The Qua-Problem and Meaning Scepticism

My latest (and basically first) peer-reviewed publication, “The Qua-Problem and Meaning Scepticism”, is out in Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations here:

For those who don’t have access via their institutions, an archive copy of the article is available for download from  NOVA: The University of Newcastle Research Online .

The best philosophy course I taught in 2016

I want to write a little about my favourite of the courses that I tutored and taught last semester. This course challenged those attempting it more than most, but luckily it played host to some of my best students. I’m confident that it made a bigger difference to their philosophical development than any other course we offer at my university.

This was a gruelling and wide-ranging syllabus. We covered epistemology, critical reasoning, metaphysics, and ethics. These conversations were fun (for me at least). But more than that, once students were less self-conscious, they gave a great insight into how quickly they were progressing.

Thinking about how we know things was a tough way to start – not least because we don’t often consider this in everyday life. But it was a picnic compared to propositional and predicate logic I inflicted on them. Pretty soon though, the students started getting the point: seeing something doesn’t always make it true, though this did ‘ruin the Matrix’ for one student. They started seeing that not everything that resembles sound reasoning actually works, and would come to class with a list of faulty arguments & justifications peddled by politicians and advertisers. I was especially happy when a student pointed out to me a version of the slippery slope argument that I’d never really considered. She’d seen a real-estate ad, where buying the ‘right’ house inevitably led to a child being a huge success – all though a series of steps (each more implausible than the last), and informed me that slippery slopes can go ‘uphill’ too.

The relief that they felt at completing the logic module was short-lived as they began to grapple with metaphysics. Identity and personhood were tricky concepts at first. But thanks to our discussion of the Ship of Theseus, most of my ex-students will never invest in a teleportation scheme. Despite my best efforts, including a robust discussion of what Mary knew (Jackson’s Knowledge argument), most of them retain their belief that everything is physical, and that’s that. But they also know that personal identity over time is a potentially complicated topic.

Ethics was the final hurdle. We argued about whose interests to take into account in utilitarian calculus – including speculating about whether a utilitarian AI would actually be a good thing. Divine command theory challenged them to consider if it actually made sense to say that something was good purely because God decrees it. Finally, we took a hammer to cultural relativism and subjectivism. There were no simple or easy answers, but that was OK as by this stage the students were comfortable with that.

All of this was peppered with assessments ranging from a stressful written logic exam to a diabolical ethics essay: ‘Can it ever be right to deliberately take a human life?’

So, who were these students? Was this an advanced class? Did they come into university with great marks from high school? The answer is no, and no. The course was Open Foundation Philosophy. The students were undertaking one or other of UoN’s enabling programs (Open Foundation or Newstep) – designed for students who’ve experienced educational disadvantage and who would otherwise be unable to get into a degree. These were students with lower HSC results, or who had never finished high school. Some were tradies, or worked in retail. Others were out of work. The last time some of them set foot in a classroom, I hadn’t even been born yet. (And as I’ve said elsewhere, I’m very proud of all of them).

I can’t sugar-coat the rate at which participants dropped out. Despite our best efforts, some students find it too much of a shock to the system. Others discover that they’d rather do something else than go to uni. But of those who did make it through, they join a long list of students who tend to very well in their further studies. I heard one very high-ranked administrator once say that completing one of these programs was the best predictor of success we had. I could dig out some figures, but since it’s outside of semester, I’ll stick to anecdotes and point out that I got into university via Open Foundation Philosophy some years ago. I hope my PhD means I turned out OK.

Whatever these students go on to study, and it isn’t always more philosophy, I’m confident they will do well. Research indicates that children exposed to philosophy are higher achievers in other areas, and I suspect the same is true of adults. Figures also suggest that philosophy grads tend to have good earnings, despite working across a broad range of careers. Perhaps this is because philosophy, through specific skills like formal logic, and a general ability to grasp abstract and complicated ideas, is the ultimate transferable skill-set. It’s what some people might call ‘powerful knowledge’.

Importantly, philosophy is for everyone, not just ‘ivory tower’ types and other so-called ‘elites’. Students don’t need to have gotten top marks in high-school (or have even finished it). They just need opportunity, support and perseverance. Philosophers talk a lot about the value of their high-powered cutting edge research – and that’s worthwhile. But perhaps this course is the sort of thing we should really be concentrating on.

Drug policy and poor arguments (again)

I suspect I’ll be doing this each time someone from the political establishment talks about drug policy, but here we are, again.

Recently, Senator Richard Di Natale reported that the Australian Greens had decided to drop their opposition to legalisation of currently illicit drugs from their policy platform. This did not mean that anything would automatically become legal. Rather, what the Greens seem to be supporting is a process of determining possible harm, then adjusting the legal status of substances accordingly. So, something that is relatively less harmful – to the extent that its illegality is the main source of possible harm – would be decriminalised or legalised. (Note: legalisation does not have to follow the US model). The Senator also specifically said that substances that were particularly dangerous, such as methamphetamine (Ice) and heroin would not be legalised under this system.

Now, it is no surprise that the current conservative Federal Health Minister, Sussan Ley, voiced her opposition to this. Nor is it particularly surprising that current Australian Medical Association president, Dr Michael Gannon, would take a similar line. It was curious though to have both Dr Gannon and Minister Ley mention Ice.

From the Minster: “The Coalition government is against all forms of illegal drugs, and is particularly concerned about the impact ice is having across Australia, especially in regional areas”. Well, the minster should be in at least partial agreement with Di Natale, who said Ice wouldn’t be legalised (remember). (I will leave aside the question of whether the Minster thinks that illegality is inherently bad until I discuss section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act).

There was also the stock repetition of “The Australian government will never legalise a drug that destroys brain function, mental wellbeing, general health, employment, relationships, lives and families.”. This is at least partially inconsistent coming from a government that allows alcohol, poker machines, social media, left-wing academics, and The Bachelor.

Dr Gannon was less subtle, tweeting “Don’t underestimate misery Ice causing”. Ok – but I would have thought that the fact that legalisation of Ice was explicitly off the table would make such a statement somewhat redundant.

What are we to make of this? Perhaps both the Minster and Dr Gannon didn’t really pay attention to what Senator Di Natale had said. Or perhaps they know that people tend not to read whole articles; the mention of Ice – and erroneous implication that the Greens would legalise it – will stick in people’s minds. While it is not excusable, I expect politicians to use cynical post-truth tactics, so I should not be surprised.

But, expected or not, without any elaboration, the mention of Ice is a distraction. If someone says we shouldn’t do something, then responding by loudly proclaiming that you are against precisely that same thing makes no sense. That would be like me saying “We shouldn’t go to the beach as there’s a storm coming.”, and then my housemate responding by saying “I disagree – I’m totally against going to the beach during storms”.

If we are to have a policy debate, perhaps politicians could start by actually responding to what their opponents actually say – rather than simply trying to manipulate voter sentiment.

Szasz, Kripkenstein and mental illness.

Imagine that you found a complex and utterly alien object, of unknown and mysterious origin, washed up on a beach. Sometimes it does lots of confusing and incomprehensible things – sometimes it does nothing. You suspect it might be broken. But you cannot definitely know this without any frame of reference regarding what it is actually supposed to do – or if in fact, it has any purpose at all.

Saul Kripke, in writing about the ‘machine objection’ defence of dispositional accounts of meaning, makes a similar point (it’s probably where I got the idea from).  You can only say that an adding machine is functioning correctly if there is some fact in virtue of which it’s outputs are correct or not.

Reflecting on what Thomas Szasz wrote about psychiatry (and by extension, psychology), it strikes me that this is the position he would say that these disciplines are in – that they are trying to ‘fix’ minds, when they don’t know what the criteria for ‘correct’ functions consist of – or if such criteria even exist. To fix minds in this position is to impose one’s own (or one’s society’s) criteria on what they should be doing.

It would be like modifying the alien object to do what you want, but claiming that what you are doing constitutes repair.

I’m not sure that Szazs is 100% right. But I’ll try to remember this analogy next time I have to explain his views to 1st-year psychology students.

Watch this space!

I’m coming to the end of a fairly gruelling session of casual/sessional/not-remotely-tenured teaching, which has been really rewarding, but hasn’t left much time for casual writing – hence me not posting anything here since July.

But exciting things are afoot, and with any luck, I’ll have some new research directions to talk about very soon!