Category Archives: philosophy

The Practical Ontologist

I’ve launched a new website called The Practical Ontologist. From its about page:

Every few hours a computer at a datacenter scans the web for new philosophical content. It then analyzes, processes, and formats the information. This creates an always updating website for easy perusal.

I built this site to highlight all the public philosophy that is posted every single day online and as a way for people to discover philosophically oriented websites. While there are already many excellent websites that post links to philosophical content, *The Practical Ontologist* is focused on staying fresh and not being a Balkanizing social network. It is the Google News of philosophy blogs.

Check it out and let me know what you think!

Posted in internet, news, philosophy.

winter/ spring 2016 calendar update


As per usual, lots of great philosophy talks. I’m still waiting on CUNY to update [updated Feb 1], which is unusual, since they are often first to publish their speaker list. Many departments and groups have been modernizing their websites, too, which is a step forward. Most are not quite there yet, and some departments, apparently, do not even control what goes on their webpage.

In this, the 9th(!) year of the NYC Philosophy Calendar, it seems that there has been greater professional interest in public philosophy: There has been talk about how to engage the public through the internet and new public philosophy awards. (Is the ivory tower starting to shake a little? Or just being dragged into the future?) I’d settle for a little more interdepartmental communication in terms of scheduling. We could have a mini-conference each week if we wanted to, and it could serve as a focus of outreach and community building.

Speaking of outreach — not that I’m actually an academic — traffic to the calendar has steadily risen over the last year. Manhattan has beaten out Brooklyn in calendar pageviews in the last few weeks, which is rare. I’ve even met people who found talks through my calendar. (No beer donations, sadly.) Also, for the first time ever, I rejected a request to be on the calendar: don’t write me a cloying email saying how insightful my blog has been in the last few months (when I hadn’t actually posted anything, and not that it has ever been insightful) and then ask to get your cult leader/ dvd seller/ pyramid scheme talk on the calendar.

One idea I had was to become a degree granting institution. That’s right, a NYC Philosophy Calendar Degree in philosophy!  I’ve been developing a way to register which talks you’ve been attending, and when you take enough talks, you get credit towards a degree. Enough credits equals a minor, then major, eventually all the way up to PhD. Yes, this will all be based off fake internet points, and you will have to self-report your attendence, but, hey, people love tracking progress and getting awards for it.

Have a great semester, all.

[image credit: Often gleefully NSFW.]


Posted in news, NYC, philosophy.

Things I Have Been Told by Professors of Philosophy

  1. People like you shouldn’t be philosophers.
  2. You’re not clever enough to have written this.
  3. You are a psychoneural freak.
  4. You’re a cheap drunk.
  5. You’re really weird. I’m weird, but you’re really weird. [added 10 Feb. 2016]

These are are direct quotes, with one professor being responsible for items 2 and 3.

Posted in philosophy.

The Tortoise and the HareLoon


Achilles glanced up from his writing atop the Tortoise[1] and exclaimed, “Look! The Hare has caught up.”

“No,” said the Tortoise apprehensively, “that isn’t the Hare, but the Hare’s all too clever cousin, the HareLoon.”

“A real HareLoon! I’ve only ever seen them in pictures.”

“Don’t get so worked up. She is always in a hurry but I can never tell if she is coming or going.”

“Ah, but you should know the HareLoon coming and the HareLoon going are one and the same,” said the HareLoon. She then faced Achilles, “I heard that Tortoise had you write many logical steps after starting with a mere three.”

With a wan smile Achilles murmured, “We’ve moved on from that now…”

“Yes” said the Tortoise firmly. “Have you heard of Moore’s Proof of the External World? It is just as short as the three lines of Euclid:

(A) Here is a Hand.
(B) Hands are external things.

(Z) The external world exists.

Achilles said, “We are now in agreement that Z follows logically from A and B. But…”

“But only if we accept A and B, does Z follow,” the Tortoise interjected. “However, I’m skeptical that hands are real at all.”

“Whatever do you mean?” asked the HareLoon, looking rather concerned for Achilles.

“Well, I might just be dreaming that there is a Hand in front of me. Or I could have eaten something disagreeable that is making me imagine things. Or someone is playing a trick on me.” The Tortoise continued, “I need a further statement to guarantee A:

(C) I am not being fooled into thinking a Hand is here.

Achilles cringed, palm to face.

“Fair enough, and I think I know where you are going with this,” said the HareLoon. “But before we worry about the External world, have you a proof of the Internal World?”

“What do you mean: Proof of the Internal World?” asked Achilles.

The HareLoon queried, “Let me ask you first: Would you know a HareLoon if you saw one? If so, please tell me how.”

In an official sounding voice the Tortoise recited: “The chief characteristic of a HareLoon is that it appears to be a Hare at some times, and appears to be a Loon at others.”

“Excellent,” replied the HareLoon. “Would you agree that the HareLoon does not itself change when it takes on these different guises? That is: the appearance of the Loon and the appearance of the Hare are in the thoughts of the beholder.”

“I suppose… The change is in the onlooker,” agreed the Tortoise.

“Then,” continued the HareLoon,

(A’) Here is a HareLoon.
(B’) HareLoons are internal things.

(Z’) The internal world exists.

“I distinctly remember Moore talking about hands and not HareLoons,” grumbled the Tortoise.

“Perhaps, but unlike hands you cannot be fooled into thinking HareLoons exist! We exist when, without change, we can appear to be a Hare or a Loon. Since we have agreed that this change is in your head, you can’t be mistaken about us switching in appearance between Hare or Loon. Hence when you think you see a HareLoon, you do see a HareLoon!

“Very Clever!” returned the Tortoise. “But what we want is the external — not internal — world. You’ve just argued yourself into my head and out of external existence. If you are only in my thoughts, it is a quick matter of logic to say that you aren’t anywhere eles.”

“Why Tortoise, that is the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me! To think, you’ve kept me in mind and maintained my existence, all these years. I should be flattered — or flattened, like you. I would take this paper thin existence (Cogito me papyrum esse, ergo sum)[2] but I don’t think I need to any longer.

“Answer me this: Who lives in this internal world? I’m here, and so are you! We have just agreed that I exist by you thinking, Cogito Ergo Es, and this is just the same as you existing by you thinking, Cogito Ergo Sum. So if I am a figment of your imagination, then so are you.”

“I am most certainly not a figment of my own imagination! You always were Loony, using Hairy reasoning.” said the indignant Tortoise.

“I don’t want to deny my existence any more than you yours, but if, as a quick matter of logic, you exclude others from existing, it loses its sense to say that you exist, either[3]. The only other thing that could have gone wrong is B’, that HareLoons are internal things. So we now have:

(A’) Here is a HareLoon.
(B’’) HareLoons are external things.

(Z) The external world exists.

Achilles shook his head, “You should have known, Tortoise… you can be in your house, but you’re still outside. If only your cousin were here, the Mock-Turtle would say: that while Achilles skill kills and the Tortoise disorders us (what tsuris!), the HareLoon’s Hume’s heir.”

[1] Carroll, Lewis. (1895) What the Tortoise Said to Achilles. Mind 4, No. 14: 278-280.

[2] Bouwsma, O. K. (1949). Descartes’ evil genius. Philosophical Review 58 (2):141-151.

[3] Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1953/2003). Philosophical Investigations: The German Text, with a Revised English Translation. Malden, Ma, Blackwell Pub.
Relevant section §398 quoted below.

Philosophical Investigations §398

(Bold Added)

“But when I imagine something, or even actually see objects, I have got something which my neighbour has not.” — I understand you. You want to look about you and say: “At any rate only I have got THIS.” — What are these words for? They serve no purpose. — Can one not add: “There is here no question of a ‘seeing’ — and therefore none of a ‘having’ — nor of a subject, nor therefore of T either”? Might I not ask: In what sense have you got what you are talking about and saying that only you have got it? Do you possess it? You do not even see it. Must you not really say that no one has got it? And this too is clear: if as a matter of logic you exclude other people’s having something, it loses its sense to say that you have it.

But what is the thing you are speaking of? It is true I said that I knew within myself what you meant. But that meant that I knew how one thinks to conceive this object, to see it, to make one’s looking and pointing mean it. I know how one stares ahead and looks about one in this case — and the rest. I think we can say: you are talking (if, for example, you are sitting in a room) of the ‘visual room’. The ‘visual room’ is the one that has no owner. I can as little own it as I can walk about it, or look at it, or point to it. Inasmuch as it cannot be any one else’s it is not mine either. In other words, it does not belong to me because I want to use the same form of expression about it as about the material room in which I sit. The description of the latter need not mention an owner, in fact it need not have any owner. But then the visual room cannot have any owner. “For” — one might say — “it has no master, outside or in.”

Think of a picture of a landscape, an imaginary landscape with a house in it. — Someone asks “Whose house is that?” — The answer, by the way, might be “It belongs to the farmer who is sitting on the bench in front of it”. But then he cannot for example enter his house.

You’ve tossed the grin out with the cat.

Posted in metaphysics, mind, philosophy.

Xmas post

Happy Holidays!

As is my Xmas tradition, I watched “Die Hard”. Surprisingly one of the characters reminded me of the current state of internet philosophy:

Posted in internet, news, philosophy. Tagged with .

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 , .

Guidelines for Submitting to Philosophy Journals

Based on recent reviewers’ reports, I’ve come up with some quick guidelines to reference when submitting to philosophy journals:

1. Do not make an argument in your paper. If you do, it will be ignored, and hence is a waste of everyone’s time. Do not fear, though: The reviewer will tell you what argument should have been written and how you failed to provide sufficient supporting justifications for that argument.

2. Building and supporting the results of previous sections is likewise ill-advised. By having the sections relate to each other it ensures that they will be incompatible with the argument the reviewer is looking for.

3. Distinctions are dangerous! By associating two concepts together you will introduce complexity to your paper. The reviewer cannot be expected to remember which concept you are discussing, no matter how clearly you state which you are talking about.

4. Providing new definitions of traditional concepts should be avoided. As the old, contradictory, definition is so much more familiar, any new definition will inherently be too obscure to have any utility.

Conclusion: Basically assume the paper will be reviewed on a Friday night after heavy drinking.

OK. Done venting.

Posted in philosophy.

On the defense of ‘Evolutionary and Newtonian Forces’

Dr. Ellen Clark, a.k.a. Philosomama, has written a good review of Velasco & Hitchcock’s Evolutionary and Newtonian Forces [no paywall], one of the first papers to appear in the new open access journal Ergo. She points out that although V&H are trying to show how evolutionary forces are well described by analogy to classical causal Newtonian forces, they very nearly prove their opponent’s — the statisticalist — position. However, she comes to their defense.

Briefly, the causalist position is that evolutionary forces are causal like the force of Newtonian gravity. Natural Selection is a causal force that acts on biological organisms. The statisticalist position claims evolutionary phenomena are just the statistical result of the underlying causal physical processes. Hence, for the statisticalist, evolutionary phenomena have no force of their own.

V&H want to argue that evolutionary forces are like friction or elasticity. Dr. Clark points out that these forces can be problematic for their view, as they too note:

As Velasco & Hitchcock acknowledge, friction and elasticity are usually thought of by physicists as emerging “from the aggregate statistical behaviour of more elementary forces in certain kinds of system.” … But this is grist to the statistical view’s mill, we might say. They argue that natural selection supervenes on more basic causal events, without adding any extra causal power of its own. So these critics might happily accept that evolutionary forces are analagous to non-fundamental Newtonian forces, whilst holding their ground on the claim that natural selection is not causal.

However, causalist vs. statistical isn’t what I would like to discuss here; see her review for more discussion. Instead I’d like to focus on her appeal to the unknown as a defense of V&H’s causalist position. She claims that it is OK to consider evolutionary forces causal, like Newtonian forces, because Newtonian forces are mysterious. Since Newtonian forces are mysterious, we shouldn’t privilege their causality and should grant that right to not well understood biological forces as well. She says:

If there is anything magical about thinking of natural selection as an overall force producing all the multifarious births and deaths that we actually observe, then it is in very good company lumped in with physical forces.

This is an example of my favorite fallacy, Ignotum Per Ignotius: explaining something unknown by appealing to something even less understood. Let me explain why this is really problematic for her defense and ultimately for V&H.

Imagine a statisticalist pointing to their analogies and explanations of evolutionary phenomena and saying, “Evolution isn’t mysterious at all, and we have a perfectly good statistical explanation right here. The only causality is in the underlying fundamental physics.” The evolutionary causalist is then in the uncomfortable luddite position of insisting, without reason, that we don’t understand evolution. Appealing to an analogy with physics that supports the causal position is question begging, if there is no deeper reason why this analogy holds other than it supports the claim that evolutionary phenomena are mysterious and hence causal. Therefore without some other reason to support the causal view of evolutionary phenomena, appealing to mysteriousness does not justify the causalist position.

Moreover, without a supporting causalist argument, V&H have done the statisticalist’s work for them. As noted above, they have gone and shown exactly how evolutionary phenomena are like statistical results of underlying forces.

Posted in biology, evolution, philosophy, physics. Tagged with , , , , .

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
(∀YS) (∃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
(∃zS) ~(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 , , .