Archive for the ‘Epistemology’ Category

In 1985, Robert Brandom gave a graduate course in Metaphysics and Epistemology in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh.

I was in my first year as a graduate student, and attended the course along with most graduate students from my year group and many from the previous intake.

Pittsburgh’s philosophy department at the time was rated as one of the very best in the U.S., indeed the world, and it had many top notch faculty, including eminences such as Carl Hempel. However Brandom’s M&E course had a reputation as the premier event in the postgraduate coursework program.  It was deemed – and for many it was – a transformational experience.

Although Brandom was a relatively young philosopher who hadn’t yet attained his exalted status in the profession, we graduate students regarded him with awe and reverence.  We felt that being able to participate in Brandom’s seminar made us something of a special breed.

The lectures were three hours each, held once a week for a semester, in the seminar room on the tenth floor of the Cathedral of Learning.  We sat around a long boardroom-type table, with Brandom standing to deliver his lengthy, dense presentations.

Many of us took copious notes.  In most seminars you would try to understand the lecturer’s main points and succinctly distil them into your own words.  With Brandom, it seemed every sentence was expressed with such eloquence and insight it needed to be captured verbatim. I particularly remember his habit of expressing a point three times in a row, in three consecutive sentences, each with different shades and nuances.

After each lecture, I would go home and immediately start transcribing our notes on my new Macintosh (original 1984 model; 128k RAM, 400k floppy, no hard drive, 9″ screen). I vaguely recall relying on three sets of handwritten notes: mine, and probably those made by Sonia Sedivy and Irad Kimhi; though I possibly also used notes by Alisa Carse and Bill Blattner.  The notes, and my fresh memories of what was said, were merged into what ended up being fairly complete transcriptions.

These were then printed out on my original Mac dot matrix printer. Sometime after the end of the semester, I bound all the lecture transcriptions into a green plastic folder.

I also made detailed notes on many of the course readings, and these were included.img_1847

I kept that folder to this day, though I’ve rarely opened it, and certainly never read or studied its contents.  I didn’t know it at the time, but the only benefit I would get was from the act of synthesis, not from the result.

In 1994, Brandom published Making It Explicit, which covered much of the same territory and a great deal more, and rendered the lecture notes obsolete.

This year, I’ve been slowly discarding a lot of the “baggage” I’ve accumulated over the years, including lots of books and papers I know I’ll never read again.

Its time for the Brandom notes to go.

It is a bit hard to part with these yellowing, dot-matrix pages which represent such hard work and earnest enthusiasm.

So, I ran the notes through the scanner.

Here they are: Brandom M&E Lectures 1985 (30mb, pdf).

I can’t really imagine that anyone will ever want to read them. There might be a few people, perhaps some Pitt students from the 80s, who’d be interested to glance at them.

Here’s a sample page:


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The question of who actually wrote the works attributed to “William Shakespeare” is a genuine conundrum.  In fact it may be the greatest “whodunnit” of all time.

Although mainstream scholars tend to haughtily dismiss the issue, there are very serious problems with the hypothesis that the author was William Shakspere of Stratford upon Avon. However all other candidates also have serious problems.  For example Edward de Vere died in 1604, but plays kept appearing for another decade or so.  Hence the conundrum.

Recently however this conundrum may have been resolved.  A small group of scholars (James, Rubinstein, Casson) have been arguing the case for Henry Neville.  A new book, Sir Henry Neville Was Shakespeare, presents an “avalanche” of evidence supporting Neville.  Nothing comparable has been available for any other candidate.

Suppose Rubinstein et al are right.  How can the relevant experts, and interested parties more generally, reach rational consensus on this?  How could the matter be decisively established?  How can the process of collective rational resolution be expedited?

A workshop later this month in Melbourne will address this issue.  The first half will involve traditional presentations and discussion, including Rubinstein making the case for Neville.

The second half will be attempting something quite novel.  We will introduce a kind of website – an “arguwiki” where the arguments and evidence can be laid out, discussed and evaluated not as a debate, in any of the standard formats, but as a collaborative project.  The workshop will be a low-key launch of the Shakespeare Authorship Arguwiki; and later, all going well, it will be opened up to the world at large.  Our grand ambition is that the site, or something like it, may prove instrumental in resolving the greatest whodunnit of all time, and more generally be a model for collective rational resolution of difficult issues.

The workshop is open to any interested persons, but there are only a small number of places left.

Register now.  There is no charge for attending.


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About a month ago The Age published an opinion piece I wrote under the title “Do you hold a Bayesian or Boolean worldview?“.  I had submitted it under the title “Madmen in Authority,” and it opened by discussing two men in authority who are/were each mad in their own way – Maurice Newman, influential Australian businessman and climate denier, and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.  Both men had professed to be totally certain about issues on which any reasonable person ought to have had serious doubts given the very substantial counter-evidence.

Their dogmatic attitudes seemed to exemplify a kind of crude epistemological viewpoint I call “Booleanism,” in contrast with a more sophisticated “Bayesianism”. Here is the philosophical core of the short opinion piece:

On economic matters, Keynes said: “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”

Similarly, on matters of truth and evidence, we are usually unwittingly beholden to our background epistemology (theory of knowledge), partially shaped by unknown theorists from centuries past.

One such  theory of knowledge we can call Boolean, after the 19th century English logician George Boole.  He was responsible for what is now known as Boolean algebra, the binary logic which underpins the computing revolution.

In the Boolean worldview, the world is organised into basic situations such as Sydney being north of Melbourne. Such situations are facts. Truth is correspondence to facts. That is, if a belief matches a fact, it is objectively true; if not, it is objectively false. If you and I disagree, one of us must be right, the other wrong; and if I know I’m right, then I know you’re wrong. Totally wrong.

This worldview underpins Castro’s extreme confidence.  Either JFK was killed by an anti-Castro/CIA conspiracy or he wasn’t; and if he was, then Castro is 100 per cent right. Who needs doubt?

An alternative  theory of knowledge has roots in the work of another important English figure, the Reverend Thomas Bayes. He is famous for Bayes’ Theorem, a basic law of probability governing how to modify one’s beliefs when new evidence arrives.

In the Bayesian worldview, beliefs are not simply true or false, but more or less probable. That is, we can be more or less confident that they are true, given how they relate to our other beliefs and how confident we are in them. If you and I disagree about the cause of climate change, it is not a matter of me being wholly right and you being wholly wrong, but about the differing levels of confidence we have in a range of hypotheses.

Scientists are generally Bayesians, if not self-consciously, at least in their pronouncements. For example, the IPCC refrains from claiming certainty that climate change is human-caused; it says instead that it has 95 per cent confidence that human activities are a major cause.

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