Is it Philosophy?


– Rant # 168 –


Here’s what I write in the course outline for my Intros, “What is philosophy? is itself a philosophical question, best answered, if at all, only after having done some of it.” But what’s the antecedent of the pronoun ‘it’?

We’ve all been admonished not to bullshit but to teach what we know. So if I taught my students the rules of chess and how to make egg popovers, would these things become part of philosophy by virtue of the fact that a member of the Philosophy Department taught them in his courses? Presumably not. But that’s precisely what they’d be if we subscribed to the institutional theory of what is philosophy. On this view philosophy is just whatever philosophers happen to do, and philosophers are just those people so designated by the institution in which they do whatever it is they happen to do.

On the other hand, neither do we want to become essentialists about what we do. Nor about how we do it. We want to be able to retire questions that have proven meaningless, or at least unfruitful, like, What is the meaning of life?, and to ask new ones, like, How does a word attach to an object? Likewise if we couldn’t ask old questions from new perspectives then feminist philosophy would never have been allowed off the ground.

So even though we can say that philosophy always was and remains the critical examination of the core concepts by which we maneuver our way through the world, those concepts change with the material conditions in which their use is embedded. So, for example, if we became disembodied – as kindergarten Christianity preaches we will in the Hereafter – then much of ethics and political philosophy would have to be retooled if and when we get there. But on the essentialist view the critical examination of our interpersonal relations in the Hereafter would no longer count as philosophy because interpersonal relations are essentially embodied.

It would seem, then, that somewhere between the essentialist and anything-goes views must lie the right way to decide whether this or that is or is not content suitable for credit as a philosophy course. In what sense ‘right’? In the sense of contributing to a grasp of how to critically examine the core concepts by which we maneuver our way through the world.

Do we have a sense of what does and does not contribute to this grasp? Well, we had better! And by their second or third year – but for sure by their fourth – our better students have that sense too. And this is why, if a critical mass of our senior students are turning to each other and asking, “What does any of this have to do with philosophy?” or “Where’s the philosophy in this course?”, there’s a very good chance it’s the instructor who’s lost that grasp, a synonym for which is his ‘grip’.

Hey, I’m not sayin’. I’m just reporting!



– Rant # 166 –  


Who hasn’t memorized pretty much every word of The Princess Bride? After Fezzik keeps misusing the word ‘inconceivable’, Inigo finally says to him, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.” That doesn’t make Fezzik an idiot. We all misuse words. I once told my then-wife, “Darling, you are the bane of my existence!” And this was when I was courting her, not divorcing her. I just had the meaning of the word reversed in my head. But Fezzik would be an idiot if he used words that mean nothing at all.

This is not to say that ‘trope’ doesn’t have a meaning. It’s the word for that collection of literary devices that make use of metonymy, such as similes, metaphors, synecdoche, and so on. It’s also the word for when one of these devices is oft-repeated, like when we talk about a Trojan horse. But some time, about twenty years ago, it got picked up by the anti-denialist rhetoricians to mean … Well, that’s just the question, isn’t it? To mean what?

Not unlike the Tribbish word ‘gavagai’, all one can do is observe the contexts in which it’s used and try to induce its likely meaning. And that’s all those who repeated it could do, except they never did induce a meaning. So why have they been so intent on repeating it? For the same reason John Oliver is so intent on saying ‘Fuck!’ It doesn’t mean anything. It just makes him sound hip.

Now then, there’s nothing wrong with trying to sound hip, provided that’s all you’re trying to do when you make utterances like, “Oh, that’s just a denialist trope!” But that’s not all you’re trying to do, is it? You’re using the word ‘trope’ to mean an argument the unsoundness of which is a res judicata. But then, “Oh, that’s just a denialist trope!” is itself just a trope.

As is “There is no debate about global warming!” It’s a move in a language game. It’s a blocking maneuver, not unlike a heartfelt rights-claim in moral discourse. If a pro-Choicer says, her voice quaking with conviction, “I have a right to control my own body!”, the rules of the game allow you to say, “Yes, but the unborn have rights too!” But what you’re not allowed to say is, “Well no, as a matter of fact you don’t have a right to control your own body!” Denying anything so heartfelt by your interlocutor is just churlish.

Likewise, then, if you say, “There is no debate about global warming!”, I’d obviously be betraying my ignorance if I say, “Yes there is!” “There’s no debate about global warming!” plays the same role as “Only an idiot believes that …”, or “Anyone familiar with the literature knows …” I think in informal logic it’s called the argument from intellectual intimidation.

You can get away with these moves with your first-year students, but by year two or three they’re on to you. Then you just come across as an intellectual fraud. If you have an argument against what you call a denialist trope, then let’s hear it. If you’re bored with the debate, or you think you’d be casting pearls before swine, and so you just don’t want to bother making your case, that’s fine. But then just shut the fuck up!

There now, did that make me sound hip?



– Rant # 164 –  


Suppose the world came into being five minutes ago, precisely as it was five minutes ago, with all those pseudo-history books on those shelves and all those pseudo-memories in our heads where we now find them. Everything we observe, including what’s on those shelves and in our heads, is fully compatible with this Five Minute Hypothesis or FMH. So there’s nothing we observe – there’s nothing we could observe – that would show that it’s false. Of course this doesn’t show that it’s true, and I’ve never claimed that it is. I’ve claimed only that if it were true, then this and this and this would follow.

My colleagues are idiots for thinking I’m the idiot for trotting out the FMH whenever I think it might do us yeoman service in helping us clean up our thinking. For example, if the FMH were true, then the aggravated wrongness of sexual assault on a child couldn’t lie in the age of the victim, since we’re all the same age. But since the truth of the FMH wouldn’t diminish that aggravation by one iota, it behooves us to locate where that aggravation properly lies. To suppose otherwise is to say that the aggravation hangs entirely on the falseness of the FMH, which is – or certainly let’s hope it is – utterly absurd. So the FMH is useful, indeed indispensible, for correcting those myriad cases of metonymy error where time is taken to be a reliable stand-in for some other property when in fact it’s not.

Now let’s direct our attention to that colossal and unconscionable waste of time and energy that makes up – get ready for it – the anthropogenic global warming (or AGW) debate. And let’s see if what the FMH can show us is the import of asking not whether climate change has been anthropogenic, but whether changing it back again can be.

That is, let’s suppose we’re the ones who broke it. Does it follow that we can fix it? No. Let’s suppose we had nothing to do with breaking it. Does it follow we can’t fix it? No. So what difference does it make whether we did or didn’t break it? Surely all that matters is whether we can or can’t fix it!

Let’s take it as a res judicata that there’s a change in the weather not to our liking. And to avoid having to defend any suppressed moral premises, let’s just say that by this ‘we’ we mean those of us in the barnyard for whom this change is not to our liking. We can acknowledge that there may be other chickens in the barnyard for whom this change is quite welcomed. But who gives a shit about them?! As Thomas Hobbes put it, “When two [fowl] desire [opposite] things which nonetheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies, and to this end … endeavor to destroy or subdue one another.” So let’s not worry about how many losers and how few winners there’ll be from global warming. As has always been the case since we emerged from the cave, we’re not trying to save the human race. We’re trying to save members of our own tribe. To pretend otherwise is to import into the debate premises which will only serve to multiply the nodes of contention.

Now then, let’s grant that AGW is true. (The so-called denialist doesn’t want me to grant this, but I’m going to show him it doesn’t matter, so relax!) Of course if the FMH were true, then AGW would have to be false. (Well, except for whatever change we could have wrought in the last five minutes.) But of what relevance would it be that AGW would be false? What would we do differently from what we’re doing right now, given that we currently believe the FMH is false and AGW is true, if we were to believe instead that the FMH is true and AGW is false? I can’t think of a single thing. Can you?

Well, you might answer, if the FMH were true, then any talk of liability would make no sense. But we do want to talk about liability.

All right, let’s talk about liability. And I take it we’re talking about strict liability, by which is meant liability that does not require intent, since it’s doubtful that those most responsible for the current state of the atmosphere had any idea how delicate it would prove to be. We could only be talking full liability – the moral equivalent of criminal liability in the law – if we’re talking about the last thirty years or so.

That said, some people argue that since we in the North and West are the principal beneficiaries of the spent carbon thrown into the atmosphere by our grandparents, parents, and older siblings, we should take upon ourselves the lion’s share of the burden of repairing the consequences of the negative externalities imposed by their behavior. And yet most proponents of AGW reject this argument. Why? Well, obviously because they don’t want to take upon themselves the lion’s share of the burden of repairing the consequences of these negative externalities. That’s just a duh. But to be more charitable, they also reject the argument because of the number and contentiousness of the premises that would have to be added to make the argument fly.

Such as?

Well, such as the Lockean Proviso, without which the argument can’t even get off the ground. And they’re right to reject the argument. Let’s take a look at it, as famously (or infamously) advanced in the chapter “On Property” in John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government:

1) In the beginning God owned the world.

2) He then gave the world to Adam and all his descendants, not in shares but in common.

3) Pursuant to the logic of such a bequest, no one of us can use any part of the world without deferring to everyone else for its use. And so

4) this bequest must have been accompanied by an exclusion-conferring principle, a principle so indelibly inscribed onto our minds as to be self-evident to all who would but consult it.

And what is that self-evident principle? That

5) one can appropriate from the commons for her exclusive use that to which her labor adds value, provided she leaves as good and as much for others.

Locke thinks he can get (2) out of the Book of Genesis. And (3) and (4) seem reasonable enough given (1) and (2). But each of (1) and (5) could only have been pulled out of Locke’s ass. And understandably enough, proponents of giving the developing world a pass on future emissions controls do not want to hang their case on a brief pulled out of someone’s ass. Besides, if we’re going to give Africans and Asians and South Americans a pass because they were passed over as beneficiaries, shouldn’t we be offering the same pass to American blacks and Canadian aboriginals?

Look. If we want to give the disadvantaged a leg up – for which I am totally in favor – we needn’t appeal to some injustice, real or imagined, that was meted out in the past. There are plenty of what Robert Nozick calls patterned theories of distributive justice on the market, theories that make no mention at all of the past, the current favorite being John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. And so neither need we be realists about the past. So with respect to liability, any dispute between the FMH’s proponents and detractors will be utterly inert.

All right, then what about this? In chess, how I got myself into this pickle is irrelevant to what I should do now. But how we got into our current environmental crisis offers causal information that may help us get out of it.

Fair enough. But then the question is not whether we caused the change in the weather we’re unhappy with. Rather it’s, If we did it how did we do it? Or, what amounts to the same question, If there had yet to be such a change, how would we go about affecting it? But here’s the point. Neither of these two formulations of the question needs to presuppose AGW.

Nor need they presuppose that the FMH is false. Whether the FMH is true or not, the information we need will be found in the chicken scratches on the pages in those books on those shelves. And you’re going to rely on that information no matter how long you think those chicken scratches have been there. Why? Because you have no choice.

Put the FMH aside for a moment. You’ve read your Hume. You know you have no reason to suppose the future will resemble the past. Have you decided to try to get along without induction? No? You’ve read Nelson Goodman’s “The New Riddle of Induction”. You know about the under-determination of rule by data. Do you regard Christmas trees as no more likely to be green than grue? No? So if you came to believe the FMH is true, would every history book suddenly become fiction in your mind, and every science book fantasy? Of course not. Why not? Because you have no choice but to treat pseudo-history and pseudo-science, and so-called real history and real science, exactly the same.

For the 313th time, I am not a participant in any of the first-order debates about global warming, vaccine safety, Creationism, or any of the issues my colleagues down the hall clutch Gollum-like as their “Precious”. But it seems to me that if global warming really is as dire and urgent as these piccoli polli say it is, they should stop worrying about who broke the sky and turn their attention to how to fix it.

Hey, I’m just sayin’!

In Defense of Shilling


– Rant # 163 – 


For the 312th time – yes, I decided to start counting – I have no interest whatsoever in weighing in on the global warming debate. Nor, for that matter, in the debate that seems to have replaced that debate, namely the one over whether there is a debate, though I have to say I am looking forward to the debate I’m sure is coming next, namely the one over whether there’s a debate over whether there’s a debate over … Damn! Now I’ve forgotten what the original debate is about.

Doesn’t matter. Cuz whatever it’s about, what I do remember is that each side is accusing the other of being shills. Those who argue against – ah yes, now I remember, it’s global warming – are shills for Big Oil. And those who argue for – by which, correct me if I’m wrong, isn’t meant they want global warming but rather they’re claiming that it’s happening – are in the service of the publishing industry. Apparently sales from what the industry calls its Chicken Little shelves have been through the roof, with no end in sight. And/or they’re in the service of each other, by which is meant that the peer review process, both for publications and grants, has become a you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours.

Now then, I have no opinion on whether one side does more shilling than the other, and if so which. But I’m a firm believer in where there’s smoke there’s fire. So by the sheer volume of the accusations being flung thither and fro, I’m pretty sure there’s a fair amount of it going on. But that’s not my beef. My beef is with the suggestion that’s given the two sides common cause, namely that there’s something morally suspect about being a shill.

Those who believe this aren’t just prudes. They’re hypocrites. They’re hypocrites because they’re pretty damn selective about the shilling they condemn versus the shilling they take for granted as just an unremarkable-because-necessary component of a free and democratic society.

For example, they don’t condemn Matt Damon or George Clooney for endorsing Nespresso, notwithstanding neither would be caught dead sipping such swill. They don’t condemn Vince Shlomi, the over-the-top TV spokesman for Sham Wow and Slap Chop. They don’t condemn lawyers who defend clients they know to be guilty as hell. They don’t condemn politicians who couldn’t possibly believe the scurrilous things they say about their opponents. They don’t condemn the wingman who talks up his buddy to try to get him that blind date. They don’t condemn phone sex lines. They don’t condemn undercover cops. They don’t condemn canned laughter. They don’t condemn Bill Clinton standing behind Hilary, clapping and nodding like a bobble-head on a dashboard, when in fact he hasn’t listened to a word she’s said for years. They don’t condemn ventriloquists. They don’t condemn professional mourners. And they don’t condemn the prostitute who assures her client, in the throws of faux orgasm, that “Oh baby, that feels so good!”

Why, then, should they condemn the post-doc who needs to convince his new colleagues he’s one of their peeps so they’ll back his application for that NSERC grant? Or the also-ran who couldn’t get a post-doc and so he took a job with Big Pharm because he already has a family to support. Or the senior scientist who’s just lost his entire life savings in a nasty divorce and now he’s looking to do just a tad better in his retirement than a pantry of cat food.

There but for fortune go you or I, buddy. And come to think of it, who are you shilling for?

In any event, it seems to me that a charge of shilling is just an ad hominem circumstantial. Let’s suppose I don’t believe that p, but I assert that p nonetheless because I’ve been paid to assert that p. Now if you believe that p just because I’ve asserted that p, that just makes you an idiot. Presumably, then, you’ll want to hear my argument for p, and you’ll want to evaluate that argument. Will any part of that evaluation hang on my having been paid to assert that p? If so, that just makes you an idiot.

I have colleagues down the hall – most on one side of the global warming debate but a few on the other – who think they’ve scored some kind of three-pointer by charging their opponents with shilling. That’s the 163rd reason my colleagues are idiots. Tomorrow I’ll offer you the 164th.