obviously not in any ordinary sense present at the sub-atomic level. This is similar to Searle’s “Chinese Room” argument against the idea that “mind” can be understood as symbol manipulation (discussed here).

What do you think? Is Horgan missing something?

-Mark Linsenmayer

Mar 102011

For a philosophy site that’s at the same time bizarre, funny, and genuinely informative, see His “Secret History” video series appears to be baiting crackpots and cranks everywhere only to give them a good dose of … the philosophy of mathematics (to begin with). To see what a (sometimes too loud) soundtrack and visuals can do for a subject that might otherwise bore you to tears, see the first video on Cantor, in which Geck defends the Leibnizian method in calculus (which makes use of the concept of the “infinitesimal” rather than today’s more typical use of concept of limit). This makes it all worthwhile: “In other words, the sober-minded mathematical public had been forced to stare at actual infinity for over 100 years, and absolutely despised it” (9:17). The icing on the cake is the thoroughly amusing rap/Leibniz video (embedded above) that Geck sent me, in which we get to see “motherfuckin’ Leibniz” dancing. I like.

- Wes

Mar 082011

Here’s how you write a David Brooks column:

  • Take a common conservative meme: some easy complaint or claim that has been beaten to death — in its usual form — in political opinion pieces far and wide.
  • Dress it up and soften it significantly — avuncular-ize it — by replacing the usual objects of axe-grinding with less direct symbols taken from your vaguely-remembered undergraduate liberal arts education; in fact, if you can (infuriatingly) appropriate academic leftism for right-leaning ends, even better!

So for instance, instead of saying “government interferes too much in our lives,” say as (Brooks does in his recent column The New Humanism. Here’s an alternate link if you don’t have a NYTimes login set up.) that you prefer the English Enlightenment (Edmund Burke and Adam Smith — but don’t mention names or you run the risk of making it too obvious what’s behind the curtain) to the French Enlightenment.

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Mar 082011

We will at last be breaking open the most notoriously obscure, fantabulous work of philosophy ever: Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.This is the early Hegel: anti-metaphysical and historicist, as opposed to the later Hegel previously discussed in our philosophy of history episode and ripped on by Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer. It’s a frickin’ acid trip, this book is.

We’ll focus on the most famous portion of the work: Part B on Self-Consciousness, though I can’t see how we’ll entirely avoid talking about earlier sections of the book. (The Introduction is an easier point of entry if you’re reading along than the Preface.)

We tend to think of people as basically selfish, which implies that we are fully formed, autonomous individuals by nature with certain needs. Hegel argues that instead, “the self” is an achievement. We only gain a sense of who we are, or even that we’re a being distinct from other beings, by interacting with other people, and it’s really their treatment of us that determines what we initially take ourselves to be. So far from being these balls of greed that Hobbes makes us out to be, we are initially not all that differentiated from our surroundings and have to build ourselves up to be individuals and figure out what we really want.

The most famous part of the text is on the “master and slave” relationship. This is Hegel’s substitute for the idea of the Social Contract: instead of people forming together to make a deal of some sort, when people recognize each other as more than just objects, they perceive a threat: society starts with someone enslaving someone else. But as far as development of the self goes, the resistance the slave encounters actually allows the slave to develop a real “self” (in opposition to the master’s will), whereas the master has no reason to be reflective and so doesn’t develop a self. So ha, master! Bite it!

Buy the book,or you can look at this alternate translation by Terry Pinkard online.