Saturday, September 05, 2009

Open Thread: critic's edition

As before:
Sometimes, when reading a blog, you may get the feeling that the blogger's posts are infused by a fundamentally misguided assumption. But such deep-rooted disagreements can't typically be raised within the scope of any particular post. So consider this open thread an invitation. Do you find yourself raising an eyebrow at some of my basic presuppositions? Any disagreements that run so deep you wouldn't even know where to start? Try here!

I'd especially like to invite readers to offer two kinds of criticism:
(i) Identification of inconsistencies or other mistakes which you think I should (perhaps after a bit of argument) be able to recognize as such.
(ii) Intractable disagreements -- where we just have radically different starting points, such that you doubt you could bring me to agree with you even after protracted argument.

The first kind would probably be more useful to me, but even the second could be interesting.

Oh, and it's an open thread, so you're also welcome to discuss anything else (philosophy or blog-related) you like.


  1. Hi Richard,

    I am SO happy to hear you request this. That sort of commitment to honest, as well as extraordinary intelligence and clarity of thought, are why I keep your blog on my RSS.

    Just for this, actually, I'd like to give you a free pass to the Singularity Summit (email me if interested), to use yourself or to offer to someone who you think should attend. If you haven't looked at it yet, here's the program.

    Anyway, I really hate to say it, but it seems to me that you have done progressively less real philosophy ever since starting graduate school. At this rate, by the time you graduate you will have ceased to do real philosophy at all. Then again, while I believe there to be a lot of genuinely important unanswered philosophical questions, I consider most of the analytical tradition to consist of wasting time on pseudo-problems and word games (while the Continentals are mostly just faking).

    It's my contention that someone who wants to be a real philosopher should study a great books curriculum or philosophy and math as an undergraduate (with a bit of economics), physics or theoretical computer science as a graduate student, and then pursue the broadest life experience available, maybe as a nominal journalist or artist, until they get past their physical peak when they can study literature and history and write down their novel insights. I imagine that something broadly along these lines is more or less what you would have done if you hadn't gotten carried away by the emotional charge associated with your correct criticisms of scientists and become to reluctant to recognize the corresponding flaws of academic philosophers, and of course, if you had been wealthy enough by birth not to worry much about security.

    I doubt that there's anything I can do personally to bring you back on track to the true faith of Plato and Aristotle, Marx, Freud and Darwin, Godel and Einstein, etc. You are smart and dedicated enough that you'll probably end up there regardless. I will try to hurry you on a bit though by asking you please to consider the following question regarding whatever questions you are asking.

    "If I was a teenager, and a friend of mind who I didn't believe to be smarter than myself was asking this question, would I be motivated to share their curiosity or would their work seem pointless, pretentious or pseudointellectual to me?"

  2. Hi Michael, I'd be interested to hear more about what you take "real philosophy" to be. (Do Plato, Darwin and Freud have much in common besides fame?) Could you illustrate with a couple of links to representative old posts of mine that you approve of, and contrasting recent posts that strike you as "less real" in the philosophical issues that they address?

    One change that springs to mind is that I probably write more highly-focused, "incremental" posts than I used to. So, rather than gesturing at the general cluster of views on some big issue that strike me as plausible, I'll more often address some small point from a single paper written on the issue. I can see why that might seem less exciting, but I think such incremental progress ultimately does more to advance the discipline.

    Your final question is a good one (cf. Dennett on chmess), with one major proviso. Often I become interested in a new philosophical question precisely because of how it relates to prior questions of interest. And then the process iterates, to reveal even more philosophically interesting questions. It's worth noting that one's earlier self might have lacked interest in a question simply because they didn't yet have the background to understand it or its significance. So the question is not whether one's past self would immediately share one's present curiosity, but rather whether they could be brought to share it through a series of steps that ultimately traces back to their naive philosophical interests (which include rationality and normativity, in my case).

    Of course, you might object that anyone would trivially pass this test, since there's always some series of steps that connects one's teenage self to their present self! But I take it that what we want to rule out is the kind of "habituated interest" that Dennett describes -- i.e. acquired entirely through non-rational (esp. social) processes rather than because of any kind of rational link between one's (even implicit) prior interests and the subsequently addressed question.

  3. I think of real philosophy as being, basically, driven by curiosity about how the world could be. Freud, BTW, seems to me to be almost a popularizer of Plato translated into German and into a 19th century mode of thought. Darwin, like Plato, was largely exploring the idea of essences and whether they are a necessary part of any adequate account of the observed world.

    Agreed about the need for time to communicate the intermediate concepts. Inferential distances are frequently large. All that is forbidden in the hypothetical is the appeal to authority, e.g. at no step can you say that such and such a question is important because certain eminent philosophers think or say that it is.

    I don't think my complaint relates to incremental vs. general posts. More likely, it relates to a move from critiquing the sort of mistakes a person might make implicitly by relying an incoherent world-view to critiquing the sorts of mistakes that only philosophers might make. You also seem to have become much more prone to me to create false dichotomies, e.g. to assert logical possibilities that might with fairly high probability be seen not to be logically possible if the concepts being used were understood more clearly.

  4. Richard, this is regarding reasons to act. As far as I can tell, you are of the view that the sets of reasons our idealised selves would act from is a maximally coherent set of reasons. What is your view as to the requirement that such reasons also be universalisable.

    My argument for such would be along the lines of the following.

    P1. Reasons for acting are such that an idealised agent would be aware of them and act on them.

    P2. From P1, any and all idealised agents could possibly act on such reasons

    P3. A society of idealised agents is conceivable

    P4. From P3, such a society is logically possible (even and especially (from P2) when all agents are acting on those reasons)

    C: From P4, Genuine reasons to act should be such that all agents in this idealised society could respond to them. i.e. such reasons should be universalisable.

    The conclusion looks a lot like Kant's first formulation of the categorical imperative.

    A more detailed post is on its way up soon on my own Blog (which you can choose to visit and comment at.)

  5. Hi Murali, I'm not sure I understand the question. There's an innocuous sense in which reasons are such that anyone could respond to them. (Even egoists could define the content of a universal reason in agent-relative terms, i.e. claiming that everyone has reason to do what would promote 'their own interests'.) If you mean something stronger -- something that would actually rule out some non-Kantian views -- then you'll have to clarify just what you have in mind. (An example might help.)

  6. Even egoists could define the content of a universal reason in agent-relative terms, i.e. claiming that everyone has reason to do what would promote 'their own interests'.) If you mean something stronger -- something that would actually rule out some non-Kantian views -- then you'll have to clarify just what you have in mind. (An example might help.)

    Let's try egoism for a start. The egoist's maxim is "do what is in your own self interest" (even if it involves sacrificing the interests of other agents)

    Under universalising conditions, that would contradict the egoists ends (which are to promote his own self interest) as there would be many other agents who would sacrifice his interests of theirs. i.e. each agent in the ideal polity would have difficulty satisfying their own ends.

    Therefore, the egoist has to modify his maxim to "do what is in your own self interest, but only so far as it allows others to pursue their own interests similarly" i.e in addition to a duty to himself, the egoist has also added a duty of non-maleficence to his list. But once he has done that, he has ceased to be an egoist.

    The CI, I think, is not so strong as to yield things like never lie, or never kill (like Kant envisioned), but may yield something like the weaker Rossian prima facie duties (which include things like promoting people's well-being etc, duties of fidelity, gratitude etc).
    deontological intuitions (as well as our consequentialist ones) can be explained adequately by reference to the categorical imperative. I believe that you see our deontological inclinations as springing from the decision procedures we commonly use to promote the good. (but I'm not very comfortable with that)

    Also, the CI is a good way to take down value monism. Consider hedonism. Hedonistic act utilitarianism cannot be true because attempting to universalise it results in some agents sacrificing all of their pleasure for the greater good. (Which would necessarily contradict their own end of pursuing pleasure (which is not strictly part of the universalising aspect, but more part of the internal coherency aspect) i.e. willing that HAU be universal law also involves willing that your own pleasure be utterly sacrificeable, which contradicts willing that pleasure accrue to you (This follows I think from what it means for something to be valuable qua welfare) Therefore hedonism is false. I believe that this argument could be repeated with other types of monism (e.g. liberty monism etc) This shows that value monism is false. Value pluralism could be true, or it could be value pluralism plus other duties, or it could be that different types of value are true. i.e. value attatches to things like pleasure, life and happiness as well as to objects like persons, relationships, and the environment.

    (My argument may have to be refined, but I think that you could actually run with this.)

    If you notice, the CI doesnt actually provide the reason why an egoist should embrace non maleficence or why we should abandon value monism, only that we should. (the CI seems to give a criterion of the fittingness of reasons, not the reasons themselves) But we can actually bootstrap these reasons in, in order to comply with the CI.

    Plus, you dont actually have to bite the bullet for things like the survival lottery. We can just claim that there is something incomplete about the argument. Not all reasons have been taken into account yet.

  7. Murali - distinguish (1) reasons "such that all agents in this idealised society could respond to them", and (2) reasons such that the agent would like everyone to respond to them. These are clearly different. Your original argument only supports the first, weak sense of 'universal' reasons that is compatible even with egoism. (After all, it seems at least prima facie conceivable that different agents could have different maximally coherent desire sets, each centered on themselves.) In your second commend, you seem to have changed to discussing the stronger notion (#2) of universal prescriptions.

    Of course, as a utilitarian I'm on board with universalizability in both senses.

    P.S. Your argument against value monism makes no sense. The hedonistic utilitarian wants to promote the general happiness, not just his own happiness in particular. So it's no contradiction at all to allow the sacrificing of one person's happiness for the sake of yielding more happiness for others.

    But I'll leave it at that for now; you can develop the argument further on your own blog if you wish.

  8. my latest post is out. Does this clear things up? or just confuse them.


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.