Friday, March 30, 2012

What do you get

when you cross a science fiction story with a nursery rhyme, a moral quandary, and a smidgen of religion?

A Hugo award nomination.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Quote of the Day

Now the question is, does this counter-argument of O'Hear's determinist enable him to escape Popper's charge that asserting physical determinism to be true is self-defeating? Surely not. For let us suppose that there are three people, A, B and C, who are 'determined in such a way that they accept only those positions which are reasonably argued' and that the rest of us, D . . . N, are not such people. Now, could D pick out A, say, as belonging to the former group? Could D be sure that A accepted only those positions which are reasonably argued? Evidently not, for in order to be sure of this he would have to be able to check to see whether the positions A accepts are reasonably argued. But by hypothesis he cannot do this. And he could not do this for B and C either. Hence A, B, and C's acceptance of certain positions, even of only those that are reasonably argued, would be of no use as a guide to truth or reasonableness for D . . . N. But more importantly, could A, B, and C themselves be sure that they were among the favoured few? No, for even though they might accept only those positions which are reasonably argued, they would accept them not because of their perception of the reasonableness of the arguments on which they were based, but because of various physical causes. In other words, they could no more check to see whether their positions were reasonably argued than could any of D . . . N. And as for D . . . N themselves, they might be determined to accept positions for which no reasonable arguments could be provided -- including the position that the positions which A, B, and C accept are not reasonably argued! -- while yet being determined to believe the contrary. Thus on O'Hear's suggestion no one could ever tell whether any position anybody accepted was reasonably argued; and, in particular, no one could tell whether physical determinism was reasonably argued and, further, whether it was true.

But there is a further problem. The suggestion we are considering is that some people might be determined in such a way that they accepted only those positions 'which are reasonably argued'. Does this imply that there is some being who reasonably argues for certain positions, and that the people referred to accept only those positions? But who could that being be? If it itself is a being that is determined to accept only positions 'which are reasonably argued', then we get involved in an infinite regress. If it is actually capable of apprehending the reasonableness of arguments, and accepts certain positions for that reason, then evidently it is not determined in the same way as is envisaged by the physical determinist: it is not one of those people who are determined by physical causes to accept only those positions which are reasonably argued. At any rate, O'Hear is suggesting that even given the truth of physical determinism, it is still possible to decide that there are certain positions that are 'reasonably argued' but he leaves unanswered the question who is in a position to decide this. (One suspects that O'Hear is imaginatively viewing a closed determinist physical system from the outside and himself as the being who is capable of deciding which positions held in that system are reasonably argued. But of course if such a relationship vis-à-vis a closed determinist physical system actually obtained, then universal physical determinism would not be true.)

Peter Glassen
"O'Hear on an Argument of Popper's"
The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 35 (1984): 375-77

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Veterans on Campus

Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit) recently linked to an interesting post by Walter Russell Mead (Via Meadia) on the low number of veterans as students at ivy league schools. Specifically, Mead points out that Princeton has just four -- 4 -- veterans out of an 8,000 strong student body. I emailed Reynolds and Mead and asked them if they had any sense in their experience in academia regarding veterans as professors, since I am a veteran of the Marine Corps and am just finishing up my PhD in philosophy and am trying to find employment, but am also aware that some quarters of the academic world see the military as an unmitigated evil and would not look kindly towards hiring someone who has been in the military and is not ashamed of it. Understandably, both men are simply too busy to respond to every such request. So if there is anyone in the academic world who reads this blog, please feel free to leave a comment or email me. In fact, Mead links to an essay written by Princeton professor Uwe Reinhardt who has a son in the Marines and imagines the benefits that veterans could contribute to academic life:

Imagine what can be contributed by someone with notions of honor, solidarity and selfless service rarely encountered in the civilian world.

Imagine what insight might be had from someone who has had to work with people of a foreign culture, often under trying conditions.

And imagine what distinct moral perspectives could be offered in a seminar on ethics, on the University’s discipline committee or in a dean’s office by someone who may have had to make profoundly troublesome ethical choices under fire, in split seconds.

So since Reynolds and Mead were too busy, perhaps Reinhardt, the father of a Marine, might be able to respond to a former Marine with a few questions about veterans in academia.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Now it's getting interesting...

Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, thinks that in about ten years he can offer round-trip tickets to Mars for about $500,000. I've already committed my first million dollars to be spent on books, but my second million will be a second honeymoon to the red planet. Now I just have to convince my wife.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

What I'm Reading

For anyone paying attention, I've just re-added the Goodreads widget to my sidebar that shows what books I'm currently reading. I'm still writing my dissertation, but I really am in the final throes at this point, so I'm able to take my focus off of individual journal articles and book chapters. In fact, one of the two books has absolutely nothing to do with philosophy: Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free by F. F. Bruce. I may not be able to really get into it until I actually turn in my dissertation, but I read a few pages every few days. The other book is Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism by Alvin Plantinga, which my library just got in last week. This is his most recent book where he argues that there is superficial conflict between Christianity and science and superficial concord between naturalism and science; but there is deep-seated concord between Christianity and science and deep-seated conflict between naturalism and science. Not that he's trying to be controversial or anything.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Some of my favorite movie scenes

Every now and then I post some of my favorite movie scenes. These are not necessarily scenes from my favorite movies -- some of the movies they come from suck -- they are just scenes that I really like. Of course, often I do really love the movies, and you can sometimes tell by the fact that several scenes from the same movie may appear. Anyhoo, as will happen, after posting the videos, they will often stop working for whatever reason after several months or years. So I have painstakingly gone through them and tried to update the videos that weren't working. There are still some I couldn't find, and they seemed to congregate in just two posts, but for the most part the videos are up and running again. Here are the links:

Favorite Movie Scenes
More Favorite Movie Scenes
Still More Favorite Movie Scenes
Yet Still More Favorite Movie Scenes
And Yet Still More Favorite Movie Scenes
(at this point I decided to stop being obnoxious with the post titles)
More Favorite Movie Scenes
More Favorite Movie Scenes

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Beyond Apollo

I link to Vintage Space on my blogroll which goes over the history of human spaceflight. Glenn Reynolds recently pointed to an interesting new blog, Beyond Apollo, which could be seen as an alternate history of human spaceflight.

For every spacecraft that rises from its launch pad, there have been dozens that were conceived but not built. For every brave space mission flown, there have been dozens that flew only in the mission architect’s imagination. Most of these missions that never were only progressed as far as paper studies. In a few cases, however, flight-worthy space vehicles have become scrap or museum exhibits. In other cases, engineers developed alternate flight plans for missions that flew; for example, NASA planned (ironically, as it turned out) a lunar-orbit photography mission for Apollo 13 in the event that its Lunar Module failed and could not be used to land on the moon.

In this blog, I will describe many space missions and programs that never were. I’ll seek to place them in historical context, and to explore why they failed to make the difficult jump from plan to reality. Along the way, I’ll write about our evolving knowledge of the Solar System, NASA’s symbiotic relationship with the Soviet space program, and intricacies of the U. S. political process. My posts will tend to run long, and some might be serialized over several weeks. Above all, they’ll be a meaty treat for my fellow space fans and, I hope, a window into a new world for people who have seldom given spaceflight more than casual consideration.

I think this is fascinating and not only for the sake of historical curiosity. A lot of good, productive plans got shelved and forgotten, and airing them out might give some engineers ideas.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Skepticism and Agrippa's Trilemma

Most forms of global skepticism, skepticism about everything, are only hypothetical or methodological. We are not asked to actually withhold belief in everything, we are merely being told that for all we know we may be, e.g., brains in vats being stimulated to think there is an external world. The reason this is just hypothetical is that we are given no reason to think this is actually the case, it's just that the skeptical scenario takes away any reason we could have for thinking it is not the case. Any evidence we could have, any test we could construct to make sure that the world we experience really exists, is just as readily explained by the skeptical theory. (Of course, this is controversial: Hilary Putnam has argued, brilliantly, that on a linguistic-externalist view our words obtain their meaning by virtue of their relation to their object in the world. So our word "vat" means something because there are vats in the external world. But then in order for the brains-in-vats skeptical scenario to be correct, it has to be based on an actually experienced external world, which of course contradicts the scenario.)

In contrast, real skepticism gives you a positive reason for disbelieving, or at least withholding belief in, everything. Plantinga's skepticism is an example of this, but he provides an escape clause: one can always deny naturalism and avoid the skepticism. Perhaps the best example of real skepticism is Agrippa's Trilemma: the question asked is, how is any belief justified? and there are only three ultimate answers we can give. First, we could say that it's justified by another belief, which is justified by another belief, which is justified by another belief... and this chain goes on to infinity. So it's a case of infinite reference. Second, we could say the belief is justified by another belief, which is justified by another belief, which is justified by another belief ... which is justified by the first belief. This is a case of circular reference. Third, you could say the belief is justified by another belief which is justified by another belief ... and that belief requires no justification. This is a case of foundational reference, i.e., it refers to a belief that functions as a foundation.

So what's the problem with infinite reference? Generally, philosophers point to infinite regresses as refutations of positions, but what exactly is the problem with it here? Roughly, the first belief is alleged to derive its justification from another belief, which derives its justification from another, etc. In other words, each step in the chain only has derivative justification. But without some source outside the system to input justification into it, no step will have any. It's like some of the cosmological arguments: imagine you have an infinite number of freight cars connected to each other and ask how they are moving. The first is moving because it's being pulled by the one in front of it, which is being pulled by the one in front of it, etc. But if the chain of cars goes on to infinity then why are the cars moving at all rather than just standing still? It doesn't matter how many cars you add to the chain, without some source of motion, they're not going to move. The only philosopher I know of who defends infinitism is Peter Klein in his "Human Knowledge and the Infinite Regress of Reasons", Philosophical Perspectives 13 (1999): 297-325, "When Infinite Regresses Are Not Vicious", Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 66 (2003): 718-29, and elsewhere.

What's the problem with circular reference? Essentially, it's the same problem: each step in the process is justified in virtue of its relation to the previous step, that is, it has derivative justification. Circling back to a step already referred to in the process does not somehow bring the needed justification into the picture. As Victor Reppert writes, "Circularity is the epistemic equivalent of counterfeiting" ("Eliminative Materialism, Cognitive Suicide, and Begging the Question", Metaphilosophy 23 [1992]: 386), since it gives the illusion of providing a source of justification without doing so. Nevertheless, circular reference is vastly more popular a position than infinite reference, in the form of coherentism. As far as I can tell it's still the minority view, but it's defended by many of the top philosophers around: Keith Lehrer, Nicholas Rescher, the early Laurence BonJour, Brand Blanshard, names could be multiplied. These are some of the smartest people of the last century, so coherentism cannot be dismissed without interacting with their writings.

(Another interesting claim that I've read about but have not read any actual proponents of is that a belief does not only derive justification from another belief but from the actual derivation process. So even if the beliefs themselves have no original justification, if you have enough steps involved, you will eventually build up enough justification that the beliefs will become justified. This could potentially rescue both infinite and circular reference.)

What's the problem with foundational reference? Historically, foundationalism has been the near-universal position among epistemologists, and as far as I can tell, is still the majority view today. Some beliefs simply don't need justification, or they carry their justification in themselves, they are self-justifying. The problem here is dogmatism. To say that some beliefs are the ground level, to say that some beliefs don't need to be justified by something else is to say that we don't need to question them, we don't need to verify them. But virtually every class of belief that has been proposed for this position has been challenged precisely because they can be. We need to have a reason for a belief and to continue believing in the absence of a reason is mere dogmatism. Again, most epistemologists would disagree with this, they would say that there are some foundational beliefs and that not having a reason for a belief does not make it irrational or unacceptable in this case. Some, such as Plantinga, seek to escape the charge of dogmatism by making these beliefs defeatable: they can be questioned, they can be challenged, they are just innocent until proven guilty.

So Agrippa's Trilemma says there are three options -- infinitism, coherentism, and foundationalism -- and none of these are acceptable. Therefore, we have a reason to reject each one, and therefore to reject the possibility of having any knowledge whatsoever. Thus, we are left with actual skepticism, not hypothetical or methdological skepticism. The only alternative is to do what virtually all epistemologists have done: accept one of three options.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

NASA invests in private space exploration

This is interesting. NASA is putting much of its energy into cooperating with private commercial space industries, so much so that they think the future of space exploration will be a hybrid of public and private development. Pete Worden, director at NASA's Ames Research Center, even said "Governments can develop new technology and do some of the exciting early exploration but in the long run it's the private sector that finds ways to make profit, finds ways to expand humanity. That's really our tack." Again, interesting.

Friday, March 2, 2012

A Prophecy in The Great Divorce

There's a passage in C. S. Lewis's The Great Divorce that always gives me pause but I've never commented on. The Great Divorce, it will be recalled, is about some people in hell who take a bus trip to the outskirts of heaven where they are met by people who try to convince them to come further. Most refuse. I wrote about it in this long post if anyone's interested. The passage I'm thinking of immediately follows the account of a woman who has come to heaven to see her son who died in his youth. She has a conversation with someone from her past who tells her that her love for her son has turned in on itself so that she cannot love anyone else, including God. It's a heartbreaking story.

Following this, Lewis -- who puts himself into the story in the first person -- has a conversation with his Teacher who has come out of deep heaven to meet him: George MacDonald. Lewis asks MacDonald whether he could actually relate what he had just learned to a mother who had lost a child.

"But could one dare -- could one have the face -- to go to a bereaved mother, in her misery -- when one's not bereaved oneself?..."

And MacDonald replies,

"No, no, Son, that's no office of yours. You're not a good enough man for that. When your own heart's been broken it will be time for you to think of talking."

Now how can anyone familiar with Lewis's life read this and not immediately think of his marriage to Joy Davidman, her death to cancer, and Lewis's subsequent book A Grief Observed? I can't be the first person to notice this, it's been leaping out at me for as long as I've been reading The Great Divorce.

Now I titled this post a prophecy, but I think if it's not just a coincidence, it may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy. I don't mean by this that Lewis orchestrated his own heartbreak, I just mean that he was fully aware of this passage that he wrote, so perhaps when he saw his heartbreak approaching, he may have consciously fulfilled this passage by taking notes on his grief. That's essentially what A Grief Observed is.