If you want good laws, burn those you have and make new ones.
In fact, destroying knowledge is not a method of creating knowledge, let alone of creating superior knowledge.
Elliot Temple at 11:28 AM
on January 18, 2010 | Permalink
| Comments (2)
_Conjectures and Refutations_ p 162
[Edmund Burke] fought, as you know, against the ideas of the French Revolution, and his most effective weapon was his analysis of that irrational power which we call 'tradition'. I mention Burke because I think he has never been properly answered by rationalists. Instead rationalists tended to ignore his criticism and to persevere in their anti-traditionalists attitude without taking up the challenge. Undoubtedly there is a traditional hostility between rationalism and traditionalism. Rationalists are inclined to adopt the attitude: 'I am not interested in tradition. I want to judge everything on its merits and demerits, and I want to do this quite independently of any tradition. I want to judge it with my own brain, and not with the brains of other people who lived long ago.'
That the matter is not quite so simple as this attitude assumes emerges from the fact that the rationalist who says such things is himself very much bound by a rationalist tradition which traditionally says them. This shows the weakness of certain traditional attitudes towawrds the problem of tradition.
I see confusion here. The right attitude is to judge ideas on their merits and demerits, but to do so with the aid of both reason and traditional knowledge. This is perhaps clearer to see if one renames "traditional knowledge" to "existing knowledge". Existing knowledge is good, and shouldn't be disregarded even by people with a very high opinion of reason and individual judgment.
Existing knowledge should be used whenever doing so seems unproblematic, and improved when it seems problematic. It should be respected as something valuable, but not something beyond criticism. I think this attitude harnesses the good points of both the rationalists and traditionalists and also demonstrates they are not fundamentally in conflict.
Elliot Temple at 12:37 PM
on January 15, 2010 | Permalink
| Comments (6)
Political Justice, book 4, chapter 2, by William Godwin, published 1793
The wise man is not satisfied with his own attainments, or even with his principles and opinions. He is continually detecting errors in them; he suspects more; there is no end to his revisals and enquiries.
Elliot Temple at 8:37 PM
on January 14, 2010 | Permalink
| Comments (0)
Those phrases are things real people want to know about. Real everyday people commonly have a hard time with such basic issues as talking to their partner about whether they want to get married, or talking about what type of sex they like. Real couples do squabble over weightloss, shaving, smoking and drinking. Real couples do hurt each other then deal with that by trying to gain forgiveness or regain trust. Real couples do disagree about how much time to spend together. And so on.
None of this was invented by TV writers; none of it is the biased opinion of a magazine writer. Yet somehow it's very similar to what you see on TV and read in magazines. What a strange coincidence that popular entertainment mirrors what many people think about.
I just tried it myself and typed "how can i get my boyfriend" into a Google search field. It had some different ones:
"how can i get my boyfriends myspace password"
"how can i get my boyfriend back"
Those are sufficiently frequent searches that Google will recommend them. In other words, girls commonly
want to hurt their boyfriend or invade his privacy. Boys also search for revenge.
Elliot Temple at 2:19 PM
on January 10, 2010 | Permalink
| Comments (0)
I have released an iPhone app called Greek Symbols. It lists the greek letters and their names. I use it when I encounter them in math books. It's for sale for $1 here:
The app store approval process went very smoothly for me. No pain, no problems, and it only took them a couple days. Some people have bad experiences and complain online. Some other people try to judge the app store based, in part, on the non-random sample of app store experiences people choose to post online. That doesn't work well because many of the people with good experiences don't care to say anything. But I'm saying something: Apple's app store approval process has treated me very well so far.
Elliot Temple at 1:36 PM
on January 8, 2010 | Permalink
| Comments (0)
I understand it well. Not perfectly, but enough I have no questions to ask. Nothing is confusing me and needs clarifying. Basically I get it.
I don't have any criticism of it. That's because it's good. Whether something merits criticism is not an attribute of me.
I don't have anything to add. No new ways to approach the material, no further applications, no new ideas that build on it. This is primarily because it's pretty complete already; the author didn't leave much for me to add. Secondarily, it's because while I do understand it well, I'm not beyond it. It's at my level, not beneath me, so that's why I don't have more advanced stuff to add.
So, there is this narrow no-reply zone. It takes some pretty specific stuff to get into the zone. Most ideas in the world are either advanced or confusing enough I'd have questions, or at a low enough level I'd have criticism or improvements. With all those things I can have a discussion. But there is this little window where I end up not replying at all. I'd like to discuss, but I just can't find anything to say.
It seems like a shame. Material exactly at my level would be good to engage with, right?
Now, there's a couple things about this situation that I've noticed are a little strange.
This no-reply zone is small, but I reply to less than 5% of the philosophical emails which I receive and generally agree with. How can that be?
And second, it's not just me. Most other people seem to have larger-than-expected no-reply zones. And not just that. By some strange coincidence, their zone coincides with my zone. Time after time, I see some post that, unfortunately, is right in the middle of my no-reply zone, so try as I might I can't reply. But it's really interesting and I want there to be discussion of it. And then no one else replies. At first I thought it was just bad luck, but then I started counting and I noticed that happens on around 50% of philosophical posts that I generally agree with.
Elliot Temple at 10:36 AM
on December 22, 2009 | Permalink
| Comments (12)
This video is in favor of the US Armed Forces.
Some would say it is a bad video because "I like my country" is a symmetrical argument. Other people in other countries use the same kind of argument, but with a different conclusion.
But they are missing something: the US armed forces is good. There are asymmetries, e.g. its exceptionally humane treatment of prisoners, its exceptional skill, and its exceptional efforts to avoid collateral damage.
How can they miss these things? There is no shortage of information about them. To say that someone is using a really bad argument, when no argument is specified and plenty of correct arguments are well known, is dishonest.
The people who enjoy this video knows the USAF is not the same as other militaries. (And they would readily agree that certain specific militaries come close in some ways, and perhaps are even superior in regards to certain specific traits. Meanwhile most militaries are much, much worse.) They aren't blind patriots but rational ones.
Some people might still press on. The video should give those good arguments, they'd insist. It should be more educational. This argument has a certain symmetry to it. It applies equally well to all other kinds of fan videos, e.g. sports fan videos, anime fan videos, and movie fan videos. Why should movie goers be allowed to enjoy a movie without always trying to educate and argue about why it's a good movie? Why are sports fans allowed to hold up signs and cheer for their team without giving any arguments? To say that being a fan of the military is bad because fans are bad, but that being a fan of a sport is not bad in the same way, is a very bad argument.
Elliot Temple at 5:07 PM
on December 14, 2009 | Permalink
| Comments (2)
Symmetry in general means that something stays the same in the face of some transformation. (This is a bit broad. Some symmetry is trivial and boring, and other is important. Anyone know a good statement which captures which is which better?)
Symmetry is a major concept in physics, in the form of conservation laws. For example, one says that total energy in a closed system stays the same when physical processes of all sorts take place.
Symmetry is also a major concept in philosophy. Philosophers watch out for symmetrical arguments or types of arguments (which argue equally well for the other side as the one they claim to support, or for all sides).
Symmetry also has an important role in aesthetics (in many cases, but not all, symmetrical things are more beautiful).
I think symmetry has a major role in math too, but I don't know the details.
Thus, symmetry is a concept with a lot of reach. It's an important concept.
What other fields is symmetry important to?
One reason symmetry may be important is that it's related to arbitrariness. Arbitrariness is the situation where all the choices look the same to us: they are symmetrical in every regard we know is important. And good explanations need to avoid being arbitrary. In general in philosophy, good explanations *break symmetry* in some way. But what does that have to do with physics, which has laws stating it's impossible to break certain symmetries? Or what does it have to do with aesthetics, where symmetry is often preferred?
Here's a bit more detail on symmetry. The best known kind is rotational symmetry. You take a picture and rotate it and get the same picture.
Conservation of momentum states that if have some total amount of momentum, and then you go forward in time (meanwhile doing whatever you want), then you have the same total momentum again. For example, consider two asteroids in deep space. Both are floating along. Then they collide, little pieces go flying everywhere. If you add up the momentum of all the pieces it's the same as the momentum from before the collision.
The general pattern is you have some thing, then you do some transformation process to change the thing in some significant way, but some key aspect stays the same.
With arguments, suppose you have an argument against X. Then you change it in some way, and now it's an argument against Y, but *everything else important stayed the same*. The symmetry is in the structure and logic of the argument, and the asymmetry is in its conclusion. For example, suppose I say it's bad to vote democrat b/c democrats are politicians and politicians are scumbags. This is a very bad argument because it's symmetrical with republicans or democrats as the targets. When we change it to "it's bad to vote republican b/c republicans are politicians and politicians are scumbags" the internal logic makes just as much sense before, it's exactly as compelling as an argument, only the conclusion has changed. So how can it support one of its possible conclusions over another equally valid one? It can't. So it fails.
Elliot Temple at 4:54 PM
on December 14, 2009 | Permalink
| Comments (0)
some people want to reform the military -- make gays completely welcome.
these same people claim US society in general is homophobic and must reform.
so, question: shouldn't the military be the last thing to reform?
why would you screw with such a mission-critical system, where life and death are on the line, which is in active use, when you haven't even gotten your changes to be implemented and prove their merit in a lower pressure scenario? shouldn't we reform things piecemeal, starting with easier and safer changes? then continue if we have success, and not if we don't (assuming in advance which reforms will be successful is irrational. we should be open minded and pay attention to how well it actually works).
are people who don't know anything about sane methods of reform qualified to reform anything at all?
Elliot Temple at 4:31 PM
on December 14, 2009 | Permalink
| Comments (3)
The word 'fallibility' has two different meanings. One is that we can't be absolutely sure of anything. The other is that mistakes are common. These meanings are both the same kind of thing, but the first is much narrower than the second. I embrace the truth of both meanings.
Sometimes fallibilists argue that math cannot have certainty because performing a proof is a physical process, and during physical processes things can go wrong (e.g. i could be drugged to unconsciousness and then awake with tampered memories such that I thought I'd completely the proof correctly when I hadn't). This argument is correct, but it is only an argument for the first, lesser meaning of fallibility. Although it gives an example demonstrating the possibility of a mistake, it does not show that mistakes are common.
A similar kind of argument is made by fallibilists with inductivists. We may point out that, as a matter of logic, inductive conclusions do not deductively follow from their premises, and therefore they are fallible. Again, this is an argument for fallibility in the first sense -- error is possible -- but it does not say whether error is common or not.
One result of this situation is that some people are converted to fallibilism but only in the first sense. When they encounter people who embrace fallibilism in the deeper sense, they become confused because these people discuss fallibilism but in a different way than they understand it. There can be further confusion because both groups identify themselves by the same label, "fallibilists", and may then wonder why they are disagreeing so much.
The more thorough meaning of fallibilism is required for most important fallibilist arguments. This is known to many anti-fallibilists who claim fallibilism is stupid and useless because not a lot of interesting truths follow from it (they have in mind the more limited meaning of fallibilism). And emphasizing that error is possible could be deemed misleading if it is in fact very very rare and perhaps even negligible.
Here are some examples of how the stronger meaning of fallibilism leads to important conclusions the weaker meaning does not:
Should parents take seriously the possibility that, in the face of a disagreement, their child might be in the right? If mistakes are common, including mistakes by parents, then yes they should. This is a clear implication from the strong meaning of fallibilism. But on the other hand if the parent having made a mistake is only a very remote possibility, one in a million, then one could considering taking a different attitude.
Should lovers who think they won't end up with broken hearts take seriously the possibility that their knowledge of how to avoid being hurt may contain a mistake? That depends if mistakes are commonplace or extremely rare. If the rate of making mistakes like that is one per hundred million couples then it's not worth worrying about. If it's one per two couples then it'd be crazy not to think about it a lot.
When a person seems to misunderstand my argument, should I believe he is doing it deliberately (perhaps because he sees that it refutes his position)? If mistakes in understanding arguments are extremely rare, then it would follow that it's usually deliberate. But if mistakes are common, then I shouldn't take it to be deliberate.
In general, when I disagree with someone, is he mistaken, am I mistaken, or is he a bad person? If mistakes are common, either of us could be mistaken. If mistakes are extraordinary rare, then I may have to conclude he is a bad person who wants to adopt mistaken ideas due to bias or some other factor. This is especially true if I have multiple disagreements with him. If mistakes are very rare, can he really be innocently mistaken on all those issues?
Elliot Temple at 6:02 PM
on December 12, 2009 | Permalink
| Comments (0)