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Prior Knowledge

Friday, March 10, 2006

freedom as non-domination

i agree that non-domination is a useful third conception of freedom that is distinct from negative and positive. and i agree that it is a worthwhile ideal. some comments:

first, Berlin never intended his negative-positive distinction to be exhaustive of notions of freedom so he too could accept non-domination.

the claim that non-domination is necessary for freedom is plausible. but Pettit also claims that it is sufficient. i disagree. consider a government that restricts people's options to a great degree, but the decisions to do so are not the result of arbitrary will. maybe there are many checks and balances, procedures to go through, democratic voting, etc. but it still restricts freedom in the negative sense. are people living under such a government really free? surely not.

i posed this question to someone the other say and they said that subsequent to the book, pettit now accepts this point and that non-domination is not an alternative but a complement to negative freedom. he says so in some article, not sure of the reference.

finally, are non-dom and negative freedom so different? it seems possible to derive a concern for non-dom from a concern for negative freedom. that is, in a situation of domination its always possible that the dominator will restrict negative freedom. maybe out concerns in the non-interfering dominator case are not that there is an intrinsic unfreedom there but an instrumental worry: non-interfering dominators usually start to interfere.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Pettit's 'Freedom as Non-Domination'

Philip Pettit (see his book 'Republicanism') promotes a notion of republican freedom to contrast with the liberal one. The liberal notion of freedom is that of non-interference. Often, the literature distinguishes freedom as non-interference, sometimes called negative liberty, from positive liberty. Positive liberty is freedom in the sense of self-mastery. However, freedom as non-domination is distinct from both negative and positive liberty. Unlike those in the liberal tradition, Pettit makes domination, rather than interference, the antonym of freedom.

Someone has dominating power over another if
(1) they have the capacity to interfere
(2) on an arbitrary basis
(3) in certain choices that the other is in a position to make.

An act of interference is arbitrary if it is subject only to the judgment of the interfering agent. In such a case, the decision to interfere is made without reference to the interests of those who are interfered with. So, an interfering act is arbitrary because the procedure whereby the decision to interfere was taken was not subject to controls that forced the act of interference to track the interests of the person affected.

Further, we are concerned only with the relevant interests of the person affected rather than with all of her interests. For example, I may have an interest in the state punishing convicted offenders. However, once convicted of an offence, I may also have an interest in the state making an exception just this once by failing to punish me. In this case, the relevant interest is the one I share in common with others rather than the one that treats me as an exception. If the state punishes me, this act of interference is not conducted on an arbitrary basis and does not represent domination.

Consent to interference is not a sufficient check against arbitrariness and domination. A slave, for instance, is dominated by the owner even if the former voluntarily contracts into slavery. Entering into a voluntary contract is consistent with its consequences being objectionable on grounds of asymmetries of power.

Domination can occur without interference. A dominating agent – the power-bearer dominates the power-victim simply by having the capacity to interfere arbitrarily. Interference can occur without domination. A public official may interfere in a way that is forced to track the interests of citizens. Since such interference is not arbitrary, it does not translate into domination over the citizens.

Pettit wants to maximise non-domination through a constitutionally bound authority that ensures that citizens do not dominate one another while itself being bound by constitutional means to not dominate citizens.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

proposals for media reform

The following is an overview of the concluding chapter of Robert McChesney's "Rich Media, Poor Democracy". It lists (often in heavy paraphrase) his suggestions for media reform.

Robert McChesney's main concern is democratic control over the main institutions of the country. He takes democracy to require something like equal influence over political affairs by the citizenry. This, in turn, requires that the citizenry has access to a wide range of well-formed political positions on core issues and to a rigorous accounting of the activities of political and economic powers. He contends that the current media system in the US fails these functions. Systematic reasons why it fails can be found in my previous post - "Mass Media". The proposed media reforms have the aim of giving people easy access to a wider range of political positions and to a rigorous accounting of the activities of political and economic powers.

McChesney takes the main problems to be the ownership structure of the mass media, their profit motivation and their reliance on advertising and suggests the following changes to the media system of the US. He suggests the following ways

(1) build non-profit and non-commercial media with the help of funding from labor unions and progressive foundations. The government can help by, say, providing tax write-offs for donations to non-profit news media and by offering low cost mailing for small non-profit and non-advertising media (a service already extended to the profit oriented media).

(2) the government must establish non-commercial and non-profit public radio and TV. These should be established at various strata - national networks, local stations, public access TV, independent community radio, low power radio and TV for every community. Unlike the major current forms of public broadcasting in the US, these must not generate revenue through advertising or through grants from corporations or individuals. The funding for such public broadcsating is to be through taxation. Some problems to address include the worry that this system might degenerate into a bureaucracy unaccountable to popular desires or that it may become subordinate to censorship by a political authority. McChesney suggests that a system operating at varous levels (national, local, community access) will be more open to public desires and will also set up enough competing voices so as to mitigate fears of political censorship.

(3) Increase regulation. The FCC (federal communications commission) is set up to allow dialog between the public and those with broadcasting licenses. However, the desires of advertisers and the media corporations are rarely challenged (this would partly be due to lobbying by the media industry, which is not balanced by wealthy, well-organised and powerful lobbying for the cause of public interests). Currently, US broadcasters can buy their way out of their public service requirements. To get past the issue of government officials being swayed by media lobbies, McChesney suggests that perhaps licenses should only be for 18-20 hours per day leaving the rest of the time for public service. This public service time should be directed towards children's programs and news and control over the relevant programming should be in the hands of artists, educators and journalists. The funding would come from taxing the broadcasters and advertisers. McChesney also suggests some free time for political candidates, perhaps in combination with a ban on political advertisements.

(4) anti-trust activity, ie, the breaking up of monopolies and oligopolies and ensuring that there is a relatively low percentage of market share beyond which no corporation can step. The primary goal of anti-trust work should not be understood in terms of consumer welfare (defined in terms of product price and quality), but in terms of the role that the concentration of wealth plays in undermining democratic government.

mass media

The following is an overview of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky's propaganda model (from their book "Manufacturing Consent"). All of this is paraphrased (sometimes very closely) from the 'A propaganda model' chapter. Herman and Chomsky set out five 'filters' that affect news choices and serve to narrow the range of news in the media and the style in which it is covered:

(1) the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms. To publish even a small newspaper these days requires a considerable amount of money (the authors write that the cost of machinery alone runs into several hundred thousand US dollars). Twenty four media giants make up the 'top tier' of media companies in the US. They account for about half of the output of newspapers and most of the sales and audiences in magazines, broadcasting, books, and movies. Given the high cost of maintaining reporters in the field and of gathering news, second and lower tier media cut costs by following the agenda set by the top-tier media and by government and wire services for much of their national and international news. The top tier mews media is, in this sense, 'agenda-setting'.

The top tier media are all large profit making companies and are owned by very wealthy people. Shareholders, money-lending banks and investors all demand a tight focus on profit maximisation as the main goal of these companies.

Many of the main media companies have diversified beyond media. For example, NBC is owned by GE (General Electric). These parent companies or non-media branches of a mainly media company often have a vast stake in political decisions. All business firms are interested in business taxes, interest rates, labor policies, and enforcement and nonenforcement of the antitrust laws. A company like GE also depends on the government to subsidize its nuclear power and military research and development, and to create a favorable climate for overseas sales.

The main companies also have strong ties to government through lobbying, other political expenditure and through not being too critical of the government as they depend on the latter for their broadcasting licenses and franchises.

(2) advertising as the primary income source of the mass media. Advertisers have acquired the status of a de facto licensing authority in the sense that without their financial support, a newspaper ceases to be economically viable. Before advertising became prominent, the cost of newspaper had to cover pruduction costs. But with the growth of advertising, newspapers can sell copies below production costs. Any papers that did not attract advertisers are thus at a serious disadvantage. To attract advertisers, papers are interested in audiences with buying power, not with audiences per se. As a result, working class and readical papers are at a serious disadvantage, as their readers are generally have less buying power. There is also the concern that advertisers will practice political discrimination, being unwilling to put their ads in working class or radical papers and programs. Another factor is that advertisers will generally not sponsor programs that engage in serious criticism of corporate practices.

(3) the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and "experts" funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power. The media need a reliable flow of the raw material of news in orderto meet news schedules. They cannot afford to have reporters at all places where important stories may break and, to keep costs down, they concentrate their resources where significant news often occurs and where regular press conferences are held. There is also a cost to proving the accuracy of news reports when challenged. These challenges occur least when the source of the news is prestigious - say, government sources or large corporations and trade groups. As a result, media rely heavily on government sources like the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, city hall and police departments. Business corporations and trade groups are also regular and credible purveyors of stories deemed newsworthy. They also rely on large trade groups who often seek to reduce reporters' costs of information gathering by providing them with press conferences and releases.

There exist unofficial and non-business affiliated experts who are also credible sources who may voice views contrary to the interests of state and business groups. To counter this problem, these groups can put experts on their payroll, fund their research and organise think-tanks that hire them and disseminate their views.

(4) "flak" as a means of disciplining the media. "Flak" refers to negative responses to a media statement or program. If flak is produced on a large scale, it can be uncomfortable and costly for media. For, negative criticism of their statements or programs may require media to defend their positions in front of legislatures or courts and may cost them the withdrawal of advertising. Flak can come from independent individuals, but the ability to produce the most costly and voluminous flak correlates with power. It can come from government agencies or from corporate sponsors. There are various corporate funded think-tanks and media monitors that carry out this task.

(5) "anticommunism" as a national religion and control mechanism. The ideology of anti-communism is used to criticise liberals, social democrats and critics of US government policies regarding left-leaning economic rivals. This book was published in the late 80s. I suppose ideologies of patriotism and fear of being labelled anti-American or 'soft on terror' play similar roles today. Issues are often framed in terms of a dichotomy of Communist/anti-Communist powers (or American/anti-American), with gains and losses allocated to contesting sides, and rooting for "our side" considered an entirely legitimate news practice.

These filters narrow the range of news covered by the mass media and especially limit 'big news' (that is, news subject to sustained news campaigns). News from the establishment sources meets a major filter requirement and is voiced in the major media, News from dissidents or from unorganised groups is at a disadvantage in terms of both sourcing cost and credibility. Such news may also fail to comply with the politics and the interests of advertisers and major sources of flak.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Philosophers' Carnival XXI

Welcome to the 21st Philosophers' Carnival! For those who have just tuned in, the carnival aims to showcase some of the top philosophy posts of the last three weeks from around the blogosphere. There were a lot of entries this time around, so I've broken them up into categories...

Religion and Naturalism

Mathetes brings a refreshingly practical slant to abstract questions of God and Time:
This paper sets out to prove that the man on the street, who has no other source of hope for a better future but God, should hold on to his hope if God is atemporal, but should put his hope elsewhere if God is not.
He makes some questionable assumptions along the way, but it should make for some interesting discussion in the comments section.

Kenny Pearce, in Leibniz on "Efficient" vs. "Final" Causes in Physics, lucidly explains how this Aristotelian distinction can be used to differentiate between the "mundane" and the "miraculous" without asserting that there are exceptions to the laws of nature.

Meanwhile, Warren Platts speculates about Finalism in a Darwinian World. He argues that if advanced civilizations could trigger their own 'big bang' to create a whole new universe, then this could enable the evolution of, well, evolution itself:
[I]f entire universes are units of selection, and if universes that generate intelligent life produce more offspring universes than lifeless universes, then a progressive and purposeful (in the same sense that eyes are purposeful) evolutionary process that’s almost guaranteed to produce intelligent life and culture is just what a Darwinian would expect.

Tiberius and Gaius Speaking offers An Inductive argument from faith that God does not exist. He argues that the prevalence of "faith-based arguments" inductively supports the claim that it is reasonable to believe God does not exist. I'm not sure how compelling the argument is, but you've got to admire the sheer cheek of it!

Matt at Daily Phil argues in favour of Antecedent Naturalism, according to which we take as our starting point the following three principles:
1. Unity - There is only one world in which everything resides...
2. Realism - Nature goes beyond (our) conceptualization / cognitive activity.
3. Continuity - Experience is an engagement with the real elements of nature.

Truth and Fiction

Clark Goble discusses Heidegger and Truth, explaining that "Heidegger accepts our commonsense notion of correspondence. He just rejects as empty or at best unhelpful the theory of truth that is called correspondence."

Over in Fake Barn Country, Jonathan Ichikawa writes about Embedded Fictions and Iterative Imaginings:
We sometimes, but not always, have blunted affective engagement with iterated fictions -- fictional fictions. What explains the difference? I suggest that it has to do with an interest in imagining what's true in the fiction.


Uriah of Desert Landscapes writes about Dainton on the Phenomenal Self, defending the conception of the phenomenal self as a “bare locus of apprehension” against Dainton's objection that without any content to apprehend, being such a 'bare locus' would be subjectively indistinguishable from not-existence. A commentator suggests the slogan: "Phenomenal contents and a subject of experience — you can’t have one without the other."

Consciousness and Culture suggests that the adaptive function of conscious awareness is
[to introduce] a gap or distance between stimulus and response, which makes the stimulus available but not determinate. And this in turn allows for an exceptionally flexible form of behavioral control... [This view implies that] the mechanism of consciousness must have two main components -- two sides of the gap, so to speak -- one of which "presents" the environmental stimuli in some structured manner, while the other "apprehends" such presentations in some "loosely coupled" manner.

Ethics and Society

Will Wilkinson at The Fly Bottle has a fascinating post suggesting that:
Maybe the way to maintain a sense of freedom when in chains is also a way to manage agoraphobic hyperventilation in the unbounded consumer paradise.

Don't miss Jason Kuznicki On Nurturing as the True Purpose of Marriage:
Here I argue that the reason for marriage is neither solely to produce children, nor to seek romantic fulfillment, nor merely to contract with the government for rights or benefits. I propose another model, arguing that it explains the institution of marriage much better than the common reasons given for it in the same-sex marriage debate.

Jim Sias at common sense philosophy defends our moral intuitions against Singer's charge of inconsistency. Sias shows how the coherence of two apparently conflicting intuitions can be restored by taking care to generalize them under the appropriate principle.

In Blackburn, Anscombe, and Natural Law, Edward Feser critiques Simon Blackburn's recent review of the new collection of G.E.M. Anscombe essays. There's also some fun discussion in the comments questioning the plausibility of natural law theory.

The Sharpener raises the question: Why don't we use torture?
Not because of the low effectiveness rate of torture — but because torture fundamentally breaches human rights, including but not exclusively the presumption of innocence.

On my other blog, a short post quoting Nick Bostrom on the "urgent, screaming moral imperative" of anti-aging research provoked some interesting comments, from a range of perspectives, on such issues as how to assess the value of a life, and whether death is bad for you. Feel free to join the discussion!


In the delightfully titled Characterizing a Fogbank: What Is Postmodernism, and Why Do I Take Such a Dim View of it? Keith DeRose follows through on the title's promise with a post as interesting as it is long. The thriving comments thread is well worth a skim too.

Brian Weatherson quotes and discusses Soames on History, contrasting philosophically relevant history of philosophy vs. history-for-history's-sake history of philosophy. (The critical discussion in the comments section is also very interesting.)

Fluid Imagination, in Value Added Philosophy, first offers an abstract of Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and then a critical response -- suggesting that Rorty's concept of edifying philosophy is ill-served by his hermeneutical program and that a better method might focus on "creation" instead of "translation".

Another critique of the book is found over at Strictly Speaking, specifically targeting Rorty's use of Wittgenstein's views of philosophical discourse.

New Blogs

To quickly introduce a couple of blogs you might not have come across before: The Atheist Ethicist celebrates his 50th post by offering "a sampling of some of the issues that I have written about in my first fifty days."

In the introductory post of "Mapping Out the Moral High Ground", Reuben invites topic suggestions and general discussion of his novel approach to life's problems:
Each week or so I will ask a question concerning some aspect of my lifestyle. After it has been discussed and a conclusion reached I shall alter my life style accordingly.
(I understand Reuben is currently flat out finishing his Honours research project. But be sure to check back in a couple of weeks.)

That's it for this edition of the carnival, I do hope you've enjoyed it. Many thanks to all those who made the effort of submitting a post. If others would like to find out how they can contribute in future, check out the Philosophers' Carnival homepage.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Religion: a barrier to clear thinking

For this final article in the Clear Thinking series I asked myself ‘what is the biggest obstacle to thinking clearly about social and political issues?’ Several answers suggested themselves but time and again I came back to the same thing: religion. In deciding what kind of society to have and what kinds of policies government should pursue, many people take the dictates of religion to be an authoritative guide. Arguing against abortion and euthanasia by appealing to the sanctity of life given by God is but one example, but the same influence occurs in just about every imaginable topic. What we ought to do, so many people believe, depends upon what religion tells us.

Nothing could be further from the truth. What religion says is irrelevant to deciding what we ought to do.

The fallacy of grounding morality upon religion was pointed out by Plato over two thousand years ago. If we discovered that the true religion (if we knew what that was) required us to drown kittens for fun, indiscriminately shoot people, and generally be a nuisance we would not (hopefully anyway) take that as a reason to do those activities. This shows that there are independent standards for what we should do, independent that is of the dictates of religion. What makes it right or wrong for society to allow some activity does not depend on whether religion says it is okay. On the contrary, if religion says it is okay that is because it is okay for reasons independent of what religion says. In short, reason rather than religion should be our guide.

Plato’s pretty convincing demonstration has been ignored by the vast majority of people in the intervening millennia. Why are appeals to religion so common? We might think that religion is not so influential today as in say the middle ages, but events of recent years seem to indicate that more and more people across the globe are letting religion be their guide about decisions for what kind of society to have as well as in personal matters.

There are, I suggest, two reasons for this.

The first is that appeals to religion are so much easier than thinking carefully about issues. Pointing to a list of ten commandments carved in stone or written in a book saves us the trouble of having to figure out for ourselves what to do or what kind of society to have.

It is no doubt true that appealing to religion is easier, but this of course does not make such appeals appropriate. To avoid difficult questions by taking the easy way out is irresponsible.

The second reason is that for many, religion provides some kind of objectivity about ethics that cannot be got any other way. Reason and argument, on this view, are merely personal opinions and such opinions are neither right or wrong, good or bad, correct or incorrect. They are just that: opinions. There are as many opinions as there are people in the world and relying on reason and argument will result in interminable disagreement. Religion on the other hand at least provides (relatively) clear guidance, and guidance from (it is hoped) someone or something who is entitled to decide.

This picture of ethics is an inaccurate one according to philosopher Derek Parfit. He suggests that due to the dominance of religion, non-religious thinking about ethics is something that has been done by only a handful of people (Plato was one) throughout history. It is one of the youngest of subjects. Hence it is no wonder that it has not yet produced clear guidelines. Expecting it to do so is like expecting primitive people of 10,000 years ago to provide clear principles of thermodynamics. To give up on reason and turn to religion is to give up far too prematurely. With more thought, reason will provide the answers that people seek in religion.

So we can be hopeful that by setting aside religion and thinking clearly about social and political issues, the prospects of arriving at reasoned consensus on those issues are good.

Monday, October 17, 2005

consequences of the depletion of oil

Richard, in a comment on Alex's post "comments on society", writes "So yes, I am still unconcerned about resource depletion. (I remain very concerned about externalities, however; there is no "mere" about it.) Oil prices are going up (no matter the taxes) which will prevent overconsumption and provide an incentive to develop alternatives.That doesn't mean we should just ignore it, of course. I strongly support the Greens' plans to improve public transport, etc. My point is just that we don't need to worry about people using scarce resources irresponsibly. The simple fact is that in a functioning market, people can't afford to overconsume scarce resources. They can make more money through conservation."

The point I want to make is perhaps not relevant to Richard's comment (since I'm not sure that his 'unconcern' about the depletion of oil would extend to this context) and so is not a criticism of his comment, but rather a tangent that builds upon it. I want to address the "...we don't need to worry..." part. I want to talk in particular about the depletion of oil and about possible worrying consequences that are not generally held to be externalities in the sense in which pollution is an externalities. There is great (and increasing) international reliance on oil for transport of everything, including food. There is also great (and increasing) reliance on forms of agriculture that, while arguably more cost efficient than more traditional forms, are also much more reliant on pesticides (of which a key ingredient is oil). Oil is still a major source of electrical power. My general point is that, as we know, the market is not egalitarian in its geographic and socioeconomic distribution of costs and benefits. Those who are likely to lose from the projected huge increases in the price of oil will primarily be people in third world countries and the poor in general.

The most immediate peak-oil problem is that we face a steady increase in its price as the world demand (in barrels per day) outstrips world supply (barrels that can be extracted and refined per day). The supply, in this sense, is partly a matter of the technology of extraction and refining but, more importantly, is a matter of resource depletion. We should not expect the market to come up with and implement an alternative very quickly. The necessary research and development probably will not be carried out until times are dire enough that it becomes profitable to invest in the uncertain gains of research over the increasingly lucrative market for oil.
Further, even after the development of alternatives, I see no reason to think that the alternatives would be distributed in the amounts necessary to the poor. Rather, they would simply go to those who can afford to buy the technology, or, more optimistically, would be provided as a public good by governments of rich nations to their domestic populations. Meanwhile, in the time that it takes to bring the alternative technology to the poor, they are not likely to be able to afford what remains of the oil either, as both the extraction and refining of oil will be much more expensive. While we may optimistically suppose that governments of first world nations will undertake the requisite investment, we cannot expect the governments of the majority of the world's nations to make similar investments in their own countries.

There are also likely to be food shortages until the forms of agriculture can be returned to those that do not rely as heavily on pesticide and forms of economy that do not rely as heavily on international trade. From what I remember, there are constraints on the speed at which the forms of agriculture can be changed. For one, the seeds for strands of crops that rely less on pesticides are becoming less common in an international switch towards homogeneous use of high-yield, pesticide-heavy, strands. Second, the soil used to support the latter kind of crop, or to support the form of agriculture that sees repetitive planting of the same crop may take a few years to return to being the kind of soil that can support traditional farming methods.

Add to these problems their likely accompaniments of an increase in resource wars (both among nations and among local militias) in order to procure both oil and food and the general increase in social disarray and violence expected in times of economic crisis and we have a pretty dismal picture of what we can expect even if there is an eventual introduction of alternative energy. In particular, while the first world and the rich more generally may come off relatively unscathed (facing only a drastic, but survivable, change in their patterns of consumption), the poor face the possibility of vast food shortages, even less access to electricity and intra-national or even inter-national war. I also suppose that given the international wars for oil, the mightiest nations will maintain access to oil for the longest period. Coupled with the likely dire consequences for the third world, this privileged access will probably mean that the gap in wealth and in social conditions between the mighty nations and the third world will increase.

I suggest that we cannot let the market deal with the depletion of oil. We need fairly urgent action by governments around the world (especially those of the rich nations) to invest, both nationally and in the third world, in discovering alternatives and laying down the requisite infrastucture and especially to promote economies that can function well at least in the intermediate stage between the rise in oil prices and the global introduction of alternatives. Of course, if such changes in the policies of nations are to be possible, they would probably have to be coupled with wider concerns of domestic governance in the rich nations, the terms of operation of international financial institutions, media reform in various first world countries and so on.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Philosophy for Kids

I've previously posted on my own blog about teaching kids philosophy. But it seems appropriate to raise the issue here too. Here are three relevant articles:

One discusses Harvard's Project Zero, which I think sounds very interesting:
Up to 70 per cent of Project Zero's work involves schools. One of its projects - known as "visible thinking" - gives teachers strategies to encourage deep thinking among students.

"We would like schoolchildren to learn to think and learn in a stronger way," Professor Perkins says. "One simple problem with thinking is that it's invisible. So the basic philosophy of this initiative is to make thinking more visible in classrooms so that children can see their own thinking and teachers can see it at work so they can get a hold of it and improve it."

For the utilitarians among us, another confirmed that a philosophy for children programme "was making a real difference to academic results and had resulted in children behaving in a less aggressive and more mature way."

The third contains much of interest. For those who doubt whether kids are ready for philosophy:
Gareth Matthews was in Japan last year talking to fifth-graders about perfect happiness. He read them a story he had written about a child absorbed in the satisfaction of scratching an insect bite. Could this define perfect happiness?

"Scratching an insect bite and enjoying it so much that at the moment you don't enjoy anything else is only one petal on the flower of happiness," one child said.

Matthews, a philosophy professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, was impressed. "Adults are not generally aware of the fact that children are capable of raising interesting philosophical questions and pursuing interesting philosophical issues," he said.

It continues:
Mount Holyoke College philosophy professor Thomas Wartenberg teaches a course called "Philosophy for Children." College students help develop questions based on picture books and then lead discussions for second- and fifth-graders at Jackson Street Elementary School in Northampton, Mass. Out of the adventures of storybook characters come such questions as "What is courage?" Lively discussions develop around the topics of beauty, truth, justice and reality.

Under Wartenberg's supervision, college students help grade-schoolers create a "community of inquiry" in which children learn the crucial elements of a philosophical discussion. He tells children, "You have to listen carefully and think hard and then make up your mind. If you can't defend your answer, you have to think some more."

This sounds like really fun and worthwhile stuff. I wonder if there'd be any chance of a similar programme being developed here at Canterbury?

Recommended Links:

Update [Feb 07]: More here:
New research from Dundee University suggests learning philosophy raises children's IQ by up to 6.5 points and improves their emotional intelligence.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Arguments on a downhill slide

In debates on any social issue, it is not long before a slippery-slope argument is made. Such arguments take the following form: even though X in itself is not wrong, if X is allowed to occur then Y will also occur and Y is wrong.

Take the euthanasia debate. Some argue that while the terminally ill ideally should have the right to end their own lives, if society allowed this there is the danger that some people would be forced into ending their lives against their will. And that would only be the first step down a slippery slope. People might be killed without even being asked, ‘unproductive’ members of society could be despatched, and who knows what other horrors could be upon us.

Slippery slope arguments are difficult to respond to for two reasons. First they appeal to consequences that are undeniably bad. No one would doubt that a society in which the frail and elderly are killed against their will would be a terrible society. Second they emphasise that no one can say for certain that those bad consequences would not occur. If euthanasia were legalised we don’t know for sure what would happen and if there is some chance of the dire predictions coming true that seems a compelling case against it. Campaigners for euthanasia emphasise that it would be subjected to careful regulation, but how can we be certain that this regulation would succeed? And even if we were, those who make the slippery slope argument respond that euthanasia would bring about a change is people’s beliefs such that the sanctity of life would be undermined, which no amount of regulation could prevent.

Despite these strengths, slippery slope arguments ought to be avoided. It is not enough to point out the mere possibility of something bad happening. That would rule out every conceivable change to society. It has to be shown that the bad things are likely to happen. And for this evidence must be given. Those who make slippery slope arguments are seldom forthcoming with evidence and when they are they usually select only the evidence that supports their case, conveniently ignoring the rest.

Philosopher Richard Arneson has pointed out how, in response to some proposed change to society, uncertainty about the future leads to highly speculative harms being over-exaggerated. British politicians in the Victorian ages, for example, argued that allowing divorced mothers access to their own children would bring about the downfall of the family. To allow unfounded speculative harms to outweigh the real benefits that would be done by say allowing the terminally ill to end their own lives is absurd.

Slippery slope arguments should be resisted by pointing out the clear differences in the steps on the slope. In euthanasia, there is a clear difference between the terminally ill freely choosing to end their live and people being killed against their will. In the absence of any evidence of slipperiness from one step to the next, we can be as sure as it is possible to be that society will not slide down the slope.

Postmodern Abuses of Science

I’ve just come across the most delicious hoax! In 1996, Alan Sokal, a New York University theoretical physicist submitted an essay to Social Text, an influential cultural studies journal, entitled ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’. It claimed to be a scholarly article about the postmodern philosophical and political implications of twentieth century physical theories. The central thesis of this article is that quantum gravity (a highly theoretical and still speculative theory of time and space on minute scales - scales of one millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a centimeter) has profound and far reaching progressive political and social implications. The article was reviewed by five members of Social Text's editorial board and accepted for publication; it appeared in a special issue of the journal devoted to the ‘Science Wars’ - an ongoing debate between the social sciences and cultural studies on one hand (specifically, postmodern science studies), and natural sciences on the other. Supposedly, this special issue was supposed to vindicate claims of the incompetence of postmodern science studies.

Sokal later revealed the article as a hoax. Alongside some truths, it is an array of deliberately concocted partial-truths, blatant falsehoods, non-sequiturs, and syntactically correct sentences that are ultimately meaningless. Have a read: http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/, it is absolutely hilarious! Take this example: ‘Just as liberal feminists are frequently content with a minimal agenda of legal and social equality for women and are ‘pro-choice,’ so liberal (and even some socialist) mathematicians are often content to work within the hegemonic Zermelo-Fraenkel framework (which, reflecting its nineteenth-century origins, already incorporates the axiom of equality) supplemented only by the axiom of choice. But this framework is grossly insufficient for a liberatory mathematics, as was proven long ago by Cohen 1966.’

While I am certainly no expert in mathematics or set theory, it's pretty hard to believe that any editor who knew what the various terms actually mean would not have had some doubts about this passage. What the hell does the axiom of equality in set theory have to do with liberalism, or, indeed, with any political philosophy? Similarly, the axiom of choice clearly has nothing to do with the issue of choice in the abortion debate. Even so, no argument is offered to this end. Wouldn't any editor who had the vaguest knowledge of mathematics have required just a little more by way of explanation here, in order to make these connections just a bit more clear? (Also: ‘liberatory mathematics’? Classic!) Such examples abound – at one point Sokal explicitly, and without argument, denies the existence of the external world. (To assert otherwise would be to ‘cling to the dogma imposed by the long post-enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook...’)

The article, which is almost entirely a pastiche of quotes from a variety of postmodern theorists such as Lacan, Lyotard, Derrida, and Latour et al, constructs a parody almost entirely out of the parodied – something which, ironically, some of the postmodernists under attack would surely appreciate! The disturbing thing I find here is not only the fact that this article was accepted and published as a serious piece of scholarship (what happened to peer review? Any maths or physics undergrad would see through the nonsense!), but that Sokal based it on strategies that are well-established within the postmodern literary genre: appeal to authority instead of logical argument; speculative theories passed off as established science; absurd analogies; ambiguous rhetoric; and confusion between everyday and technical uses of words.

Check out this actual example of postmodern sheer pseudo-scientific brilliance, courtesy of Felix Guattari: ‘We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multi-referential, multidimensional machinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their extension: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously.’

What happened to the standards of academic scholarship? Any thoughts on postmodernism, or the intellectual sloppiness often found in postmodern writings? Anyway, read Sokal’s article if you want a good chuckle.