Sunday, February 23, 2014

Caption Contest

As always, place your entries in the comment thread below. (As always, the only prizes around here are fleeting fame and the admiration of regular readers.) 

Caption contest image - in honour of David Bullard

Background: This week’s contest is in honour of David Bullard, who took to Twitter in early February to accuse Michelle Solomon of fabricating the account of her rape. It’s hard to believe that anybody would sink so low. But if you missed the ruckus and don't believe me, here’s the Tweet:

David Bullard makes a call to "face facts"

(Bullard starts, as you can see, with a call to “face facts”. When challenged later -- also on Twitter -- about how he could possibly know what he implied, he said that he didn’t “claim to know any facts”. We leave the task of working out whether or not Harry Frankfurt's analysis of bullshit applies in this case, or whether this falls into some other category, to the reader.)

Some related links:

No thanks, rape NGO tells Bullard.
Bullard slammed over rape talk tweet.
Bullard criticised for tweets over rape.
David Bullard provokes outrage over offensive rape tweets.

A T-Shirt design that I never got around to having made up.

Actually, there are a fair number of these. Fooling around with graphics software is a minor therapy for me, along the lines of working on a bonsai tree, except that the images don't die if ignored for months or years on end.

Daddy, what did YOU do in the war on Drugs?

Friday, January 3, 2014

New blog on Philosophy and Sport

So, my mate Dave's mate David (Papineau) has started a blog about philosophy and sport. He's written some papers recently on topics related to sport, including In the Zone (link to PDF), and Choking and the Yips (link to .Docx). The opening salvo of the blog is also about choking and the yips. You can find the blog here: More Important Than That.

(The name of the blog is evidently a reference to this remark by Bill Shankly: "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that".)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Local professor’s coffee mug washed

Emotional crowds lined the corridor of an academic department today to celebrate the once-a-semester coffee mug washing by a member of the academic staff. After the varnish-like residue coagulated at the bottom of the mug had been scrubbed off, the mug was carried back to the professor’s office atop a velvet cushion. The gathered celebrants added to the festive atmosphere by throwing plagiarised undergraduate assignments into the air, and mumbling such words as they could recall from "Guadeamus Igatur."

The un-named professor responded to enquiries by confirming his intention to wash the mug again at the end of the next semester, "whether it needs it or not."

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Postmodernists, relativists, to save the world

We hear a lot about the big challenges we’re up against. There are now over seven billion people on earth. Cheaply extractable fuel is running out. The effects of burning all that carbon-based fuel are transforming the climate, which will compromise agricultural production just when our need for food at its greatest. Other vital materials are becoming scarce. Our own medical science is helping to cultivate pathogens resistant to our most powerful drugs. We have our work cut out.

Or do we?

What if these so-called ‘challenges’ were no more than one way of looking at the world. What if science was just ‘one kind of knowledge’ along with others, and the others were equally valid? In that case, maybe everything would be just fine.

The great postmodern hope

It is not clear that any of the millions of ways of describing this
picture of a bit of space-time occupied by what we call a Richard
Rorty is closer to the way things are in and of themselves than
any of the others.
Postmodernists, social constructivists and relativists have been saying, for some time, that there are no facts independent of human construction.

So, there aren’t really giraffes, independent of our deciding to talk about the world in a certain way. That, at least, is Richard Rorty’s view:

More generally, it is not clear that any of the millions of ways of describing the bit of space time occupied by what we call a giraffe is closer to the way things are in and of themselves than any of the others.” (Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope (New York: Penguin, 1999), p. xxvi.)

This doesn’t just apply to giraffes. According to constructivists, it holds pretty generally. Here’s Nelson Goodman:

Now as we thus make constellations by picking out and putting together certain stars rather than others, so we make stars by drawing certain boundaries rather than others. Nothing dictates whether the skies shall be marked off into constellations or other objects. We have to make what we find, be it the Great Dipper, Sirius, food, fuel, or a stereo system.” (Nelson Goodman, ‘‘Notes on the Well-Made World,’’ in Starmaking: Realism, Anti-Realism, and Irrealism, ed. Peter McCormick (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1996), p. 156.)

Forget giraffes, and constellations, though. Here’s a much more policy relevant example. We might say that the tuberculosis bacillus was ‘discovered’ by Koch, in 1882. But that’s a very objectivist way of thinking about it. That is, it presumes that there are some objective facts of the matter no matter what we think, or even whether we think about them.

If you think that this image in
any way encodes what were once
a set of mind-independent
facts about the world standing
in any orderly relationship
with the individual
conventionally called ‘Bruno
Latour’ you’re probably so
gullible that you think
the Sun is objectively
larger than the Earth.
A constructivist might say, instead, that the tuberculosis bacillus was invented, or created in 1882. In that case the claim that Ramses II (who died about 3000 years earlier) probably died from tuberculosis couldn’t be true. I’m not making this up. This, in fact, is precisely what constructivist Bruno Latour has said:

‘‘Before Koch, the bacillus had no real existence.’’ [Reference 1] Bruno Latour, ‘‘Ramses II est-il mort de la tuberculose?’’ La Recherche, 307 (March, 1998), 84–85. Quoted in Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science (New York: Picador Press, 1998), 96–7.

So, we might say: disease, schmisease! If we constructed the facts about disease, we can just un-construct them, and construct some much more fun facts where we don’t get sick or injured.

After all, if we construct the world, let’s make it be the way we want it to be.

Instead of spending loads of money trying to work out how to combat infections that we constructed ourselves, let’s just not construct them in the first place!

Frankly, too many of the facts constructed so far are downright pretty gloomy and depressing. But if the postmodernists are right, then there’s no reason why the Malthusians should be writing the main storyline.

So here’s the postmodern world-saving plan:
  • Let’s just construct the fact that humans are immune to disease!
  • Or, maybe, we could construct the fact that no diseases exist!

Postmodernists agree that they’ll need a good few coffee breaks to decide which of the above two plans is the best. But either way, as far as disease goes, we’re sorted.

Whatever the details, the idea is that we can construct ourselves (us seven billion or so people) a much happier set of facts to live with.

So, once disease is unconstructed, or reconstructed, we can move on to energy and climate. Remember Goodman – “We have to make what we find, be it the Great Dipper, Sirius, food, fuel, or a stereo system.” Fuel! Think about it! Why, oh why, did we ever construct the fact that there wasn't lots more fuel (not to mention constructing the fact that so much of the little there 'is' happens to be under ground controlled by misogynistic anti-democratic creeps...) Here's the plan:
  • Maybe we should construct the fact that there’s all the cheap fossil fuel we need, and construct the fact that there’s no such things as climate change.
  • Or, we could construct the fact that there’s lots of cheap fuel, and that burning loads of fossil fuel will prevent climate change!

Either way: Sorted.

Population, schmopulation

Gaze in awe into the two,
or three, (or four, or thirteen)
eyes of Hilary Putnam.
Anyway, constructivists say that there’s not even an objective fact about how many people there are. This ‘seven billion’ talk is simply how it looks given one discourse about the world. Hilary Putnam makes this point in his 1990 Realism with a Human Face (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press). Putnam asks his reader to contemplate a toy universe consisting of three individuals (call them I1, I2, and I3). Then we can ask how many objects this universe contains:

Suppose . . . like some Polish logicians, I believe that for every two particulars there is an object which is their sum . . . . [then] I will find that the world of ‘‘three individuals’’ . . . actually contains seven objects.” (Hilary Putnam, Realism with a Human Face (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990), p. 96.)

So, there’s no objective fact about how many objects (including objects of some specific kind) there are. There are only facts relative to some chosen scheme. Now, if we went ‘Polish’ on the human population, we’d end up with vastly more than seven billion. But there’s no need to go there. It’s totally up to us.

This is why a key plank of the postmodern world-saving plan is to adopt a policy where the number turns out to be much less than seven billion.

Postmodernists haven’t yet worked out the details.  One option on the table is that we’ll only count relatively affluent people who can afford the luxury of relativist speculation. Another idea is that we’ll adopt a simpler counting scheme that goes “one, two, three, four, MANY”.

Either way: Sorted.

An un-named senior representative of the S.E.C. has
poured water on the postmodern proposal. “We’ve got
rules against trying to construct facts. If you break some of them
you can go to jail. Seriously. Ask Bernie Madoff.”


Several of the examples of constructivist views here can be found – along with careful arguments against them – in Paul Boghossian’s terrific 2006 book Fear of Knowledge (Oxford: Clarendon Press.)

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Common Currencies

My mate Dave has a new blog. It's called Common Currencies. Maybe it will be more active than this one has been for a while.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Hipster scientists postulate existence of ‘ironic matter’

Senior hipsters have announced that they believe it likely that the universe is filled with massive quantities of ‘ironic matter’ on the analogy of the ‘dark matter’ hypothesized by physicists.

Dark matter has not yet been directly observed, because it neither emits nor absorbs light. That’s why it’s called ‘dark’ matter. The behavior and distribution of objects that can be observed points to large and unexplained gravitational forces acting on what we can see. As that gurning science pin-up Brain Cocks puts it:

“If we only refer to the matter that we can see, then we just have no idea why that matter is carrying on the way it is. It’s fucking weird is what it is. So, we have a choice. We can accept that the universe is very weird, or we can propose that it only seems weird because there is some very weird and difficult to detect stuff in it, and that we physicists could find this stuff if we got handed trillions and trillions of dollars to build insane toys. And it’s not just the expensive toys. We need money to fly around getting hammered at conferences, and money for a tiny number of female post-docs who we cluster around like vultures near the bloated rotting remains of a bull hippo that’s been dead for five-days. Obviously we thought about it really carefully. Can we have our money now?”

Figure 1: Physicists say that the large-scale distribution
of observable matter makes no fucking sense at all, unless
there is a whole lot of dark matter distributed in blobs
like those in this image nicked from Wikipedia. They also
say ‘we need more money’.
In a little more detail, the speculation favored by the physicists is that there are very large quantities of this dark matter in the universe, engaging only in gravitational interaction, and perhaps the ‘weak’ force, but not electromagnetically. A leading hypothesis in the field is that dark matter consists largely of ‘Weakly Interacting Massive Particles’, or WIMPs. If this hypothesis is correct, then substantial numbers of WIMPS must pass through every part of the earth almost every second. A number of (very expensive) experiments to test this hypothesis are underway, but WIMPS of the required sort have yet to be observed.

It is also well known that hipsters neither emit nor absorb anything genuinely useful. Indeed do not spontaneously interact with anything recognized as interesting or entertaining by the vast majority of people. Even so, the observed behavior of hipsters demands an explanation, just like the observed behavior of galaxies. Why the fatuous obsessions with retro hats, poorly functioning energy inefficient and sometimes unsafe, albeit visibly non-contemporary vehicles, unsuccessful bands and movies without plots? Why devote so much effort to sourcing and wearing T-shirts with badly rendered logos of defunct products and quotations from movies nobody ever watched? Why, when the world is so exciting and scary, pay so little coherent attention to things that matter to everyone else, and work so hard to cultivate a disposition of bored indifference?

Figure 2: This also makes no fucking
sense. None. At all. Holy living fuck.
Picture taken from here
‘Ironic matter’, the hipster scientists argue, would answer all of these questions. The brainwave came while a hipster affected complete indifference to a room-mate’s explanation of his ‘horrifyingly mainstream’ physics PhD. As the resolutely unsmiling hipster put it, “the physics problem was that the ‘dark matter’ theory said there should be loads of WIMPs, but the WIMPs had not been observed. And then it hit me. If you look at hipsters, it’s clear that there are loads and loads of observable wimps. But the mainstream just can’t ‘get’ our interests and priorities.’ Later, while listening to a bootleg cassette of some staggeringly obscure Amish ‘shun core’, his thinking went a little further:

“The physics guys could explain what visible matter does if they could detect the WIMPs. And the mainstream can detect the hipster wimps, it just can’t explain them. But what if there is a whole lot of invisible ironic matter, which only hipsters respond to and interact with?”

The analogy with physics and hipsters breaks down about here. Mainstream, and dorky, physicists work very hard to figure out how to detect dark matter if it does exist, and spend a lot of time trying to secure massive funding for massive experimental tools to conduct the tests. (And getting hammered at conferences, etc.) Hipsters say that even if ironic matter could be observed, the mainstream just wouldn’t understand it. Some Hipsters speculate that that the act very of observing ironic matter would bring it into the mainstream and thereby eliminate its ironic properties. And nothing would more clearly establish that ironic matter was no longer performing its function than a massive research grant. As one hipster “all that funding shows that physics is the opposite of hip.  They should call what they’re looking for ‘dork matter’.”