Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Only At Recess Are We Truly Free

The recent decision to end UL-Lafayette's philosophy program points towards a trend in philosophical education in the United States (see Another One Bites The Dust). While educational institutions in the U.S. are eliminating philosophy from higher education, Britain is adding philosophers in schools. Dr Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College in Crowthorne, Berkshire, recently hired Dr. Julian Baggini, co-founder of The Philosophers' Magazine, as the philosopher-in-residence to teach pupils "to think and reason." According to Seldon, "the teaching of reasoning and philosophy are a basic right."

You can read the full article here


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Deep Blue to Daily Double

I.B.M. plans to announce Monday that it is in the final stages of completing a computer program to compete against human 'Jeopardy!' contestants. If the program beats the humans, the field of artificial intelligence will have made a leap forward. ... The team is aiming not at a true thinking machine but at a new class of software that can 'understand' human questions and respond to them correctly. Such a program would have enormous economic implications. ... The proposed contest is an effort by I.B.M. to prove that its researchers can make significant technical progress by picking "grand challenges" like its early chess foray. The new bid is based on three years of work by a team that has grown to 20 experts in fields like natural language processing, machine learning and information retrieval. ... Under the rules of the match that the company has negotiated with the 'Jeopardy!' producers, the computer will not have to emulate all human qualities. It will receive questions as electronic text. The human contestants will both see the text of each question and hear it spoken by the show's host, Alex Trebek.

Full article here

Although I don't believe this overcomes the Turing Test, nor are the economic implications clear, the latest attempt at improving A.I. is certainly more entertaining than a chess match. I wonder what the software will talk about in the guest interlude with Alex:

Alex: "It says here that you have an acute fear of computer viruses and hackers. Tell us about that?"

IBM Software: "I am a computer program."


Friday, April 24, 2009

The Copyright Czar Is Coming

There have been many posts on this blog concerning intellectual property and copyright (see Is Stealing Music Wrong and Is Paying for Music Wrong for the the philosophical arguments). As many of you know, before leaving office George W. Bush signed the Enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights Act creating a cabinet-level copyright czar charged with implementing a nationwide plan to combat piracy. This position will function in a similar fashion as our current drug czar (the current director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy) who is charged with implementing a nationwide plan to combat illegal distribution and consumption of drugs. The Obama administration will be the first to select a copyright czar (strangely appropriate since Biden is known for coining the term "drug czar" back in 1982 in reference to the director of the ONDCP).

A glance at our past discussions on this topic revealed a divided stance on the topic of whether or not copyright infringement, specifically dealing with digital media, constitutes theft. However, at a recent MPAA dinner Joe Biden was quoted as saying, ""It's pure theft, stolen from the artists and quite frankly from the American people as consequence of loss of jobs and as a consequence of loss of income." He continued to say that copyright infringement "strangles creative juices."

Since the copyright czar will obviously influence the shape of copyright enforcement in the United States, both sides of the copyright argument have sent letters to President Obama encouraging him to choose wisely. The content industry, including the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America are pushing for someone from their own ranks (an RIAA lawyer, for example) that will be sympathetic to their cause. The Copyright Alliance, along with 40 other groups representing intellectual-property holders, recently sent a letter to Obama that intellectual-property protection stimulates creativity and creates jobs.

As we often delineate in philosophy club, there is an important difference between legality and ethics. However, in our culture, politics and law are where the philosophical rubber hits the road (to quote Todd Furman). Biden has made it abundantly clear that copyright infringement is theft and that it stifles creativity. Our laws may soon reflect this view. Ethically, however, the debate continues.


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The future of philosophy at LSU - Lafayette

by MAB

I just received this from a Listserv and thought it would be good to repost this as it potentially impacts our efforts regarding the philosophy major here at McNeese.

Dear All,

Late last week (which was also our Spring break), we learned that our Board of Regents is considering terminating the Philosophy major, here at The University of Louisiana at Lafayette. A Committee of the Regents meet at 1pm on Wednesday this week (the 22nd) and the immediate termination of the Philosophy program is on the agenda. They propose making philosophy a mere service program.

The reason this action is being considered is because of the small number of philosophy majors graduating from our program. This was an issue several years ago, has been addressed and our numbers are now steadily rising. Indeed, a few years ago a similar threat to the program arose, but was not acted upon, because the Board of Regents deemed a Philosophy program to be essential for a Doctoral II University. Now, it appears that they have changed their minds.

The Board of Regents Committee Agenda for their meeting can be found at The staff comments can be found under Item III “Staff Recommendations Relative to the Review of Select Low-Completer Programs”; the Philosophy program is discussed on p. 71, (p. 93 of the .pdf).

The current situation is troubling for a number of reasons. First, the Regents staff report that,

" cannot help but recognize that Philosophy as an essential undergraduate program has lost some credence among students. This is reflected in decreasing numbers not only in this program, but others across the country.” (p. 72/ p. 95 of the .pdf).

Unfortunately, the claims here do not accord with the evidence. To cite a single example, *The New York Times*, a year ago ran an article describing the recent increases in philosophy enrollments (see It is also strange how the Regents staff have some kind of 'privileged access' to “credence among students”.

A second puzzling feature about this decision is that it cannot be motivated by cost factors. Our philosophy program is one of the most efficient programs on our campus and the potential savings are, at most, a few thousand dollars.

The final reason that this proposed termination of our Philosophy major is worrisome, is due to the fact that it throws some uncertainty into the future of the PHILOSOP mailing list. If they succeed in downgrading our program, then the activities that will continue to be supported are unclear. It is perhaps a strange irony that the two Philosophy programs in the world which host major mailing lists, with PHILOSOP here, and PHILOS-L at Liverpool, should both come under attack within a month or so of each other.

We are fortunate that our university administration appears to be supportive of the Philosophy program. The Regents are the ultimate authority, though. For these reasons then, may I politely suggest that the Board of Regents be made aware that their assessment of philosophy, as a declining academic discipline, is incorrect. Any other related thoughts might also be useful. Probably the best method of doing this is to send messages to Dr. Sally Clausen, who is the Commissioner of Higher Education. Her e-mail address is The last time they tried to take away our major, we were able to generate a petition with over 1,500 signatures from people around the State of Louisiana. This time we do not have the time to organize such an effort. So, support from philosophers around the world would be very much appreciated. However, as the time is short, please act as soon as you can.

Istvan Berkeley.

I think it behooves us to contact Dr. Clausen, as there are a number of unwarranted assumptions being made. This is the reason why I included the "Why Study Philosophy" section on the program website.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Singer's Moral Calculus

Peter Singer has been in the public eye recently with his new book, The Life You Can Save. Those of you familiar with Singer know that he is a utilitarian who makes rather provocative statements of applied ethics. For example, in 2001, Singer, er...expanded the variety of human sexual experiences to include our four-legged friends in his article, Heavy Petting. Singer is controversial, outspoken, and widely read. One of the chapters of his new book deals with philanthropy for the arts. He writes:

Philanthropy for the arts or for cultural activities is, in a world like this one, morally dubious. In 2004, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art paid a sum said to be in excess of $45 million for a small Madonna and Child painted by the medieval Italian master Duccio. In buying this painting, the museum has added to the abundance of masterpieces that those fortunate enough to be able to visit it can see. But if it only costs $50 to perform a cataract operation in a developing
country, that means there are 900,000 people who can’t see anything at all, let alone a painting, whose sight could have been restored by the amount of money that painting cost. At $450 to repair a fistula, $45 million could have given 100,000 women another chance at a decent life. At $1,000 a life, it could have saved 45,000 lives–a football stadium full of people. How can a painting, no matter how beautiful and historically significant, compare with that? If the museum were on fire, would anyone think it right to save the Duccio from the flames, rather than a child? And that’s just one child.

It is hard to disagree with Singer's extreme example, especially given our instinctual response to saving the child from a burning building. However, Singer's moral calculus is aligning two entities with intrinsic value: art (culture) and human life.

Would you respond differently if instead of a painting that money was spent on preserving the cultural record of a dwindling Native American tribe? On an archival project to preserve musical heritage (ala John Lomax and the Blues)? Outside of a capitalistic structure that values art at $45 millions dollars, how do you quantify the value of culture?

Monday, April 6, 2009

Two Dogmas of Empiricism: Conclusion

By Hanno

Quine argues that "our statements about the external world face the the tribunal of sense experience not individually, but only as a corporate body."(p. 41.) Individual sentences are part of, or implied by, whole theories, and the theories themselves are malleable. Quine cites Duhem as holding the same view. No sentence can be empirically falsified simply because other sentences in the theory can be altered to keep the sentence as 'true.' Let us suppose that we have a theory about how the planets move around the sun, and let us suppose that we predict to see planet x at a particular point in the sky at some time t. We then run the experiment, and discover that the planet does not appear where we thought it would. Is the sentence "planet x at a particular point in the sky at some time t" false? If the positivists are right, the answer must be 'yes.' But maybe the problem is not with the claim about where the planet will appear, but about how light behaves. Then the planet really is there, but we are seeing it in a different place. Science is actually full of just these kinds of examples. Indeed, maybe the observation itself is poorly made. We can even throw out the apparent observation when it conflicts with deeply held theories. In fact, we do so all the time.

On quines view, our theories about the world are radically underdetermined by the data, so that multiple theories explain and predict the same data, whether the theory is about science or history. As he puts it:
"The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs, from the most casual matters of geography and history to the profoundest laws of atomic physics and pure mathematics and logic, is a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges.... the total field is so underdetermined by its boundary conditions, experience, that there is much latitude of choice as to what statements to re-evaluate in light of any single contrary experience. No particular experiences are linked with any particular statements..."
He continues:

"Even a statement...can be held to be true in the face of recalcitrant experience by pleading hallucination or by amending certain statements of the kind called logical laws."

Not only is any statement not falsified by any particular observation, no statement is immune from revision. Even the laws of logic are revisable. We can, for example, give up the law of excluded middle. Some think we should give up the law of non-contradiction. We play with the axioms of geometry, of set theory, and these changes effect the theorems that are then true or false. In short, just as there is no pure synthetic claim, there is no pure analytic claim , either, at least not in the way Kant and others imagines, claims that are true no matter what.

We posit metaphysical entities to account for what we see, like physical objects, and these are not reducible to experiences. The same is true of God and gods. Which metaphysics we adopt is a question for which theoretical framework accounts for our experiences better. But in principle, there is no difference between ontology and natural science.

If asked whether or not sets or numbers exist, Carnap writes that it depends on the linguistic framework we choose, that there is no matter of fact which determines which framework we ought to use. For Quine, the exact same is true of questions in natural science. And we choose our linguistic framework not on the basis of many different reasons, not merely experiential. Hence, conservatism, simplicity, explanatory power, etc., all help choose which theory, and hence which ontology we accept.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Idealism and Closure

Philosophy and Video Games: Idealism and Closure
by Johannes Climacus

What if the material world didn't really exist if someone wasn't there looking at it? Although the thought seems strange, it has a long pedigree in philosophy, from the Zen masters (we've all heard the koan, "If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?") to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. But this idea can also be discerned within the mainstream of Western philosophy, and its history and development goes something like this:

In his Meditations on First Philosophy, RenĂ© Descartes (1596-1650) tried to find something that was absolutely certain by attempting to doubt everything. Among those things which seemed most doubtful was his perceptions of sensible things. In formulating his famous statement, "cogito ergo sum" ("I think, therefore I am"), he thought he had found the most certain thing, namely, himself as a thinking thing. Although it was probably not Descartes' intent, what this line of reasoning introduced was the notion that the senses were too fallible, and thus too untrustworthy to be the basis for certainty in philosophy. Instead, only "clear and distinct ideas" were "perfect" enough to be be known with certainty, and thus serve as the basis for knowledge. An example of a "clear and distinct" idea could be a triangle, but it is important to note that this kind of idea isn't merely an image or a picture of a triangle in the mind. Rather, it is the concept of "a geometrical object comprised of 3 lines or 3 vertices the sum of whose interior angles equals 180 degrees." In the same sense, "2 + 2 = 4" and "S -> P, ¬P, :. ¬S" are also clear and distinct ideas. Since the senses are ultimately untrustworthy in comparison to our ideas, it follows that we are only able to trust them in as far as our ideas supervene upon sense experience.

But this raises the question of causality. If we have knowledge of things through sense experiences because of our knowledge of ideas, where does our knowledge of ideas come from? As David Hume (1711-1776) would later argue, ideas such as causality can't derive from sense experience. Descartes maintained that ideas were innate, pre-existing in the mind as a "disposition," waiting for the occasion when the idea becomes fully formed in the mind. But he offered little by way of explaining how ideas pass from potentiality to actuality.

One possible solution proposed by Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715), was to attribute it to God. Since clear and distinct ideas alone are perfect (as opposed to the sensible world of material things), then they must already have a connection to God, who was the epitome of perfection. It was also a generally accepted idea at the time that God was was responsible for essential change in the world (God was the efficient cause of things, while matter itself was the material cause). It was no great leap to assume God would also be responsible for the change from potential to actual ideas in the mind on the occasion that one experienced the sensible conditions for such change. Malebranche's theory came to be known as "occasionalism."

Malebranche might have answered the original problem, but he introduced an even greater one. If our knowledge of material things is dependent upon our ideas, and our ideas don't arise directly from our encounter with the sensible world, then what exactly is the point of even positing a material world? That very question was at issue for George Berkeley (1685-1753), the English empiricist best know for the phrase "esse est percipi" ("to be is to be perceived"). Berkeley (pronounced "barklay") argued that the physical world was merely a collection of ideas, and had no real existence outside of perception. Like Malebranche's occasionalism, Berkeley maintained that on the occasion of an intelligent agent engages in the act of perception, God brings about the ideas in the mind necessary to make the world perceptible. In other words, the material world doesn't exist in itself, but only in so far as active intelligent agents are perceiving the world.

So what would the world look like if you could somehow step out of the system, and see what the universe might look like from God's point of view? It might look something like the Flash Web game Closure.

In Closure, your character must move about the world in search of the door to exit each level. Only certain points of the map are illuminated, often by an orb which is the source of illumination in each level. Where the level is in darkness, the world does not exist; stepping outside of the light causes your character to fall into the void. To successfully find the exit, you must illuminate a path through the darkness from the starting point to the exit.

(Thanks to Samer at for recommending this game and pointing to its philosophical implications.)