Archive for philosophy

the [h]edge of reason [book review]

Posted in Books, pictures, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2017 by xi'an

I do not know if Julian Baggini chose the title of this book in connection with the second [appalling] Bridget Jones film or with the huge number of books with this title, but the proximity is somewhat unfortunate for a philosophy book!

I presume I got this book based on the subtitle “A rational skeptic in an irrational world”, although I knew nothing of the author and should have done some research before putting my stash of Amazon credit to use! (He has written so many books on philosophical themes that he reminds me of Michel Onfray… And not only for this reason, they also seem to cater to the same readership interested in light or “general public” philosophy. Or as I would call it, journalosophy…)

This thin conception sees rational argument not as a formal, mechanistic, rigid method but simply as the process of giving and assessing objective reasons for belief.” (p.5)

The core idea in the book is that reason is over-rated as an argument in philosophical or every day debate! And should come only as a foot soldier support for one’s beliefs, since those are primordial and unavoidable in leading one’s life, beliefs (!), and principles… Beliefs and presuppositions are central to those and cannot browbeated by reason. I was hoping for a stronger defence of rationality that would set reason at the centre of scientific, democratic, and everyday debates, but I feel the book ends up as at best lukewarm on that front.

“It is always rebarbative  to the philosopher to reach a point in an argument where it is necessary to  admit that others may be presented with the same chain of inferences yet justifiably reach a different conclusion.” (p.9)

The book almost immediately lost most of its potential appeal for me when I realised the very first chapter is about religion and the author seems to find particularly distasteful that “there are some who argue that faith defies reason” (p.17). Followed by a relativistic argumentation that sets religious people and atheists at the same ground level as having different “properly basic beliefs ” (p.21) and “evidence bases” and “rational coherence” (p.17).  Culminating in advocating a “rational Catholicism” (p.133, capitalised by my spell-checker!). At which point I feel we already are on the wrong side of the hedge of reason… From there, the same relativism permeates the whole book, backed up by the argument that there is rarely if ever enough evidence to conclude one way against another (as we would know, of course!). This is particularly jarring in the chapter about science, crucially entitled “Science for humans”, which argues that there is no such thing as pure science, because scientists always contaminate scientific arguments (and data?) with their beliefs and prejudices. As in e.g., “the question of whether or not an experiment or observation counts as critical – sufficient to settle a dispute – is itself a judgement (p.47). The more I read the book the more I felt it carried a postmodernist message, even when stating the opposite (p.238) as aiming at skepticism (p.234) or making fun of the most extreme illustrations of this obscurantism (p.100, p.125). Putting for instance some of the blame “on both sides”, post-modernists and anti-post-modernists alike (p.238)!

“Reason is thin ice on which we have no choice but to skate.” (p.245)

A last comment about the application of those relative principles to state government and society ruling (Part IV: The King). The attack on an ideal (Socratic or Platonic) society ruled by reason alone as unimplementable and not pragmatic and “a bad principle” (p.194) does not produce a better alternative proposal than conservatism (!) and the call to reason to fight populism with practical reason (Chapter 11) sounds self-defeating. When opposed with the relativism of the remainder of the book. If societal decisions should be based on rationality and there is no consensus on what rationality is, which is a reason for advocating pluralism, it seems impossible to reach agreement on how to govern and to find an implementable version of pluralism. Which brings us back to stage zero and the feelings leading to populism that the elites have no idea on how to run the polis. Except their self-interest. Speaking of pluralism, the author seems to agree (p.225) that secularism à la française [obviously to be distinguished from political exploitations like last year burkinigate!] is still a form of pluralism precisely because it excludes religion from the public debate. Because arguments can then [at least on principle] reach all members of the polis. (But then I do not understand how “unleashing religious voices in the political public sphere” [p.230] is compatible with this.)

“Some might believe that such a skeptical defence of reason leaves it thin and emaciated.” (p.236)

In conclusion, I am thus quite disappointed by the book and what I consider to be a rather shallow approach to the question of reason in the public debate. Thinning out rationality does not seem like a helpful step to fight anti-rational, fundamentalist, obscurantist, etc. forces, as it does not make these move one inch their ideological positions.

As an update, it is rather unfortunate that this review came out when the North-Korean crisis seems to push the World beyond the edge of reason with threats of nuclear attacks… Which brings us back to the boundless dangers of populism.

Das Kapital [not a book review]

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2017 by xi'an

A rather bland article by Gareth Stedman Jones in Nature reminded me that the first volume of Karl Marx’ Das Kapital is 150 years old this year. Which makes it appear quite close in historical terms [just before the Franco-German war of 1870] and rather remote in scientific terms. I remember going painstakingly through the books in 1982 and 1983, mostly during weekly train trips between Paris and Caen, and not getting much out of it! Even with the help of a cartoon introduction I had received as a 1982 Xmas gift! I had no difficulty in reading the text per se, as opposed to my attempt of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason the previous summer [along with the other attempt to windsurf!], as the discourse was definitely grounded in economics and not in philosophy. But the heavy prose did not deliver a convincing theory of the evolution of capitalism [and of its ineluctable demise]. While the fundamental argument of workers’ labour being an essential balance to investors’ capital for profitable production was clearly if extensively stated, the extrapolations on diminishing profits associated with decreasing labour input [and the resulting collapse] were murkier and sounded more ideological than scientific. Not that I claim any competence in the matter: my attempts at getting the concepts behind Marxist economics stopped at this point and I have not been seriously thinking about it since! But it still seems to me that the theory did age very well, missing the increasing power of financial agents in running companies. And of course [unsurprisingly] the numerical revolution and its impact on the (des)organisation of work and the disintegration of proletariat as Marx envisioned it. For instance turning former workers into forced and poor entrepreneurs (Uber, anyone?!). Not that the working conditions are particularly rosy for many, from a scarsity of low-skill jobs, to a nurtured competition between workers for existing jobs (leading to extremes like the scandalous zero hour contracts!), to minimum wages turned useless by the fragmentation of the working space and the explosion of housing costs in major cities, to the hopelessness of social democracies to get back some leverage on international companies…

the comforts of a muddy Saturday [book review]

Posted in Books, Travel, University life with tags , , , , on March 12, 2016 by xi'an

Besides the fantastic No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, which takes place in Botswana, Alexander McCall Smith has also written another series located in Edinburgh and featuring Isabel Dalhousie, a philosopher plus occasional detective. While the detective story is light to the point of being evanescent (and me losing interest by the middle of the book), the book The comforts of a muddy Saturday was still pleasant to re-read as Isabel is the editor of a philosophy academic journal, Review of Applied Ethics, and reflects on her duties as editor as well as brings philosophical musings into the novel.

“In fact, sometimes we publish papers that I suspect next to nobody reads.”

There is also a somewhat melancholic tone to the book in that it takes place at a time when submissions and replies were sent by regular mails, and faxes were for administrative aspects and only those. The description of Isabel’s duties is such that I am not convinced she needs 37 hours per week (!) to handle the submissions and editorial duties connected with the journal, although she ponders and hesitates so much before sending a particularly poor piece on the trolley dilemma that this may indeed end up in a full time job! Light reading for a rainy Saturday afternoon, then…

on de Finetti’s instrumentalist philosophy of probability

Posted in Books, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , on January 5, 2016 by xi'an

Pont Alexandre III, Paris, May 8, 2012. On our way to the old-fashioned science museum, Palais de la Découverte, we had to cross the bridge on foot as the nearest métro station was closed, due to N. Sarkozy taking part in a war memorial ceremony there...On Wednesday January 6, there is a conference in Paris [10:30, IHPST, 13, rue du Four, Paris 6] by Joseph Berkovitz (University of Toronto) on the philosophy of probability of Bruno de Finetti. Too bad this is during MCMSkv!

De Finetti is one of the founding fathers of the modern theory of subjective probability, where probabilities are coherent degrees of belief. De Finetti held that probabilities are inherently subjective and he argued that none of the objective interpretations of probability makes sense. While his theory has been influential in science and philosophy, it has encountered various objections. In particular, it has been argued that de Finetti’s concept of probability is too permissive, licensing degrees of belief that we would normally call imprudent. Further, de Finetti is commonly conceived as giving an operational, behaviorist definition of degrees of belief and accordingly of probability. Thus, the theory is said to inherit the difficulties embodied in operationalism and behaviorism. We argue that these and some other objections to de Finetti’s theory are unfounded as they overlook various central aspects of de Finetti’s philosophy of probability. We then propose a new interpretation of de Finetti’s theory that highlights these central aspects and explains how they are an integral part of de Finetti’s instrumentalist philosophy of probability. Building on this interpretation of de Finetti’s theory, we draw some lessons for the realist-instrumentalist controversy about the nature of science.

philosophy at the 2015 Baccalauréat

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2015 by xi'an

[Here is the pre-Bayesian quote from Hume that students had to analyse this year for the Baccalauréat:]

The maxim, by which we commonly conduct ourselves in our reasonings, is, that the objects, of which we have no experience, resembles those, of which we have; that what we have found to be most usual is always most probable; and that where there is an opposition of arguments, we ought to give the preference to such as are founded on the greatest number of past observations. But though, in proceeding by this rule, we readily reject any fact which is unusual and incredible in an ordinary degree; yet in advancing farther, the mind observes not always the same rule; but when anything is affirmed utterly absurd and miraculous, it rather the more readily admits of such a fact, upon account of that very circumstance, which ought to destroy all its authority. The passion of surprise and wonder, arising from miracles, being an agreeable emotion, gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events, from which it is derived.” David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,

Vivons-nous pour être heureux ? [bacc. 2014]

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , , on June 20, 2014 by xi'an

examen (C.) L. Marin This year is my daughter’s final year in high school and she is now taking the dreaded baccalauréat exams. Just like a few hundred thousands French students. With “just like” in the strict sense since all students with the same major take the very same exam all over France… The first written composition is in the “mother of all disciplines”, philosophy, and the theme of one dissertation this year was “do we live to be happy?”. Which suited well my daughter as she was hoping for a question around that theme. She managed to quote Plato and Buddha, The Pursuit of Happiness and The Wolf of Wall-street… So sounded happy enough with her essay. This seemed indeed like a rather safe notion (as opposed to ethics, religion, politics or work), with enough material to fill a classical thesis-antithesis-synthesis plan (and my personal materialistic conclusion about the lack of predetermination in our lifes).

soft atheism

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , , , on May 21, 2014 by xi'an

New YorkA few weeks ago, I reported reading a dismal New York Times blog entry on atheism. The Stone has continued publishing entries on the topic of religions and atheism, with mostly poor tribunes (maybe because the interviews were with philosophers from various religious stands rather than philosophers of religion). The third one on deconstructing religion almost sounds like a joke  made by a follower of Sokal and Bricmont!

“Religion at its best (…) focuses on human problems, attempting to relieve want and misery, to provide opportunities for worthwhile life, and to deepen and extend important values.”

The sixth in the series is however more interesting, with an interview of Philip Kitcher, professor at Columbia. It is entitled the case of soft atheism and defends a separation between religious doctrines that are incredible (as a non-native speaker [and as an unbeliever], I am surprised by this use of incredible and would have instead used unbelievable) and religious commitment that the author sees as a mild form of humanism. This “refined religion” puts value on people without referring to a specific ritual or doctrine. I find the arguments of Kitcher quite interesting, even though they seem to stray from philosophy towards sociology, i.e. about why religion is an important social vector that may bring cohesion and inclusion in this soft version. As exemplified in the above quote. This is somewhat representative of the whole series, that again I find lacking in philosophical depth. (I also think Kitcher’s `refined religion’ is not very representative of the current conglomerate of religious believers. Who stick to their own doctrine as the only expression of truth.)