Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Quote of the Week, 2014-12-31

An end is an object of the free elective will, the idea of which determines this will to an action by which the object is produced. Accordingly every action has its end, and as no one can have an end without himself making the object of his elective will his end, hence to have some end of actions is an act of the freedom of the agent, not an affect of physical nature. Now, since this act which determines an end is a practical principle which commands not the means (therefore not conditionally) but the end itself (therefore unconditionally), hence it is a categorical imperative of pure practical reason and one, therefore, which combines a concept of duty with that of an end in general.

III. Of the Reason for conceiving an End which is also a Duty, The Metaphysical Elements of Ethics, by Immanuel Kant

Translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott

Retrieved from Project Gutenberg

This paragraph contains a basic logical fallacy. Given A(x) meaning "x is an action that leads to an end" and B(x) meaning "x is an idea of an object of the elective free will", the first two sentences make the argument (∀x[B(x)⇒A(x)])⇒(∀x[A(x)⇒B(x)]). This is the Fallacy of the Converse.

Moreover, the reality is that actions come not only from acts of will toward an end, but also from habit, and more importantly even from confusion. Sometimes we have an end in mind, but have no idea of how to proceed toward that end, except that we know the current state of affairs is not the end we seek. We then use our will to enact any random change, without any guarantee such action will put us any closer to our end (and indeed with the understanding that we may end up further away). Some might try to explain this as the change itself is the end of the action, a short-term end in support of a larger end, but this explanation is wanting, as change is the description of the movement between the current state and the end, and therefore can not also be an end unto itself.

One analogous example occurs with inexperienced chess players, who understand the goal is checkmate, but see no method by which to secure it. This results in the seemingly random movement of pieces. It would be a mistake to say that the end of the chess player was to move pieces about.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Quote of the Week, 2014-12-24

To virtue = + a is opposed as its logical contradictory (contradictorie oppositum) the negative lack of virtue (moral weakness) = 0; but vice = - a is its contrary (contrarie s. realiter oppositum); and it is not merely a needless question but an offensive one to ask whether great crimes do not perhaps demand more strength of mind than great virtues. For by strength of mind we understand the strength of purpose of a man, as a being endowed with freedom, and consequently so far as he is master of himself (in his senses) and therefore in a healthy condition of mind. But great crimes are paroxysms, the very sight of which makes the man of healthy mind shudder. The question would therefore be something like this: whether a man in a fit of madness can have more physical strength than if he is in his senses; and we may admit this without on that account ascribing to him more strength of mind, if by mind we understand the vital principle of man in the free use of his powers. For since those crimes have their ground merely in the power of the inclinations that weaken reason, which does not prove strength of mind, this question would be nearly the same as the question whether a man in a fit of illness can show more strength than in a healthy condition; and this may be directly denied, since the want of health, which consists in the proper balance of all the bodily forces of the man, is a weakness in the system of these forces, by which system alone we can estimate absolute health.

Remark following Exposition of the Notion of an End which is also a Duty, The Metaphysical Elements of Ethics, by Immanuel Kant

Translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott

Retrieved from Project Gutenberg

I have seen three or four philosophers recommend this book as the best place to start a study of ethics. Than I read a passage like the one above and wonder why they speak so highly of it. Perhaps I am missing something. Actually, I'm sure I'm missing quite a bit, but in this case I meant some way of interpreting the passage that is not so contrary to the plain evidence of our knowledge. Even in Kant's time, there had been horrors committed by powerful men, men who clearly had a strong purpose, were as much endowed with the freedom to act as any other contemporary, and were masters of themselves in the pursuit of that purpose, fitting Kant's definition of having strength of mind. Yet, these men never shuddered when organizing, planning, and committing great crimes; they shrugged them off as unfortunate necessities or even delighted in their execution.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Quote of the Week, 2014-12-17

Now that ethics is a doctrine of virtue (doctrina officiorum virtutis) follows from the definition of virtue given above compared with the obligation, the peculiarity of which has just been shown. There is in fact no other determination of the elective will, except that to an end, which in the very notion of it implies that I cannot even physically be forced to it by the elective will of others. Another may indeed force me to do something which is not my end (but only means to the end of another), but he cannot force me to make it my own end, and yet I can have no end except of my own making. The latter supposition would be a contradiction- an act of freedom which yet at the same time would not be free. But there is no contradiction in setting before one's self an end which is also a duty: for in this case I constrain myself, and this is quite consistent with freedom.

Exposition of the Conception of Ethics, The Metaphysical Elements of Ethics, by Immanuel Kant

Translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott

Retrieved from Project Gutenberg

As so often happens when a person declares that one of two conditions must exist, reality intrudes with situations that fit into neither category. Here, Kant seems to be saying that there are two reasons that we undertake an action, either to accomplish our own end, or by threat of coercion from another to accomplish their end. but he makes no allowance for a person to be able to install an end from the their own mind into the mind of another.

An obvious counterexample to the general statement is child-rearing. One of the primary goals of parenting is to instill the appropriate ends into your children, to teach them to esteem being virtuous. Perhaps Kant will discuss this in a later section of this book. I can certainly see a possible exception being offered, that children are too unformed to have free will, and the contradiction does not exist in the absence of free will.

Nonetheless, This answer does not satisfy, because we can see the same phenomenon in adults. In kidnapping victims we refer to it as Stockholm syndrome. People change their ends to reflect those of their captors, abusers, religious leaders, etc. Any detailed discussion of free will needs to account for such occurrences.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

To C or not to C

Probably the hardest decision to make as a teacher is when to pass a student that is just on cusp of passing, but is not quite there. I just had such a student this semester, and ultimately decided not to pass them, but it was not an easy decision.

The stakes could be very high, either way. Perhaps I'm overestimating my influence, but I can see not passing them as affecting their future ability to get financial aid, discouraging them from trying again, or sending out a flag to some sponsoring agency to change their sponsorship. I almost never get to know the repercussions of these decisions.

On the other hand, I'm not completely comfortable even with some of the Cs I did hand out in this class. I'm not sure how prepared these students are for the next class. Did I just hand off trouble to the next instructor? Again, I'll probably never know the answer to this, either.

In the end, I think the homework points were a big part of this decision. We use an on-line homework system. Out of 40 possible points, the student only earned 11. Most of the sections were not even opened. I don't know if this is proper logic or not, but I'd have been much more likely to award the C for a similar score if 30 points had been earned.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Quote of the Week, 2014-12-10

The notion of duty is in itself already the notion of a constraint of the free elective will by the law; whether this constraint be an external one or be self-constraint. The moral imperative, by its categorical (the unconditional ought) announces this constraint, which therefore does not apply to all rational beings (for there may also be holy beings), but applies to men as rational physical beings who are unholy enough to be seduced by pleasure to the transgression of the moral law, although they themselves recognize its authority; and when they do obey it, to obey it unwillingly (with resistance of their inclination); and it is in this that the constraint properly consists.* Now, as man is a free (moral) being, the notion of duty can contain only self-constraint (by the idea of the law itself), when we look to the internal determination of the will (the spring), for thus only is it possible to combine that constraint (even if it were external) with the freedom of the elective will. The notion of duty then must be an ethical one.

*Man, however, as at the same time a moral being, when he considers himself objectively, which he is qualified to do by his pure practical reason, (i.e. according to humanity in his own person), finds himself holy enough to transgress the law only unwillingly; for there is no man so depraved who in this transgression would not feel a resistance and an abhorrence of himself, so that he must put a force on himself. It is impossible to explain the phenomenon that at this parting of the ways (where the beautiful fable places Hercules between virtue and sensuality) man shows more propensity to obey inclination than the law. For, we can only explain what happens by tracing it to a cause according to physical laws; but then we should not be able to conceive the elective will as free. Now this mutually opposed self-constraint and the inevitability of it makes us recognize the incomprehensible property of freedom.

Exposition of the Conception of Ethics, The Metaphysical Elements of Ethics, by Immanuel Kant

Translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott

Retrieved from Project Gutenberg

When you are trying to create a universally applied doctrine, there seems to be no defect that is both more fatal to the task and more overlooked in the pursuit than a lack of understanding regarding the parts of the world that you don't inhabit, and the people in the world. People go on long discourses about the nature of other people, in the process describing what they see in their own nature.

Here, Kant denies the existence of men "so depraved who in this transgression would not feel a resistance and an abhorrence of himself". Such men certainly do exist; they feel no abhorrence for shirking any duties that other men impose at themselves, they laugh at those of us that take on such duties. Further, even for those that do feel the call of these duties, so many people are masters at lying to themselves. They tell themself that they are serving a noble cause, and commit atrocities in its name. People are not naturally rational, they are naturally rationalizers.

Free will seems to be cast here as ability to decide between following a duty, or to put that duty aside. However, much of what is considered sin by an observer is likely the result of changing what the transgressor considers to be sinful.

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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Quote of the Week, 2014-12-03

If there exists on any subject a philosophy (that is, a system of rational knowledge based on concepts), then there must also be for this philosophy a system of pure rational concepts, independent of any condition of intuition, in other words, a metaphysic. It may be asked whether metaphysical elements are required also for every practical philosophy, which is the doctrine of duties, and therefore also for Ethics, in order to be able to present it as a true science (systematically), not merely as an aggregate of separate doctrines (fragmentarily). As regards pure jurisprudence, no one will question this requirement; for it concerns only what is formal in the elective will, which has to be limited in its external relations according to laws of freedom; without regarding any end which is the matter of this will. Here, therefore, deontology is a mere scientific doctrine (doctrina scientiae).

Preface, The Metaphysical Elements of Ethics, by Immanuel Kant

Translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott

Retrieved from Project Gutenberg

This is the first paragraph of the Preface of Kant's book. I would disagree that any system of pure rational concepts can be had independent of intuition, but that may be a bad translation to the word "intuition". Any formal system of purely rational concepts requires a set of beginning points, and to avoid circularity these points can not be chosen via this rational system. The only way to make such choices, in the hopes that they apply to the world, it via our intuition or via experimentation.

Also, the notion that there is scientific doctrine seems faulty. The whole point of science is to dispense with doctrine and find answers empirically. We may teach the results of previous explorations in a fashion similar to doctrine, but it is always done with a mindfulness that our knowledge is tentative and primitive; that reality continually wriggles out of our grasp.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Quote of the Week, 2014-11-26

In the mental world, the evidence for the universality of causal laws is less complete than in the physical world. Psychology cannot boast of any triumph comparable to gravitational astronomy. Nevertheless, the evidence is not very greatly less than in the physical world. The crude and approximate causal laws from which science starts are just as easy to discover in the mental sphere as in the physical. In the world of sense, there are to begin with the correlations of sight and touch and so on, and the facts which lead us to connect various kinds of sensations with eyes, ears, nose, tongue, etc. Then there are such facts as that our body moves in answer to our volitions. Exceptions exist, but are capable of being explained as easily as the exceptions to the rule that unsupported bodies in air fall. There is, in fact, just such a degree of evidence for causal laws in psychology as will warrant the psychologist in assuming them as a matter of course, though not such a degree as will suffice to remove all doubt from the mind of a sceptical inquirer. It should be observed that causal laws in which the given term is mental and the inferred term physical, or vice versa, are at least as easy to discover as causal laws in which both terms are mental.

Bertrand Russell, Our Knowledge of the External World, Lecture 8

Retrieved from Project Gutenberg

In a lecture on cause and its application to free will, Russell takes time to note that causal laws apply to the interactions between different mental phenomena, or between mental and physical phenomena. I find free will to be a very difficult concept, in that among the people who believe it exists, they are almost universally certain it does not exist in computers, and yet are unable to give any sort that qualitative difference that withstands careful scrutiny. I'm working on a post looks at a typical example of this position.

This will be the last Quote of the Week to feature Russell, at least for a while. I've downloaded some Kant and some Nietzsche, so I expect they will be featured over the next few months.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Quote of the Week, 2014-11-19

The world is not what it is. We should put out that silly "but it's human nature!" argument to pasture. At one point, a large percentage of the U.S. population was enslaved. Not long ago, women couldn't even vote. Even more recently, over 90% of the population thought inter-racial marriage was immoral. The world changes every day, and silencing criticism by claiming that things are the only way they can be is small minded and utterly incorrect. Women feel harassed when subjected to cat calls each time they leave their house. I would feel precisely the same. And since they are the ones getting harassed, you don't get a say in how they should feel. The behavior is unacceptable and society should stand against it.

Siro, JazzFanz post

We constantly see claims of nature used to justify inequality. This race has specific traits, that gender tends to act a certain way, the other sexuality shows deviance, etc. However, one of the real truths is that primate nature is plastic, adaptable, and responds to its cultural surroundings. Since humans are primates, this includes us.

One great, real-world example are the Forest Tribe Baboons, who had a dramatic shift in culture when the largest, most aggressive apes were killed off rapidly due to unusual circumstances. All over the world, baboons were known for their use of violence within a tribe to establish order, but within a couple of generations, this tribe turned to more pacifistic and cooperative models of organization. Culture can be changed. I don't advocate killing off our perpetrators of egregious racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc., but I do advocate fighting them.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Quote of the Week, 2014-11-12

Between philosophy and pure mathematics there is a certain affinity, in the fact that both are general and a priori. Neither of them asserts propositions which, like those of history and geography, depend upon the actual concrete facts being just what they are. We may illustrate this characteristic by means of Leibniz's conception of many possible worlds, of which only one is actual. In all the many possible worlds, philosophy and mathematics will be the same; the differences will only be in respect of those particular facts which are chronicled by the descriptive sciences. Any quality, therefore, by which our actual world is distinguished from other abstractly possible worlds, must be ignored by mathematics and philosophy alike. Mathematics and philosophy differ, however, in in their manner of treating the general properties in which all possible worlds agree; for while mathematics starting from comparatively simple propositions, seeks to build up more and more complex results by deductive synthesis, philosophy, starting from data which are common to all knowledge, seeks to purify them into the the simplest statements of abstract form that can be obtained from them by logical analysis.

Bertrand Russell, Our Knowledge of the External World, Lecture 7

Retrieved from Project Gutenberg

I have areas of agreement and areas of disagreement with this post. I would put both mathematics and philosophy, as well as fields of study like constitutional law, largely in a class of knowledge referred to as formal knowledge. For me, this is knowledge derived from systems we set up, such as logic, uses propositions we assert to be true. In this sense, it is true mathematics, philosophy, or the law would be the same in any alternate world, as long as you hold the assumptions that they make to be unchangeable.

On the other hand, Russell wrote these lectures in 1914. long before the Kurt Gödel's incompleteness theorems and Paul Cohen had proved the independence of the Continuum Hypothesis in set theory. We can certainly talk about one possible world where the Continuum Hypothesis is true, and another where it is not true. In that case, we can't say mathematics will be identical in these two possible worlds. The would hold true for any branch of philosophy (or any other formal system). We will always come across unprovable statements, which may be true or false, and discuss possible worlds for each case. The assumptions of mathematics are not unchangeable, but instead, up to the decision of the mathematician.

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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Quote of the Week, 2014-11-05

US deaths from ebola = 1
Annual US deaths from the flu = >3000, as high as 49,000 over the past 40 years

US ebola infections = 3 (maybe 4, only 2 transmitted in the states)
Annual US flu infections = between 5% and 20% of the population get the flu, approx 200,000 are hospitalized from it annually

% of US populations panicking over ebola = >90%
% of the US population that thinks flu shots are worthless = ?%, but apparently anyone who follows Bill Maher. Link.

% of US population that are morons....well you can do the math.

LogGrad98, JazzFanz post

I don't have anything more to add to this one.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Quote of the Week, 2014-10-29

I'm extremely opposed to a country that can run people out of town through denying them goods/services just because the owners of the business are bigoted jagoffs. On most things I'm pretty libertarian, but in this instance the Feds and state have a legitimate interest in protecting the rights of their citizens by intervening.

Nate505, JazzFanz post

I make no promises that Nate505 endorses every, or any, word of my commentary.

Does a state owe its citizens the right to be able to conduct business? Do other citizens have the right to de facto prevent citizens from conducting their business, or even inconvenience them in the conducting their business? Some people think that owners should be allowed to act upon their bigotry when serving the public, but I disagree. Being part of a community demands a certain level of respect for every other member of that community. You don't have to approve of them, or like them, but there is a reason that we refer to the minimum effort of acknowledging them and engaging with them as members of the public as being civil. It's a foundation of our civilization. It's what we owe every member of our community.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Quote of the Week, 2014-10-22

I do not see any reason to to suppose that the points and instants which mathematicians introduce in dealing with space and time are actual physically existing entities, but I do see reasons to suppose that the continuity of of actual space and time may be more or less analogous to the mathematical continuity. The theory of mathematical continuity is an abstract logical theory, not dependent for its validity upon any properties of actual space and time.

Bertrand Russell, Our Knowledge of the External World, Lecture 5

Retrieved from Project Gutenberg

Can you tell what I have been reading lately?

Russell regularly regales against philosophers who put their metaphysics as being, and here he sets his own standard for himself; the best he does is work with something somewhat analogous. I've been talking about philosophy as constructing models for reality since the very first of this blog. We never can know if we have a perfect model of reality, only if we have one that's working for our needs.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Quote of the Week, 2014-10-15

There is not any superfine brand of knowledge, obtainable by the philosopher, which can give us a standpoint from which to from which to criticize the whole of daily life. The most that can be done is to examine and purify our common knowledge by an internal scrutiny, assuming the canons by which it has been obtained, and applying them with more care and precision. Philosophy cannot boast of having achieved such a degree of certainty that it can have authority to condemn the facts of experience and the laws of science.

Bertrand Russell, Our Knowledge of the External World, Lecture 3

Retrieved from Project Gutenberg

Russell was a logical realist, in that he believed the principals of logic were basic facts; I am closer to being a fictionalist, in that I believe they are constructed by humans, for humans, and have been used to create a useful model that is simple enough to be understood and flexible enough to handle many things. So, I would agree with this quote from Russsell even more strongly than, perhaps, he would.

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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Quote of the week, 2014-10-08

But if human conceit was staggered for a moment by its kinship with the ape, it soon found a way to reassert itself, and that way is the "philosophy" of evolution. A process which led from the amoeba to man appeared to the philosophers to be obviously a progress--though whether the amoeba would agree with this opinion is not known.

Bertrand Russell, Our Knowledge of the External World, Lecture 1

Retrieved from Project Gutenberg

Of course, we know that evolution does not teach there is a process from amoeba to men, but rather, that amoebas and men have a common ancestry of a population of single-celled animals that we might call (for the purposes of this discussion) early eukaryotes. I don't know if Russell was aware of this inaccuracy or not; he makes this sentence in the process of describing philosophical positions, not biology, and so moves on quickly to philosophies that supposedly use evolution as a basis (of which he is not fond).

Still, I agree that the early eukaryotes may not consider either lines of their descendants to have progressed.

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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Quote of the week, 2014-10-01

Everyone knows that to read an author simply in order to refute him is not the way to understand him; and to read the book of Nature with a conviction that it is all an illusion is just as unlikely to lead to understanding.

Bertrand Russell, Our Knowledge of the External World, Lecture 2

Retrieved from Project Gutenberg

I am far overdue to respond to some posts by TheOFloinn. I will try to keep this in mind in my responses.

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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Suggested Kickstarter: Augie and the Green Knight

There's another interesting children's book on Kickstarter, Augie and the Green Knight: A Children's Adventure Book.

This one is already funded. An magical adventure about a skeptical, science-minded girl in a world of fantasy. What's not to love?

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Saturday, February 15, 2014

Suggested Kickstarter: The Freethinker's Book of Fables

There's 17 days left in this Kickstarter.

The Freethinker's Book of Fables

I'll be contributing.

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