Monday, 20 August 2012

I'm Not Saying We Wouldn't Get Our Hair Mussed

At Balloon Juice, Bernard Finel writes on the increasingly likely prospect of war with Iran:

There has been some debate in strategic studies circles about whether this represented a warning against war or whether it was an effort to diminish expectations of catastrophic consequences in order to justify an attack on Iran. It sounds bad—war on “multiple fronts,” “hundreds of rockets and missiles”—but when you get right down to it, a month of conflict and 500 deaths could easily be seen as a small price to pay to end Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
 Finel quotes Israeli defense minister Matan Vilnai:

Vilnai said the government has prepared for the possibility of hundreds of rockets and missiles falling on Israeli population centers each day, with the expectation of 500 deaths.
“It could be that there will be fewer fatalities, but it could be there will be more. That is the scenario that we are preparing for according to the best experts,” he said. “The assessments are for a war that will last 30 days on a number of fronts.”
Five hundred deaths could easily - easily! - be seen as a small price to pay. Five hundred Israeli deaths, of course, using Matan Vilnai's estimate. There's no need to think about the Iranian casualties, or the victims of hundreds of Israeli rockets and missiles. No, the price of ending Iran's possible nuclear ambitions is five hundred deaths, more or less, depending on the breaks. What other deaths could matter?

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Seth Sentry

Here's some great Australian hip-hop for a change - Seth Sentry's track Warm Winter. It's political:

So we came home, handshakes and ticket tape parades
Ace of spades swinging from a rope, 'hip hooray for the saviours'
We didn't even notice the changes, a disease born more contagious than AIDS is
Yeah, paranoia had changed us, the fear made us insane, afraid of our neighbours
The mere delay of a train was taken as strange
And every brown paper bag was an Al-Qaida attack
And every street corner had an armed Marine on it
Peacekeepers here to keep the peace that we wanted
They took the streets from us, our own leaders
Who the fuck would invade a country for no reason? Oh Jesus.

Not particularly subtle though.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Can't You Follow Instructions?

A few days ago I saw a dump truck full of rubble and twisted metal bars inching its way up a small street. Two men in construction gear were involved: one driving the truck, and the other walking in front making sure the way was clear. A few cyclists were heading up the street in the other direction, and as they approached, the man in front of the truck held up his hand and told them in an authoritative voice to go past on the footpath.

The cyclists gave him funny looks. There was plenty of space either side of the truck, after all, and due to the very heavy load it was moving too slowly to be dangerous. Ignoring the red-faced man, they rolled past the truck with a bike-width of clearance on either side.

"What's the matter with you?" cried the driver, incensed. "Can't you follow instructions?"

The cyclists were certainly capable of following instructions, but they were also capable of thinking and assessing risk for themselves. More importantly, they were capable of ignoring pointless and toothless instructions. If there wasn't enough room to pass safely next to the truck, they probably would have jumped onto the footpath.

This is what I mean when I say that anarchism is a thoroughly practical philosophy: quite apart from the question of whether obeying the driver's commands would have been sensible, there's the question of where the driver gets the right to issue any commands at all.

Nietzsche was right about this, at least - following orders does not come naturally, and anybody who finds it second nature to do so has probably been beaten or bullied into it. It's easy (and fun!) to scoff at adolescent rebellion, but beneath the tantrums and petty narcissism is the basic and praiseworthy human instinct to make our own decisions. Smothering this instinct is very difficult, but fortunately we have a similarly powerful drive to make decisions for other people. This is the primary purpose of almost every educational institution, workplace or prison - to mould its inmates into the kind of people who follow instructions.

We've gotten very, very good at it: a long time ago, you needed a constant threat of physical force, made real by reminders like public executions and torture. Now you can do it with a relatively small number of policemen and an array of cameras. The cameras don't even need to all work! The law is ever-present, omniscient, and possessed with a superhuman ability to collate and understand the information it gathers. Disobey legal-sounding orders, and you'll be found out and punished, so in general we obey.

It's good to know that we're capable of not following instructions, though - up to a point. If the man walking in front of the truck had been a policeman, after all, I doubt any of the cyclists would have stayed on the road.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Coffee & Snow 2

Just some chill Blue Scholars to ring out the last weeks of winter. It's not political or even particularly deep, but Sabzi's beat is magical and Geo hits all the right moments. Even if you folks in the northern hemisphere have totally different weather, this song should probably still work for a lazy afternoon.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Knowledge

So we accept that knowledge (or at least the possibility of knowledge) exists. Now what? Now we try to establish what we know about knowledge, starting with its conditions. What are we talking about, precisely? Let's unpack a particular claim of knowledge.

I know the Eiffel Tower is in Paris.

What do I mean when I say this? In other words, what would have to happen for me to be wrong? Well, at the most basic level I appear to be saying that I personally think that the Eiffel Tower is in Paris. If I believed that it was in Berlin, say, then I would be lying when I said I knew it was in Paris. So I am making a claim about what I believe. We can generalize this and say that knowledge requires belief.

I'm not just talking about my belief, though - otherwise I would have said 'believe' instead of 'know'. I'm making a claim about the outside world, in particular about the architecture of Paris. If I believe that the Eiffel Tower is in Paris, but I happen to be wrong, then I don't really know it, do it? The concept of 'wrong knowledge' is incoherent. So we can say that knowledge requires both belief and truth.

Now we are getting somewhere. If I know something, that must mean that I believe it and that it is true. But is this sufficient? Suppose that I have no acquaintance with any facts about Paris, or the Eiffel Tower in general. In fact, I only heard about the Eiffel Tower (which I dimly imagine to be a rifle-thin copy of Saruman's lair from the Lord of the Rings) a few minutes ago, when it came up in conversation. Feeling intellectually outgunned, I jump into the conversation with a wild guess: The Eiffel Tower is in Paris! Do I believe it? Let's say yes, since I'm the kind of person who very quickly develops certainty for no reason. Is it true? Yes, by sheer luck I've picked the right city. But do I actually know that the Eiffel Tower is in Paris?

Of course not. So there must be a third component of knowledge; some reason to think that your true belief is true. I must have some kind of justification for believing that the Eiffel Tower is in Paris. Photos, for instance, or multiple references in books and films. Knowledge, then, requires (at least) three things: that you believe a certain thing, that that belief is correct, and that you have good reason to hold that belief. This is what philosophers call "justified true belief", or JTB, and it was considered a full definition of knowledge for considerably more than a thousand years.

Is it, though? Can you think of a case where the three conditions - justification, truth and belief - are all met, but the belief still does not count as knowledge? If you can deduce it yourself (I certainly couldn't), then you'll find my next post on epistemology trivial.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Discussing Knowledge

To sceptical outsiders, the philosophical investigation of knowledge (epistemology, that is) might seem like an argument over nothing. Can't we simply answer the biggest question - "what is Knowledge" - with a link to an online dictionary or, failing that, a brief explanation of semantics and the nature of context? In other words, 'knowledge' means nothing on its own; its meaning is derived from the sentence in which it sits. You can draw out general senses from this and list them in a dictionary: "being aware of a fact", "familiarity with a concept", "practical skill in a certain area". Capital-k Knowledge has no existence unless it's defined, and the definition is essentially arbitrary; that is to say, almost every possible definition is equally valid.

This is wrong! To see why it's wrong, consider a field of discussion with obvious value, like car mechanics. It's obvious that there's meat there, that there's something of interest to be studied. However, try defining 'car' or 'engine' properly. The same problems that come up when you define 'knowledge' are here as well. Isn't 'car' used in different ways by different people? What counts as an engine? Can you construct an elegant definition that rules out trucks and buses without ruling out actual cars? Ought broken cars and engines count, and if so, where do you draw the line? And so on. Nevertheless, it's still possible to learn how to fix an engine without once touching the tricky philosophical problem of definition.

We drive our knowledge around every day: trivially, whenever we tell other people things. If you make a surprising claim about reality, you're likely to be asked 'how do you know that?' Whether you're a philosopher or not, you need to be able to answer that question - and, in order to do that, you need to have some vague idea of what it means to know anything in the first place.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Dear True Believer

I know you've been devastated in my absence. It was, of course, a week of crazed joy spent in contemplation of the Mountain Goats' new album, Transcendental Youth - of which a track, Cry for Judas, is now freely available! Check the horns! Check the bass line!

(Actual, scheduled content coming up soon. I promise.)