Top News, Articles, and Interviews in Philosophy

Nefsky on Tiny Chances and Tiny Differences

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In her Philosophy Compass survey article, 'Collective Harm and the Inefficacy Problem', Julia Nefsky expresses skepticism about appeals to "expected value" to address worries about the ability of a single individual to really "make a difference".  In section 4.2, she notes that the relevant cases involve either "(A) an extremely small chance (as in the voting case) or (B) a chance at making only a very tiny difference."  Addressing each of these in turn:(A) Tiny chances. Here Nefsky adverts to Budolfson's arguments that we might learn details about buffers in the supply chain (etc.) that allow us to be disproportionately confident (beyond what raw averages would lead us to expect) that we are far from the collective threshold for triggering a change in production levels.  Budolfson's arguments are theoretically interesting, but not obviously applicable in practice.  They depend upon our collective consumption levels being stable or otherwise highly predictable across time (otherwise we couldn't be so confident that we're still far from the relevant thresholds).  But in the face of social movements encouraging people to address collective action problems (e.g. by eating less factory-farmed meat), I'm not sure that the relevant degree of consumer predictability is satisfied.  Especially for those of us who are considering making consumption changes in our own lives on the basis of moral reasons, it seems reasonable for us to be highly uncertain about how many of our fellow citizens may soon do likewise.  But then we shouldn't be so certain that the relevant thresholds will remain distant.That's all a matter for reasonable dispute.  What I found more striking about this section was Nefsky's suggestion that "Lomasky and Brennan (2000, section IV) raise similar worries in the voting case, arguing that when all relevant empirical factors are taken into account, the expected utility calculus will rarely come. . .

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News source: Philosophy, et cetera

Understanding the Brain

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“Maybe human brains aren’t equipped to understand themselves.” That thought is offered up by Grigori Guitchounts, a Ph.D. student in neuroscience at Harvard University, in an article surveying some current brain research at Nautilus. [Electron microscope reconstruction of mouse brain cortex, by D. Berger, N. Kasthuri, H. S. Seung, and J. W. Lichtman]One branch of such research is connectomics, which “strives to chart the entirety of the connections among neurons in a brain.” Guitchounts writes: In principle, a complete connectome would contain all the information necessary to provide a solid base on which to build a holistic understanding of the brain. We could see what each brain part is, how it supports the whole, and how it ought to interact with the other parts and the environment.  Jeff Lichtman, a professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard, works in this area, attempting to provide a map of the brain. Here’s how he does it: The 68-year-old neuroscientist’s weapon of choice is a 61-beam electron microscope, which Lichtman’s team uses to visualize the tiniest of details in brain tissue… [and] a machine that can only be described as a fancy deli slicer. The machine cuts pieces of brain tissue into 30-nanometer-thick sections, which it then pastes onto a tape conveyor belt. The tape goes on silicon wafers, and into Lichtman’s electron microscope, where billions of electrons blast the brain slices, generating images that reveal nanometer-scale features of neurons, their axons, dendrites, and the synapses through which they exchange information. The end result will be a lot of data. Guitchounts notes that a “complete wiring diagram” for the much smaller mouse brain would take up about two exabytes. A gigabyte is a million bytes. A terabyte is a million gigabytes. An exabyte is one billion gigabytes. Guitchounts own data for his Ph.D. research came to around 48 terabytes, which if printed out, he estimates,. . .

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News source: Daily Nous

Etymological insecticide

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This story continues the attempts of the previous week to catch a flea. Anyone who will take the trouble to look at the etymology of the names of the flea, louse, bedbug, and their blood-sucking allies in a dozen languages will discover that almost nothing is known for certain about it. This fact either means that we are dealing with very old words whose beginnings can no longer be discovered or that the names have been subject to taboo (consequently, the initial form is beyond recognition), or, quite likely, both factors were in play. Common sense suggests that those names should refer to stinging, biting, color, size, and shape, or the parasites’ deleterious effect, but of course onomatopoeia should not be discounted either: though fleas and lice are silent, mosquitoes are not. It always amuses me that the standard etymology of the Russian word komar “mosquito” (stress on the second syllable) refers kom to sound imitation. Do those pestiferous insects buzz kommm? Hmm, perhaps. The German for “bumblebee” is Hummel, but bumblebees really “hum.” To make matters worse, if the name whose origin we are exploring means “pest” or “biter,” or “buzzer,” it will fit more than one insect. What word can be simpler than tick? Doesn’t it tickle before it digs itself in? Tickle is rather obviously sound-symbolic. One of its variants is kittle (compare German kitzeln), and its shorter relative is tick (verb); tick-tack-toe also comes to mind. It does not seem that any dictionary is ready to connect tick and tickle. Armenian tiz means “beetle.” A cognate, a chance parallel? Irish dega “stag beetle” has been compared with tick, but how far does this comparison lead? Wherever we may look, we end up with similar lists. That is why when I see the reconstructed root of the word flea represented as bhsul– or bhlus-, I question their reality (was there such a “root”?). Nor does the occasionally invoked closeness between flea and fleece fill me with enthusiasm. Johann N. Hummel,. . .

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News source: Linguistics – OUPblog

Syllabus Showcase: Renée Smith, Philosophical Writing

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by Renée Smith Renée Smith (CU Boulder, 2002) is a professor of philosophy at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC. She specializes in philosophy of mind, particularly on phenomenal consciousness and introspection, and philosophy pedagogy. PHIL 271 Philosophical Writing at Coastal Carolina University became a requirement for philosophy majors about 7 years ago. We hoped […]

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News source: Blog of the APA

The language gap in North African schools

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When children start school in an industrialized country, their native language is for the most part the one used by the teachers. Conversely, in many developing countries, the former colonial languages have been proclaimed languages of instruction within the classroom at the expense of native indigenous languages. A third scenario is something in-between: The language used at school is related to the home language but is a significantly different variety. This is the case in the Arabic-speaking world where the native dialects are used at home and on the street while Modern Standard Arabic is used in education and in other formal domains. In the latter two cases, the stakes are higher for the students from the very onset of their learning journey: They must acquire a second linguistic system and develop literacy skills, both at the same time. In North Africa, students acquire their native Arabic dialects at home before starting school. Some students also acquire Berber in the areas where it’s still transmitted naturally. Since the Arabic vernaculars aren’t standardized or officially recognized by the state, they’re not taught at schools and there aren’t any textbooks or dictionaries aimed at native speakers. As a result, students must develop literacy in Modern Standard Arabic, a language that diverges to a significant extent from the native vernaculars. There are different words that refer to the same things and even aspects of the grammar are different. For example, while Tunisian Arabic has seven subject pronouns (eight in some varieties), Modern Standard Arabic has twelve, including the dual pronouns that don’t exist in vernacular Arabic. As a result, Tunisian students have to make a conscious effort not only to develop literacy in the standard variety of Arabic, but also to learn how to speak it extemporaneously in order to communicate successfully in the classroom. In addition to Modern Standard Arabic, schools in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco introduce French. . .

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News source: Linguistics – OUPblog

Cosmological Fine-Tuning Arguments: What (If Anything) Should We Infer From the Fine-Tuning of Our Universe for Life?

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2020.02.03 : View this Review Online | View Recent NDPR Reviews Jason Waller, Cosmological Fine-Tuning Arguments: What (If Anything) Should We Infer From the Fine-Tuning of Our Universe for Life?, Routledge, 2020, 323pp., $120.00 (hbk), ISBN 9781138742079. Reviewed by Robert C. Koons, University of Texas at Austin The argument from fine-tuning is the theistic argument most likely to earn the respect (if grudging) of atheists, although it is not the one most favored by theistic philosophers. The fine-tuning problem is also treated with great seriousness among contemporary cosmologists, including those committed to naturalism. Naturalistic cosmologists rely on the multiverse hypothesis to explain (or explain away) the fine-tuning of our universe for organic chemistry and life. Nonetheless, many philosophers are skeptical about whether there is really any phenomenon here to be explained, either by theism or by the multiverse. Jason Waller’s new book contains detailed consideration of the various forms this skepticism might take, and in each case, he provides convincing arguments for the conclusion that the fine-tuning skeptics... Read More

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News source: Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews // News

Philosophy of Sport

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[New Entry by John William Devine and Francisco Javier Lopez Frias on February 4, 2020.] While sport has been practised since pre-historic times, it is a relatively new subject of systematic philosophical enquiry. Indeed, the philosophy of sport as an academic sub-field dates back only to the 1970s. Yet, in this short time, it has grown into a vibrant area of philosophical research that promises both to deepen our understanding of sport and to inform sports practice. Recent controversies at the elite and professional level have highlighted the...

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News source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

How Should we Regulate Child Sex Robots: Restriction or Experimentation?

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[This is a cross-post from the BMJ Sexual and Reproductive Health blog. It is a short precis of my paper "Regulating Child Sex Robots: Restriction or Experimentation?"]In 2017, the Crown Prosecution Services (CPS) decided to clamp down on the importation of child sex dolls into the UK. In doing so, they faced a problem. There was no established legal rule that explicitly banned the purchase and sale of these items. Consequently, the CPS had to get creative. They turned to an old 1876 law – the Customs Consolidation Act – that banned the importation of “obscene” items into the UK. Arguing that child sex dolls were obscene items, the CPS successfully prosecuted several individuals for purchasing them online and having them shipped to the UK.In doing this, the CPS argued that they were acting in the interests of child protection. They argued that the purchase of child sex dolls was not an isolated phenomenon. Individuals who purchased them were likely to engage with other forms of child pornography, which could, in turn, lead to or encourage offences against children in the real world.Child sex dolls are inanimate, human-like artifacts used for the purposes of sexual stimulation and gratification. But, given current technological trends, it is quite likely that people will create animate and robotized forms of these dolls in the near future. They are already doing this with adult forms of sex dolls. This raises the obvious question: what should the legal system do about these devices? Should we follow the lead of the CPS and look to ban their development, sale and use? Or should we permit them to be created on the grounds that, unlike other forms of child pornography, the creation of a child sex robot or doll does not involve any direct harm to real children?In my article, ‘Regulating Child Sex Robots: Restriction or Experimentation?’, I survey the possible answers to this question and make a specific case for pessimism about our capacity to adequately answer them.. . .

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News source: Philosophical Disquisitions

Models in Science

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[Revised entry by Roman Frigg and Stephan Hartmann on February 4, 2020. Changes to: Main text, Bibliography] Models are of central importance in many scientific contexts. The centrality of models such as inflationary models in cosmology, general-circulation models of the global climate, the double-helix model of DNA, evolutionary models in biology, agent-based models in the social sciences, and general-equilibrium models of markets in their respective domains is a case in point (the Other Internet Resources section at the end of this entry contains links to online resources...

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News source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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