Top News, Articles, and Interviews in Philosophy

Occupying Main Street

A couple of years ago, I read Michael Lewis’s The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine a story about the roots of the 2008 global financial crash. The book is intriguing, dramatic, and informative and while the subject matter is interesting, I enjoyed the book mainly because it highlighted for me the complexity of big finance (a topic I have little insight into). When I saw an advertisement for Margin Call a new movie written and directed by fledgling director J.C. Chandor, I downloaded it from Amazon without hesitation.  It exceeded my expectations.

It’s cast is impressive: Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, and Zachary Quinto among other big names all who did a stellar job in their roles. But its the storytelling that wins the day. This movie is a slow-burn thriller and pulls off the juxtaposition with aplomb. There are no guns, car chases, scantily-clad women, muscle-bound men, or over-the-top special effects. It’s not an abstract mind-bender like Synecdoche New York or 2001 - A Space Odyssey. It’s a moderately careful, well-acted film that neither preaches nor condemns. The film shocks us with the horrific by easing into it with the familiar to create a kind of cognitive dissonance that reminded me of techniques used in Saving Private Ryan (and the blowdart scene in Munich). The most intense tragedies occur as slow bleedouts; a sharp blade is carefully inserted into the belly while the prosecutor talks the victim through what he’s doing and how she should respond to the event. 

The story takes place inside a large investment bank during the 24 hours preceding the meltdown. The bankers are both the victims and the administrators of the collapse and the philosophical interest is found just in this space between these two roles. With “Occupy Wall Street” making all the news these days, some may hope for an investment bank that is portrayed as the great Hitler playing chess with the population in the street below. But this is not an ideological film. The bank surely is not an innocent but neither is it fully guilty. The men and women running the bank are portrayed as relatively honest though ambitious businesspeople who are caught up in the game as much as the rest of us. They seem to know the possible outcomes of their actions but use the complexity of the global financial system as both an alibi and a weapon that they can use against each other and the unwitting population at large.

There is conscience in this film. There’s talk of warnings and erstwhile discussions about the possibilities of too much risk. There’s moral ambiguity and even healthy doses of guilt. But the higher one goes in the system, the more the ambiguity creates a moral gap between what’s been done and what’s about to happen. At the very top, the bank president John Tuld (played solidly by Jeremy Irons) is able to both excuse his actions and offer a philosophical explanation for the event. In what I view as the moral statement of the film, after the day is over, Tuld gives a “speech” to his right-hand man Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) in which he tows a fine line between fatalism and explanation:

“So you think we might have put a few people out of business today. That its all for naught. You've been doing that everyday for almost forty years Sam. And if this is all for naught then so is everything out there. Its just money; its made up. Pieces of paper with pictures on it so we don't have to kill each other just to get something to eat. It's not wrong. And it's certainly no different today than its ever been. 1637, 1797, 1819, 37, 57, 84, 1901, 07, 29, 1937, 1974, 1987—Jesus, didn't that fuck up me up good—92, 97, 2000 and whatever we want to call this. It's all just the same thing over and over; we can't help ourselves. And you and I can't control it, or stop it, or even slow it. Or even ever-so-slightly alter it. We just react. And we make a lot money if we get it right. And we get left by the side of the side of the road if we get it wrong. And there have always been and there always will be the same percentage of winners and losers. Happy foxes and sad sacks. Fat cats and starving dogs in this world. Yeah, there may be more of us today than there's ever been. But the percentages—they stay exactly the same.”

It’s tempting to be morally indignant about such a cavalier statement by a man worth millions. And that would be a justified attitude. But I found the statement realistic too. I’m reminded of Plato’s Republic in which he outlines the problems with politics of his day. They are eerily similar to the problems with politics of our day. Little does change. Tuld observes that the financial collapse is a human problem and one that has plagued and will plague humans as best as we can tell. Wall Street in many ways reflects Main Street because humans populate both. What bothers us most, I think, is Tuld’s fatalism. Because things are this way, they must be this way and we should accept it and figure out a way to survive. As common-sensical as that may be, most of us, even if unconsciously, believe it can only be truly held by a moral monster. The fight is all we have.

Coincidentally, Glengarry Glen Ross arrived in the mail today from Netflix and I watched it for the first time right after Margin Call. (Curiously, it also stars Kevin Spacey.) Glengarry Glen Ross deals with some of the same problems as Margin Call but from the point of view of “the working man.”  After seeing the two movies back to back, I find the words of Ogden Nash appropriate:  “Bankers are just like anybody else, only richer.”

What is Open-mindedness

I’m reading through Jason Baehr’s excellent new book The Inquiring Mind. In the first half of the book, he examines various approaches to a virtue-based epistemic theory arguing for a specific variation that he believes is the most hopeful. In the second half, he looks at specific intellectual virtues. Chapter 8, he considers open-mindedness as a fundamental virtue of the mind and defines it this way:

An open-minded person is characteristically (a) willing and (within limits) able (b) to transcend a default cognitive standpoint (c) in order to take up or take seriously the merits of (d) a distinct cognitive standpoint.

Baehr argues for this definition in some detail that I won’t go into here. What struck me on a first read of the definition was the apparent lack of the idea that the “distinctive cognitive standpoint” must be a live option for the one considering it. In other words, could one truly be considered open minded if the ideas he is considering aren’t epistemically live for him – they aren’t ideas he could seriously adopt?

Suppose Joe believes in God and believes that everything he needs to know about God is described in the Bible. He has absolute trust that his particular interpretation of the Bible is the correct one and that because the Bible is God’s word, no human has the ability to prove it false. Joe might say that he’s open minded in that he’ll listen to opposing viewpoints and give them a fair hearing. But given the depth of Joe’s commitment to his views, those other viewpoints really aren’t live options for him: these are not position he could honestly say he might adopt given a certain amount of epistemic weight they might come to have for him.

Baehr adds a proviso that is designed to account for cases like this one. He makes a distinction between cases where one is intentionally performing a rational evaluation aimed at discovering truth and other cases where, for example, a person is considering a new view point simply to understand an idea (he gives the example of a teacher asking her students to be open minded while they consider Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity). For former cases the definition above “must be supplemented by the proviso that where open-mindedness involves rational assessment or evaluation, it also necessarily involves adjusting one’s beliefs or confidence levels according to the outcome of this assessment.”

Given the proviso, it would seem that if one is truly open minded when considering alternate viewpoints in the context of a rational evaluation, those other viewpoints must be live options for that person.

*PNS will be talking with Jason Baehr about his new book in an upcoming interview. Stay tuned.

Studying Philosophy is Time Well Spent

imageTwo interesting articles appeared recently that tout the value of studying philosophy. The first is in an article that was published on Philly.com (the web incarnation of The Philadelphia Inquirer) and talks about the growth in students studying philosophy despite the downturn in the economy. Staff writer Jeff Gammage cites some hard numbers that show graduates in philosophy has been growing over the last decade (by 46%) surpassing other disciplines in the humanities like history and even the firm sciences like psychology. Heartening quotes from the article include:

“Though philosophy is routinely dismissed and disparaged - as useless as English, as dead as Latin, as diminished as library science - more college students are getting degrees in that field than ever before.”

“At a time when some majors have faded to near-extinction, philosophy is showing gains.”

“Proponents say it teaches analytical skills that enable students to succeed in everything from running businesses to practicing law to operating nonprofit agencies.”

“And being a ‘philosopher,’ however the work might be defined, is among the best jobs in the country, according to Careercast.com, an employment website. The company ranked 200 jobs based on income, environment, stress, physical demands, and employment outlook.”

A core theme of the article focuses on the idea that philosophy prepares students who study it for whatever job they might end up in. He quotes students ranging from business majors to athletic hopefuls who all agree that their time in the discipline has made them much better at their work. He rightfully notes that the average pay for professional philosophers isn’t stellar and majors typically end up in lower-paying jobs since positions in philosophy departments and ethics boards are scarce. But he’s clear that even if a student doesn’t end up a professional philosopher, spending focused time in college on the discipline is well worth the time and the cost.

The article was picked up by Edward Tenner of The Atlantic Monthly who reiterates Gammage’s themes and notes that philosophy “is a tool (like history and religious studies) for thinking about everything else, and every profession from law and medicine to motorcycle maintenance.”

The articles amplify the themes I touched on in my article, “The Value of Philosophy” in which I discuss the role philosophy has played in my own intellectual development. As a business professional who works in the computer science industry and who has the happy opportunity to teach philosophy at the college level, I wholeheartedly agree with both author’s conclusions and can say quite practically that they are right on the mark.

Thanks to Andrew Smith for the pointer.

CFP: Formal Epistemology Workshop

CFP: FEW 2012

from Certain Doubts by Jon Kvanvig

Ninth Annual Formal Epistemology Workshop

The Ninth Annual Formal Epistemology Workshop (FEW 2012) will be held in Munich, May 29 – June 1, 2012. This year’s meeting is sponsored by the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy. The meeting will take place at the (stunningly beautiful) Nymphenburg Palace (compliments of the Carl Friedrich von Siemens Foundation).

Confirmed invited speakers include: David Christensen, Igor Douven, Sarah Moss, Eric Pacuit, Rohit Parikh, Paul Pedersen, Wlodek Rabinowicz, and Robbie Williams.

We are accepting submissions for contributed papers. The deadline for submissions is January 15, 2012. Notifications will be sent out by March 15, 2012. Please send submissions to Branden Fitelson. A selection of papers presented at FEW 2012 will be published in a special issue of Erkenntnis.

Some funding will be available for graduate student participation. Please contact Hannes Leitgeb for more information.

There will be two special (afternoon) sessions at this year’s FEW. The first will be a special session on Logic & Rationality, which will include talks by David Christensen and Robbie Williams, and the second will be a memorial session for Horacio Arló-Costa, which will include talks (pertaining to Horacio’s various seminal philosophical contributions) by Eric Pacuit, Rohit Parikh, and Paul Pedersen.

This year’s local organizers are Hannes Leitgeb, Florian Steinberger, Vincenzo Crupi, and Ole Hjortland.

FEW 2012 is being funded by the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy. For more information, go to the website here.

Reposted from Certain Doubts.

Necessary and Sufficient Conditions

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has updated its entry for necessary and sufficient conditions. it was revised by Andrew Brennan (Latrobe University). I have found these two ideas to be among the most powerful devices in philosophy for framing questions and clarifying ideas.

Put simply, a necessary condition is a condition that must be true for some other thing to be true. For example suppose you’re decorating for Halloween and decide you want a jack-o-lantern to decorate your entryway. In order to do this—in order meet the condition of “having a jack-o-lantern” (on the ordinary meaning of “jack-o-lantern”)—you must have a pumpkin to carve. So having a pumpkin is a necessary condition for having a jack-o-lantern.

Is having a pumpkin a necessary condition for decorating for Halloween? Probably not because there are other ways you can decorate for Halloween. But having a pumpkin may be a sufficient condition. That is, if you have a pumpkin and you’re a minimalist regarding your Halloween festivities, that single pumpkin may be enough to call your home “decorated.” In other words, the pumpkin is sufficient for meeting the condition of having your house decorated.

These concepts can be used to clarify just about anything—hopefully things much more weighty than decorations. For example, what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be considered a morally valuable human person? What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for reasonable belief in God? What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge?

Applying these concepts to the things you care about is sort of like owing a label maker: once you get going, it’s hard to stop.

Postdoctoral Fellow Appointment at UMSL

UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI-ST. LOUIS, St. Louis, MO.  Postdoctoral Fellow, one year appointment with possibility of extension for one or two semesters (pending administrative approval), Department of Philosophy.  Begins Spring Semester (January 15) 2012 or later.  AOS: philosophy of mind, psychology, neuroscience, and computing.  AOC: open.  The postdoctoral fellow will work closely with Gualtiero Piccinini on a joint research program.  Undergraduate and possibly graduate teaching; one course per semester; no service except professional.  Salary competitive.

Send CV, three letters of recommendation, and a writing sample to Postdoc Search, Department of Philosophy, University of Missouri-St. Louis, One University Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63121.  The University of Missouri is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer committed to excellence through diversity.  Minorities and women are encouraged to apply.  Application review will begin immediately and continue until the position is filled.  For more information, email piccininig@umsl.edu

Reposted from Brains

Northwestern’s APA Workshop

Northwestern’s Philosophy Department will be hosting a one-day workshop in philosophy of language (with some papers connected, directly or indirectly, to issues in epistemology) on Wednesday, Feb. 15.  (This is the day before the main program of the APA Central begins at the Palmer House in Chicago, just a few miles to our south.)  Details here (and more will be posted as they emerge).

Speakers include Kathrin Glüer-Pagin (U. of Stockholm), Mark Schroeder (USC), Seth Yalcin (Berkeley), and Ernie Lepore (Rutgers), with sessions chaired by Thony Gillies (Rutgers) and Gillian Russell (Washington U.), among others.

Those coming in for the 2012 APA Central should consider attending.  For more information contact Fabrizio Cariani [f-cariani@northwestern.edu] or Michael Glanzberg [m-glanzberg@northwestern.edu].

Reposted from Certain Doubts

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Midwest Epistemology Workshop

University of Iowa will be hosting the fifth annual Midwest Epistemology Workshop with the support of the University of Iowa, College of Liberal Arts and Science Excellence and Innovation Fund. The workshop is an annual event where epistemologists present and discuss recently completed work or work in progress that is close to completion.

The fifth workshop consists of seven nonconcurrent sessions, each involving a presentation of approximately 40 minutes followed by 40 minutes of discussion. Workshop papers will be made available to participants in advance of the workshop. This year's presenters include Michael DePaul (Notre Dame), Gillian Russell (Washington University), Peter Markie (University of Missouri), David Alexander (Iowa State University), Fabrizio Cariani (Northwestern University), Mike Titlebaum (University of Wisconsin), and Wayne Riggs (University of Oklahoma).

Local Coordinator: Richard Fumerton [richard-fumerton [at] uiowa [dot] edu]

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