A Summary of My Philosophical Questions

I’ve made some changes to the site to reflect my change in priorities and outlook over the past year or two. I also rewrote my ‘about‘ bit. I decided to make it mostly a summary of the philosophical questions and subject matter that are of interest to me and why. I’m happy with how it came out. There’s something very satisfying about laying down a statement of where I am intellectually at some specific time. It’s not comprehensive—notably lacking are my interests in regress and specificity in meanings, and in Hegel. But editing > comprehensiveness, so I’m going to leave those out. In any case, here’s the summary:

Philosophy of logic: People give me a weird look when I say that the philosophy of logic is my strongest philosophical passion. Maybe I can explain it this way: consider any belief you hold. It might even be a tricky belief, like that you don’t know anything for sure, or that your beliefs are not the sorts of things that can be put into words (nice try). Whatever this belief may be, and whether you realize it or not, it is constrained by some abstract, fundamental rules. Rules like if ‘A’ is true and ‘B’ is true, it follows that ‘A & B’ is true. You might think: what could possibly be interesting about such trivial observations? To my mind, there are two very interesting things about them. One is that when we codify all these trivial, almost stupidly obvious rules, we discover that they yield paradoxes. Paradoxes, in turn, imply that every single sentence is true. This seems absurd. But to avoid it, we have to give up one thing or another that seems as or almost as trivially obvious as the example rule I gave above. This points to the likelihood that our intuitions about logic—trivial and obvious as they seem—are in some way deeply flawed.

And this raises the second very interesting thing about logical rules: they seem to be grounded in intuition. Logical rules are probably the strongest candidate for where we end up when we follow the proverbial child’s chain of ‘why’s. But when the child presses on, we have a hard time justifying why these fundamental rules should be what they are. This happens, in part, because it is impossible to reason about logical rules without already presupposing some of them. In the end, it seems that only brute intuitions—whether directly or indirectly—can settle debates about logic. We can define logical notions in terms of other logical notions, but eventually, we have to hit a bottom. It is at this bottom that we arguably have no recourse to anything other than a kind of inescapable sense that this is what follows and not that. If this is right, it should have tremendous implications for what good reasoning is and what it can and can’t tell us about the world and about our minds. To bring this all back to those things that seem to ‘matter’, these include implications for our reasoning and debates about things like ethics, politics, science, and how to live our lives.

This is the broad motivation for my interest in the philosophy of logic. It has caused me to become deeply interested in some specific and sometimes rather technical issues, such as logical pluralismthe normativity of logicsubstructural logic, Curry’s paradoxdialetheismCarnapian explicationthe evaluation of semantic models, and my main obsession over the past year or two, vagueness. I’m also interested in topics, such as metaontology and identity, that are usually filed under metaphysics but which I nonetheless tend to explore with my logic hat on.

Skepticism and self-defeat: I am, I’m told, an animal. And animals—like most everyday objects—are a kind of higher-level manifestation or emergent property, of the underlying fundamental states of affairs described by physics. These states of affairs are governed by forces that don’t care about whether I’m rational or not. So, it seems awfully convenient that the underlying states of affairs coordinate in such a way that manifests as me having rational as opposed to irrational thought patterns. You can construct a similar argument out of evolution instead of the underlying states of affairs.

Or take a different sort of argument: suppose it is possible for there to be beings many times smarter than us. Maybe this is where we’re headed (if all goes well) after millions of years of further evolution. Or maybe this is what those superintelligent AI will be like after the impending ‘intelligence explosion’. The intelligence of these beings would be to ours as ours is to that of pandas, or maybe spiders. It would seem foolish to think that these creatures will agree with us on, well, anything. More likely, they’ll think in a way that is so sophisticated as to render all of our thoughts and beliefs primitive and incapable of any sort of knowledge by comparison.

These are only two forms of skeptical argument. Another favorite of mine is the Agrippan trilemma. What they all seem to suggest is that we shouldn’t trust our own reasoning. But if this is right, we shouldn’t trust the reasoning that leads us to that very conclusion. This is why skepticism seems to be self-defeating, and by virtue of that, an impossible position to maintain. Yet, I find the skeptical arguments—especially considered together—compelling. This conflict is another major philosophical obsession of mine.

Political philosophy: I am deeply skeptical of monopoly. I extend this skepticism most forcefully toward monopolies on law, defense, and security. These are vital social functions—if I don’t trust a monopoly to make and sell computers, you can bet I don’t trust one to handle the most important social services we have. This may sound like radical libertarianism, but that term can be misleading: I am not against heavy regulation of the market, for example. Rather, market regulation is one of many important social functions I would like to see improve and proliferate via the liberation from monopoly. It is also not anarchistic—I favor the pluralizing of governance, not its abolition. If you want a label, I would say I favor polycentrism about the provision of all important social services. Of course, the viability of this position rests on how human coordination would react to polycentrism. The standard view is that discoordination and chaos would follow. I suspect that quite the opposite is true: freeing up the practice of setting and enforcing social norms would result in increased coordination, much like the rules of etiquette, ordinary language, and prices are set by remarkably complex and intricately coordinated processes that are only possible because of the lack of monocentric control. However, I am not all that confident of this. There are various questions in economics, game theory, and social epistemology that I am interested in precisely because of their relevance to this position.

My other main interest in political philosophy concerns the notion of a collective or social will. In short, I don’t believe there is such a thing. What’s more, though social movements arise out of aggregate individual wills, I suspect that the contribution of any one person to a given social movement—even a person who seems influential to the movement—is trivial. Social and political movements, it seems to me, are better looked at as naturally occurring phenomena than as events over which we as individuals bear responsibility. This means that when we ‘advocate’ for political changes, we aren’t talking to anyone. We’re doing something more like wishing than advocating. What this means for how we, as individuals, ought to engage with political questions is an active question for me.

Ethics: I have some interest in the intersection of utilitarianism, rational decision theory, and existentialism. I buy into the broad framework of utility maximization suggested by utilitarianism (I say ‘broad’, because I mean this to be as non-commital as possible about ‘utility’ is). I also buy into the existentialist’s claim that life is in some sense inherently valueless and that this makes decisionmaking absurd. What, then, is the rational way to live given a belief in both utility maximization and absurdity? Absurdity, at least in some sense, seems to make utility maximization impossible. But does it really? Or is there some rational response to the absurdist picture?

Another ethical question of interest to me is the line between persuasion and manipulation, particularly as it manifests in cults.

Leftovers: I am polyamorous. Though I have yet to put into writing the philosophical reasons for this, it is a philosophically informed choice about which I have some open questions. I am also deeply interested in the philosophy of psychedelics. Though I find it difficult to articulate exactly what is philosophical about the interest, I have little doubt that it is. Finally, I have a great deal of affinity for the worldview articulated by Alan Watts, maybe best described as a hybrid between Zen Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta. The key to it, it seems to me, is the interpretation of both life and the universe as a dialectical process of ‘self-revelation’ (what Watts calls ‘the game of peek-a-boo’). How to best philosophically articulate this spiritual perspective and integrate it into my otherwise naturalist outlook is another open question I hope to someday tackle.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *