As is my Xmas tradition, I watched “Die Hard”. Surprisingly one of the characters reminded me of the current state of internet philosophy:
As is my Xmas tradition, I watched “Die Hard”. Surprisingly one of the characters reminded me of the current state of internet philosophy:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here is a selection three reviewers’ comments from two well-ranked journals about a paper of mine:
- “Be that as it may, there really isn’t a recognizable philosophical project here that would merit consideration by [Misspelled Journal Name].”
- “I do not see how the author can improve the paper, since its motivation is ungrounded.”
- “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.
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.
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.
- Assume P. (premise)
- P holds under worldviews W. (Cynical Generalization)
Then, the cynic discredits those worldviews.
- Worldviews W are not the sort of views we want. (ethical, logical or other valuation)
- 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.