Monday, September 29, 2008

Battlestar Gallactica and Philosophy

By Hanno

I had a professor at the University of Texas who taught a course called "Philosophy and Literature," which I mistakenly thought would be about, uh, literature. Instead Nick Asher (famed logician and philosopher, good guy, too) used science fiction as the backdrop for philosophical thought. We read Dune, Nueromancer, some David Brin, etc.. [Interesting side note: Nick wrote me a letter of recommendation for graduate school based on that one course, and the papers I wrote for him. I went to see him to make sure the letter writing was going okay, and he told me that he was having a little difficulty, given the course, in not sounding totally out of his mind as he described my work.]

Lord Matt has been trying to get me to watch the new Battlestar Gallactica series on DVD, and claimed there was much philosophy contained therein. Still not sure what he had in mind (although I do think some classic philosophy of mind questions are at work... unfortunately, that's not my cup of tea.) But lately one theme has struck me.

In the first season, the civilian authority and the military authority come to an agreement, splitting sovereignty by granting him control of military matters, and her authority over all others. No big deal is made of that agreement, but in the second season, trouble brews as the President urges a member of the military to not pay attention to her orders, compromise her mission, and complete a task the military commander has already rejected. The officer does what the President asks, which then prompts the military commander to suspend, arrest and jail the "President," amid questions of legitimacy. This provokes a civil war (though a one sided civil war, as the military has full control of, uh, the military.) Some people support the President, others the Military leader. Sides are drawn up, and chaos is about to reign.

Hobbes, in his classic Leviathan, argued against splitting sovereignty (giving one person or group of people authority over one area, and another over another) for precisely the same reason in 1651. He argued that the purpose of sovereign authority was to get people out of the state of war by making fear of other people irrational. But splitting sovereignty sets up a situation which makes it easy for people to rationally justify civil war, and hence plunging the community into the very state the establishment of government was meant to avoid. In his day, sovereignty was split between the King and Parliament, and when they came to a clash on some point of controversy, the result was the English Civil Wars.

Hobbes writes:
"A kingdom divided in itself cannot stand: For unless this division proceed, division into opposite armies can never happen. If there had not first been an opinion received of the greatest part of England, that these powers were divided between the King, and the Lords and House of Commons, the people had never been divided, and fallen into this Civil War;"
Of course, BSG then blows it by healing the rift without any attempt to solve the problem. The two leaders just look at each other and start working together.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Information regarding philosophy majors, concentrations, etc., etc.

Hey, all.

I talked with Ray Miles yesterday, and he provided me with some information regarding getting the philosophy major up and running. He stressed that this is a long process, and it is entirely possible that (depending on what year you are), you may not still be a student here by the time it is official.

That being said, there are a number of things that need to happen in the meantime. Hanno and I had a discussion regarding potential concentrations to attach to existing majors, and I'll be running a few ideas past Todd, too, in order to maximize the availability of philosophy to McNeese students (e.g., attaching a bioethics concentration to the nursin curriculum, or a generalized philosophy concentration applicable to most majors).

So, what is this "concentration" I've mentioned? It's a minor in philosophy. Kinda. The only real difference is the number of syllables, and that because Louisiana is goofy, you can't officially have a minor without a major. A concentration requires 18 credits, but allows us flexibility in development (i.e., we can decide what will constitute the core courses, and what will constitute electives).

The philosophy faculty will be sitting down at some point to hammer out the finer points, but I thought it would be useful to get feedback from you all, too. I'm thinking that we can discuss this on Monday (and this will be a good meeting to bring all of your friends who are interested in philosophy, as this will be our best chance to gauge student interests). I am also happy to print out the recommendations from the American Philosophical Association regarding the recommended core elements of a philosophy curriculum. Additionally, I will be putting together a quick anonymous survey regarding a major to foist upon all of my students (with an incentive for completing it), which will give us some qualitative and quantitative data we can peruse.

In regards to getting an actual major up and running, Ray advised letter writing (Hanno and I had talked about petitions, but Ray suggested that they would be functionally meaningless). It isn't enough to write a letter just saying you want a philosophy major; the letter should contain what you plan to do with a philosophy major (e.g., "it will help me with my plans for law school, graduate school, etc., and here's how"). I have data on the extraordinary success philosophy majors have had on standardized exams like the GRE, MCAT, LSAT, etc., and I'm happy to send anyone information on that (we consistently outperform almost every other major and discipline; contact me at, as well as testimonials from individuals in a number of professions describing how the philosophy major has helped them. I have several of these posted outside of my office (222-M Kaufman Hall). These letters can go to a number of people (and, in fact, I would suggest sending individualized copies to all of them):

Dr. Jeanne Daboval (Vice President of Academic Affairs)
Dr. Ray Miles (Dean, College of Liberal Arts)
Dr. Billy Turner (Dept. Head, Social Sciences)

It would be good for us (the philosophy faculty) to maintain hard copies of these letters, too, as a record of student interest. I'm happy to donate a drawer in my filing cabinet.

Additionally, Ray recommended getting letters from the outside community (e.g., professionals outside of McNeese who have benefitted from studying/majoring in philosophy) to demonstrate applicability and practicality of the major. Philosophy majors pop up in a number of expected and unexpected places - I'd suggest checking law firms to start.

Anyway, we can discuss all of this at the meeting. I can't emphasize enough how important it will be to show large student interest, both in the philosophy club as well as the philosophy major. So, bring friends, friends of friends, shanghai random students and drag them along, etc.

-Matthew Butkus, PhD

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Real Difference Between Liberals and Conservatives

Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist from the University of Virginia, provides a compelling argument about moral psychology and the political mind. According to Haidt, there are five psychological systems that provide the foundations for the world's many moralities.

The five foundations are:

1.) harm/care
2.) fairness/reciprocity
3.) ingroup/loyalty
4.) authority/respect
5.) purity/sanctity.

Haidt makes the case that political liberals have moral intuitions primarily based upon the first two foundations. Political conservatives, on the other hand, have moral intuitions primarily based upon all five foundations.

Does this adequately describe you? As a conservative? As a liberal? Given this rubric, where do you think political "others" fall on this spectrum?

You can watch Haidt's presentation here.

Call For Papers and External Reviewers

Call For Papers

Stance: An International Undergraduate Philosophy Journal

Submission Guidelines:

Stance welcomes papers concerning any philosophical topic. Current undergraduates may submit papers between 1500 and 3500 words in length (exclusive of notes and bibliography). Papers should avoid unnecessary technicality and strive to be accessible to the widest possible audience without sacrificing clarity or rigor. They are evaluated on the following criteria: depth of inquiry, quality of research, creativity, lucidity, and originality. For more specific guidelines see the website.

Submission Procedures:

• Manuscripts should be in Microsoft Word format and sent as an attachment to
• Manuscripts should be double spaced (including quotations, excerpts, and footnotes)
• The right margin should not be justified
• To facilitate our anonymous review process, submissions are to be prepared for blind review. Include a cover page with the author’s name, affiliation, title, and email address. Papers, including footnotes, should have no other identifying markers.
• Footnotes should use the author-date format found in The Chicago Manual of Style.
• Please use American spellings and punctuation, except when directly quoting a source that has followed British style.


Deadline: Friday, December 19, 2008

Call for External Reviewers

Stance: An International Undergraduate Philosophy Journal

Stance is looking for interested undergraduate philosophy students to serve as external reviewers for this year’s issue. This is an exciting opportunity to gain experience working for a groundbreaking journal in the field of philosophy, as well as a chance to hone your skills in writing and reviewing philosophy papers.

Participation in this project will require a moderate level of experience in philosophy, strengths in writing and editing, as well as a sufficient degree of self-motivation necessary to complete the work by the given deadlines. We anticipate that each external reviewer will be sent one or two papers to review in late December or early January. It is possible that a reviewer will be asked to review one or two further submissions later in the spring if a particular piece requires further consideration. If accepted as an external reviewer, training material will be provided that will explain what is expected in the formal review. Reviewers will also be credited in both the print and electronic versions of the journal.

If you are interested, please provide us with the following information:

Name of School:
Year in School:
Philosophy Courses Taken:

Your specialty, or concentration

What experience do you have that would qualify you for this project?

What goals do you have that working on Stance will support?

What, in your opinion, are the makings of a good philosophy paper?

Along with this application, we have provided a further application form to serve as a letter of recommendation from a philosophy professor with whom you have worked. Please have both items returned to us by e-mail at or by mail at:

Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies
Ball State University
Muncie, Indiana 47306-0500

Postmarked By: November 3

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Pre-Game Coin Toss Makes Jaguars Realize Randomness Of Life

At the last philosophy club, some of you expressed interested in professor Furman offering Existentialism as a philosophy course in the future (I am looking at you Mike Chavez). A few of you have already encountered existential philosophers in a previous course (Sartre or Camus, for example). However, some of you probably have not. As the humorous Onion video suggests, existentialism is a philosophy that emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience in a hostile or indifferent universe. As a corollary, individuals create the meaning for their lives.

How does this idea strike you? Do you believe life is basically meaningless and random? Moreover, does this randomness suggest that people are entirely free and thus responsible for their actions? On the other hand, does this randomness suggest that our actions are futile and nothing else matters (as Metallica would say)? Some suggest that Camus ultimately answered this question by purposefully crashing his car on January 4, 1960...thus ending his life.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Knowledge and Necessary Truth

by Hanno

Most people grant that the following claim is true: If I know P, then P must be true, or alternatively, then necessarily P. What is the meaning of the consequent? There are at least three. The claim could assert the certainty of P, given that P is known. The sentence would then read: If I know that P, then P is certain. This seems perfectly fine.

But there is an alternative meaning: that knowing P implies the necessity of P. A claim is necessary if it is impossible for it to be false. There are two kinds of necessary truths. The first are made true by virtue of the meaning of the terms involved. These truths are called "De Dicto," and examples are "Bachelors are unmarried," and "Unicorns have one horn." These are frequently called "analytic truths," following Kant. The other kinds of necessary truths are more controversial. These are called "De Re," and are somehow necessary in virtue of the object itself, and not merely the description. If there is no de re necessity, then all non-analytic truths are not necessarily true. Primary examples of de re necessity: Gold has 79 protons, gold is atomic. These are not analytic because they were discoveries, and analytic truths are not. If true, they are necessarily true. But we could be wrong, we might have made an error in discovery.

Be that as it may, there are several examples of claims that are not necessary. "Hanno exists," "Hanno's phone number is 555-1212." Notice then what happens. If the initial claim is true, then the claim "If I know Hanno exists, then necessarily, Hanno exists." Well, I do know that Hanno exists. It follows that Hanno necessarily exists. That cannot be right, since my existence is surely contingent on many factors. Just because I know my phone number does not mean I could not have had another, or no phone number at all.

Now, if the second reading of the initial claim were right, knowledge all by itself would imply the necessity of everything known. If some being knew everything, then everything would be necessary. But knowledge by itself does not imply the metaphysical necessity of everything, but merely the epistemic necessity (certainty).

But if we follow the grammar of the initial claim, we can see the error. The necessity does not apply to the proposition, but to the implication. The third way of reading the initial claim is: It follows necessarily that if I know P, then P. This is not a claim about certainty, nor is it a claim about the necessity of P. It is a claim about the necessity of the connection between the antecedent and the consequent, between "I know P" and P. On this reading, I can know Hanno exists, and grant the first claim. But what follows is merely that Hanno exists. My existence is no longer necessary, and the rest of the world can breath a sigh of relief.

It then follows that even if some being knows everything, it does not follow that everything that happens happens necessarily. That may still be true, but it does not follow merely from the state of knowledge.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Is Paying For Music Wrong?

This is a response to the last post entitled “Is Stealing Music Wrong?”

Merely by posing the question in that form, the author has already conceded to his opponents the bulk what they themselves have to proof; namely, that "file-sharing" is stealing. By making this concession, the burden now falls upon the author to make a moral justification for "theft."

Not that this burden is insurmountable. Even within traditional approaches to ethics there are weighty moral arguments for "theft" of specific objects from specific persons under specific conditions. Those arguments invariably rest upon conditions of the material or social value of the pilfered item, the proportionate distribution of property between the thief and the victim of theft, the frequency of theft or immediacy of need, and (most importantly) the issue of life or health (e.g., the peasant stealing a sack of wheat from a wealthy nobleman to feed his starving family). This example should illustrate the problem a defender of file-sharing would face availing herself to this exception, given that it would strain the imagination to conceive of a case where downloading music, movies, games, etc. would serve immediate vital needs. To make a moral case for the "stealing" of copyrighted media, the file-sharing advocate really has no recourse to the limit cases of traditional ethics.

Let's be clear that the question “Is stealing music wrong?” is a moral and not a legal (in the sense of "positive law") one. Any group of bureaucrats can, with the fiat of the courts, define what constitutes "stealing." What we are aiming at is the essence of what it means "to steal."

Let's look at "stealing." Granting that there is a synonymous relationship between the verb "to steal" and the noun form "theft" such that we can substitute (mutatis mutandis) one concept for the other, we can avail ourselves to to Merriam-Webster, which defines "theft" as “the act of stealing; specifically: the felonious taking and removing of personal property with intent to deprive the rightful owner of it.” Let's examine what is covered in the "specifically" clause by way of an example:

Jack and Jill live on opposite sides of a hill. Jill has a bucket which she built using scrap materials found on her side of the hill. Jack doesn't have a bucket, or any kind of water-fetching device, lacking the material with which to fashion such a device. Upon learning that Jill has a water-fetching device, Jack goes to Jill's side of the hill, takes her bucket, and leaves.

Turning to the particular wording of our clause, we will set aside the adjective "felonious," since it only establishes the juridical status the “taking and removing, which we're not really interested in (for the moment, anyway). “Taking and removing” is the act Jack performs in relation to "personal" (belonging to Jill) "property" (the bucket). This act is "intentional," since Jack is purposefully went over the hill to take and remove the bucket, thus "depriving" the "rightful owner" (Jill) of the use of the bucket. The aspect of this scenario which we recognize as wrong is that Jill obviously had a claim on the television set, and Jack unjustly deprived her of ability to make use of that claim.

Now, let's draw our attention to the two words: "removing" and "deprive." Take a second example:

Jill has a free and unlimited supply of fresh running water on her side of the hill. Jack does not, having only a limited supply which, while adequate for his basic needs, requires that he closely monitor his use. Upon learning that Jill, on the other hand, has an unlimited supply of fresh water, Jack takes a bucket (not the one he stole from Jill), goes over the hill, fills his bucket with water, and leaves.

In this second example, Jack “takes and removes water from Jill's side of the hill, but what makes this scenario different is that there is no "depriving" her of the use of that possession. Jill still has free and unlimited access to water. The portion that Jack takes in no way effects her ability to have access to free and unlimited water.

It is unfortunate that such circumstances seldom obtain in nature. Because of the limitations of material objects, most things can only be used by one or a few persons at a given time, exist in limited quantities, or for a limited duration. Those things that have been perceived to be free and of an unlimited supply have been recognized by almost all pre-industrial cultures as available to everyone in the community to use as they see fit, providing their use neither diminishes the same ability for others or in some way imposes limits upon the supply available for the community. This is what has traditionally been referred to in English, "the Commons." The notion of the commons was always applied to material things whose very existence could be jeopardized through its use.

Wouldn't it be great if there were some aspect of reality that did not suffer from these material limitations? That we could somehow have at our disposal, that we could in some way take possession of without depriving others of the same possession? Or that we could reproduce an infinite number of times without diminishing resources upon which it is made?

If Jack approaches Jill and asks for her bucket, Jill has two choices: she can either give him the bucket or not. "To give" means to relinquish your possession of a thing. If Jack & Jill come to an agreement where Jack can use the bucket for a designated period of time, and then he returns it to Jill for a period of time, and back and forth, we usually call this "sharing." But it is only "sharing" in an analogous sense, since at any given time only one of them have possession of the bucket, and the other one doesn't. With physical things, we often use the term "sharing" in this restricted sense: “I am sharing a bench” or “I am sharing my ice cream.” But in both cases what you are doing is relinquishing (giving) a portion of your possession to another.

What makes so-called "intellectual property" different from real property is that it does not suffer from the limitations of materiality described above. What the "intellectual" designates is that it is based on ideas rather than physical matter. Ideas need only a base set of experiences to be duplicated. If Jill shows Jack how to make a bucket, Jack "possesses" the knowledge of making a bucket to the same degree as Jill, without depriving Jill of her own knowledge of bucket-making. Jack might still need some tin to make a bucket, but by being taught by Jill how to make a bucket, he now has the knowledge of bucket-building. The means by which ideas are duplicated is by experience. Anyone who sees, hears, tastes, etc. can potentially duplicate the idea. Ideas can be "given" is such a way that the giver doesn't relinquish possession of what is given. If you have an idea, as soon as you share that idea with others, they have full possession of the idea as well. This is "sharing" in the fullest sense. Additionally, when an idea is shared with others, that idea becomes the building block for new ideas and new applications of that idea.

In an altruistic society (that is to say, a healthy society) the question of ownership would only arise in those circumstances where the materiality of property prevents the equal access by two or more parties. The notion that "theft" would apply to something which two or more parties can have equal access to is not only an absurity, but the questionable party in such a disagreement would be the one who seeks to make a claim of ownership to what could easily be accessible to all.

If, instead of making buckets, Jill composed a song, by hearing & remembering to a sufficient degree to recite the song, Jack now also possesses the knowledge of this song. Jill has a legitimate claim to being the composer of the song, but only way Jill can prevent Jack from reciting the song (if she can't convince him not to) is under the treat of violence. It is only by instituing a system of violence that anyone can effectively convince others of their society to pay for something that is naturally accessible to all.