David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: June 2008 (page 1 of 2)

Sellars on Kant

When Kant insists that we ought to act from a sense of duty he is not making the absurd mistakes which have often been attributed to him. He is simply repeating the point with which he opens the argument of the Fundamental Principles of Metaphysic of Morals, that the only unconditional good is a good will. By this he means that the only state of a person which is unconditionally good from a moral point of view is the disposition to act from a sense of duty. He has two points in mind: (a) Whereas action from any motive can have bad results, the sense of duty alone is such that only by virtue of ignorance does it have bad results. Action from other motives even where ignorance is absent can lead to bad results. Thus the sense of duty is the only motive which has a direct conceptual tie to the categorically valid end of moral conduct. In this sense a good will is a categorical ought-to-be. (b) Although the general welfare is also an end in itself, a categorical ought-to-be, the ought-to-be of the happiness of any given individual is, Kant believes, conditional on his having a good will.

Wilfrid Sellars, Form and Content in Ethical Theory

It’s still hard for me to see how this is not question-begging or even circular. Sellars wants to bring in specificity to the data on which the good will acts, but this poses the problem of whether the good will obtains its disposition from this data (in which case the will is not unconditioned), or whether the disposition is innate and/or noumenal, in which case the will still has the capacity to act in a state of complete ignorance and still be acting from the sense of duty.

It was Sellars’s goal to merge scientific reality with phenomenological experience by offering a constructivist account of how our conceptual knowledge of the latter emerges without appealing to any pie-in-the-sky Platonism. Since Sellars’s problem was not with a priori knowledge in the Kantian sense per se (whether he would term this knowledge is a different question entirely), he would not have to necessarily be opposed to a naturalistic conception of morality, i.e., one that could fit within the scientific image. This is why he can say that for Kant, “The fallibility of moral philosophy is not the fallibility of empirical induction,” because morality need not be obtained from empirical induction. Consequently, Kant ends up doing a bit of Sellars’s work for him if Sellars can accept that the good will obtained in such a way fulfills the criteria required for a moral authority.

Montaigne: On Democritus and Heraclitus

Democritus et Heraclitus ont esté deux philosophes, desquels le premier trouvant vaine et ridicule l’humaine condition, ne sortoit en public, qu’avec un visage moqueur et riant : Heraclitus, ayant pitié et compassion de cette mesme condition nostre, en portoit le visage continuellement triste, et les yeux chargez de larmes.

Ridebat quoties à limine moverat unum
Protuleratque pedem, flebat contrarius alter.


J’ayme mieux la premiere humeur, non par ce qu’il est plus plaisant de rire que de pleurer : mais par ce qu’elle est plus desdaigneuse, et qu’elle nous condamne plus que l’autre : et il me semble, que nous ne pouvons jamais estre assez mesprisez selon nostre merite. La plainte et la commiseration sont meslées à quelque estimation de la chose qu’on plaint : les choses dequoy on se moque, on les estime sans prix. Je ne pense point qu’il y ait tant de malheur en nous, comme il y a de vanité, ny tant de malice comme de sotise : nous ne sommes pas si pleins de mal, comme d’inanité : nous ne sommes pas si miserables, comme nous sommes vils.

(Translation available here.)

Iannis Xenakis: Free Stochastic Music By Computer


Category Mistake!

It seems to me that none of these interpretations [of quantum theory] is at all satisfactory, and in the gap left by the failure to ?nd a sensible way to understand quantum reality there has grown a pathological industry of pseudo-scienti?c gobbledegook. Claims that entanglement is consistent with telepathy, that parallel universes are scienti?c truths, that consciousness is a quantum phenomena abound in the New Age sections of bookshops but have no rational foundation. Physicists may complain about this, but they have only themselves to blame.

But there is one remaining possibility for an interpretation that has been unfairly neglected by quantum theorists despite—or perhaps because of—the fact that it is the closest of all to commonsense. This view that quantum mechanics is just an incomplete theory, and the reason it produces only a probabilistic description is that it does not provide suf?cient information to make de?nite predictions. This line of reasoning has a distinguished pedigree, but fell out of favour after the arrival of Bell’s theorem and related issues. Early ideas on this theme revolved around the idea that particles could carry ‘hidden variables’ whose behaviour we could not predict because our fun- damental description is inadequate. In other words two apparently identical electrons are not really identical; something we cannot directly measure marks them apart. If this works then we can simply use only probability theory to deal with inferences made on the basis of our inadequate information. After Bell’s work, however, it became clear that these hidden variables must possess a very peculiar property if they are to describe our quantum world. The property of entanglement requires the hidden variables to be non-local. In other words, two electrons must be able to communicate their values faster than the speed of light. Putting this conclusion together with relativity leads one to deduce that the chain of cause and effect must break down: hidden variables are therefore acausal. This is such an unpalatable idea that it seems to many physicists to be even worse than the alternatives, but to me it seems entirely plausible that the causal structure of space-time must break down at some level. On the other hand, not all ‘incomplete’ interpretations of quantum theory involve hidden variables.

One can think of this category of interpretation as involving an epistemological view of quantum mechanics. The probabilistic nature of the theory has, in some sense, a subjective origin. It represents de?ciencies in our state of knowledge. The alternative Copenhagen and Many-Worlds views I discussed above differ greatly from each other, but each is characterized by the mistaken desire to put quantum probability in the realm of ontology.

Peter Coles, From Cosmos to Chaos

I am far too ignorant to say how plausible Coles’s thesis is, other than that acausality doesn’t seem any less plausible than decoherence or Everett’s multiple-worlds. And it has the side effect of delegitimizing one of the most overused scientific metaphors of our time. (The most egregious example offhand being Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen.)

Speaking of Apt Covers…

Isn’t this the best cover for a philosophy book…ever? (This volume concerns the Tractatus only.)

(Okay, maybe it would be better if everything in the painting was a word in the shape of the corresponding thing, like “TREE” in the shape of a tree, but this is still pretty good.)

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