Monday, October 17, 2016

The value of clarity

I have a paper on Wittgenstein and the value of clarity up at here. I'm not sure how much it has to do with Wittgenstein really, but I'm also not sure how much that matters.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The just man justices

As Kingfishers Catch Fire

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As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; 
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells 
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's 
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name; 
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; 
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, 
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came. 

I say móre: the just man justices; 
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces; 
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is — 
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places, 
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his 
To the Father through the features of men's faces. 

(Taken from here, discovered thanks to @gravbeast on Twitter. I can't think of any comment worth adding.)

Tell me lies about Vietnam

This post is about Anthony Bourdain and I'm not really accusing him of lying, just quoting this poem. I'm interested in Bourdain mostly because I really like his TV shows, but also because he sometimes seems to be trying a little too hard to be cool or manly or eloquent or authentic. I'm basically a fan, but a slightly skeptical one. So I was very curious to see what he would say about Hanoi, which I visited around the same time he must have been there. Basically I liked the show, but here are a few things I noticed that might give you pause:

1. Bourdain says that the first thing that hits you in Vietnam is the smell, which he describes as a mix of things like spices, grilled meat, and incense. My first experience of this smell was in Cambodia, or actually in the plane on the way to Cambodia. Not that Cambodian people smell, but if you cram enough people into a small space in a hot climate you will smell something. And Cambodian BO is not the same as American or European BO. (It isn't worse or better, it's just different.) When you land you notice a similar smell just about everywhere, coming, I suppose, from people but also from garbage and sewage, as well as cooking, incense, etc. Vietnam has the same smell, though less noticeably. Bourdain mentioned the smell idea to President Obama, who features in the show. Obama diplomatically agrees that certain smells come from spices that you only really find in one particular place. But he can't resist adding that there are other, less pleasant, smells around too. Bourdain, it seems to me, is sanitizing or romanticizing the experience (the smell) he claims to be describing.

2. He also says that the only way to see Hanoi is from a motorbike. If you don't experience it this way you "miss everything". I haven't ridden on a motorcycle in Hanoi, but I don't buy it. I have ridden on (the back of) a motorcycle elsewhere in Vietnam and, as fun as it was, it didn't transform my experience or open my eyes to anything I had overlooked before. Maybe I'm just blinder than Bourdain. But I think this is pure fiction on his part.

3. A big chunk of Bourdain's show about Hanoi is actually set in Halong Bay, which is several hours' (nearly 200 km) drive away.

4. In Halong Bay, Bourdain interviews a villager who says they would like to leave their village on the water (as the government wants them to do), but that they are slow to move because they are wary of the unknown. Bourdain does not mention that it is illegal to protest against the government and that this might influence what someone will say on camera. My guess is that they really don't want to go.

So there you have it. It's not as if Bourdain is a big fat liar or spouts nothing but bull. But he is on TV, and his seemingly authentic view should be taken with the occasional pinch of salt.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Leaving PhilPercs

I have retired from Philosophical Percolations. This happens just as the blog is getting in the news, but it isn't at all because of that. For the curious, here's what happened.

I was very pleased to be invited to join philpercs when it started. It was an honor, and I thought it would mean more exposure, which is meant to be a good thing. On the other hand, I was never keen to leave this blog behind and uncertain how I felt about blogging for a (presumably) larger audience of strangers rather than the small audience of people I think of as friends here. The result was that I kept this blog limping along but also didn't post much over at philpercs either. And nothing I posted there really set the world on fire.

So I'm back here, for better or worse.  

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Can God ride a bike?

DZ Phillips says (here, which seems to be a transcript of what Phillips actually said and so captures his way of speaking quite nicely) that:
The meaning of omnipotence [according to Mackie and others], I repeat again, is the ability to do any action describable without contradiction. Now how do we know when a description of an action is contradictory? Who is going to decide what is or is not a contradiction. Well, I hope you would agree with this, you would have to look at the context of what he said. You cannot describe them; you cannot decide that in the abstract. So you have to look at every specific context to find out whether an action, proposed in that context, is contradictory or not. So if you accept that, this is the new look of logical problem of evil, someone challenging, like old Epicurus did; this is how the challenge would look. If God is omnipotent, he can do any action which is describable without contradiction in its appropriate context. Second line of attack, there are millions, millions, and millions and millions of actions describable without contradiction in their appropriate context which it makes no sense to describe God doing. Therefore, God is not omnipotent, that would be the challenge. If there are millions of actions, and don't forget we are speaking of the first person of the trinity, God the father; the incarnation brings in special problems, and we've got enough problems for one night on our hands with this topic without bringing in the incarnation. So we are talking about God the father as is the proof; God the father. So the challenge are there actions in context which you and I are quite familiar with, that we can describe without contradiction that it would make no sense to speak of God doing? There are millions of them, and I could get away with the rest of the lecture simply by going on giving you millions of examples, but just a few will do to disprove the proof. Here are some of them: riding a bicycle, licking a `Haagan-Daz' ice cream, bumping your head, learning Welsh, having sexual intercourse, forgetting things, being absent minding, you can go on forever. All those things we know those things; they are describable without contradiction. None of them makes sense when ascribed to the creator God
This strikes me as a bit confusing, perhaps even slightly confused, but interesting.

My first thought when I heard the suggestion that it is logically impossible for God to ride a bike (etc.) is that this is just false. If Jesus is God and Jesus can ride a bike then God can ride a bike. The idea of Jesus being God is an odd one, true, but would Phillips reject it? And if Jesus can ride a donkey couldn't he also ride a bike? Phillips says he is not going to bring in the incarnation, but that seems tricky to me. If we are talking about whether God can do something that requires a body then it is a bit arbitrary to refuse to consider his doing so by first occupying a body. Anyway, that was my first thought.

But then my second thought was that there is something very strange about this idea, something absurd. In what sense could Jesus ride a bike? In what circumstances might he do so? I keep picturing a challenge to God following which he proves his power by adopting human form and riding the nearest bicycle, perhaps doing some awesome tricks while he's at it. Or creating a bike and then riding that. But this is all absurd. He wouldn't do any of that. It's inconceivable.

It might not seem inconceivable because I just described it, and you could draw a cartoon of God proving the skeptic wrong in just this way. But, I want to say, precisely because of behaving in this way the cartoon would not (really) be of God. It would be of the familiar cartoon character called God. But it would not be of the God of the Bible. No one worships the cartoon character.

Phillips puts his point better in his book The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God (p. 19):
If it is logically impossible for God to ride a bicycle, that is, it makes no sense to talk of him doing so, not being able to ride a bicycle is no restriction on God's power. [Quoted from here.]
I don't like the 'logically impossible' talk because it makes it sound as though there is some identifiable thing that God cannot do, but if we stick to what makes sense then I agree that it makes no sense to talk about God riding a bike.

If I agree with Phillips after all why do I say the passage I quoted seems confusing? Part of the muddle, I think, is Mackie's. The business about incarnation also seems questionable, as I mentioned (but haven't explored) above. And then there's the talk about what God cannot do, e.g. his "not being able to ride a bike" (from the second, short passage). There is, I would say, no such thing as God's not being able to ride a bike. Rather, "God can ride a bike" makes no sense. Or perhaps better still, I don't know what it would mean to say of God that he either could or could not ride a bike.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Student evaluations of teaching

The most interesting thing about this article on the apparent worthlessness of student evaluations of teaching is the word 'even' in the sentence: "Yet conventional wisdom remains that students learn best from highly rated instructors; tenure cases have even hinged on it." 

Good student evaluations supposedly used to count against people at one research-focused university I heard about, being thought to indicate bad priorities. But at most colleges that emphasize teaching, i.e. that don't emphasize research, I would be very surprised if good teaching evaluations weren't the single most important factor in tenure decisions

Also worth noting is this comment:   
the majority of faculty are now off of the tenure track and these teachers are often evaluated only by students evaluations. This labor situation gives these faulty mechanisms incredible power and creates defensive teaching and a lack of academic freedom.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

What do we moan about when we moan about postmodernism?

Some philosophers are very dismissive of (what they call) postmodernism while others think it is unfairly dismissed, often on the basis of ignorance. If I speak dismissively of it I don't mean the work of Derrida, Foucault, or any other philosopher. I mean a kind of ideology or cloud of tendencies that seems very widespread outside philosophy. According to this (kind of) view:
  • there is no such thing as truth (or else, at least, we should not talk about truth, perhaps for some other reason, but only ever as if there are either no truths at all or else many (mine, yours, etc.)) 
  • the same goes for goodness and beauty (and probably logical validity too)
  • the purpose of education, therefore, is not knowledge of truth or appreciation of goodness or beauty but rather politics
  • one aspect of education in politics is simply coming to accept that everything is political, that belief in truth and beauty (etc.) is naive and that to think otherwise is to fall victim to someone else's power play
  • the other aspect is coming to accept that a) history, literature, and pretty much everything else show that dominant groups are (unfairly) dominant over others, and b) this is the point of studying history, literature, and pretty much everything else
Parts of this are true. Dominant groups are dominant. And this is either always or at least almost always unfair. (Murderers' being in prison doesn't strike me as unfair, but sexual and racial inequality do, for instance.) But other parts are absurd to varying degrees of obviousness. To assert as if true the claim that there is no truth strikes me as deeply problematic. Skepticism about truth (etc.) also, I think, helps right-wing extremists promote their causes. And then there is also the question of why anyone would want to study history or literature or religion or psychology or anything else if none of it is true or good and the only point of the exercise is to change your political views. Why would I want someone else to change my political views in a way that is explicitly not in the direction of truth or goodness? Why would I pay to have this done to my children? Why would governments pay for it? Why would employers want to hire people whose education had been of this kind? (I don't mean that education should be all about employability. I'm just going through possible reasons for education: to enlighten; to give students something that they want; to give students something that their parents want them to have; to give them something that the state wants them to have; to give them something that potential employers want them to have. Postmodernism as I've defined it seems to offer none of this.)

I don't know where this ideology comes from. One source seems to be scientism. Scientific claims might be true or false, the idea seems to be, but the humanities are a different kettle of fish. Here all is opinion and anything goes. Along with this is the existentialist idea that I am free, as you are too, to commit myself to anything with equal justification. It follows, of course, that racism is not actually unjust or unfair or evil or wrong, but also that we are perfectly entitled to commit ourselves to the view that it is any or all of the above. I don't know how much sense this makes, but I reject any view that denies the wrongness of racism. Nietzsche and Wittgenstein seem in some ways to be behind these ideas. Perhaps Foucault is too. But what I've read of Foucault's work is much better than this (i.e., the set/cloud of points listed above), and both Nietzsche and Wittgenstein would surely have rejected it. Variations on it, though, are very widespread, even standard, in large areas of the humanities, as far as I can tell. For instance, the religious studies course I gave up on a while ago presented a kind of relativism as a key feature of the religious studies approach to the study of religion. In The Good Story Coetzee defends belief in truth but is clearly aware that acknowledging the existence of such a thing is unfashionable, perhaps even rude:
Although, like most well brought up people nowadays, I am careful to avoid the impolite locution 'transcendent truth', I confess that privately I continue to distinguish between things that really happened in the past and things that did not really happen. (p. 74)
Coetzee is led to say this about halfway through his dialogue with Arabella Kurtz partly because she seems so deeply resistant to the idea of this kind of truth, which is not transcendent in any very mysterious way. It is simply the difference between what really happened and what didn't, between whether Don Quixote tilted at windmills or at giants. Kurtz is not alone in this resistance. It seems, as Coetzee notes, to be something people are brought up with.
I don't know whether anyone believes (or claims to believe) the full list of points, but something like it seems to lurk behind a great deal that is said and taught by a great many people in the humanities. And philosophers are kidding themselves if they think these ideas have all been put to bed. Of course, it might seem as though once an idea or set of ideas has been shown to be false or incoherent or otherwise implausible then there is nothing more for philosophers to do about it. But if the ideas won't die then someone needs to do more. This might be a difference between the idea of philosophy as something like a science and philosophy as therapy. Scientists prove and move on. A therapist's work, on the other hand, is never done.

I remember hearing years ago that even philosophers who are postmodernists dislike that label because it suggests something shallow and incoherent. So I'm curious about the relation between the postmodernism I'm moaning about and what we might call postmodernism proper. If the latter makes far more sense then perhaps the problem is less with bad philosophy and more with badly understood philosophy. In which case, what should we do? I'm still inclined to think that we should combat confusion wherever we find it, but that's much easier said than done. Perhaps it is simply that there are always people who talk as if influenced by philosophical works that they barely understand, and these people will move on to mangling other ideas soon enough. In short, I come and go between thinking there is a major intellectual crisis that philosophers ought to to ignore and thinking that there is really no crisis at all. But if I ever talk as if there is a crisis, or as if something called postmodernism is a very bad thing, then this is the kind of thing I'm talking (or moaning) about.