2011 04 03
Small Sample Size Theater

Posted by in: Baseball, logic, Math

The baseball season has begun! Each MLB baseball team has played two games. There isn’t a lot of solid trend data to report on, yet articles must be written – and so, quoth S – “it’s time for another edition of Small Sample Size Theater”.

In baseball, of course, this means things like:
The Mariners, predicted to be terrible this season, are tied for first in the league!

(Also there are nineteen pitchers tied with an unbelievable 0.00 ERA. This season looks set to turn a lot of conventional wisdom on its head.)

We see Small Sample Size Theater in other domains as well; no surprise that most trend reporting is of this type. I wanted to post this today because I think the term is so apt. And of course, if my posting this year keeps up at this rate, I’ll post well over 300 entries, which would more than double my previous record. In year seven, anything is possible.

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2009 12 29
Recently read: Two books on philosophy and children

Posted by in: Books, children, Philosophy

Gareth B. Matthews. Philosophy and the Young Child

Gareth B. Matthews. Dialogues with Children

Gareth B. Matthews is a professional philosopher well-known for his work on Ancient and Medieval philosophy. He has also had a long-standing (and often related) interest in pedagogy. These two books of his on philosophy and children, both from the early 1980s, are wonderful, and deserve a much wider audience than they probably currently enjoy.

Neither book aims to offer a “how-to” for engaging children in philosophical dialogue, though they are brimming with examples. One of their main virtues, besides simply offering clear accounts of interesting philosophical issues, is the spirit in which they approach philosophical conversation with children. Here is a nice statement of Matthews’ approach, from Philosophy and the Young Child:

The combination of assets and liabilities that an adult brings to a philosophical encounter with a child makes for a very special relationship. The adult has a better command of the language than the child and, latently at least, a surer command of the concepts expressed in the language. It is the child, however, who has fresh eyes and ears for perplexity and incongruity. Children also have, typically, a degree of candor and spontaneity that is difficult for an adult to match. Because each party has something important to contribute, the inquiry can easily become a genuinely joint venture, something otherwise quite rare in encounters between adults and children.

In the wrong hands, it’s easy to imagine this slipping into an unrealistic, naive or romantic view of children, and indeed, without further discussion, it’s exactly what I would have imagined. But it’s very clear from the dialogues that he produces that Matthews really does succeed in pulling off some wonderful conversations.

Both books are also interesting because they offer a forceful challenge to prior work (Piaget is a special target) on children, philosophy and cognitive development. Matthews argues that researchers are often too quick to try to cram interesting questions and thoughts into unhelpful developmental stages, often misunderstanding the relevant philosophical issues along the way. Chapter 4 (“Piaget”) of Philosophy and the Young Child is especially focused on this issue, and it’s refreshing to see a philosophically sophisticated defense of a child’s end of a conversation with the famous psychologist.

Although Matthews’ focus throughout both of these books is the young child, educators at any level could read them with profit. They’re informed by a genuine love of interesting philosophical questions, and I could imagine myself dipping into them for inspiration as I planned a first year introduction to philosophy class, just as readily as I will in fact be dipping into them again when I am thinking about philosophy with my (due in April) son, when he is old enough to talk philosophy with his Dad.

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2009 11 10
Recently read: The Philosophical Baby

Posted by in: Books, children, Philosophy

Alison Gopnik. The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life

I don’t think I’ve mentioned on here yet that Yoon is (19 weeks and one day) pregnant. I’ll try not to turn this into an awful baby blog, but the fact that I’m going to be spending a significant amount of time in the company of an infant come the Spring has got me interested in reading about babies.

The Philosophical Baby by Alison Gopnik (sister of the New Yorker’s Gopnik) tackles some really interesting questions: What is it like to be a baby? How do young children think, experience the world, view moral issues? Gopnik is pretty effective at challenging the classic view of children as cognitively defective adults. When you consider just how much children are absorbing, and how quickly, they start to seem anything but cognitively defective. Gopnik proves a thoughtful and engaging guide through some recent work by cognitive psychologists on these issues.

I thought the least effective part of the book was Gopnik’s discussion of morality and moral intuitions in children. Gopnik at least avoids confusing altruism and morality—they’re really completely different, the former being a kind of motivation, and the latter having to do with what we owe one another—as some writers sometimes do. But the connection between them seemed to me somehow muddled in parts of her discussion, as betrayed by a proliferation of vague expressions connecting them. I also noticed that her discussion of morality treated it as entirely concerned with what we owe other people. But that’s only half of it! Morality is also about what they owe us, and that side of it is important to understanding essentially moral emotions like indignation, to give just one example. It seems to me that there are also fairly rich and interesting connections between self-conception and morality (“Am I that sort of person?”) that would have served Gopnik better for reflection than the trolley problem, to which her discussion failed to add much.

But that’s just quibbling from a grad school drop out. This is a fun book, and people interested in kids and how they see the world will probably find lots here to enjoy.

Howls of outrage (3)

2009 10 11
Can we Distinguish Insurance from Stereos?

In response to what he dubs “the stupidest argument against health reform”–namely the argument that universal health insurance requires people to pay for someone else’s health care–upyernoz writes:

“paying for someone else” is the whole concept behind insurance. the idea of insurance is that there are certain things (floods, catastrophic medical costs, car crashes) which can be so economically devastating that individuals would be ruined if they had to pay the entire thing out of their own pocket. insurance is a way of pooling risk, everyone pays in, only the unlucky ones draw out. but then everyone can feel more secure knowing they have insurance to fall back on if disaster hits.

in other words, all insurance involves you paying other people’s bills (or other people paying your bills). that’s what insurance is all about. you can call it “socialism” if you want, that’s not an argument, that’s just slapping a label on something. but if you happen to believe it’s evil to pay for other people, then cancel all your insurance policies.

While I’m certain ‘noz and I stand united on the moral imperative of health reform that gives all Americans access to high-quality affordable healthcare, I don’t think his account of the argument he targets is fair, and thus I don’t think he offers a very satisfying response to the person who endorses that argument. Here, as I understand it, is ‘noz’s line of argument:

1. Proponents of the Stupidest Argument Against Health Reform maintain that they should not be forced to pay for another’s medical care.

2. But proponents of the Stupidest Argument willingly buy various forms of insurance without complaining.

3. But buying insurance just is the paying for another’s medicare care.

4. So to be consistent, the proponents should either withdraw their objection to health care reform, or else “cancel all [their] insurance policies.”

I think we can see clearly where ‘noz’s line of argument fails by changing the story a bit:

1. Opponents of income maintenance policies maintain that they should not be forced to pay for another’s wages/income.

2. But opponents of income maintenance policies willingly buy stereos without complaining.

3. But buying stereos just is the paying for another’s wages (namely those who make stereos).

4. So to be consistent, the opponents should either withdraw their objection to income maintenance policies, or else stop buying stereos.

It seems clear that while purchasing a stereo does in fact pay another’s wages, it is false to say that paying another’s wages is the “whole concept” of purchasing a stereo. But then what distinguishes purchasing insurance from buying a stereo? Each seems to amount to the same thing: parting with a sum of money to procure a good or service which is available to one only because certain others are willing to help produce that good or provide that service only because they too get something out of the economic arrangement.

The fact seems to be that those who wish to buy stereos and those who wish to buy insurance may not really care about the economic arrangements and contracts that lie in the background of these purchases. They do not really care that buying a stereo and buying insurance involves paying an amount of money a portion of which ends up paying another’s bills. The one person wants a stereo, and parts with a certain amount of money to get it. The other wants protection from the economic risks associated with (the treatment of) ill health, and pays an insurance premium to get it. It just so happens that, in our world, the reason why these purchases are available to one at all is that other people, who play different roles in the relevant economic domain, also get something out of their involvement. So, again, what could make the purported difference between buying stereos and buying insurance?

If this analogy is as revealing as I think it is, it shows why the proponent of the Stupidest Argument may not be making the silly mistake that ‘noz ascribes to him. To extend the analogy: Assume a tax is levied on all stereo purchases in order fund income maintenance policies for the unemployed. And assume that a would-be stereo-purchaser objects to this. Then that objection cannot be met simply by pointing out that he didn’t have a problem paying another’s wage through his purchase before the tax was levied.

In the case of health insurance, what would be the analog to the stereo tax that the proponent of the Stupidest Argument objects to? Since insurance is typically paid for through premiums, the proponent will likely claim that he should not have to subsidize another’s premium. But this raises the question of whether the initial distribution of income is itself fair, as that is the distribution that determines who has what to put toward premiums. To the extent that it is unjust that some work long hours in dreary jobs for what is now a largely depreciated compensation package, that can provide a reason to ask those who are favored by the structure of the economy to give some back to subsidize the premiums of those who get the short end of the stick.

Another barrier to insurance access has to do with differentials in health status (of which “pre-existing conditions” are one kind). To use a stylized example, assume that you and I form a two-person health insurance market, and that I am fairly healthy and you have a disease that can be treated with only very expensive health interventions. In this situation, each of us is presented with the option to buy insurance. But which insurance we buy, if any, will be influenced by which insurance products are available. If the only insurance product is one that pays for the sort of interventions you need, that product will be very expensive. In that case, I may choose not to buy it, since I feel there are other things I’d rather spend that amount of money on. But that may leave you without the prospect of insurance, since the resulting premium for you will be the same price as the expensive medical care you were hoping to avoid having to pay for directly by purchasing insurance in the first place. You will face a similar problem if there are in fact several insurance products available, and if I choose one that is cheaper. For that one will be cheaper precisely because it doesn’t not cover the expensive treatment you need. So while you may be able to afford that cheaper product, it doesn’t do you much good.

These thought experiments seem to show that the proponent of the Stupidest Argument is also probably objecting to having to subsidize the insurance choices that the market makes expensive for others because they are either more risk averse than he his, or because they in fact require more expensive insurance than the proponent himself wishes to purchase with the funds he has chosen to dedicate to health risk reduction. This is in fact not an objection we should dismiss as stupid, as I think the two-person example shows.

I’m sure ‘noz and I agree that when the simple two-person example is replaced with the much more complex picture presented by the macro situation in the U.S. today–a situation in which income is not distributed fairly and where individuals’ health status is profoundly influenced by myriad social circumstances beyond their control–there is a solid argument in favor of providing all Americans with at least basic health care paid for by general, progressive taxation. But even if we are right, we cannot dismiss the objections of those who disagree with us simply by pointing out that all insurance involves using what was once one person’s money to pay for the health care of another.

The moral of the story is this: it is false to say that the “whole concept” of insurance as such is to pay for another’s care. Yes, it involves that, but the sense in which it does is just the sense in which buying stereos involves paying another’s wage. Not much of moral relevance follows. But, it is absolutely true that the whole concept of certain social insurance schemes is to spread risk and cross-subsidize care for appropriate moral reasons. But those reasons cannot themselves be teased out of the idea of insurance as such.

Howls of outrage (18)

2009 04 06
Of Rawls and Self-Improvement

In the growing-up department, I still have a long way to go. Many of my habits are bad bad bad, and I have myriad tendencies that I don’t endorse and that leave me feeling full of self-reproach if acted upon.

But I must say that I felt some sense of pride when I saw this and felt revulsion at the thought of reading it. (The fact that it exists at all, in published form, is more than a bit nauseating, as well.)

There is some hope for me after all, I guess.

Howls of outrage (5)

2008 09 30
Liar Liar

Posted by in: logic, Philosophy, puzzles

Leiter tells me that you can win a book. If you answer this question correctly, your name goes into a drawing.

A logician vacationing in the South Seas finds himself on an island inhabited by the two proverbial tribes of liars and truth-tellers. Members of one tribe always tell the truth; members of the other always lie.

He comes to a fork in a road and has to ask a native bystander which branch he should take to reach a village. He has no way of telling whether the native is a truth-teller or liar. The logician thinks a moment and then asks one question only. From the reply, he knows which road to take.

What question does he ask?

…For our purposes here, we’ll assume that the answer is confined to a single “yes” or “no.”

I had heard this one years ago, and cannot now remember if I figured it out on my own or not. (Probably not, knowing my limitations.)  The only snag is that either I’m wrong, or else the last instruction—”the answer is confined to a single “yes” or “no.””—is slightly misleading. Here’s a hint: the instruction is playing fast and loose with the use/mention distinction. Oh, and if my solution works, then there are actually two questions he could ask.

Anyway, I submitted an answer.  We’ll see what happens.

Howls of outrage (5)

2008 08 06
Do I Resemble Your Wife?

Okay, first things first.1 One true answer to the title’s question is: not entirely. Phew. Dodged one there, didn’t you? Not so fast, though. The answer may well be “Somewhat,” in which case it behooves you to read on to see how.

Alright, I’ll admit it. It’ll behoove me if you read on. You see, I might have gotten myself into a bit of hot water, although with some thought and an even keel, this water may turn out resemble more the palliative springs of many a television boom town than the terrifying pit at the end of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The sitch is that I am giving a talk on Friday. My first talk professional talk post-grad school. And I’m nervous. I’m nervous for the usual reasons. These include the fear that I’ll make a fool of myself in the Q&A, and that my central argument is just not that good. But there is an additional, more idiosyncratic reason that I really want to think hard about before delivering the talk. And that’s the distinct possibility that while my central argument is fine, I have used a poorly chosen example to add support to my conclusion. This would leave me dialectically naked, even if my underlying argument remains cogent. So I want to try to extract myself for this situation as carefully as possible, and this is my test run.

Continue Reading »

Howls of outrage (8)

2008 04 24
Battlestar Galactica: A complaint

In the fictional world of Battlestar Galactica it is a fact of no little consequence that Cylons are virtually indistinguishable from humans, right down to the cellular level. And yet they’re different in all kinds of ways! For example, when they get killed, their consciousness gets uploaded so that they can just jump right into another body. But if they’re indistinguishable from humans right down to the cellular level then by what mechanism is this accomplished? And this is just the beginning of the features that supposedly make them very different from humans. The writers of the show seem to me to be making a really stupid move somewhere in the vicinity of this common mistake.

I’m not sure why this irritates me so much. I can suspend disbelief for an impressive variety of fictional worlds. But this! This I can hardly stand. Perhaps it’s because the mistake here is one that I see in serious contexts, whereas journalists don’t typically go around talking about star trek transporters as though we have currently working models. Anyway. Yeeeeearg.

Howls of outrage (29)

2008 03 25
A Right to Health

In both political contexts as well as academic circles, it is more common to hear talk of a right to health care than it is to hear talk of a right to health. Perhaps, however, this shows that our parlance, and the moral framework that it sometimes reflects, has not caught up with the social scientific community. For recent research on what are called the “social determinants of health” has revealed that the health of a population is determined not just by the absolute wealth that the population enjoys, but also by the nature and extent of economic inequalities found in that society. “Middle income groups in a country with high income inequality typically do worse in terms of health than comparable or even poorer groups in a society with less income inequality.” So, if we are concerned with providing access to health care because we are concerned with citizens’ health, as is clearly the case, we may have to give up the notion that health care has anything special to contribute in this regard. This suggests that if we’re interested in deriving a right to health care from some more basic moral consideration, we may be driven toward accepting talk about a right to health.

On the other hand, there are a couple of reasons to question whether there is in fact a right to health. One such reason is that it is by and large impossible to deliver full health to those who don’t have it. We may simply not have the technology to do so. And when fulfilling a right to X would require doing Y, where Y is impossible, it seems correct to say that we were wrong to recognize a right to X in the first place.

But impossibility is not the only reason for thinking there is no right to health. Suppose that unless you receive a kidney transplant soon, you will die. And suppose that I am the only perfect match around, and that I could afford to give one up (in the sense that I will not die without it, and, let’s say, believe with a reasonable degree of certainty that I will suffer no kidney-related health problems in the future). Still, I think that we would not wish to say that in this situation you have a right to my kidney, even if giving it to you—or your taking it from me—would be quite feasible.

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2008 03 05
Clearly it wasn’t a marketing agency run by a philosopher.

Posted by in: Odds and ends, Philosophy

In a recent issue of Mother Jones I came across an advertisement by an animal welfare group. It said, “Save a Life: Adopt a Pet. // Save a lot of Lives: Spay or Neuter Your Pet.”

Howls of outrage (15)

2008 02 12
How working at a game store combines with grad school angst

Posted by in: Academia, Games, Philosophy

Last night, I had a dream about Bertrand Russell.

I was still at my Canadian university. He was visiting, trying to get an offer there so he could go negotiate with his home university (not intending to come to Canada, just making everyone spend a bunch of money and time so he could get a raise). He was stalking magisterially about the common room, and someone introduced him to me and it became my job to entertain him for a little while. He sat down and asked, “So, do you have any puzzles?” – meaning logic puzzles or philosophical puzzles that he could work on.

Guilt and horror. Oh crap, I haven’t been thinking about this stuff well enough to have anything good to say to him… yet more evidence that I shouldn’t be in philosophy. Is he giving me a look of withering disapproval? I can’t bear to look. Scanning the bookshelf in hopes of finding inspiration.

Then it came to me: we could play a strategically interesting boardgame. He would be entertained and I would be off the hook. What board game best suits the situation? It should be short, a perfect information game, and a game where I have a chance.

I took down Hey That’s My Fish (in which penguins compete to eat the most fish – it is actually a very short strategic game, very fun) and started to set it up. Then the dream ended, so we’ll never know whether I beat Bertrand Russell in Hey that’s my Fish.

Howls of outrage (4)

2008 02 01
Bleg, or, phleg: Aristotle, catharsis, porn

It’s a philosophy-bleg!

My colleague is teaching Aristotle on catharsis this afternoon. The cartoon view of catharsis is that drama (or just? mainly? tragedy) is useful because it allows us to purge our harmful emotions by getting emotionally wrought over a fictional situation. My colleague is wondering whether Aristotle could say pornography is useful for purging the bad emotion (or, excess emotion?) of lust, or whether Aristotle would be required to say that porn is bad because it forms bad habits. So, Aristotle: for or against porn?

I told him I knew the man for this job, and then I thought other people might be interested too so I’m posting this rather than emailing you, CY.

Howls of outrage (9)

2008 01 29
History comix

From Spencer, by way of Wondermark, artist Kate Beaton has made short comics about 20 historical figures. They’re great and you should go look at them.

Howls of outrage (3)

2008 01 26
Kit Fine tribute video

Kit Fine is a philosopher who writes on logic, metaphysics, language, and other issues in a fairly technical way. With that background, I present Kit Fine: Doin it well.

Is Kit Fine hard to read, so we are macho if we read him? Does Kit Fine inspire us to do difficult things by his salubrious example? What is this video trying to tell us? I hope I’m not missing a philosophy joke out of ignorance; I’ll be really embarrassed if I am.

Whatever it is, I’m strangely fascinated.

Howls of outrage (5)

2007 11 18
Aristotle for autodidacts

Posted by in: Aristotle, Philosophy

Quite some time ago, a clever polymathic autodidact wrote to me asking for advice about reading Aristotle. A long time ago I promised a response on the blog. Eh. What can I say? I’ve been busy. Here’s a brief version of what I would write if I had more time.

Let’s begin by facing the obvious: Aristotle is really difficult. There are several reasons for that. First, almost none of what comes down to us from antiquity with Aristotle’s name attached to it was written for “publication” (i.e., wider circulation). Rather, what we have seem to be more like lecture notes, or perhaps the sort of notes you might circulate after a lecture as a sort of memory aid. It’s a pity. An author renown in antiquity for the prose style of his published writings is now enjoyed mainly by eccentrics with an odd, acquired taste for crabbed lecture notes in a dead language. Just as we would expect with notes that were circulated among the initiated, Aristotle’s writings are also filled with arcane terminology and refer to contemporary debates familiar to his audience but often not to us.

And it gets worse. Those lecture notes—or whatever they are—seem to have been stitched together, sometimes rather crudely. For example, the text we read as the Nicomachean Ethics isn’t the unity we might expect from the fact that people are always going on about Nicomachean Ethics this and Nicomachean Ethics that. To take just one example, there are two discussions of pleasure in the work, apparently in conflict, and neither of which refers to the other. Clearly someone, whether Aristotle or a later editor, has done some cutting and pasting. This adds to the general air of confusion.

Finally, Aristotle is really hard to read because he was interested in really hard problems, and his answers to those questions were often subtle, and sometimes restated in different ways over a lifetime of thinking about them.

So, one way to answer the request for advice about getting into Aristotle is: you might just want to skip it. Or perhaps, defer it until you know a bit about the context in which Aristotle is writing. You might, for example, want to begin instead with Plato. Now of course Plato has difficulties all his own. But there at least the student (often) has the benefit of a polished text, and sometimes a highly readable and entertaining one. And while the dialectical context matters there too, you can get a quite a bit from, say, the Gorgias (which is a wonderful place to begin reading Plato) even if you don’t have any background in Classical Greek philosophy or culture.

If this isn’t enough to dissuade you, then I suppose the best way into Aristotle depends on your interests. You might approach Aristotle for a number of different (but compatible) reasons. You might, for example, be looking for true claims about matters of interest to you, along with good reasons for believing those true claims. In that case, my advice would be to spend rather more time poking around in Aristotle’s ethics than anywhere else. Both this and this translation of the Nicomachean Ethics are pretty good, and if you like to go it alone, you might pick them up and just start reading. (It can be useful to compare translations when you’re working through a difficult passage, but either one will do for the first few passes through the text.)

You might, however, be interested in Aristotle because you want to know more about the influence he exercised on Western intellectual history. In that case, you might be interested in the Physics, and in particular the first three books or so.

Now, usually when I’m recommending philosophy books, I just tell people to jump right in and ignore the secondary material. (I think this is especially good advice when it comes to Plato.) But for the reasons I mentioned above, it seems to me that it might be very useful to introduce yourselves to Aristotle’s texts in conjunction with carefully chosen secondary material. If you’re interested in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, then, you might get your hands on The Blackwell Guide to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, edited by Richard Kraut, and dip into it as you read through Aristotle’s text. I’ve read a few of the papers in this collection so far and they’re just superb. In particular, I really enjoyed Gavin Lawrence’s “Human Good and Human Function,” which you can read with enormous profit immediately after giving Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics a shot. Jennifer Whiting’s “The Nicomachean Account of Philia is also wonderful.

I’m a bit less sure about the best secondary material on the Physics, but I do recall being extremely impressed by Sarah Waterlow’s (=Sarah Brodie) Nature, Change, and Agency in Aristotle’s Physics a while ago when I was working through some material in the Physics. Waterlow is especially good in that book at drawing contrasts between Aristotle’s and modern approaches to the study of nature. And it seems to me that this makes reading the Physics alongside Waterlow a challenging but possibly very rewarding way of starting to get a grip on a part of Aristotle’s thought that had an enormous influence historically.

There are also other ways in, and some very good introductions to Aristotle. To name just one, the Cambridge Companion to Aristotle is pretty solid, and is good at pointing the way forward in many more directions than I’ve mentioned here. The first chapter by Jonathan Barnes is also funny and helpful as the sort of introduction that I would attempt if I were less busy.

Aristotle enthusiasts are encouraged to add further suggestions in the comments.


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