Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Cryptic Letter from Synthese Editors in Chief

I find the letter from the EiC of Synthese rather cryptic and I don't think it should be satisfying to anyone who took the petition seriously. The petition is as follows:

"We, as members of the philosophical community, call upon the Editors-in-Chief of Synthese to:

1. Respond forthrightly to the allegations in the 'open letter' from Glenn Branch and James Fetzer, the Guest Editors of the special issue on "Evolution and Its Rivals" (their open letter is available here:

2. Apologize to the Guest Editors and the contributors for the unprofessional manner in which this issue, and the insertion of a "disclaimer," were handled.

3. Retract the "disclaimer" in a subsequent print edition of Synthese.

4. Disclose the nature of complaints and/or legal threats from Francis Beckwith, his supporters, and supporters of Intelligent Design that were received by the Editors-in-Chief after the on-line publication of "Evolution and Its Rivals" last year."

As to the first point, about the allegations made in Branch and Fetzer's letter, the EiC do come clean about some relevant aspects of the editorial process. They seem to acknowledge that the guest editors had good reason to think that no disclaimer would be included. Yet, they do not say why the guest editors or contributors were not informed about the disclaimer. They only say they were "unable to properly communicate" the final decision to the guest editors. Why "properly"? It doesn't seem that they communicated it at all, properly or improperly. And why not? Could it have been a legal issue? I find it strange.

Also about the first point, the letter from Branch and Fetzer also mentions pressure the EiC placed on Barbara Forrest to revise her paper after it had already been published online, but the EiC do not address this point in their response to the petition.

As for the second and third points, the EiC do not apologize or suggest that they are considering retracting the disclaimer.

Finally, they do not disclose the nature of the legal threats they have received, but they do confirm that they have received such threats. Most interestingly, they say that the "challenges" posed by these threats make it impossible for them to disclose the nature of the threats. And they make a point of saying that the threats do not come from Christian philosophers. They make this point twice, in fact. I don't see why it had to be made once. Perhaps they are telling us that Francis Beckwith did not threaten them with legal action. Does he count as a Christian philosopher? Maybe so, I don't know. But either way, somebody who works with him could have done it. Or maybe he wasn't involved in the threats. That was never much of an issue. Who cares if the threats are coming from philosophers? In fact, if the Discovery Institute or some such organization is behind this, then we wouldn't expect them to send philosophers to make legal threats and negotiate terms, would we?

I think we can draw some conclusions here: After the special edition of Synthese was published online, the EiC were threatened by legal action. These threats came from Christian ID supporters, probably executives or administrators of some kind. These legal threats were so imposing that the EiC (possibly under pressure from Springer) cut the guest editors out of the loop, published the disclaimer, gave Francis Beckwith unusual leeway in responding to Barbara Forrest, and are now under legal advisement not to discuss any of these facts openly, other than to say what is required to take full responsibility for their actions.

It is possible that they made some or all of these decisions before receiving any legal threats. They do not say one way or the other. But if they only received legal threats after any of these important decisions had been made, you would think they'd mention that fact.

Unfortunately, there's a lot of miscommunication and ignorance about the whole affair. Some PhD students and philosophy professors I talked to in Szczecin had gotten the wrong idea about what had happened and what the petition was about. There's also an attitude going around that the disclaimer was harmless and that "the Americans" are blowing it out of proportion. Also, I talked to Michael Devitt (CUNY) about it the other day. He didn't know about the petition until he got to Poland on Thursday. He said he doesn't follow blogs, and nobody had mentioned it to him before.

Devitt Comes To Szczecin

This week I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Distinguished Professor Michael Devitt (CUNY). On Thursday he gave a talk at the University of Szczecin, and on Saturday there was a full-day workshop focusing on his current work in the philosophy of language. In between, on Friday night, he socialized with local philosophy students over beer and wine (and food). I was fortunately able to participate in all of these events.

Devitt and I are both naturalists and atheists. We are both sympathetic to ordinary language philosophy and Ryle, and we both have big problems with Stanley & Williamson's 2001 paper, "Knowing How." Unfortunately, however, I don't think Devitt is Rylean enough.

I see talk of minds and mental states just as talk of complex and indefinitely heterogeneous dispositions. Devitt sees it as talk about functional structures which supervene on neurological states. Devitt is strongly anti-behaviorist, favoring the Representational Theory of Mind (and with a sympathetic ear to the Language of Thought hypothesis), though he says he's amazed at how ingenious defenses of behaviorism can be. I'm sympathetic to behaviorism and amazed at how weak the arguments against it tend to be.

This difference might explain a disagreement we had during the workshop on Saturday, when I asked what support he had for his claim that any theory of linguistic communication must start with an analysis of the representational properties of linguistic terms. To me, that's just wrong. It's like saying any theory of team sports must start with an analysis of some particular properties of teams. Linguistic terms may have representational properties, but such properties are not required for them to be used in communication. Even when an entity has representational properties, those are not necessarily their only or most important features. At least, that's my view. So I asked Michael why he makes that first step, claiming representational properties are the most important and fundamental elements of a theory of linguistic communication. His response was a verbose variation on the incredulous stare. How could it be otherwise? he asked. He cannot imagine how else such a theory could begin. So I explained my behaviorist alternative. I pointed out that even in his own examples, what is first observed and analyzed is behavior, and that representational properties are only postulated if they help us explain the behavior. He seemed to simultaneously accept this point and reject it. Somehow. Maybe it's more accurate to say he dismissed it and moved on.

I raised some other points during the workshop, such as the fact that he does not properly motivate a theoretical distinction between what is said and what is meant. He argues heavily against the tendency to trust folk intuitions, saying that we must find independent, theoretical motivations for our distinctions. So while we both agree that there is a useful folk distinction between what is said and what is meant, I don't think it is theoretically interesting. Devitt disagrees, but his argument is too weak.

On Thursday and Friday, we discussed some issues concerning his recent paper, "Methodology and the Nature of Knowing How," which he presented on Thursday.

The first and biggest problem is that Devitt misinterprets Stanley & Williamson (S&W). This is partly explainable by the fact that S&W misrepresent Ryle. Devitt rightly interprets Ryle's knowing-how/knowing-that distinction more or less along the lines adopted by cognitive scientists, psychologists, and the like: Knowing-that is declarative knowledge while knowing-how is procedural knowledge. Devitt isn't quite so clear on what this distinction entails, but he suggests that knowing-that alone entails conscious and explicit representations. It is therefore dependent upon language use. Procedural knowledge is not. In fact, in Devitt's view (which I agree with), language use depends on non-propositional linguistic competence, which we may call a variety of knowledge-how. So knowing-that depends upon and cannot be reduced to knowing-how, just as Ryle says.

The problem is, S&W do not identify knowing-that as declarative knowledge. They call it "a relation between a thinker and a true proposition." They do not suppose it requires explicit, conscious representations or even linguistic articulability. Jason Stanley says (in correspondence) that it is just silly, even idiotic, to suppose that propositional knowledge must be articulable in a language. It's thus clear that Stanley's (and S&W's) distinction between knowing-how and knowing-that is not the distinction between declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge. But this undermines Devitt's entire line of argument. His criticism is that they challenge the empirically proven declarative/procedural distinction on purely linguistic grounds. They do no such thing.

I pointed this out to Devitt, and he seemed taken aback. He seemed to have no idea what sort of view of propositional knowledge they could have in mind. How could propositional knowledge be inexpressible, he asked? I pointed out that S&W make no metaphysical commitments, and that they say knowing-how can exist solely in virtue of having complex sets of dispositions. This didn't sit well. Devitt sees no reason to call procedural knowledge "propositional." Devitt would rather abandon talk of propositions altogether, in fact. We can talk about declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge, so far as those are useful for scientists. So he is willing to call declarative knowledge "propositional." Any other notion of "propositional knowledge" is more trouble than its worth. I have made a similar argument, in fact. In any case, while this might amount to a legitimate criticism of S&W, it is not the criticism Devitt makes in his paper.

Another issue I raised was with Devitt's discussion of a paper by Bengson, Moffett and Wright (BM&W) entitled "Folk Intellectualism," which tests Alva Noe's prediction that the folk will not attribute knowledge how to X to a person who has never been able to X. Noe is wrong, as it turns out. For example, imagine an accomplished skier and successful ski instructor who teaches people how to perform complex stunts, but who has never successfully executed any of them herself. The folk show a very strong tendency to attribute knowledge how to do these stunts, even though the instructor has never been able to do them.

Devitt thinks this research counts as a mark against Ryle. That is mistaken. BM&W's results contradict Noe, but they have no implications for Ryle. BM&W even acknowledge that Ryle's view of knowing-how is more complex than the one they are considering, which they prefer to call "Neo-Ryleanism."

BM&W make a mistake, though. They correctly suppose that knowing-how involves understanding X. Ryle makes the same observation: Understanding is part of knowing how, and this can be by virtue of any number of complex, indefinitely heterogeneous dispositions, and not simply the ability to X. However, BM&W wrongly conclude that they have motivated radical intellectualism, the view that knowing-how just is a case of knowing-that. They suggest that knowing-how is a combination of knowing-that-X and understanding X. Perhaps sometimes knowing-how involves both propositional knowledge and understanding. However, knowing how need not involve propositional knowledge at all, a point which BM&W have not refuted. So their intellectualist conclusion lacks motivation.

Getting back to Devitt, he makes one more mistake with this BM&W business. During his talk, he misrepresented BM&W's research, saying that the ski instructor was able to instruct people merely by giving verbal descriptions, and that the ski instructor could not ski at all. Yet, as I noted above, the instructor in their scenario is an accomplished skier and the nature of the instruction is not specified. In his paper he says that BM&W show that the folk attribute know-how to a person who can merely give a full description of a performance without being able to carry out the performance. This is not true. They do not say the instruction is purely via verbal descriptions. They do not draw the conclusion he says. They only conclude that a person who cannot do a complex stunt successfully, but who instructs a person to do that stunt successfully, can be said to know how to X.

When I pointed this out, Devitt asked, "What's the difference?" What's the difference between a person instructing by giving a full description and instructing in some other way? I think the answer is obvious. A computer can provide any finite description of a behavior, but we would not say the computer can thereby instruct. Instruction requires interaction, where the instructor observes and responds intelligently. The right sort of computer could be a ski instructor, of course, but not simply by giving descriptions. It has to interact intelligently. That's the Rylean point. Devitt didn't accept it, though, and frankly seemed a little unhappy about it. He rather abruptly changed the subject.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Celebrating Death

So much talk about the morality of celebrating bin Laden's death. There's this idea going around that death is just not something that should ever be cause for celebration. That death is always and essentially bad. That killing is evil, even if it is sometimes a necessary evil.

I can't buy into it. First of all, killing never increases the amount of death in the universe. The only thing that increases the amount of death in the universe is procreation, and I don't think procreation is bad. (I am a proud father, as it happens.) So, even if death is bad, killing isn't necessarily bad. But is death necessarily bad?

Death can be terrifying to anticipate, and it can be devastating to families and communities. And, of course, death can be painful--even cruel. But it is not inherently any of these things. And, even when it carries these negative consequences, it may still outweigh them with positive ones. We might tell ourselves that it would be better if we didn't have to die, but I think we're just fooling ourselves. We don't know what it would mean if death didn't have to happen, if life just went on and on forever. It could very well be unbearable.

I can't rationally say that I want to live forever. I can't say I want to die, either, though I hope that one day, when I have grown much older and seen my family flourish, I will be ready for my end. Death is something I struggle to embrace, not something I spit at and pretend could be avoided.

So it is curious to me to see so many Americans (on Facebook, because that's my main connection to people outside of Poland) posting about how it is just so wrong to be happy about a person's death. They say that the military victory may be cause for celebration, but bin Laden's death is not. Many links are circulating, such as this from NPR and this from popular author and Buddhist, Susan Piver.

The NPR piece warns against confusing the desire for retributive justice with the desire to win the war against terror. Harvard philosopher Christine Korsgaard is quoted as saying, "If we have any feeling of victory or triumph in the case, it should be because we have succeeded in disabling him — not because he is dead." Why not? Is there no justification for openly celebrating retributive justice?

In her piece, Piver says there is "a real problem" if anyone experiences even a hint of happiness at bin Laden's death. Why? Well, she follows up the comment by saying it is delusional to believe that bin Laden's death can compensate for any of the suffering he caused while he was alive. True enough. It's no compensation. But whoever said it was? I doubt many, if any, people have been celebrating because they believe the terrorist balance sheet has finally been settled. Osama bin Laden's death is largely symbolic, and I see nothing immoral about celebrating it as such. I see nothing morally wrong with openly expressing positive feelings about his death.

Piver's concern is that we're losing sight of the us-ness. It's not us-vs.-them, she says. We're all us.

That's just spiritual nonsense to me. On the whole, I think the "don't celebrate death" thing is ultimately motivated by a great fear of death, by an inability to embrace it, and not by the appreciation of some great spiritual truth.

There are some legitimate concerns raised in the NPR piece--about putting bin Laden's death in perspective, about considering how America's reaction looks to other nations, especially those which might be more sympathetic to bin Laden. Those are important issues. I haven't seen the footage, but I would not be surprised if many Americans are all-too-typically letting their arrogance get the better of them. There may be legitimate concerns about the way people are celebrating bin Laden's death. But there's a big difference between saying we should celebrate death properly and saying we should not celebrate it at all. In any case, just how much respect do people need to show al-Qaeda?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Film Review: Thor (2011)

Kenneth Branagh's Thor has something to say about science and religion, but that's not what I'm going to write about. I'm glad that the film is friendly to naturalism, explicitly forwarding the view that so-called "magic" is natural phenomena that we don't yet have the science to explain, but this philosophical issue is not what's motivating my review. I just enjoyed the movie and I want to review it on purely cinematic grounds.

First, I'm not a comic book aficionado, and I knew nothing about Marvel's Thor going into the film. My expectations were based only on the fact that this is a well-received film adaptation of a comic book superhero version of Thor, and that it is directed by Kenneth Branagh and features Sir Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman. That said . . .

Thor is gorgeously filmed and well-balanced between action, drama and comedy. It's not flawless, but it is exceptional in many respects--far better than most superhero movies. In fact, I'd say it's an epic fantasy film and not a superhero film at all, though it plays with some superhero tropes and it is well-suited to tie in to superhero films (as it will in the upcoming The Avengers, which I'm thrilled to say is co-scripted and directed by Joss Whedon, of the woefully ill-fated Firefly series and other, more popular things).

Perhaps I was due for a bout of escapism, but I was enthralled by Thor. I had one of those rare movie-watching experiences where I realized that the film was probably about halfway over, and I felt a little sad because I didn't want it to be, and I hoped that the second half would be as good as the first.

It was. I left the theater ready for more.

The acting and directing are excellent. Chris Hemsworth is thoroughly believable as Thor and I can't think of anybody who could have done a better job. Hiddleston and Hopkins are equally perfect as Thor's brother and father, respectively. The whole cast is terrific.

One flaw in the film is Jane (Natalie Portman): She's drawn too shallow. Portman is enjoyable enough, and she and Hemsworth have chemistry, but her character is just not very interesting. In fact, the female characters are mostly weak. Jane's colleague, Darcy (Kat Dennings), is a third wheel, just there for often-forced comic relief (which is unnecessary, since there's plenty of genuine comedy elsewhere in the film). Thor's mom (Rene Russo) should have had a bigger role, too, but at least she's got heft when she's on screen.

Another problem: The antagonist (it's not a great mystery who it is, but I won't say it--I didn't know anything going into the film, which is how I like it) is pretty absurd in his plan and strategy. It's hard to believe any of it worked. More, his motives and emotions are a little confusing, and it's hard to accept that he would do what he did. He must be seriously disturbed, and there are hints at why, but it's not developed. Actually, the entire history of the character is hard to believe, too, but I can't say why without spoiling it a bit. The antagonist is still very interesting and compelling, and acted well enough that I didn't mind the problems so much--though they were noticeable, and they lingered in my mind after I left the theater.

Final, minor qualm: The attempts at scientific legitimacy fail miserably. It's not even clear what Jane's area of scientific expertise is supposed to be, or what her very important research is really about. She is researching meteorological phenomena at the beginning, which is never explained. Then she recognizes worm holes (or thinks she does) . . . by visible patterns in the desert sand. Ridiculous.

All in all, the film captivated me despite its flaws. Result: an enthusiastic thumbs up.

Revelations in the Synthese Affair

This should put to rest any doubts about whether or not the Editors-in-Chief of Synthese should be petitioned. Leiter's comments are right on the mark. I just wonder why it took so long for this evidence to be revealed.