In Defense of Sensitivity: Nozick, Kripke, and Predicate Exclusivity

In his book, Philosophical Explanations, in the chapter “Knowledge and Skepticism,” Robert Nozick endeavors to construct a set of conditions that are jointly sufficient for knowledge. Let’s call this the ‘truth-tracking’ account of knowledge. Truth-tracking is meant to deal with a range of hard epistemological cases, including Gettier-style problems and Brain-in-the-Vat-style skeptical arguments. In this paper, I aim to show that, while Nozick’s truth-tracking account doesn’t succeed as a whole (largely for reasons noted by Saul Kripke), the driving intuition of Nozick’s account may still be relevant – or even necessary – for any good theory of knowledge. I will refer to this driving intuition as ‘Sensitivity.’ What I mean by this term will become clearer as we go along.

PART I: Truth-tracking Explained

Nozick begins his project by taking for granted the usual first two conditions for knowledge: (1) p is true; (2) S believes that p. I’ll take these for granted as well. To these he adds a third condition, the subjunctive conditional: (3) If p weren’t true, S wouldn’t believe that p. We may also express this in Lewisian language as ~p□→~(SBp).[1. Nozick expresses it as: not-→ not-(S believes that p) (page 172).] I will, however, avoid such formalisms, because I want to be semantically clear about what I’m referring to. Nozick also uses ‘possible worlds’ semantics to express (3), though is not committed to such expressions.[2. “I do not mean to endorse any particular possible-world account of subjunctives, nor am I committed to this type of account” (page 174).] I will make use of these. For example, S’s belief should be counterfactually sensitive so that, in the closest worlds where not-p, S wouldn’t mistakenly believe that p. Note that (3) is the heart of Sensitivity, though it doesn’t capture the whole truth-tracking account. To develop that, let’s apply our conditions thus far to some classic hard cases. Continue Reading


Is Suicide Possible?

Vincent van Gogh - At Eternity's Gate

Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate) (1890), Vincent van Gogh

Is suicide really possible? By ‘suicide,’ I mean the intentional taking of one’s own life, which is the standard understanding of the word, but I also mean something slightly deeper than that. I mean it in a sense in which the person chooses death, not because it’s the only option she or he sees, but because she or he prefers it to life. Allow me to illustrate with a familiar scene.

A man stands before the frame of an open window, looking down from several stories up. He was driven there by the smoke and flames of a fire that continues to rage towards him. He must choose: fall or fire? The choice soon becomes obvious, but, of course, there is no real choice here.

Perhaps all suicides are like this, but not always obviously so. Perhaps many so-called suicides result from a complex array of tiny, barely perceptible forces that, as they accumulate, inch their victim day by day closer to the moment in question. When that day comes, the victim, overwhelmed, blinded, and choked by the now massive firestorm that envelopes him, sees only one way out. Continue Reading


Time Travel and the Soul, Or How to Disprove God

Vesna Jovanovic - Orbits

Orbits by Vesna Jovanovic

If you want to disprove—or at least throw whatever the quantum tech industry’s equivalent of a monkey wrench is into—current conceptions of God and the soul, prove time travel. For time travel is not compatible with the notion of an indivisible soul, particularly if that soul is en route to an eternal afterlife of punishment or reward.

Imagine going back in time five minutes to face yourself. Would both of you have your soul? You might concoct some solution here—maybe about the soul actually dwelling outside the body and being somehow able to perform its metaphysical duties across time and space within multiple bodies simultaneously. After all, we go through one body after another in a lifetime, but the soul stays the same, and is what makes today’s me the same person as that bouncy little infant from decades past; many bodies, one soul.

This sort of ad hoc gerrymandering is what got us our present notion of the soul. Over the centuries, serious thinkers have relentlessly tweaked the idea in an attempt to accommodate changing conceptions of God, and in an effort to temper the ever-building discord between ancient theological frameworks and advancements in philosophy and science. Over time, the soul has gone from maybe (or maybe not) immortal, to definitely immortal (thanks, perhaps, to Egyptian influence), and has become the metaphysical (though ultimately unsatisfying) explanation for many of our most inscrutable observations about the human situation. Consciousness, bodily mobility, and personal identity among them.

But such ad-hocery won’t save the time traveler who’d like to posit the soul outside the body. Continue Reading


Democracy Doesn’t Exist

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis DavidThere’s been some controversy recently over a study out of Princeton suggesting that we in the U.S. live, not in a democracy, but rather in a system of ‘Economic Elite Domination’ (a.k.a, ‘plutocracy,’ though media reports favor the broader term ‘oligarchy’). Some have responded to this with a, “yeah, no surprise there.” I am among those. But there’s a more troubling story here, one that threatens the core concepts underlying our national identity: Democracy doesn’t exist.

I’m not just saying that democracy is merely a socially constructed concept or collection of concepts (that’s obviously true). Nor am I saying it’s merely impossible in practice, due to corruption or scarcity or what have you. What I am saying is that the concepts we take to be the constitutive elements of democracy are so incoherent and vague, they don’t compose anything — they don’t come together in a way such that the word ‘democracy’ picks something out in the world. There are no bones, or at least no skeletally adjoined ones, upon which to hang the flesh of our democratic aspirations. And so on.

‘Democracy,’ put simply, is a word used in reference to a confused, jumbled mass of incoherent ideas.

To fix this, we need to straighten out and align our concepts. Here are some of the problems in our way. I’m not attempting to solve these here, nor am I arguing for or against democracy in practice or as an ideal. That would be a much larger work.1 I will disclose, however, that I tend to favor a restricted form of democracy (a term I use, as most of us do, for lack of a better one) and, for what it’s worth, I tend to favor market socialism.

That said, here’s some of the stuff I think about — that gnaws at me — when confronted with the word ‘democracy.’

Continue Reading


Designer Babies: Reproduction Rights and (So-Called) Disability

Elisabeth Murrow by Vesna Jovanovic

Elisabeth Morrow by Vesna Jovanovic

Here’s an interesting case: A deaf couple decide they’d like to have a deaf baby, and manage to do so — twice, in fact — by enlisting a sperm donor with five generations of congenital deafness.

Did this couple do something wrong by — to paraphrase Alta Charo, a professor of law and bioethics — failing to reasonably maximize the advantages available to their children, thus setting limits on their children’s potential? Or did they do something right, or at least well within their ‘natural’ rights, by producing offspring most suited to the sociocultural context they know best, thus producing the circumstances most conducive to their being good parents? As one of the parents put it: “A hearing baby would be a blessing. A deaf baby would be a special blessing.”

The initial response that most of us have, it seems, is that these parents committed a moral misstep by shortchanging their children. I’m not so sure this is the correct response. Before coming to anything like a firm conclusion, here are ten challenges to which we’d need to subject our intuitions.
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You Are (Probably Not) a Computer Simulation

This is a revised version of an article that originally appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of The Gadfly, Columbia University’s undergraduate philosophy magazine.

Reattachment - by Vesna JovanovicAre you a computer simulation? Oxford-based philosopher Nick Bostrom argues that it’s highly probable that you are. And a team of physicists have recently cited empirical evidence suggesting that you might be. I think most of us would file this topic under Fun to Think About, but the simulation hypothesis is coming from the sorts of thinkers we’re supposed to take seriously, and has been getting attention from mainstream news sources, most recently the New York TimesIt’s generally reported with at least a face-saving dose of decide-for-yourself skepticism, but, still, I think that the argument’s growing popularity merits it at least a little serious weighing in from the philosophical community ― particularly in an era where it’s becoming a kind of moral transgression to “deny science” (whatever that really means) or even to not “fucking love science” (whatever that means). That said, let’s consider whether the simulation argument is as convincing as its many supporters make it out to be. (It’s not.)

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Verbum Sap and New Albums

Verbum Sap

As I’ve mentioned here before, I recorded an album back in 2001 called Verbum Sap, which to this day has not been officially released. It was recorded on Hi8 digital tape (on a Tascam DA38, 8-track recorder), in the worst recording environment I’ve ever worked in: a basement apartment with with small rooms and a low metal ceiling. Plus, my instruments were mostly cheap, and, most importantly, I had no idea was I was doing as an engineer. So, it sounded pretty bad.

Flash-forward to January of 2014. While on winter break from school, I finally mixed the thing, with the help of the very talented Nicholas Howard, who worked for several weeks as my assistant, thanks to his incorporating the project into his winter Field Work Term for Bennington College. Nicholas was a pleasure to work with, and made the job easier and more enjoyable.

Mixing Verbum Sap mostly consisted of high-pass filtering and scooping out mud. It’s amazing what you can do with a good EQ plugin (Sonalksis, for example). I also added in some reverb and a few other effects here and there, but for the most part this is a pretty dry recording. It was made during a period when I was most interested in filling out my arrangements by layering nylon guitars and my voice, the timbre and phrasing of which I can no longer duplicate.

Nicholas Howard

I won’t say much more about it than that; you can hear it for yourself when it’s released, most likely before the end of summer. That’s the album cover, above left. The artwork was made by my good friend Joseph Derr back when I first recorded the album.

Next up was for Nicholas and I to work on something new. I played him several ideas, and he chose a song called “Listen,” for which I’d already recorded piano and vocals. We added several new instruments; it’s still not done, but it’s coming along quite satisfactorily. That’s Nicholas on the right, messing with timpani samples.

I haven’t released any new music in a long time, largely because I’ve been busy with school, but I do have a couple of albums worth of new material at varying degrees of completion. My current plan is to record this stuff over the next year, so that I’m ready to release at least one, if not two albums (perhaps within six months of each other), in spring or summer of 2015. I’ll split the album up more or less according to stylistic commonalities, or lack thereof. That is, one of these will be quite stylistically varied, while the other will be more consistent in tone. I think.

At any rate, I’ll be taking my time with these recordings. In the meanwhile, I’ll be finishing up my philosophy degree, continuing to acquaint myself with New York City, trying to make a living, and doing lots and lots of writing (one of these days I’ll start sharing some of it here). Oh, and, starting this semester, I’m Editor-in-Chief of The Gadfly, Columbia University’s Undergraduate Philosophy Magazine. It’s yet more work, but the good kind.


The Failure of Philosophy: A Success Story

This article, which deals with the relationship of failure to philosophy, originally appeared in The Gadfly (Columbia University’s Undergraduate Philosophy Journal). The images are of an architectural model that is not executable at the size of a building, yet represents the sorts of unattainable ideals that inform the design of buildings; designed and constructed by Sandra Bonito.

I. Introduction

sandra bonito - model - unbuildable perfection

One way of viewing the history of Western philosophy is as a gradual separating out of questions that are essentially empirical in nature from those that aren’t; the former constitutes today’s science, the latter what we currently think of as philosophy. While trust in the explanatory power of science has grown, philosophy has come to be seen as increasingly unreliable in what it can tell us about the world. This, however, is to miscast philosophy based on a scientific model. Indeed, once a philosophical question becomes addressable by some scientific method, it has moved over into the domain of science.

Philosophy as a field is largely made up of questions that have yet to, or never will, move over to the scientific domain. As such, it’s philosophy’s task to ask questions that current science isn’t prepared to ask, much less test, though it’s even more than this. The claim that I’ll ultimately be working to unfold here, as I explore various notions of failure in relation to philosophy, is that at the bottom of any field there is a level of conception, and when one works at this level, philosophy is happening, and science-like testing, falsification, etc. do not play a role. Continue Reading


The Genetically Modified Guitarist: Genetic Enhancement, Musical Experience, and the Good Art Gene

The following article originally appeared in The Gadfly, Columbia University’s Undergraduate Philosophy Journal.

In an episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast (5/16/2009) dealing with the topic of Jim Carrey 7 Fingersgenetic enhancement, host Nigel Warburton poses a thought experiment to his guest, philosopher Allen Buchanan, in which Warburton takes a pill that enhances his memory and coordination, enabling him to learn a guitar composition that had previously proven beyond his ability. Warburton worries that bypassing the struggle to learn might devalue his relationship with the instrument. Buchanan responds that Warburton need not be concerned, as he would proceed to find new challenges, elevating his struggle to a higher plateau.

While I think Buchanan is right, I also think Warburton’s experience as a musician would be positively enhanced, struggle or not, simply because playing guitar well is rewarding in its own right. I’m not here, though, to challenge Buchanan (whose view might very well be compatible with mine), but rather to more deeply consider, in light of Warburton’s enhancement pill, our experience of performing and listening to music, and the social implications such a pill might bring. First, some words on what we mean by “genetic enhancement.” Continue Reading


Discursive Formations in Foucault’s Archaeological Historical Analysis

Michel Foucault in leather jacket.

The following is in response to a question that often comes up regarding the causal relationship between Foucault’s “discursive formations” and human behavior, and the extent to which, if at all, the ambiguity with which Foucault accounts for this relationship threatens to undermine his so-called “archaeological” historical analysis. For more on this critique, see the book Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, by Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow (1982).

In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Michel Foucault attempts to define an “archaeological” historical methodology in which humans are removed from the center of analysis, thus, he hopes, avoiding the problems that have accompanied the “anthropological” approach of earlier methodologies. My aim here is to evaluate Foucault’s success in accomplishing this, particularly given his claims surrounding the autonomy of the discursive formations that are responsible for the discursive practices in which humans engage. I intend to show that these claims are ambiguous, but that this fact does not pose a serious problem for his archaeological approach nor for his project as a whole.

In looking closely at what Foucault means by “discursive formations,” one gets a sense of his lack of a clear explanation for how it is that these formations come about and guide human behavior. In an effort to avoid words that are “already overladen with conditions and consequences,”1 Foucault offers the term to refer to, essentially, when it is possible to define a regularity between statements. To elaborate, a discursive formation is Continue Reading