April 19, 2012

Socrates is Mortal. But What About Irene Cara?

Knowledge is power, established by arguments which are made up of statements that can be true or false, and are in turn made up of subjects and predicates. Consider this classic argument:

(S1)  All persons are mortal
(S2)  Socrates is a person
(S3) Therefore, Socrates is mortal

The argument is clearly made up of three statements, that may each be true or false, and together say something consequential about Socrates. This knowledge about the mortality of Socrates, established by argument, is clearly a kind of power. 

S1 is complicated so let’s start with S2: ‘Socrates’ is the subject and ‘person’ is the predicate. Traditionally, the subject is the substance and the predicate is the property. So S2 says that there exists a substance ‘Socrates’ that has the property of being a ‘person’. Similarly, S3 says that this same substance also has the property of being ‘mortal’.

Back to S1, it is the crux of the argument by identifying ‘person’ with ‘mortal’. If the statement was ‘A person is mortal’, it would not say much. S1 says that all persons are mortal. The subject is not ‘all persons’ but the class of all persons through all time. This means that person1 is mortal, and person2 is mortal, and person3 is mortal, etc.

There is something off here. I suspect most of us believe S1 but how can we justify this belief? That is the problem of induction. I will role play that you are a skeptic about the mortality of all persons and do my best to convince you of the truth of S1.

There are three groups of persons: (x) those that have died, (y) those currently alive and (z) those yet to come into this world. Obviously, as time marches on persons are born and die, moving from group z to groups y and then x.
I will start with two tests: a person is born of a person (with some arbitrary first person); and a person is mortal if (s)he died. We can test the tests with an x-case we can agree on. Take Whitney Houston. She was born of a person and (sadly, recently) died, so she is mortal. Therefore, the statement ‘Whitney Houston is mortal’ is true. At a point in time, we can enumerate each person in group (x) that has ever died and apply this argument to prove their mortality.

What about y-persons, those like you and me currently alive? Unless I happen to outlive such persons, I cannot (by this argument) establish that they are mortal.  Of course, I cannot outlive myself so you may have to confirm my mortality. The situation is worse for z-persons yet to be born. But that doesn’t make sense. We know that all persons are mortal so why is it so hard to prove?

This is where philosophy gets fun. Perhaps we are wrong about what we think we know.  Maybe you and I are not mortal. Was Irene Cara right when she sang, "I'm gonna live forever"? Or maybe my tests are missing the point. The very requirement of a mortality test betrays a lack of understanding about personhood. If you agree, then we don’t need exhaustive surveys and depressing body counts to establish mortality. On this view, mortality is just part of what it means to be a person, in the same way that being born of a person is also part of what it means to be a person.

We now have two alternatives: either ‘all persons are mortal’ is (A1) a statement independent of experience (if you know it is a person, then you also know that it is mortal) or it is a statement (A2) about our experience with people, that they eventually die. We already saw that if S1 is an A2, we run into the induction problem. So S1 is an A1 statement, that is, it is true independently of experience.

What would make S1 as A1 true? Generally speaking, statements can be true either (B1) by definition or necessity, where the predicate is ‘contained’ in the subject, or (B2) for some contingent reason. It is clear that any B1-type statement is also a A1-type statement. For example, ‘A person is born of a person’ is clearly independent of experience (A1) since it is true by definition (B1).

If you accept that ‘all persons are mortal’ is prior to experience (an A1 statement), you may still not accept that this is a matter of definition (not B1). Notwithstanding creation, I cannot imagine a natural person that is not born of a person ('natural' here is to exclude artificial persons like corporations). However, I can imagine a natural person that does not ever die, as Irene Cara does . So, if S1 is an A1 statement but not also a B1 statement, what is it?

More generally: are there things that can be known independently of experience which are not a matter of definition? This was Kant’s pregnant question. He called:

A1 – a priori statements
A2 – a posteriori statements
B1 – analytic statements
B2 – synthetic statements

If I am right that 'All persons are mortal' is a A1-B2 statement or a synthetic a priori statement, then Irene Cara and the rest of us are mortal. This is the depressing part. However, the Kantian question is an entry point into the reframing of philosophy into the modern outlook.

April 18, 2012

Many Worlds In One

Since Thomas Kuhn and the post-positivist horde invaded analytic philosophy, talk of scientists inhabiting different worlds has attracted attention. It is premised on a plurality-of-phenomenal-worlds thesis (PPWT), “grounded in the experience of the historian of science”[1]. This is sensational stuff.  Clearly, practitioners of widely different disciplines like string theory and economics work by different rules premised on different assumptions about what makes the world what it is.  However, given that they study fundamentally different things (energy packets versus economies) the mystery would be if they did share a worldview.

Therefore, PPWT is stunning not for applying across disciplines but within one. Consider the case of physics. Kuhn holds that, “Einstein’s theory can be accepted only with the recognition that Newton’s was wrong”[2], thereby rejecting the common view that Newtonian mechanics is a special case of a more general relativity theory. By this logic, the passage from one stage of a discipline to the next is not via conjunction or accumulation but rather via disjunction. New questions arise about why and how a community transitions from one specialist worldview to another, and how to reconcile disjunctive logic with progress. Isn’t scientific progress an established phenomenon at the basis of our modern way of life?

Paul Feyerabend tried to soften the blow by suggesting that there are many ways in which, “the Newtonian and the relativist can and do converse”, so that, “the relativist can say that the classical formulae, properly interpreted (i.e. interpreted in the relativistic manner), are successful, but not as successful as the full relativistic apparatus”[3].  This is the case, for instance, with low velocities compared to the speed of light (here, the Galilean transformation equations disappear). Kuhn would have none of it and retorts that this does not diminish the revolutionary character of Einstein’s achievement but simply shows why, “Newton’s laws never seemed to work”[4].  His point is that although relativity statements Ei can be reduced to Newtonian statements Ni by restricting v to low velocities relative to c, Ni can certainly not be derived from Ei due to the fact that while, “Newtonian mass is conserved; Einsteinian mass is convertible with energy”[5]. The relativist engages with classical science as one does with a foreign language … never really getting the nuances and always translating into one’s native language. 

The worry is then that full communication across the chasm between worlds is not possible.  Kuhn called this impossibility the ‘incommensurability’ of the worldviews. But I think that this kind of talk is a symptom of a metaphor overstretched. In another context, Jonathan Hope offers a meditation on “a particular form of human vulnerability”[6], the vulnerability that comes from the fact that human beings inhabit a way of life. It is the vulnerability of cultural devastation or “things ceasing to happen”[7].  Hope uses the transition of the nomadic Crow First Nation to reservation life to exemplify this phenomenon.  On the reserve, even basic goals lose their appeal: “A crucial blow to their happiness was a loss of the concepts with which their happiness had been understood”[8].  Does this kind of analysis even make sense when applied to physicists? Did Newtonians inhabit a way of life that was devastated by the advent of the relativists? I think this is ridiculous. Unlike the Crow, Newtonians may still thrive, and even their use of technologies like GPS premised on a different world theory doesn’t amount to cultural devastation. 

Perhaps transitions between phenomenal specialist worlds can be better understood against the background of their relation to the social world shared by all.

[1] Paul Hoyningen-Huene, Reconstructing Scientific Revolution, 38.
[2] Kuhn, Structure, 98.
[3] Feyerabend, Farewell to Reason, 271.
[4] Kuhn, Structure, 102.
[5] Kuhn, Structure, 102.
[6] Jonathan Hope, Radical Hope, 8.
[7] Jonathan Hope, Radical Hope, 8.
[8] Jonathan Hope, Radical Hope, 55.

April 09, 2012

In Praise of Diversity

Our rational lives are precarious because our intellectual landscapes are littered with inconsistencies.  This can lead to despair; as Leonard Cohen puts it: “everybody knows that the boat is leaking, everybody knows that the captain lied”[1].  This is the refrain of the 99% and various similar protest movements.  Logic weighs in with the result that anything can be derived from a contradiction.  To the extent that we are all conflicted, there is no telling what we are each capable of.  But what does universal consistency look like?  Would it be a healthier state of affairs?  Whatever it looks like, a single model of reality runs the risk of being universally wrong.  This pushed Paul Feyerabend to advocate for science to be dethroned and treated like any other other field of inquiry.  I think that goes too far (after all, science has experienced the kind of successes that deserve special attention).  Still, I agree that our survival depends on the maximal diversity of our conceptual schemes and models ... If only to spread the risk of being wrong and increase the chances of discovering useful schemes.  This is why our conflicting commitments are both a source of problems and the basis of our salvation. 

[1] “Everybody Knows”, words and music by Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson. 

April 07, 2012

Play vs. Random

Games are as old as time, come in various forms, are everywhere and touch everyone. They are therefore worth the time to better understand.  Wittgenstein's fundamental question about games was: “What is the difference between playing the game and aimlessly moving the pieces?” Or, what is the difference between play and random?

We all know a game when we see one and there is much that we can distill from our everyday experience:

o   There are ‘players’ and there are ‘spectators’.  

o   The players are further divided into competing ‘teams’.

o   Games are finite, ending with a ‘winner’ and ‘loser(s)’.

o   Normal standards are suspended during games (think of fighting in hockey).

o   Except perhaps for the ‘game of life’, teams live to play another day so victors can’t rest on their laurels and losers have another shot at glory.

There may be more but this is enough to suggest something like the following definition:

Games are organized play where competing units make choices under the constraints of rules and chance with a view to win (at the expense of the others).

Let’s unpack. Games are characterised by moves according to rules that do not merely tell us how to play but exhaust just what the game is.  Acting by the rules is playing the game, maybe not always well, but playing all the same.

In this sense, the rules create their own special purpose game world.  Being able to throw a ball into a small hole perched high at a distance is not noteworthy, except in the context of a basketball game for instance.  “Why did you push her?”, he asked, “So I could get the ball into the basket” was the response.  That’s answer enough.

Games are also characterized by chance.  There are countless opportunities for chance to muck about with performance and impact outcomes.

Why does this all matter? Imagine being at a house party and seeing a guest playing air guitar.  Now, I gave it away to describe the behaviour but imagine that you did not know that he was playing air guitar.  It would make for a very awkward moment.  Minimally, you would misinterpret his actions as random (if not offensive).  

Plato thought that games were great educational and socializing tools: "our children must take part in games that are more law-abiding right from the start, since, if their games become lawless and the children follow suit, isn't it impossible for them to grow up into excellent and law-abiding men?". This is just one example of their usefulness.

The point is that games are purposeful play. Therefore, being able to tell the difference between play and random is critical to proper communications and effective social interactions (and all of what these support).

Flip the Script

Popular invitations to philosophy are mostly lame.  They cajole the reader with the view that ‘everyone is a philosopher’ and propose to build on everyday capacities.  They also announce that the goal of philosophy is something like ‘the good life’ or ‘the acquisition of wisdom'.  As one trained in academic philosophy, it all sounds lazy to me. 
I think that philosophy is hard work that most people will never do very well.  I also disagree about the aims.  ‘Philosophy’ may mean ‘lover of wisdom’ but the discipline is about evaluating competing claims by making explicit what they respectively imply.  This is important because there is still too much superstition, violence and degradation in the world.  How can we improve things?  It is taken for granted that the world would benefit from change but the question remains, ‘What change, exactly?’   Philosophy helps us understand that superficial changes do nothing to bring about meaningful difference.  If, “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”, we should look right through staging and characters and instead ask about plot.  Changing plot lines is the most fundamental way of changing things; it is game changing.  It is about playing the game to the end and then back to the beginning.
If you want to make a difference, think about ‘flipping the script’. This blog lays out my thoughts on how philosophy can help you contribute to this renewal project.