Recent Responses

Is it strange that you can't divide by zero?

It may seem strange at first blush, but there's a pretty good reason why division by 0 isn't defined: if it were, we'd get an inconsistency. You can find many discussions of this point with a bit of googling, but the idea is simple. Suppose x = y/z. Then we must have

y = x*z

That means that if y = 2, for example, and z = 0, we must have

2 = x*0

But if we multiply a number by 0, we get 0. That's part of what it is to be 0. So no matter what x we pick, we get x*0 = 0, not x*0 = 2.

Is it still strange that we can't divide by 2? If by "strange" you mean "feels peculiar," then it's strange from at least some peoples' point of view. But this sense of "strange" isn't a very good guide to the truth.

On the other hand, if by "strange" you mean "paradoxical" or something like that, it's not strange at all. On the contrary: we get paradox (or worse: outright contradiction) if we insist that division by zero is defined.

I'm told Kantians believe something like the following: that it would be inconsistent to respect our own preferences and not the preferences of others. If so, while pro-vegetarian arguments are often couched in terms of suffering and consequences, aren't there strong Kantian arguments for vegetarianism also? After all, many non-human animals do have preferences and desires, and generally prefer not to be eaten or killed.

Kantian ethics does appeal to notions of consistency, but the consistency that Kantian morality requires is not consistency in respecting "preferences" (as you expressed it.) Rather, Kantian morality requires consistency in respect for practically rational agency, i.e, the capacity to set one's ends and choose the means to one's ends. Kant believed (not incorrectly, for the most part) that non-human animals lack this capacity and hence are not owed respect in this sense. Indeed, Kant held that, strictly speaking, we have no moral obligations to animals at all; animals lack the property (practical rational agency) that lends something moral standing.

Many moral philosophers, including many Kantians, find Kant's conclusions troubling, inasmuch as it certainly seems intuitively plausible that we can wrong animals. Kantians have tried a number of solutions to rescue Kantian ethics from this position. Here are some articles in that vein:

I believe the Sandy Hook shooting happened. I believe this because of what I regard as the weight of probabilities. A friend of mine, however, thinks the whole thing was orchestrated by Obama in order to take our guns, and he's very skeptical of the news reports and beliefs about people's motivations and so on that I've relied on to found my view. Now, both of our viewpoints fit all the facts as we see them. So, is there anything at all that makes my viewpoint more reasonable than my friend's?

Good question! Conspiracy theories are, indeed, very interesting cases for epistemologists (philosophers who think about evidence, knowledge, and beliefs). I would say that, on the face of it, and at least in this case: yes, there is something that makes your viewpoint more reasonable. Let's call your theory "A" and your friend's theory "B." What are the implications of A? Just that someone who is mentally unstable and owned a gun committed an atrocity, and the news reported it on the basis of interviews, police statements, hospital interviews, and video footage. What are the implications of B? Obama "orchestrated" the whole thing. Obama and his agents paid off (presumably) hordes of people at the schools, out on fake funerals, tricked or enlisted local police representatives to lie about being there and catching the culprit, deceived or enlisted dozens of professional reporters, and so on, all in the service of...swaying public opinion about gun ownership, even though it is to be expected that an event like this will actually change very few minds and galvanizing opposition to gun ownership will have a very low chance of actually changing the law. Whew. Ok, now we have some shared background knowledge that bears on which of these sets of implications is less likely. It is extremely unlikely, given our background knowledge of the way people operate, that these dozens or hundreds of people involved in B would execute the plan perfectly, without a single slip up or leak, and furthermore that Obama and his crew would risk criminal charges (let alone impeachment) in order to set up a relatively ineffective mechanism for *sort or* galvanizing *some* support for gun restriction laws. On the other hand, given our background knowledge of the way people operate, how likely is it that, of the millions of people in the US, one of them owned guns and lost his mind for a while, and committed an atrocity? Not so unlikely; this happens, and can be expected to happen. So, unless your friend also has an alternative theory that explains why we all believe the things we do about human capabilities and human psychology (and presumably that can't be Obama's fault...I got my background knowledge of people from just living among people and being a person), I'd say your theory, A, is way, way more likely than your friend's theory, B.
Interesting further question: why would your friend believe B, given how unlikely it is? I think we account for this. You friend has a bunch of interests and desires that make concluding B much more attractive than concluding A. These interests and desires may include: paranoia about people taking his guns away, belief that Obama is awful and is a symptom of all that's wrong with our society, desire to feel superior to the "masses" who trust the news, and so on. This could, predictably, cause your friend to subject evidence for A with withering scrutiny (since he wants to avoid A), while accepting any hint that B is true as decisive evidence (since he wants to conclude B). This is classic wishful thinking, or "motivated reasoning," well documented in many, many studies.
That's my two cents.....then again, maybe I'm part of the liberal academic elite trying to twist your mind by introducing this analysis so that you vote the way my masters want you to can you decide? I say: use your reason, be on guard against concluding things just because you'd rather them be true (and also just because you'd rather them be false!). Who has the better argument to fit with your overall experiences?

I think it's plausible that a good pianist could perform fantastic music without putting any "soul" into it. That is, the audience could have a profound, moving experience, although, for the pianist, the activity is mechanical and repetitive, or even boring, unpleasant or tedious, because they've performed the same piece many times before. What I wanted to ask is -- if the audience learned what the pianist was really doing, would they be justified in thinking that their experience wasn't profound after all, or in feeling somehow cheated? Does it really matter whether or not the performer is themselves connected to the work?

I think it must matter in *some* ways whether or not the performer is connected to the work. For example, the listener's connection with player depends, in part, on the state of mind of the player and the perception of that state by the audience. But I think that in terms of the general quality of the experience, or whether the audience is "cheated" or "profound," the state of the pianist does not settle things. I say this for two reasons. First, it seems that, general, aesthetic experience does not require this sort of emotional investment on the part of the "player," or even any intention at all. A photo accidentally taken by someone's phone, for example, could elicit a profound experience. That doesn't seem like a"cheat" to me, even once I find out it was an accident. Secondly, a musician brings to a performance much more than is consciously present and occurent at the time of the performance. A pianist has practiced for years, and much of that practice was presumably invested with deep emotional involvement. The way the pianist plays a piece reflects many decisions--decisions on how to play it, for example--that may themselves be deeply invested with emotion. Furthermore, the piece itself "speaks" to the audience (the compose may have invested profound ideas and emotions into the writing of the piece), and the pianist's dispassionate execution of the notes might itself be sufficient to communicate that to the audience.

Our bodies consist of chemical components. Our feelings and judgments are the result of the biological activities. Moreover, our mindset and certain beliefs could be instilled by the external world. I wonder, to what extent we can control ourselves?

This is a *great* question, and a difficult one. Let me offer a thought about the question, which may suggest some directions for find answers. You've pointed out that various elements of a person--the body, feeling, judgments, mindset, beliefs--are caused or created in ways that, as we usually think of it, we don't directly control. But then you ask to what extent we can control *ourselves*. What is "ourselves," over and above those elements, and what does it mean for thing like a self to have "control" over something? If I, the self about whose control we are asking, am also the result of biological activities and the external world, then really we are asking whether one thing created by the world controls another thing created by the world. Some elements of me, for example, are desires: I want to itch my knee. The want and the thing that wants are the result of biological activities and the external world. Now suppose that my want successfully causes my arm and hand to move and scratch my knee. What happened there? Part of the world--me and my wants--brought about the action of itching. Now we can ask: does this constitute control, having done what I wanted to do? A natural answer, I suggest to you, is: yes. This is a case in which I controlled my arm (though perhaps the case needs to be further described...but I think the details can be filled in to justify this answer). And my control of my arm seems compatible with what you described, namely the biological, external world roots of my desires and mindset.

Why might many or most people outside of academic philosophy be so disinclined to listen to, or take interest in, philosophical thinking or conversation (even when it is communicated enthusiastically or passionately)? It seems to me, from personal experience, that philosophical thinking or communication is overlooked and ignored in everyday conversations outside of academia, and more specifically, outside the philosophy departments. A recent situation I found myself in sparked this curiosity, the people I was in conversation with seemed to be making somewhat of a concerted effort to avoid philosophical thinking entirely and instead would share the specifics of personal events and intermittently provide (what was to me) banal opinions.

I am surprised! I have never had a hard time engaging with people--all people, not just academics--in philosophical discussion. Of course, sometimes what I'm interested in at the moment is off topic so people don't want to be interrupted, and of course some people (though I in my experience this is rare) have no interest in philosophical questions. But for the most part, I've found people to be willing to engage. I don't know how your conversations have gone, but starting a philosophical conversation typically starts like this, for me: a question or issue is raised, and the other person has an opinion on it. I ask why they have that opinion, and then we pick that apart, or I introduce an alternative. So the question or issue usually comes up on its own, as part of an every day conversation, and then I ask a question about it that relates it to a broader philosophical issue or argument. In this way, perhaps unwittingly, people are usually tricked into talking about philosophy with me.

When asked to choose between two competing theories, A and B, each of which fits the facts, people will sometimes resort to asking questions like, "Which theory is the more probable?" or "Which theory is simpler?" or even "Which theory involves the least upset to all my other beliefs?" Well, what about, "Which is the less weird theory?" Could weirdness (that is, something like distance from everyday experience) count as a good criterion on which to endorse one theory over another? Einstein seems to be appealing to some idea like this in the comment that God doesn't play dice. And would it be fair to say that many philosophers appeal to something like this when they reject panpsychism?

Philosopher John Haugeland once offered a sort of counterpart to Ockham's razor: "Don't get weird beyond necessity." (from "Ontological Supervenience," 1984, Southern Journal of Philosophy pp. 1—12.) Of course, the hard part is spelling out what weirdness amounts to and why it counts against a hypothesis. For example: Ockham's Razor tells us not to multiply entities beyond necessity: it stands in favor of parsimonious theories. Panpsychism is certainly weird, but from one point of view it's parsimonious: it says that there aren't actually two kinds of physical things (conscious and unconscious) but only one. Does the weirdness swamp the parsimony? If so why?

So as a quick and dirty rule of thumb, "Pick the less weird theory" seems fine. As a serious methodological rule, it may need some work.

According to Kant, prostitution is morally wrong. The second formulation of the categorical imperative states that one should never use themselves, or another as a mere means. 1. I can see how prostitution would fail to respect self, as it is using one's body as a "mere means" to earn money. But how is that different from a farmer, who use his body to work in the fields to harvest crops for food and money? 2. Prostitution also fails to respect another, by using the person to satisfy his sexual urges. However, by paying the prostitute, isn't it also respecting her by recognizing her dignity and worth and paying her for her "work"? On the basis of these 2 points, can you please explain why prostitution is morally wrong?

I'm not sure that most contemporary Kantian moral philosophers agree with Kant on the morality of prostitution. As you note, prostitution does not seem to make use of one's own humanity in a way that's fundamentally different from other forms of work or labor which are clearly morally permissible. Why think that prostitution, unlike farming, involves the wrongful use of ourselves merely as a means?

Much of the reason is that Kant was deeply skeptical about the compatibility of sexual desire with the moral requirement to treat rational agents as ends in themselves rather than merely as a means. He writes: “Sexual union is the reciprocal use that one human beings makes of the sexual organs and capacities of another” for the purpose of enjoyment. As Kant saw it, sexual desire is not a desire for a person's good but for the use of their body for one's own physical pleasure. Hence, sexual desire is fundamentally at odds with respect for others' rational natures. Sex is animalistic in that we treat ourselves (and others) as animal-like:

"When a man wishes to satisfy his desire, a woman hers, they stimulate each other’s desires; their inclinations meet, but their object is not human nature but sex, and each of them dishonors the human nature of the other. They make of humanity an instrument for the satisfaction of their lusts and inclinations, and dishonor it by placing it on a level with animal nature."

For Kant, objectification is therefore built into the nature of sex. Sex invariably involves seeing oneself and one's sex partner merely as means. There is a way for sex to be mutually respectful, according to Kant, namely, through marital monogamy. (I won't go into the complicated dynamics of how Kant thought marital monogamy makes sex morally innocuous.) But Kant's opposition to prostitution stems from the contention that sex as such treats the partners merely as means.

Needless to say, Kant's view of the nature of sex is open to question. He seems to think that sexual desire is by its nature an uncontrollable impulse that can't be tamed by reason and is thus inescapably a form of objectification. What I suspect Kant misses is that some measure of objectification may nevertheless be compatible with respect for rational agency. There is certainly a sense in which prostitutes, by commodifying their bodies, are treating their bodies as means (so too are their customers treating prostitutes' bodies as means). But when such a transaction is consensual, non-coercive, etc., one might think that this 'objectification' takes place against a background of respect for one's own rational agency and that of others. (Note that Kantians are likely to find non-consensual, coerced, exploitative sexual activity to be particularly objectionable; sadly, prostitution all too often falls into that category.)

So in the end, it's not clear that Kant's case for the immortality of prostitution is that compelling. It rests on peculiar views about the nature of sexual desire and its compatibility with respect for rational agency that even Kantians might well reject.

What is the panel's response to the philosophic community's ad hominem attacks on Rebecca Tuvel and her article in Hypatia? There was no engagement of her ideas at all, and the editors of Hypatia were forced to remove her article and publish an apology, merely because Ms Tuvel asked uncomfortable questions.

I just wanted to clear up an important point. The article was not removed. It is still in the journal, including the online edition, and it will stay there. I'd suggest reading this piece

which gives a clearer picture of the review process of the journal itself. In particular, it makes clear that the associate editorial board doesn't make decisions about what gets published, and isn't involved in the day-to-day operation of the journal.

I will leave it to others to discuss more substantive issues.