Category Archives: argumentation

public philosophy stories, issue 1: Free Muffin

You only have so many skills when you’re 20. I was a few years past that when this happened, but didn’t look it.

The cashier at the Brooklyn coffee shop was 20, though, and was caught in a spot of trouble. Some guy in his late 40s took issue with her SNITCH tattoo — Harry Potter, not gangster. He was over-educated and enjoying himself denigrating the book series. She couldn’t abandon her post, less her skin, and while she was no fool, like I said, there’s only so much one can do at 20.

Harry Potter, of course, doesn’t need my help. But I do take issue with getting your jollies at the expense of someone who can’t defend themself. So I interjected a small remark that lead to his arguments stumbling. When he realized he had been stalled he quickly changed tack. Again the cashier had to give ground.

So I gently sharpened my previous comment. He kept up the pressure, but this time when he stumbled, his argument got impaled. He eyed me in silence.

‘I knew what I was doing when I opened my mouth,’ I smiled at him.

My coffee and muffin were free that day.

Posted in argumentation, NYC, pps, random idiocy.

On the Dangers of Running the PGR

Something that caught my eye in the recent PGR debate was a compliment of the anti-PGR faction’s organizational skills that was stated right along side an insult to their actions. Specifically:

“I really do not understand what is going on. You [did x]…  The response has been a well-organized attempt to force you to [do y]. But [doing x] had exactly nothing to do with [doing y].”

This well-organization stands in contrast to:

“I would rather not have had to make the decision in the face of a sometimes irrational cyber-mob”

I think this contradiction in characterization — either the anti-PGR faction is well-organized or it is an irrational mob, but not both — reveals something interesting going on with the PGR and philosophy.

I’d like to focus on the compliment of the organizational skills as it is the more revealing.

Let’s assume that complimenting your opponent’s organizational skills was not done out of magnanimity. Instead, it works to shift the blame away from the pro-PGR arguments and moral standing: the opponents won because of reasons that were not pertinent to the discussion, not “legitimate” reasons. That is, no one is paying attention to the pro-PGR arguments because they are so blinded by the ‘organization’ of the anti-PGR faction.

There are two ways to understand this:

  1. They are accusing the anti-PGR faction of running a conspiracy. Being well organized implies that there wasn’t really a consensus against the PGR. Instead, only the appearance of a consensus exists through the efforts of the anti-PGR leaders. These masterminds have engineered the appearance of a consensus to gather popular support for their illegitimate cause. The masterminds have fooled the masses into doing their bidding.

       Besides implying that there is no consensus, this is a clever strategy because it puts the the anti-PGR faction into the position of proving a negative: proving that they were not so well organized and hence that there is no conspiracy.

  2. Though the pro-PGR folks understand what has happened, they do not understand HOW it happened. The claim of well-organization is being used as a catch-all in place of a better causal explanation.

I think the latter is the more likely of the two options. Firstly, because confusion is admitted directly in the quote, and secondly because the PGR debate itself is exactly about how to evaluate different philosophies.

The PGR has systematically been evaluating philosophy for years, and hence inherently creates confirmation bias with respect to those rankings. The confirmation bias will, over time, overvalue philosophy at the top of the rankings and undervalue philosophy at the bottom.

What, then, may have happened is that the success of the PGR infected the minds of those most involved with it. The confirmation bias caused them to undervalue and overlook the capabilities of low-ranked philosophies, to the point of atrophy. So when those philosophies became mobilized against them, they couldn’t see or understand what was happening. They became inevitable victims of their own success.

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

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.

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 , .

The Paradox of Unreasonability

“You’re being unreasonable!”

One or more of you may have had this directed at you. But what does the speaker mean by it?

Presumably the speaker believes that the listener is not acting according to some given standard. However, if the speaker had an argument to that effect, the speaker should’ve presented it. Hence, all the above statement means is that the speaker has run out of arguments and has resorted to name-calling: being unreasonable is another way of saying crazy.

Now, though, the situation has reversed itself. It is not the listener that has acted unreasonably, but the speaker. Without an argument that concludes that the listener is being unreasonable, then it is not the listener that is being unreasonable, but the speaker. The speaker is name-calling, when, by the speaker’s own standards, an argument is required. For what else is reasonable but to present an argument? So, by saying that the listener is being unreasonable, in essence the speaker is declaring themself unreasonable.

But, yet again, the situation reverses itself. If a person has run out of arguments, and makes a statement to that effect, then he or she is being perfectly reasonable. This returns us to the beginning! Therefore, by making a claim about someone else being unreasonable, you paradoxically show that you yourself are and are not reasonable, such that if you are, then you are not, and if you are not, then you are.

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

Spell Sorites. No really.

Since none of the other philosophy blogs I follow have mentioned it, one of the final round contestants of the National Spelling Bee was eliminated last night by misspelling “sorites.”   I believe the contestant put a ‘p’ in front of the word.  It makes me wonder if these kids know how to do anything other than spell words.

Posted in argumentation, news, random idiocy. Tagged with , .

Against Physics as Ontologically Basic

1.  Biology is epistemically independent of physics:

Let’s assume that biology is not epistemically independent of physics, i.e. to know any biology we must first know something about physics.  However, consider evolution as determined by natural selection and the struggle for survival.  We can know about the struggle for survival and natural selection without appealing to physics — just as Darwin did when he created the theory — and hence we can fundamentally understand at least some, if not most, of biology independent of physics.

2.  Physics supervenes on biology:

Whatever ability we have to comprehend is an evolved skill.  Therefore any physical understanding of the world, as an instance of general comprehension,  supervenes on the biology of this skill.

3.  Biology is just as fundamental as physics:

If the principles involved in biology and physics are epistemically independent and each can be said to supervene on  the other, then neither has theoretical primordiality.

Therefore physics is not ontologically basic.



[This argument was inspired by a discussion over at It’s Only a Theory start by Mohan Matthen.

And I want it to be known that I HATE SUPERVENIENCE.  Basically if you use supervenience regularly then you are a BAD PERSON.  The only good argument that uses supervenience is one that reduces the overall usage of the word:  it is my hope that the above argument will prevent people from saying that biology supervenes on physics.  For every argument in which I thought that using supervenience might prove useful, I found a much, much superior argument that did not make use of the term.  I know you always live to regret statements like this, but right now I don’t care.]

Posted in argumentation, biology, epistemology, evolution, ontology, philosophy, physics, science. Tagged with , , , .

Fodor May Yet Be Clever

I was trying to figure out what Fodor could have been thinking.  Here’s what I came up with:

  1. If we are trying to figure out what Evolution has done, then we presuppose that Evolution is capable of doing something.
  2. If Evolution is capable of doing something, then there must be some mechanism of Evolution that does the doing.

Now imagine yourself in the position of the mechanism of Evolution that does the doing, i.e. the mechanism that selects the traits that yield a higher fitness.

The question becomes: is it possible for you to select for a trait?

The answer is NO.

To understand why, consider what happens when we try to give an evolutionary explanation of something:  we are beset by a near infinite selection of different possibilities.  Only through careful study can we narrow down which traits are actually the ones that increase an organism’s fitness and, if we are in a historical context, only give a most likely candidate for such a trait.

Now imagine yourself back in the position of the mechanism.  The mechanism is stuck with the exact same sort of problem that we have when trying to figure out what it has done:  it has no more an ability to select a single trait than we have to figure out which trait it has selected with our first guess.  Whenever it tries to select for a trait, it may mistakenly also select for another trait that is not so good for the organism, or it may not have even recognized the trait it thought it was selecting for.

Therefore, since this mechanism can’t work, evolution is bunk.

OK.  Now let’s take a step back and look at this argument.  Basically there are two parts:  the first part is an argument that there is a mechanism that does the doing and the second part says the mechanism can’t have done anything.  When I saw Fodor speak on this topic, I believe (it was a while ago now) he spent a good deal of time on arguing for the first part and I didn’t really understand what he was up to.  Now it makes sense because if we accept that there is some mechanism that does the doing, then we may be committed to admitting to at least some amount of skepticism about evolution based upon the second part.  Getting even some skepticism about evolution would be a sufficiently large accomplishment, and so I figure this must be Fodor’s ultimate goal.

In light of this argument I offer this wild conjecture for your reading pleasure:

Replace “mechanism” with “agent”.  Now, instead of an argument against evolution, it is an argument against Intelligent Design.  Intelligent Design has the designer/ agent built directly into it, and this makes the argument much more knock-down:  There is no need to argue for the existence of a mechanism because it is right in the title, and since the intelligence of ID is something like our intelligence, it makes sense that it would suffer from the same problems that ours does.

What I think happened is that Fodor was sitting around thinking why intelligent design doesn’t work and realized that if he could make a strong enough argument that evolution also required some sort of agent, in the form of an evolutionary mechanism, then he could return a similar result.  Since having a technical reason for discounting ID wouldn’t make much of splash, Fodor dropped the argument against ID and pursued the argument against evolution.

Personally I kind of like this argument against ID.  If I ever run into some ID people, I may even bring it up.

Posted in argumentation, biology, evolution, philosophy, random idiocy, science, wild conjecture. Tagged with , , , , , .

On Block and Kitcher on Fodor

Ned Block and Philip Kitcher have posted a review of Fodor/Piatelli-Palmarini’s “What Darwin Got Wrong” (via Leiter).

It is a well executed, though flawed, counter to Fodor’s arguments.  First they give a nice rundown of the underdetermination issue I posted about here.

Then they discuss the “intensional fallacy”.  They argue that the crux of F & P’s argument can be seen as trying to split up the causal efficacious trait and the selected-for trait.  This means that F & P believe that there is no way to connect the evolutionary reason – the trait that increased an organism’s fitness – with our explanation of the trait that was selected-for.  Block & Kitcher argue that it is trivial to match the two up because

selection-for is a causal notion, and, since causation is extensional, so is selection-for.

Insofar as we believe that our explanation of the selected-for trait is extensional, i.e. truth-preserving when switching between different names of the same thing, we can say that we do pick out the causally efficacious trait.

Unfortunately Block and Kitcher sacrificed our normal concept of explanation to make this counter-argument.  They note that explanations are never normally extensional, but that we are making an exception in this case.  This is ok to do because

we thinking beings can give (intensional) explanations in terms of [one trait] rather than the other properties. In giving the explanation, we (thinking beings) describe the property in our preferred way.

I do not understand what is going on here.  Basically it looks as if “preferred way” is just a fancy way to say “own words”, but describing something in our own words doesn’t make it right.  Nor is it a reason to change what should count as an explanation.

Unless Block and Kitcher are prepared to give further justification as to why we should disregard our normal understanding of explanation, it looks as if their solution to Fodor’s argument is ad hoc.  They are using explanation* — which is a special kind of explanation that can be extensional — but they have not given a reason why explanation* should be preferred over of regular explanation (outside of causing Fodor trouble).  Without this reason, the use of explanation* is ad hoc, and hence the argument fails because it turns on an ad hoc premise: the assumption that explanation* can be substituted for explanation.

However, I did say above that Block and Kitcher’s argument is well executed:  My argument against using an ad hoc term-term* distinction is obscure compared to their argument and so, for the vast majority of people, it will appear that their argument is effective.  Overall this is a good thing: less nonsense needs to surround evolution (though I’ll be a little sad to see it go: I’m #1 in a Google search for “fodor what darwin got wrong“).

[EDIT:  I’ve put up a new analysis (24 March 2010) of Fodor’s argument here: Hypotheses Natura Non Fingo.  It also includes a review of the responses of Block, Kitcher and Sober ]

For my take on what Fodor got wrong, see my post What Fodor Got Wrong, and the follow up Dismantling Fodor’s Argument (also linked above in reference to underdetermination).  I’ll post something soon specifically addressing the intensionality issue:  Fodor’s Intensional Criticism of Evolution.

Posted in argumentation, biology, evolution, fitness, news, philosophy, science. Tagged with , , , , , .

Argument Structure

Basic argument structure goes like this:

  1. Premise 1
  2. Premise 2
  3. ———————–

  4. Conclusion

Knowing how to argue is great, except when someone you disagree with is proving things you don’t like.  In that case you have to know how to break your opponent’s argument or provide an argument that they cannot break.

First thing that most people do to break an argument is to attack premises (assuming no fallacies are present).  To avoid accepting your opponent’s conclusion in line 3, if you can cast doubt on the truth of premise 1, then your opponent will never get to line 3.

Personally I think this sucks.  I hate arguing about the truth of premises because many times people have no idea what the truth is and hold unbelievably stupid positions.

G. E. Moore argued that if the conclusion is more certain than the premises, then you can flip the argument:

  1. Conclusion
  2. Premise 2
  3. ———————–

  4. Premise 1

Instead of arguing about the truth of the premises, this strategy pits the premises against the conclusion by arguing that while the premises imply the conclusion, the conclusion also implies the premises.  Hence there is a question about which should be used to prove the other, and, as long as this question remains, nothing is proved.

This leads to a kind of argument holism.  An argument must first be judged on the relative certainties of its premises and conclusion before the premises can even be considered to be used to derive the conclusion.

Personally I think this is great.  It is possible to just ignore whole arguments on the grounds that the person arguing hasn’t taken into account the relative certainties involved.  If you haven’t ensured that your premises are more certain than your conclusion, then you can’t expect anyone to accept your conclusion based upon those premises.

However this leads to a nasty problem.  If all arguments are subject to this sort of holism, then arguments can be reduced to their conclusions: if the whole argument is of equal certainty, i.e. the conclusion is just as certain as a premise, then there is no reason to bother with the premises.  If we just deal with conclusions, and everyone is certain of their own conclusions, then arguing is useless.

(In practice, of course, only mostly useless.  You can (try to) undermine someone’s argument by finding something more certain and incompatible with the conclusion in question (premises are always a good place to start looking).  For better or worse, though, even when people’s premises have been destroyed, all too often they still are certain of their conclusions.)

Moreover, if everyone is certain of their conclusions, then no conclusion is any more certain than another.  If everything has equal certainty, then nothing is certain.

How to get around this problem of equal certainty?

First let me mention that this is a strictly philosophical problem: in daily life we have greater certainty in some things than we do in others.  For instance I trust certain people, and hence if they say something is true then I will be more certain of it’s truth than if someone else were to say the same thing.  So fair warning: what comes next is a philosophical solution to a philosophical problem.

If something and its opposite are equally certain, then, generally, there is nothing more that we can know about it.  For example if we know that it is either raining or not raining, then we really don’t know much about the weather.   This applies in all cases, except for paradoxes.   In a paradox something and its opposite imply each other. Hence, in a paradox, there is only one thing, not a thing and it’s negation.

Most the time paradoxes only shows us things that cannot exist.  However, if what caused the paradox was the negation of something, then we can have certainty in that thing: it’s negation cannot exist on pain of paradox.

Therefore, to provided a rock solid foundation for an argument, a paradox must be appealed to such that the paradox must have been generated from the negation of the thing to be used as a premise.

As far as I can tell, this is the only argument structure that yields absolutely certain results.  All other arguments styles are subject to questions about the truth of premises and the legitimacy of using those premises (even if true) for proving a particular conclusion.

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