About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Ian’s Picks

by Ian Pollock

* For those of you who missed the great physics “downwind faster than the wind” jihad, this video should catch you up.

* An interesting debate in print took place in the late 19th century on the ethics of belief, involving among others, William Clifford (now termed an evidentialist, he famously held that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence”) and William James (a pragmatist with regard to truth and evidence). It is worth reading Clifford’s original essay “The Ethics of Belief,” followed by James’ semi-reply “The Will to Believe” — both of which are very pleasant and interesting. I suspect RS readers are mostly in Clifford’s camp, but James makes some points worth addressing.

* Yvain, aka Scott Siskind, is writing a series of articles outlining game theory at LessWrong; these look to be extremely useful. The sequence guide can be found here, with links to the individual articles. I particularly enjoyed the one on signaling.

* David McRaney, author of “You are not so smart” (on my reading list) is now putting out an excellent podcast of the same name; check it out.

* Katja Grace on anthropics. When I get a free decade, I really must take up this topic in more depth.


  1. Ian,

    Re: "William James (the original pragmatist, who held that truth simply is useful belief)."

    This is a grotesque (and essentially inaccurate) oversimplification of James' position.

    1. That might be so, it has been a while since I've read James. How would you summarize his view?

    2. In the meantime I acknowledge the defect & have weakened the offending passage. Thanks for pointing it out.

    3. Ian,

      All apologies for not responding promptly.

      There are two things to say here. First, pragmatist theories of truth are (more or less) species of a correspondence theory of truth. This is especially true for C.S. Peirce and, albeit to a lesser extent, James' views on truth.

      I quote James from Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907):

      "Grant an idea or belief to be true," [pragmatism] says "what concrete differences will its being true make in any one's actual life? What experiences [may] be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? ... What, in short, is the truth's cash value in experiential terms?" The moment pragmatism asks this question, it sees the answer: True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate, and verify. False beliefs are those that we cannot. That is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas; that therefore is the meaning of truth, for it is all that truth is know-as."

      James goes on to outline what he means by corroboration and verification, and it amounts to correspondence between a proposition (which reports a belief) and some experiential state of affairs. So, you see, James does NOT say that one can believe whatever one likes if one's belief is useful in the sense in which we by "useful" something other than accounts for our sensory experiences.

  2. Oh, not Bostrom and Anthropics again. I just wish the rest of the skeptics understood that there is a "dybbuk in the schtetl." Chalmers and Bostrom are worse for business than being an accommodationist. In the world of Bostrom and Chalmers, God has been hot-swapped with the Matrix. I don't see this as an improvement, and it really puzzles me that no one else on this site seems to get this. Maybe it's because I'm a screenwriter and I know first hand what a cop-out time travel and simulation are in terms of the hard work of constructing a good narrative. I think they are every bit as much of a cop out when it comes to contemplating our actual place in the world. (I lump the Anthropic Argument, and the Simulation Argument together. In my mind they are in the same class as the Ontological Argument--the conflation of something being conceivable with it being likely or even possible. Let's not forget Kant's response: "Existence is not a predicate"! I'd say Kant applies every bit to this situation "A Beyesian statistic is not a predicate.")

    Both Massimo and Julia have changed their position on this (Massimo on Simulation Argument, and Julia on Anthropics) and yet they haven't accounted for that.

    I'm not equipped to go after Bostrom on Bayesian level. (Julia, however is! ) But,Katja Grace in your link launches an oddly diffident attack to regain the following ground: "You either have to accept that someone else might exist when you do not, or you have to define ‘yourself’ as something that always exists... Either way, changing definitions doesn’t change the evidence. Observing that you are alive tells you more than learning that ‘someone is alive’."

    I think Bostrom is too smart for his own good. He is too comfortable taking a God's eye view of many worlds, and drawing conclusions that are untenable. And they are, after all, questions that time will tell. Some day we will or we won't be transhumans. Some day, we will or we won't experience doomsday. Some day, the simulators will or won't reveal that it was a simulation. Until then, Bostrom's celebrity notwithstanding, I'll take him at his own calculation. He says there is only a 20% chance we are in a simulation. Thanks, but I will personally not take up that bong. An 80% confidence level is actually pretty high for me in terms of all the practical concerns of my life.

  3. (Continued)

    Second, regarding James' position in "The Will to Believe", he says, in opposition to Clifford, that one is at liberty to believe some proposition when the evidence does not make believing that proposition to be more likely true than false if and only if (1) the proposition is "momentous" -- i.e. very important -- in a way that one must take a stance one way or another (here James lumps positive atheism in with agnosticism or mere abstention from belief); (2) the proposition must be a live option -- that is, the proposition must genuinely be the center of intellectually honest assessment and consideration; (3) the proposition must be of a type that it is not implausible that probative evidence for it to be discovered / had *after* first believing.

    Obviously, James thinks certain religious beliefs (not, e.g., beliefs in Olympian gods) are promising candidates for satisfying (1) - (3). Of course, after closer analysis, James' position proves to be untenable, but it is a seminal read nonetheless.


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