Sunday, January 30, 2011
Monday, January 24, 2011
On Deal or No Deal the banker’s offer is typically lower than the expected amount in the contestant’s box, which will be the amount of money left in the unopened boxes divided by the number of unopened boxes. I’ve heard people say the contestants are therefore always irrational to take the offer, but that’s not true. The expected consequences may be better for them if they deal, because of diminishing returns: if someone gave me £10,000 that would probably improve my life less than twice as much as if they gave me £5,000. Benefit needn’t be proportional to prizemoney so expected benefit needn’t be proportional to expected prizemoney. But even if the expected benefits of dealing are less than those of not dealing, it might still be rationally permissible to deal because that way you’re sure of getting something. If you played many times the expectation-maximising strategy would be very unlikely to do worse than the dealing strategy, but if you’re only playing once there’s a significant chance you’re better off dealing. So why not deal? (I don’t know if there’s a rule against a season’s contestants agreeing to maximise their expected prize each time and share their winnings, but there should be.)
Now suppose option A kills one person, and option B will probably kill nobody, but has a 1% chance of killing 110 people. B has more expected deaths, but maybe you should go with B anyway because it’s 99% certain to be fine and otherwise the poor victim of option A will certainly die.
Sunday, January 23, 2011
People like me who like Humean supervenience, four-dimensionalism and things like that probably ought to pay more attention to the homogeneous spinning disc argument. It gets attributed to Kripke and Armstrong in the 1970s and CD Broad earlier than that. (Broad had currents in a homogeneous liquid.) The argument means to show that how the world is qualitatively at each time doesn’t determine how it is qualitatively overall, because a world containing only a disc of homogeneous matter would be the same at each time whether the disc was spinning or not. Katherine Hawley seems to have fairly similar inclinations to me, but she still responds to the argument by rejecting Humean supervenience, saying that there are non-supervenient relations holding between instantaneous bits of the disc at different times, in virtue of which an instantaneous bit at one time is a future stage of an instantaneous bit at another. It seems to work. I don’t have a big problem with the very idea of immanent causation grounding temporal counterpart relations, but I don’t generally think of it as fundamental, because violations of Humean supervenience are odd. The spinning disc argument is powerful though, and I should have a response. I think Hawley’s arguments against the responses she considers look pretty good, but lately I’ve been wondering about a different one. I don’t know if it’s already out there, but I’ve not seen it before.
The difference between the spinning disc and the stationary disc is supposed to ground counterfactuals about things like what would have happened if some paint or a volleyball had landed on the disc. I’m wondering whether a homogeneous disc really would do different things to some paint or a volleyball when they landed on it. If a homogeneous disc would interact with its surroundings in exactly the same way whether or not it was spinning, it’s easier to deny that it makes sense to say that a homogeneous thing is spinning or not. One way of thinking about it is that when something is internally moving like when a disc spins or there are currents in a liquid what’s really moving are the inhomogeneities. Now, in the actual particulate world a particle can be looked at as an inhomogeneity, especially if you’re a supersubstantivalist. So on this way of thinking, particles still move. But to say that the contents of a homogeneous region of space was moving internally wouldn’t make sense, for the banal reason that inhomogeneities are what moves, and it doesn’t contain any of those.
So why will the disc interact in the same way with the volleyball or the paint whether it’s moving or not? We don’t have a true theory of physics for homogeneous matter, so we have to think about it in an intuitive way, or at best in a Newtonian way. Essentially the idea is that the disc is perfectly smooth, and that means it won’t have any friction and won’t exert an angular force on the volleyball. It’ll just spin smoothly underneath it. The paint is a bit harder to picture, but I’m not sure the paint will properly stick to the disc. If the disc is smooth it’ll exert no angular force on the paint and just spin underneath it without affecting the circular puddle that forms. At least, I don’t know that that’s wrong.
I’m not sure how to make the case that the disc would behave the same way whether or not it was spinning if you drilled a hole in it, but I can believe there’s a case to be made. Perhaps a spinning disc would just flow around the drillbit. I don’t have a brilliant grip on the difference between a homogeneous liquid and a homogeneous solid. There’s an intuitive way of thinking about it, where the liquid disc would flow around the drillbit and the solid disc would get an arc-shaped hole in it, but that doesn’t fit well with the Newtonian picture in which under the microscope all matter is in the same state of being composed of tiny indestructible billiard balls. Would a piece of homogeneous matter behave like a giant impenetrable indestructible billiard ball, or more like a gas? I don’t know how to settle a question like that. I’m suggesting that to get homogeneous matter to behave anything like normal matter behaves we may already need the non-supervenient properties or relations, like non-supervenient frictional properties of smooth surfaces and cohesion properties of homogeneous substances. If that’s the case, it isn’t that the counterfactuals are there and the Humean can’t explain them; the counterfactuals aren’t there in the first place unless the non-supervenient properties and relations are introduced. This is because inhomogeneities aren't just the things the move; they're also the things that act. The Humean can say that non-particulate matter would have to be metaphysically weird to behave anything like normal matter does, so pieces of homogeneous matter would have to behave like big particles, and particles don't internally move. I suspect that showing whether or not they'd be right would take some hard work.
Thursday, January 20, 2011
Today Ed Balls was made Shadow Chancellor, and all I can say is: about time! Well, I can also say congratulations, since although it’s not a proper job and he won’t get a payrise, it’s still a promotion of sorts. But seriously, it’s about time. If I’ve understood Ed’s career correctly, his were a large portion of the brains behind Gordon Brown’s chancellorship, and various ideas like giving the Bank of England more independence were largely his. Then it became apparent that Brown might one day need a Chancellor of his own, so Ed got himself elected in 2005 so he’d be eligible for the job. In 2007 Brown became Prime Minister as we all assumed he eventually would, and... Alistair Darling was made Chancellor. I don’t completely blame him for the global economic meltdown that happened largely on his watch. I expect that things would be different if he’d acted differently over Northern Rock, RBS and the rest, but the issues are very complicated and I don’t really understand them. I doubt he did either.
I never worked out why Brown picked Darling as his Chancellor. Perhaps he offered Ed the job, but Ed saw the crisis coming and knew that nothing could be done that would leave the Chancellor looking good, so he did what Hague should have done in 1997 and bided his time. Or perhaps Brown got cold feet the way Sven did with Theo Walcott at the 2006 World Cup. Either way, now it’s finally Ed's job to tell us all how we ought to be dealing with the mess the economy’s in, and to oppose Mr Osborne when he does something else. I’m looking forward to seeing how he does. If he does a really good job, I might even vote Labour next time. Probably not though, because I don’t live in a marginal and I’m still annoyed about those wars.
Monday, January 17, 2011
I hear there's a plan to have ministers choosing the books on the English syllabus, and that if it passes it will be up to you. My suggestion is that the kids read Oliver Goldsmith, and here's why:
1) He's unique in that he has only three major works, and they're a novel (The Vicar of Wakefield), a play (She Stoops to Conquer) and a poem (The Deserted Village), so it's feasible to do the whole canonical part of an oeuvre spanning all three major literary forms. The poem's long and less fun so extracts are probably the way to go with that.
2) He's funny and the novel isn't long, so the kids might actually read it.
3) The play's still performed quite a lot and is hilarious, so the kids could go on school trips to see it.
4) He's eighteenth century, which is under-represented in schools, and shows that the century wasn't just about interminable epistolary novels and brilliant but barely comprehensible proto-postmodernism.
I know you're busy, but if you haven't read the book or seen the play, at least give them a go. They're not long, and they're hilarious. The poem's less fun, like I say.
Thursday, January 13, 2011
Tuesday, January 11, 2011
I’d like to get gobby about the overuse of the word ‘surely’ in academic philosophical writing. I’ve just finished reading an otherwise fairly good book by a professional philosopher which seemed to use it every other page. I won’t say who he was, though some people who know me will know already. I dislike people saying ‘surely’ in much the same way I dislike people using the Nazis as their example of anything of which the Nazis are an example, using ‘scare’ quotes, and using italics to indicate that now what they’re saying is particularly important.
Proust (I haven’t read much of À la Recherche, but as a first year undergraduate I had to read the first 200 pages) made the point about scare quotes better than I could. Paraphrasing from memory, he said that it’s like you’re saying “I’d never use this word, but I’m talking about what buffoons call ‘____’”. But when you do this, you’re using the word yourself! (Believe it or not, I don’t have a problem with exclamation marks.) If you’re not a buffoon, why are you using the word? Why not use the word you normally use? So don’t use scare quotes, and don’t use air quotes either. You especially shouldn’t use scare quotes when you’re doing philosophy of language, because you’re probably already using quotes to talk about words, as in “my wife is Claudia, and her name is ‘Claudia’”. It’s sometimes confusing, and even when it’s clear it’s silly.
Enough’s been said about using the Nazis as an example already. The problem I have with italics is that it’s either a lazy way of adding emphasis, a patronising attempt to show the reader how to read, like a composer who puts instructions all over his scores, or it’s the writer saying “look, I know you’re not paying attention to most of the waffle I’ve suckered you into reading, but this bit’s really important”. If you’re doing that, maybe I’ll only read the italicised parts, though for some writers that wouldn’t save much time.
What I don’t like about ‘surely’ goes a bit deeper than these stylistic gripes, though. It’s not just bad writing; it’s one of three other things. It’s either bad philosophy, bad writing which leads to bad philosophy, or a brazen acceptance of the bad philosophy that even people who don’t say ‘surely’ do from time to time. The problem is that philosophers aren’t like scientists with their evidence or mathematicians with their genuine rigour. A lot of the time we just say things and hope the reader will agree. I think we do this too much, and there are other, better ways to do philosophy. Saying ‘surely’ draws attention to the fact you’re not offering an argument for a claim, but appealing to the reader to agree with you anyway. The worst is when they say something genuinely controversial, and back it up with ‘surely’. For example, they might say “surely a thing can’t have properties if it doesn’t even exist”. Well Graham Priest, Ed Zalta, Terence Parsons and a gaggle of others think things can have properties without existing, so this ‘surely’ business is either ignorant or disingenuous. There’s no shame in saying “some people think things can have properties without existing, but I don’t want to make that concession so I’m going to try to solve the problem at hand without making it”. Surely that sounds better.
Sunday, January 9, 2011
Without committing myself one way or another on the whole “are they selling out or aren’t they” debate (yet), I can at least see why celebrities endorse products. They’re paid to. If someone offers you a truckload of money to tell people to wear Nike trainers, that gives you a reason to tell people to wear them that you didn’t have before. Maybe it’s wrong to decide which trainers to endorse on the basis of who pays you rather than on the basis of who makes the best trainers. Maybe I’d vote for a party who said they’d ban paid celebrity endorsements. But it’s not illegal yet, and I can see what motivates the celebrities.
What I can’t see is why it works. People see Tiger Woods or Terry Wogan or whoever telling them to drink Coca-Cola or what have you, and they know they’ve been paid to do this, but they still respond by drinking Coca-Cola. Apparently, some people really respond this way. I hope I don’t, and you presumably don’t, but some people do. They must, or celebrity endorsements would be bad business. I’ve got a few theories about how it works, and I’m not happy about any of them.
My first theory is that people are extremely naive. They understand that celebrities are paid to endorse the products they endorse, but they think they pick the products they really like, and see the fee as a kind of bonus, or thankyou, or expenses. Or perhaps they’ve been watching Peep Show and think that money’s an energy and a lot of it seems to flow towards celebrities. If some of this is as fees for their autonomous and principled endorsements, well, that’s just the way the world works.
If people aren’t this naive, maybe they’re just suggestible and confused. Consciously they know that the celebrity is just doing what they’re paid to do, but unconsciously it still makes them want the product, as if the celebrity had endorsed it out of principle and for free. This doesn’t seem far-fetched to me. If a century or so of hilarious psychology experiments have taught us anything it’s that even intelligent people are easily manipulated in spite of themselves.
The third possibility is that putting a Nike logo on a celebrity is like putting one on a pretty girl. People like things they see next to things they like, so this will make the celebrity’s fans like the product.
So, are the celebrities selling out? I think it’s fairly obvious that if the second theory turns out to be true, celebrity endorsements are like subliminal advertising and it’s arbitrary not to ban the former once we’ve banned the latter. Even if we don’t ban endorsements, if that’s how they work then the people involved are much like subliminal advertisers. If the third theory is right, then I suppose the celebrities are selling out their fame, but only in the way that pretty people in car ads are selling out their prettiness. If the first theory is true, then celebrities who endorse products they wouldn’t endorse for free are, in a way, liars. But they are only lying to extremely naive people. At least they’re not lying to me.