Category Archives: philosophy

Leibniz on music

Leibniz wrote:

Even the pleasures of sense are reducible to intellectual pleasures, known confusedly.  Music charms us, although its beauty consists only in the agreement of numbers and in the counting, which we do not perceive but which the soul nevertheless continues to carry out, of the beats or vibrations of sounding bodies which coincide at certain intervals.

Boy, do I disagree.  Different pleasures are different.

Tagged ,

The Coin Game, II

Good answers to the last question! I think I perhaps put my thumb on the scale too much by naming a variable p.

Let me try another version in the form of a dialogue.

ME: Hey in that other room somebody flipped a fair coin. What would you say is the probability that it fell heads?

YOU: I would say it is 1/2.

ME: Now I’m going to give you some more information about the coin. A confederate of mine made a prediction about whether the coin would fall head or tails and he was correct. Now what would you say is the probability that it fell heads?

YOU: Now I have no idea, because I have no information about the propensity of your confederate to predict heads.

(Update: What if what you knew about the coin in advance was that it fell heads 99.99% of the time? Would you still be at ease saying you end up with no knowledge at all about the probability that the coin fell heads?) This is in fact what Joyce thinks you should say. White disagrees. But I think they both agree that it feels weird to say this, whether or not it’s correct.

Why would it not feel weird? I think Qiaochu’s comment in the previous thread gives a clue. He writes:

Re: the update, no, I don’t think that’s strange. You gave me some weird information and I conditioned on it. Conditioning on things changes my subjective probabilities, and conditioning on weird things changes my subjective probabilities in weird ways.

In other words, he takes it for granted that what you are supposed to do is condition on new information. Which is obviously what you should do in any context where you’re dealing with mathematical probability satisfying the usual axioms. Are we in such a context here? I certainly don’t mean “you have no information about Coin 2” to mean “Coin 2 falls heads with probability p where p is drawn from the uniform distribution (or Jeffreys, or any other specified distribution, thanks Ben W.) on [0,1]” — if I meant that, there could be no controversy!

I think as mathematicians we are very used to thinking that probability as we know it is what we mean when we talk about uncertainty. Or, to the extent we think we’re talking about something other than probability, we are wrong to think so. Lots of philosophers take this view. I’m not sure it’s wrong. But I’m also not sure it’s right. And whether it’s wrong or right, I think it’s kind of weird.

Tagged ,

The coin game

Here is a puzzling example due to Roger White.

There are two coins.  Coin 1 you know is fair.  Coin 2 you know nothing about; it falls heads with some probability p, but you have no information about what p is.

Both coins are flipped by an experimenter in another room, who tells you that the two coins agreed (i.e. both were heads or both tails.)

What do you now know about Pr(Coin 1 landed heads) and Pr(Coin 2 landed heads)?

(Note:  as is usual in analytic philosophy, whether or not this is puzzling is itself somewhat controversial, but I think it’s puzzling!)

Update: Lots of people seem to not find this at all puzzling, so let me add this. If your answer is “I know nothing about the probability that coin 1 landed heads, it’s some unknown quantity p that agrees with the unknown parameter governing coin 2,” you should ask yourself: is it strange that someone flipped a fair coin in another room and you don’t know what the probability is that it landed heads?”

Relevant readings: section 3.1 of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on imprecise probabilities and Joyce’s paper on imprecise credences, pp.13-14.

Tagged , ,

Vampire post gets Brooksed

A while ago I read a great paper by the philosopher L. A. Paul and wrote this post about it, asking:  is the experience of becoming a vampire analogous in important ways to the experience of becoming a parent?  When deciding whether to become a vampire, is it relevant what human you thinks about being a vampire, or only what future vampire you would think about being a vampire?

Paul liked the example and was kind enough to include (her much deeper and more fully worked-out version of) it in her book, Transformative Experience.

And now David Brooks, the official public philosopher de nous jours, has devoted a whole column to Paul’s book!  And he leads with the vampires!

Let’s say you had the chance to become a vampire. With one magical bite you would gain immortality, superhuman strength and a life of glamorous intensity. Your friends who have undergone the transformation say the experience is incredible. They drink animal blood, not human blood, and say everything about their new existence provides them with fun, companionship and meaning.

Would you do it? Would you consent to receive the life-altering bite, even knowing that once changed you could never go back?

The difficulty of the choice is that you’d have to use your human self and preferences to try to guess whether you’d enjoy having a vampire self and preferences. Becoming a vampire is transformational. You would literally become a different self. How can you possibly know what it would feel like to be this different version of you or whether you would like it?

Brooks punts on the actually difficult questions raised by Paul’s book, counseling you to cast aside contemplation of your various selves’ preferences and do as objective moral standards demand.  But Paul makes it clear (p.19) that “in the circumstances I am considering… there are no moral or religious rules that determine just which act you should choose.”

Note well, buried in the last paragraph:

When we’re shopping for something, we act as autonomous creatures who are looking for the product that will produce the most pleasure or utility. But choosing to have a child or selecting a spouse, faith or life course is not like that.

Choosing children, spouses, and vocations are discussed elsewhere in the piece, but choosing a religion is not.  And yet there it is in the summation.  The column is yet more evidence for my claim that David Brooks will shortly announce — let’s say within a year — that he’s converting to Christianity.  Controversial predictions!  And vampires!  All part of the Quomodocumque brand.


Tagged , , , , ,

More is less: Ted Olson on Citizens United

I saw Ted Olson and David Boies talk about the Citizens United decision at the Aspen Ideas Festival a couple of months ago.  Olson likes the decision, and he was passionate and funny in its defense.  “The more speech we have, the better,” he said.  And who can disagree?  The antidote to bad speech is good speech, marketplace of ideas, etc.

It wasn’t until I was on my way home, esprit de l’airplane, that it occurred to me to think about the followup case, Arizona Free Enterprise Club vs. Bennettdecided a year after Citizens United with the same five justices in the majority.  In that case, the Court found unconstitutional an Arizona law that provided government funds to publicly funded candidates allowing them to match any spending by a self-funded candidate exceeding a specified cap.  Here the Court managed to reason that adding more speech, funded by the state, added up to less speech.  They argued that a wealthy candidate whose every ad was matched by an equally well-funded opposition ad would refrain from campaigning at all — the self-funded candidates so inconfident in the strength of their ideas, apparently, as to prefer silence to both camps getting equal time.

It’s pretty starkly different from Olson’s let-a-hundred-flowers-bloom philosophy.  The Court called the Arizona law a “burden” on free speech, though of course it in no way prevented self-funded candidates from spending and speaking.  Unless you take the view that free speech responded to is effectively cancelled or suppressed, precisely the opposite of Olson’s attitude.  I wonder what he thinks about this decision?  Is the right to free speech a right to be heard, or a right to drown out?

Tagged , , , ,

Is the evil impulse good?

I learned this teaching from Rabbi Rebecca Ben-Gideon last week and have been turning it over in my mind:

Rabbi Nahman said in Rabbi Samuel’s name: ‘Behold, it was good’ refers to the Good Desire; ‘And behold, it was very good’ refers to the Evil Desire. (It only says ‘very good’ after man was created with both the good and bad inclinations, in all other cases it only says ‘and God saw that it was good’) Can then the Evil Desire be very good? That would be extraordinary! But without the Evil Desire, however, no man would build a house, take a wife and beget children; and thus said Solomon: ‘Again, I considered all labour and all excelling in work, that it is a man’s rivalry with his neighbour.’

This is from Bereshit Rabbah 9:7.  Ambition, here, is understood as a manifestation of Yetzer Hara, the evil impulse.  David Holzel writes about this view of yetzer hara in the context of the Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within,” the one where Captain Kirk splits up into Good Kirk and Bad Kirk.  Holzel says the yetzer hara isn’t really all bad, and Nahman seems to agree.  Here’s a Talmud story on a similar theme:

It is said that two thousand years ago, a group of Rabbis encountered the Yetzer Hara amidst the destruction of Jerusalem. Knowing that the evil impulse was to blame for the devastation of their Holy Temple, they grabbed him and wrestled him into a chamber pot, where they held him. Ready to destroy the Yetzer Hara, one Rabbi interjected. “Who knows what will happen if you destroy him. Hold him for three days and see what happens!”
The Rabbis waited patiently for three days and then began scouting the city. Immediately, they noticed that the world was beginning to rot away. People stopped doing business. Chickens stopped producing eggs. Families stopped building houses. Immediately, they knew what they had to do. They let him go, knowing that the world could not be sustained without him. (Yoma 69b)

But here’s what I don’t get. If the yetzer hara is a morally neutral complex of desires (the physical/material/selfish part of human nature) why is it called the evil impulse?  It could have been called something else — “the animal nature” or something.  I feel like it’s a basic feature of Jewish thought that things are called what they’re called for a reason.  Nobody argues that lashon hara isn’t actually bad.  If it weren’t bad it wouldn’t be called lashon hara!

Tagged ,

Logical endpoints

More on Aaronson (see previous post for context):

I was struck by this commment Scott made on Gil Kalai’s blog:

Yes, I admit, I do have the moral philosopher’s (or for that matter, the mathematician’s) habit of trying to take stated principles to their logical conclusions, even if many people would regard those conclusions as “irrelevant” or “absurd.” (To take a different example: “People should have the right to own whatever weapon they want, since merely owning it doesn’t harm anyone.” “OK then, what about nuclear missiles?” “That’s irrelevant and absurd! I was talking about guns.”) Is this habit something I should apologize for?

and this reddit comment he quotes approvingly:

I think the reason Dworkin comes up in discussions like this is because her thinking is the logical endpoint of mainstream feminist theory.
It goes something like this:
1) Women are systematically oppressed by men
2) If 1 is true, how can a woman ever consent to sex or practically anything else with men? Any “consent” a woman gives will be given under duress because she is being systematically oppressed.
3) If any “consent” a woman gives is under duress (because every decision and choice a woman makes is under duress because she’s being systematically oppressed), then women can never ever give consent in any dealing with men.
Dworkin, to her credit, was so logical that she came to this conclusion and accepted it. All logical thinkers will probably come to this conclusion which is why nerds and STEM people will like and understand Dworkin. She’s logical. She makes sense.

For my own part, I find this idea of taking political and moral principles to their logical conclusions to be very weird.  And I don’t think it’s “the mathematician’s habit,” as Scott says.  At least, it’s not this mathematician’s habit.  Being a mathematician doesn’t incline me to apply Boolean operations to ethical principles; on the contrary, I think being a mathematician makes me more alive than the average person to the difference between mathematical assertions (which do behave really well under logical operations) and every other kind.

In particular, I don’t find the argument by the reddit commenter very compelling.  There are lots of feminists (I think almost all feminists!) who sound nothing like Andrea Dworkin, and who pretty obviously think that there exists sex between men and women that isn’t rape.  Is that because they can’t do logic?  I am a STEM person and a feminist and I think systematic sexism exists in the world and I don’t think heterosexual sex is rape.  Is that because I can’t do logic?

No — it’s because I think there are very few assertions about sex, power and feminism which stand in a relation of authentic logical entailment.

Tagged , ,

Thoughts on TEDx

I gave a TED talk!  OK, not exactly — I gave a TEDx talk, which is the locally organized, non-branded version, but same idea.  18 minutes or less, somewhat sloganistic, a flavor of self-improvement and inspiration.

I was skeptical of the format.  18 minutes!  How can you do anything?  You can really just say one thing.  No opportunity to digress.  Since digression is my usual organizational strategy, this was a challenge.

And there’s a format.  The organizers explained it to me.  Not to be hewed to exactly but taken very seriously.  A personal vignette, to show you’re a human.  A one-sentence takeaway.  General positivity.  A visual prop is good.  The organizers were lovely and gave me lots of good advice when I practiced the talk for them.  I was very motivated to deliver it the way they wanted it.

And in the end, I found the restrictiveness of the format to be really useful.  It’s like a sonnet.  Sonnets are, in certain ways, all the same, by force; and yet there’s a wild diversity of sonnets.  So too for TED talks.  No two of the talks at TEDxMadison were really the same.  And none of them was really like Steve’s TED talk (though I did read a poem like Steve) or Amanda Palmer’s TED talk or (thank goodness) like the moleeds TED talk.

No room in the talk to play the Housemartins song “Sitting on a Fence,” which plays a key role in the longer version of the argument in How Not To Be Wrong.  So here it is now.

Tagged , , , ,

Rescinding an offer when the candidate tries to negotiate

From the Philosophy Smoker, via Liz Harman:


As you know, I am very enthusiastic about the possibility of coming to Nazareth. Granting some of the following provisions would make my decision easier.
1) An increase of my starting salary to $65,000, which is more in line with what assistant professors in philosophy have been getting in the last few years.
2) An official semester of maternity leave.
3) A pre-tenure sabbatical at some point during the bottom half of my tenure clock.
4) No more than three new class preps per year for the first three years.
5) A start date of academic year 2015 so I can complete my postdoc.
I know that some of these might be easier to grant than others. Let me know what you think.


Thank you for your email. The search committee discussed your provisions. They were also reviewed by the Dean and the VPAA. It was determined that on the whole these provisions indicate an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centered. Thus, the institution has decided to withdraw its offer of employment to you.
Thank you very much for your interest in Nazareth College. We wish you the best in finding a suitable position.

Talk amongst yourselves.


Bertrand Russell was emo

Another entry in the series of “towering early 20th century thinkers were emo” (previously:  B.F. Skinner was emo.)  Bertrand Russell, age 31, writing to his friend Gilbert Murray:

I have been merely oppressed by the weariness and tedium and vanity of things lately: nothing stirs me, nothing seems worth doing or worth having done: the only thing that I strongly feel worth while would be to murder as many people as possible so as to diminish the amount of consciousness in the world. These times have to be lived through: there is nothing to be done with them.

This quote is pretty famous but glancing through his letters, holy cow, I had no idea how brutal Russell’s thoughts were.  Here’s his take on math:

Abstract work, if one wishes to do it well, must be allowed to destroy one’s humanity: one raises a monument which is at the same time a tomb, in which, voluntarily, one slowly inters oneself.

And on marriage:

It is ghastly to watch, in most marriages, the competition as to which is to be torturer, which tortured; a few years, at most, settle it, and after it is settled, one has happiness and the other has virtue.  And the torturer smirks and speaks of matrimonial bliss; and the victim, for fear of worse, smiles a ghastly assent.

All these letters are from the period when his first marriage was breaking up, so maybe he cheered up later?



Tagged ,

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 653 other followers

%d bloggers like this: