Monday, March 20, 2006


I'm going to have to give up blogging for the moment. Too much work, too little time. I'll see you all, all five of you, in a month's time.

ps. A peaceful Lent and a happy Easter to those who go in for that kind of thing.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Some Criteria for philosophical views

This is version 2.0 of a list of sufficient conditions for applying the label bad-ass to a philosophical thesis, which endeavour was inspired by this wonderful person (Please visit for the canonical statement of these matters).
Naturally, any single view ought to accumulate as many of them as possible.

1 - denying commonsense beliefs, extra points for skepticism about other people/other minds/material objects, x10 extra points for denying a law of logic. (see: Unger's skeptical denial of the existence of his children, Quine-style indeterminacy, Dummett's denial of the law of excluded middle, Berkeley 's denial of material objects - badassness made thesis).
Subcategory: denying commonsense beliefs for logical/linguistic reasons. (see: David Lewis's move from 'take existential quantifications in ordinary language literally' to 'there are carnivorous unicorns')

2 – dazzling metaphysical conclusions from purely a priori premisses. (see: Pythagoras:'the world is made of numbers', but see also Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Anselm, David Lewis, Saul Kripke, and every other philosopher worth anything)

3 - armchair metaphysics that anticipates the latest empirical discoveries, extra points for every millennium before the theory is empirically vindicated (see: Empedocles & evolution!)

4 - dazzling metaphysical conclusions from minimal empirical facts, extra points if the empirical facts are already widely-known (see: Chomsky, Frege, see also Chomsky entry in Dennett's of philosophy, Fodor?)

5 - dazzling metaphysical conclusions from negative premisses, (see: Aquinas: 'nothing causes itself to move, therefore God exists')

6 - dazzling metaphysical conclusions from conceivability premisses (see: Chalmers: 'zombies are conceivable, therefore materialism is false', see also Descartes)

7 - dazzling metaphyical conclusions from a single, highly contentious, and impossible to verify premiss. It is essential that the crucial premiss is not (directly) verifiable. (see: 'there are uninstantiated universals so naturalism is false')

8 - dazzling (and unwelcome) metaphysical conclusions following only from premisses the opposition already accepts (see: some iterations of Aristotle vs. Plato?, some iterations of Berkeley vs. Locke?).
A particularly important subspecies of this species is dazzling (and unwelcome) conclusions about the existence of God following only from the opposition's premisses (see esp. the Ontological argument & the atheistic Ontological argument, both exemplary instantiations of bad-assness)

9 - honourable mention: dazzling metaphysical conclusions from everyday semantic facts (see: Aristotle, the Law of noncontradiction, all metaphysics?)

10 - honourable mention: accepting the opposition's reductio as the point of your argument. see Unger again:
'Even if my arguments should terminate in genuine paradoxes, and in plain contradictions, that may be no fault of the arguments; indeed, it may make clear their whole point.'

(Ignorance: A Case for Skepticism p.6)

11 – honourable mention: a body of work combining two or more of the strategies in (1-10) above (see van Inwagen's arguments for incompatibilism(4), AND the denial that everyday inanimate material objects exist(1))

Applying the Criteria:
1. There can only be one winner: the Ontological argument, in both its theistic and atheistic forms. The baddest of all possible badasses. Such concentrated badness that Russell invented the theory of descriptions to escape its theistic form.

UN Women's Day

Women's Day was like a week ago. I had intended to honour two or three Kenyan women, but didn't get round to it. I'm going to now.

First, Wangari Maathai. She's fought a 30-year battle against environmental degradation in Kenya, during which she's had to overcome truly frightening obstacles, not least among them the violent thuggery of Moi's clowns. Dr. Maathai's struggle was rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. Appropriately enough, she was Kenya's first Nobel Laureate.

Second, Margaret W. Kenyatta, who was one of the very first women to take a major political role in Kenya. She was a Nairobi city councillor for years, and then Mayor of Nairobi 1970-76. Nobody who has recently been resident in Nairobi can truthfully say that things have not deteriorated since. Ms. Kenyatta was also Kenya's ambassador (1976-86) to the United Nations Environmental Programme. She made a success of that too. I've met her twice, I think, and she was wonderful - warm, powerful, wry, and at ease with the world.

Third, my Mum. Who, for many years, managed to run a successful business and make sure her kids got to school on time. Surely there can be no tougher task given to humankind. Love you, Mum.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Commentisfree is unloosed!

The new Guardian megablog is up. Looks good, although there's a slightly downmarket-Huffington-Post feel to it. Yalla.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

how could possible possibly be ambiguous?

reposted from coments here.

The Baudrillard passage at the centre of the rumpus:
"Before the event it is too early for the possible. After the event it is too late for the possible. It is too late also for representation, and nothing will really be able to account for it. September 11th, for example, is there first—only then do its possibility and its causes catch up with it, through all the discourses that will attempt to explain it."

BigSecretDog's conclusion:[2]What he seems to be telling us is that prior to an event there are no possibilities or causes, that the possibilities and causes of an event come to be only through the discourse that places them prior to that event, and thus that discourse is prior to the possibilities and causes of the event that it describes or explains.

My response: I’ll argue that there's a reading of the passage in question that vindicates Baudrillard. The maxim of charity is (roughly) that one ought to attribute to one's opponent the most reasonable construction of his views. There's a construction of B's passage available that keeps it consistent. So, we ought to adopt that view. That, however, requires an appeal to epistemic possibility. You don't like that. So I'm going to try and defend the notion.

Your crucial inference is from :
[A]'Before the event it is too early for the possible'
[B]'What he seems to be telling us is that prior to an event there are no possibilities or causes.'

You take B in the metaphysical sense i.e. there are really no causes… etc. That reading of B is justified if A is a metaphysical proposition, otherwise not. A is a metaphysical proposition if the notion picked out by the word ‘possible’ is a metaphysical one. You clearly think so. So, your case relies at a crucial point on the thought that the modal adjective 'possible' univocally refers to metaphysical possibility.

Let a statement S be epistemically possible if, relative to some knower’s knowledge at some time, S could be true. Let metaphysical possibility be absolute possibility, i.e. only what is possible to be (in the 'to exist' sense). Suppose a statement S describes a state of affairs SA. SA is metaphysically possible if it is the case that SA could come to be. Epistemic possibility and metaphysical possibility do not coincide - something can be metaphysically possible without being epistemically possible, and something can be epistemically possible without being metaphysically possible. Note that there's no decisive reason to think that we have exhaustive knowledge of what is absolutely possible.

Now, your claim about the meaning of the word 'possible' is false, as a matter of easily-ascertainable fact. Modal verbs (I'm thinking about your use of the word 'can') and adjectives are often ambiguous between their epistemic and primary (e.g. normative) uses, as you'll discover if you google. Thus, when one says, 'X is possible', there usually remains the question – what sort of possibility have you in mind?

A vivid case: [G] It is possible that God can damn an innocent man.
If 'possible' in G is read as metaphysical possibility then the sentence is false. If 'possible' means consistent with God's omnipotence, and supposing that to mean that God can bring about any consistently describable situation, then it is true.

Another example: Suppose I solve a complicated sum, and someone asks me whether it is possible that I'm wrong. If I'm wrong, then I'm necessarily wrong; if right, I'm necessarily right. Either way, it's a matter of necessity. So what sort of possibility is in question here? epistemic possibility.

Yet another example (the modal fallacy): If I know p, it is not possible that p is not the case. But if it is not possible that p is not the case, then p is necessarily the case. The sort of possibility that is required to defuse the difficuly is epistemic, not metaphysical possibility

Example: It is possible that I don’t exist. If I say this, I’m not asserting of myself that I don’t exist (or else it is necessarily false). Rather, it means that for all I know, it could have been the case that I did not exist.

Yet another example: Someone comes up to you at a ball and says: ‘That masked man is your father’. You say: ‘That’s not possible!’ In fact, the masked man is your father. And given that necessarily your father is identical to himself, and that necessarily your father is your father, it looks like you had something like epistemic possibility in mind.

Examples could be multiplied.

The point is that the word 'possible' often expresses different modalities. One can't deduce from the fact that a sentence has the form 'X is possible' that it makes a statement about metaphysical possibility. [You might (!) like to see this note on modal confusions]

Now, suppose that there's a fact, F, such that at a given time, for some person, or group of people, F is epistemically inaccessible. There is no reason to think that that F is not also metaphysically possible. Further, actuality implies possibility. If F should now become the case, then it was always metaphysically possible that F, and it is now (let us suppose) known and hence possible to know that F is the case. But then, one can truly say that there was a time in the past when it was epistemically impossible that F. A fortiori, B, exploiting the ambiguity of 'possible', can say that "impossible things can . . . happen", and all the rest of it.

So, we've established that 'x is possible' doesn't always mean 'x is metaphysically possible'. And we know that there's a perfectly intelligible notion of epistemic possibility. B's extract, read in that light, is not only coherent, it is rather banal. I suggest we attribute banality rather than vice.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Nobody deserves to have their duly elected govenment let this happen to them.

May they eat the bread of sorrow.

le maire du niafunké est mort

Ali Farka Toure, a pioneer in bringing African music to global attention, is dead. Via the BBC, obit.

UPDATE: Guardian obit.
UPDATE II: Timesonline obit.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Unexpected support for descriptivist theories of naming

Support freedom of the press in Kenya.

Dear President Kibaki:

On March 2, 2006 government forces raided the headquarters and printing plant of the Standard Group. In addition to destroying equipment and newspapers, they shut down the KTN news station.

This latest attack follows the jailing of three journalists from Standard Newspaper, attacks on Citizen Weekly, and ongoing harassment of journalists by government-sponsored forces.

I urge you to condemn these attacks and to support freedom of the press.

**Please copy and paste this letter on your blog, or disseminate it in any other way you can. Change wording to suit your needs.**

- Campaign initiated by Keguro. More information here, here, and here; pictures here.

UPDATE: Govt. of Kenya email contact form here. (Via MadKenyanWoman)

UPDATE: Tim Burke points out a nice parallel, here.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Woe to the downpressor II

IN A defiant courtroom confession Saddam Hussein admitted yesterday ordering the trial of 148 Shias who were subsequently executed but insisted that he was acting within the law.

Addressing the evidence against him for the first time, the former dictator said the Shias from the village of Dujail were suspects in an assassination attempt against him in July 1982. “Where is the crime? Where is the crime?,” he asked.

Nick Meo in the Times, today.

OUP has a blog

You need to visit the new OUP (USA) blog.