Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Musical Interlude: Bells For Sandy Hook

Two days after the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I found myself improvising a melancholic interpretation of Jingle Bells.  I recorded three takes before the moment passed.  The mood and style develop over the three pieces, making them seem like three unique elements of a set, and not simply three versions of the same thing.





Saturday, December 22, 2012

Russell's Teapot

Peter van Inwagen has written a response to Bertrand Russell's teapot argument (H/T ex-apologist) in which he assures us that there are people who accept the following two propositions:

     (1) There is no reason to believe that God exists.

     (2) Any one who accepts (1) should conclude that the probability of the existence of God is essentially 0.

He offers Russell's teapot argument as an example.  However, while Russell clearly accepts (1), there's no discernible evidence that Russell ever endorsed anything like (2).  In the essay which van Inwagen cites ("Is There A God?", Russell, 1952), Russell argues that a divine purpose is improbable (on the scientific evidence) and thus that there is no reason to believe in a God.  He deduces the latter from the former, not the former from the latter.  Furthermore, his teapot argument is offered to a different purpose altogether.

Here is what Russell writes, and what van Inwagen quotes:

Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were
to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.

Russell's teapot argument is that the burden of proof regarding the existence of God is on the people who claim that there is a God, and not on the skeptics.  There is no burden to disprove God, since there is no reason to believe in God in the first place.  The conclusion of the teapot argument is not that God's existence is highly improbable, but that theists are wrong to criticize non-theists for being skeptical.

Russell never assumes anything like (2).  In fact, it's not clear that any philosopher of note has ever endorsed (2).  So I am really not sure why van Inwagen has written a paper about it.

P.S. I've critiqued Russell's teapot argument, too, but on very different grounds:  Why I Am Not A Teapot Agnostic.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Violence, Mental Illness and Bad Arguments

A recent article in The New York Times by Professor Richard A. Friedman, M.D., entitled, "In Gun Debate, A Misguided Focus on Mental Illness," is a bit of a hot item.  I want to agree with Friedman.  I support the fight for gun control.  (If the Second Ammendment really means that all citizens have the right to privately own guns--and I don't think it does--then I think the Second Ammendment needs to be ammended.)  But Friedman's piece is a terribly flawed, confused and misleading piece of work.  Just from the point of view of argumentative integrity, it's bad.

Part of the problem is that I can't even be sure about Friedman's point of view.  I want to be charitable, and suppose that his main point is something like this:  Americans shouldn't let the discourse on mental illness distract us from the need for stricter gun control laws.  If that is his main point, then I completely agree.  Amen and all that.

I'll assume that was his motivating idea, but if so, then he lost his path somewhere between putting pen to paper and sending his article to press.  The point he explicitly advocates is more like this:  People who think we should try to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill are ignorant, lazy and unrealistic, and any attempt to focus on the role of mental illness in mass murder is a distraction. Then again, sometimes it's hard to tell just what he is arguing.

He sets up his argument here: "while no official diagnosis [of Adam Lanza] has been made public, armchair diagnosticians have been quick to assert that keeping guns from getting into the hands of people with mental illness would help solve the problem of gun homicides."

Notice, first, that he was talking about people's reactions to the mass shooting in Connecticut, and then he switches to a statement about gun homicides in general.  Homicide is an extremely broad category.  It's not even always illegal.  Instead of taking on the argument about mass murder, Friedman sets up a straw man.  It's relatively easy to downplay the role of mental illness in gun homicides in general.  It's not so easy when you're talking about people like Adam Lanza.

Not only does Friedman set up a straw man, he also belittles his opponents by calling them "armchair diagnosticians."  I guess anybody who thinks mental illness plays a significant role in mass shootings is too lazy to get up and do some research, or too ignorant of the evidence which is already readily available.

But there is evidence, and Friedman even suggests as much.  He refers to "large-scale epidemiologic studies" which have shown that "a young psychotic male who is intoxicated with alcohol and has a history of involuntary commitment is at a high risk of violence."  Indeed, alcohol and mental illness can be a very dangerous combination.  Yet, even on this point, Friedman seems confused.  He says that "most individuals who fit this profile are harmless."  How is that?  People with a certain profile are known to be high risk for violence, but most of them are harmless?  If they're harmless, whence the high risk of violence?

I haven't even begun to dig into the confused, misleading dimensions of Friedman's article.  He says, "there is overwhelming epidemiological evidence that the vast majority of people with psychiatric disorders do not commit violent acts.”  That may be true, but it is irrelevant enough to be considered a non-sequitor.  Now we're not even talking about homicides; we're talking about violence in general?  We were talking about mass shootings, weren't we?  In any case, let's assume that the vast majority of people with psychiatric disorders do not commit mass murder.  I'm sure that's true, but it doesn't mean that certain mental illnesses or psychological profiles are not strong indicators of the potential for mass murder.

He also gives us an irrelevant statistic:  "Only about 4 percent of violence in the United States can be attributed to people with mental illness.”  If you follow the link that Friedman gives us there, you won't find support for that statistic.  Instead, you'll find a study about people in Sweden.  In any case, even if the statistic is true, it's irrelevant, because it is about violence in general, and not mass murder.  Not even homicide.

By the way, there is some useful information in that link about Sweden.  It says, "the risk of an individual with psychosis committing a violent offense compared with a general population group of a similar age is between two and six times for men and two and eight times for women.”  So psychosis can increase the risk of violence considerably: up to six times as much for men and eight for women.  Yet, Friedman makes it seem like psychosis only doubles the risk of violent behavior.

He says, speaking of mental illness in general, and not just psychosis, that "the risk is actually small."  Furthermore, he never identifies which mental conditions are most strongly correlated with murder or even felonies in general.  He doesn't mention personality disorders, some of which are strongly correlated with violence and felony convictions.  Nor does he mention any of the neuroscientific evidence linking genetic, physiological and situational factors with murderous impulses.  Instead, he mentions the relatively low risk of violence associated with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.  This only distracts us from the relevant empirical data.

It's worth looking at the NIMH study he uses to support his statement about schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.  First of all, it relies on self-reported violent incidents.  That severely limits what conclusions we can draw from the study. Despite those limitations, the study says: "In a multivariate model of the predictors of violence, a significant interaction effect was found between major mental illness and substance abuse. The risk of violent behavior increased with the number of psychiatric diagnoses for which respondents met DSM-III criteria.”  Friedman's sources seem to be working against him.

Another irrelevant statement from Friedman:  "Alcohol and drug abuse are far more likely to result in violent behavior than mental illness by itself."  Yes . . . and?  In case you didn't know, we should be even less inclined to give guns to the mentally ill when they're drunk.  What argument is this supposed to be supporting again?

Friedman does make some relevant, even some cogent points.  It is hard to predict a lot of violent behavior. It is hard to control the mentally ill's access to guns without making gun regulations generally stricter.  Those are good points, and relevant.  But Friedman also makes several additional problematic claims.

I think he's generally overly confident in his understanding of human behaviour.  He says that "few" of the 120,000 gun-related homicides between 2001 and 2010 "were perpetrated by people with mental illness.”  How does he know that?  Because of the mysterious statistic that says only 4 percent of all violence in the US is associated with mental illness?  So "violence" and "gun homicides" are interchangable?  And anyway, I'm not so sure Friedman is correct that "people with mental illness contribute so little to overall violence."  Personality disorders are over-represented in prison populations, for example.

Towards the end, Friedman admits that we might be able to help prevent mass murders by focusing on the early diagnosis of mental illness.  So why all the attempts to make it seem like the people talking about mental illness were just full of hot air?  Oh yeah, because he still thinks they are.  He goes on to say, "All the focus on the small number of people with mental illness who are violent serves to make us feel safer by displacing and limiting the threat of violence to a small, well-defined group.”

That's not true.  Mental illness can be terrifying.  It is unpredictable, hard to control and poorly understood.  Focusing on the role of mental illness in mass murder does not make me feel safer.  It doesn't limit the threat of violence to a small, well-defined group.  Quite the contrary.  It rather opens the door to a discussion of just how prevalent mental illness might be, and what steps we can and should take to protect ourselves from it.

Friedman ends with these lines:  "But the sad and frightening truth is that the vast majority of homicides are carried out by outwardly normal people in the grip of all too ordinary human aggression to whom we provide nearly unfettered access to deadly force.”

I don't think Friedman knows as much as he thinks about the hearts and minds of the vast majority of people who commit homicide.  (Why homicide, by the way??)  More importantly, I think Friedman is too willing to accept a very high level of human aggression in society.  There is a great deal too much violence in America, and many other places.  Friedman wants to normalize violence and ignore the possibility that mental illness is widespread and endemic in America today.

Mental illness is not a distraction from the real issues.  It is part of the problem.  So are too-lax gun laws.  I hope the focus on both continues unfettered.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Why Are Philosophy Departments Important?


Amy Ferrer, the new Executive Director of The American Philosophical Association (APA), has just finished a week of guest-blogging at Brian Leiter's philosophy blog.  She ended with some words about the need to improve philosophy's public image, especially concerning the value and importance of university philosophy departments.  I agree with the need, but I think her argument for the value and importance of philosophy needs to be improved.

Her argument is:

For one thing, philosophy and the humanities give schools a lot of bang for their buck. Most philosophy departments do not require the large research funds and expensive equipment that other fields may need, so their budgets can reasonably be significantly smaller than departments needing such resources. And yet with those smaller budgets, philosophy departments make a sizeable impact. Philosophy teaches students the hallmarks of a quality education: critical thinking, problem solving, writing, analysis, and argument construction, to name a few. Philosophy considers the biggest questions there are—and what is the academy for if not for asking big questions? And philosophy students routinely outperform students of nearly all other disciplines on standardized tests for postgraduate education such as the GRE and LSAT.

The claims are:

1) Philosophy departments are cheaper than many other departments.
2) Philosophy departments make a sizable impact.
3) Philosophy classes teach many of the principal skills valued in our education system.
4) Philosophy classes deal with the biggest questions there are.
5) Philosophy students do better on standardized tests.

I'll address the points in reverse order.

5. The fact that philosophy students do better on standardized tests does not mean that philosophy departments (or even philosophy classes) help them do so.  It just means that people who tend to study philosophy also tend to do better on those tests.  Furthermore, if we are selling philosophy for its ability to improve test scores, then we're essentially saying that philosophy is of value because it helps people pursue other academic fields.  Then the question is, why do we need philosophy departments?  All we apparently need are philosophy classes--and not Kant studies or phenomenology, but just classes which focus on the skills needed to do better on the LSAT and GRE.  So point (5) is possibly irrelevant (because it is just a correlation) and actually hurts the argument that philosophy departments are important.

4. A lot of people have no faith that academic philosophers will ever find compelling answers to the Big Qestions.  It is hard for a lot of intelligent, informed people (including some professional philosophers) to distinguish between grappling with the Big Questions and self-indulgent, if cooperative, naval gazing.  So when philosophers (or their advocates) claim that philosophy deals with "the biggest questions there are," a lot of people think it's a load of self-aggrandizing hogwash.  Philosophers might do better to present themselves with a bit more humility, and also a bit more focus.  What "big questions" are we dealing with, and why should anybody think that it is important to have academic departments invested in their pursuit?

3. This is true, philosophy classes teach all kinds of important skills, especially involving communication and argumentation.  However, do we need philosophy departments for that?  See my response to point (5), above.

2. Impact on what?  On the rest of the university?  On the world at large?  What sort of impact?  Is the claim that philosophy departments improve the pursuit of other disciplines?  If so, then philosophy is being valued in terms of its ability to help people pursue subjects other than philosophy.  In that case, why do we need philosophy departments to do this?  The nature and scope of the impact is not clear, so it is impossible to address this claim in a more substantive way.

1. So far, we have no clear reason why philosophy departments are important.  Philosophy classes are being advocated for their ability to help people who are really interested in studying subjects other than philosophy.  There's no apparent need for philosophy departments at all, unless it is to pursue the Big Questions.  If that pursuit is just a waste of time, then it really doesn't matter how cheap the departments are.  They are still a waste of resources.

Philosophy departments need to be defended with stronger arguments than this.

The public image of philosophy will not improve unless there is a greater understanding and appreciation of its goals, practices and methodological principles.  The biggest obstacle might just be that there is no general consensus on that matter.

Musical Interlude: Marcin's Mix 2

I've finished the second, probably the last, mix CD for my wife's cousin, Marcin.  (See here for the story and the first installment.)  All the songs are available on YouTube, hence the playlist below.  Unfortunately, the video for "Kindling For The Master" cuts the song a little short.



Song list (with artist and album info):

1. Peek A Boo - Siouxsie & The Banshees (Peepshow, 1988)
2. Malambo No. 1 - Yma Sumac (Mambo!, 1954)
3. Dry The Rain - The Beta Band (The Three E.P.'s, 1998)
4. Windy Child - Gary Higgins (Red Hash, 1973)
5. Silent Shout - The Knife (Silent Shout, 2006)
6. I'm The One - Mick Ronson (Slaughter On 10th Avenue, 1974)
7. One Of These Things First - Nick Drake (Bryter Layter, 1970)
8. He Miss Road - Fela Kuti & Africa 70 (He Miss Road, 1975)
9. Two People In A Room - Wire (154, 1979)
10. Vitamin C - Can (Ege Bamyasi, 1972)
11. Come Down Softly To My Soul - Spacemen 3 (Playing With Fire, 1989)
12. Happy House - Shuggie Otis (Inspiration Information, 1974)
13. Kindling For The Master - Stephen Malkmus (Face The Truth, 2005)
14. Fight This Generation - Pavement (Wowee Zowee, 1995)
15. Stand Together - Beastie Boys (Check Your Head, 1992)
16. Space (I Believe In) - Pixies (Trompe Le Monde, 1991)
17. Colony - Joy Division (Closer, 1980)
18. Mass Production - Iggy Pop (The Idiot, 1977)



Friday, December 7, 2012

Musical Interlude: Marcin's Mix

One of my wife's cousins asked what punk and alternative rock music I had in my collection. I ended up playing lots of different things for him (not all of them punk or alt rock) and he asked for a CD mix of the best of my whole collection.  I think I'll make at least two CDs for him.  I just finished the first, and it's chock-full of songs I love.  [Update Dec 8, 2012: I just revised the mix/playlist.  I'd thought I'd push some boundaries and include Hank Williams Sr. and Phish at the end, but decided--okay, my wife convinced me--that it wasn't such a good idea.]

I made a YouTube playlist of it.  Some of the vids are great, but others are just pictures of album covers.  One song from the mix is missing from the playlist, though.  Pere Ubu's "Wasted" isn't on YouTube.  Maybe I'll make a vid for it one day, if nobody beats me to it.  [Edit:  I see that there is a video, but I'm not allowed to access it because I'm in Poland. Hmph! Enjoy it for me, if you can.)



The songs (with band and album info):

1. Metronomic Underground - Stereolab (Emperor Tomato Ketchup, 1996)
2. Drunken Butterfly - Sonic Youth (Dirty, 1992)
3. Your DJ Children - Hella (Total Bugs Bunny on Wild Bass, 2003)
4. Brave Captain - fIREHOSE (Ragin' Full On, 1986)
5. Political Song For Michael Jackson To Sing - Minutemen (Double Nickels On The Dime, 1984)
6. Come Out And Play - The Offspring (Smash, 1994)
7. He Was A Big Freak - Betty Davis (They Say I'm Different, 1974)
8. Cry - The Birthday Party (Prayers On Fire, 1981)
9. Poison In A Pretty Pill - Crass (Penis Envy, 1980)
10. Kansas - The Wolfgang Press (Bird Wood Cage, 1988)
11. Real Thing - Pearl Jam & Cypress Hill (Judgment Night Motion Picture Soundtrack, 1993)
12. Ease On Over - Erase Errata (At Crystal Palace, 2003)
13. Bed For The Scraping - Fugazi (Red Medicine, 1995)
14. T.V. Set - The Cramps (Songs The Lord Taught Us, 1980)
15. Twist Of Cain - Danzig (Danzig, 1988)
16. What We All Want - Gang Of Four (Solid Gold, 1981)
17. None Of Them Knew They Were Robots - Mr. Bungle (California, 1999)
18. Wasted - Pere Ubu (Story Of My Life, 1993)
19. Safe As Milk (Take 5) - Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band (CD bonus track from Safe As Milk, 1967)
20. Stay Hungry (Live) - Talking Heads (The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads, 1980)
21. Stronger Through The Years - Roxy Music (Manifesto, 1979)

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

What is Russellian Monism?

That's the title of a recent paper I just read by Torin Alter and Yujin Nagasawa (Journal of Consciousness Studies 19, pp. 67-95; H/T ex-apologist).  It's an interesting and mostly very clear paper, at least for me, who has not read most of the source material they are discussing.  (They're primarily drawing on Chalmers, Stoljar and Pereboom.)

I was most surprised (and pleased) to see that Chalmers has made a significant qualification about the implications of the Knowledge and Conceivability Arguments.  I used to think he believed those arguments entailed the falsity of physicalism.  However, Chalmers now claims that they only entail the following disjunction:  Either physicalism is false or Russellian Monism is true.  Since there can be varieties of physicalism which are compatible with Russellian Monism, then Chalmers must be open to the possibility of physicalism.

Chalmers apparently accepts (or perhaps only strongly leans towards) a variety of Russellian Monism.  Specifically, one in which there are phenomenal or protophenomenal inscrutibles.  Inscrutibles are, by definition, elements which cannot be fully characterized in terms of structural/relational properties.  One of the theses of Russellian Monism is realism about inscrutibles.  Another is structuralism about physics.  That is the idea that physics is limited to structural/relational descriptions.  So Russellian Monism denies the thesis that physics can provide an exhaustive description of reality.

The third and final theses that distinguishes Russellian Monism is (proto)phenomenal foundationalism: the idea that "at least some inscrutables are either phenomenal or protophenomenal properties."

It might seem like these three theses constitute a rejection of physicalism, but Alter and Nagasawa identify good reasons why this is not the case.  They point to arguments that physics cannot describe all of the real physical properties, and they argue that phenomenal properties can be physical properties of a sort which cannot be described by physics.

I don't take issue with any of that.  I do wonder, though, why they claim (following Chalmers) that protophenomenal properties cannot be physical properties.  The idea of protophenomenal properties is just this:  that phenomenal properties result from certain sorts of combinations of other properties which themselves are not phenomenal.  I don't see any reason to think that physical properties cannot be protophenomenal properties.

Of the four candidates for inscrutables which Alter and Nagasawa discuss, the only one that is clearly incompatible with physicalism is neutral monism, as it says that inscrutables are neither physical nor phenomenal.  Whether or not phenomenal or protophenomenal properties can be physical properties depends, at least partly, on what we suppose it means for a property to be physical.  I'm not sure what Alter and Nagasawa have to say about that.

I'm curious about the arguments in favor of structuralism about physics.  The idea, I gather, is that physics gives us a kind of formula without telling us anything about the actual stuff that carries out the function.  I don't find that thesis compelling, let alone intuitive.

My more general point, building on the above, is this:  It is not clear what methodological principles are in play in this kind of philosophical argumentation.  I don't know what counts as a standard of reason or evidence when we are talking about what terms like "phenomenal property" and "physical property" entail.  It seems that Alter and Nagasawa are attempting to map out a logical space, but it is not clear that this space has any bearing on the real world.  That may be fine.  The logical space might be worth investigating in its own right.  However, since strong claims are being made about the nature of physics and the (possible) relationship between reality and consciousness, it is hard to know what to think.