Tag Archives: philosophy

Practical Ontologist 2.0

I’ve made a major update to my site, The Practical Ontologist. Check it out and let me know what you think.

Major site updates:

  • Topical Subsections: Metaphysics, Professional, Science, Traditions, Value, & Fun.

Incoming posts are classified via Naive Bayes Machine Learning. The categories, save Fun and Professional, are roughly modeled on [PhilPapers’ classifications](https://philpapers.org/browse/all). Fun is a stream of philosophical memes, mainly from Tumblr. Professional contains news about the profession and other meta-philosophical content.

  • RSS feeds for each subpage.
  • Now scanning over 200 text and media feeds.
  • Timestamps show the freshest content.
  • Screencaptures of the different blogs promote site recognition.
  • A “Top Blogs” section on the subpages listing blogs commonly posting content in that area.
Posted in internet, news, philosophy. Tagged with , , .

Punny Logic

Update 12 Feb: This post had been expanded upon and, after submission, accepted for publication in Analysis published by Oxford University Press. View the final version here.


It is hard to explain puns to kleptomaniacs because they take things literally.

On the surface, this statement is a statement of logic, with a premise and conclusion.

Given the premise:

Kleptomaniacs take things literally.

We may deduce the conclusion:

It is hard to explain puns to kleptomaniacs.

Now, whether the conclusion strictly follows from the premise is beside the point: it is a pun, and meant to be funny. However, as a pun, it still has to make some logical sense. If it didn’t make any sense, it wouldn’t, and couldn’t, be funny either. While nonsense can be amusing, it isn’t punny.

What is the sense in which the conclusion logically follows from the premise then, and how does this relate to the pun?

Puns play off ambiguity in the meaning of a word or phrase. In this case the ambiguity has to do with the meaning of to take things literally. It can mean to steal, or it can mean to only use the simplest, most common definitions of terms.

In the first meaning, by definition, kleptomaniacs steal, i.e. they literally take things.

So then “take things literally” is true.

In the second meaning, by deduction, since puns play off multiple meanings of things, it is hard to explain a pun to someone who only uses the single, most common definition of a term. That is, if they take things literally, they won’t recognize the multiple meanings required to understand a pun.

So if someone “takes things literally” it is true that it is hard to explain puns to them.

Therefore, between the two meanings, we can informally derive the statement: it is hard to explain puns to kleptomaniacs because they take things literally.

However, if we wanted to write this out in a formal logical language, then we would need a formal way to represent the two meanings of the single phrase.

Classically, there is no way to give a proposition multiple meanings. Whatever a proposition is defined as, it stays that way. A can’t be defined as B and then not defined as B: (A=B & A≠B) is a contradiction and to be avoided classically. But let’s start with a classical formulation:


TTL1 mean to Take Things Literally, in the 1st sense: to steal

TTL2 mean to Take Things Literally, in the 2nd sense: to use the most common definitions of terms.


  1. ∀x [ Kx → TTL1x ]
    For anyone who is a Kleptomaniac, Then they take things literally (steal)
  2. ∀y[ TTL2y → Py ]
    For anyone who takes things literally (definitionally), Then it is hard to explain puns to them

What we want, however, is closer to:

  1. ∀z [[ Kz → TTLz] → Pz ]
    For anyone who is a Kleptomaniac, Then they take things literally, Then it is hard to explain puns to them

with only one sense of TTL, but two meanings.

Since TTL1 ≠ TTL2, we can’t derive (3) from (1) and (2), as is. And if TTL1 = TTL2, then we would have (1) A→B, and (2) B→C, while trying to prove (3) A→B→C, which logically follows. However, there would no longer be a pun if there was only one meaning of TTL.

What is needed is to be able to recompose our understanding of ‘to take things literally’ in a situation aware way. We need to be able to have the right meaning of TTL apply at the right time, specifically Meaning 1 in the first part, and the Meaning 2 in the latter.

Intuitively, we want something like this, with the scope corresponding to the situation:

  1. ∀z [ Kz → { TTLz ]1 → Pz }2

In this formula, let the square brackets [] have the first meaning of TTL apply, while the curly braces {} use the second meaning. Only the middle — TTL — does double duty with both meanings.

Achieving this customized scope can be done by using Independence Friendly logic. IF logic allows for fine-grained scope allocation.

So let:

S mean to steal.

D mean to take things definitionally.


  1. ∀x ∀y ∃u/∀x ∃v/∀y [ Kx → ( x=u & y=v & Su & Dv → TTLvu ) → Py ]
    If anyone is a kleptomaniac then there is someone who is identical to them who steals… and if there is someone who takes things definitionally then there is someone identical to them for whom it is hard to explain puns to… and the person who steals and the person who takes things definitionally then both Take Things Literally.

The scope gymnastics are being performed by the slash operators at the start and the equality symbols in the middle part of the equation. What they are doing is specifying the correct meanings — the correct dependencies — to go with the correct senses: Stealing pairs with Kleptomania and taking things Definitionally pairs with being bad at Puns, while both pairs also meaning Taking Things Literally. With both pairs meaning TTL, and each pair being composed independently, Equation (5) therefore provides a formalization of the original pun.


Finding new applications for existing logical systems provides a foundation for further research. As we expand the range of topics subject to logical analysis, cross-pollination between these subjects becomes possible.

For instance, using custom dependencies to associate multiple meanings to a single term is not only useful in describing puns. Scientific entities are often the subjects of competing hypotheses. The different hypotheses give different meanings — different properties, relations and dependencies — to the scientific objects under study. Logically parsing how the different hypotheses explain the world using the same terms can help us analyze the contradictions and incommeasureabilities between theories.

On the other hand, while this article may have forever ruined the above pun for you (and me), it does potentially give insight into what humans find funny. Classically, risibility, having the ability to laugh, has been associated with humans and rationality. Analyzing this philosophical tradition with the new logical techniques will hopefully provide existential insight into the human condition.

Posted in independence friendly logic, logic. Tagged with , , , .

xkcd on the Trolley Problem


Posted in internet. 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 , .

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 , .

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 , , .

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 , .

An Introduction to the Game Theoretic Semantics view of Scientific Theory

What is a scientific theory?  In an abstract sense, a scientific theory is a group of statements about the world.  For instance the Special Theory of Relativity has, “The speed of light in a vacuum is invariant,” as a core statement, among others, about the world.  This statement is scientific because, in part, it is meant to hold in a ‘law-like’ fashion: it holds across time, space and observer.

The Popperian view is that we have scientific theories and we test those theories with experiments.  This means that given a scientific theory, a set of scientific statements about phenomena, we can deductively generate predictions.  These predictions are further statements about the world.  If our experiments yield results that run counter to what the theory predicts — the experiments generate statements that contradict the predictions, the theory did not hold across time, space or observer — then the theory eventually becomes falsified.  Else the theory may be considered ‘true’ (or at least not falsified) and it lives to fight another day.

The game theoretic semantics (GTS) view is that truth is the existence of a winning strategy in a game.  In terms of the philosophy of science, this means that our theories are strategic games (of imperfect information) played between ourselves and Nature.  Each statement of a theory is a description of a certain way the world is, or could be.  An experiment is a certain set of moves — a strategy for setting up the world in a certain way — that yields predicted situations according to the statements of the theory.  If our theory is true and an experiment is run, then this means that there is no way for Nature to do anything other than yield the predicted situation.  Said slightly differently: truth of a scientific theory is knowing a guaranteed strategy for obtaining a predicted Natural outcome by performing experiments.  If the strategy is executed and the predicted situations do not obtain, then this means that Nature has found a way around our theory, our strategy.  Hence there is no guaranteed strategy for obtaining those predictions and the theory is not true.

An example:

Take Galileo’s famous experiment of dropping masses off the Tower of Pisa.  Galileo’s theory was that objects of different mass fall at equal rates, opposing the older Aristotelian view that objects of greater mass fall faster.

According to the Popperian view Galileo inferred from his theory that if he dropped the two balls of different mass off the tower at the same time, they would hit the ground at the same time.  When he executed the experiment, the balls did hit the ground at the same time, falsifying the Aristotelian theory and lending support to his theory.

The GTS view is that dropping balls of unequal mass off a tower is a strategic game setup.  This experimental game setup is an instance of a strategy to force Nature to act in a certain way, namely to have the masses hit at the same time or not.  According to Galilean theory, when we are playing this game with Nature, Nature has no choice other than to force the two masses to hit the ground at the same time.  According to Aristotelian theory, when playing this game, Nature will force the more massive ball to hit the ground first.  History has shown that every time this game is played, the two masses hit the ground at the same time.  This means that there is a strategy to force Nature to act in the same way every time, that there is a ‘winning strategy’ for obtaining this outcome in this game with Nature.  Hence the Galilean theory is true: it got a win over the Aristotelian theory.

Why you might want to consider doing things the GTS way:

GTS handles scientific practice in a relatively straightforward way.  Theories compete against Nature for results and against each other for explanatory power.  Everything is handled by the same underlying logic-game structure.

GTS is a powerful system.  It has application to  game theory, computer science, decision theory, communication and more.

If you are sympathetic to a Wittgensteinian language game view of the world, GTS is in the language game tradition.

More on GTS:


Posted in game theory, logic, philosophy, science. Tagged with , , , , .

Risky Kakanomics

Gloria Origgi writes:

This is an application of the theory of kakonomics, that is, the study of the rational preferences for lower-quality or mediocre outcomes, to the apparently weird results of Italian elections. The apparent irrationality of 30% of the electorate who decided to vote for Berlusconi again is explained as a perfectly rational strategy of maintaining a system of mediocre exchanges in which politicians don’t do what they have promised to do and citizens don’t pay the taxes and everybody is satisfied by the exchange. A mediocre government makes easier for mediocre citizens to do less than what they should do without feeling any breach of trust.

She argues that if you elect a crappy politician, then there is little chance of progress, which seems like a bad thing. People do this, though, because maintaining low political standards allows people to have low civic standards: if the politicians are corrupt, there is no reason to pay taxes. Likewise, the politicians who have been elected on the basis of being bad leaders have no incentive to go after tax cheats, the people who put them in office. Hence there is often a self-serving and self-maintaining aspect to making less than optimal decisions: by mutually selecting for low expectations, then everyone cooperates in forgiving bad behavior.

This account assumes that bad behavior of some sort is to be expected. If someone all of a sudden starts doing the ‘right thing’ it will be a breach of trust and violating the social norm. There would be a disincentive to repeat such a transaction again, because it challenges the stability of the assumed low quality interaction and implied forgiveness associated with it.

I like Origgi’s account of kakonomics, but I think there is something missing. The claim that localized ‘good interactions’ could threaten the status quo of bad behavior seems excessive. Criticizing someone who makes everyone else look bad does happen, but this only goes to show that the ‘right’ way of doing things is highly successful. It is the exception that proves the rule: only the people in power — those that can afford to misbehave — really benefit from maintaining the low status quo. Hence the public in general should not be as accepting of a low status quo as a social norm, though I am sure some do for exactly the reasons she stated.

This got me thinking that maybe there was another force at work here that would support a low status quo. When changing from one regime to another, it is not a simple switch from one set of outcomes to the other. There can be transitional instability, especially when dealing with governments, politics, economics, military, etc. If the transition between regimes is highly unstable (more so if things weren’t that stable to begin with) then there would be a disincentive to change: people won’t want to lose what they have, even if it is not optimal. Therefore risk associated with change can cause hyperbolic discounting of future returns, and make people prefer the status quo.

Adding high risk with the benefits of low standards could make a formidable combination. If there is a robust black market that pervades most of the society and an almost certain civil unrest given political change (throw in a heavy-handed police force, just for good measure), this could be strong incentive to not challenge an incumbent government.

Posted in economics, game theory, mind, philosophy. Tagged with , , , .