Skepticism Without Nihilism

Featured image is The Philosopher Pyrrho from Elis, by Petrarcha

The Greek term skeptikos means, not a negative doubter, but an investigator, someone going for the skeptesthai or enquiry. As the late sceptic author Sextus Empiricus puts it, there are dogmatic philosophers, who think that they have found the truth; negative dogmatists, who feel entitled to the position that truth cannot be found; and the sceptics, who are unlike both groups in that they are not committed either way. They are still investigating things.

Julia Annas

In his autobiography, Charles Darwin lamented that he used to love poetry, but could no longer “endure to read a line” of it. He complains:

My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive.

I think economics trained me to think this way. When I began a fresh foray into philosophy a couple of years ago now, I approached it from this stance. Every book went into the grinder, to mash up and join with others in the cage of general laws. I steamrolled my way through book after book; when I couldn’t follow them I just pressed on so I could get to the next one. There was no thought of reading for pleasure or respecting the book before me like I might respect a partner in conversation. What is more rude than completely dominating a conversation without consideration for the other person?

But I launched into reading as if quantity equaled quality, as if I could become an expert simply by reading a lot.

I did, indeed, learn a great deal. But for the last year or so, I felt that I had stumbled on authors who helped me grow in an important way—they helped me to see more clearly a wide and yawning ignorance in myself, including an ignorance of how far the ignorance itself extends.

Increasingly, I wonder: isn’t this what philosophy is supposed to teach? For all the flaws of the historical and fictional Socrates, don’t we still admire him for saying that he only knew that he knew nothing?

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The Subject in Play is Not the Subject at Play

Featured image is Children’s Games, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

The subject-object schema is not destiny. It is handed down to us from the time of Descartes and Bacon, quite late in the history of philosophy. After Kant, subjectivity became a prison from which we are never free to directly perceive or interact with objects as things-in-themselves.

In the 20th century, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Ludwig Wittgenstein—starting from very different interests, training, and standpoints—looked to play and games as a way of moving beyond the Kantian trap.

How can something as seemingly trivial as play provide an answer to a serious philosophical problem? When we say “do you think this is a game?” are we not implying that the matter at hand is more important than such a thing?

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What’s More Immediate Than Falling Off A Bike?

Featured image is Children on Bicycle by Ernest Zacharevic

You have, in your head, a model of a bicycle. Two wheels, a frame, handle bars, pedals. If you’re like me your model includes some extras that aren’t strictly necessary to a bike, like gears, a chain, a gear shift and brakes, but we can leave that aside. You might even have a particular bike in mind, with a particular colour, a particular number of wheel spokes, with a particular rider, in a particular place going to a particular location.

If you have some basic dynamics training you can even make a bit of an explicit model of how that person would ride a bike, using the force of the legs as applied to the pedals, the friction with the ground, the various moments of inertia of the wheels and frame, and the center mass and center of volume of the rider/bike combo. Perhaps you have even heard some stories about more exotic varieties, tandem bicycles or pennyfarthings or butcher’s bikes and the like, which follow the same basic models, though with completely different parameters.

It’s a mistake to think this has anything at all to do with the model you actually use to ride a bike. That model doesn’t have colours, or chains, or even wheels. The bike is stripped down to the most basic elements needed to control it, the handle bars and the pedals (depending on the bike there may also be a handbrake and a gear shift, but these aren’t essential). Your brain does a complex calculation on the senses available to it, of the stresses on muscles, the fluid in your inner ear and the relative angles and motion of nearby objects which it combines to form a sense of balance. Riding a bike is a complex mapping of this sense of balance to action, a negative feedback loop between your hands, the handlebars, your body’s position on the bike and the feeling of imbalance.

You may understand on some level that the handlebars are attached to the front wheel, and turning the handlebars causes the wheel to turn, which causes the bike to turn which results in a centrifugal force restoring your balance, but that kind of formal chain is utterly unnecessary to the learning. When you feel such and such and imbalance, you turn the handlebars so far, which restores the balance. You turn the bars to turn the bike, which produces a centrifugal force, and so you shift your weight to restore the sense of balance. Similarly, you are going too slow, you push harder on the pedals, you are going too fast, you ease up on the pedals.

The exact mechanics by which a bike works might be of interest, depending on what you want to do. Understanding the mechanics of angular momentum can let you build gyroscopic self balancing bikes for use by the disabled for example. Understanding gearing allows both more torque or more speed depending on the situation. Understanding how a wheel works, while non-essential to control, can help anticipate the ways in which you will be required to react to a mud puddle, or a patch of gravel. But none of these extra elements will make their way back into the riding model. What use would they be?

The vast majority of our mental models work in this way. It is thoroughly a calculation, a learned series of simultaneous equations and feedback loops that don’t produce a thought, but a feeling and (unless you can consciously suppress it) an action. The model you require to explain exactly how many degrees you would need to turn the bike handles to stay upright is fairly complex, and knowing how to perform it wouldn’t help you not fall down next time. You probably haven’t the slightest clue what the moment of inertia around the relevant axis is, and unless you’re a civil or mechanical engineer probably don’t even know how you would go about calculating it. You just felt like you were falling over and turned the handlebars until you didn’t feel that way anymore.

The Point of Stories

Featured image is A Neapolitan Story Teller, by Pierre Bonirote.

Francis: What do you think the point of a story is?

Paco: The point?

Francis: You know, their function. Their purpose. Why do we tell them?

Paco: There are many reasons, I imagine.

Francis: I think the most important one is illustrated by “The Zebra Storyteller“. We tell stories to supplement for experience, so that we can be prepared for things that haven’t happened to us personally but can be imagined to happen.

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Modeling, Knowing, and Knowing Models

Featured Image is an illustration of Ptolemy’s system by Bartolomeu Velho.

What is a model?

The answer used to seem obvious to me. I was of one mind with Wittgenstein:

For we can avoid unfairness or vacuity in our assertions only by presenting the model as what it is, as an object of comparison—as a sort of yardstick; not as a preconception to which reality must correspond. (The dogmatism into which we fall so easily in doing philosophy.)

But to Aristotelians and Platonists, the model appears to belong to reality rather than being some separate thing we construct as a yardstick. And to Heidegger and Gadamer, preconceptions are front and center in establishing the conditions of understanding.

I wandered through conceptual murkiness as I attempted to understand these various lines of thought. When I encountered the Wittgenstein quote above, a particular conception of the model came sharply into focus.

In what follows, I will argue that Wittgenstein is right, but—as he would no doubt have happily conceded—incomplete in his treatment of models. I will integrate it into Heidegger’s notion of the fore-structure of understanding, which makes up our hermeneutic situation. I will try to avoid being overly technical—you can think of the hermeneutic situation as your standpoint, including your prejudices as well as the traditions of thought and practice in which you are embedded, and specifically how those things pre-form your interpretations.

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The American Federal System and the Administrative State

Stick_Rpg_screenshot

Imagine a group of friends sits down to play a tabletop RPG.

They picked a Dungeon Master ahead of time, to plan out the adventure and generally be the arbiter of what occurs and what’s allowed.

The remaining friends put together their characters, choosing types (such as warrior or wizard), stats (such as how intelligent their character is as opposed to how strong or nimble), names, species, and so on.

There are rules to these games, but they are fairly flexible, to allow for creativity on the part of the Dungeon Master as well as the players.

Suppose that after playing a few times, some of the players get tired of it, and want to switch to a different RPG. A space adventure, say. Neither the DM, nor the rest of the players, want to give up on what they’ve done so far, though. So they strike a compromise—their characters in their current game will play an in-game version of the space RPG, and accrue experience points based on how well they do.

At first this takes up about a fifth of their gameplay. But gradually, they spend more and more time on the subgame. What’s more, they create more subgames, of many different genres. Some are so completely unlike the one they’re playing as to be hardly comparable—focusing on boring domestic scenarios, for instance. Or working together to solve puzzle games.

At what point can they be said to ever play the original game at all? What if 80 percent of their gameplay takes place in subgames? But now, what if much of that 20 percent was used determining which subgame to play or creating new ones? At what point does the original game vanish entirely, as an entity?

The original game is formally higher up on the hierarchy than the subgames. The DM could decide to have a dragon attack while their characters’ attention is caught up playing house in a subgame. But to the extent that it’s hard to get a group of friends together who will regularly commit their time to a common game like this, the DM can’t just do whatever he wants. If people think he’s being unfair or aren’t having any fun, they can walk away.

From Penny Arcade
From Penny Arcade

If enough people do this, the game will simply be dead.

In short, the DM is constrained in as much as he wants to avoid killing the game entirely.

I ask again: at what point is it absurd to refer to the original game at all?

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The Game is the Thing

A Ruck (source)
A Ruck (source)

For two years in college, I played rugby.

This was a little out of character. Loved ones wondered whether this was some sort of roundabout suicide attempt.

Nevertheless, with the encouragement of my good friend Alex, I went to the first practice of the GMU Rugby Club for the fall 2005 semester. This was the year before GMU’s basketball team went to the Final Four, so the administration was towards the end of a long period of neglecting GMU’s sports in general. Rugby being a less popular sport than most, the field the team had access to was more hard ground and mud than grass.

(Incidentally, the semester after the Final Four run, we returned to discover that our field had become a beautiful green jewel, tended to lovingly and invested in with fresh cash from an administration suddenly enthusiastic about sports)

When we arrived at that first practice, everyone was engaged in a drill called cross over running. You form four lines, facing each other diagonally. The lines that face each other directly run and pop the ball to the person at the head of the one across from them, who then runs and does the same, and so on.

To my unathletic, inexperienced, timid, and highly awkward self, it was a terrifying sight. You had to make sure that you caught the ball, didn’t crash into someone running from the perpendicular line, and then actually got the ball into the hands of the person across from you. And it all happened so fast! I was certain to make a complete fool of myself.

And in practice, as well as the field, I did make a fool of myself, many times. But it was a kind, forgiving group, who encouraged persistence in the face of continual failure, and went out of their way to call out whenever I did something right. In short, I stuck with it, for those last two years of undergrad.

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