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Where in the World Is Color? February 24, 2008

Posted by melindalucampbell in Uncategorized.

The red light ahead signals you to come to a stop; the light changes, and you notice that the shiny strip of red on the road ahead has turned green. The evening’s rain has left shallow pools of color here and there, turning stretches of the dark pavement into nearly perfect reflectors. What for a moment appeared to be a gleaming red strip of light shining up from the road now becomes a glowing green. Past experience has shown, however, that this whole show of colors is just an illusion—they will disappear when the water evaporates or the signal light stops working. Common sense enjoins reason; no part of the road, you tell yourself, is really red or green. The color of the road is the same as that of most paved surfaces: an indeterminate, composite shade of gray-to-black. Parts of it only look red or green because they are reflecting first the red, then the green light from the signal. But, we might go on to ask, what is it in the signal light that really is red? It is not the light generated by the lamp itself, for the same (broad-band) light is used in the green signal. The red signal lamp is made with a filter through which only long-wave light can pass, while middle- and short-wave light is trapped or absorbed, so the filter might be said to be the source of the redness present in the above situation.

            So the red color seen reflected on the wet road is neither a property of that which is  reflecting, nor of that which is generating, the light. But is it really a property of the filtering material? There are reasons to think not, because if we were to shine only short-wave light, or a mixture of short- and middle-wave light through it, if any light at all makes it through the filter, it would appear dark amber, not red. So the color of the filter seems to be relative to the composition of the light it transmits. Running out of objects or energy sources outside the perceiver to serve as logical candidates for bearers of color properties, at least in any determinate or absolute sense, we turn next to an examination of the perceiver. We are again to be disappointed, however, since if the perceiver is not equipped with a particular set visual mechanisms that contain certain sorts of photo-reactive pigments, the light may not appear to have any color at all; or, it may look some color other than red. So what or where is the redness that is so commonly taken to be a regular feature of the natural and artifactual worlds we inhabit? If it is not in the world of objects external to minds, and it is not internal to minds, where could it be?  Commonsense notwithstanding, considerations such as these have led both philosophers and scientists to say that colors are instantiated neither by reflective surfaces, refractive objects, nor by illuminant sources of electromagnetic energy; nor are they properties of retinas, ganglion cells, cortices of the brain, or some combination thereof. Many insist that colors are illusions; the way we human perceivers see the world is not the way the world really is. But can we leave things here? Is such a fundamental component of our experience a “false, imaginary glare”? Is there an account of color properties that gives them the ontological status deserving of the mainstay of human-environment relations and aesthetic sensibilities that colors are? For some possible answers, take a look at the slide show “The Reality of Color.”

The Color of Reality-Slide Show


American Anti-Intellectualism February 24, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Teaching.

In all the hand-wringing about our dysfunctional education system, the issue that is almost never discussed is that most Americans really do not value education as an intrinsic good. We value it only instrumentally– as a means to getting a job or improving one’s salary–but not something to be intensely pursued as something worthy in itself.

Susan Jacoby assembles evidence of American anti-intellectualism.

“According to a 2006 survey by National Geographic-Roper, nearly half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 do not think it necessary to know the location of other countries in which important news is being made. More than a third consider it “not at all important” to know a foreign language, and only 14 percent consider it “very important.”

That leads us to the third and final factor behind the new American dumbness: not lack of knowledge per se but arrogance about that lack of knowledge. The problem is not just the things we do not know (consider the one in five American adults who, according to the National Science Foundation, thinks the sun revolves around the Earth); it’s the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place. Call this anti-rationalism — a syndrome that is particularly dangerous to our public institutions and discourse. Not knowing a foreign language or the location of an important country is a manifestation of ignorance; denying that such knowledge matters is pure anti-rationalism. The toxic brew of anti-rationalism and ignorance hurts discussions of U.S. public policy on topics from health care to taxation.”

There is no regime of student testing, program of teacher training, or voucher system that will correct for this defiency. If we want to know why American students are falling behind the rest of the world in educational achievement, we need look no further than the idea that knowledge is nothing but a meal ticket.

Naturalism and Philosophy February 16, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy, Science.

There is an interesting and important discussion going on at Brian Leiter’s blog regarding the proper characterization of naturalism and its relation to philosophy.

Naturalism is the view that reality consists only of the natural world. The issue is whether the language and methods of science are sufficient to understand reality; or are there aspects of nature that must be understood philosophically.

What Not To Wear February 15, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Teaching.
1 comment so far

Should anyone want to listen in on academics discussing fashion, here it is.

From the comments: “The same lack of style which marks one as a force to be reckoned with inside academia gets taken as evidence of mental deficiency outside.”

Students should be aware of the finely-honed sense of sartorial signalling we professors deploy each morning.

Obama Ubermensch? February 15, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy.

Apparently, “Yes We Can” has an intellectual pedigree.

Robot Cheaters and Heroes February 12, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Artificial Intelligence, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Science.

It took 50 generations of robots evolving from basic light-sensitive wheeled mechanisms to something much more sophisticated—but now the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology can boast of having created four groups of robots who have evolved into light-consuming and communicating entities. Three out of the four groups will alert the other robots when they “find food.” The final group has developed robots who will lie about the food source, telling the others that it is poison, and then eat it all themselves. And if that isn’t enough, some robots have evolved into heroes who will alert others to danger and die saving the others. In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) calls human altruism a “precious Darwinian mistake.” So does this mean that any evolving, communicating entity will travel along the same path as we humans have? Here is a quote from the original report summary:

 “We conducted repeated trials of experimental evolution with robots that could produce visual signals to provide information on food location. We found that communication readily evolves when colonies consist of genetically similar individuals and when selection acts at the colony level. We identified several distinct communication systems that differed in their efficiency…. Under individual selection, the ability to produce visual signals resulted in the evolution of deceptive communication strategies in colonies of unrelated robots and a concomitant decrease in colony performance. This study generates predictions about the evolutionary conditions conducive to the emergence of communication and provides guidelines for designing artificial evolutionary systems displaying spontaneous communication.” 

So the “liars” were unrelated to the others, while communication went smoothly if the individuals were genetically similar. Without having read the entire report I will jump to the conclusion that the “heroes” came from the genetically similar groups. But does this prove that Dawkins is right (Moriae, weigh in!), or that this is no “mistake” at all—that self-sacrifice will happen, because being a member of a colony fosters genuine selflessness? Then again, maybe the researchers at the Swiss lab have merely reinvented an ant hill…

Update on Matthew Hiasi February 7, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Animal Intelligence, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
1 comment so far

On Dec,6, 2007 I posted a story from Austria about Matthew Hiasi Pan (“Hearts and Minds of Chimps”) who was about to be sold into an unknown future. Matthew Hiasi is a chimpanzee, and supporters have argued that he should be granted human status, as opposed to being legally classified as a thing. In Austria there are only those two legal options. Some of you may have wondered what happened to him: In mid-January the Austrian Supreme Court decided against Hiasi: He has been found to be a thing, with no rights. His British mentor is taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights. The trouble with the court ruling seems to be that the court has decided against making a distinction between “humanity” and “personhood.” It goes without saying that Hiasi is not a human being, genetically, but being a “person” requires (among other characteristics) the capacity for meaningful communication, a sense of purpose, and self-awareness, characteristics that apes share with us at least to some extent, as the stories of Washoe, Koko, Kanzi and Panbanisha have shown us. Even Kant finally came to the conclusion that there ought to be an intermediate category between a person and a thing (although he didn’t include animals in that category). Apparently it is too much of a challenge for the Austrian Supreme Court to consider the possibility of partial personhood.

European Voter Envy February 5, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Political Philosophy.

Some thoughts on the phenomenon of “voter envy” in Europe: Having recently returned from a visit to Denmark, I have witnessed, first hand, the almost feverish interest in our Presidential election shown on the other side of the Pond. When visiting with friends and family, the presidential election was all anyone wanted to talk with me about. An interesting idea was floated by a columnist in the culture-radical newspaper Politiken: that the US Presidential election will have a greater impact on Europe than on the individual American states, inasmuch as the States have their own local governments and legislation, while the decisions of the American President will have a global effect. During a previous election a Danish commentator even expressed the idea that European countries should be able to vote in our Presidential elections! I assume it was tongue-in-cheek. I hope. I am not posting any links to specific articles, because they’d be in Danish, but if you click here, you’ll see the extensive coverage. The newspaper—the largest in the country—has a running unofficial poll where readers get to vote for the presidential candidates. So far, Obama is winning.

The Danish state-sponsored radio station Program I (where I have been a guest commentator from time to time) has news updates on the election throughout the day, on the air and online. Candidates are profiled, and the latest polls are cited. Interestingly, the coverage of the Democratic candidates by far outweighs the coverage of the Republican candidates—you’d guess that the choice is exclusively between Clinton and Obama. What is interesting about that is (1) what it says about the preferences of the news editors, and (2) that the fact that the station is state-sponsored has no relationship to the actual politics of the current moderate/conservative government. Just in case anyone thought that having a state-sponsored media outlet in Europe automatically implies censorship.

However, this intense interest and scrutiny doesn’t mean that Danes/Europeans are familiar or comfortable with the US election process, being used to a parliamentary form of government, frequent elections, and a plethora of political parties that come and go. Primaries and caucuses etc. are a huge mystery to the otherwise generally well-informed population (In case we find the Danish style of country management attractive: It is easier to have a parliamentary style of government in a country of only 5 million people). And the interest doesn’t mean that Europeans look to the American system as an ideal, either—part of the interest is (1) fear of the future, and (2) a morbid fascination with the antics of a complex nation, with more political and social extremes than a European is used to, a kind of rubbernecking phenomenon…so when some Danes want to vote in our election, it isn’t because they want to become Americans—they want Americans to morph into Europeans…

Why I Won’t Vote (Part III– Invita Minerva) February 4, 2008

Posted by Josef K Buenter in Political Philosophy.

Thank you Dwight for the fair summary of my heretofore disparate remarks. There is a great deal you wrote that I’d like to respond to (including Nina’s recent post), but I’ll save that for later and simply continue my critique and try to close the loop on my previous disparate remarks.

What I’ve left unsaid so far is just why our vote doesn’t matter, and why it actually has pernicious consequences. I find it curious that people think that ‘what’ a candidate is ‘for’ actually matters, that their policies are in some way sui generis. We are not voting for an emperor, or a führer, who’ll dictate actions and policies that others will have to endure or benefit from. Even with a Republican Congress George Bush was severely impaired from pursuing even modestly ‘conservative’ ideas, and could only get something done (prescription coverage for the elderly) when it also served Democratic ends. Ultimately we hire geldings. We wouldn’t even be in Iraq if the Democrats hadn’t shamelessly capitulated for personal political gain in November 2002.

What seems to be taken for ‘disingenuousness’ (seems to be a favorite retort here) is the failure to note what binds my critique together. I’m not into ‘name -calling,’ but I’d also like to defend myself from the charge of cynicism. I’m not offering cynicism, but I’m trying to offer a fresh perspective that you simply don’t ever hear, and that’s a philosopher’s role to question the comforts of the masses. I’m simply inviting people to take off the rose-tinted glasses that have become so comfortable because of the hidden interests they serve.

I’m not being disingenuous either when I’m trying to detail a subtle argument— subtle they are, but not disingenuous. If nothing could be different, then critiquing the American situation would be rather useless. My point though is that what is lamentable is the fact that it could have been different, but is likely now to be beyond redemption. It’s a diagnosis, not a prescription.

What my argument hinges on is noting the presence of a vicious symbiosis among our political parties that began roughly 47 years ago with Kennedy’s Inaugural Address (a convenient starting point):

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty. This much we pledge—and more. To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends. United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do—for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.” (With apologies to Country Joe and the Fish) Next stop Vietnam

This notion of ‘using the future to pay for the present’ gained traction in the Johnson years, and finally came to concrete fruition in the Reagan years. The timing is unimportant, but the tangible result is crucial. What started in earnest in the 60’s was the belief that we can live a life of smug contentment on the backs of future unborn generations with a clear conscience. Madison expected ‘factions’ to compete yet he never suspected that they might end up colluding with each other at the expense of future generations. Kennedy’s “we” (as Tonto might note) quickly became an unspecific piece of rhetoric. So what happened here that led to the efficacy of colluding interests?

What had happened was that a general agreement, a consensus, was reached between the ‘factions’ here that recognized that their goals and interests were largely compatible. In the US there is a staggering homogeneity that is largely missing in even very small states (think of Kenya now). It is perfectly clear that most Americans largely want the same things and that these things were very predictable in nature (nice house, SUV or BMW, a chance to eat too much, win a lotto prize, etc.). This is also why politics that try to stoke ‘envy’ in some of our population (Edwards favorite ruse) never works in the USA. People don’t envy the rich here, they want to be rich themselves, they want to emulate the rich, not sneer at them— everyone wants to be in Paris Hilton’s position , they only disagree about her choice of cars, clothes, and mates to do it with. Our short-sighted pursuit of petty interests is a blatant trait in most Americans. Yet it isn’t anything particularly American though. People have always been like that. Most are palpably indifferent to the future. Job (21:21) said it concisely, “For what do they care for their houses after them, when the number of their months is cut off?”

You focus on my comments (in part) as if I’m offering an indictment of ‘the system,’ and that what I’m noting are signs of a ‘broken’ system. But the system isn’t broke, it is in fact quite intact, but it was simply overwhelmed, and usurped, by the powerful forces of colluding selfish interests that found a way to disable the checks set in place long ago. The system was originally designed to mitigate the ultimately malicious inclinations of people to be contentious and pursue incompatible ends. But what if the ends are largely agreed upon? What if people tastes and interests largely coalesce? Madison didn’t forsee that contingency. There is simply no safeguard against colluding interests. That’s why when Nina wrote: “So should we feel bad about voting selfishly? That argument seems to me strangely disingenuous. For one thing, what exactly is wrong with trying to create the best life possible for oneself and one’s group?” I considered that a symptom, not a response, to the issue I’m trying to point out.

For instance, I’m 100% behind drilling for all that oil off Santa Barbara and taking every ounce of it out, but we’re not the ones who should be doing it. We should leave that oil for future generations to exploit for their own interests, despite the fact that it may keep gas prices down for us. They should be free to pursue their own dreams, like going to Mars for instance, and they shouldn’t be saddled with impediments (in the form of taxes to pay the national debt) that reflect the pursuit of our own petty interests.

It seems odd that people don’t consider the future of their progeny and what effect we might have on them with the choices we make now. It’s odd too that people don’t seem to notice that this current collusion of petty interests was only possible because previous generations didn’t pursue their interests to the exclusion of their progeny. We are leaving a vast financial hole for future generations and we are seemingly expecting them to pay with their taxes what we enjoy today. But since it seems so natural to pursue our own interests even at the expense of others, I don’t see why we should respect a vote that will blatantly, and gloatingly express the pursuit of the petty self-interests of those who have no thought for the future. The very notion of sacrifice is missing, and any thought for tomorrow is expected to be paid back to our current citizens in the form of trade-offs that profit them.

In fact I’m placing a finger on something that isn’t broke at all, and that is the nature of people themselves. That humans succumb easily to flattery, credulity and gullibility, and aren’t even very noted for making sacrifices for their  own children, much less the children of the future, is our current malaise. In point of fact people will not vote against their own interests without considerable incentives. Adam Smith famously noted this human indifference to others. It isn’t cynical to lament the nature of people as they are, but it can be sobering and disillusioning.

George Monbiot, whom no one could doubt having “liberal” credentials (he was Oxford Professor of Environmental Policy, and Professor of Environmental Science at the University of East London– to name a very few), wrote about his experiences at the European Social Forum:

“In Paris, some of us tried to tackle this question [of the evils of capitalism] in a session called ‘life after capitalism.’ By the end of it, I was as unconvinced by my own answers as I was by everyone else’s. While I was speaking, the words died in my mouth, as it struck me with horrible clarity that as long as incentives to cheat exist (and they always will) none of our alternatives could be applied universally without totalitarianism.” And therein lies the rub. Can we govern ourselves without hurting the future? My suspicion is that we cannot.

Confessions of a Proud Voter February 2, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Political Philosophy.

When cynicism takes over, and the culture is falling apart, Voltaire’s advice is to go cultivate one’s backyard. Josef’s backyard must look very pretty in this election season. I would like to add a different, personal perspective to this debate: I lived in this country for 22 years as a legal resident alien, without being able to vote. When you are a reasonably rational, caring adult living in a society that has, and wields, the power to change history, and you cannot vote, you realize exactly why voting is important: Not only because it gives you the illusion of participation, a mere feel-good means of keeping the people content, a modern version of “bread and circuses” (as Marcuse might say), but because it reveals the fundamental duty and privilege of a citizen: to participate, and one of the ways we participate is by voting. I’m reminded of the vehemence and passion with which intelligent women fought for the right to vote in the 19th century, simply because it ought to be a right, not because it necessarily yields immediate results, or automatically makes the world a more authentic place. If nothing else, then, vote to celebrate the principle of voting—because the alternative, losing the right to vote, is dismal.

So, when I became a US citizen in 2001, I proudly registered to vote, and I have been doing my best to be an informed voter ever since. The argument that if you choose not to choose, you let others choose for you, is indeed a good argument, because we can’t dismiss all ballots and elections as being manipulated, rigged, etc., as much as the hype and the ballot language excel in confusing and misleading the voters. Sometimes issues are important, and at face-value, and sometimes the people we elect are not corrupt. Sometimes we indeed find afterwards that we have been manipulated, and duped, or we find that the issue we voted in gets stuck in courts until it disappears, or we find that money has outweighed ideology, or ideology has outweighed common sense. The voice of the people isn’t absolute—but it isn’t nonexistent, either. Sometimes a simple majority can make an enormous difference.

            So should we feel bad about voting selfishly? That argument seems to me strangely disingenuous.  For one thing, what exactly is wrong with trying to create the best life possible for oneself and one’s group? You don’t find me defending egoism very often, but in this case it would be a blatant disdain for reality to think that we can engage enthusiastically in a process that consistently disregards our own interest. On the other hand, that doesn’t have to exclude a concern for others. I agree with Dwight that virtue ethics opens up the possibility to display and express care for one’s fellow human beings without being trapped by the impossible, cold ideal of impartiality. When we vote, we vote according to the interests of “our group,” but we can be a member of many “groups,” physically as well as emotionally, and we are capable of caring about issues across the board. Indeed, one of the problems with Rousseau’s social contract theory is his concept of the general will that can never be wrong if applied toward the interest of all, but is corrupted when tainted by personal interests—the quintessential impartiality ideal. It doesn’t work. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t weigh in, in a concerned way, about what, in our view, may benefit a large group to which we belong—such as our state and our nation.

            What may be more important than any of these arguments is the concept of hope—that we hope our vote can make a difference. In other words, we engage ourselves in the future, with responsibility, a forward-looking engagement. So I’m “looking forward” to voting, and believe me, around the world there are lots of good people who wish they were in the shoes of an American voter. I’ll post something about that later.