Friday, January 22, 2010

Responding to Counterexamples: The Special Case

This is part one in a theoretically indefinitely long series of posts about how philosophers respond to counterarguments and counterexamples to their claims. This post is about the Special Case response.

Suppose you are arguing for your favored thesis, claim P. It turns out that there is a clear counterexample to your claim that, if correct, renders your claim false. For example, you claim, as Socrates did, that all virtues are wisdom, that to be good is to know how to act. In response, someone says, "I knew that it was morally wrong to have sex with that intern, but I did it anyway." Thus, there is a clear counterexample to your claim.

You might now be tempted, with your favored claim shown definitively to be false, to back off that claim, to revise your view or reject it altogether. If so, I recommend a career in accountancy for you are clearly not made of the stuff of great philosophers. Overwhelming evidence of the falsity of one's claims is not a reason to change one's mind; it is only a test of one's mettle. Don't revise, attack.

There are lots of ways to face down such a counterexample, but, before talking about them, we need to make one thing clear. Do not ignore a counterexample or pretend it does not exist. You are much better off bringing it up yourself than having some reviewer think of it. But don't worry; this doesn't mean you need a real response. All you have to do is frame something in the form of a response whether it is meaningful or correct or not.

Today's example: The Special Case.
Amie Thomasson, writing in her anthology Phenomenology and the Philosophy of Mind (edited with David Woodruff-Smith), discusses the topic of self-knowledge. Self-knowledge has often been understood on a semi-perceptual, introspectionist, model, but there are significant problems with this approach. So, an alternative account would be particularly useful. Thomasson suggests that Husserl has already presented such an account, an account she calls a Transformationist account. On this account knowledge of one's first person mental states is a logical transformation of a statement about the external world into a statement about one's internal state. So, if the original state is "I perceive a tree," the transformed state is "There is a perception of a tree."

There are some obvious problems with the account. For example, suppose I make the statement when I have no conscious experience of a tree and am looking at a fire hydrant. In this case, my statement is not true and cannot be used to justify a claim that I have knowledge of my own internal state of perceiving a tree. So, how do we know to apply the Transformation, what renders some transformations acceptable as indicating self-knowledge and others not? Some transformations are based on conscious awareness (hint, hint: knowledge) of our internal states. So her account seems to presuppose self-knowledge rather than illuminate it. But that's not my point.

My point is to discuss a counterexample she considers. Some forms of self-knowledge clearly do not fit the model of transformation of perception of external object to internal state. For example, we make statements about our experiences, such as, the claim that one's vision is blurry, that are directly about internal states not external stimuli. Thus, some self-knowledge is possible without this transformation. And, significantly, this shows that we have not avoided the problems with the quasi-perceptual account of self-knowledge.

Her response is not to deny that these cases are possible but to describe them as a special case. This response, however, is as unjustified as it is irrelevant. First, it's not relevant. One's theory of self-knowledge should not be a theory of self-knowledge except in special cases in which cases one needs another theory. A theory of X ought to include all cases of X; if it doesn't, you haven't really got a theory of X.

Second, it's not justified. We can sometimes say when something is a special case of a more general theory. One way this can happen is if you can explain how the special case follows the general theory but appears not to do so because it applies only to a limited domain or involves certain conditions. For example, Newtonian mechanics is a special case of Einsteinian, relativistic, mechanics. The case still falls under the Einsteinian theory (hence, indicating something as a special case does not relieve you of the responsibility of explaining it) but it turns out that the parameters (here, low velocity) are such that we can make adequate predictions without using the full apparatus of the theory. We have an approximation that is good enough. In any case, in order to say something is a special case, you need a theory of all the cases and show why in this case your theory appears to be violated (e.g. it does not appear to involve time dilation). You cannot identify something as a special case of X unless you have a comprehensive theory of X that is confirmed by independent means. Otherwise, how do you know that this counterexample constitutes the special case rather than the standard one whereas your examples constitute the special case? Indeed, you cannot.

It is, as I said, possible to show that some example is a special case, but you need to have an independent analysis of that case that shows that, in fact, it really does fit under your theory but appears not to do so because of some constraints or simplifications in the description of the case. In Thomasson's case there is no independent explanation that provides this. So, remember that the "Special case" response is the last desperate act of a flailing philosopher (rather than the first act of Henry the Fifth), so use it sparingly.

Also remember: my example is, of course, a special case and philosophers nearly always reason perfectly and responsibly without resort to evasions.

Microsoft wins 2024 Presidential Election

Dissociated Press--January 21, 2024--Last night Microsoft Inc. made history by being the first corporation to win the United States presidency. Microsoft, running on the Democratic Party ticket, is widely credited with running an inspiring outsider campaign against Republican candidate General Electric. As a 132 year old corporation, founded in 1892, GE would have been the oldest president ever elected, and this age made it easy for Microsoft to portray it as antiquated and out-of-touch with the American people. GE was also criticized for improper vetting of its vice-presidential selection, former President George W. Bush's head in a jar. Bush's head seemed unprepared for the rigors of campaigning and struggled answering simple questions in interviews. His struggles culminated in a disastrous debate performance against Microsoft's vice-presidential nominee Starbucks Coffee.

When asked for comment on the historic nature of its victory, Microsoft's public relations office issued a press release decrying the corruption of public officials in Washington who claim to represent the people only to do the bidding of their big corporate donors. "We aren't like those business-as-usual, corrupt politicians; we'll do the corporations' bidding directly. The era of big businesses controlling politicians in Washington is at an end. Let the era of big businesses being politicians in Washington begin."

Inspired by this.

Update (2/12/10): Apparently I borrowed this idea from a Colbert Report from last September. D'oh!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Historical Interpretation in Philosophy

Suppose you are interested in the thought of a famous historical figure in philosophy. Devoting yourself to the study of this figure, you realize that you need to publish work on that philosopher. Unfortunately, the number of philosophers who have written about your figure over the years is so great that nothing novel, interesting and rationally supportable can be said about that philosopher's work. Indeed, the ratio of philosophers writing about famous figures to the writings that are actually worth reading is thousands to one. But fear not, you can still have a successful career as a historian of philosophy. All you have to do is follow my simple plan.

Find some interpretation, any interpretation, of your philosopher's work that no one has given before or at least one that, due to its manifest irrationality, few philosophers would long consider. Basically, get drunk or drop some acid, spin in circles like a kid, then compare some random passages from unrelated works and see if they might have some tangential relation to each other. This may be difficult since it's potentially creative. But don't worry, you can simply misread a sentence or free associate from the text. Once you've got an interpretation, no matter how conceived, to start from, you can proceed to defend it.

For example, suppose you run across a passage in Descartes that you could interpret as indicating that Descartes is not a dualist. So, in the Sixth Meditation when he calls the human mind a body a union or unity, then you've got a case for his being a monist. Remember the passages you choose do not have to clearly indicate your preferred interpretation. All you need is that the passage be interpretable in some tendentious way as supporting your claim.

You know, of course, that Descartes repeatedly states his intention to argue for dualism, and he in fact presents several arguments throughout his work for that conclusion. But, this is key, his explicit stated belief is not a reason to give up on your interpretation. Instead, refer to Descartes' explicit belief as the "standard" or "traditional interpretation". Or, better yet, you can use a slightly pejorative term, such as the "common view" or the "conventional wisdom".

You're claiming that Descartes is not a dualist. And you have a couple of passages that, if you squint really hard, might suggest that he is not a dualist or had some misgivings about his argument for it, but what do you do about all those passages in which he explicitly states that his goal is to argue for dualism and all those places in which he argues for it?

First, never refer to the passages that clearly indicate Descartes' view. Just pretend they don't exist. Second, if forced, you can say, "I still haven't worked out all the implications for all of Descartes' works. I would need to look at that in more detail." Third, if interlocutors insist on an explanation of the relevant passages, throw out all the red herrings you can. "What is a real distinction after all? What does Descartes mean by 'real'? What is it for these to be distinct?" If you cast enough mud, you can make it impossible to see.

In short, take a view that no rational reader of your philosopher could have on any informed reading, support it with tangentially-related texts with little bearing on the question (after all, that's the only way you'll undermine the philosopher's explicitly stated view on that topic) that you can interpret tendentiously to support your view, ignore all the passages in which your philosophy explicitly denies your interpretation, and, when forced, deny the obvious interpretation of these passages or at least try to cast doubt on them. Now you are well on your way to being a professional history of philosophy scholar. Remember that you need to say something that has not been said before, so say anything and try to make it stick. Nobody cares whether you are right or even reasonably supported or supportable. All you need is something novel, and the more blatantly your interpretation conflicts with the text, the more novel your view is.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Defenses of the Alleged Underwear Bomber

Conservatives (or "conservatives") are critical (do I need a link?) of the government's efforts to try the alleged underwear bomber in civilian court. I always wonder what clever defense is supposed to work in these cases that wouldn’t also work in a military tribunal, or what evidence exactly they expect to get in a military court that they need to get the conviction. Or why they think, just in general, that the alleged bomber can somehow get off in court so we need to put him away without trial in a dark hole somewhere. (And isn't that a disturbing metaphor given the context?)

So what defense do these people think that the alleged underwear bomber can offer? (I started posting this as a comment on another site and decided to expand it here.)

"No, I have no idea whose underwear that is; I’ve never seen that underwear before in my life. That underwear was out of my sight for most of my preparation to board the flight and anyone could have put that underwear on me without my knowledge."

"I was not in fact attempting to ignite explosives. I merely had severe jock itch, and I believed those ingredients could treat it. I was not trying to ignite them either; I was merely engaged in a prolonged scratch."

"Normally I go commando, but I'd heard about these scanning machines and I wanted a little privacy 'down there' if you know what I mean. I had no idea that the underwear I purchased was in any way unusual, nor did I notice that the package had been tampered with."

"When I yelled 'Death the America!' I was just showing my poor English. I intended to ask where the bathroom was but used the wrong phrase. Obviously, I'll never use Al-Qaeda's English In One Easy Lesson tapes again."

"I was following the orders of my overlords: KISS, who say, 'You gotta lose your mind in Detroit, Rock City'. And, indeed, I had to laugh 'cause I knew I was gonna die. I wanted to go to an asylum because I'm flaming youth, a destroyer, who is king of the nighttime world, hot, hot, hotter than hell on a trip to heaven (that's on fire). KISS practically forced me to set my testicles on fire."

Monday, January 11, 2010

Worst Brief Return to Blogging Ever

I understand that Simon Cowell, the insulting judge on American Idol, a program I have never watched, has quit the show next year. Does this mean he wants to spend more time insulting his family?