On Metaphysical Proficiency

Are you good at metaphysics? How good are you at metaphysics?

When I consider these questions, the only sure thing is that there is no objective measure of metaphysical proficiency. I can’t even imagine standards by which we could judge it. It would be at least as hard to estimate as intelligence, and anyway, I doubt smarts correlates with metaphysical skill. Lots of smart people have said a lot of ridiculous things. I like to think that I’m better than the next guy, because, well, I like to think that. This reminded me of the old highway driving razor:

Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac? — George Carlin

I’d amend it to say:

Everyone who is more dogmatic than you is an idiot and everyone who is less dogmatic than you is a maniac.

Perhaps we are the metaphysicians we think we are, but it wouldn’t hurt to be a bit more metaphysically charitable.

Posted in metaphysics, philosophy. Tagged with , .

Shaking the Tree

Life often results in situations such that no strategy suggests any further moves. We just don’t know what to do next. In a game of perfect information, where each player knows all the previous moves, this can signal stalemate. Take chess: given both sides know everything that has transpired and have no reason to believe that the opponent will make a mistake, there can come a time when both sides will realize that there are no winning strategies for either player. A draw is then agreed upon.

The situation is not as simple in games of incomplete information. Let’s assume some information is private, that some moves in the game are only known to a limited number of players. For instance, imagine you take over a game of chess in the middle of a match. The previous moves would be known to your opponent and the absent player, but not to you. Hence you do not know the strategies used to arrive at that point in the game, and **your opponent knows that you do not know**.

Assume we are in a some such situation where we do not know all the previous moves and have no further strategic moves to make. This is to say we are waiting, idling, or otherwise biding our time until something of significance happens. Formally we are at an equilibrium.

A strategy to get out of this equilibrium is to “shake the tree” to see what “falls out”. This involves making information public that was thought to be private. For instance, say you knew a damaging secret to someone in power and that person thought they had successfully hidden said secret. By making that person believe that the secret was public knowledge, this could cause them to act in a way they would not otherwise, breaking the equilibrium.

How, though, to represent this formally? The move made in shaking the tree is to make information public that was believed to be private. To represent this in logic we need a mechanism that represents public and private information. I will use the forward slash notation of Independence Friendly Logic, /, to mean ‘depends upon’ and the back slash, \, to mean ‘independent of.’

To represent private strategy Q, based on secret S, and not public to party Z we can say:

Secret Strategy) If, and only if, no one other than Y depends upon the Secret, then use Strategy Q
(∀Y\S) (∃z/S) ~(Y = z) ⇔ Q

To initial ‘shaking the tree’ would be to introduce a new dependency:

Tree Shaking) there is someone other than Y that depends on S
(∃z\S) ~(Y = z)

Tree Shaking causes party Y’s to change away from Strategy Q since Strategy Q was predicated upon no one other than Y knowing the secret, S. The change in strategy means that the players are no longer idling in equilibrium, which is the goal of shaking the tree.

Posted in game theory, independence friendly logic, logic, philosophy. Tagged with , , .

NYC Area Philosophy Calendar Spring 2014 update

I’ve updated the NYC Area Philosophy Calendar for Spring 2014. As per usual, there are some great talks and conferences to check out.

I’d love feedback about the calendar, so please get in touch if you have any comments or suggestions.

From my website statistics Brooklyn, NY has the heaviest calendar users. Hello Brooklyn.

Posted in internet, news, NYC, philosophy.

More on Philosophy Publishing: Cartels and Rhetoric

Here is a selection three reviewers’ comments from two well-ranked journals about a paper of mine:

  1. “Be that as it may, there really isn’t a recognizable philosophical project here that would merit consideration by [Misspelled Journal Name].”
  2. “I do not see how the author can improve the paper, since its motivation is ungrounded.”
  3. “This paper makes interesting, important claims and it should with improvements appeal to a broad and diverse audience.”

It would be one thing if all reviews were like 1 and 2. I’d be some mix of crazy, mistaken and uninformed. The issue is review 3. That reviewer saw my work completely differently than the others, basically exactly as I was hoping it would be understood.

How can the disparity in views be explained?

One way could be to blame ‘cartels’ of academics. The idea behind academic cartels is that reviewers belong to some school of thought, a cartel. They, consciously or not, favor work that supports their cartel by referencing them or providing more arguments in their support. By supporting ‘their’ work and rejecting others’, they increase the relative importance of themselves and their friends in academic standing.

Under the the cartel theory, reviewers 1 and 2 rejected my paper more because my ‘philosophical project’ did not support them and their projects, than me not having a project or some actual problem. This view is backed by the fact that reviews 1 and 2 had almost no engagement with any specific claims or arguments in my paper, but instead made critical generalizations about what was said or how it was said. For instance, reviewer 1 said I relied too heavily on Prominent Philosopher X and reviewer 2 said I had not read enough of same Prominent Philosopher X. The criticisms are basically meaningless since they could mean any number of things — no details of what I had wrong were given — and I could take them to just be a smokescreen for their bias.

I’m sure some of this is going on, but I don’t think cartel bias is the main issue. More likely is overwork. It is just easier to make up a BS criticism than an actual criticism. Again, consider the criticism having to do with Prominent Philosopher X: the underlying issue is that they both criticised without ever mentioning what exactly I had said wrong. Moreover, a journal editor would have a tough time arguing with this sort of accusation. I think the reviewers were more concerned with having something defensible to say than saying anything substantive.

Said differently, journal referees are highly risk averse. There is no incentive for them to get themselves into a position that requires more work. They already put in extra time to be the referee, so making difficult arguments is overmatched by making defensible, if nonsensical, arguments.

There are two approaches to this problem: top down from the journals and bottom up for the paper writers. Journals can institute policies that incentivize better reviews. A review of reviews, if you will. A new journal that only accepts reviews of other papers could be formed. This meta-journal would highlight the best and the worst, showing what good reviews and (anonymous) poor reviews are. This would help value service to the community as a reviewer, have pedagogical use in showing best practices and wouldn’t make people avoid being reviewers.

As a writer I advocate figuring out the best rhetoric such that the poor overworked reviewer will think they are getting what they want. Then, if they really don’t like the paper, they will have to come up with a more substantive criticism. Rhetoric, rhetoric, rhetoric: the arguments and conculsions will be the same, but how they are dressed up will be different. I think some philosophers believe themselves to be above ‘mere’ rhetoric, but from everything I’ve seen, this belief just serves to cover up how much we are affected by it. We drink our own Cool-Aid all too often, and a smart writer should use this to their advantage.

Posted in argumentation, game theory, philosophy.

NYC Area Philosophy Calendar Update

I’ve updated my NYC Area Philosophy Calendar, a listing of the philosophy lectures, conferences and events in the NYC metro area. As per usual, if one were to attend the huge amount of lectures and events, they would have a very good academic philosophy education for the price of a Metrocard and some late fees at the public library. Please leave me any comments and suggestions, especially if you know of events and venues that I don’t have listed.

With this update comes technical improvements: Events are color coordinated by location (school color usually) and are tagged by topic (ancient, Kant, epistemology, etc.). The calendar software has different ways to view the data (day/ weekly/ monthly calendar, agenda, poster-board). It also can do subscriptions based on filter, so if you only want to see epistemology events at Fordham, you can use the categories and tags to specify this, and then you can export only those events.

Fordham and CUNY have long lists of fantastic speakers lined up. Some notable events are Noam Chomsky speaking at Columbia’s Dewey lectures, and the 31st Annual Meeting of the Society for Ancient Greek Philosophy (SAGP) with the Society for the Study of Islamic Philosophy and Science (SSIPS) at Fordham, which has a massive program.

Also, as per usual, Columbia is slow on posting events. Rutgers, too, has nothing listed yet. The New School for Social Research has some things posted, but it seems to be mostly cross-listings of other departments, so I expect that the more philosophy-oriented content is still coming. Sarah Lawrence College sometimes has public lectures of interest, but they too have very little posted. I’ll check back in few days and update accordingly.


Posted in news, NYC, philosophy. Tagged with , , .

Free Speech and Spying

I used to think that there was little chance the government would be spying on me.

But then I realized that I correspond with people all over the world by email. Moreover, people all over the world come to this site. Take a look at my website hits from the last day or so: location map of recent visitors
This is pretty typical. A recent breakdown is just over half of the visitors are USA citizens, leaving over 40% to be distributed over the rest of the world.

I’ve noticed lots of different activity on my website. There have been bots (programs) that state their purpose as ‘total website downloaders’, which tend to be from places that don’t have good laws on freedom of speech (I think they are trying to get as much of the internet as they can while they have access). I’ve had hits from Pyongyang, North Korea. I have lots of visitors from China. A posts on game theory was visited by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (probably a bored technician). When I linked to a post critical of the Philosophical Gourmet Report, I had a hit from a UChicagoLaw web server.

With all the recent discoveries about the scope of the US government’s spying—it’s open season on communications to any non-citizen outside the country (which many philosophers are) and 3 degrees of separation from a target (remember, it is thought that everyone in the world is only 6 degrees from everyone else)—it is almost a given that they are monitoring my internet communications in some way. And since they are monitoring me, they are probably monitoring you, too.

I don’t like it, not one bit. But now there is something that can be done about it! Bitmessage is a secure messaging service. It can’t be monitored, at least not in the way they have backdoor access to email. It is encrypted such that only the intended recipient can access the message, and everyone else can’t even know who it is from or to whom it is going. So grab the program and send your first message that the government can’t see! Experience actual freedom of speech, without fear of being monitored, and send me a bitmessage here:


Posted in news, products, technology.

Site Update

After running this blog for over 6 years, I’m thinking it is time for a site update. I’d like to give a thanks to the WordPress.org community for making great blogging software freely available, and NearlyFreeSpeech.net for providing site hosting at a reasonable price.

That said, there is a good chance I am going to mess something up. The site has been running on the same underlying (MySql) process, perhaps from the start, without any maintenance on my end. So I am going to shut it down and do a clean install.

!!EDIT!! Apparently my website hosts (NearlyFreeSpeech.net) are way more competent at running websites than I am. When I went to restart the database, I saw that they had already cleaned the thing up from its old, monstrous self to a new, smaller, updated process. So I’ll just be doing more cosmetic updates than anything (I’ve not once changed my WordPress theme in these 6 years. Thanks Ocadia theme!). This may still bork the site, but there is less room for error now.

Hopefully I’ll see you on the other side.

Posted in internet, news.

So Prisoners Don’t Follow the Dilemma

Prisoners and their dilemma:

We report insights into the behavior of prisoners in dilemma situations that so famously carry their name. We compare female inmates and students in a simultaneous and a sequential Prisoner’s Dilemma. In the simultaneous Prisoner’s Dilemma, the cooperation rate among inmates exceeds the rate of cooperating students. Relative to the simultaneous dilemma, cooperation among first-movers in the sequential Prisoner’s Dilemma increases for students, but not for inmates. Students and inmates behave identically as second movers. Hence, we find a similar and significant fraction of inmates and students to hold social preferences.

Posted in economics, game theory.

Cynic Argumentation

Many arguments are called ‘cynical,’ but is there anything that is common to them? Is there a general form of cynical argument?

One type of cynical argument is a kind of reductio ad absurdem, a proof by contradiction, to discredit a premise. The first step is to take the premise and associate it with some worldview.

  1. Assume P. (premise)
  2. P holds under worldviews W.  (Cynical Generalization)

Then, the cynic discredits those worldviews.

  1. Worldviews W are not the sort of views we want.    (ethical, logical or other valuation)
  2. Therefore the premise P is rejected because it leads to absurd consequences.  (Contradiction 2, 3)

What is unique here is the use of worldviews. The cynic generalizes from the premise to associated worldviews. Instead of finding something wrong with the premise itself, the cynic objects to any line of thought that leads to the premise.

Therefore, the criticism mounted here is existential: The cynic objects to people’s way of life, their existences. In doing so, the cynic changes the standards of evaluation. Though the premise may be unassailable on its own, when it is placed in the wider context of life, it no longer remains innocent or safe. By focusing the argument in this way, the premise can be seen as a symptom of affliction, an unwanted life—an absurdity.

— — — —

I find this argumentation style particularly interesting because of the Cynical Generalization step. The generalization is something like modal. However, it is not a generalization to possible worlds, but to possible lives. The cynic considers all possible lives that include affirming the premise and asks whether it is possible or desirable to live those lives.

Since we do reject different ways of life all the time that we feel are not for our selves, this argument style cannot be dismissed as flippant. Moreover, it is an extremely powerful argument: as historical cynics have shown, if you are willing to forgo the trappings of society, you are freer to reject its laws and conclusions.

Posted in argumentation, logic, philosophy. Tagged with , .

On Philosophy Publishing

There has been some discussion in the philosophy blogosphere on citation rates in academic philosophy journals. Since I recently decided that I was going to try to get my work published, I have spent a bit of time thinking about this. When John Protevi at NewAPPS asked about citation patters,  I left a comment, but the topic really warrants a longer treatment. Here are some thoughts:

Let me postulate, for this discussion, that doing philosophy and publishing are very different enterprises. That is, the content of the philosophy is separate from the distribution of it, and while you hope that your philosophy has some merit, we are currently concerned with getting it published regardless.

Consider the top philosophy journals, not as philosophy journals, but just as publications. Do these journals compete with each other? Yes, but they also cooperate more. If anything, the top journals are in coopetition. While the journals do compete for the best new content, consider how they make their money. They make their money by being purchased, in this case by academic libraries with limited resources. They will only get purchased if the libraries (and philosophy departments) feel that there is active research going on that they need to access. So it is much more important for journals to have an active discussion amongst themselves to give the appearance of active research being done (again regardless of merit).

It is not so much that they compete with each other, than they are in competition with everyone outside their area.

Now, how do these journals show that they have an active discussion? They reference each other, back and forth. This mutual referencing fosters the importance of the discussion, and hence the journals too. Once the discussion has begun, all other journals that wish to publish on the topic will have to reference back to the original journals, again fostering the original journal’s importance.  Hence a journal, or group thereof, that fosters a discussion—a niche if you will—will effectively block out other journals. All other or new journals will always be playing catch-up since they will inherently have fewer references and hence be less important.

This suggests that citations and referencing is a highly strategic business practice. Journals need to get themselves into the discussion somehow to make themselves relevant. If possible, they want to be the nexus of the discussion.

One interesting consequence is that it is less the individual researchers or papers that are cited, but that the journal is cited at all. The journal wants to be in on the discussion, and it doesn’t matter how it gets there. This suggests a bias towards references that include the journal or involve the journal in discussions, whether those references are relevant or not.

This leads to the treatment of ‘stars’ within the profession. If the journals publish the writing of a ‘star’ they will immediately get themselves into a position where people need to have that person’s work. So it is a good strategy for a journal to play into ‘star’ writers and to burnish their reputation (e.g. dedicated journal issues, invited papers) since this will make their research seem important and require people who do research to reference the work of the star in that journal.

Consider, then, why we cite. Is it to give credit to those who did great work? Sure, but there is too much at stake in terms of reputation (reputation yields job offers and money) for that to be the sole reason.

Is it to show we know what we are talking about? Unlikely but possible: journal publishing is not done to show that you have the done the reading, and if you are talking about something important then it doesn’t matter who is referenced.

Is it to make our lives easier, so we don’t have to argue every point? Likely at times, this is again too simplistic in terms of other issues.

Is it because it plays into the business model of the journals? Probably more than we want to admit.


As mentioned above, journals will be biased towards self referencing their publication. Hence, if your work can be framed in a way that allows for journal self references, all the better. Same goes for citing stars. This also means that the bias could allow for references to go unchallenged: e.g. reference Hume for everything (or David Lewis), and always have some references to big journals. Conversely, less prominent work can be slipped in unnoticed if it is sandwiched between stars and big journals.

Perhaps there is an optimal ratio of prominent authors and different top journal references to less prominent references to give the appearance of new-ness and importance to the discussion.

At any rate, journal publishing exists at the intersection of business and philosophy, and it does no good to treat the double blind review as the only factor in getting published.

Posted in game theory, news, philosophy.
website hit