Monday, March 30, 2009

Two Dogmas: Reductionism

by Hanno

The second dogma of Empiricism is the view that language is reducible to sense experiences. The original dogma was that the meaning of a term is the copy of a sense impression associated with that term. Thus, one sees a shoe. That is an impression. Then one remembers what they saw, calling it to mind. That is a copy of an impression. The word 'shoe' then means the image called to mind when we think of a shoe.

This fell out of use when Frege convinced everyone that meaning is tied not to terms, but to sentences. The logical positivists then argue that the meaning of any sentence other than a tautology is the method used to verify the truth of that sentence, and that method will come to the occurrence of specific sense impressions. But can all non-tautologies be reduced to sense experiences? Most Logical Positivists assume the answer to be 'yes.' Carnap actually tries to show what such a view would look like, and Quine focuses his critique on Carnap's attempt.

Carnap's view was also a sketch, but a more thorough sketch than any so far. That is, most people assumed the dogma to be true, but Carnap actually tries to do the reduction. His working insight? Using space-time points, the backbone of science, where "quadruples of real numbers"were assigned to sense qualities according to preset rules. The most basic statement forms to which all other sentences were either reducible or nonsensical were "Quality q is at point instant x, y, z, t." If that sensible quality were not there, the basic sentence is false, and more complex sentences were to be built from those basic sentences. Quine argues, however, that "Carnap did not seem to recognize, however, that his treatment of physical objects fell short of reduction not merely through sketchiness, but in principle." Indeed, Quine writes, "... it provides no indication, not even the sketchiest, of how a statement of the form 'Quality q is at point instant x, y, z, t' could ever be translated into Carnap's original language of sense data and logic. The connective 'is at' remains an added undefined connective; the canons counsel us in its use, but not in its elimination." Simply put, we cannot understand the final reduction in the terms the Logical Positivist requires. Their standards of meaningfulness are so high, the best attempt to actually reduce language to sense data, to sense impression, fails, too. Reduction to sense data and logic cannot be the final word in meaningfulness. the only way to do so uses words that are not reducible to either.All the handwaving 'there must be a way to reduce language to experience!' turns out to be just dogma, unsupported beliefs assumed to be true.

Carnap, Quine writes, seems to have accepted this as well. In Carnap's later writings, the whole reductionist project is gone.

What does Empiricism look like without the Dogma? If individual sentences are not the bearer of meaning, what is? How can we understand all knowledge being tied to experience if reductionism is false? That and more next time.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Philosophy and Video Games

There has been a long history of exchange between philosophy and film. While filmmakers looking for universal themes in order to broaden the appeal of their work have incorporated philosophical themes into their narratives, philosophers have generally approached film differently, looking at the nature of film itself, it "mode of being" (ontology) and the "apprehension" of that mode (epistemology). Going as far back as Hugo Munsterberg's The Photoplay (1916), ontology of Film has been a rich source of speculation from philosophers as diverse as Stanley Cavell and Giles Deleuze. We could call this approach "extrinsic" in that it involves philosopher's theorizing about the nature of film itself, rather than examining the philosophy of or in particular films. Only recently have philosopher's turned to the content of the individual film as a means of introducing students and lay audiences to methods of exploring philosophy through the narrative. While this trend probably has its roots in a literary criticism (which over the last few decades has become quite "philosophical" and theory-laden in its approach), it has gained wide acceptance among academic philosophers with the popularity of William Irwin's Popular Culture and Philosophy series.

What has received little attention, surprisingly, is the intersection of philosophy and video games. Some time last fall, the video game industry has actually surpassed film in terms of sales. Curiously, the few nascent books looking at philosophical themes in video games came out at the same time (just before Christmas) as consumers cleared the shelves of Wii, PS3, and Xbox games. Granted, film as a medium has been around since the 19th Century, whereas few people even knew video games existed before 1973. (Why 1973, you ask? Because in 1973 the first coin-operated arcade game, Computer Space, made a cameo in the film Soylent Green.) Given the current academic demands to find new speculative territory, it seems that video games present virgin territory ripe for the taking.

But more importantly, video games offer an element of analysis over and above that of film, namely, the active dimension. You don't watch a video game, you play a video game. Because the player is an agent within the medium in a way wholly different than that of a spectator of film, this opens up whole new dimensions of extrinsic analysis. Video games become platforms for epistemic and ontic relations in ways markedly different than film. This active dimension opens to the ethical. Like filmmakers, video game designers have capitalized on this in various ways, from the classic character-development game Ultima IV to the ultimate anti-social Grand Theft Auto series. Because conditions of action can differ from game title to game title (meaning different games have you doing different things), an extrinsic analysis might be variable from title to title. Rather than talk about the "nature" of video games in the general, a whole set of distinctions have to be made between a puzzle-driven adventure game [like CDX], a single-player first-person shooter [Doom], a multi-player first-person shooter [Quake Live], or a Massively Multi-player Online Role-Playing Game [Runescape]. One can also examine player's actions imminent to the game vs. actions outside of proscribed rules and limits of the game which affect the game itself (obviously things such as "cheats" and "hacks," but also the effect of clans on game play as well). This bridges the gap between extrinsic and intrinsic analyses in a way that film cannot (with the possible exception of experimental and some "art" films).

That being said, it is still an interesting question to ask why so little attention has been paid to video games by philosophers. Is it that philosophers are old and stodgy, and video games are still a young person's media? Or is it that philosophers -- being disengaged spectators by nature -- feel less comfortable with an active, agent-centered media rather than one that is basically passive? Or is it that film presents the viewer with a "closed system" with little or no extraneous elements, a fixed chronology, and a definite end (in both the temporal and the teleological sense), whereas video games are often messy, requiring the player to engage in mundane activities, make frequent bad decisions & erroneous actions which often leads to "catastrophic" failures (i.e., death), and philosophers prefer things to be more tidy?

Feel free to add your own theories.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Two Dogmas of Empiricism, part II for real

by Hanno

The best way to read the first part of 2 dogmas is as an attack on the metaphysics of intensions. Logicians make a distinction between the extension of a predicate and the intension of a predicate. Consider a predicate like 'has a kidney.' There is a set of objects which satisfy that predicate, and that set is the extension of the predicate. Some other predicates have the same extension, as, in the classic example, 'has a heart.' The set of objects which have a kidney is identical to the set which has a heart, so the extentions of both predicates is the same. But what it means to have a kidney is different than what it means to have a heart. The meaning of the predicate is called its intension.

So all analytic claims are claims which share not just extension, but intension, i.e. they share meaning. Thus the predicate 'is an unmarried male' and 'is a bachelor' share not just extentions, but meaning, too, i.e. intensions, and because of that the claim 'All bachelors are unmarried males' is an analytic claim. We saw how the Logical Positivists used the distinction between analytic and synthetic claims in their philosophical analysis. But they never show just what these intensions actually are, nor how we can tell when one predicate has the same meaning as another predicate. And as empiricists, this knowledge must either be through logic, or empirical. But Quine in essence shows it can be neither.

Quine exempts from his analysis all truly logical tautologies. Those are statements that are true under all interpretations, from a logical point of view. He also does not object to any explicit definition. So his objection applies only to non-explicit, non-logical assertions of analyticity.

Now the logical structure of 'All bachelors are unmarried men' looks something like '(x)[Bx>(~Mx.Nx)]', where '(x)' is read as 'for all x', and 'Bx' is 'x is a bachelor,' '>' is the material conditional, '~' is the negation, 'Mx' is 'x is married' and 'Nx' is 'x is a man.' Read in its logicese, For any x, if x is a bachelor, then it is not the case that x is married and x is a man.' But this is not a tautology, for we can plug in (interpret) B, M and N in such ways that make it false. For example, if 'B' is 'x is a bat,' 'M' is 'x flies' and 'N' is 'x eats nerf balls,' then the sentence says 'for anything, if it is a bat, then it does not fly and it eats nerf balls,' which is surely false, unless there is something about bats that, really, someone should have told me.

But then it is obvious that all bachelors are unmarried is not known or explained through logic. If not by logic, how? Surely we cannot know the similarity of meaning empirically. If they were known empirically, then we would not know them with necessity or with certainty. A dictionary follows how we use language, and the definitions contained document the meaning of words, but the dictionary could be wrong, and are not necessarily true, or else meanings could never change.

How do we know what the meaning of 'has a heart' is? Answer: only by its extension. But then intension is just a sham, it can carry no philosophical weight. The meanings of predicates are not some entity to be discovered or uncovered. Any knowledge we have of that meaning comes by pointing to the things that have the property, i.e. by exntension. It follows that we can get these radically wrong, as we point to all the red balloons, and say 'balloon.' Then someone points to a red shirt, and we say 'balloon.' We only know what we mean because we have pointed to similar things, but the number of similarities and differences are endless, so we do not know if we latch onto the right similarity, the right difference. So, too, with 'bachelor' and 'unmarried man.' We know these terms by generalizing over the instances we have seen, but we can always be generalizing over the wrong properties.

Except... if we operationally define our terms. If we let how we know whether something or is not of a certain type define that type. Then if the method of verification (or falisfication) is the same, we can know that the meaning is the same. This does not use intensions, but is acceptable by the logical positivists. But can we reduce language, reduce the claims we make in language, to its method of verification? The positivists always assumed the answer was 'yes.' Carnap does is best to show it in his master work, The Logical Structure of the World. But they were wrong to assume it, and Carnaps' works shows vividly why it is impossible. And with that, verificationism, or falsificationism, go out the window.

That story next.

Two Dogmas of Empiricism, part II

Those eagerly awaiting part two will have to wait until tomorrow.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

Filmosophy: Deconstructing the Wall

When: Friday, March 20, 2009
Where: Hardtner, Room 128
What: Dr. Furman will discuss existential issues in Pink Floyd's The Wall.

Check out the poster here

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Two Dogmas of Empiricism

By Hanno

T. Furman asked me to write up a description of the classic article "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" by Willard V.O. Quine, perhaps the greatest American born and bred philosopher. From Quine's first classic "Truth by Convention" in 1936 to a slew of classic articles in the '50's and '60's, Quine's work in philosophy and logic shaped a generation. Both of those articles contain criticism of one of the most powerful, lively and influential philosophical movements the Western world has seen, Logical Positivism. Developed by German thinkers in the 1920's and '30's, Logical Positivism had many roots, but contained a criticism of philosophy as it had been practiced before and during the 20's. A collection of like minded intellectuals gathered frequently in Vienna and were called "the Vienna Circle." Many of the thinkers opposed the rise of the Nazi's in Germany, and had to flee when the Nazi came to power both in Germany and in Austria. Some went to England, but many of the most influential went to the USA. These included Gustav Bergman, who landed in Iowa, where he taught two of my professors at the University of Texas, and Rudolf Carnap, perhaps the greatest of the lot, as well as a socialist and pacifist, landed at Harvard, where Quine also taught. Carnap had met Quine earlier, and had already formed a close connection. Quine's criticism of Logical Positivism focuses on Carnap's version. While good friends, they disagreed about many things, yet both influence the other's work, as each responded to the arguments of the other.

Logical Positivism has two primary components, and could only arise after developments in both science and logic. At its head is a belief in empiricism: that all knowledge is to be derived from experience. Empiricism had long had difficulties explaining our knowledge of mathematics. Knowledge of such necessary and universal truths were clearly not empirical. While Hume did not realize the difficulties empiricism faced, and so waved off math as simply being about relations of ideas, and hence simply part of logic, Kant pointed to some difficulties. Kant argued that sentences fall into one four categories based on a matrix of two by two: They are either analytic or synthetic, that is either made true in virtue of the meaning of the parts of the sentences as opposed to sentences which go beyond the content of the subject. In the sentence 'Tigers are mammals,' the subject 'Tigers' does not contain the predicate 'are mammals,' but in the sentence 'Bachelors are unmarried men,' the subject does seem to contain the predicate. We say, that's just what it means to be a bachelor. The other parameter of the matrix is that sentences are either known empirically or a priori. Experience tells us that things are such and such, but not that they must be. Anytime some necessary claim is known, they must be known independent of experience, because experience simply cannot ground necessity.

Math then is the first exception to empiricism for Kant: They are necessary truths, and hence known a priori, but they are also, he argued, not analytic claims. In particular, denying '2+2=4' does not create a contradiction, certainly not until you have a defintion for '2' or '4.' On the face of it, '4' does not contain '2+2.' Denying that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line similarly creates no contradiction, nor does the idea of a line contain 'shortest distance between two points.'

Frege showed, however, that this was the product of not understanding mathematics clearly. In particular, with a more powerful logical system together with naive set theory and clear definitions of what the number one actually is yields a system which answered Kant's problems. In doing so, Frege showed that you could conceive of arithmetic as merely part of logic, and that Hume was right in the end. Notice, Hume was not right, but simply asserting dogmatically, that arithmetic were simply relations of ideas. In the logic of his day, that simply was not true. There was no way to prove most of what mathematicians were studying using Aristotelian logic. Other thinkers soon followed showing that geometry could also be treated as a mere part of logic: Logic plus definitions yields all of math. Principal among these thinkers was Bertrand Russell, and the first effort at this was his classic: The Principles of Mathematics.

This then was one leg of Logical Positivism: Mathematics is simply a part of logic, and following Wittgenstein, logic does not give facts about the world, but simply describes our use of certain symbols. In other words, since mathematics does not describe any real truths, it is not a serious objection to empiricism. It is this view that Quine takes to task in "Truth by Convention."

The other side of Logical Positivism is empiricism. Actual questions about how the world is must be tried to experience. Now again, Hume had stated that the meaning of a word is the combination of sense impressions. Though Hume does argue for this claim, the argument is not very good. Indeed, his argument against the idea of 'cause' is a case and point: Hume argues that all words must be tied to sense impression to have meaning, and that cause is not tied to an impression, so that the word 'cause' has no meaning. But early he tells us that his view that all words are tied to sense impressions rest on an argument: show me a word that is not tied to an impression, and it is up to me, if my view is right, to show how it actually is tied to an impression. He proceeds to do just that with God, for example. By the time he gets to cause, his believe that the meaning of a word is a combination of sense impressions is dogma. There he declares that the word 'cause' is meaningless because there is no impression from which to derive the idea of cause, and hence the word has no meaning.

But it is dogma that is doing real philosophical work. Now Frege, in his work on logic, argued that the meaning of words is a red herring, that the real source of meaning was the sentence. Words only have meaning in the context of a sentence, and thinking of words as the primary barer of meaning creates confusion. You start to think that properties are real things, when in fact properties are incomplete ideas that become complete when in a sentence. Frege coached to "never ... ask for the meaning of a word in isolation, but only in the context of a proposition." (Foundations of Arithmetic). Wittgenstein accepts that, and the positivists also accept that as well.

No longer would it matter if each term in a sentence is tied to a sense impression, but whether the sentence as a whole is tied to experience. But to which experiences? That part the positivists differ, but the most memorable of them was the verificationist principle of meaning. This can be fleshed out in two ways, the first less specific than the second. In general, verificationism holds that a sentence is meaningful if and only if it is either a proposition of logic (a tautology) or if there is some sense experience which could lead one to accept it as true. For claims about the world, this is especially important, and they used this principle to banish bullsh*t from philosophy. If a sentence cannot in principle be verified by experience, then the sentence was not really a proposition at all, but a pseudo-proposition. It sounds like it says something, but it does not. So claims about causal connections are legitimate if there is some experience which would lead someone to accept or reject the claim, even if the idea of cause is not a copy of an impression. Other claims, like "The Absolute enters into, but is itself incapable of, evolution and progress," are meaningless. No one has the slightest idea what experience would lead one to accept such a claim.

But why would verificationism be true? The basic idea is that it is irrational to argue about things that in principle no reason or experience can show to be either true or false. That cleave is a chasm: either reason has something to say (and hence logic will clear the air) or experience has something to say (science) or the claim is meaningless, a pseudo proposition. Used in the hands of a master, this doctrine becomes an executioner's blade, slicing heads off.

What shows us that claims are meaningless, however, if neither reason nor experience can undermine it? Answer: if the meaning of the sentence itself is its method of verification! Then it follows that a sentence that has no method of verification, if not a tautology, is meaningless. And now you can see the work done by Logicism, the view that mathematics simply is a branch of logic: if that were not true, then math, too, would be banished as a pseudo proposition, something so wholly absurd, no one would accept it.

These are then the two dogmas of empiricism: that statements can be divided into analytic claims on the one hand and synthetic claims on the other, and that sentences mean their method of verification (or falsification).

Quine will show the second claim to be false. He will use that to undermine the first claim. And that will dull the edge of the executioner's axe.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Ockham's Razor and Descartes

Over on the philosopher's magazine blog, an interesting post appeared concerning Descartes Vegetarianism?! According to Bloodless Revolution, a history of vegetarianism by Tristram Stuart, Descartes was a vegetarian. This is very surprising because Descartes is famous for his view of animals as mere machines.

From the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

One of the clearest and most forceful denials of animal consciousness is developed by Rene Descartes (1596-1650), who argues that animals are automata that might act as if they are conscious, but really are not so (Regan and Singer, 1989: 13-19). Writing during the time when a mechanistic view of the natural world was replacing the Aristotelian conception, Descartes believed that all of animal behavior could be explained in purely mechanistic terms, and that no reference to conscious episodes was required for such an explanation. Relying on the principle of parsimony in scientific explanation (commonly referred to as Occam's Razor) Descartes preferred to explain animal behavior by relying on the simplest possible explanation of their behavior. Since it is possible to explain animal behavior without reference to inner episodes of awareness, doing so is simpler than relying on the assumption that animals are conscious, and is therefore the preferred explanation.

To be fair, Descartes was a vegetarian for mostly health, not ethical, reasons. However, Stuart suggests that Descartes was disturbed by the problems surrounding sentience. If animals did feel pain, then it would be wrong to kill them for food (see Singer: Animal Liberation 1975).

An easy way around this puzzle is to simply assume that animals are not conscious, feeling no pain. Moreover, this is the simplest argument. However, as Todd pointed out in his post, the simplest argument is not always the right argument. Animal consciousness is a hotly debated topic in animal ethics (see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Ethics entry on Animal Consciousness for a primer). Ockham's razor, much like faith, shouldn't be used as a cognitive default to prevent us from exploring the complexity of the world around us.


Monday, March 9, 2009

Ockham's Razor and Truth

By T. Furman

Gimbel tells us that Plantinga’s attempt to show that Christianity and evolution are compatible is a red herring. After all, supposing that Christianity is compatible with evolution, one must then decide which theory to endorse. And this is supposed to be a no-brainer given Ockham’s Razor: Evolutionary theory is simpler than the Christian competitor, evolution directed by a divine will.

I agree with this to a point, so long as the evolutionist isn’t actually claiming more than she is entitled to. Ockham’s razor doesn’t tell us which theory is actually true. So, if this is what the evolutionist is actually pushing for, when she argues that Evolutionary theory is to be preferred, then I protest the over reaching conclusion.

And here is a funny thing. Just suppose that God did create the universe and guided evolutionary selection. The universe would probably look much as it does now. But notice this, given our scientific deference to all things empirical, our approach to understanding our origins would preclude us from hitting on the truth of the matter. And I think that scientists ought to really ponder this fact, as it shows that science is not as objective as it is usually made out to be.

Finally, there might be a reason for preferring Christian/Evolutionist view of things over the straight Evolutionist as the Christian Evolutionist can explain certain phenomena that the plain Evolutionist can’t: Miracles.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Bookmobile: Defining the Information Poor

As a librarian, I am constantly looking for new ways implement technology in an attempt to organize and disseminate information to a community of users. However, a topic that is often ignored by overzealous librarians immersed in a Web 2.0 culture is the digital divide that exists in this country. Succinctly, technology is used by those who can afford it. The following is a paper outlining an archaic library service that one would least expect to remedy this situation: the bookmobile.

This blog post was selected for publication in the Journal of Bloglandia Vol. 2 No. 1


Information is the buzz word of the 21st century. Social scientists have prophesized that we’ve suddenly become an “information society” with an “information economy.” Drawing on this model, Al Gore, arguably, coined the term “information superhighway” referring to the Clinton/Gore administration’s plan to deregulate communication services and widen the scope of the internet. But as a nation America has always been a country which prided itself on its information-delivery channels, from public schools to the postal service. And perhaps the best-recognized repositories of our society’s information are its public libraries.

From their earliest inception in the mid-1800s, public libraries were idealistically conceived as places where American democracy would flourish as all citizens enjoyed equal access to the abundance of the world’s collected record of human knowledge. In reality, however, these institutions were often created by and operated for the Anglo-Saxon, educated middle classes. Whether intentionally or not, library holdings, furnishings, programs, and even hours of operation all sent a powerful message about who controlled access to information in our society and provided the basis for defining the information rich and the information poor.

Outreach, as defined by the Dictionary of Library and Information Science, is: a library public service program initiated and designed to meet the information needs of an unserved or inadequately served target group. The bookmobile, from its inception, embodied this service mission. As a corollary, the library materials and driving route for a bookmobile provide fertile ground for analyzing the information poor in a community. A study of issues surrounding bookmobile service should provide a stark depiction of the powers of and limits to public libraries under the most democratic of intentions. And in exploring the information carried by the bookmobile, as well as the patrons served by it, the continuing role of the bookmobile as a pivotal resource for providing information to inadequately served populations may find renewed interest as an agent in closing the digital divide.

This paper is divided into four main sections, each exploring issues surrounding the efforts of bookmobiles in serving the information poor nationally:

• Brief History of the Bookmobile Program
• Bookmobile Patrons
• Bookmobile Holdings
• Future of the Bookmobile Program in America


The birth of the bookmobile in the United States took place around the turn of the century (circa 1900) at the Washington County Free Library in Hagerstown, Maryland. In order to service their 66 remote “deposit stations” in stores and churches, each holding around 35 volumes, they hired a horse and wagon to carry books back and forth to these stations three times a week. For its time, this was considered the pinnacle of innovation in terms of library extension services.

Shortly after establishing the program, one rather astute librarian proposed in 1905 that the library purchase their own horse and wagon, adding shelves so that it could serve as a surrogate “branch library” itself, in addition to its routine deposit station deliveries. As an added bonus, this “book wagon” would also serve as a decorative symbol of “advertisement” for the main library. A year later in 1906, Melvil Dewey advocated for a theoretical model of what he called “field libraries,” where a ““traveling librarian would give a day or two each week or month to a locality too small to afford his entire time.” In 1912, the Washington County Free Library constructed what would become the first true bookmobile (abandoning deposit station deliveries), a custom built International Harvester Autowagon. It was reported that “the bookmobile carried 2,500 volumes” — more than all the deposit stations combined — “and covered a 500 square mile territory in a place where there was virtually no high school.”

The idea of a “mobile library” spread quickly across the country as it provided an inexpensive way for libraries to service the information poor. According to Eleanor Francis Brown, a custom-made bookmobile could be purchased for under $1000 in the early 1900s. In 1915 the town of Hibbing, Minnesota developed what would become the standard prototype for bookmobile production for the next 75 years. In order to combat bitterly cold winters, the library designed the first “walk-in” bookmobile, complete with a coal stove.

By 1937, bookmobile production in the United States was on the increase with 60 bookmobiles in existence at the time. The popularity of the service forced the American Library Association to provide guidance for libraries wishing to acquire a bookmobile, emerging with an advisory volume called Book Automobiles in 1937. Unfortunately, this advisory volume was little used as bookmobile production and service was put on hiatus as the country experienced the Great Depression and both WWI and WWII during much of the 1930s and 1940s.

After WWII, the American economy improved and the trend was definitely towards growth. New companies emerged to manufacture specifically-designed recreational vehicles that could accommodate whole classes inside at one time. From 1956 to the end of the 1960s, bookmobiles experienced their most rapid growth both in rural and urban areas. This expansion is largely due to the initiation and amendment to the Library Services Act (LSA). In 1956, the LSA p provided $40,000 to each state that complied with its provisions - most notably the extension of library services to rural areas of populations of 10,000 or less. As a result, a third of federal and state money was spent on bookmobiles, which were said to have “improved service for over 30 million rural people and provided new service for another 1.5 million.” In 1964 Library Services and Construction Act removed the population limits of the previous Library Services Act, meaning that now urban areas were also eligible for funding. The idealism of the 1960s, matched with federal funding provided the backdrop for the “golden age” of the bookmobile.

Unfortunately, the 1970s were the beginning of a steady decline in mobile
services. According to Catherine Alloway, in her book entitled The Book
Stops Here: New Directions in Bookmobile Services, “many idealistic outreach
goals and programs of the morally charged sixties came to a screeching halt
with the financial woes of the seventies, even though gasoline was always a
relatively small portion of any bookmobile’s budget.” The negative influence
would have a lasting impact, wrote VanBrimmer: “The fuel crisis began to ease by 1982, but the cost of fuel remained inflated and the startup costs of bookmobile services became a budget problem to a cost-conscious library community.” This trend has continued into the 21st century as erratic fuel prices, coupled with advances in digital technology, have expedited the bookmobile’s demise. According to the ALA, between 1990 and 2003 the number of bookmobiles in the United States has continued to decrease from 1,102 to 864.


One of the most basic models of the communication process begins with a simple triangle: sender, message, and receiver. Someone has to talk, something has to be said, and someone has to listen. If we map that model onto an overview of information handling, we could say information has to be generated, it has to be transmitted, and it has to be understood. The information age functions on the implicit assumption that information transmission problems are purely technical. After all, optical fiber and satellite delivery systems distribute information across the globe. However, for those without the economic means to afford technological advancements, barriers to access may be cultural, psychological, or physical. For a variety of reasons, bookmobile patrons are non-users of traditional libraries (or even the internet). Therefore, identifying various obstacles to patron access is critical, because outreach to these non-users is the singular mission of bookmobiles.


The elderly and handicapped have been a bookmobile target market since the 1960s. It was in 1960 that the practice began of constructing bookmobiles with wheelchair lifts to serve this community as effortlessly as possible. Even today, the mentally or physically challenged comprise a significant segment of the bookmobile user population. According to Jan Meadows’ 2000 survey of bookmobiles in rural areas, “seniors, school children, and teachers are by far the largest segment of the population served. However, 40 percent of the respondents serve the mentally or physically challenged, and 31 percent serve the home bound.”


The anxiety from the overwhelming size of a traditional library is often alleviated by the bookmobile. Non-users of traditional libraries enjoy the “personal service” aspect of the bookmobile. Some people find it easier to use a small collection than a large library. As Brown states, “a bookmobile does not overawe or confuse them by sheer numbers of books.” In addition, the limited nature of the bookmobile actually creates an aura of excitement analogous to the ice cream truck. Owing to the maxim that we appreciate more that which we have less often and take for granted that which we have all the time, bookmobiles attract patrons through their innovation and design. Anne Valente, a former reference librarian, echoed this sentiment when she recounted her experience of the bookmobile:

In the summertime, when the Craig Elementary School library [in St. Louis] was closed for the season, we drove to the local county branch where my sister and I would often check out 10 books at a time – the maximum limit our library cards would hold. Though I loved the county branch, with its immense card catalog and its bean bag chairs in the children’s section, I loved the bookmobile even more. The bookmobile regularly stationed itself in the Craig School parking lot, just two blocks from my home, and we often walked there on summer mornings before heading to the pool in the afternoons. The trailer’s musty smell and its endless rows of book spines comforted me, and the satisfying stamp of ink within each book’s back cover meant it was mine for at least two weeks.


One of the goals of the bookmobile right from its very inception has been to bridge
cultural barriers. When bookmobiles were mainly for rural patrons, there was also a class barrier that was being breached as well, since the culture of the city was very different from that of the country. As Brown claims, the small scale of bookmobile collections can entice fearful readers - there is no austerity or speaking in hushed voices. As a corollary, the bookmobile breeds a culture where informality prevails. Rural patrons who might hesitate to go into a large, urban branch and ask for a book frequent the bookmobile with little coaxing.

On the other hand, in urban areas, the barrier is not so much distance or isolation as it is time itself. To punctuate this point, Peter Andros constructed a “lunch-hour outreach” to white-collar office workers on Wall Street. While most companies declined to allow their employees to participate for fear of lost productivity, a Dow Jones office of 1,000 employees agreed to the service with favorable results. Not only does this anecdote illustrate the importance of outreach in the most sophisticated of urban setting, it also serves as a powerful critique of post-industrialist theorists who herald the mobility and freedom of the white-collar worker. Even in the information-processing workplace, there are barriers to be breached.


The bookmobile provides the interface between librarian and patron, but it is the content carried by the bookmobile that provides the reason for this meeting in the first place. By examining issues surrounding bookmobile holdings, one can explore the motivations behind both the librarians and the patrons, and perhaps decide whether the stated goals of the bookmobile are truly served by the information that is delivered. As with all collection development, deciding on what types of information to collect is dependent upon assessing the general character and needs of the community. The categories of information to be collected include:

• Historical Development of the community
• Geographical and Transportation Information on growth patterns and
population distribution
• Political and Legal Factions
• Demographic Data (e.g., age characteristics, size, race, and
transience of the population)
• Economic Data
• Social, Cultural, Educational and Recreational Organizations

Bookmobiles are a special case of the public library, though, because of their limited collection capacity and their selective targeting of a small audience. The technical name for bookmobile service is “portable materials distribution” and, according to the most recent study, 50 percent of today’s bookmobiles carry less than 2,500 materials. The limited space of the bookmobile cannot be neglected as a major contributor to collection development. Obviously, different types of books (paperbacks, reference works) tend to take up different amounts of shelf space. For example, while one may be able to efficiently shelve up to 20 juvenile books in a single linear foot of shelf space, only 5 law or medicine books can be shelved in the same space.

But ideally, content decisions should be made on more thoughtful criteria than
shelf space. On the one hand, bookmobile content may often be a reflection of the holdings of the main library. On the other hand, as Brown points out, each bookmobile route may have its own objectives, and each collection should support these objectives. For example, a route which was focused on providing “temporary” service to both children and adults in anticipation of a future branch site might stock: attractive and popular general books for adults (to entice this group and win support for future branch), only the best children’s books (because space is at a premium and school libraries have other books), and no reference materials (due to space restrictions).

One debate worth noting in more detail is the question of the “reading level” that the bookmobile should serve. Since the bookmobile functions as an outreach service to the information poor, the materials circulated will inevitably point to the types of information that these non-traditional libraries users seek. When bookmobiles came along, the fiction question wasn’t even an issue. The librarian of the first bookmobile noted that the demand for “best sellers” was virtually nonexistent, because her patrons were so rural that they did not receive news of such mass market movements. But bookmobiles soon gained a reputation for being vehicles full of “light” reading. According to Vavrek’s study, 65 percent of bookmobile titles are adult fiction. In addition, when asked what they were checking out, 60 percent of bookmobile patrons were checking out leisure reading while only 30 percent were checking out a general knowledge book. As a result, a non-traditional library user’s reading level may make him/her wary of bookmobile service that provides mostly popular fiction.


As was stated earlier, the long history of the bookmobile began to slowly decline in the mid-1970s. The fuel shortage of the early 1970s, combined with spates of government money that allowed the opening of new branch libraries in suburbs and outlying areas, did diminish enthusiasm for the bookmobile, but now, in the 21st century, its use appears to be growing once again. Without question, the “information superhighway” of the 1990s which promised on-demand access to information for anyone who has a phone or cable TV line in their home aided in the demise of the bookmobile. But rather than see this as a threat, some bookmobile programs have attempted to embrace the very technologies that threaten them. After all, integrating cutting edge technology with the concept of a mobile library was an essential element in launching the bookmobile. Simply replacing the horse and wagon of the earliest form of the bookmobile itself is an example of a cutting-edge technology — the automobile — used in a novel way. Furthermore, in the late 1960s, the debate was over what kinds of automated check-out systems would be feasible in a mobile library. The same issues arose then as now: there were questions about the availability of adequate and stable power, there was hesitance at the initial cost of automation, and there was a fear that the equipment would detract from the personalized service so prized by bookmobile librarians and patrons.

Succinctly stated, improvements in technologies that enable mobile online access have turned bookmobiles into mobiles computer labs. The online bookmobile represents a new era of library service no longer limited to computer access by geography. When a 1998 survey in Pennsylvania revealed that many people did not have internet access at home, the author hinted that bookmobiles may be a useful tool in bridging the technology gap. A few years later, the Memphis/Shelby County Public Library developed a completely adaptable, 40-foot-long, computerized “InfoBUS” to bring library services to non-English-speakers in Memphis and Shelby County.

As a fully operational mobile unit focused on computer services, this adapted bookmobile provides training on Windows, Internet use and safety, word processing and other programs, and access to valuable online databases. Moreover, the staff can make specific programs, like computer training, the focus of a particular day’s schedule if needs demand it. InfoBUS meets its goal of serving families who do not have access to a computer or the internet in a number of ways. At any given time, the mobile unit’s collection and programming can include information on becoming an American citizen, ESL materials, foreign-language materials, life skills information, and homework help.

The Digital Divide

Analogous to the information divide between the rural and urban populations at the turn of the 19th century, the digital divide is a growing gap in the 21st century. According to the World Economic Forum’s Annual Report of the Global Digital Divide Initiative, “there remains the stark disparity between two types of world citizens: one empowered by access to information and communication technologies (ICT) to improve their own livelihood; the other stunted and disenfranchised by the lack of access to ICT that provide critical development opportunities." As a global tool, the Digital Opportunity Index (DOI) is a composite index that measures "digital opportunity" or the possibility for citizens of a particular country to benefit from access to information that is "universal, ubiquitous, equitable and affordable." The index analyzes each country within the context of three distinct categories: utilization, infrastructure, and opportunity. In an effort to quantify and address the growing digital divide globally, the index generates and updates a map showing where the most disparity exists, such as the continent of Africa and the country of India. Although the index is intended for global monitoring of the digital divide, the framework could be utilized in mapping out digital disparity nationally. The United States of America is identified as a country with a great amount of digital opportunity. As was stated earlier, outreach is a library public service program initiated and designed to meet the information needs of an unserved or inadequately served target group. Increasingly, the information needs of unserved populations are manifesting themselves in access to information and communication technologies. Thus, bookmobiles wishing to fulfill the outreach goals of public libraries must begin to adapt, rather than fold to emerging technological advancement. Unfortunately, according to Meadows’ 2000 survey, many bookmobiles are still working without the benefit of being online. Only 17 of the 121 services are online, with four more in the process. Nineteen services have laptops that are downloaded with current borrower information each morning, and the information is uploaded into the main system again each evening.

Libraries face a world of new and changing demographics and patron needs. It is imperative that they recognizes the necessity of embracing emerging technologies and incorporate innovative methods to address the diverse needs of library patrons. Implementation of new and best practices and creative strategies is encouraged to address the ever changing needs of the library's patrons. Bookmobiles are an often overlooked but nevertheless critical aspect of outreach service in the 21st century. They exist in both urban and rural areas, but it is in the digitally disadvantaged communities where bookmobiles can make the most difference in terms of addressing access and equity of IT service in the future.


From its inception, the bookmobile has targeted the “information poor” through overcoming cultural, physical, and psychological barriers to access and developing collections around the needs and reading desires of its patrons. Some of the challenges that face bookmobiles in the 21st century have been around since the early 20th century. Many were identified by Brown in her classic work on bookmobiles in the 1960s: materials are limited because of space constraints, time for people to use the bookmobile is limited at each stop, fluctuating fuel costs must be accounted for in budgets, and quantity of juvenile materials often discourages adults. However, in 2009, the bookmobile continues in its outreach role as a pivotal resource for providing information to inadequately served populations.
Transitioning into this new century, described as the information age, we largely function on incorrect assumptions. It is assumed that masses of information are being generated. Certainly, one cannot deny that IT has allowed the generation of knowledge to expand at an increasing rate. However, implicit in that assumption is that such information is being distributed equally at an accelerated rate. Unfortunately, too much information is unavailable, even to the information rich let alone the information poor. Conversations within the IT community center around increasing bandwidth as a solution to information flow without considering whether segments of the population even own a computer; how information channels open and close within varying cultural and physical differences; or how economically information moves from one place to another and why it often cannot move at all. If we are going to take advantage of developments in information access, it is imperative that research continue in measuring the growing digital divide and the ability and resources available to close the gap. One resource that should not be overlooked is the bookmobile.

Whether we are truly in the information age or not, technological developments have lessened the isolation of certain populations (information rich) while increasing the isolation of other populations (information poor). Bookmobiles continue to play a role in bridging these communities by discovering new audiences for library services, providing technological opportunities to these populations, and retaining the person-to-person relationship with the patron. As we move into an age that is more and more virtual, with more and more information to sort our way through, I can only believe that the kinds of services offered by bookmobiles will become more and more important themselves, no matter what form they take.


Kumar, K. Prophecy and Progress: The Sociology of Industrial and Post-Industrial Society, New York: Penguin, 1978: 185-240.

Fuller, Wayne E. The American Mail: Enlarger of the Common Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972: 109-47.

McMullen, Haynes. American Libraries before 1876. Beta Phi Mu Monograph Series. No. 6. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000: 125.

Reitz, Joan M. (ed.) Dictionary for Library and Information Science. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2004.

Levinson, Nancy Smiler. “Takin’ It To The Streets: The History of The Book Wagon.” Library Journal, May 116.8 (1991): 43.

Dickson, Paul. The Library in America: A Celebration in Words and Pictures. New York: Facts on File Publications, 1986: 98.

VanBrimmer, Barb. “History of Mobile Services.” In Catherine Suyak Alloway (ed). The Book Stops Here: New Directions in Bookmobile Service. New York: Scarecrow Press, 1990: 35-52.

Brown. Eleanor Frances. Bookmobiles and Bookmobile Service. New York: Scarecrow Press 1967: 68.

Williams, Patrick. The American Public Library and the Problem of Purpose. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988: 24.

Alloway, Catherina Suyak (ed). The Book Stops Here: New Directions in Bookmobile Service. New York: Scarecrow Press, 1990: 16-18.

“Bookmobiles in the United States.” American Library Association 2 April 2007

Meadows, J. “United States Rural Bookmobile Service in the Year 2000.” Bookmobile and Outreach Services 4.1 (2001): 48.

Valente, Anne. Personal interview. 22 Mar. 2007.

Andros, Peter J. “Bullish on the Bookmobile: the story of public service to
Dow Jones & Company, Inc.” Wilson Library Bulletin May 67.9 (1993): 50.

“Community Needs Assessment.” Collection Development Training for Arizona Public Libraries. 4 April 2007

Vavrek, Bernard. “Rural Road Warriors.” Library Journal March 115.5 (1990): 56-57.

Vavrek, Bernard “Asking the clients: results of a national bookmobile
Survey.” Wilson Library Bulletin May 66.9 (1992): 35.

Logsdon, Lori. “Bookmobile online circulation via cellular telephone.” Computers in Libraries April 10.4 (1990) : 17-18.

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“Digital Opportunity Index.” International Telecommunications Union. 15 April 2007.

“FY2007 Library Services and Technology Act Grant Offerings.” Illinois State Library. 14 April 2007.

Roberts, Alasdair. Blacked Out: Government Secrets in the Information Age. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


In philosophy club on Monday we discussed the trolley problem and what course of action you would pursue and why. For those of you unfamiliar with this famous problem of applied ethics, there are two ways to frame the question:

Trolley A

You are standing by a railway line when you see a train hurtling towards you, out of control; the brakes have failed. In its path are five people tied to the tracks. Fortunately, the runaway train is approaching a junction with a side spur. If you flip a switch you can redirect the train onto this spur, saving five lives. That’s the good news. The not-quite-so-good news is that another person is tied down on the side spur of the track. Still, the decision’s easy, right? By altering the train’s direction only one life will be lost rather than five.

Trolley B

This time you’re on a footbridge overlooking the railway track. You see the train hurtling towards you and five people tied to the rails. Can they be saved? Again, the moral philosopher has arranged it so they can. There’s an obese man leaning over the footbridge. If you were to push him he would tumble over and squelch onto the track. He’s so fat that his bulk would bring the train—Trolley B—to a juddering halt. Sadly, the process would kill the fat man. But it would save the other five people. Should you shove him over?

In philosophy club, we discussed Trolley B. The majority of you said that you would push the fat man, without question. Some of you, however, had more difficulty in coming up with an answer. One reason why it is hard to find a way out of this ethical dilemma could be the framing of the question itself, as Jerome pointed out. Would you make the same decision in both scenarios? Rationally, both scenarios involved killing 1 or 5 people. Yet, the idea of pushing someone to their death and pulling a lever to cause a death seem intuitively different.

In an interesting article in this month's issue of Prospect Magazine, David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton discuss the new trend of "x-phi" or experimental philosophy's approach to the Trolley Problem. When I was an undergraduate this program was developing at Washington University under the moniker of the Philosophy and Neuroscience and Psychology Program.

One assumption x-philosophers are challenging is the idea that intuitions are consistent across the board:

The BBC conducted an online poll in which 65,000 people took part. Nearly four out of five agreed that Trolley A should be diverted. Only one in four thought that the fat man should be shoved over the footbridge. (Nobody has yet looked for a link with the fact that nearly one in four Britons are obese.)


Brain scans allegedly indicate that when people are confronted with Trolley A, the part of the brain linked to cognition and reasoning lights up; whereas with Trolley B, people seem to use a section linked to emotion. The few people who are prepared to use the fat man as a buffer take longer to respond than those aren’t, perhaps because they experience the emotional impulse and then reason their way out of it. Other experiments suggest people who have sustained damage to the prefrontal cortex, which is thought to generate various emotions, are far more likely than the rest of us to favour sacrificing the fat man.

The critics of experimental philosophy are many. Critics question the localizing of thought through MRI, the crudeness of the the technology, and even the entire idea of experimental philosophy. Peter Singer, a strong critic of x-phi thinks reason should supersede our uneasiness at pushing the fat man onto the tracks.

In our discussion Rob touched upon a critique that hits both sides of the x-phi argument concerning the use of hypotheticals: they are so far-fetched that they don't replicate the true experience of making the decision.

Real world trolley experiences are different from those experienced while sitting in an MRI machine being asked whether you would push the fat man or a lever. The experimental philosophers fall prey to skewed data.

By isolating ethical decisions from context, armchair philosophers (like Singer) ignore the emotional context of ethical dilemmas and assume that reason should supersede.

Both camps want a black and white answer when the question is gray. Can we derive an "ought" out of this dilemma?


Monday, March 2, 2009

A New Defense of the Problem of Evil

by Hanno

There are two issues in the problem of evil. First, why does evil exist? Second, why does God not do anything about evil? I have no answer to the first, but I can answer the second in a way I am sure has never been used. A solution lies in David Lewis's conception of possible worlds (all of the ersatz versions of Lewis's views will not work, offering perhaps another reason for some to accept Lewis' views.)

Lewis holds that claims like "There are apples," "There are numbers," "There are ways the world might have been," all make existential claims: these things exist. He calls the ways the world might have been "possible worlds" and asserts that they exist exactly like this one. These are not collections of propositions, or ideas in the mind of God, etc., etc.. Each possible world is a universe unto itself, some with people much like you and I, some without. Whenever there is a true sentence like "There might have been no people", it is true because there is a universe (space-time continuum) like this one at which there are no people (it does get more technical, see Lewis Counterfactuals and On the Plurality of Possible Worlds). So, too, for any true claim about what might have been.

Now the idea behind wondering why God does not do anything about evil or suffering is plain enough. If He is all good, he has a moral obligation to end evil and suffering. If he is all powerful, He has the power to end all evil and suffering, and if he is omniscient, he will know how to end all suffering and evil. If he did intervene, he would make this world a better place, reduce suffering and evil.

If Lewis is right, this world is one among an infinite number of worlds. Let us call some evil E, and our world e. The sentence "God could end E" is true at e. That means at some other world, p, God does end E. But here is the deal: for the totality of evil and suffering across possible worlds, there is no change at all. And if he acts here, but might not have, then there is someplace else where he does not act, and hence the evil we avoid here exists on another possible world. Whether God acts or does not act, the total amout of evil and suffering remains the same. Hence, it is not wrong for God to prevent E.

Now if there is no possible world in which E does not exist, then it is impossible for there not to be E. We cannot hold God responsible for not doing the impossible.

Given that He makes a world, if he only makes one, then everything at that possible world is necessary. It is the only possible world. It is then impossible for God to have done otherwise, too. God could not have made another possible world, because the existence of possible worlds is what makes anything possible.

The world exists. It contains evil. Possibilities exist. They can be more or less evil. But it is impossible for the totality of evil to be greater than or less than it is, across possible worlds.

And don't come back with "But that is unbelievable." We are already assuming God's existence. Is that so much easier to believe than Lewis' possible worlds?