Philosophical Methodology and Semantic Indeterminacy

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THE TRIBE

Two English-speaking anthropologists visit an insular tribe that is purported to have its own unique language. In order to learn the tribal language, one anthropologist joins the tribe. The other camps outside, but finds she is unable to learn anything about the tribe’s ‘language’ (other than what it sounds like) by observing their behavior, which is entirely visible and audible to her through surveillance equipment. The tribe members appear to ‘talk’ a great deal, but nothing…


Critical theory serves the dominant elites

Photo by Kedar Gadge on Unsplash

Has anyone thought to ask why politicians, corporations, universities, billionaires, celebrities, and many others in the 1% network, are going woke? Because they support what keeps them in power. In his 1998 book Achieving Our Country, the philosopher Richard Rorty predicted that elites would throw their weight behind what he called the ‘cultural left’ (i.e. the woke crowd), because it keeps the dominated classes distracted and divided by non-economic issues (e.g. the gender of a toy potato, or what pronoun to use):

The super-rich will have to keep up the pretense that national politics…


The lady doth protest too much

Photo by moren hsu on Unsplash

I found Michelle Goldberg’s New York Times op-ed (‘The Campaign to Cancel Wokeness’, Feb 28, 2021) confusing. She correctly states that some politicians in the United States, France and Britain are trying to legislate against critical race theory being taught in schools, but her article seems to frame this as a threat to free speech. It’s not uncommon for certain topics to be either banned or mandated in public school curricula. Children are impressionable, and lack the maturity and experience to evaluate complex and contentious theories, an activity better suited for a university setting.


If they decide to roll with it

The Nuremberg Trials for Nazi war crimes. Photo from the National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia (public domain)

It’s trendy these days to call Republicans ‘Fascists’ or even ‘Nazis’, and Democrats have been labeled ‘Socialists’ or ‘Communists’ by rivals for decades. Though some take this name-calling literally, many use it as a rhetorical strategy to paint their opponents in the worst possible light.

This may seem a smart move at first, possibly dissuading some ‘moderates’ from joining the other side. But do it often enough, and it could backfire spectacularly. The shock value of an epithet tends to decline when it’s over-used and applied more broadly.

This increases the likelihood of your adversary defusing the label altogether by…


Unless you’re a Darwinian.

Photo by A R on Unsplash

I know this has been said before, perhaps more recently by the philosopher Jerry Fodor (though, as often happens with philosophers, there are differing views on what he meant). But I think it can be put more simply. So here goes.

Consider the theory Stuff Happened. This is an incredibly powerful theory, because it explains everything. Why is it raining outside? Stuff happened. Explained! Why did I run out of milk today? Stuff happened. Oh my gosh, explained! Why do birds exist? Stuff happened … over millions of years. Explained again! Brilliant!

Or absurd? Of course…


Why Skepticism About Knowledge of the External World Doesn’t Matter Much

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

There’s an insurmountable mountain of literature on philosophical skepticism, and I’m short on time and energy. So, to quote Wittgenstein’s preface to the Philosophical Investigations, “If my remarks do not bear a stamp which marks them as mine, — I do not wish to lay any further claim to them as my property”. However, I did see a connection between an article I wrote earlier (on the observer effect) and skepticism about knowledge of the external world (SKEW). I’d like to briefly explain that connection here, and if anyone…


How an immortal jellyfish could end evolutionary theory as we know it

Turritopsis dohrnii, the ‘immortal jellyfish’. Image by Dr. Karen J. Osborn via Wikimedia (CC0 1.0)

Almost all organisms grow old (i.e. physically deteriorate over time), a process that eventually results in death. Biologists call this age-related decline ‘senescence’. We know only a few exceptions. The ‘immortal’ jellyfish Turritopsis dohrnii periodically reverts to an earlier stage in its life-cycle, like a butterfly turning back into a caterpillar.

This life-cycle reversal has been observed in another species of jellyfish, Aurelia. A flatworm called Schmidtea mediterranea appears to be able to regenerate itself indefinitely. Another sea creature called Hydra seems to not age at all. Lobsters


No one seems to know what they’re good for

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Somebody has to say it. PhD degrees are useless. Bertrand Russell never had one, law professors still don’t need them. Why do we have them?

Reason №1. PhD programs are a source of cheap indentured labor. Graduate students do a lot of undergraduate teaching — and pretty much anything else their supervisors want them to do — for very little money.

Reason №2. Nobody likes competition, and the PhD requirement adds a bottleneck for academic job applicants. 10 Masters and 25 Bachelors degrees are awarded for every PhD in the US…


And it’s the same for all of us

Some disciplines have a ‘blind spot’, assumptions that go largely unquestioned because they justify the existence of the discipline. For philosophical ethics, that blind spot is the assumption of moral ignorance, that there are circumstances in which we do not know the right thing to do. Moral ignorance is not ignorance of relevant facts, such as not knowing that a piano is falling as you walk under it. …


Or the economy will regularly implode

Photo by Egor Myznik on Unsplash

Recently, there have been calls by some economists for a ‘debt jubilee’, which essentially means the cancellation of debts (either by debt forgiveness, acting as if the debt never existed; or third-party redemption, where someone other than the lender or borrower — such as the government — pays off the debt). This was proposed as an ad-hoc solution to a growing worldwide crisis in personal and government debt, which together threaten a new global depression, especially after the economic havoc wrought by COVID-19 lockdowns. …

Ben Gibran

Ben writes on the theory and social science of communication, and anything else that comes to mind

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