Transcribe Bentham

We at the Noumenal Realm have discovered an interesting project hosted by UCL. It is called ‘Transcribe Bentham’ and general members of the public (that’s you) are invited to take part in assisting with the transcription of the 19thC Ethicist/Economist/Legal philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Bentham is a fascinating person who I don’t admit to knowing much about; but he was integral to the founding of University College London, introduced a few words into the English vocabulary, and as well as being the original Utilitarian philosopher; he wrote on a vast range of subjects beyond Ethical theory.

This project consists of transcribing boxes of manuscripts into a digital format that would eventually form a series of published volumes of Bentham’s work that would benefit scholars in the future. This project also introduces people into the issues around transcribing a work from its original source material; for instance, Bentham uses antiquated spellings; writes on margins; scribbles out whole swathes of lines of text, or is just plain illegible. This is a fascinating project to participate in. Not least because of its open participation. I recommend readers of this blog to take a look.


Hawking’s Grand Design

In Stephen Hawking’s latest book, “The Grand Design” (co-authored with Leonard Mlodinow), Hawking/Mlodinow make the very powerful, but distracting assertion that “Philosophy is dead” right at the offset. This has bemused some philosophers and assented some disagreement. But let me say that this is a charitable view for many philosophers.

Hawking makes the point that throughout history, humanity’s metaphysical curiosity was spend on various accounts, each increasingly more accurate. From astrological-focused accounts; where the lunar and solar movements, which were crucial to agrarian societies; took on a divine and explanatory locus to issues from divine providence to toenails. Philosopher-scientists have often taken an approach to answering these questions not necessarily with appeal to the cultural trend of superstition.

Hawking/Mlodinow give an incredibly charitable consideration to the presocratics, who deservedly have a claim to the development of scientific method. Aristotle, by contrast, is given a typically early-modern derision. I’m not sure if this is particularly fair. Aristotle is understood by the authors to be backward in how he preferred non-empirical speculation to compliment his investigations into nature. Reading Aristotle to modern readers’ is definately strange when it comes to his more ’empirical’ works, and some of his views by today’s perspective just seem outright weird. Perhaps this is an anachronistic understanding of Aristotle. Interestingly, Descartes’ was given a great amount of appraisal to the contribution of scientific method as well as his substantive contributions to the physical sciences.

Back to the original claim that ‘Philosophy is dead’; the main reason that Hawking/Mlodinow offer is that contemporary philosophy is tangential to the real questions of the universe, and has not caught up to the physics of today. Initially I just thought this claim was outright wrong, but really the target of who Hawking is addressing is uncertain. It is certainly true that certain philosophical movements that say they are concerned about the nature of science are simply speaking of abstractness for the sake of abstractness, and pontificate in that abhorrent French style of verbosity without the single slightest reference to what science actually is, as understood by science. Then there are often philosophers who address issues in metaphysics which are in some ways almost irrelevant to physics. Philosophers can speak of personal identity without serious appeal to psychology; or speak of the metaphysics of time without appeal to the fourth dimension of spacetime. Some research in philosophy take a prioristic approaches, and some highlight issues which while are insightful, do take place outside of experimental contexts. Are they worthwhile pursuits? I’d think so in some cases, at least for now.

Philosophy always would remain its own seperate discipline, as long as there are mysteries of the universe, and of the human condition. Philosophy should be understood in a renaissance way as a humanistic (or holistic) discipline that tries to cross the bounds of phenomena from humour to conceptual issues such as how to construct notions of necessity.

I’d like to consider why I really like Hawking’s writings, and that should perhaps highlight why the comment that ‘Philosophy is dead’ is simply misguided. Firstly, Hawking’s latest work has decidedly taken an atheistic view. I remember when I was still in Jesuit authority; the pastors talked of the compatibility between science and religion and cited Hawking’s seemingly agnostic-concession to having a wonder at the construction of the universe and the ‘order’ that appears within the universe. It’s perhaps for this kind of reason that Hawking wants to make himself a decidedly unambiguous atheist for misreadings of this sort, to be fair he was pretty vague about the God issue in ‘A Brief History of Time’.

Some things I like about Hawking’s writings are that physics is put into the context not only of its history, but also, the mathematics and technological implimentations. I can normally spot a bullshitter if they talk about Einstein without understanding Riemannian manifolds; or asking why I’m talking about the Maxwell equations in relation to relativity. If you don’t understand that theories emerge in a historical context, then you don’t understand the theory simpliciter. What I really like about this book as a popular science work is how it mentions some of the applications of these theories. For instance; did you know that creating the present GPS technologies presumes some of the mathematics of General Relativity (so now you can’t say it doesn’t have any real applicability, nor can you pose that misunderstood ‘it’s just a theory’ bullshit).

Hawking/Mlodinow states some good conditions of how our scientific knowledge gives us real insight, and thus, why its’ a good candidate for belief (until a better theory comes along). Einstein’s research into the photoelectric effect following the 19thC work on electricity has formed the foundation of technologies such as the television. Einstein’s General relativity thesis has also made some predictions that have come out to be true so far, now that experimental methods have improved.

Hawking’s advocation of M-theory is particularly interesting. Hawking considers that M-theory is a good candidate for what he called in his previous works the ‘Theory of Everything’. For someone who says that philosophy is dead; the ‘Theory of Everything’ sounds decidedly metaphysical does it not? Hawking believes that theoretical unification of disperate areas of physics and its mathematical modelling will create an account of the universe as well as all of its facets in terms of a grand picture constitutes the ‘Grand Theory’, or systematic understanding of reality.

Tell me how that is not a philosophical vision? Except for a good concession to empirical research (which is hardly giving up anything), Hawking’s notion of the ‘Theory of Everything’ has the following philosophical features which would not look out of place in literature in philosophy of science, or even in history of 18thC-20thC philosophy:

  1. Real reality is modelled/mathematical reality (this sounds like ‘Kant’s notion of ‘science proper’, or Vienna Circle philosophy)
  2. Theoretical unification is desirable – a theory that combines accounts is a more believable account (this sounds like how Lewis argued for possible world)
  3. Theoretical unification means parsimonious explanations: parsimonious explanations are good explanations (this is just good scientific method; but its also a good norm of philosophical method)
  4. Reality should be understood as a systematic unity. You could read this as Hawking simply replacing systematic philosophy with the system of science, or as Hawking holding a systematicity thesis.

For these reasons, as well as Hawking’s informative accessability and his humour. I maintain that The Grand Design is a particularly interesting and convincing account of a theory of everything. Don’t get distracted by ‘philosophy is dead’ as this is a fascinating book for so many reasons; not least to try to set the context of the state of the art in theoretical physics, in as much a lay account as possible.


Philosophical method? NY Times on experimental philosophy

A few weeks ago, the NY Times published a short set of pieces on the recent emergence of so-called experimental philosophy. From what I could tell, the nuance is interesting; the ‘armchair’ insultation is hyperbolic, as is the derision of the movement; except from the articles by Tim Williamson and Ernest Sosa. Both Sosa and Williamson are very good philosophers in their respective areas that breach between philosophical logic, metaphysics epistemology and language. It is also worth noting that Williamson and Sosa (slightly older philosophers than the ‘x-phi’ cohort) are hardly ‘armchair’ theorists in that they exhibit a good knowledge of psychology, linguistics, and mathematics/computer science between them.  I’ve read a few papers by Sosa, and I have to admit that while I can understand the overall structure of some of his arguments, the really technical stuff that forms the premises are a bit beyond my grasp of logic.

I thought I’d put out a few observations as to what the real meat of the issue is:

  1. According to the x-phi hero, Joshua Knobe (who, at 35, has a phenomenon named after him – what a guy!). The project of using psychology and empirical observation harks back to the tradition of philosophy going to Hume. Leiter (mentioned in a previous post) also makes this case for Nietzsche; and pair (Leiter and Knobe) have committed to some Nietzsche-based observations of people’s moral beliefs in some shared work.
  2. Philosophy is one of the great humanistic disciplines which unifies a great amount of subjects and skills the likes of which is incomparable. I often think of philosophy as the magical supernatural discipline which makes the likes of music and literature on the one hand contiguous to the likes of logic and theoretical natural science. Where else can you have papers using complex symbols or theorems about lambda calculus interspersed with the importance of international development issues and the politics of difference. Philosophy is currently, at least as a university subject; pluralistic. Even Christians and Eastern Religious philosophies have a small place in the anglo-american philosophy department. (Leiter’s ‘report’ on x-phi [see what I did there?])
  3. Don’t underestimate the power of proper scientific practice. Philosophers doing psychology is not as good as psychologists doing psychology; or neuroscientists doing their research. The degree of specialisation is a serious issue, with matters far from philosophical (but methodological and practical) toward the proper conduct of scientific experimentation. Just because a philosopher may have something interesting to say about M-theory does not make them a phsyicist; likewise, if a philosopher has something interesting to say about the methodological or social practices around medicine; it does not make them a medical health professional. It’s okay to take an interest in science, but philosophers that attempt experiments (without the help of say, joint PhDs or professional experimenters in the subject) is not only bad science with uncritical acceptance of their research method. It’s bad philosophy (or rather, bad philosophical method) – (Williamson & Sosa)
  4. Lets talk a bit about ‘philosophical method’, because I think this is the most striking issue to me in this issue. The opponents to x-phi are hardly lone armchair wanderers thinking puffs of logic (like Hegel); if anything, the armchair is a bit of an unfair straw man. You could say, the only person who sits on an armchair as a philosopher is a straw man. While it is true that there are many philosophers who engage in metaphysical speculation in a manner befitting a 17th Century whackjob or a pre-Kant german in the 18thC (Baumgarten?); to deride the so-called armchair theorist is an utter misnomer. Bad armchair philosophy is just bad philosophy. But to say that has something to do with the new experimental movement is a non sequitur. Great strides are being made in mainstream philosophy towards developments in linguistics, empirical psychology (consider the work of say, the late Susan Hurley), and even the historical philosophy gets quite empirical; in the history of philosophy; facts about the historical situation affect our interpretations, also, I might add, historical factors about how works have been accessed or are accessible ; JP Sartre for instance, is known to have a big batch of writings which belong to his current estate Executor. #
  5. Another comment on ‘philosophical method’; Sosa makes the point that the best way that philosophers can be ‘experimental’ is if they understand the science properly, with the analytical eyes that only philosophers have. Scientists are good at estimating methods and making ‘dirty’ statistical predictions; but philosophers are good at looking at the big picture; how to Tachyons relate to our intuitions of causation? is the 4+ dimensional universe conceivable phenomenologically? (answer: no). Being a great philosopher is about having good answers, but being a good philosopher is about having the right questions.
  6. A further on philosophical method: I used to have a lecturer who I will not name, who was of the opinion that real philosophy should be science proper. This philosopher (who taught me metaphysics and epistemology, ironically) thought that philosophers wasted their time on the old hat issues of metaphysics and epistemology; about painting zebras and ‘quus’ linguistics; but the direction for future philosophical research is really in understanding the state of the art of scientific literature. The approach of this philosopher has some merits; it raises interesting questions as does it bring light to fruitful areas of discourse, both in philosophy and science. But it is also limiting to other conceptions of philosophy; particularly value-based discourses.
  7. Perhaps we should be pluralists in theory/public but exclusivist in practice/public. What exactly is ‘philosophical method’ anyway? If it is to be anything; its but a mix of the great works of philosophers recent and past. Leiter rightly points out that academic philosophy is in a crisis of funding; with the current economic situation. This is really the enemy for all philosophers; and as a practice in universities; departments will have a diverse mix of philosophical rogues; from historians, to the harder logician type, to the interdisciplinary, to the value theorist, to the literary/cultural type. As a humanistic discipline, its important to acknowledge the breadth of what it means to be human. We are emotional creatures as well as logical; philosophical insights can come from many places; from Shakespeare to S5 axioms. A meta-issue really is about what ‘philosophical’ method constitutes. I have my own views on this, and many have others; but different methods can yield different results; it is not as if some methods or approaches that differ are mutually exclusive (well, some are, but that’s besides my point). 


Nietzsche reflections

In recent weeks, I’ve explored some philosophical work on Nietzsche, namely; the work of Leiter and Hurka. I present three thoughts. In a sense they are interrelated.

1. Nietzsche is not a systematic philosopher.

The commonality of so-called ‘continental philosophy’ (Leiter himself would probably discourage such a distinction for reasons interesting in itself) is that they are mostly unified in being anti-systematic, and I would go further to say, distinctly anti-Kantian (notable exceptions apply like Hegel). Nietzsche is suggestibly anti-systematic. Or is he? I would think so, however, there is some two senses in which we may consider the phrase ‘systematic philosophy’.

a. Contemporary philosophy: Nietzsche has a very interesting contribution to moral psychology and meta-ethics. Leiter & Knobe for instance has explored this avenue in an empirical manner. In addition, if we are to consider philosophy in a more Lewisian construal; of the interconnections of philosophical topics, and setting conditions explicitly of how one area can and should relate to another; there is certainly a lot to say of a ‘systematic’ contribution to Nietzsche’s philosophy especially in metaethics and normative ethics.

b. Philosophy as a system: I think the building of systems was associated with santimonious and optimistic reasoning so utterly detached from the world, that Nietzsche would highly be disdainful not only of the notion that ‘the proper philosophy’ (i.e. his) is a system, but even of persons considering his work as a system. This notion of Nietzsche as systematic is a dead end. But the distinction between a. and b. is important.

2. Nietzsche is a ‘Perfectionist’

The contemporary moral philosopher, Thomas Hurka is known for his position in ethics called ‘Perfectionism’. Now perfectionism seems to be a doctrine with many nuances; for instance, Hurka distinguishes between multiple notions of perfectionism. Nietzsche’s description of the eminent individual, the great genius; is one who works above the normal rules of the masses. Nietzsche’s notion of such an individual seeks their highest eminence, whatever end that may be; from a great poet (Goethe) to a great composer (Beethoven) or to a great leader (Napoleon?). I find Hurka’s interpretation of Nietzsche interesting, and it makes me a little more curious about Hurka’s own proposed model of perfectionism. Hurka calls his approach ‘neo-Aristotelian’ but acknowledges that forms of perfectionism, or the doctrine of one reaching their highest ability as a moral and ethical goal to span across the ages; from Aristotle to Aquinas to Marx and Nietzsche. A system of ethics based upon the highest eminence of an individual seems immediately attractive to me, but in the case of Nietzsche I consider a tension or systematic addition to the issue…

3. Two tier morality?

As a question of Nietzsche’s philosophy, and of society as a whole I wonder; can there be two tiers of morality? A law where the eminent, superior caste seek their own inner perfection and embrace virtues of creativity, leadership and entrepreneurship, while there lives an underclass of society? I immediately think of a division of labour of a sort askin to say the Morlocks and Eloi of HG Wells’ Time Machine; or a Marxian class war; where there is a fixed ruling class and an immobile working class (and lets face it, social mobility doesn’t look so good these days). Can there be such a system of morality where one size does not fit all?

Within Nietzsche’s system, Leiter notes a certain equivocation. Nietzsche on one hand seems to promote the abandonment of traditional morality as it is normally construed, but yet promotes a moral system. One cannot damn morality and promote it at once (in the promotion of, say the master morality in Genealogy of Morals). Nietzsche is aware that not everyone can embrace the system of master morality, and while disdainful of slave/conventional morality, wouldn’t one need to support the other in some naturalised moral caste system?

It seems the case that Nietzsche made his philosophy for those who pursued the master morality, and it also seems the case that he was against the ‘wrong’ kind of person being part of the master morality. What counts as the wrong kind of person is unknown to me, but he does give a condition of exclusivity to higher morality. Is it the case that we require the philistine slave morality that he so hates? Is it possible that we require the slaves so that the master moralists can rule? It would seem almost prudent to give a system of control, a system of morality, to ensure that those who seek eminence do, but also preserve social order by having others who do not. Is it a matter of disposition and natural necessity that only a minority strive to leadership while others stay as worker ants? or a notion of idealised social order?

I feel immediately over my head in confusion here. Reading about Nietzsche seems to proffer more thoughts and explorations than answers, while reading Nietzsche himself provides humour and understanding of his disdain. For me, looking at the philistine objects of cultural veneration; where amateurism is celebrated and ignorance is the rule de jour seems to make me think that slave morality is all around.

Michael (following conversations with Destre)