Sunday, May 30, 2010

Big Ethics

In between the usual business of college life and dealing with the onset of undergraduate exams, I spent last week at the Mayweek seminar reading through the Magna Moralia.  It was quite pleasant, really, particularly since the participants seemed all keen to muck in and no one had anything very much invested in what we would eventually conclude (so there wasn't very much personally and professionally at stake).

I don't think I would have read it through like this left to my own devices and I probably won't rush to read it through like that again.  But there were some good parts.  I thought there were some interesting questions concerning the author's relationship to Platonism since he did seem to have been pulling his punches here and there particularly on metaphysical issues.  The general disfavour of an intellectual or contemplative life is interesting too -- and here I did begin to wonder if MM might be part of the general milieu of the Peripatos that also spawned the difference of opinion between Dicaearchus and Theophrastus on the good life.  And there were some interesting thoughts about the relationship of this text to the Hellenistic penchant for pseudepigrapha since the text does seem to want to appear as if composed by Aristotle himself.  (If there was any general agreement, I think we nearly all agreed that the text wasn't by Aristotle, partly because bits of it were so close to NE and EE that the most plausible explanation is that they were composed by someone working with these two  texts.)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Action philosophers

I might write something about our Mayweek Magna Moralia seminar once I've decided what I think about it all.  But for now, here is a wonderful page from Van Lente and Dunlavey's Action Philosophers.  (Click on it to make it big.)

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Sunny music

I know some people are already bored about me going on about  them, but you really should all listen to and love Camera ObscuraWe had this on while driving home in the sun this afternoon and we all felt very happy.  And the CD cover has these two on it with great hats and a snazzy pair of glasses:

No video for that one, unfortunately, but it's a real toe-tapper. And this is lovely too:

And this one has one of the best choruses I've heard for ages. The cheesy intro from the TV presenter is bad, but once the song begins it's brill:

Friday, May 21, 2010

Oh dear

Times columnist Sathnam Sanghera thinks it would be a good idea to study consciousness.  He's right.  But he also thinks it is a good idea only so long as you don't do any philosophy and it's all just useful things that involve studying brains and neurons and things.  I don't think this is right.  Sure, studying brains is a good idea.  But why does that mean studying philosophy is not?  He explains:
Indeed, a bit of me dies whenever young people say that they want to study philosophy at university. There is a naive view that three years spent pondering questions such as “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” and “Why are we here?” will help you to understand the meaning of life, when the truth is that philosophy is the most whimsical and self indulgent of academic pursuits, raising more questions than answers and too often being an exercise in intellectual showing off for those involved.
Let's leave aside for now the last point. It's perhaps questionable that raising more questions than answers is a bad thing; they might be good questions and it might be worthwhile recognising that there is a question to which we do not yet have an answer. What makes me groan most is the naive view that a philosophy degree involves three years wondering why we are here. We don't do that, at least not in the philosophy degree that I teach for. And I don't really think any other philosophy degree does that either. The meaning of life? Not really our department. What consciousness is, on the other hand, is. Just as it also belongs to those people who look at brains and neurons. What's important is that the philosophers and neurologists talk to each other.

Here's another bit:
Take the question “What is consciousness?”, for example. Whereas a philosopher could spend two or three hours wittering on the theme without getting anywhere, consciousness studies would come at it from a physiological angle.
I know these columns are supposed to be provocative, but can't we do better than this?  Why is the philosopher allowed only three hours?  How long does the 'consciousness studies' person get?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Football and happiness

Would I be better off if England were simply to drop out of the World Cup at the group stage?  If it is clear from the very beginning that they are poor, they lose to the USA, and we all give up the hope that they will make even the round of the last 16, then at least we won't have the hope...  It's the hope that's the problem, since there is an overwhelming probability that the hope will be dashed.  And it will probably be dashed i frustrating way, by a mistake, a poor refereeing decision, a missed penalty.

This post asks what would be the best outcome for a supporter's happiness: obvious and early failure or eventual failure further on in the tournament, or winning the tournament.  It suggests that if England were to win the World Cup, this would not in fact be better for a supporter's longer term well-being.  (Lottery winners, apparently, report short-term elation and then longer-term frustration and unhappiness.)  It also suggests that supporters react more positively to the game and the result if they watch in a group.

So, if you think you could cope with the longer-term frustration at wondering what next for a world-champion England football team, then let's still hope and cheer them on.  But even if you do, then it's better to make sure you don't watch the games on your own.  Or listen to Clive Tyldesley .

For now, here is a woeful World Cup 'song', by Rick Mayall.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Readers etc.

Oxford University is currently looking into some interesting proposals concerning academic career progression and pay structure.  There is a brief report here in the Times Higher and you can read the Oxford Gazette that has the full proposal (in pdf file format) here. (I particularly like - p. 900 - the set of criteria being used: 'Research' (graded 0-5, highest), 'Teaching' (graded D-A), and 'Good citizenship' (graded γ to α).  Best to save the Greek letters for the last one, I think.)

The proposals include the fazed abolition of the 'Reader' grade and changes to promotions to Professorships in favour of merit pay increments.

For comparison, the current procedures in Cambridge for senior academic promotions can be found here.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Akrasia etc.

I'm reading I. Persson's (great name) The retreat of reason while I mull over hedonic calculus-type things again.  It's not an easy read but it's very rich and will take me a while to digest properly.  But here's a taster (from p.223):
It is of survival value that thoughts directed at one's present hedonic sensations should motivate one and tend to monopolize one's attention, just as these sensations themselves do. Similarly, it is also of survival value that impressions of some activities in which one currently is engaged should attract one's attention; otherwise it would be much harder for immature individuals to expand their behavioural repertoire beyond instinctive patterns. However, it also enhances the prospect of survival if a power of mentally representing states of affairs beyond ones that are sensibly present—in particular possible future states—develops. But the more this power of envisaging possible futures is developed, the more of a drawback the P-bias will be, for it will prevent this representational power from having full impact on motivation. Thus, akrasia is the upshot of the conflict between two traits that each individually is of survival value. In better adjusted beings than actual human ones, the P-bias would be quite marked during the earlier stages of ontogenetic development, but would gradually loosen its grip as the capacity of mentally representing sensibly absent states of affairs expands and the power to estimate the probability of their materialization is refined.
P-bias is a bias towards the perceived (which P. helpfully distinguishes from N-bias, a bias to the temporally near, see pp.206-7)...  Not sure about the grand diagnosis of akrasia, but it's certainly a suggestion worth taking seriously.  Also interesting is that Aristotle does not figure at all in the index.  Plato figures only twice (pp. 176 and 177 for his views on parts of the soul).

Wednesday, May 05, 2010


Idris Elba is back in the new BBC 'tec series Luther.  The first episode last night did a lot of scene-setting, so it would be unfair to make a judgement about the whole thing already, but here's goes anyway.

There are lots of good things.  Idris smoulders well -- though I took a while to get used to him doing the mumble, shout, mumble but trail off mid-sentence thing in a London accent.  The supporting cast is mostly good.  A bit underused in the first episode, Steven Mackintosh as DCI Ian Reed, should have more to do as things progress.  Paul McGann (the one who was in the crap Doctor Who movie) will probably pop up more as L's wife's new bloke.  Not sure about that.  I suppose a TV 'tec can't really have a happy home life, but this was a bit of a yawn.

Some things were a bit ropey, though.  The crazy nemesis-stalker woman (went to Oxford at 13, is obsessed by black holes, shows she is crazy by pouting a lot and having a ultra-modern and pristine flat in a very run down tower block) isn't very promising.  I guess she'll pop up here and there to taunt, annoy, flirt and then disappear into the shadows (mwaa aaa aaaaa!) while L. is trying to do something heroic in another case.   Hmmmm.

L's supportive boss is channeling Helen Mirren off of Prime Suspect but with a wobblier accent and less booze.

And good luck trying to watch this on anything but a wide screen telly.  The director seems to be intent on framing most shots so that the person speaking is in the bottom left or right-hand corner and the rest of the screen is a drab, existentially-vacant, London beige-grey.

Theme music is good (Massive Attack); incidental music a bit intrusive.
So, not bad.  Better by far than watching Golden Brown telling us that if we do the wrong thing on Thursday all nurses and teachers will be sacked and flogged by an evil Tory government or 'Dave' Cameron bothering some poor souls trying to get on with a night-shift.