Friday, December 3, 2010

Airport Security and Racial Profiling

If found this post in my "drafts" page from when I first started this blog.  I guess I'd forgotten to press "publish".  Anyway, given the recent changes in airport security measures it seems serendipitous that I found it now... 

Wednesday January 27 2010

First of all, I obviously wasn't able to comply with my new schedule. Band rehearsal ended up being post-poned for 30min but I didn't know how long it was going to actually be when I started waiting. One of the guys in the band had to do a media interview so we couldn't start until it was done. Usually they like to do several takes so the duration of interviews is always unknown. While waiting I practised my stick toss. Then I was supposed to do a "meet and greet" after rehearsal, so I got ready and waited...and waited. I guess it got cancelled because the next thing I heard was 20min to curtain. Maybe tomorrow will go according to plan...HA!

Disclaimer: Before anyone gets all huffy about what I'm going to write, I want to say that this is a thought experiment. Policies that I find logically compelling I have trouble with on other grounds. Besides, this is my blog, and if you don't like it, go write your own! (or leave me angry you please!) One more thing: please feel free to exchange the word "freedom fighter" with "terrorist" depending the side for whom you feel the most political sympathy.
I listened to a really interesting interview on my favourite podcast "Skeptics' Guide to the Universe". It was about racial profiling for airport security. Although I'm not an airport security expert (big shock, I know) I'd always leaned toward racial and geographical profiling in this context. I know, I know, racial profiling is not something one should publicly support unless you are spend your afternoons in rocking chairs swatting flies and telling any newcomers to your neighbourhood "we don' like yur kahd 'round here". However, in the context of airport security there seems to be an intuitively strong case for it. If a given group that is identifiable racially and/or geographically openly declares that they will attempt acts of terrorism against you, does it not make intuitive sense to screen people that fit this profile a little more carefully than others? I know it's not fair for the innocent majority members of this group to be screened more that non-group members but who said security had to be fair?
The interviewee was an international airport security expert and he asserted unequivocally that racial profiling does not work for airport security. Airport security is much more effective when secondary screening is random. Apparently, this isn't even a debate amongst security experts. That's food for thought. The reason racial or geographic profiling doesn't work is because the terrorists already know what security is looking for, so they will send someone who doesn't meet the profile. For example, when Chechnian terrorists blew up two planes both bombers were women. The terrorists knew that Russian security rarely gives secondary screening to female passengers, so the obvious thing to do was to recruit women. Security will never see what it is not looking for and it is not difficult for the freedom fighters to know what airport security is looking for. When secondary security screening is done randomly, there is no way for the freedom fighters to anticipate who will be screen and on what grounds.
Basically, the way airport security operates now, almost by definition, cannot work because they are always fighting the last battle. When terrorists knew that shoes wouldn't be screened, they put da' bomb in da' shoe. When carry-ons were screened for solid explosives, the terrorists used liquids. When security started screening shoes, terrorists put da' bomb in da' underwear, and so on.
According to the security expert the solution is to take the resources (money and people) that are being wasted in "security theatre" and put it it intelligence gathering and the training of all airport employees to be able to do security interviews and learn to recognize suspicious behaviour. When it comes to profiling, behaviour profiling will yield better results so airport employees should be trained to be able to profile based on behaviour.
Why am I writing about airport security? A couple of reasons I guess. First is that I travel a lot so I directly suffer the consequences of onerous airport "security". Second, prior to listening to the interview I thought that racial profiling for airport security made sense from a logical point of view, although I was never quite comfortable with it's unintended side effects. Listening to the interview showed me my logic was flawed and I learned something new. Contrary to many people I actually enjoy when a belief I hold is methodically disproven with evidence. I like the feeling I get when I can discard an erroneous point of view. Third, I wrote this as a practice for when I'm back in school and I have to be able to assimilate and reproduce what a professor has said during a lecture. Finally, I thought that I there may be a chance that I am not the only one in my circle of friends who isn't a security expert and might also benefit from listening to what an expert has to say on the topic.
In the end, however, I agree with the security expert's arguments for measures that would lead to actual airport security but regarding racial profiling I'm not entirely convinced that it needs to be discarded entirely. I agree that racial profiling on it's own is not the best security method but I'm still unsure why his method would have to exclude racial profiling. I still think that from a purely logical point of view, in cases where there is a racially and/or geographically identifiable group that overtly promises to attempt terrorist acts, there is a reasonable case for profiling. Here's an grossly oversimplified example to illustrate the principle: Imagine you lived in a country where everybody had 5 eyes and there was a country of people with 3 eyes. A group of people from your country, because they harbour grievances against the 3-eyed people, openly declare on behalf of all 5-eyed people (but without consulting you) that they will attempt acts of violence against 3-eyed people. Would it not be reasonable for the 3-eyed people to regard any 5-eyed person with suspicion? How can the 3-eyed people reasonably discern who are the terrorists among the 5-eyed people in their airports? I suppose they could conduct lengthy interviews with each passenger, regardless of the number of eyes: it would be effective and fair, but security wait lines would take even longer than now. Or you can just secondarily screen all people with 5 eyes.
It sounds good in the over simplified example and establishes the principle but racial profiling on it's own might not translate too well in the complex real world of US airport security. First of all, there are several examples of home grown, white terrorists (McVeigh, Unibomber), so if you are only secondarily screening Arabs, the home grown crazies can easily slip through. Also, and this may come as a shock to most of you, but Americans are largely ignorant when it comes to distinguishing between Hindus, Arabs, Israelis, Turks, and other darker skinned people or knowing who their political allies are. An Israeli friend of mine that I work with told me a funny/sad story that happened shortly after 9/11. He was talking to a group of girls who were either in the military or who's husbands were in the military. They asked him were he was from because he has an accent. When he told them "Israel" one of them yelled "you better get the fuck away from us before I try to kick you ass"! Yup, somehow the "subtle" political distinction between the Israelis and Arabs escaped her keen military mind....(by the way, for my American friends reading this---as defined by the state department, the Israelis are your friends!) Anyway, you'd probably have better luck training airport security personnel methods of behavioural profiling rather than trying to undo a life time of ignorance :)
So, where am I going with all this unnecessary rambling? I'm not sure. Maybe something like this: scanning bags, shoes, etc.. has benefits, but by itself it's not the best solution. It probably acts more as a deterrent to the average crazy person than to the well organized, highly motivated terrorist. Behavioural profiling and intelligence gathering are the security expert's methods of choice but it's going to be years before current staff are adequately trained and intelligence networks put in place. Racial profiling is far from perfect but if there are members of an identifiable group that overtly announce their violent intentions, it is not unreasonable to check people that fit the profile.
As one of my heros, Mark Crislip says, please post your comments and hate mail below, I'd love to hear from you"!

Stuck/Quine/Epistemology Natualized

Ok, what I'm about to do may turn out to be a very poor decision but at this point I don't have much to lose.  Here's the situation.  I have one term paper left and for some reason I just cannot make any progress.  I'm so confused by now that I can't tell if the problem is that I don't understand the content of if I can't synthesize the information or if I need more information, or if I have too much and it's just disorganized.  I don't know.  I'm embarrassed to admit how much time I have devoted to this stinkin' paper and I have nothing but a few pages of unfinished thoughts that lead nowhere.  So, here's my plan.  I'm going to summarized the issues here in my blog.  I feel like I'm talking to friends, you're not going to grade me, and my writing seems to flow better when it's "for fun".  The risk is that nothing may come of this and I will have wasted more valuable time that maybe should have been spent doing more research or rereading material.  Anyway, speaking of wasting time, enough with the preamble:

  So my paper is about a philosopher named Quine and the problem of knowing whether we can justify our system of scientific knowledge.  I know what your, just put on lab coat, and run some experiments and if the evidence confirms a theory, then ta-da! it works.  Why do philosophers need to make everything so complicated?  In a sense this response is correct, and it is in some ways related to what Quine says.  
  The general topic that we are investigating is "how we know what we know".  This area of philosophy is called epistemology.  Traditional epistemology saw one of its primary roles as trying to find a rational justification for our knowledge of the world.  This type of reasoning must be distinguished from experiential reasoning, or as philosophers call is "synthetic" or "a posteriori"(after the fact).  The problem can be framed like this "how do we know what we know?" Answer: "we learn through experience" Question: "how do you know that experience gives you a reliable picture of the world?"  Typical answer, "because further experiences confirm that my beliefs are true".  Did you catch the problem?  If you didn't, here it is.  This is an instance of circular reasoning.  You are setting out to prove the reliability of beliefs derived from experience by appealing to experience.  It's not a good argument if you support what you are trying to prove with the thing you are trying to prove.
  So what does Quine say about all this?  He says, all this talk of trying to prove science (experiential knowledge) from something other than experience is just crazy talk.  We haven't made any progress since Descartes, who formulated the problem in its modern form, and Hume, who pointed out even more problems.  Lets just stop all this madness and allow for a certain amount of circularity.  Why? because unless you want to postulate divine revelation, clairvoyance and other untenable ways of knowing, all we have is appeal to experience.  So, instead of continuing on this fools errand of trying come up with a logical proof for how it is that science (seems) to work, lets look at how it actually does work.  In other words, instead of looking at how we ought to derive beliefs, lets look at how we actually do derive our beliefs (in science).  How do we do this?  We appeal to empirical psychology.  
  Empirical psychology is the study of how we go from sensory stimulation to some sort of behavioural (maybe assertions) output indicating belief.  Now I know what some of you are thinking: Whoa! Nelly! Stop right there.  That sounds like behaviourism and I remember hearing that behaviourism is the devil!  Lets make a distinction here between philosophical behaviourism and methodological behaviourism.  The former, which is probably the one that most people object to, is the position that all there is is behaviour.  There are not mental states, emotions, etc....we are basically all just machines.  Well, you'd be right to object, and in academia that view died a long time ago.  Quine is proposing methodological behaviourism.  This is the idea that, while people may have mental states, emotions, and sensations, the only thing that we can observe as outsiders is behaviour.  Behaviour here should be construed in a broad sense: from the macro scale all the way down neural and sensory receptor stimulations, firing of synapses and so on.  There is no way to observe what someone's feeling of feels like but we can observe their behavioural responses.  That's all this means.
  Moving on.  So, suppose we accept this model and ignore, for the time being accusations of circularity. Are there any important questions that this new paradigm will not be able to answer? A common argument against this model is that it provides no guidance in areas of norms.  Let me explain:  Norms are standards by which we measure success.  Norms are the basic level of competence required for an operation to be considered successful.  For example, the academic norms for grade 3 are that you are able to read and write at a given level and maybe know all your multiplication tables.  If you are below the norms, you cannot successfully carry out these tasks.  
  So, what's an example of a case where we need to know something about epistemic (to do with knowledge) norms?  Lets say 2 people are having an argument about the results of a science experiment. The experiment was, in a beaker (I have to say that word any chance I get!) they pour 1 cup of sugar into one cup of water: the result is that the beaker now shows the meniscus to be a 1 1/4 cups.  Scientist 1 (I'll call her Mary) says this proves that 1+1=1 1/4.  Scientist 2 (Bob) says, no: this does not disprove the laws of arithmetic.  
  So what does this all have to do with using psychology to solve epistemic problems?  Here it is:  psychology can give us an account of how the light reflecting off the beaker and solution stimulated the visual system and, after a long causal chain, produced a behaviour in the scientists that indicated they perceive the meniscus to have risen to indicate 1 1/4 cups.  If we appealed to neuro-psychology we could learn the neuro-pathways that were stimulated when Mary and Bob came to their respective conclusions.  To summarize, the scientific method could tell us how the reasoning occurred but it cannot tell us which method of reasoning is preferable.  This is because science is descriptive, not prescriptive or normative.  
  So, does it end here?  Case closed?  I think there's more to the story.  I think there are ways that science can tell us which ways of reasoning are preferable.  Let me elaborate:  We know that depending what type of problem we are asked to solve and how we frame a problem it will influence how we solve the problem.  For instance, sometimes people voice opinions/beliefs based on emotions, other times they use logic.  Depending on what type of "reasoning" process they are using, neuro-psychology tells us that different parts of the brain are engaged.  It is safe to assume that for most problems, resolution is preferably achieved through using the rational, rather than emotional part of the brain.  So, since we know which part of the brain is preferable and the conditions which bias toward our engaging it, we can set up conditions for us to yield "true" beliefs.  
  Lets take a step back so we can go into more detail.  When I said that I assumed that for most problems it is preferable to engage the rational part of our brain, in a sense I was expressing a norm.  Strictly speaking science cannot say "this method is better because it produces true beliefs".  This presupposes a norm or value, that of producing true belief.  So, there are 2 issues here, that of expressing preference for an outcome and the notion of truth.  
  Scientific theories cannot tell us what is true.  They can only tell us that to which experience, thus far, has conformed.  Science history is littered with examples of theories that where at one point as sure as, well...lets just say they were held as true.  Sometimes there are competing theories to explain the same phenomena.  The point is the the notion of truth in science, as in most places, is not "true come what may".  Again, science simply gives us a best account of the evidence at hand.
  So, how can science distinguish between thought patterns for justification?  The same way that it adopts any theory.  Setting up circumstances that biasing our thinking in ways that use the rational part of our brain will lead to beliefs that will conform better with experience and help us to better navigate our world than if we had chosen a cognitive process that would bias toward other beliefs.
  Anyway, those are two of the central themes.  There's a lot more but I'm struggling with it.  If you made it to the bottom I thank you for taking the time to read this crap.  I'm so screwed.  I have no idea what I'm going to write....

By the way, if there are any philosophers out there reading this, any helpful suggestions will be graciously accepted.... 

Saturday, November 20, 2010

"Entertainer" Woes and Rant

     I just got back from doing a show and for some reason I'm feeling kind of pissed off.  In my more enlightened moments I don't blog when I'm upset because I'll usually say something I'll regret.  So, lets see what I say!
     First off, I love performing, I really do.  I don't care if it's in my underwear or in a chicken suit or both at the same time, I love being on stage and entertaining.  You get the point.
     Yesterday I finished a term paper and I don't yet have a topic for my last paper so I thought I'd just do some reading on Friday night, maybe hit the gym.  In the afternoon I got a call to do a show.  Not just a bachelorette party but a show at a club to promote their upcoming ladies night.  It paid absolute crap, $70.00, but it was cake: I just had to get myself there, do my 5 minute show, then I could go.  Sure, why not? I thought. It'll break the monotony of eat, study, gym, study, study, class, eat, sleep, study, study, procrastinate, procrastinate, gym, eat, study...anyway, you get the idea.
     It was at a Mexican night club (more on that later) so the show wasn't until 1am.  In order to get there 15min early I left at 12.  When Im half way there my contact calls me and tells me it's been postponed until 1:30am.  No big deal.  I  could use some down time and I'm a night owl so it's not that late for me.  I'm in the change room with the other guy who's dancing at the event.   We're waiting and waiting and waiting.  Finally, at 1:50 I said to the organizer, either you put us on next song or I'm leaving.  I'm pretty easy going but we were now 50 min behind schedule for a show that essentially pays nothing and I'm cooped up in a little change room.
     The club was full on traditional Mexican with a Mexican polka band blaring their oompapa music. No big deal.  I was kind of expecting more of a Mexican-American type club with reggaeton but this was a more traditional club.  The part that felt strange was that this was not a ladies' night.  This was just a regular Friday night polka-fest; guys and all.  I don't think I've ever done a show in front of guys.  Well, actually I'm pretty sure of that.  Not that I have a problem with guys.  Some of my best friends are guys.  And some of them are Mexican guys.  And some of them are gay Mexican guys.  I just prefer not to strip for them.  Anyway, as with most traditional cultures, the guys tend to be pretty homophobic, so I thought it was odd that they all watched the show.  Maybe I'm just. that. good.   Or maybe they wanted to steal my moves!  Oh no!  Well, the more likely answer is that they probably wanted to keep an eye on their women.
     I brought my cowboy act because I thought it would go over well.  The act requires a girl from the audience.  I brought a girl up on the stage and sat her in the chair.  There's one part of the act were I take her hand and run them down my rector abdominalis (I love that word).  In this part my shirt is off but I have yet to tear away the pants.  Immediately after I turn around, straddle her legs and slowly take my belt off.  The whole time she's trying to tear my pants off...
     Let me stop for a moment and tell all of you who have never done any type of performance a thing or two about entertainer pet peeves.  Near the top of the list is audience participants that fuck with your show!  Everything is carefully timed, be it a magic or dance or comedy.  Also, it my show, not yours!  If you want a show, put the time in, and spend years getting to the point were people will actually pay to see you.  Moving on....
     There's a musical cue I'm waiting for and if you mess shit up I'm gonna be pissed!  Of course most people by 2am in a bar are drunk and probably won't know and don't care, but to the entertainer, we care!  The only way to be a good entertainer is if you care.  You can't be good if you don't care.  It's simple!  Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!
     Anyway, I'm trying to nicely hint to her to stop it by firmly but gently taking her hands off my buttons and placing them on my hips but she won't stop. This is not the first time this has happened an usually this subtle hint is sufficient.   Let me stop (again) to explain something.  I had come to the club in a good mood.  To me I wasn't doing it so much for the money but as a break from studying and do something fun that I'd also get paid for (but not sooooooo fun that I'd do it for free).  But after the 50min wait I was a bit irritated.  And I felt a little awkward with all the guys in there staring me down.  This chick was going to push me over the edge.  So, I grabbed her wrists really hard and placed them very firmly on my hips.  Remember, the whole time everyone in the club is watching so I'm smiling my face off like everything's just dandy.
     Finally, the music, my choreography and the plot-line of my schtick (by schtick I mean act)  cumulate into a glorious festival of flying pants to reveal my "sacred" American flag booty shorts.  In the final part of the act I kind of side straddle the girl in the chair (hard to describe), put the cowboy hat on her and spin her around in the chair.  So I'm trying to get into position but she keeps pushing me off her.  WTF?  A second ago you wouldn't stop tearing at my pants, and now you won't let me side straddle you? (does that sound weird?)  Every time I approach her she pushes herself away in the chair.  I'm literally chasing her around the stage.  At this point I should have given up, walked away and improvised something.  But no.  Sometimes you're locked on autopilot.  Or maybe it was cuz she had pissed me off earlier.  I don't know.  Anyway, I grabbed her, forced her in the chair, lay down with all my weight across her lap sideways and spun her around in the chair....the way the show is supposed to go!  Don't mess with my show, bitch!
     I have no idea if anyone noticed but after that, when I went to collect tips from tables I wasn't very jovial (I've been performing so long that I smile automatically when I'm on stage whether I want to or not--muscle memory).  Also, while I was collecting tips of course one of the guys had to take his shirt of and flex for me.  The guy needed to lay off the burritos, I'm not sure what he was trying to prove except that he needs to go to the gym.  Wow! I'm bitter! usually stuff like that makes me laugh.  Also I noticed with that crowd, which is true of most crowds, that there is an inverse relation between how much they tip and how much they grab at you.  A note to women who plan on going to a ladies night.  Yanking on a guys underwear is not sensual, or on anything else for that matter.  Maybe your boyfriend is different but as far as I know, most guys had enough wedgies back in high school.
     Ok, I'm gonna stop now.  I feel a bit better. This has been therapeutic for me.  I hope it was at least mildly entertaining for you.  As a final note, 95% of the time audiences are respectful and I am treated well.  I guess no matter what your job, there will be the occasional crappy day.  Thanks for reading!  G'night...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Update and T. Burge vs J. Campbell: The Limits of Vision Science


What's up friends...I apologize for the increasing duration of time between entries.  I'm in the heart of term paper writing season and it's hard enough just to get my reading and writing done.  I've put work on hold until the semester's over so I can dedicate myself to the work that will hopefully move me forward in life.  
Anywho, aside from an increase in stress, which is to be expected, things are going well.  I'm healthy, learning philosophy, and I go hiking once a week.  What more could I ask for?...I'll stop there.
For all youz guys who like to hear funny stripper stories, I apologize, I have none because I haven't been working...So, on with the philosophy!

T. Burge vs J. Campbell: The Limits of Vision Science

     Could a colour-blind scientist who was an expert on the science of colour vision be able to recognize the colour red (unassisted, on the first try) if she got her vision back?
     Within the realm of philosophy of mind there is a subsection that deals with perception.  The main issue it addresses how much about the external world can we learn through our senses (if anything).  Philosophers who endeavour to answer this question naturally draw heavily empirical (i.e. scientific) knowledge from vision science and perceptual psychology.  Within this specialized field there is a debate as to whether the empirical sciences can give a full description of perception.  (I'll refer only to vision because it is the most studied sense).  
     Historically, there are a couple on background facts that are relevant.  First, in modern philosophy of perception, pre-vision science era, philosopher conjectured on how vision worked.  Some of these philosophers started to employ the scientific method and ran empirical experiments.  Eventually they branched off and formed their own discipline (which is what happened with all the natural and social sciences at some point).  Those that stayed continued to philosophize about vision "from the armchair".   
     Of those that stayed in the armchair, some declared that there were some aspects of perception that science could not tell us about.  Most scientists outside of philosophy scoffed at this notion and saw the philosophers as archaic and simply trying to legitimize their existence. 
     OK, enough background, lets get to the issue.  The issue hinges on what is called, in philosophy speak, "the qualitative aspect of perception".  In normal English it means "what it's like to have an experience".  Essentially, the argument is that science and psychology can tell us how perception occurs, how all the subsystems work, how light arrays on the eyes are converted into neural impulses, how seeing colour activates one part of the brain rather than another, and so on.  But, they say, if you added up all the scientific facts about perception it could never tell you what it's like to see, for example, "a red ball".  Or to make the example more clear, science can tell us how a bee sees, but science cannot tell us anything about what it's like for the bee to see a flower.  
     Philosophers that oppose this view are generally labelled materialists.  They argue that the aggregate of explanations of neural impulses and descriptions of brain states is what is to see x.  In other words, given such and such a brain state and such and such an arrangement of sensory organs and subsystems, the phenomena that arises out of all that stuff simply is perception of x.  There's no more to say about it.
      I find that there is an intuitive pull to saying that, no, all this talk of brain states doesn't give a full account of what it is to see.  Here is a classical argument for the position.  Imagine the most brilliant vision scientist to ever live.  She is knows every thing there is to know about vision.  The knows how every single neurone will respond to seeing any given colour.  In a strange twist of fate, our brilliant vision scientist was born colour blind.  The question is, will all her factual scientific knowledge, does our scientist know what it's like to see red? If she suddenly were able to see colour would she be able to (unaided) identify red the first time she saw it?
     I'm not going to tell you what I think.  I'm curious to know what other people think.  Please post your comments!  I hope I've explained the issue clearly.  If you have questions please affix a wedge-like piece of metal to the end of a wooden handle and ax me!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Nutrition Rant: Simple vs Complex Carbs

  Ok, it's crunch time for me.  Semester's end is in sight which means 1 thing: term papers.  Honestly, I'm kind of freaking out.  Guess I just need to divide everything into manageable tasks.  Wait, that would make too much sense.  I should do what most pop psychology/self-help books say.  I should just visualize getting an 'A'.  Or just have a really positive attitude, or something like be open to the universe conspiring to help me--whatever the crap that means.  Or I could do my favourite: just pray.  Prayer will get me through these tough times. Right. What happened to organize your time, and work hard? Why attach all this other useless crap? 
     True story (sort of, I'm changing the details so preserve anonymity). I had a friend (a believer) who was in a car accident.  He worked very hard during physical therapy to get better.  Followed all his doctors' advice, the whole nine yards.  He healed sooner than expected.  When asked about his recovery he attributed it to all the people who prayed for his recovery.  What the crap?  So, modern medicine and physical therapy, and all the effort you made are just frills and gimmicks?  So, I suppose when people who are prayed for don't get better it means their friends and family didn't pray hard enough? Or maybe they prayed to the wrong god?  Have you ever heard of a religious person blame their slow recovery or eventual death on people not praying enough for them?  Probably not, but they'll attribute all the credit to sweet baby jesus (sbj) if things go the way the want.  Makes me want to tackle people.
     Anyway, the whole point of this entry is to let all my millions of readers (thanks for reading Mom!) know that my entries may not be that frequent while I am entering term paper season.  I'll do my best but can't promise much except for the occasional tirade against flawed logic.  (Colbert: But you acknowledge it is logic!)
     So, for tonight I leave you with this, a rant I wrote about a week ago on my friend's blog (which chronicles his weight loss experience) while I was supposed to be working on one of my term papers....enjoy!  Bye the bye, thanks to my sister for the biochemistry overview and fact checking.  She's a real scientist with her own lab coat, test tubes, bunsen burner, and listen up!

Context: there had been a couple of comments from the peanut gallery (readers of my friend's blog) with suggestions that I knew had no scientific support, mainly in regards to carbs.   (I'd be lying if I didn't mention that I was a little jealous about how many comments he got from his peanut gallery....c'mon guys! you're way to quiet for a peanut gallery!)

     Just thought I'd throw my two bits in regarding carbs.  First lets begin with weight loss basics. Far and away the most important thing is that calories out must be less than calories in, regardless of source.  If calories in exceeds calories out, you gain weight. If they are equal, you maintain.  This is not to say that there aren't optimal ratios of macro nutrients (simple carbs, complex carbs, proteins, fats) but the calories in/calories out formula is orders of magnitude more important if weight loss is the primary concern.  In regards to the complex vs simple carbs, ultimately it matters not which you eat (in the context of weight loss); what matters is the caloric content.  Since one gram of carbs, simple or complex, is equal to just over 4 calories of energy, ultimately eating one has the same effect as the other in regards to caloric intake.
     Next we come to complex vs simple carbs in the context of "which is better for you".  They are basically chemically the same thing except the complex carbs are chains of simple carbs (i.e. sugars or monosaccharides, in chemistry language).  The metabolic difference is that complex carbs take longer to enter the blood stream because the body has to break down the complex chains of molecules into individual simple sugar molecules before it can absorb them into the blood stream.  
     The rate at which carbs are broken down and absorbed into the blood stream is called the glycemic index.  When we eat foods high in simple sugars (simple carbs) the rate at which the sugars enter our blood stream is high because there is no need for our body to break the molecule down any more than it is.  When a large amount of sugar is "dumped" into the blood stream all at once, the body responds by increasing insulin production.  Insulin production is linked to energy storage.  The body stores energy in two ways: 1.  it converts the sugar into glycogen, where it is stored in the muscles, or 2. in the fat cells where it is stored as fat.  If your muscles are already saturated with glycogen, then your body will tend to store excess glycogen as fat.  
     So, as you can see, if you consume simple carbs in quantities below the bodies threshold for releasing insulin there is no negative effect. But not everything is so simple, many things depend on context.  For instance, for athletes it is important to eat simple carbs after a workout so glycogen stores are replenished quickly. Furthermore, insulin is a transporter of nutrients to cells, so after a workout, we want higher insulin levels so energy is more effectively transported back into our cells. 
     With all this hysteria about carbs it is important to keep a couple of things in mind.  First, they ultimately are broken down in to the same thing. Second, if we have an active life style, both simple and complex carbs are important parts of our diet to meet our energy requirements. The problem is usually that processed foods are calorie dense, not that that simple carbs themselves are bad.  Once again, the problem is calories in vs calories out.  Not macro-nutrient ratios.
     One more note concerning carb hysteria, and this concerns the naturalistic fallacy.  But first a quick return to elementary chemistry.  Both fructose and glucose are monosaccharides (simple sugars).  "Natural" sugar is called sucrose, and contains one fructose and one glucose molecule.  just because it is "natural" doesn't endow it with any magical properties. chemistry is chemistry is chemistry.  That said there is a lot of hysteria concerning high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)  HFCS is also composed of both fructose and sucrose.  the only difference is that because the fructose and sucrose molecules are not bound, the ratio of fructose to glucose can be controlled.  It comes in 55/45 blend or 42/58.  There is nothing inherently "bad" about it.  Any "natural" food is going to have both fructose and sucrose.  In the case of HFCS the fructose content is high or low depending on the level of sweetness required.  Many people (not chemists) claim there is a link between HFCS consumption and obesity.  While it is true that there is correlation, there is not causation.  What causes the obesity is over consumption of calories--not the chemical properties of the molecule. 
Anyway, i should stop ranting....

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Update and Introduction to Disjunctivism/McDowell

Well, you'd think by now I'd know better than to start writing a blog entry at 3:15am on a Monday...but I know that the 3 to 5 people that actually read my blog are wondering why it's been over a week since my last post...

     So, I did kind of an interesting party on Saturday.  It was for the 40th birthday of a woman who, along with all of her friends, was deaf.  While texting the organizer the day before, she asked me if I needed for them to provide a stereo.  I had to pause for a moment and think about it.  My first instinct was to say, meh, I'll be fine without one.  It's not like it's going to improve the show for them.  Then I realized, it might be kind of awkward for me to prance around for half an hour in my underwear without any music.  Stop.  After writing that sentence, it just occurred to me that what is awkward to me about that situation isn't what would be awkward to most people.  
     Anyway, my main concern was that when I spoke they wouldn't understand me.  You see, I usually come as a cop and do this little skit, saying the neighbours are complaining about the noise, and the bachelorette/birthdaygirl is in violation of penal code 6969.  Cheezy, I know.  But chicks dig it, and you gotta give 'em what they want.  The organizer informed me that some of them could read lips and would interpret for me.  Cool.  Problem solved.  "But you must remember to e...n...u...n...c...i...a...t...e" (Pa, that was for you).  
     All the worry was for naught, as everything went fairly well.  The only problem was when they started the music for me, the volume was very low, barely audible.  I'd already started the show and wasn't about to walk across the room and adjust the volume.  So, I did the show with the music down low (say that 5 times fast).  Actually, they liked the show so much that when I finished, the applause was deafening.... OH NO HE DI'INT JUST GO THERE! I'm sorry, I couldn't resist.  Go ahead, heap scorn upon me....

Introduction to Disjunctivism

     Disjunctivism is a theory of perception of which there are many flavours, but here is a summary of the central claims.  Remember from other posts about perception that the main problem in philosophy of perception is to give an account of how we can know that the phenomena we experience of the external world as a product of our senses is indeed what the actual external world is like.  And second (and related problem) is to give an account of how we can distinguish between an true accurate visual perception of the world (i.e. veridical perception in philosophy-speak) and a hallucination or illusion of the same thing.  
     Well, disjunctivism proposes to solve these problems by addressing the second question first.  The strategy is that, if we can show that there is a fundamental distinction between veridical perception and hallucination/illusion, then we can say we can know about the world through veridical perception without having to worry if we are hallucinating.  So, lets look at the general argument to distinguish veridical perceptions from "bad" perceptions.
     To be honest, in its general form it's not so much of an argument as it is a proclamation.  Disjunctivists argue that there is something intrinsically different between veridical perception and hallucination/illusion.  Hallucinations/illusions are the products of misfirings in our perceptual systems or artifacts of the evolutionary context in which they developed.  They are "constituted" only of things that we have created in our brain/mind.  Veridical perceptions, on the other hand, in addition to having representational content, are constituted of "facts about the world". Veridical perceptions are causally connected to the outside world, whereas "bad" perceptions are not.  With veridical perception, we are in direct contact and have direct awareness of objects in the external world.  They are a fundamentally different psychological/mental kind/entity.
     Some argue that this does not solve anything because the phenomenology of the experience (how the subject experiences the content of the representation) is still indistinguishable to the subject.  In other words, just because the two cases might be constitutively different doesn't help us, because the perceiver still has no way of knowing which is which.  
     The disjunctivist will reply that while it is true that in practice, we cannot distinguish the two, he has demonstrated that in theory we can.  This is important because this allows us to address the first problem, and answer the skeptic about having empirical knowledge.  The skeptic says that, because we cannot distinguish between good and bad cases of perception, we cannot know anything about the world through empirical observation.  The disjunctivist claim about theoretically being able to distinguish the two cases means that we could theoretically determine when we are experiencing a veridical perception and therefore we could (i.e. it would be possible to) be justified in claiming knowledge about the world.  I know what you're thinking... in the everyday world this sounds trivial, but in philosophy, defeating the skeptical argument is quite significant.
     I suppose it might be helpful to explain how disjunctivism got its name.  It gets its name from how it interprets the sentence "I seem to see an X".  Remember, when we perceive something there is no dependable way for us to distinguish if we are actually seeing an X, or if we are having an illusion/hallucination as of an X.  To the perceiver, the experience will be the same.  Returning to the point at hand, the disjunctivist claims that "I seem to see an X" is really just a condensed form of the disjunct (either/or statement) "Either I see an X or I have an illusion of X".  For the disjunct to be true one of 2 conditions must obtain:  1.  there is an X in my visual field, or 2. there isn't an X in my visual field, even if in both cases it seems to me I see an X.  
     This approach is significant, because now instead of judging the truth value of perception in relation to the phenomena we experience in our heads, the truth value of perception is attached to "facts-of-the-matter" about the external world.  That is to say, truth about a perception is no longer a function of whether I can determine if I'm hallucinating, it is about conditions in the world outside my head (even if I can't actually get outside of my own head).  And, not to belabour the point but, because truth assessment is now about the external world, we can defeat the skeptics and say that knowledge of the external world is theoretically possible.

Ok, read that a couple of time and let it turn your brain to mush.  If you really understand this the first time you read it, you are orders of magnitude more intelligent than I, or I am the greatest explanatory philosophy writer of our money's on the former.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Update and Tyler Burge/Vision Science Primer.

       A little update before we get into the philosophy....
     Actually, I lied.  There's no update here cuz, every week pretty much follows the same pattern:  going to class, fantasizing about what I'm going to eat on my "cheat" day, studying, more fantasizing about cheat day, more studying, going to the gym, entertaining the occasional bachelorette/birthday party, hiking on Sunday and eating whatever I want that night! Repeat. 
     I guess what breaks the monotony more than anything is doing those parties.  Inevitably there's always something funny that happens.  At one of the parties on Saturday the mother of the birthday girl kept telling me (in jest) that she has lots of money and if I want to stay at her place and study, it's no problem she'll take good care of me.  Of course, this caused the birthday girl and her friends to have fits of giggles watching her mom flirt with me.  As I was getting ready to leave they put some merengue on (they were Latinas).  I pretended to be uber-gringo--when I'm working amonst Spanish speakers I usually don't let on that I understand them--and said "Oh! What is this kind of music?".  One of the girls, challenging me, said "I can teach you how to dance".  This was too good to pass up.  I pretended not to know what I was doing for a bit, then "POW!".  They couldn't believe this gringo stripper knew what he was doing.  Anyway, they loved it so much they tipped me and extra $40.00, which was nice.  Yay! Fist pump!
     Oh! I guess there is some bike got stolen from campus...and it rained that day.  Great, the last thing I need as a broke student is to buy what I already owned.  And that bike was a piece of crap...what were the stinkin' theives thinking? "Hey look! This one comes with a free water bottle!" Idiots...and so much for that extra $40.00

Tyler Burge, Philosophy of Mind and Visual Science.  
A Primer.

First watch these:

   This is a little overview of some of the stuff I'm studying in my philosophy of mind class.  Very cool stuff if you're like me and don't know too much about it.  Back in my undergrad we studied the major problems of philosophy of mind and some of the important historical movements in philosophy to try to solve these problems.  However, we never studied any contemporary accounts. The book we are studying came out in February this year, so you're not going to get much more contemporary than that...Anywho, I remember having two related thoughts while we were studying theories of mind in my undergrad class:  First, what do the philosophers of today think about this stuff?; and second, can't we have an orange mocha frappaccino--I mean--turn to empirical science to help sort through some of these important issues?  Guess, what? Tyler Burge is contemporary, and....whenever possible, he refers to vision science and perceptual psychology to form/support his arguments.  Cooooool!
     To quote a famous poet, "lets get it started in ha".  Burge is concerned with asking what it means to objectively represent the physical world.  You see, when it comes to sensory perception (for the sake of simplicity we will concern ourselves only with vision) there are a couple of problems.  The first problem is that of objective representation.  We do not perceive the external world directly.  Rather, we attribute properties/kinds/relations to particular objects in the physical environment through the mysterious inner workings of our perceptual systems.  So, if our perceptions are the products of our perceptual systems' inner workings, how then do we know that our perceptions of the world correspond to what the external world is actually like? The second problem is that of fallibility of the senses.  We know the senses can sometimes misinterpret input and produce an incorrect representation.  Consequences of this problem are determining why, when and to what degree we should trust our senses.  The third problem is called "the underdetermination" problem, the solution to which will help us with problem two.  The essence of the underdetermination problem is that there are an infinite number of different external stimuli that will produce the same representation.  How does our perceptual system "decide" which interpretation of the stimuli to represent, i.e. which property to attribute to an external object?  I want to focus most of my attention on the third problem because understanding/solving it helps guide us in the first two problems.

Objective Represention
    I'd like to begin with the short answer to the first problem, the problem of objective representation.  Burge proposes an argument from evolution.  That is to say, it is not unreasonable to suppose that our perceptual systems evolved to represent the external environment accurately.  For what would be the evolutionary benefit of representing the external environment as it isn't?  Side note, generally speaking we can use "accurate" and "objective" interchangeably when referring to successful representation.  There are cases where this is not true, but we'll set those aside for now.  

The Underdetermination Problem
     Yeah, I know I'm skipping problem #2 for now, but I'll get there.  Patience!  (Note to self, follow your outline, or create one you will follow...or write the body first, then give an outline...or...shut up and write!)  To discuss the underdetermination problem, I want to first introduce some terminology that will simplify explanations.  Distal Cause:  The three dimensional external environment that is the cause of a representation and that which the perceptual system aims to represent.  Proximal cause:  The two dimensional array of light in various degrees intensity on your retina as a result of a distal cause.
     Ok, got that out of the way.  So, here's how visual science tells us (visual) representation works.  A given distal object forms a certain 2D array on your retina.  The light in this 2D pattern stimulates certain receptors which send signals to the rest of your visual system.  A bunch of stuff happens in your brain, and voila! you represent a potential distal object, and you perceive that distal object.  The problem is this.  There are an infinite number of 3D distal objects that could produce the same 2D pattern on your retina.  A simple example:  A basketball at 1 meter from you face and a mini ping pong sized basketball at 15cm from your face will cover the same amount of your visual field.  In other words, the 2D array of light on your retina will be the same size for both.  How then does your brain know which scenario to represent?  How does it correctly gage the size? Also, how does it construct a 3D representation from only a 2D pattern on the retina? This is what underdetermination means, there are mathematically an infinite number of possible distal causes of a proximal light array.
     The short answer is that you are hardwired toward certain interpretations of retinal stimulations.  Your brain is hardwired toward certain interpretations of proximal input.  We are hardwired toward interpretations that are (or were during the time they evolved) the most useful for the organism. 

...Ok, going to have to finish this another day, it's almost 5am and I can't think straight anymore...good night!  Oh! check out these cool optical illusions.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Carnap Part 3 and My Blog's Identity Crisis

Hello Friends,

Today I'm going to wrap up the overview of Carnap, and in future posts I will go into more detail.  On Tuesday I have to give a presentation on his paper "Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology" and I'll be using you guys as a practice audience.  I know! You can hardly wait!
Before I begin, as usual, I have to go off on a tangent.  After tracking the stats of my blog it became apparent to me that many of you don't read the philosophy entries (gasp!) but luuuvs you some anecdotal stories about my life.  So, I'm going to do my best to accommodate both groups of readers (yes, there are some that read the philosophy content).  The problem is that I realized that I can use the philosophy content aspect of my blog to strengthen my application package when I go through the next round of grad school applications in January.  But, then again, if an applications panel actually decides to read my blog they might find some things that could moderately move their decision in the wrong direction.  Hmmm, anyway, I guess I'll come to that bridge when I cross it...In the meantime, here's a quick status update on my life:

I finally feel like I've settled into a sustainable routine.  Studying every day from the moment I stubbled out of bed until my eyes could read no more was not effective.  After some trial and error I have, for the time being, found a precarious balance between studying, class, gym, and free time.  Of course I haven't had to write any major term papers yet so we'll see how long this balance lasts!  Nevertheless, after overcoming the initial shock of using my brain academically for the first time in longer than I care to admit, I'm getting some confidence back and feeling that this is indeed some thing I can do, not just want to do. 

Carnap Overview Part 3

     In a nutshell Carnap said this:  The entities that we choose to embrace in our beliefs, be they abstract or physical, are reflections of the linguistic framework we have implicitly or explicitly chosen to adopt.  In other words, our beliefs about our experiences can be traced back to linguistic structures we have adopted.  The important implications of this idea are as follows:  a) all knowledge systems are legitimate, but some are preferable to others on the basis of pragmatics, fruitfulness, and simplicity b)  the linguistic frameworks we choose to describe our experiences and beliefs are (should be) selected on the basis of pragmatics, fruitfulness, and simplicity c)  we cannot know the absolute reality of physical or abstract entities.   These 3 issues are intertwined, however, I'll do my best to focus on each one in turn.
Quick defining of terms: by language I don't necessarily mean natural languages, but linguistic frameworks to describing our experiences.
Lets examine the first implication, that all knowledge systems are legitimate.  Before I begin I want to clarify the vague notion of "knowledge system".  What I really mean is the collection of beliefs, both experientially and logically derived, that can be traced back to the fundamental tenets (or axioms) of your knowledge system.   At the ground floor our knowledge system is comprised of linguistic frameworks.  Lets step away from these extremely abstract notions for a second and use an example to illustrate what I'm talking about.  

For a moment lets imagine we have a very very primitive language and we don't yet have a concept for physical things.  We experience "objects" but we have no language to describe the experience.  One smart guy in our group decides that these experiences we have of objects in space-time we will call "physical things/objects".   Then he goes on to list the qualities a physical thing must have to be a physical thing; namely it has a temporal and physical location and physical extension.  Now we have a linguistic framework for physical things, and we can verify if an experience is of a physical thing by empirically determining if it conforms to our framework.  The language framework is legitimate because there are clear axioms (rules) for determining what constitutes "physical thing". 
Well, almost.  There's one more thing we need, it's called the rules of inference.  We need a clear set of rules to show how the rules interact with each other and empirical data.  There are deductive rules and inductive rules, but this goes beyond the scope of this discussion.  An example of a rule of inference is the transitive rule--if A equals B and B equals C, then A equals C.  So, any language is considered legitimate if it's basic axioms and rules of inference are spelled out.  Languages are equally legitimate to the degree that the axioms and rules of inference are clear.  
Nevertheless, different languages can lead to different systems of belief for several reasons:  The basic axioms could be different or the rules of inference could be different, or both.  An (over-simplified) example where the axioms are different would be if in another language, Language 2, instead of a physical thing linguistic framework, they adopt an idealist framework.  That is to say, instead of saying the objects of perception exist independently of our minds as physical objects, things are actually just mental phenomena--they exist only in our mind.  Before you go calling this view crazy, there have been many prominent philosophers who held similar views, you may have heard of Berkeley and (arguably) Plato.  

We can say that both the linguistic structures account for our experiences.  So long as language 2 states that all sensory experience (touch, taste, smell, vision, sound) exists only in the mind then indeed this is a legitimate account of experience.  There is no way of knowing if one Language is true and the other is false because the net result is the same and there is not objective test we could ever do to provide evidence.
Despite this problem, we can make a decision based on pragmatics, fruitfulness, and simplicity to choose which language framework to adopt.  With Language 2 and its idealist account, things start to get complicated if we want to tender the reasonable hypothesis that things continue to exist even when we are not directly perceiving them.  Idealism in it's simplest form implies that if I look away from an object, it ceases to exist (because things only exist in my mind when I perceive them directly).  The framework starts to look complicated if we want to adequately account for this phenomena.  It will require adding more axioms to our framework.  So, in this quick and dirty example we can make the pragmatic decision to adopt the language framework of physical things, because it is simpler.  It is very important to note that we can never say of any competing language structures that one is true and one is false, so long as they both account for the phenomena we seek to explain.  Simplicity is not a measure of truth.  
One final note which I will revisit in a future post is the idea that we cannot know the absolute reality of physical and abstract entities.  For any given entity there will be a variety of different linguistic (mathematical in the case of theoretical physics and science) structures to account for the phenomena.  In the case of electrons, we cannot ask if electrons have metaphysical reality, but we can say, provided we antecedently adopt the physical things linguistic structure, that we can answer this question through empirical and deductive means.  Notice, how we answer the question depends on previously adopted linguistic frameworks.  If we ask, do numbers exist? There is no metaphysical answer, but given the usefulness of numbers in explaining and predicting experience we can say it is useful and fruitful to adopt a framework that encompasses numbers.  But do numbers really exist?  We can't know, we can only say it's a useful framework to adopt.


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The 'Ridiculosity' of my Life

     Ok, lets see if I can finish up this little overview of Carnap.  There are a bunch of other things I want to write about but I'll never finish up with Carnap if I write willy-nilly whatever I want!  Focus....must focus...

  Doh!  I can't do it!  I absolutely have to tell this story before I finish the Carnap overview, it's waaay too funny.  ....So, over the last month I haven't been working because of school and I have no job.  In conjunction with paying the astronomical cost of out-of-state tuition, furnishing my room, moving expenses, car repairs, the usual expenses of living and so on I have had the unpleasant experience of watching my hard-earned savings account evaporate at a rate much higher than I ever anticipated.  So, I called up a bachelorette/birthday party service and asked if they had any work.  They gave me 2 parties for Saturday night.  The first party was cake.  The second party interesting experience....
  The organizers of the birthday party gave me a meeting place from which I would follow them to the party.  So, I'm following them for a couple of blocks and they pull over. I notice that I'm not in the best part of town (understatement).  I believe the technical term is 'the hood' or 'the ghetto'.   I'm a bit confused because we're pulled over at what appears to be a school.  Then they signal for me to pull up in front of them.  I oblige.  I park and they walk over and say, "we wanna see what you workin' with".  I step out of the car and they say (I'm going to paraphrase and summarize because I don't remember the exact words) "Um, we specifically asked for a black dude".  For the sake of accuracy I believe they told me that they had 'axed' for a black dude, but this isn't a paper on semantics.  I was very cordial (what if they try to ax me too?!) and I apologized and said the agency had sent me out, and I assumed it was because no black dudes were available, I further apologized for my whiteness, and told them that I had applied as much fake tanner as I could for the night and I wasn't going to get much darker in the immediate future. (I actually did say that).  I pointed out that I was their only option and they could decide if they wanted me or not, no offence would be taken.  After conferring amongst themselves they agreed to let me dance for the birthday girl.
  I show up to the house and there is a block party going on just like you see in MTV videos, people sprawled all over the front lawn, drinking, dancing, and eating.  Casting never told me but apparently I was the token white guy in this hip hop video.  As I walked through the party in the front yard I told the hostess to put the birthday girl in a room in the house along with the other girls, gave her my CD, and told her when the music started, I'd come out and do my show.  
  I heard the music start, took a deep breath, said to my self "showtime", and started my cowboy show for a very packed living room.  The birthday girl looked to be well into her 50s and was the mother of the organizer.  The whole time the birthday girl/lady kept on saying, "Damn! boy! Where your daddy at! I wanna meet your daddy!"  So, Dad, if you're reading this, you have a gig down here, anytime you're ready!
  The show went quite well despite there being almost no space to dance (I couldn't even do my best move!) and the birthday mom had a great time and the rest of the girls watching seemed to have fun too.  As I was packing up the hostess came up to me and said, "we've had other guys come out and dance at our parties before, but you were the best".  I thanked her for the compliment, gave the mom and hug and a kiss on each cheek, then--as inconspicuously as a white stripper can make his way through a front yard full of black guys whose girlfriends had just been entertained by said white boy--walked to my car, got in, closed the door and laughed.  Laughed at the 'ridiculosity' of my life. 


Saturday, September 4, 2010

Carnap Part 2

OK, I've seriously got to socialize with other humans, I'm starting to get cabin fever.
Oh, and what the crap am I doing at 3 am on a Friday night, drinking wine by myself and
writing about R. Carnap?

In the previous post I introduced R. Carnap, his overarching Enlightenment objectives, the forces confronting his view, and his first attempt at reconciling the Romantic with the Enlightenment. What I will do today is to look at the two key problems he faced and how he proposed to overcome them.

The First Problem: A Clear Definition of Knowledge

The opposition to classical enlightenment thinking is that by putting reason, logic, and scientific thinking, methodology, and language on such a high pedestal; the fuzzier areas of human knowledge--ethics, politics, emotions, the arts, spirituality--were relegated to second rate status. Another way of framing this is consider if we should give different epistemological status to different types of knowledge ----subjective folk knowledge vs objective scientific knowledge. Recall Carnap's first attempt to unify our different fields of knowledge by simply eliminating any term or concept that couldn't be exactly quantified and utilized in an artificial objective language of logic. The downfall of his "radical reductionism" was that everyday language and knowledge were, by the definition, valueless.
Hip Hop clown's response: That's so wack! I have lots of important stuffs to rap about!
Me: Nu-uh!
Hip Hop clown: Oh no, you di'int!
Me: Yup, I did.

The Second Problem: The Connection Between Technical/Scientific Knowledge/Language and Everyday Knowledge/Language

The second problem is that if we grant one type of knowledge special status, how then does the one system of knowledge interact with the other? To better understand the problem lets take a step back for a second. Recall that the whole goal of the Enlightenment undertaking is to use reason to improve our social and personal systems so we can better ourselves and live richer more meaningful lives. With this context in mind we can see that there is a going to be a problem if we separate different forms of knowledge, ways of knowing, and language. We need the scientific language/knowledge for the practical realm. The problem is that by separating the two realms we are implicitly saying that they operate on different principles, respectively. In the realm of everyday affairs people don't use the language of science or the methods of science. In many cases it would be entirely impractical. Yet, we need the scientific domain and it's concepts and language to improve the practical domain. So, how do we connect the two forms of knowledge so the ultimate utopian goals can be met? (I'm imploring you...)

Ok, it 3am on Friday night, and I've had a little wine. Studying is way more fun this way, but maybe not as effective...I think I'm gonna have to finish this post another day...Sorry to keep you all in suspense, I know how badly you want to find out Carnap's master solution!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Meet My New Friend R. Carnap: Part 1 of 3

I've been holding off on discussing R. Carnap for a while partly because it's tough to know where to start and even more difficult is where to end. This guy was amazing. A giant in 20th Century philosophy.
I studied him a bit in undergrad in my epistemology course. At ASU I'm taking a full course on him. It was one of those situations where you need to take a class, only one fits your schedule so you take it hoping for the best. I couldn't be happier. The professor is a Carnap scholar, is very passionate about Carnap's work and the content of the course is inspiring.
Carnap's overarching goal was, in some sense, to continue the traditions of the Enlightenment. Enlightenment thinking is characterized by the notion that through human reason we can gain insight and knowledge about the natural world (ourselves included). That knowledge in turn can be used to reshape all aspects of human life (social, political, economic, etc...) improve the human condition.
The Enlightenment view through out history, and even now in the mainstream, has always had strong adversaries. A general term for the countervailing world-view would be Romanticism. It the rejection of the idea that through reason and technical knowledge alone can we describe and form our lives. Romanticists hold that the cold world of logic and science ignore the intuitive awareness humans posses as another way of "knowing" our world. They argue that our values and culture are a special kind of knowledge of which science has no part. For example, science can't tell us what good art is; science can't tell us how to resolve ethical debates; it can't tell me what the best flavour of ice cream is! This debate still goes on today between everyday people, not just philosophers. For a good account of the issues displayed in literary format I highly recommend "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" by Robert Prisig. (I don't necessarily condone his point of view but he expresses the points of view of both sides quite well.)
At any rate, one way to frame the whole debate is as a confrontation between two systems of knowledge and language. One the one side you have the systems passed down from our ancestors, our intuitively derived folk concepts, common sense and ideas couched in everyday language. On the other hand there are the theories, laws, derived from reason and the scientific method, all couched in a new scientific language.
One of Carnap's great goals was to try to reconcile this apparent intractable conflict. Through out my little fireside chat about Carnap it is important to keep in mind his over arching reason for ever undertaking this impossible task. I will repeat it here because it is so important and is the reason why I have fallen in love with his philosophy: His whole goal was to find a method of improving the way we construct and live our lives. He felt that the sciences, having shown more positive progress than any other human endeavour offered the best method. The problem was how do we quantify knowledge in the humanities and everyday life so it can becomes useful to this purpose. When it comes to the social sciences language and concepts are notoriously fuzzy. Enter his first attempt.
Radical Reconstruction
His first attempt was characterized by an effort to piece by piece replace fuzzy imprecise terms of every day language and replace them with exact quantitative and logical terms. These terms would then be used in an artificial language to which the rules of logic could be applied. Any terms that were irreconcilably vague were rejected from the new language, because they did not convey useful information.
For example, the terms "hot" and "cold": They convey information but not very much. We can add more information and say "colder" or "hotter" or "hottest". The problem is that the information is still vague and subjective. If we can objectify the information, then we can make rational logical decisions with it. Enter the scientific concept/language of science....temperature! 35o Celcius! Now, the information is objective. Once the language has been objectified it becomes useful and trustworthy for making decisions. Also, now that it is quantified, we can apply the force of mathematics and reason to it and deduce other information and gain new knowledge.
Carnap's first attempt had many opponents, including many of his peers. Not only was it impractical to go through an entire natural language and word by word, concept by concept; but it ignored out of hand the practical and important role of everyday language. Everyday language may be imprecise but it can serve as a useful tool for expressing human concerns, emotions, and for going about the practical business of one's day. It wasn't long before Carnap himself dropped his idea of radical reconstruction.

Well, as usual, I've gotten carried away and what I thought would be 30 min of writing turned into over an hour. It's 4am....time for bed. Stay tuned for Carnap's next idea "The Principle of Tolerance".

And as always, I eagerly accept any questions about this post or previous posts!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

How we know we know nothing.

Ok, guys, I'm going to discuss one of the main areas of 20th Century philosophy, Epistemology, the study of knowledge. Don't be scared, I'm going to do my best to break terms down so this little exposition doesn't sound too technical/boring.
Before we get all academic in this beezy, lets take a quick look at some of the main problems epistemologists have tried to solve/argue incessantly about. Some of the problems are best illustrated by an example, which I will shamelessly steal from my prof., Dr. Creath:
Imagine you have two beakers (I love that word). The first beaker (ha!) has 1 cup of water and the second has 1 cup of sugar. What will happen if you pour one beaker into the other? Give up? Well, you'll get some sweet water. But how much? 2 cups? Actually the solution will only measure about 1 1/2 cups. So what? The problem is that the basic laws of algebra tell us that 1+1=2. Nevertheless, nobody in their right mind is going to suggest that this experiment disproves the laws of basic algebra.
The experiment does, however, point to some very important philosophical and philosophy of science issues. Basically this experiment demonstrates that different forms of reasoning about the same phenomenon can yield different results. Which form of reasoning should we follow? Should some forms of reasoning supersede others? Should quantity of demonstrations count? (i.e. if I show you 1 000 ways that 1+1 does not equal 2, then will you relinquish the belief in the rules of arithmetic?) If we redo the experiment with 1 cup of water in each beaker, most people will say that this confirms 1+1=2. But why only consider the conformational evidence? Doesn't evidence that disconfirms a hypothesis count too?
There is another related issue concerning how we justify claims about knowledge. It is known as the "infinite regress" problem". Generally, when we want to support a claim as true, we point to reasons why it is true. But each of these reasons are themselves claims about objective truth and themselves need to be justified, and so on and so on throw your hands up in the air, and wave 'em like you just don't care. Or you can take an approach some philosophers have taken (most famously Descartes of the "I think therefore I am" fame ) and claim there are some fundamental objective truths about the world and all other facts about the world can be derived/deduced from these truths (some of which will be very very long explanations).
So...we have a problem concerning how to justify claims (as true). Another solution is to say that some claims can be justified through observation. There are however problems with this method of justification beyond the practical problem that sometimes our senses deceive us and we that have no way reliable way of distinguishing between when our senses deceive us and when they don't. (As an aside, it is my humble opinion that most claims of paranormal experiences stem from this inability to distinguish). The philosophical problem is, how do we prove that observation is a reliable method of justifying claims? The only tool we have for this undertaking is observation itself (i.e. we can run experiments to determine if observation is reliable but experiments rely on observational data to confirm/disconfirm hypothese). When you presuppose what you are trying to prove, this, as most people know, is called circular logic and is not particularly helpful in our dilemma.
Ok, so there you have it. A quick overview of the problems in epistemology and philosophy of science. Mainly, what constitutes knowledge? how do we derive knowledge? what methods of obtaining knowledge are reliable? and what do we do in cases where different methods of obtaining knowledge lead to contradictory or incongruous results?
Actually, I was kidding, there is another family of problems, and it has to do with something called apriori knowledge (I'm such a kidder!). Apriori literally means "prior to" and it is in reference to experience. In everyday English it means, "things that you can/do know without having to have empirical (observational) evidence". The typical example is truths by definition, such as: all bachelors are unmarried. You don't have to go around and interview every bachelor in the world to know that this is true. There are other things, usually matters that don't have correspond to anything in the physical world like math and logic. You don't need to go measure every equilateral triangle in the world to know that the Pythagorean theorem is true. It's truth is derived by the understanding of the principles of geometry. Also, principles of geometry like, the shortest distance between 2 points is a straight line, don't need you to do anything more than reflect in your mind to verify it's truth (later we will contend this, but for now, lets say that the Euclidian geometric axiom is true).
Most people, will agree that we do not need experiential knowledge to verify the examples i've given. So where does this knowledge come from? If we don't acquire it from the external world then it must be part of the structure of our brain....hmmm But the story doesn't end here because sometimes we discover that what we thought were absolute truths in logic or math (apriori knowledge), turn out to have alternative explanations or are wrong. Doh! So now we are in trouble. We need a hero who can lift us out of this mess. I present to you....

Actually, I'm going to let that stew in your head for a bit (cuz I've got other stuff to study). Hopefully you'll lose some sleep over it, then when your appetite for knowledge reaches levels unknown to any man hence, you will beg me to reveal, in all it's philosophical glory, Rudolf Carnap's ideas on how to reconcile some of these problems. Ta!ta!