My first request to deliver a talk on fairness came from a committee struggling with a government brief on social care for the elderly. "We wanted to come up with a fair scheme, so we had first to decide what fairness meant," the committee chair told me. "We thought that would be the easy bit, but we got into a bit of a tangle."
Is it odd that a committee of highly intelligent and accomplished grownups got confused about the notion of fairness, when young children can handle the concept with ease? Or rather, should we say children have little trouble with the concept of unfairness? Much in life is unfair: almost none of it is fair. Except, apparently, recent government policy.;
Peter Ludlow's (Northwestern) essay in the Times brings needed attention to the extreme measures the established order will take to obliterate the iconoclasts it finds irritating. From the essay,
In a world in which nearly everyone is technically a felon, we rely on the good judgment of prosecutors to decide who should be targets and how hard the law should come down on them. We have thus entered a legal reality not so different from that faced by Socrates when the Thirty Tyrants ruled Athens, and it is a dangerous one. When everyone is guilty of something, those most harshly prosecuted tend to be the ones that are challenging the established order, poking fun at the authorities, speaking truth to power — in other words, the gadflies of our society.
In a delightful and accessible essay, computer science student Seth Kurtenbach (Missouri) explains why he loves logic and, along the way, why logic is important.
Courtesy our own Suzzette Chopin:
In a pair of Times' Stone essays, Paul Horwich (NYU) and Michael Lynch (Connecticut) take stock of Wittgenstein's views on philosophy, developing penetrating yet divergent positions.
From Horwich's essay,
...It’s taken for granted that there is deep understanding to be obtained of the nature of consciousness, of how knowledge of the external world is possible, of whether our decisions can be truly free, of the structure of any just society, and so on — and that philosophy’s job is to provide such understanding. Isn’t that why we are so fascinated by it?
If so, then we are duped and bound to be disappointed, says Wittgenstein. For these are mere pseudo-problems, the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking. So it should be entirely unsurprising that the “philosophy” aiming to solve them has been marked by perennial controversy and lack of decisive progress — by an embarrassing failure, after over 2000 years, to settle any of its central issues. Therefore traditional philosophical theorizing must give way to a painstaking identification of its tempting but misguided presuppositions and an understanding of how we ever came to regard them as legitimate.
From Lynch's essay,
“To show the fly the way out of the fly bottle ”— that, Wittgenstein once said, was the aim of his philosophy. While it is perhaps unclear whether anyone — philosopher or fly — should be flattered by this comparison, his overall point is clear enough, as Paul Horwich notes in his recent piece, “Was Wittgenstein Right?” When we get curious about philosophical problems we are drawn into puzzles by the promise of sweet enlightenment, only to find ourselves caught in frustration (and banging our heads against the same wall over and over again). What we need, Wittgenstein thinks, is liberation — liberation from the prison of pseudo-problems we have brought upon ourselves; liberation from traditional philosophy.
Horwich’s analysis is penetrating and important. Doubtless some will quarrel with it as a reading of Wittgenstein; but I will not — not only because I think it is largely right, but because I’m more interested in whether it is true. Not surprisingly, I have my doubts.
Gary Gutting (Notre Dame) discusses the challenge phenomenal consciousness appears to pose for physicalism in light of Jackson's Knowledge Argument and the Modal Gap--aka, the Problem of Philosophical Zombies--in a recent essay in the Times' Stone series.
(courtesy Prisilla Hernandez)
In the "smart philosopher gets annoyed" category, Colin McGinn (Miami) thoroughly dismantles Ray Kurzweil's How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed. From the review (published in the New York Review of Books and valuable reading for students in Minds and Machines),
So he is a computer engineer specializing in word recognition technology, with a side interest in bold predictions about future machines. He is not a professional neuroscientist or psychologist or philosopher. Yet here we have a book purporting to reveal—no less—“the secret of human thought.” Kurzweil is going to tell us, in no uncertain terms, “how to create a mind”: that is to say, he has a grand theory of the human mind, in which its secrets will be finally revealed.
These are strong claims indeed, and one looks forward eagerly to learning what this new theory will look like. Perhaps at first one feels a little skeptical that Kurzweil has succeeded where so many have failed, but one tries to keep an open mind—hoping the book will justify the hype so blatantly brandished in its title. After all, Kurzweil has honors from three US presidents (so says Wikipedia) and was the “principal inventor of the first CCD flatbed scanner” and other useful devices, as well as receiving many other entrepreneurial awards. He is clearly a man of many parts—but is ultimate theoretician of the mind one of them?
Answer: A resounding 'no', but do read on to appreciate just how badly Kurzweil bungles it.