Friday, March 24, 2017

Humean Nature

My book defending the Humean Theory of Motivation is published! Thanks to everyone who helped, including the editorial staff at Oxford University Press, my three referees, and colleague / ex-roommate / friend Ben Blumson, who set up a reading group on the manuscript.

This passage from the end of Chapter 1 discusses and exhibits the style of the book:

"My writing is sometimes colorful. I hope this never reduces clarity, but instead helps you more quickly see what I mean. I have a lot to tell you, and sometimes an unusual style helps me say it in fewer words. After working on the Humean Theory for sixteen years, I have some of the feelings that it would have if theories had feelings. Expressing how I feel may help you understand how the Humean Theory explains phenomena and relates to other theories. Maybe robots or angels would understand everything faster in dry prose. But this book is written for and about humble descendants of apes, like me."

Thursday, March 23, 2017

I'm talking about proton-electron romantic relationships on Australian public radio

Here I am discussing "Divine Fine-Tuning vs. Electrons in Love" with Joe Gelonesi of The Philosopher's Zone! It's downloadable as a podcast if you'd like to listen that way.

The paper is about how the metaphysical possibility of romantic relationships between otherworldly protons and electrons defeats the fine-tuning argument for God's existence. It's now out in APQ. That and "Possible Girls", also discussed in the interview, are my contributions to discussion of metaphysically interesting romantic relationships. I didn't expect that it'd be such a media-friendly topic when I started working on it, but it kind of makes sense.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

DeVos confirmation consolations

Thanks to all of you who fought the good fight in calling Senators to oppose the DeVos nomination. Republicans like to complain about teachers' unions, and sometimes unions push for things that are suboptimal (police unions I am looking at you), but corporations can push harder for greater evil than teachers' unions ever will. Like: confirming an utterly unqualified Secretary of Education who lobbied for corporations running failing charter schools in Michigan, so they could keep their badly run charter schools open and even expand them. It's crony capitalism with children in its claws.

I expected this evil in November, but with it comes a sign of the Democratic Party becoming what it could be. Every single Democrat and two moderate Republicans voted no. The last Cabinet nominee who lost a vote was alcoholic sexual harrasser John Tower, blocked by Democrats and liberal Republicans in 1989. The sheer outpouring of activist energy brought us closer to another block than anything since. (Pence, historically, had to vote. Sessions had to be delayed so he could still be in the Senate to vote.) For reference, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry were confirmed 94-2 and 94-3.

There are two reasons why I can feel okay right now. (1) DeVos is going to have some difficulty implementing her terrible policies. Education is mostly controlled in the states, and working the federal bureaucracy right to implement her objectives is a challenge that she has never undertaken and probably can't really handle. (2) I never expected us to block DeVos -- skillful majority leaders like McConnell and Pelosi (who did exactly this when she passed Obamacare) can usually get just enough votes within their caucus, by giving some people a break and other people favors for voting their way.

The giant foe that looms before us is Neil Gorsuch, nominated to a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court. Unlike Cabinet appointments, Democrats can block him with the filibuster. I've spent a couple days thinking about some arguments from smart people who think it's okay to confirm him, and concluded that they're wrong on basically everything except counterfactuals for some unlikely scenarios. Blocking Gorsuch matters way more than DeVos.

More on this soon. But for now: rest well, and take care of yourself so you'll be ready for the battles ahead.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Why Jeff Merkley's Leadership PAC is my #1 pick for fighting Trump

This was the seventh year in which I gave $5000 to Senator Jeff Merkley's Leadership PAC. If you have the money and want to fight the Trump Administration, I invite you to join me.

Just three days after Trump won the election in November, Jeff announced that Republicans had stolen the Supreme Court nomination and that Democrats should block the nomination of anyone other than Merrick Garland. Now Chuck Schumer is announcing that Democrats are willing to filibuster for four years and keep the seat open unless Trump nominates a moderate. I didn't think we had any hope of avoiding another Scalia after election night, and now it looks like we have a shot. Jeff has been doing this sort of thing for the last eight years, and it's why I see him as the best progressive legislative tactician we have in the Senate.

Jeff donates his Leadership PAC money to the re-election campaigns of other Democratic Senators. We have a lot of tough races coming up in 2018, including West Virginia, North Dakota, Montana, Indiana, Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin. If you expect that you'll probably end up donating to some of those Democratic campaigns in the next couple years, I strongly recommend doing it now through the Leadership PAC. In addition to helping Democrats win, you'll make them owe favors to an excellent left-wing legislative tactician who can organize them to vote the right way when it matters. As an out-of-state contributor, I can't influence Democratic Senators to support a Supreme Court filibuster. Jeff can, and he does it very well.

We need those votes now as much as we ever have. Trump is planning to announce his Supreme Court nomination on Tuesday night. Whether another Scalia occupies that seat will depend on whether we can hold a Democratic filibuster together -- either to keep the seat open indefinitely, or to force him to withdraw an extreme nominee and nominate a moderate.

I started following Jeff when he was the Speaker of the Oregon state House. He had won Democrats control of the chamber by recruiting a serious challenger to run against the previous Republican Speaker, tying her down so that she couldn't just go out and fundraise for her Republican underlings. After beating enough of her underlings to win a slender majority, he passed all sorts of awesome stuff -- same-sex domestic partnership benefits, requirements that insurance companies cover birth control, and all sorts of minor nifty good-government things I would've never thought of, like a law allowing people in trailer parks to join together and form co-ops to prevent the land they live on from being sold out from under them. That seemed like what Democrats needed in the US Senate, and Jeff has been providing it for the last eight years.

If you donate over $2,500 to ORPAC (it has that name because Jeff is from Oregon), you'll be invited to come to Portland for a two-day fundraiser where we travel the Oregon wine country. It's a wonderful opportunity to directly engage with Jeff, his staff, and influential DC people. Often I'm the only non-lobbyist there. But I'm hoping that more people will join me this time, to make clear that there's lots of support for a Senator who can organize Democrats to fight hard against the Trump Administration. 

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Incredible Publication Records of NUS Philosophy Junior Faculty

We have four Assistant Professors at the National University of Singapore. Collectively, they've published 29 articles, 16 of which are single-authored publications in top 10 general-interest journals (according to recent polls). Behold the amazing publication records of my junior colleagues, Weng Hong Tang, Qu Hsueh Ming, Bob Beddor, and Abelard Podgorski!

Weng Hong Tang, PhD 2010, ANU:
  1. Forthcoming: Transparency and Partial Beliefs, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research
  2. Forthcoming: Knowledge and Probability, in Hetherington and Valaris, Knowledge in Contemporary Philosophy, Bloomsbury.
  3. 2016: Reliabilism and the Suspension of Belief, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 94, 362-77. 
  4. 2016: Reliability Theories of Justified Credence, Mind 125, 63-94. 
  5. 2015: A Note on the Definition of Physicalism, Thought 4, 10-18. (With Ben Blumson)
  6. 2015: Belief and Cognitive Limitations, Philosophical Studies 172, 249-60. 
  7. 2014: Success Semantics and Partial Belief, Journal of Philosophical Research 29, 17-22. 
  8. 2014: Intentionality and Partial Belief, Synthese 191, 1433-50. 
  9. 2012: Regularity Reformulated, Episteme 9, 329-43. 
Qu Hsueh Ming, PhD 2014, NYU:
  1. Forthcoming: Hume’s Doxastic Involuntarism, Mind.
  2. Forthcoming: Hume’s (Ad Hoc?) Appeal to the Calm Passions, Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie.
  3. Forthcoming: Hume’s Internalism in EHU 12, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.
  4. Forthcoming: Hume’s Dispositional Account of the Self, Australasian Journal of Philosophy.
  5. Forthcoming: Hume on Mental Transparency, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly.
  6. 2016: Prescription, Description, and Hume’s Experimental Method, The British Journal for the History of Philosophy 24:2, 279-301. 
  7. 2016: The Title Principle (or lack thereof) in the Enquiry, History of Philosophy Quarterly 33:3, 257-274.
  8. 2014: Hume’s Positive Argument on Induction, Nous 48(4): 595-625. 
  9. 2014: Hume’s Practically Epistemic Conclusions? Philosophical Studies 170(3): 501-524. 
  10. 2012: The Simple Duality: Humean Passions, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 42:supp1, 98-116. 
Bob Beddor, PhD 2016, Rutgers:
  1. Forthcoming: Believing Epistemic Contradictions, (w. Simon Goldstein)  Review of Symbolic Logic.
  2. Forthcoming: Justication as Faultlessness,  Philosophical Studies.
  3. 2015: Process Reliabilism’s Troubles with Defeat, Philosophical Quarterly 65 (259): 145-159.
  4. 2015: Evidentialism, Circularity, and Grounding, Philosophical Studies 172 (7): 1847-1868.
  5. 2015: Reliabilist Epistemology (w. Alvin Goldman), Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Abelard Podgorski, PhD 2016, USC:
  1. Forthcoming: Rational Delay,  Philosopher's Imprint.
  2. Forthcoming: Wouldn't it be Nice: Moral Rules and Distant Worlds, Nous
  3. 2016: A Reply to the Synchronist, Mind 125(499): 859-871.
  4. 2016: Dynamic Permissivism, Philosophical Studies 173(7): 1923-1939.
  5. 2016: Dynamic Conservatism, Ergo 3.
There are many other good young (and older) philosophers in Singapore at Yale-NUS College, Nanyang Technological University, and Singapore Management University, in addition to NUS where I work.

Friday, December 30, 2016

2016 Utilitarian Financial Activity

My donations in 2016:
$10000 to the Against Malaria Foundation, which provides mosquito nets that protect Africans from malarial mosquitoes. GiveWell judged it the charity that could best put new money to use when I donated a few months ago.

$5000 to Deworm the World, which provides deworming pills to treat intestinal parasitic worm infections that cause severe illnesses in Africa and India. The educational benefits of deworming may give them the best expected value of any antipoverty charity, as intestinal worms severely impair students' school performance.

$5000 to Senator Jeff Merkley's Leadership PAC, which helps Democrats win Senate races and coordinates the party around one of its most talented and progressive legislative tacticians. This is my top pick for blocking bad Trump Administration initiatives, and I'll put up a big post about it when I donate again in a few days.

$1000 to RESULTS, which lobbies Congress for more global antipoverty funding, including vaccinations and AIDS / TB / malaria treatment. Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio says, “RESULTS is the greatest citizens' lobbying organization in the history of Western civilization.”

$1000 to the Good Food Institute, which supports companies promoting plant-based meat alternatives. Real-tasting "clean meat" will eventually end factory farming, and we'll get there faster with a well-funded group that helps its producers push through regulatory obstacles created by corporations that do the factory farming.

When I took my job at Singapore in 2008, I told myself that I'd donate 25% of my annual income to a mix of political and charitable causes. I've fallen slightly below the 25% goal in previous years (while exceeding my 10% Giving What We Can pledge), but I hit it this time. If you're interested in making an end-of-2016 contribution to any of these groups and have any questions, feel free to ask.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Help them get into some good philosophy

I've given 74 talks since I left Singapore in April. Now I have a sort of fright at how many person-hours have been spent listening to me talk about things in philosophy that I think are fun. I really hope it was worth so much of people's time!

Giving a talk or writing a paper are both, in a broad sense, types of teaching. In a big lecture class for students, you're probably teaching stuff other people thought of first. In a department's weekly colloquium, you're supposed to teach stuff you thought of first. A paper is like a colloquium except you get to use footnotes and you don't get to use interpretive dance.

When you're teaching, you're trying to help your audience get into some good philosophy. The details of the various modes differ in various ways -- how much is supposed to be your own philosophy? who's the audience? how do they interact and contribute? do you make ephemeral living sounds or flat permanent letters? -- but the most basic goal is the same. Help them get into some good philosophy!

I like the idea of taking the best possible undergraduate lecture as our model for talks and papers and books. I'm thinking of the lecture that grabbed your attention and gave you a clear picture of an awesome problem or an amazing discovery. It was on your mind later that day. Maybe you told a friend about it. This happened because your teacher showed it to you clearly, and made you feel why it mattered. Maybe there were jokes! Jokes can help you get into some good philosophy.

Perhaps I should think of all my research activity (talks, papers, books) as aiming to be like that lecture. Of course, there are all kinds of modifications for format and audience and other such details. Sometimes you're giving a talk at a department full of experts, and it's Q&A, and you're supposed to answer their objections on the spot. What are you supposed to do?

Help them get into some good philosophy.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Identity Politics

As a Democrat and a philosopher, identity politics will always be at the heart of how I see the world.

Trump is the next President. Trump's Chief Strategist is a misogynistic white nationalist, so the next President's Chief Strategist is a misogynistic white nationalist. And Trump's infrastructure plan is a trillion dollars of useless corporate welfare, so the next President's infrastructure plan is a trillion dollars of useless corporate welfare.

There's room for tactical disagreement about which issue we should emphasize at what time. But we're bound together by a commitment to the rights of women and minorities, opposition to economic structures that benefit the rich at everyone else's expense, and the principle that x=y→∀F(Fx↔Fy).

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Supreme Court Tactics After the Trumpocalypse

If you want a story about getting Trump to nominate a judge who isn't another Scalia, this is the story for you.

President Obama nominated Merrick Garland in March, and Republicans never held hearings so that they could pass the nomination forward to Donald Trump. This weekend, Senator Merkley told Republicans that if they want Democrats to cooperate, Trump needs to nominate Garland so he gets the hearing he deserves.

I think Garland is about as likely as Andy Egan to be the next nominee. But that just takes us to the other side of Senator Merkley's conditional: no cooperation, and a filibuster. Mitch McConnell might want to eliminate the filibuster on Supreme Court nominations in response, but there are enough old institutionalists in the Republican Party to make this challenging within the GOP caucus. And there are a lot of other ways to tie up the Senate, which Chuck Schumer might employ if McConnell just ends the filibuster. Even if the vote goes forward, defections from three Republicans are enough to defeat the nominee.

With this in mind, Republicans will want to negotiate with Democrats about whom they nominate instead. And here's where things get fun. The person with nominating authority, Donald Trump, doesn't have any deep ideological commitment to the goals of the conservative movement. His main commitment is his own narcissism. Mike Pence will want to nominate another Scalia, but there may be a way around him.

The path forward might look like the Harriet Miers nomination of October 2005. Harry Reid's crafty move was to suggest that Bush nominate his unqualified but non-ideological friend to the Supreme Court. Bush accepted!

The nomination only failed when movement conservatives within the Bush Administration made him pull the plug. I don't know if anybody within could make Trump pull the plug on a nomination -- he doesn't feel he owes movement conservatives very much, and anyway Trump isn't a man who pays his debts. So a new Harriet Miers is a judge we can be very happy with.

A court with 4 progressives, the old institutionalist Roberts, the romantic libertarian Kennedy, two movement conservatives, and a Trump-crony who decides at random will rule our way pretty often. There are majorities there that can stop really bad Trumpy stuff, and also that can decide our way on other issues. I don't think this is the most likely outcome -- Pence is in the White House to prevent it. But it's an outcome worth playing for.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The path forward under a Trump Administration

2016 is the fourth time I've lived through this, and it's worse than the previous three. 1994 was Gingrich, 2000 was Bush, 2004 was Bush again. The deepest pain for me is the Supreme Court vacancy. That was our best path to a big advantage. Losing it is tremendously bad.

I'll offer optimism, because I'm your optimism guy. 2004 seemed like the worst -- unified Republican control under President Bush. But he didn't manage to do much new original damage apart from Supreme Court appointments. Nancy Pelosi shut down Social Security Privatization in the House when the Republican majority couldn't agree around a plan, and they couldn't pass it without Democratic votes which sweet Nancy made sure they didn't get. Bush gave up on a legislative agenda, and the worst we got was continuation of the terrible policies we had, including enormous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that make Libya and US Syria involvement look trivial -- plus economic mismanagement that led to the financial crisis. Obviously, really bad. But Bush didn't manage to initiate new hell.

Democrats held on, played defense, and won big in 2006 and 2008. House and Senate Democrats are way more functional than they were in the bad old days when Gephardt and Lieberman were supporting Bush's Iraq War Resolution. Schumer can get Wall Street money to fund Senate challengers (we didn't want to rely on this goddamned source of support, but the markets are crashing on Trump news). Pelosi does it because she's pure of heart.

So a possible scenario is for internal dysfunction between Trump and Congressional Republicans (combined with stalwart opposition from Pelosi and Senate Democrats) to prevent anything from really going forward. I didn't expect us to need to play the defensive filibuster game, but that's what it looks like we might have to do. I'd probably expect Republicans to get rid of the filibuster entirely for anyone else, but maybe not for Trump? I hope. We've pulled victory out of the elephant poop of past defeat a couple times before. Let's hope Pelosi and goddamned Schumer can do it again.

Certainly, the big worry is that Republicans fuse themselves to a crazy Trump agenda and there's no stopping it and everything goes to hell. That... could happen. But if there's enough internal conflict in the party to make things not work smoothly, as happened in much more subtle ways in 2004, we could get Trump-as-failure for the 2018 and 2020 cycles. After all, Trump is made to screw stuff up. Maybe his disaffected white working class supporters get the "actually, this sucks" message and don't support Republicans so well in 2018 and 2020 while our folks do their thing. Control redistricting in the 2020-2022 cycle, and you can take the House again. And then you can pass all kinds of progressive legislation, especially after this year's Senate misfortunes get flushed out in 2022.
As I said, I'm your optimism guy. Be well, and keep safe. We're going to need you.