Friday, June 23, 2006

Blog is moving!

Bye bye, blogger. I got myself some web space, and decided I wanted to host my blog myself, and blogger isn't working properly with not-blogspot, so I'm giving Wordpress a try. It has a neat feature that imported all my old posts and comments... Anyway, update your links; I'm here now.

Happy Birthday, Joss Whedon

Now go produce some more first-rate comic books, movies, and (please?) TV series.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Counterfactuals and Truth in Fiction

David Lewis thinks that what's true in the fiction is what's true in the nearest possible worlds in which the story is told as known fact, instead of as fiction. So, here's a fictional text:
Once upon a time, there was a guy named Andy who liked to eat candy. His best friend was Sandy. And he and Sandy found it handy to steal candy from Walmart. The end.
That was a fiction, so I was doing something different from telling you something I know; you misunderstand me if you treat my story as testimony and form all these beliefs about Andy and Sandy. But you can understand what it would be like if I were really making assertions about what I know about; you can make judgments about what would be true if (what is true in the nearest possible worlds in which) my story were a piece of true non-fiction, instead of a fiction. On Lewis's view, that's what's true in the fiction. There have been lots of good criticisms of this view -- I think this may be a new one. Suppose that in fact, just by coincidence, all the sentences that make up my story happen to be true. There really is some guy, maybe in South Dakota, whose name is Andy, etc. His mother works as a substitute teacher. I, the story-teller, have never even heard of this guy; I'm just making up a fiction. Now, what is the implication of Lewis's view? Consider the nearest worlds in which I'm telling the story as known fact. Well, there are two candidate classes of worlds -- worlds in which I know about the guy in South Dakota and am talking about him, and worlds in which I know about some additional person who meets the description. It seems very plausible that the former worlds are the closer ones; in the latter worlds, we need an additional person named Andy who likes Candy and steals from Walmart with Sandy. So in the closest worlds in which I know the story, I'm talking about this guy in South Dakota. So, it's true in the fiction that Andy lives in South Dakota, that his mother is a substitute teacher, etc. This is intuitively wrong; whether there's some guy satisfying my story who is nevertheless causally isolated from me has no bearing on what is true in my fiction; to learn what is true in the fiction, we need not investigate whether anyone satisfies it in the actual world.

Is it possible to balance an egg on your head?

That's the question of the hour over here. Shari pointed to the discussion, because it's amusing. My first reaction was, "that doesn't sound very hard". So I tried it. I was right.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Apocalypse Now?

Wink at Parablemania points out that an oddsmaker has put the odds in favor of the world surviving today (6/6/06) at 100,000 to 1. How do I get in on that action? Wink points to this story, which includes this line:
It all started with Revelation 13:18 in the Bible: "This calls for wisdom: let him who has understanding reckon the number of the beast, for it is a human number, its number is six hundred and sixty-six." The beast is also known as the Antichrist, according to some apocalyptic theories.
I didn't realize that apolcalyptic theorists were the relevant experts on semantics. If I'd been researching this article, I would have consulted linguists or dictionaries to verify the claim that the beast is also known as the Antichrist. The "some apocalypic theories" bit seems a little misleading, too -- are there apocalyptic theories that deny that the beast is also known as the Antichrist? Such theories, if there are any, seem to be empirically inadequate; they make false linguistic predictions. But I guess these are empirical questions. I shouldn't try to settle them from the armchair. I guess I'll go back to my paper on the epistemology of conditionals.

Arizona and Coffee

Media Matters is a liberal media watchdog organization, dedicated to uncovering and documenting conservative biases in mainstream media. Often, they'll observe that something false or misleading has been claimed, then offer a detailed analysis of the inappropriate claim. (Here's a fairly typical example.) Or they'll point to a significant omission, or what they consider to be an inappropriate framing of the issue. (As here.) Sometimes, they don't even provide analysis -- they just point out that someone is saying something shocking or offensive, without even bothering to explain why it's shocking or offensive; it's that obvious. (Like calling Cornell West a black airhead.) Yesterday, Media Matters seemed to follow this last pattern, and observed that Gwen Ifill of PBS's Washington Week suggested the following:
IFILL: Before we go tonight, a different way of looking at the so-called Red State-Blue State divide. Perhaps you've heard of the gender gap. Well, our partners at National Journal have discovered, after an in-depth investigation, the caffeine gap. It goes this way: If Blue States are home to Democrats and Red States to Republicans, Starbucks may provide the key to the next election. It turns out there are nearly 4,800 Starbucks coffee shops in Blue States but only 3,200 in Red States. On a per-capita basis, that gives Democratic coffee drinkers nearly twice as many chances to snag a Frappuccino than Republicans get. The Red State with the most coffee shops? Arizona. Maybe that explains John McCain.
Media Matters doesn't provide analysis here -- they just point out that this was said. But I don't see anything obviously false or offensive or conservatively biased about it. It just seems kinda funny. What am I missing?

Monday, May 15, 2006


I'm too tired to write about my weekend, my philosophy, my computer, or my grading. But I did draw a pig. There's a personality test attached. Click to view.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Subjectivism and Counteractual Dependence

My computer is still dead, but there are plans in place that might revive it. In the meantime, bear with me on the slow email, the rare blog-post, and the increasingly-behind OPP. Also, here are some thoughts about subjectivity and counterfactual and counteractual dependence. Here's a first-pass account of subjectivity: if you're a subjectivist about property A, then you think that whether A is true of something or other counterfactually depends on facts about the person judging, or the society, or whatever it is that your subjectivity is indexed to. So, if you're a subjectivist about MORALLY RIGHT, then you think that whether the invasion of Iraq was morally right counterfactually depends on the values of the person making the judgment, or of society at large, or whatever. Likewise, if you're a subjectivist about RED, you think that whether an object is red depends counterfactually on the way most people experience it. Nobody's that kind of a subjectivist about RED, as far as I know. Instead, it's natural to treat RED as rigidly indexed to the actual perceivers; something is red iff it is such that it would cause redness sensations in the actual normal perceivers. So there's no counterfactual dependence; if people were wired differently, (maybe) they would experience human blood with greenish sensations, but blood would still be red. People would see red things as green. So is color objective after all? It is on the account I gave above, along with the rigid index view (which seems right to me). But what if we start thinking about other kinds of dependence than counterfactual dependence? What about counterACTUAL dependence? Whether an object is red does not counterfactually depend on facts about perceivers' experience, but it does counteractually so depend. If, contrary to our evidence, things emitting wavelength frequencies of 650 nm (you know, things like stop signs and human blood) cause green sensations in normal perceivers, then stop signs and human blood are green. So there's some sense in which colors, even when indexed to the actual world, depend on facts about the experience of perceivers. This suggests to me that subjectivism comes in different stripes, or may be even ambiguous. There's a useful notion of subjectivism that is about counteractual dependence, in addition to the one about counterfactual dependence.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Status Report

My computer is very broken. Woe is me! Expect to see less of me online... and I'll be slower than average about email. Also, I don't know when I'll be able to update OPP. Soon, I hope. This is very frustrating. In other news, my first-ever voice recital is tomorrow.

Friday, April 28, 2006


(1) I'm working on a major re-write of the thought-experiments paper with Ben. This stuff is hard work, but I think it'll be rewarding. I should be able to put a draft online soon. The challenge we take up is to provide a naturalistically unobjectionable account of how we use thought-experiments to gain knowledge, while maintaining certain central features of standard philosophical methodology: in particular, we want the relevant intuitions to be a priori and necessary. I think our view will work. (Then again, if I didn't, it wouldn't be our view...) (2) Headline: Italy restaurant fined for "cruel" lobster display. There are all kinds of funny things about this story. Take this quote from the restaurant owner: "They said that the lobsters, laying on the ice, suffer... They compared them in court to other animals, like cats and dogs." The implication, apparently, is that this comparison is inappropriate. Why? The story does not develop this line. There seems to be nothing at all crazy about the idea that making an animal die by slow suffocation is an infliction of suffering. Sadly, the article seems not to take the issue at all seriously. It appears in 'Oddly Enough' Reuters, and the end of the article compares this complaint to some rather frivolous animal rights causes. (3) Monopoly. I just heard on NPR that Hasbro has decided that Monopoly needs to be modernized. They're replacing the Atlantic City location names with famous American landmarks. If I could stop this from happening, I would.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

A psychiatrist's philosophy of mind

I've been terribly sick the past two days. No fun at all. But I've taken a chance to get started on some things I've been meaning to read for some time, including a book by a Harvard psychiatrist named J. Allan Hobson called Dreaming as Delirium: How the Brain Goes Out of Its Mind. I'm interested in the book because a major part of my dissertation concerns dream skepticism, particularly with respect to questions at the intersection of philosophy and psychology about the nature of dreaming. Following are a three thoughts about the first chapter of the book. Sorry if it's a little long; I'd put it 'behind the fold' if blogger allowed me to. Thought One: One of Hobson's main points is an attempt to establish what he looks at as a radical paradigm shift in thinking about psychology: Hobson claims, with the attitude of someone announcing something revolutionary and shocking, that the mind is identical to the brain. I'm guessing I speak on behalf of everyone who's studied even a little bit of philosophy of mind when I say that his claim strikes me as not a particularly controversial one. It's not universal, but my impression is that this is the mainstream view among philosophers, isn't it? Thought Two: Hobson thinks that when we dream, we go temporarily insane. "There is no madness more delirious than dreaming." He thinks that we hallucinate and form irrational beliefs on the basis of our hallucinations. Then he suggests that we're not bothered by this fact because we "take comfort in our conviction that our nightly madness is an important functino of that incredible handful of jelly that lies behind our eyes and between our ears. I am talking, of course, about our brains." Then he drops his bombshell that there's no difference between the brain and the mind. But I wonder: even if we're not mind-body identity theorists, why should the attribution of our nightly insanity to the brain, rather than the mind, cause us comfort? Everybody agrees that the brain has important effects on mental life. If I learn that I go insane every night while I sleep, why should the thought that it's just my brain relieve any worry I might have? I don't get it. Thought Three: Hobson says:
There are hundreds of thousands ... who have ... problems like anxiety, depression, and neurosis. Society readily assumes that all these people must have some history of psychological stress or trauma that has caused them to be this way. I say no. They [have behavioral disorders] because there is a functional disorder of the state of the brain-mind. They may well have been abused as children, or have lost their self-esteem, and this can cause real emotional stress. But it does not cause the actual anxiety, depression, neurosis, or any other of a long list of problems. These problems are all caused by subtle physiological changes in the state of the brain-mind.
This strikes me as a very bad, and potentially dangerous, argument. That mental disorders are underwritten by, or identical to, brain disorders, does not come close to implying that they're never caused by things like environmental factors. It is obvious that there are causal links between our experiences and our physical brains, so it is entirely plausible (and indeed undeniable) that things like childhood abuse can influence our brain states. So to suggest that the identity thesis Hobson has in mind implies that our experiences don't cause behavioral disorders seems absolutely wrong. It's one thing to suggest that there is a brain-state cause; it's quite another to say that this excludes the causal efficacy of experience.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

SPP Comments

The Society for Philosophy and Psychology is having its annual meeting in St. Louis in June. Shaun Nichols, one of the conference organizers, invited me to comment on a paper by Jonathan Weinberg and Aaron Meskin on a kind of theoretical psychological explanation to the puzzle of imaginative resistance. Cool! (Now I only wish I'd been on the ball sooner, so I could have submitted my own paper. Next year!)

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The State of the Blog (and the dissertation)

This blog has obviously fallen into disuse. Also, I've been academically unmotivated lately; I haven't gotten a whole lot done. I think I'll try to correct both of these circumstances with one policy initiative. I'm going to start tracking my philosophy work in this blog -- setting goals for myself, and discussing ideas as they come to me. This will have an obvious impact on those of you non-philosophers who read here because you are my friends. Or maybe you read for some other reason, though I can't imagine what that would be. This blog may become flooded with material you don't care about. Sorry for that. It won't hurt my feelings if you go away. And if you stay, I'll try to keep things lively and interesting and somewhat informative about my life, too. Basically, I'm going to try for that tricky balance between academic writing and life stuff. We'll see how it goes. So, here are some thing I intend to do soon: Today is Thursday, and I last updated the Papers Blog last Saturday, almost a week ago. It's overdue -- I will update tomorrow, or possibly even tonight. David Sosa has written a review of Colin McGinn's book on imagination. John Bengson helpfully sent me a copy -- I will read and take notes on it tomorrow, too. I've been toying around with a new general outlook on conditionals. I will think about it some more, hopefully enough to write a post about it over the weekend. Background thought: which faculty members at Rutgers should I ask to be on my dissertation committee?

Tuesday, April 11, 2006


A few weeks ago, Ernest Sosa, my dissertation advisor at Brown, announced that he would be leaving Brown this fall to go to Rutgers full-time. He asked me if I'd be interested in the possibility of following him there -- we've looked into it, and today I'm finally ready to announce that I will go. A major change is in store. Funny how life throws those at you. I'll be moving to New Brunswick, NJ in September.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006


That should be a musical. My friend Andrew sent me this story.
Texas has begun sending undercover agents into bars to arrest drinkers for being drunk, a spokeswoman for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission said on Wednesday. The first sting operation was conducted recently in a Dallas suburb where agents infiltrated 36 bars and arrested 30 people for public intoxication, said the commission's Carolyn Beck. Being in a bar does not exempt one from the state laws against public drunkeness, Beck said.
In other news, why haven't I been blogging lately? I don't really know.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

This is how you do no harm?

Ok, I just have to say, I really don't get this anesthesiologist California execution thing. I guess the issue is, California wants to execute this guy for horrible crimes, and they want to have anesthesiologists present to make sure he's not suffering unduly. Ok, so far, so good. (I'm not sure how comfortable I am with the death penalty in general, but we'll set that aside and assume that death can be an appropriate punishment from the state. And obviously, preventing undue suffering is a good thing.) So they're all set to execute the guy the night before last, when the anesthesiologist are suddenly, like, "no, we're doctors, and we can't take part in this procedure, because we might be called upon to sedate the guy, which would in some sense sort of be like partly causing his death, and we've promised to first do no harm." And the medical community seems pretty much completely behind this decision. It would be one thing if they were actively taking a stand against the death penalty. "We refuse to participate in this action because it's wrong to kill somebody, and we're lobbying to stop it altogether, and we're exercizign our position of control to prevent the state murder of this guy." If they said that, I'd understand. They're against the death penalty. But that's not what's going on here. They're not opposed to the death penalty in principle. They don't want to prevent the execution. They just don't want to play a role in it themselves -- even if that role could only have the effect of making the execution more humane. This, I submit, is the doctrine of double effect gone insane. If the execution goes forward without the assurances of no undue suffering, then the conscientious objection of these anesthesiologists would have done a good deal of harm. (Unfortunately, the NYT piece I link to doesn't have an in-depth discussion of the reasoning for the objection, or the official view of the anesthesiologist association, or anything like that; I take much of what I say here about the facts from the story I heard on All Things Considered last night. I don't have time to find a link to the appropriate information, sorry.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


This is a fantastic story.
American Joey Cheek, a 26-year-old speedskater from Greensboro, N.C., used the occasion of his greatest athletic achievement to speak of things greater than personal glory and accomplishment. He had just won the gold medal in the 500-meter sprint on Monday night at Oval Lingotto, and with it $25,000 from the United States Olympic Committee, when he announced he was giving the money away. All of it. "I am going to be donating the entire sum that the USOC gives to me ... to an organization that Johann Olav Koss started in 1994, and I'm going to be asking all the Olympic sponsors that have given hundreds of millions of dollars if they can match my donation to a specific project. "In the Darfur region of Sudan, tens of thousands of people have been killed; my government called it genocide. So I'll be donating money specifically to a program that helps refugees in Chad, where there are over 60,000 children who have been displaced."

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Fair Trade Valentine Chocolate

If you're one of those people who's into the whole Valentine's Day scene, think this year about the gift of Fair Trade chocolate, easily obtainable via Global Exchange.
Cupid loves Fair Trade chocolate, because there’s no need to worry that the cocoa beans in the chocolate were harvested by child slaves, which is a major problem in the chocolate industry. Illegal child labor is rampant on cocoa farms in West Africa, especially the Ivory Coast, which supplies 40 percent of the world’s cocoa. And although the US chocolate industry promised to end abusive child labor on cocoa farms by 2005, they broke their promise and have done absolutely nothing to address the root causes of the problem: unstable and insufficient prices for cocoa. There is a solution -- Fair Trade Certified Chocolate – and Global Exchange has teamed up with Sweet Earth Organics to provide a Fair Trade option for Valentine’s Day. Our Fair Trade Halloween candy sold out in just three days, proving that many consumers will make the right choice when given the option of purchasing Fair Trade chocolate. We’re hoping for a similar level of enthusiasm on Valentine’s Day, when, according to Thomas Net Industrial Newsroom, Americans are expected to exchange more than 36 million heart-shaped boxes of chocolate as a token of love. Purchasing gifts that are Fair Trade-certified guarantees that the farmers and artisans who produced them are paid a living wage for their labor, and that the products aren’t made in sweatshops or by exploited child laborers. Fair Trade also promotes production techniques that will not harm the environment.
Here is more information on Fair Trade. (One thing you can definitely do is look for the Fair Trade label when buying coffee.)

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Heads of State with Senses of Humor

This is just awesome.
French President Jacques Chirac took a call from Canada's newly elected leader only to find he had been fooled by a pair of radio pranksters known as the "Masked Avengers" in Montreal. Chirac's office confirmed that the French leader had taken a courtesy call on Thursday purportedly from new conservative Prime Minister-elect Stephen Harper. ... Chirac did not react once to Audette's outrageously thick French-Canadian accent as the two men discussed relations, including the name of Canada's new ambassador to France -- Richard Z. Sirois -- who unbeknownst to Chirac is a well-known French Canadian humorist. When Audette complained of the poor press coverage Harper has had in France, Chirac said: "You cannot stop the newspapers from saying any old rubbish, it's true in France and it's true in Canada, so don't let yourself be impressed by that." "Exactly Mr President, liberty, equality and fraternity. Amen," said Audette in his the over-the-top accent, a response that earned the fake prime minister an invitation to make an official visit to France. When Audette finally revealed himself as a bogus prime minister, Chirac burst out laughing.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Internet trivia

For what Google search are these the top ten hits?
  1. Yahoo!
  2. Altavista
  3. Microsoft Corporation
  4. - Breaking News, US, World, Weather, Entertainment & Video ...
  5. Online Shopping for Electronics, Apparel, Computers ...
  6. Adobe Systems Incorporated
  7. MapQuest.Com: Maps, Directions and More
  8. My Excite
  9. Lycos
  10. World Wide Web Consortium

Thursday, January 05, 2006

More on cervical cancer vaccine

There's been a fair amount of action in the comments thread to a brief post from November. I suggested that it was deplorable to prevent children from being vaccinated against cervical cancer; at least one anonymous commentor take issue with my statement, then with my argument. All the interesting parts are in the comments.