Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Inventions: A Simple Question, With Complex Answers

Today, I went to a facinating and charming event. One part of the event involved a Gospel chior. I was incredibly impressed at the sheer volume of air moved by these chorestors. They were very good indeed.

In another part of the event, a gentleman did a presentation, based on a rather excellent story. The story was about a child called Alex and was entitled "Where Would We Be Without Black People???". The story is cute, in so much as it highlights all the things that we use everyday, that were originally invented by African-Americans.

When I was first looking for the text of this tale, it seemed to only be available in book form. I was only able to find the correct link when I adjusted the search terms. While I was trying to get the search correct, I was a little shocked to see the number of links that refered to racist jokes.

Before I managed to hit on the correct selection of search terms, I also ran across some quite interesting links about African-American inventors. A short list of inventors can be found here. A longer list can be found here, and a very long list can be found here.

All this was pretty cool, until I ran across the fifth link that Google pulled up. It was called "Black Invention Myths". My question is, why would anyone ever bother to put up such a page? For goodness sake!

The sad part about this silly page is that it is not really making a terribly original point. It is a well known phenomenon that the people who receive credit for certain inventions are frequently not really the people who are responsible for them. For instance, Edison is credited with developing the first light bulb. However, what people forget is that Edison had a small army of assistants who did a great deal of the leg work. Strangely enough, Edison is seldom given credit for the term 'Hello', which some say he sort of 'invented', or at least, he was the first person to use, at least with the e spelling, back in 1887.

Although Alexander Graham Bell is widely credited as the inventor of the telephone, this is not the entire story. One Antonio Meucci demonstrated his teletrofono in 1871. He even filed a caveat, a type of stopgap patent, that year. Unfortunately, he failed to send the $10, to keep this current. Thus, when Bell's patent was registered in 1876, he got the glory. [N.B. The facts on this matter are a little more complicated than I indicate here. Please see the comment by Donna, below. - The CP]

There are also questions of priority. For instance, both Newton and Leibniz invented calculus at roughly the same time. Who did it first? Nobody really knows.

The discovery of penicillin is another similarly complex story. North African tribes have made a healing ointment, from the mould found on animal harnesses for thousands of years. A French Physician, Ernest Duchesne, observed similar practices of Arab stable boys in 1987. He did detailed research on the mold and identified it as Penicillium glaucum. He sent the research to the Institut Pasteur, suggesting further study, but they did not even acknowledge reciept. Sir Alexander Fleming coined the term 'penicillin' in 1929, work for which he eventually was to recieve one third of a Noble Prize in 1945. Fleming shared the prize with Ernst Boris Chain and Sir Howard Walter Florey.

The main point here though is that invention is not a simple process. Thus, the question "Who invented X?" is almost always going to give rise to to a myriad of complex and often contentious answers, that are always going to be subject to doubt. A simple question, but with many complex answers.

The CP

Tuesday, January 30, 2007


Although I had no classes today, it was nonetheless busy. I had a meeting this evening of a local community group I am involved in. It always makes me wonder why some people do so little in their community. The group is diverse in all sorts of ways. We deal with some important stuff, but it is still fun. There is humour. We all care about our community. However, the group is not large. What I wonder is where is everyone else? I know that many people have odd work hours, or kids, but surely not everyone. What does everyone else do? Is the television really that good?

When I got home, the phone rang. It was one of my students. They recently learned that they had received a certain honor. They were overjoyed! However, today they got an e-mail telling them that they may not get their 'certain honor', due to a mix up over money (like there is none). The student was quite philosophical on the matter, but wanted to meet. We went and had coffee (although this eventually turned into beer). I am very upset for this student.

The person who is in charge of the relevant program is a person I have worked with before. They are completely trustworthy and they are trying to do what they can to 'sort' the situation. As best I can tell, the problem comes from some bean counter not being able to do their sums. It is still pretty nasty and a big let down though.

Although a certain incompetence is a well known feature in certain parts of my University, this event makes me wonder. Bad professors are one thing. Students can often take a different class, but on something like this, there are no options. What kind of fool would allow a student, with few advantages in life, believe that they have won a 'certain honor' and then rescind it? It is almost as if Santa Clause delivered the presents at Christmas, but stamped on them, before departing on the sleigh. Has anyone seen anything similar?

The CP

Monday, January 29, 2007


A booming voice commanded,

"Aiaru was consulted, as was Belatucadros. Apate and Shakpana were discovered to be ruling. Thus, Ru-Shoa was diagnosed as lord of the sentence. With Moetezuma watching over the patient, Ao-Pour was invoked and Abiku was invited for a change of fare. The petitioner is granted a Pi-Disk and commended to the care of Guan-Yin and San-Guan. So mote it be!"

Well, it is one way do deal with a bad day! ;)

The CP

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Ronald McNair, Ph.D.

Today is the anniversary of the Challenger disaster. One of the astronauts on that craft was Ronald McNair, Ph.D.

McNair had a Ph.D. in physics and was a specialist on the mission. Although McNair probably received less press attention after the disaster than other crew members, he inspired an incredible legacy. This is the Federal McNair Program. In brief, this program is designed to help students who come families who have not had previous college experience excel and get into graduate programs (the goals are actually more complex and lofty than this -- check out the link).

I have had one McNair scholar, the son of a truck driver. An excellent fellow, who is doing well. I recently had a second one accepted into the program. I have high hopes for him too. Other people should also check out whether they have eligible students.

The program provides to the student a stipend, support for all sorts of academic necessities, like books, even travel funding. It also provides amazing support for the graduate school application process. For the faculty member, there is a small amount of money, in exchange for helping a deserving student with completing their undergraduate work, completing a research project and preparing for grad school. I strongly recommend this program.

Thus, Ronald McNair has inspired something that it little short of incredible. Had such a program existed when I entered college, I would have been eligible. I was fortunate to have wonderfully supportive professors. Students of today no longer have to trust to luck.

The program that is named after Ronald McNair is a wonderful, important and powerful legacy, that makes the academic world a much better place. It provides the resources and the support to enpower the bright, but less advantaged. Without such a program, good minds would be lost to the academic world, due to economic necessities. So, rest in peace Dr. McNair, and thank you!

The CP

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Silly Stuff

I received an e-mail today from a friend recommending a visit to the web site As this an individual who can be trusted, I checked out the link. I recommend that you do too. The site has a faux television commercial for an ersatz collection of Cd's entitled "Folks Songs of The Far Right Wing". I thought that it was pretty funny. I hope you do.

While on the subject of silly net stuff, I ran across a very funny faux MasterCard advertisement recently also. It can be found on at Warning! This video contains adult dialogue.

The CP

Better Reasoning IV: Valid Argument Forms I

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[N.B. To quickly link to all the posts in this series, use the URL ''.]

In the last post in this series, the slightly technical concepts of the validity and soundness of deductive arguments were introduced. Although these ideas may initially appear a little abstract, they turn out to be extremely useful.

It turns out that it is possible to determine the validity of some arguments, merely in virtue of their 'form'. By 'form' here is meant roughly the arrangement of various components of the argument and their relations with respect to certain words which perform special logical functions. Here I will introduce a method for representing these forms in a manner that makes their structure explicit. I will then illustrate the use of this method, with some examples.

It turns out that certain words have a rather precise and predictable effect upon the sentences over which they operate. An important subset of these word are so-called 'logical connectives'. Although a detailed discussion of the connectives will be put to one side for now, we can get a rough and ready idea about logical connectives, by considering the logical role played by the word 'not', in a sentence. 'Not' is one of the more familiar logical connectives.

Suppose we have a sentence like "The cat is on the mat". This sentence will be true in cases when the proverbial cat is indeed on the mat. However, if we add the word 'not' to the sentence, thereby transforming it to "The cat is not on the mat", should the sentence have been true previously, it would now be false. Conversely, had the sentence previously been false (say, due to cat sitting nowhere near the mat), then the reformulation would make the sentence true. This demonstrates how the effect of adding 'not' to a sentence has a fairly obvious and predictable effect upon the truth of the sentence.

Now, by this point, you might be wondering why it is worth bothering to consider such a blindingly obvious example. One reason it is useful to consider this example is because it offers an intuitive method to introduce a rather useful little technical 'trick', known as 'symbolization'.

The first thing to notice about the sentence "The cat is on not the mat" is that it is exactly the same, in terms of it's truth and falsehood conditions, as the sentence "It is not the case that the cat is on the mat." Now, if we suppose that we will let the letter 'S' stand for the entire sentence "The cat is on the mat", then we can rewrite the sentence, after we have added the not (in the second formulation) as simply 'Not S'.

At first, this move might look kind of silly and trivial, however it is not. It makes it possible to state abstract truths about whole classes of sentences. This is because we could change the interpretation of S to something completely different, for example, "Summer is a coming in." and the logical facts would still remain the same. Consider the following abstract logical claim,

"Whenever a sentence 'S' is true, the sentence 'Not S' will be false, and when a sentence 'S' is false, the sentence 'Not S' will be true."

Notice how this claim remains true, regardless whether 'S' is interpreted as being "The cat is on the mat", or as being "Summer is a coming in." This trick makes it possible to make abstract statements about entire patterns of arguments. Moreover, this trick provides us with a handy shorthand with which we can identify valid patterns of inference.

Before proceeding any further, a few more words about this process of symbolization are in order. Traditionally, philosophers use the letters P, Q and sometimes R, when identifying patterns of inference. I have never seen an explanation for why this is the case, but it is useful to know the convention, so that other sources will be compatible with what is said here. I will follow this convention here. The second point to note is that these letters stand for entire propositions. That is to say, things that can be said as complete statements.

Now, we are ready to start looking at some simple patterns of valid inference. Let us begin by considering the way another special logical word functions, the word 'and'. Let us suppose that we happen to know that the sentence "Peas contain chlorophyll" is true (as I believe it to be), and we will also symbolize it with the letter 'P'. Let us also suppose that we also know that the sentence "Tonic water contains quinine" is true (as, again it is), and symbolize it with the letter 'Q'. Under these circumstances, we could validly infer "Peas contain chlorophyll and tonic water contains quinine.", or in symbolic form 'P and Q'. We can express this inference a little more clearly, if we put each premise in symbolic form on a separate line. Doing this results in the inference looking like this,

P and Q

This is a valid inference, no matter what sentences are substituted for the letters P and Q. This inference is sometime called 'conjunction'.

On the face of it, this may seem a little bit on the trivial side. However, we can imagine an investigator looking into the cause of an odd chemical reaction hypothesising that the reaction had been caused be the interaction between chlorophyll, quinine. Under such circumstances this inference might be made to show that both compounds were present in some mixture containing both peas and tonic water.

It turns out that this inference also works 'the other way'. That is to say that the two inferences,

P and Q

P and Q

are both also valid. Inferences of this kind are called 'simplification inferences'. The really neat thing here (as with the previous case), is that the propositions we substitute for 'P' and 'Q' have no influence on the validity of the inference. To demonstrate this with a slightly silly example, the inference 'bong bongo and pielie pielie, thus bongo bongo', is also valid!

In this post, we have been introduced to a method of representing inferences in a manner which makes making statements about whole classes of inferences relatively easy. We have also seen two examples of valid argument forms concerning the word 'and'. In the next posting in this series, we will look at some further examples of valid argument forms.

The CP

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Philosophical Misadventures

Today, on a philosophy mailing list I am subscribed to, someone raised a question about 'Philosophical Misadventures'. This is the term the poster used for "questionable statements by prominent philosophers". The poster also included some of his favorite howlers. Other list members then chimed in with their various favorites.

As some of these are quite silly, I thought I would share them with folks here. It is unfortunate that some of these comments also show some severe signs of both racism and sexism. I have arranged the comments in an approximately historical order. The original posts can be found here. This posts are in item 169 (so scroll down).

* Socrates believed that because he had bulgy eyes, and an up-turned nose (he was reportedly extraordinarily ugly), that he was able to see and smell better than others could.

* Aristotle thought women had less teeth than men and that males were conceived in a strong north wind; believed the heart was the centre of life and considered the brain merely a cooling organ for the blood. It also seemed to Aristotle that the heavier an object was, the more eagerly it would strive to achieve its proper place since the heaviness was the manifestation of its eagerness to return.

* Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali argued in The Incoherence of the Philosophers against the very idea of laws of nature, on the ground that any such laws would put God’s hands in chains. According to al-Ghazzali, a piece of cotton placed in a flame does not darken and smoulder because of the heat, but because God wants it to darken and smoulder.

* Rousseau thought fantasizing about someone was something akin to raping them (it did something like rape their concept).

* Kant thought children born out of wedlock were parasites on the state, effectively 'untermench', not subject to normal moral considerations. He considered masturbation was worse than rape. He also thought sex for anything other than procreation was immoral.

* Kant also claimed in the Critique of Pure Reason that Logic was pretty much a complete science. In the following century Boole, Peirce and especially Frege proved him wrong.

* Hegel thought Africa has no history.

* Wittgenstein, in On Certainty, sec. 286, remarked, "We all believe that it isn't possible to get to the moon; but there might be people who believe that it is possible and that it sometimes happens. We say: these people do not know a lot that we know. And, let them be never so sure of their belief--they are wrong and we know

* Sartre on believed that pleasure has nothing to do with sex.

There are a number of other philosophical howlers, that I am aware of. I will save them for another occasion. Assuming that the claims made above are correct, then it seems Seneca was entirely correct, when he famously observed that, "There is no thought so strange, that it has not been held by a philosopher at some time."

The CP

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Course Policies

The other day, I discovered that I am a sinner! It turns out, when they updated our Faculty Handbook, they slyly slipped in some new provisions, that my usually extremely beady eye missed. We are now required to have explicit course policies, in writing, on various topics. This is a pain. I now have to find a way of writing up, in language that is too legalistic for the students to manipulate, what I used to just say.

One of the topics we now need an explicit policy on is Class Attendance. I used to just say,

"This is a lecture class, based upon quite difficult materials, which you are required to read. If you miss a class and do not get your hands on a good set of notes, then you will not understand the topic under discussion. As we are using original texts, just reading the book will be of limited help. You will not be able to work out what is important and why, on your own. So, if you miss too many classes, then you will probably fail this class."

How does one write up such a rant, in legalise? Also, although we are required to keep a list of who attends class, I really do not care. The exams and the final paper almost always suffice to sort the 'goats' from the 'sheep'. I bet I'd get killed if I said anything like that in writing on an official document for students though.

Having to have a policy on Class Attendance brings up the additional (and entirely unnecessary, in my view) topic of excused verse unexcused absences. There are always a few kids who are on the University Tiddly Winks team (or some such) who have to miss a few classes, due to away matches. Provided they stay up to date with their readings and get hold of a good set of notes, then that is fine by me. These students are usually polite enough to let me know what is going on, which is cool.

Similarly, there are usually a few students who miss a few classes for entirely mysterious reasons (although hangovers could be responsible for some cases). Again, if they do not miss too many and get caught up, why should I care? Now, I have to describe all this in excruciating detail.

The thing that most upsets me though, is that I can no longer use my favorite line that,

"...the Federal Government seems to think that we faculty members should act like their surrogate baby sitters. We are not. You are all adults. You decide. However, it is a good plan not to miss class, unless there is a good reason."

OK, I should probably quit grousing and get down to writing up respectful prose, filled with crap about 'the community of learners', 'learning outcomes' and all that other stuff that the folks in suits love so much. Bah!

What really terrifies me though is that I also have to come up with a detailed description of my grading system. This is going to be an extra special nightmare. Should I tell the students about all the steps I take to make sure that I have not messed up the sums? Should I explain all the descriptive statistics I do, to make sure that an especially fiendish midterm does not disadvantage them, as compared to the students last year? Should I give up my quality control system, or just lie about it? This is a real quandary. Suggestions would be welcome.

The CP

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Semantics Of 'Surge'

It was sad to hear nothing about New Orleans, or the areas of the Gulf coast that were devastated in the storms of 2005, in the State of the Union Speech last night. It seems that we really have been forgotten by Washington. However, there were plenty of references to the idiotic 'Surge' that has been proposed for Iraq. This got me wondering about the term 'surge', itself. In this context, it appears to be such a wonderful euphemism.

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the term has it's origins in old French, and entered the English language in 1490 when Caxton made a reference to "...a sourge of blacke bloode...". Given the use of the term in the current situation, the very early connection between 'surge' and blood is most ironic.

The OED describes the current use of the term 'surge' as being mostly figurative. It says of this use, that it should be understood as being,

" reference to feelings, influences, actions, events, etc.: Impetuous onset or agitated movement. Also, a rapid increase in price, activity, etc., esp. over a short period."

This use entered the English language in 1520, when Whitinton remarked of someone that "He is moost moderate and studyous to auoyde surges of his passyon." This too appears to have ironic overtones in the modern context, given that the War in Iraq is clearly a 'passyon' of the moron in the White house, and almost nobody else.

These historical facts should not get in the way of linguistic progress though. As Wittgenstein famously remarked, "The meaning of a word is it's use in the language". As the Comedian-in-Chief and his lackeys have now brought this use of the term into our language, it seems appropriate to see what wonderful new uses can be made of it.

On the face of it, this appears to be a useful linguistic innovation. For example, the Freshman Fifteen, can now be renamed the 'Freshman surge', presumably to the relief of senior high school students and health care professionals around the country.

It is doubtful whether the increasingly obvious effects of global warming happen quickly enough, to count as a less distressing 'climatic surge'. On this matter, we will have to wait and see. However, the fact that this term is not quite appropriate in this context, is not actually a bad thing. We can reserve the phrase 'climatic surge' for use when we see those scary things people used to call 'hurricanes'.

Another use of the term 'surge' suggests itself in the financial world. The cost of the war in Iraq can now be phrased in terms of a 'fiscal surge', rather than the more worrying sounding 'rapidly and massively increasing budget deficit'. The phrase 'fiscal surge' makes me feel calmer already.

Indeed, if we permit the further linguistic innovation of admitting the phrase 'anti-surge' into the lexicon, then the possibilities appear almost limitless. 'Life signs anti-surge' is presumably what will happen to certain unfortunate soldiers, in Iraq. Similarly, an 'income anti-surge' sounds much more soothing than the old fashioned 'bankruptcy', that many middle class families are increasingly facing, due to the 'surge' in health care costs.

Of course, we could always just abandon such novel linguistic tinkering. Instead, we could try and do something sane about the troubles that the country currently faces. However, where would be the fun in that?

The CP

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

On Wrecking

A curious item in the news today caught my attention. Apparently a ship, The MSC Napoli, recently got in to trouble just off the South coast of England, near the town of Branscombe, in the county of Devon. Shipwrecks are always a sad thing.

This shipwreck has given rise to a large amount of very public wrecking, as parts of the cargo have been washed up on the beach. Unfortunately, this is the not wild romantic (although somewhat sinister) wrecking found in Daphne Du Maurier's Jamaica Inn. This is wrecking of the contents of a modern container ship. It seems that the favorite booty, rather than being French brandy, in the case is BMW Gear boxes!

The reason this news item cause me some interest was that last year, I happened into a circumstance which made me investigate some questions about the practice of wrecking. In doing this, I discovered that wrecks are one of those topics that are handled in a most bizarre manner, under British law.

Wrecks fall under the responsibility of the British Maritime and Coastguard Agency. In fact, they are the sole responsibility of an official who revels in the title of the 'Receiver of Wrecks'. When I was looking into this matter, this was a person called Sophia Exelby. The reason for mentioning this is that, should any of the modern day wreckers wish to do the decent thing, then they should report what they found to her.

If I underestand British law correctly (and remember, I am not a lawyer), then there is an obligation on the wreckers to report their booty to the Receiver of Wrecks. Failure to do this could result in a two and a half thousand pound fine (around $5,000) and various other legal sanctions. After wrecked booty has remained unclaimed for a year and a day, after it has been reported, then the wrecker gets to keep the booty.

Now, on the face of it, this might sound like quite a sensible arrangement. 'Finders keepers' and all that. I would seem so, were it not for another slight oddity under the relevant legislation. Apparently, there is no time limit on when wrecked goods must be reported by! Thus, should the Customs Agents come asking questions about a case of French brandy, or your BMW gearbox, all an individual has to do is claim that they were just about to file their report, although they had not quite managed to get around to it. This same excuse could in theory work even ten years after the fact.

This oddity of the law probably explains why there have been no prosecutions for wrecking in the recent past. It also suggests that all those new 'owners' of BMW gear boxes will probably get away with it. However, what I find particularly appealing is the interaction of rather archaic and anomolous laws, with modern multi-national commerce and container ships. For some reason, there is something rather old worldly and nostaligic about it.

Monday, January 22, 2007

A Curious Poem

The other day, I ran across a rather unusual poem. The poem was written by John Denton, who was a member of the ill-fated Donner Party. It was found on the leaf of a memorandum book that was discovered by Denton's body, by the second relief party. Denton had attempted to make it out of the deadly valley, but was too exhausted to make it. Interestingly, Denton may have been the first person to find gold in that area, although nobody knows for sure. Denton was originally from Sheffield, England and was about 28 years old, when he died.

Apparently, there is a copy of the poem in the State Library in Sacramento in The California Star of 1847. It was also apparently published by one Judge Thornton, in 1849. However, I do not have a more precise reference. As this poem does not sound the kind of thing that would normally make it into the Norton Anthology, I thought that I would bring it to people's attention by posting it here. N.B. The age of the poem ensures that it should not be encumbered by copyright, anymore. The poem has no title.

"Oh! after many roving years,
How sweet it is to come
Back to the dwelling-place of youth,
Our first and dearest home;
To turn away our wearied eyes
From Proud ambition's towers,
And wander in those summers fields,
The scenes of boyhood's hours.

"But I am changed since last I gazed
Upon that tranquil scene,
And sat beneath the old witch elm
That shades the village green;
And watched my boat upon the brook--
It was a regal gallery--
And sighed not for a joy on earth,
Beyond the happy valley.

"I wish I could once more recall
That bright and blissful joy,
And summon to my weary heart
The feelings of a boy.
But now on scenes of past delight
I look, and feel no pleasure,
As misers on the bed of death
Gaze coldly on their treasure."

--John Denton

The CP

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Better Reasoning III: Good Verses Bad Deductive Arguments

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In the previous post in this series, it was mentioned that deductive arguments, provided they meet certain standards, have the advantage of having their conclusions follow necessarily from their premises. Thus, they are a particularly powerful type of argument. At this point though we need to know a bit more about what makes a deductive argument a 'good' one.

When we are presented with an argument, we need to figure out a way of determining whether or not we should be persuaded by it. Most people have some instinctive capacities for doing this. However, it would be nice to have a methodology that was a little bit more robust and precise.

When people are presented with arguments, one of the strategies they may use to assess them is what is sometimes called the 'Yum-Yum, Yuck-Yuck' approach. That is to say, people try and determine the extent to which the conclusion of the argument agrees with their pre-existing beliefs on the subject. If the conclusion is in agreement with their beliefs, then the argument is accepted (i.e. 'Yum-Yum'). If the conclusion of the argument is at odds with their pre-existing beliefs, then the argument is rejected (i.e. 'Yuck-Yuck').

There is also a slightly more sophisticated version of this strategy, in which, if the argument is not consistent with pre-existing beliefs, then one of the premises of the argument is rejected, or attacked.

One drawback of this approach to argument assessment is that it means that it will be difficult for a person to be persuaded to change their views on a matter, even if their views are seriously defective. Fortunately, there is a better, more sophisticated way of assessing deductive arguments.

In order for an argument to be a 'good' one, two thing really need to happen. First, it must be the case that the conclusion actually follows from the premises. Second, the premises should be true (or at least, reasonable). Being aware that there are in fact two things in play when assessing an argument, is actually quite an important insight.

It is now time to introduce a two-stage process for assessing deductive arguments. In order to do this, it is necessary to introduce two slightly technical concepts, 'validity' and 'soundness'. Let begin by looking at the formal definitions of the two concepts:

An argument is Valid if and only if, it is not possible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false.

An argument is Sound if and only if, it is valid and has true premises.

Sound deductive arguments are the 'good' ones. When an argument is sound, that is the situation in which the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises.

The fact that the validity of the argument is a condition that needs to be satisfied in order for the argument to be sound, suggests that validity should always be considered before soundness. After all, if an argument is non-valid, the truth or falsity of the premises are simply irrelevant. The argument is simply not a good one. However, this insight rather turns intuitive argument assessment approaches on their head.

The notion of validity also deserves a little discussion. One the things that people find a little bit odd about it is that, as the definition is phrased, the actual truth or falsity of the premises is irrelevant to an argument's validity. This is because the soundness phase takes care of this issue. Validity only concerns the relationship between the premises and the conclusion, irrespective of the truth, or falsity of the premises.

This approach to assessing deductive arguments has one or two surprising consequences. For example, the following argument is valid (though not sound),

If the Moon is made of green cheese, then the New Orleans Saints will win the Superbowl. The Moon is made of green cheese. Thus, the New Orleans Saints will win the Superbowl.

The reason this argument is valid will be discussed in the next post in this series (to anticipate, it is an instance of a Modus Ponens inference). However, it is pretty clear that the argument is not sound, given that there does not seem to be any real connection between the composition of a celestial body and the performance of a professional sports team.

Another curious consequence of the definition of validity is that any argument with contradictory premises, will be valid! Consider the following argument, to see why this is the case.

All snails are slimy. Some snail is not slimy. Thus, The President of the United States is a Walrus!

The fact that it can never be possible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false (as the premises can never be true at the same time), it follows that the argument is valid (though not sound). This slightly curious phenomenon is sometimes called 'The explosiveness of contradictions'. The argument would remain valid, whatever the conclusion drawn. We could replace the conclusion above, for example, by 'The nothingness negates itself' and the argument's validity would remain unchanged. This is one of the reason why contradictions are seen as being so problematic in philosophy.

It turns out that, although the notion of validity is a bit odd, it is a very useful tool which can be used to detect entire classes of argument that are always going to be valid, or invalid, irrespective of what the arguments are about. These will be the topic of the next posting in this series, along with a further exploration of the notion of validity.

The CP

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Beyond Basic Human Kindness

I have a friend who has few liberties. He is in jail. On Death Row, in fact. This means that he has a very minimal access to any resources.

A few days ago, I sent him a letter. In the letter, I recounted the details of my recent trip. I also recounted the details of the death of Scooter, my now ex-cat (he is now buried in the garden and when the weather warms up, I will plant a bush over him). Today, I received a mourning card from my friend. Although I have had many kind words, both here (thank you to you all) and in person, this is the only card I have received. I fully understand that sympathy cards for dead cats are far from traditional. It amazes me that someone with access to so few resources would make such an effort. It really renews my faith in human nature. This is a gesture that goes far beyond 'basic human kindness'. It is very meaningful to me. It also demonstrates the deep stupidity of, and why I have profound opposition to, the death penalty.

The CP

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Children In The Academy

So, I am afraid that it is a bit of almost Vogon Poetry for today. Sorry.

Mondays child falls asleep in meetings.
Tuesdays child has classes full of cheating.
Wednesdays child has their tenure file due.
Thursdays child believes they are a kangaroo.
Fridays child got tenure, hardly publishing a thing.
Saturdays child in on sabbatical (again), in Beijing.
But the child that is born a real faculty member,
publishes too many papers for anyone to remember!

It seems that the lit types like to post poems on a Friday. For fun (sorry again), I thought that I would briefly join this movement. If you want to see good modern poetry, I would strongly recommend John Cooper Clark. He is my favorite living poet. He is both funny and acerbic. Enjoy.
The CP

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Sense, Common Sense and Philosophy

If we uncritically accept 'common sense', then in all likelihood, we think that we have five senses. These five senses, as everyone knows, are sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. People seldom ask either why we believe this, or whether it is in fact correct.

It turns out the reason that we believe that we have five senses, is because Aristotle said that this was the number we have. Aristotle, especially back during the late Medieval period was taken to be an authority on many things. This is how the belief about the number of senses became 'common sense'.

Although widely seen as an authority in the past, there are quite a few things that Aristotle got rather badly wrong. For instance, he thought that we did our thinking with our heart and that the brain was just some kind of radiator! Aristotle's claim about the number of the senses is actually incorrect also.

Consider first our 'sense of balance' (notice how we even customarily call this a 'sense'). Which of the supposed five senses is responsible for this? None of them! Now it turns out that this sense, more properly called 'equilibrioception', is located in the cavities in the inner ear. Some might think that this makes it a subspecies of hearing, but that is just wrong.

Another non-traditional sense is 'nociception'. This is the perception of pain in our skin, joints and bodily organs. Once again, when you have, say a stomach ache, which of the traditional senses could it be attributed to? Again, a little reflection will reveal that none of the traditional senses quite fit the bill.

A third less well-known sense is 'thermoperception'. This is the fancy name for the perception of heat. As before, none of the traditional senses quite give us the right kind of information, although some think that this may be a special facility of the sense of touch.

The point here is that if you are persuaded by even one of these examples, then it follows that the common sense belief that we have five senses is incorrect. If you are still not persuaded, then the final 'extra sense' is 'proprioception', or body awareness. If we notice carefully, we are aware of where our body parts are located. Even if you wriggle your foot, beneath a table, where you cannot see it, you know it's orientation, when you are done.

So, our common sense belief that we have five senses is incorrect. From the examples above, it is at least plausible to claim that we have nine (we could have more!). Our belief about our number of senses comes about, due to a mistake by Aristotle.

This is one of the nice things about philosophy. Even though philosophers make mistakes from time to time, a bit of careful philosophical reflection can help us discover these errors and get things right in the end.

The CP

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A Round Up of Things...

No blogging yesterday. I went to a very interesting meeting last night. The meeting did not end until late. The topic of the meeting concerned an individual who has political ambitions and a serious chance of getting elected. The discussion was very interesting indeed. I learned a great deal about Louisiana politics. It seems that my views and skills were considered an asset by the group.

One thing I realised late on in the meeting is that I was the only white person who had been invited (I am not too good at detecting people's race). I feel very honoured. It seems that my activities supporting my neighbours have not gone unnoticed. I got to meet a very interesting, bright and fun bunch of people. My favorite line of the evening (amongst many excellent ones) was "The only color today is green!" I wish some of the bloggers who rant and rave on the topic of race had such sensible views.

Our classes start this week, after the break. I taught my first class today. It was almost nice to be 'back in the saddle' after all the travel. What made things especially fun was the fact that a number of the students, I have taught before. They are all quite good. Although many bloggers like to complain about their students, many seldom remember to mention the nice, good, hard working students that usually out number the immature fools. Keeping this in mind would probably improve people's moods.

To be quite frank, I am getting a bit sick of folks complaining. If you do not like your job, do something else! There are many grad students who have been on the job market recently and are hoping to hear from places that they have interviewed with, who would kill to be in such a position to complain! Talk of
'oppression', 'energy sapping environments' and all the other silly complaints are just that: silly.

The week before classes started, it was interesting to see that it was the productive faculty members (i.e. those who publish) who were in our building. Most of them seemed reasonably chipper and would joke about the beginning of classes. Now the others have returned too, and suddenly the corridors are full of complainers again. I wonder what these people did over the break?

On the topic of University matters, I was very upset to hear about the horrific events at Mustansiriya University, in Baghdad. I do not have much sympathy for murderers, or killers of any kind (and this includes the Marine Corps.). However, it seems to me that there is something especially barbaric about such attacks at an institution of higher learning. I was also appalled at the kidnappings that happened at Baghdad University, last November. Yesterday's news was yet another outrage.

No matter what the politicians are claiming, unless I am mistaken, this sort of thing did not happen in Iraq before the US invaded. This seems like an unequivocal case of a bad result.

Finally, I received e-mail from a student of mine who recently got married. Sometime ago, he was nice enough to invite me to his wedding. I was very honored to attend and it was a lot of fun. He went to a place with a tropical beach for his honeymoon. He attached a very amusing picture to his e-mail, of himself drinking 'something' out of a coconut, with a hat on, whilst sitting on a lovely beach. He looked very relaxed and happy. I like to see my students looking this way. I wish that those poor dead Iraqi students could have been so lucky.

The CP

Monday, January 15, 2007

Who Will Ask Today?

On the 17th of May 1957, in an address to the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, Martin Luther King said,

"...we come to Washington today pleading with the president and members of Congress to provide a strong, moral, and courageous leadership for a situation that cannot permanently be evaded....The hour is late. The clock of destiny is ticking out. We must act now, before it is too late." [Full text]

Although Dr. King was talking about civil rights then, if he were speaking today, he might say the same thing about the current situation in Iraq. King's views on the Vietnam war are well known, although over quoted [Text and audio here]. However, we can infer that it is likely that he would have opposed the war in Iraq.

Opposition to war is not the only important issue here though. Although the civil rights situation in the U.S. has improved, it is still far from perfect. There is currently also another malaise.

Recruiters for the military often target lower income neighborhoods, as being their most fertile recruiting grounds. In a way, this makes sense, given their goals. Kids from affluent neighborhoods are less likely to need jobs, or money for college. However, a consequence of this is that it is the poor kids, of all races, who get to do most of the dying in the war.

The questions for today though are, who will stand up for these people? Who has the oratory and the leadership skills to ask for sanity, and be heard, on the topic of the Iraq war? Who will oppose the madness of Whitehouse policy? Who will stand up for the people who are paying the price for the war, with their bodies and lives? Why is there no such leader today?

As we wait for a leader, it is fitting that we remember Dr. Martin Luther King. Were he alive today, there is little doubt that he would have taken up, and been effective, in such a leadership role. Who today can lead us out of this mad war?

The CP

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Better Reasoning II: Types of Arguments

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Language is one of mankind's greatest inventions. We can use language to make statements, issue commands, ask questions, offer explanations, make jokes and do a host of other things. Making arguments is only one, relatively specialised use of language, albeit a rather important one.

It is useful to be aware that there are various kinds of arguments. The different kinds of arguments each have their own special kinds of uses, strengths and weaknesses. They also need to be handled rather differently from one another. However, before looking at the kinds of arguments, a few brief words about explanations are in order.

Explanations are very similar to arguments and can easily be confused with them. The basic difference between arguments and explanations is that arguments are offered to attempt to make someone believe that something is the case, namely the conclusion. By contrast, explanations presume what they are explaining and instead provide reasons why or how it is the case. There are roughly three main kinds of explanations.

Explanations by purpose fit phenomena into a recognizable pattern, or a human purpose. For example, we may explain why we read blogs by appealing to an interest in the thoughts of others.

Explanations by meaning amplify the meanings of particular words or phrases. So, for example, someone might explain that mentations are unseeable, because they are mental actions and, generally speaking, mental things are not visible.

Finally, causal explanations offer an understanding of how and why things came to be a particular way. These are the most common kind of explanation. For example, we might explain a car crash by appealing to the fact that the driver was speeding.

Explanations can be good, or bad. A further discussion of good and bad explanations will be reserved for a later post. The important point here though is that explanations should not be confused with arguments.

Probably the most interesting and powerful kind of argument is the so-called 'Deductive Argument'. With this kind of argument, provided that the premises are true and the argument is 'good' (in a special way that will be discussed later), then the conclusions follows, with necessity. Indeed, if everything is in order with the premises and the structure of the argument, then we can be completely certain about the correctness of the conclusion. A classic deductive argument, and a 'good' one at that, is

"All whales are mammals, all mammals breath air, therefore all whales breath air."

One of the limitations of deductive arguments is that they do not provide evidence beyond what is contained in their premises. Sometimes, we need to make other kinds of inference. One of the most useful kinds of inference is made using 'Inductive Arguments'. When we make inductive inferences, we consider a number of cases of something and make an inference about future cases. This type of inference is very common in scientific reasoning. Inductive inferences are weaker than deductive inferences, as their conclusions are only probable. However, they do let us make inferences that go beyond the evidence directly presented in the premises. A classic example of an inductive argument would be

"Every crow I have ever seen has been black, so probably all crows are black."

Notice how in this case, coming across and albino crow should not be as big a surprise as it would be to come across a non-air breathing whale, in the previous example.

The final kind of argument that will be considered here will be Arguments by analogy. Sometimes it is helpful to reason about something we do not know too much about, on the basis of something else, which we are much better acquainted with. It is in circumstances such as this that we deploy arguments by analogy. As with inductive arguments, this types of reasoning only leads us to probable, or likely conclusions. An example of an argument by analogy might be

"In my car, the lever on the left operates the signal lights, hence it is likely that the left lever will operate the signals in this hire car.".

The different kinds of arguments are worth knowing about, as the way they need to be assessed varies. They are also subject to different kinds of things that can go wrong with them. These will be examined later in this series of posts. To begin with though, I will spend a little time focusing almost exclusively on deductive arguments, as these are amongst the most powerful and potentially useful.

In closing, it is also worth mentioning that the various language uses mentioned earlier can often appear mixed together in particular utterances, or passages of prose. This is why it is worth spending a little time figuring out how to distill out the actual argumentative portions, so that they can be assessed independently of the other linguistic, or declarative acts, that would otherwise be distractions. This process will be looked at presently.

The CP

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Saturday, January 13, 2007

On Dumbing Down

One of the pressures faculty sometimes get subject to, is to 'dumb down' the content of their courses. This pressure frequently comes from the less able students, when they complain that a particular course is 'too hard'. However, such pressures can also come from administrators and other faculty, if there is a perceived difference in standards between different course sections. Here this issue will be addressed, in the light of my own expereience. Hopefully, it will be instructive to others.

A few years ago, I taught a basic course on reasoning. Indeed, the series of posts here on this topic are, to some degree, based upon this course. It was not an especially easy course, as it required the students to develop particular skills. This particular course was required of our majors (although there was an alternative) and by a couple of other programs.

A number of other faculty also taught sections of this course. They were of the opinion that my section was too demanding. Thus, I came under pressure to 'dumb down' my section. I spent a whole Summer wrestling with this issue. What was especially problematic was that I could not think of a way of making the course less demanding, without leaving the students with serious gaps in their skill sets. Eventually, I decided to keep my course the same and run the risk of having poor enrollments, as students opted for easier sections.

This choice actually had the slightly opposite effect. My enrollments went up, to the point where people were begging to get into my section, while the other sections still had plenty of space in them. I also noticed that the quality of the students and their performance significantly improved.

I was a little puzzled by this, as it was exactly the opposite effect to what I expected and ran contrary to the dire warnings of other faculty members. When I ask the students about this, they explained what had happened to me.

They knew that my section was difficult and demanding, but they also knew that this meant that they got the very best training. Thus, what had happened as a result of my policy decision is that I had succeeded in attracting the very brightest and most motivated students! Needless to say, I was very happy with this outcome!

I no longer teach this course on a regular basis. However, every time I do teach it, the class is packed. This I think is a powerful reason why faculty should resist the pressure to 'dumb down'.

There is one final irony that arose in the context of this class. I once had a student come and visit me in my office, during the Summer, to thank me for teaching them this class. At first, I was a little bemused, as my recollection was that the particular student had actually failed the class. When I asked about this, they confirmed that yes, they had failed. However, despite this, they still maintained that it was the most useful class they ever took during their time in college. This just goes to show that one can never tell!

The CP

Thursday, January 11, 2007

'Scooter The Beast': An Obituary

When the cat who was known as Scooter first joined this household, he went by the name of 'Norbert', a horrific name. We first met when he was in an animal shelter. He was picked for his friendly disposition. At first, he was renamed 'Neuter', after his operation. However, rapidly people began to know him as 'Neuter Scooter', due to his propensity to charge around the place at high speed. Eventually, the 'Scooter' part of the name became the one most commonly used. Then, as he grew in size, he began to be known a 'Scooter the Beast'.

Scooter's age was a little uncertain. His official records had his age at around fifteen years, but this was really a guess. When he first arrived he shared his life with a cat called 'Rufus', who survives him. Later, he shared his life with another cat called 'Smokie'. Smokie will inherit all Scooters possessions and cat privileges.

Scooter had a full life. Even though he was an indoor cat, he also loved being outside. In fact, he once managed to catch a mouse, whilst on a leash, no mean feat! When inside, he would happily hunt down any bug, lizard, or other critter when the opportunity arose.

He was also incredibly physically dense and strong. This is how he was able to weigh twenty five pounds, without appearing to be terribly overweight. A good proportion of Scooter's weight came from muscle. Indeed, on one moderately famous occasion, Scooter managed to move a box that weighed forty five pounds, so that he could get at a ball he wished to play with.

Scooter also once had a huge adventure, when he travelled from his old home to his new home. Despite a journey of several thousand miles, he was totally unfazed by the experience.

One of things that Scooter was most interested in was food. When he was a new cat in the household, he would rush manically and have a snack, if he thought anyone was going towards his food. This could have been because at some time he had been schedule fed.

Scooter also had some unusual tastes. In particular, he had a great fondness for Scotch whisky. Whenever anyone had a glass of whisky (preferably with some water) Scooter would always help himself to a 'wee dram', if the opportunity arose.

Perhaps the thing that Scooter will be most remembered for though was his extreme friendliness towards both people and other animals. He would love to put his paws around the necks of humans and give them 'hugs'. He was usually less demonstrative with other animals, but counted amongst his friends at various times, large dogs and even a parrot! He leaves behind a large number of human friends.

It was once said of Scooter that his motto in life was simply "Sleep and food and love and play". This is a fair assessment of a remarkable cat. He was also an excellent friend. In the last moments of his life, despite being almost too weak to move, by a supreme final effort, he managed to crawl from his heated nest on to the bed, so that he could breath his last breath lying next to his closest human friend. He will be sorely missed.

The CP

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Death Watch

Well, I am sorry to say that I am on a death watch for one of my oldest friends. I am a cat person. I have had one of my cats since grad school. He has moved many miles with me and has been one of my closest friends for years. I suspect that he may die soon.

Scooter is a locally much loved character. He used to be large (25lbs), friendly and charming. When I got back from my recent trip, he had had a skin infection and lost both fur and weight. He has been to the vet several times, as he has continued to slip down hill. He has an infection in his liver and seems to be getting frailer by the hour. He has a strong dose of an anti-biotic, but it does not seem to have helped much.

All I can do is cuddle him and try and persuade him to eat and drink. As he gets progressively weaker, this is getting difficult. There is a chance that he still may turn around, but realistically, given the speed of the decline, this is a longish shot. I will keep nursing, but it also makes me very sad indeed.

Update Although I know that few people read this blog, or could give a proverbial rat's arse for a cat they have never met, I still want to express some thoughts about this evening. Scooter got weaker and weaker. He got too weak to walk. We cuddled for a while in our traditional spot, probably for the last time. I put him back in the nice cosy bed I made for him, with a heating pad (his temperature has been low). He was a bit distressed for a while, but eventually got comfortable. I have been with him since, until he fell asleep. He seems peaceful now. Somehow, I have doubts about whether he will make the morning. It is 3 am, so I should have tried to sleep hours ago. However, I believe that animals one loves deserve all the comfort and kindness possible, at such times.

Last year, my family had to go through the death of my wonderful aunt. I could not be there. So, in someways, this whole experience is doing a kind of double duty. However, Scooter is peaceful and if he dies tonight, he will have done so with dignity and comfort. I cannot think of anything more to do. This has been a tough night and a tough few days.

The CP

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A Puzzling Sentence

Some time ago, I happened to run across the following sentence:

"I am strongly prejudiced against white men."

The reason this sentence puzzled me was that, on the face of it, it appears to be both racist and sexist. However, it is also clear that such a reading is not obvious to some people. When this sentence was articulated, nobody seemed to have a problem with it, that they voiced. In fact, upon reflection, there seem to be three distinct readings, or responses, that this sentence can give rise to. I have been puzzling which is the correct one for several days now. The three possible readings are as follows:

Reading (1): This sentence is a simple statement of a racist and sexist sentiment. After all, this reading would be immediately obvious if the term 'white' was replaced by the term 'black' and the word 'men' was replaced with the term 'women'.

Reading (2): Although in isolation, this sentence sounds deeply suspect, without understanding the context in which it was stated, or written, there is no way to assess how it should be interpreted. There may be contexts in which it can be articulated, or written, under which the apparent sexist and racist components are rendered unproblematic.

Reading (3): This sentence is entirely unproblematic, due to certain historical and sociological facts, including things like white privilege, patriarchy, entitlement and all sorts of other considerations. The fact that white males have been responsible for so many evils, they deserve, or have earned justifiable prejudice.

As someone with a professional interest in language and concepts, determining the correct interpretation of this sentence was an interesting problem.

When I tried looking at the standard definitions of terms such as 'racism' and 'sexism', it initially appeared that Reading (1) was the correct one. However, as I began to explore less philosophical literatures and several blogs, the latter two readings seemed to have people who would argue for their correctness. Thus, the puzzle remained.

However, today I had the opportunity to have a chat with an expert on such matters and I think that I have an answer.

Apparently, it is the case that, under certain circumstances, Reading (2) may be appropriate. The example the expert cited was a case where a Native-American might say such a thing, in a somewhat rhetorical manner, in order to emphasize a particular point. Under such circumstance, such a statement should not be deemed as really objectionable. However, the expert also explained that such situations would be very rare and would only happen in unusually exceptional cases. Under all most any other circumstances, Reading (1) would be the correct one. As the expert said of the sentence "Anyone can see that it is just wrong!" So, the puzzle of the sentence has been solved. Case closed.

The CP

Monday, January 08, 2007


Today has been busy. I have been working on the paper review for an important journal, I did a telephone interview with a job candidate and I had a meeting this evening.

One of the things I do in my (astonishing small amount of) free time is try and help my community. One of the things I do in support of this is sit on the Boards of a couple of non-profit organisations. I have also been elected and appointed to a couple of civic committees and organisations.

The area I live in has an amazingly complex and rich history. It is in one of the oldest areas in town. Historically, it has been largely populated by African-Americans, although it has also had a tradition of being both ethnically and economically mixed. This history stretches back until before the Civil War.

Sometime ago, some developers came to town with the idea of building a large apartment complex. My neighbors and I were not to thrilled at the prospect and we organised against the proposal. Ultimately, we lost, but that often happens in small town politics, when big money is involved. We did get some reasonable concessions out of the developers though, in terms of cash to try an preserve our history.

Initially, I felt a little odd about the situation. After all, I am neither African-American, nor even originally from this part of the world. When I talked to my neighbours about this concern, they laughed at me. Apparently, they were happy to have someone from the area who was willing to do the leg work. They did not care about my race.

The reason for mentioning this is that I have been looking at some blogs that claim to have an interest in matters of race. All that seems to happen on these blogs is a lot of talk. I believe in action. In another post, I had some of my neighbours look at these blogs and they were appalled.

However, today an interesting confluence of my interests arose. Late this month, one of the non-profits I am on the Board of is organizing a cultural event. It turns out that this event will celebrate both traditions from New Orleans and the history of my neighbourhood. I believe that this is a wonderful thing. I will be volunteering during the event, playing an important role making sure that the logistics work out correctly. The really great part about it is that I will be working with a gentleman who is a walking repository of the history of my neighbourhood. This is the kind of unexpected benefit of volunteering. It is so much more tangible than the benefits gained by blogging. So, I urge you to think about trying a bit of volunteering. I also suggest that those who like to pontificate on their blogs would also find their time much better spent actually doing something in the real world, rather than engaging in solipsistic dialogue.

The CP

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Better Reasoning I: Beliefs and Arguments

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Our beliefs are crucially important to us. They quite literally determine who we are! To cite some simple examples, people have beliefs about their names, their personal histories, their likes and dislikes, the people they know and a host of other topics.

Some beliefs are more important than others. For example, should a person learn that certain beliefs about their parents are incorrect, this can be devastating. By contrast, being mistaken about the name of the good pizza place is much less traumatic.

Interesting questions arise though when it comes to determining what to believe. Ideally, our beliefs should not be random. Instead, we should have good reasons for the beliefs we hold. Consider that case of your belief about your name. You probably hold this belief on the basis of the language used by your friends and relations, when they address you. You can also check places like your birth certificate, driving license and passport, should any doubts arise. Not all beliefs can be checked out as easily.

If we accept the idea that we should have 'good reasons' for the beliefs we hold, then the question becomes 'What is a good reason?' Traditionally, the best kinds of reasons come from arguments. Now, it is important to realise that this use of the term 'argument' is a little different from the vernacular use of the word. In normal use, an 'argument' often involves two people disagreeing over a particular topic. Sometimes this kind of argument can get heated, a bit nasty and in extreme cases may even involve people throwing things. However, this is not the sense in which the term 'argument' is used here. In the current context, the term 'argument' means,

An argument is a set of propositions, the premises, which are offered in support of some further proposition, the conclusion.

This is one of those cases where philosophers have given a normal word a rather special meaning and then forgot to mention this fact to others. Understanding an argument in this sense though is the first step in getting a handle on better reasoning. Holding beliefs that are supported by strong arguments can lead to our making much more rational judgements and living better lives.

Even when one already has a firmly established set of beliefs on a topic, it can be useful to assess the arguments that can be given to support those beliefs. This is the case because there may be mistakes in arguments for important beliefs, that one has overlooked. It is also the case that the rationality of certain beliefs may change over time, due to new information, or changing circumstance. The case on one's belief about what the name of today is, provides a fairly trivial example of why beliefs should be checked from time to time. Similarly, a person's belief that they wish to pursue a career in medicine may be changed when they discover the new fact that they cannot stand the sight of blood.

Another reason that the arguments used to support beliefs should be examined more closely, is because from time to time inconsistencies in one's beliefs may appear and need to be resolved. To cite a common example, most people believe that they should not do things which are unhealthy to them. Most people also believe that smoking is unhealthy. Yet, as their are still people who smoke, it would seem likely that these individuals will have inconsistencies in their belief sets.

Beliefs and their relationships to arguments, understood in a slightly technical sense, have been introduced. The next thing that needs to be looked at will be different types of arguments. This will be the topic of the next post in the series.

The CP

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Saturday, January 06, 2007

Mardi Gras Season Begins

Twelfth Night is now upon us. Although the Christmas traditions have the Magi arriving, there is another reason why this date is significant. It is the beginning of the Mardi Gras season.

Many people are under the impression that Mardi Gras is just a single day. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is an entire season that stretches from Twelfth night until the day before the start of Lent.

One of the interesting aspects of the Mardi Gras season are the various traditions that apply only during this time of year. One tradition concerns so-called 'King Cakes'. In Southern Louisiana almost any bakery will sell this kind of cake. The cakes are very sweet (I actually do not like them much). The are usually topped with purple, gold and green icing, as these are the colors that have become associated with Mardi Gras. The purple, it is claimed represents royalty. The gold represents money, or good fortune and the green represents fertility. When King Cakes are sold, they come with a small plastic baby. The tradition is that the baby is hidden somewhere within the cake. Whoever gets the piece of cake with the baby in it, then becomes responsible for buying the next king cake.

Another curious tradition concerns the song "La Chanson de Mardi Gras". This song is often claimed to be one of the very oldest in the Cajun music repertoire. It has a haunting melody and, unusually for a Cajun song, it is in a minor key. The odd thing about this song is that it is almost never played outside the Mardi Gras season. Indeed, it is believe to bring bad luck, if it is played at other times of the year. A brief portion of the song, as performed by Zachary Richard, can be heard here. This song is the very theme tune to Mardi Gras and gets played with increasing frequency as the season progesses. On Mardi Gras day itself, the refrain can be heard in many versions, coming from all directions.

The lyrics of the song describe a number of the Mardi Gras rituals performed in Southwest Louisiana. As the Mardi Gras season progresses, I will describe some of these colorful traditions here. In the meantime, for those who read French, here are the lyrics of the song.

La Chanson des Mardi Gras

Les Mardi Gras se rassemblent une fois par an
Pour demander la charité.
Ils se rassemblent une fois par an
Tout à l’entour du grand moyeau.

Capitaine, capitaine, voyage ton flag,
Allson aller chez nos voisins.
Capitaine, capitaine, voyage ton flag,
Allons se mettre sur le chemin.

Les Mardi Gras demandent rentrée
A chaque maître et chaque maîtresse.
Ils demandent la rentrée
Avec toutes les politesses.


Donnez nous autres une petite poule grasse,
Oui ou bien un peu de riz,
On vous invite de venir ce soir
Manger du bon gombo.


Voulez vous recevoir ces Mardi Gras,
Cette grande bande de grands soulards.
Les Mardi Gras vous remercient bien
De votre bonne volonté.


Les Mardi Gras viennent de tout par tout
Pour demander la charité.
Ils se rassemblent de tout par tout
Mais principalement de Grand Mamou

The CP

Friday, January 05, 2007

On-Line Tests - A Warning

So, it appears that there has been an outbreak of bloggers taking on-line psychometric tests, then reporting and commenting upon their results. Examples can be seen here, and here. There were a bunch of other bloggers that took tests and posted results, but I cannot remember where I saw them.

Now, for the most part, these tests are just a little bit of fun. Provided these tests are treated this way, then they are a harmless amusement. What is more problematic though are cases where people take the results of these tests seriously, or interpret them as revealing anything real, or true about them. To take such tests seriously in this way is a serious mistake.

The first thing to realise is that most of these on-line tests are written and scored by people who have no real training in the relevant disciplines. Of course, if the test is served out an impressive sounding domain name, then people are more likely to be fooled. There are deeper reasons though why these tests can only be seen on par with fortune cookies.

The whole idea of being able to measure psychological and personality properties falls under the general heading of psychometric. The are a whole host of psychometric tests that have been proposed and used. These tests at least have the advantage of being designed and tested by experts in the relevant fields, rather than random people on the Internet. They still should be treated with suspicion though.

One of the reasons that tests such as these (and even more so on-line tests) should be treated with suspicion has to do with the underlying philosophical position of operationalism. Although on the face of it, this sounds like a plausible position, it is in fact a method that suffers from deep flaws, despite it's popularity. A detailed discussion of the perils of operationalism can be found here (note, this is in .pdf format). In somewhat simplified philosophical terms, these tests just measure your ability to take the tests, not the underlying 'phenomena', or traits that they claim to identify.

Even the widely known and deployed IQ tests have been the subject of considerable controversy. Famously, Cyril Burt was shown to have perpetrated scientific fraud, using IQ tests.

The moral here is simple. Taking on-line tests as a bit of fun is fine. Thinking that they lead to any real or significant insights, is a mistake. I'm glad to say that the cases of bloggers taking tests mentioned earlier are all pretty blameless and harmless. However, I have seen cases where bloggers take the results seriously.

The CP

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Reason and Judgement

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Aristotle said that our human capacity to reason is one of the definitive features of being a member of the human race. Indeed, his definition of a human being was "Rational animal". This being the case, we should celebrate our rational faculties.

One of the contexts in which our rationality plays a key role is when we make judgements. Descartes (in his 4th Meditation for instance), offers an account of error that is based upon our making judgements, without sufficiently ensuring that judgements are in accordance with reason. Thus, if we are to make good judgements, then we are going to need good reasoning skills.

Unfortunately, good reasoning is a skill. Whilst (almost) everyone has some rational capacities, not everyone is a good reasoner. Consider an analogy. Most people, who do not have specific functional deficits, have some capacity to run. This does not imply that everyone can run well. For instance, a person who takes little exercise will not be able to run as well as someone who has trained for the Olympic team. The situation is similar with reasoning. A person who has been trained to reason well, will be able to make much better judgements than a person who has no training.

People on blogs reason and make judgements all the time. However, it is quite often the case that the reasoning is at times defective. Indeed, it is one of the great ironies of blogs that occasionally folks who pontificate about judgement and reasoning are most often guilty of the most elementary logical mistakes.

So, in order to try and raise the quality of judgements made by folks on blogs and elsewhere, I will be beginning an occasional series of posts under the by-line "Better Reasoning". In these posts, I will attempt to describe a few basic technical concepts about reasoning. Philosophers are almost unique amongst academics in so much as we have several thousand years of serious study of logic and reasoning. In other words, we have explicit training in good reasoning, that others may not have. By introducing an explicit discussion of reasoning, it is hoped that the quality of judgements made on blogs will go up. I will begin these posts in the next couple of days.

This is a fundamentally 'philosophical' project. This is because the Greek roots of the term 'philosophy' means "Love of Wisdom". One of the great enemies of wisdom is stupidity. Poor reasoning often leads people to stupid conclusions. Thus, one step towards wisdom is to be able to avoid stupidity. Hopefully, the discussion offered here will help in this respect.

The CP

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Picture Post

So, at long last I have got around to downloading my pictures from my trip. For fun, I thought that I would share them here.

We begin with a view of the harbour of the city of the Mediterranean island, taken from the castle.

Next, we see the cathedral. I did not get a chance to visit it, although I got quite close. This was one of the downsides of the trip -- wonderful intellectual stimulation, but at a cost of sight seeing time. I guess that will have to be for the next visit.

A view of the coast, taken from high above...

When we took a trip up into the hills to an ancient village there were splendid views...

This was the old monastery in the hill village...

Next we move on to another, much colder country. This is what freezing fog leaves behind.

The final two images are from the fire in the hotel in Washington D.C. The first shows people standing around, after being roused from their beds in the middle of the night.

Finally, here is a none too good picture of a whole bunch of firemen and their equipment as they arrived to deal with the fire.

What a long, diverse, exciting and intellectually stimulating trip! I am glad that I have these pictures and excellent notes, to keep it all fresh in my mind.

The CP

The Ex-Friend Doctrine

A number of years ago I ran across an individual who used to talk about 'ex-friends'. The very idea struck me as somewhat puzzling. I had never come across, nor seen the need for such a notion before. Granted, there have been people in my life with whom I have been friends, but then have lost contact with. There have been other former friends whose lives have taken paths different from mine, such that over time, there was no common ground, thus making the friendship obsolete. Occasionally, I will run into people of both these types and it is still nice to hear what is happening and how they are doing. However, in neither kind of case does the term 'ex-friend' seem quite applicable.

When I made enquiries about the basis for this odd idea, the story was that these were people who had been friends, but who had, for apparently mysterious reasons, suddenly ceased to act in the normal friendly manner. Until recently, I was still very puzzled by this set of circumstances. Now though, I think that I am beginning to understand it.

The individual who proposed this idea probably counts as an ex-friend to me now, and I probably count as the same to them. Actually, as I have begun to understand this novel state of affairs, it is not necessarily a bad thing. This particular person has undertaken certain behaviors that are troublesome, meddlesome and extremely hostile towards me. By contrast, I have done nothing negative in return. Anyone who behaves in such a manner, for no apparent reason, probably deserves the title of an 'ex-friend'.

The individual in question has a number of slightly curious personality traits, that appear to have contributed to this circumstance. The most significant of these is the fact that they have an extremely rich fantasy life, that at times, they believe constitutes reality. It was when attempting to assert my true self, as opposed to meekly accepting the fictitious role I had been assigned, that the troubles began. I do not like to be attacked for views that I do not hold, or to be saddled with false assumptions. Newton's Third Law, "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction", applies in such cases. My guess is that such 'breaking away from assigned character' is what made the other people in this person's life ex-friends too. They just got sick of putting up with the individual in question. As this person is strongly disinclined to admit fault, or accept blame, once such a circumstance is reached, no remedy is possible.

Unless some substantial personality changes occur, it seems likely that this ex-friend will retain this status. They like to be the center of attention. They feel a need to claim success, where there is none. They also believe that they are gifted with various kinds of 'special insight', that they actually lack. They profess clear and sound judgement, when fickleness and confusion are actually better descriptors. It is still a shame though. Insisting upon living in a fictionalized version of the world may have psychological advantages in the short term, but in the longer term, it will of necessity have real consequences, many of which are likely to be negative. To give just one example, alienating friends and allies can never be a good strategy.

As I have been reflecting upon this situation, I keep being reminded of certain lines from W. B. Yates, most notably from the poem "Easter 1916", although in many ways this poem addresses another topic. The lines I have in mind are:

"That [person's] days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
[Their] nights in argument
Until [their] voice grew shrill....

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone...

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?"

I'd be interested if anyone else has ever come across the 'doctrine of the ex-friend'. Any comments, or thoughts would be welcome. In the meantime, let us revel in the joyous New Year and leave weird ghosts of the past to their futile wanderings.

The CP
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