Thursday, September 16, 2010

Awesome Sentence in PPR

"[David] Lewis could kick my philosophical ass when it comes to modality—or just about any issue in metaphysics for that matter."
--Bryan Frances, in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (Sept. 2010, p. 419)

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

David Lewis could kiss my ass on modality. How about that?

Anonymous said...

Anybody can kick anybody's ass on metaphysics (including interpretations of modality). Here is one way to do it: at a colloqium back in the 1990s, Lewis was giving a talk on something or other in the metaphysics of mereology. Some local figure responded to something in his talk with "But it is intuitively obvious to me that what you say can't be right". To which Lewis replied (in that robotic voice of his): "No. Your intuitions are wrong. Mine are right".

Anonymous said...

Wait, how is that supposed to show that anybody can kick anybody's ass on metaphysics? I don't get it.

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous 4:20

Well, try to imagine this kind of argumentation taking place at a math colloquium (not philosophy of math). I've attended enough of both, and I can assure you that objections which essentially amount to "That's what YOU say!" are plentiful in philosophy, but I'm yet to hear this kind of objection to a mathematical proof. (Of course, one may point out that the proof is not "intuitionistically valid" or that it is "non-constructive", but these objections still appeal to mathematical facts, not to one's "well-entrenched intuitions", "common sense", and such...)

Anonymous said...

Oh, I get it.
It's nice that you "can assure" me that objections like this are plentiful. Maybe you could cite some such objections from the published work of Lewis, so that something besides your (no doubt indubitable) anecdotes could be used as evidence.

Anonymous said...

CFP: "Kick-Ass and Philosophy"!

Anonymous said...

I wonder if different philosophical ass-kickings are worse than others. Of course ass-kickings by different people might be worse than others (an ass kicking by Fodor would likely be worse, more brutal, than an ass-kicking by Stich, say). What about an ass-kicking on modality vs. universals, color perception, or aesthetic properties. When you go home, bloodied, which one hurts worse? Which one gets you ridiculed on the playground more?

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous 5:02

I am not selling this anecdote - just relating what I've heard at a colloquium while a grad student long ago at one of those fancy, old East Coast universities.
As for published work by Lewis, you'd have to hire your own RA (or do the reading yourself). I am not much of a fan of Lewis' writings. He can be very entertaining, and I certainly wish I was 1/10 as clever as he was. But his metaphysics bores me. And those indisputably true claims of his - e.g., his completeness theorem for his axiomatization of counterfactuals - are fairly trivial for professional mathematicians (just as Kripke's completeness theorem is). Both can be massaged rather easily from a very old result by Tarsky (with some Scandinavian mathematician whose name eludes me at the moment) to the effect that every Boolean algebra with a closure operator (i.e., algebraically generalized modal logic) is isomorphic to a partially ordered set (whose elements one can call "possible worlds" if so metaphysically inclined).

Again, I don't mean to bite the hand that feeds me (I get my paycheck via Phil Dept), but there is something to be said about the fact that so many indisputably great mathematicians and scientists - from Gauss to Feynman and Weinberg - had nothing but scorn and contempt for philosophers (and in print to boot!) As I see it, the reason for this widespread attitude is precisely the fact that philosophy allows one to get away with the kind of bullshit which would lead to speedy self-destruction in mathematics and the natural sciences.

Anonymous said...

@3:36/4:52/6:52

*yawn*

Anonymous said...

See Paul Grice's "Studies in the Way of Words," page 345: "This is pointedly illustrated by the famous story of the British mathematician G.H. Hardy, who in a lecture announced that a certain mathematical proposition was obvious, at which point one of his audience demurred and said that it was not obvious to him. Hardy then halted the lecture, paced outside the lecture room for a quarter of an hour, returned, and said 'It is obvious.'"

Anonymous said...

3:36/4:52/6:52,

Oh, my mistake. Now I understand fully. Troll.

Anonymous said...

As someone who knew Lewis and heard him present regularly, I don't believe the anecdote described by 3:36 for a second. Either it never happened or 3:36 didn't understand what Lewis was saying. He never argued that way, either in print or in person.

Anonymous said...

I'm with 1:07.

piler on said...

I also confirm what 1:07 is saying. I would have said it earlier but I didn't think the original anecdote deserved a response.

Anonymous said...

Lewis' counterpart actually kicks my counterpart's ass. But of course, I have a counterpart that kicks one of his too.

Word ver: broozing

Anonymous said...

As I see it, the reason for this widespread attitude is precisely the fact that philosophy allows one to get away with the kind of bullshit which would lead to speedy self-destruction in mathematics and the natural sciences.

Philosophy neither permits nor prohibits. It may be that some philosophers allow people to get away with that kind of bullshit; but, on those occasions, aren't they just being bad philosophers?

Anonymous said...

3:36/4:52/6:52: "My discipline's daddy can kick your discipline's daddy's ass. So there."

Me: [runs home sobbing]

Anonymous said...

>>>> As I see it, the reason for this widespread attitude is precisely the fact that philosophy allows one to get away with the kind of bullshit which would lead to speedy self-destruction in mathematics and the natural sciences.

>> It may be that some philosophers allow people to get away with that kind of bullshit; but, on those occasions, aren't they just being bad philosophers?

@4:52
I wish you were right. There are surely enough philosophers whose speculations are taken very seriously by scientists and mathematicians, at least those who bother with philosophy in the first place. (Putnam, Fodor, Earman, Batterman, Suppes come to mind, and there are others)
Alas, there are also plenty of big name philosophers who seem to be blissfully unaware of anything resembling a worldview informed by science and mathematics of the present. Hence we have such popular embarrassments as
"causal reducibilty of consciousness" (never made clear despite more than one book peddling this notion);

"supervenience of mental on the physical" (despite the trivial fact that classical PHYSICAL events/properties already do not supervene on the underlying quantum PHYSICAL events/properties)

"Science without numbers" (as if equations of gravitational interaction is all the mathematics one needs for a classical theory of gravity. Even a simply describable one-dimensional dynamical system may exhibit behaviors whose understanding requires the full resources of measure theory, ergodic theory, topology, information theory, and much more).
And the list can be continued for quite some time...

I'm sure it is easy to defend this kind of philosophy by dismissing the present(and some earlier comments) as those of a "troll". It is a lot harder to admit that philosophy's reputation among scientists and mathematicians is painfully low, and to give some serious thought (which is what philosophers are supposedly good at) to why this is so...

Euthyphronics said...

A lot of crap gets published in philosophy. I'll sign on to that. Does it publish more than its fair share? I don't know -- not being a mathematician or a scientist, I don't know the standards of the discipline, so I don't know the proportions of what counts as crap for that discipline that gets published.

But I do know that, whatever scientists think about the discipline (and whatever explains it), we shouldn't take it as evidence that we're not doing good work. When scientists foray into philosophical speculation, they tend to produce terrible material that we would send back to our undergraduates covered in red ink. There are exceptions. But witness Bohm's execrable Wholeness and the Implicate Order, or much of the incoherent doublespeak during the birth of quantum mechanics, or even the adjacent chapters in Hawking's popular The Universe in a Nutshell where he essentially (i) commits himself to scientific instrumentalism and then (ii) goes on to assert a bunch of anti-instrumentalist platitudes. If scientists can't in general produce good philosophy, it's hard to see why we should count them as competent judges of it.

Maybe the reason philosophy produces so much crap and scientitsts look down on it is that we're really all crap thinkers and should go teach high school. Or maybe philosophy is hard, but people who haven't really tried to do it systematically think it's easy.

Relatedly: 3:36/4:52/6:52 seems to think that Lewis's and Kripke's theorems not being of interest to mathematicians somehow undermines the interest of their work. This is to totally misconstrue why that work was interesting, though: Kripke's breakthrough wasn't the theorem itself, but the the observation that Kripke-style models could be used to interpret the several systems of modal logic developed by C. I. Lewis. Lewis's Counterfactuals breakthrough (shared by Stalnaker, of course) was the observation that a semantic analysis of counterfactuals (which stumped, well, everyone for decades before). The theorems were just tidying up loose ends. (And, while they might have been obvious to mathematicians, if Lewis hadn't shown the results plenty of philosophers would have complained about that, instead.)

Relatedly, 4:13 complains about Field's Science Without Numbers project because we need more than classical gravatation for science. Well, yeah --- which Field notes explicitly. The point of the book is to provide an essay on how we might go about with the project for more viable candidate theories, and to at least provide a prima facie case that the indispensability argument can be undercut --- not to completely undercut the argument by carrying out the project for a viable total scientific theory. Field is explicit about this; but readers who haven't paid careful attention to what he's up to are likely to miss the point.

What's the point? Just this: often people who think X, Y, or Z is crap in philosophy do so because they missed the real point of the work. I've noticed that "terminological dispute", as used by philosophers, is often coextensive with "dispute not carried out in my subdiscipline". We deal in subtle dialectical issues, and what's at stake isn't always obvious to outsiders. Arrogant outsiders conclude that's the dispute's/paper's/book's fault, rather than their own. It's even worse for people from outside of philosophy, who aren't used to the methods we're used to but who think they can do a better job because philosophy's easy.

Meno said...

Holy shit, Euthyphronics.
That comment is beloved by the gods, because it's so fucking pious.

Anonymous said...

@Euthypronics

It is not that much "crap" is published in philosophy. There is plenty of trivial and/or shoddy stuff published in the sciences, math and just about every other academic field. Rather, it is that huge reputations (up to immortality) are made in philosophy on the basis of speculations which show embarrassing lack of acquaintance with the relevant scientific and mathematical knowledge.

As for Field, it is not that there is more to science than gravity. The point was that there is a lot more MATHEMATICS that is required for classical gravity - in fact, the whole of mathematics.
Of course, if Field was sufficiently well acquainted with the subject matter of his philosophizing, he would see that the old and very well known representation theorems by Gelfand, Neimark and Riesz automatically guarantee dualities between QUANTITATIVE models in physics (C*-algebras, von Neumann algebras, etc. used as "quantity algebras") and QUALITATIVE state-space models (certain kinds of topological spaces uniquely determined by those algebras).

I think scientists and mathematicians always would take seriously philosophical speculations intersecting their areas of expertise so long as these speculations show acquaintance with the required technical knowledge in relevant fields. The fact that so much "big name" philosophy (from Kant and Hegel to Kim and Field) fails this responsibility is what irritates them (and rightly so, I think).

PA said...

Isn't the topic of this thread supposed to be the quality the quality of the Francis sentence, rather than David Lewis' mathematical acumen and its effect on the reputation of philosophers among mathematicians? Just asking.

Euthyphronics said...

8:09: How you construe what Field's left out isn't relevant; the point is that Field explicitly notes that he has not shown that mathematics is indispensable on grounds of the same general sort (much more needs to be demonstrated) as the ones you allude to.

Your second, Gelfand-et-al comment isn't to the point (twice over, but I'll ignore one side of it). Even if Field re-creates results that are "well-known" outside of philosophy, that's totally irrelevant to whether the philosophy done with those results is good or not. Philosophers frequently have to be jacks of many other trades to ply their wares. That they have not mastered these other trades is irrelevant, if they have competently managed the parts of those trades relevant to their questions. (This red herring sounds so much like 6:52's misfire that I suspect you're the same person.)

huge reputations (up to immortality) are made in philosophy on the basis of speculations which show embarrassing lack of acquaintance with the relevant scientific and mathematical knowledge

False. Even if Science Without Numbers had been hack work (and even if his reputation is "huge"), Field's reputation is based in large part on his groundbreaking work in semantics, philosophy of logic, and truth. (Similar remarks apply to Lewis, whose reputation is based not just on his possible worlds 'speculations', but on groundbreaking contributions to linguistics ("Generalized Semantics"), decision theory, semantics, and to other "huge" philosophers.) Huge reputations aren't built by single books or papers, but brick-by-brick; even if some philosophers have a shoddy brick here or there by "external" standards, I don't know any "immortal" ones with an entire edifice of this sort.

...so long as these speculations show acquaintance with the required technical knowledge in relevant fields.

The problem is scientists and mathematicians often aren't qualified to know which bits of technical knowledge are in fact required for the philosophical questions pursued, either because they don't understand the question in fact answered or don't understand subtle issues in the dialectic. (You, for instance, seem to have this problem, as you seem to think eg that Field's philosophical project is undermined if he fails to know that someone else did some of the technical work first.)

OK, ok, sorry everybody. I'll lay of troll feeding from here on out, I promise.

Anonymous said...

@3:26

And on my side I also apologize to everyone for so badly underestimating the extent to which philosophers are willing to confabulate a comforting picture of their profession.
I guess I was badly misled by Plato - that poor delusional soul - who inscribed "No one who does not know geometry shall enter here" above the entrance to the Academy (and presumably to Philosophy as a discipline)...

Mea culpa!

meno said...

Euthyphronics,

You're not just troll-feeding. I think it's important, in this kind of forum, for someone to call blowhards on their bullshit, especially when they name personal targets (not that Field or Lewis or Kim need are exactly vulnerable victims, but still).

By the way, many postmodern literary critics have a very low opinion of high-energy physics.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous asks: "It's nice that you "can assure" me that objections like this are plentiful. Maybe you could cite some such objections from the published work of Lewis, so that something besides your (no doubt indubitable) anecdotes could be used as evidence."

I've always found this passage rather remarkable:

"The reason we should reject this proposal [relevance logic] is simple. No truth does have, and no truth could have, a true negation. Nothing is, and nothing could be, literally both true and false. This we know for certain, and a priori, and without any exception for especially perplexing subject matters. The radical case for relevance should be dismissed just because the hypothesis it requires us to entertain is inconsistent.

This may seem dogmatic. And it is. I am affirming the very thesis that Routley and Priest have called into question and—contrary to the rules of debate—I decline to defend it."

(Lewis, D. “Logic for Equivocators,” Noûs p. 434.)

There's quite an interesting literature on the topic of paraconsistency/dialetheism; and Lewis' article is otherwise informative. Still, this is a pretty good example of a priori intuitions being wielded as some kind of apodictic data source.