Saturday, March 24, 2007

Conferences, Journals and Whatnot

The upcoming BUPS conference I'm organising (thanks to a very helpful committee) won't be our biggest one yet, but it should be fun nonetheless. It was perhaps one of the more stressful ones to run, as it involves more personal preparation than the past ones since I'm writing the part of the skills talks (something I don't really feel qualified for, which is why they'll be more about general methodological concerns, which I hope will be helpful), and because this time of year is historically (i.e. from experience of the past years) a very busy time of year, and therefore not the best time to attract loads of people. It's also a time of year where I have a lot on my plate as well... Therefore I'm really looking forward to the conference itself (and the organisational break afterwards). Nothing quite beats seeing effort pay off (let's hope it does).

It's also an important turning point, as it's the last 'big' conference I'll be organising. All that's left after this is a summer conference, which will be a day conference, and an essay competition to run, followed by the annual conference, the preparation of which will be the job of the next chair (and for which I will offer my help, but only as a 'consultant'). This means that my job as chair after this will principally involve preparing BUPS for the shift in management, and ensure that it will thrive next year (and the years to come – touch wood).

It's crazy how quickly this year (and all of university, as a matter of fact) has gone by, but it's nice to note that the optimism that I held about the now-over-two-years-old project that is the British Undergraduate Philosophy Society hasn't proved to be too naive. We've done some good, solid work this year, thanks to the toil of the committee, and ran an increased number of conferences, expanded membership, built the foundations for next year's committee, and several other things... The realisation that it's almost all over, along with undergraduate life as a whole, is a fairly strange feeling. I suppose all one can do at this point is hope that both the society and my academic life fare well in the coming year(s), and reflect back upon what I've gained from it.

These past seven months have been a bumpy ride, with moments of doubt, a few sleepless nights, and some really good times to balance things out. I don't think I would have expected things to get so complicated so quickly, a few years back. On the other hand, I'd be hard pressed to claim I regretted any of it: the organisational stress applied by the running of this society and its events, in conjunction with the workload of a third year, have been higher than what I've experienced in my life, but there is no doubt that the skills I've acquired along the way (in keeping track of so many factors, so many deadlines, and so much correspondence), and the mere fact that I've survived it all with my sanity and nerves left (mostly) untouched, are all in all quite a reward, and will come in useful during the next few years as I face increasingly higher workloads and pressure from the academic environment.

But more than all that, I now know that I can safely face the next person to tell me that philosophy is all about dawdling about, smoking joints, and asking "Why?", and kick him in the face.

Peace out.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

You wouldn't expect it...

I more or less recently ran into a charming display of 'absentmindedness' on the part of the type of person you'd least expect to write something so trivially wrong, or at least you'd think that he would ask someone to double-check the work in question before tagging his name on it.

Consider the following article: Writing Descartes: I Am, and I Can Think, Therefore ... by one Professor Paul Grobstein, Harvard grad, Harvard PhD, and impressive academic record in the field of biology. The man is clearly an intelligent fellow, and thus possibly the last person you'd expect to produce the following pearl of wisdom as an argument against Cartesian Skepticism (emphasis mine):

Your phrase "I think, therefore I am" needs some correcting. I think I understand what you had in mind: the need to find a solid footing for ongoing inquiry. And I very much admire your posture of profound skepticism, with its associated reluctance to take not only "revealed truth" and authority but also logic and sense data as an assured starting point. It does seem to me though that you (or, more likely, others since you) took a good idea too far (as happened with your mind/body distinction, see Descartes' Error). Or, maybe, it wasn't taken far enough.

Here's the thing. Trees are. And they don't "think". So you can't have meant to say that things in general have to think in order to be. That would be contradicted by trees and other things (rocks, desks, etc) that you certainly knew about.

He then goes on to make some potentially interesting comments about scepticism, which unfortunately here stem from this initial assumption that 'Descartes got it wrong' (I don't argue that he didn't, but certainly not on these grounds). And while these comments are not necessarily without merit or value (were they to be made independently of talk about what Professor Grobstein thinks is Descartes' position), his initial critique of Descartes' cogito is horrendously wrong.

Consider the general form of a syllogism:

Premise 1: If P, then Q
Premise 2: P

Conclusion: Q

Now here's basically what Professor Grobstein believes Descartes' cogito to entail (and what he criticises):

Premise 1: If P, then Q
Premise 2: Not P

Conclusion: Not Q

Now, any ol' undergraduate having done a very basic introduction to logic will tell you that the logical statement 'P therefore Q' is false if and only if P is true while Q is false. This is to say that 'P therefore Q' is perfectly true if P is false, but Q is true. Professor Grobstein is thus committing a basic non-sequitur in claiming that 'P therefore Q' entails '(Not P) therefore (Not Q)'. It would be a valid entailment if Descartes had said something mapping to the logical statement 'P if and only if Q', but as Descartes did not in any way say "I think if and only if I am" (or vice-versa... it doesn't really matter), Professor Grobstein doesn't really have a leg to stand on for his argument.

It just goes to show: when shopping around for academic wisdom, caveat emptor.

Of course, this isn't exactly a published paper, just an open letter on his website. Still, it does not excuse the need for a bit of peer-review (I'm sure he could have nabbed a first year computer scientist, or a philosophy student), so as to avoid slightly embarrassing, simple mistakes such as this one.

To conclude, I do not wish to give the impression that I claim non-philosophers (and specifically scientists) should stay away from philosophy. If anything, one should encourage them to practise it. Nonetheless, if you're going to go up against a central, well-known position of philosophy (and by all means, please do!), at least make sure your argument doesn't fall apart because of some trivial misunderstanding of logic.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

My Bonnie lies over the ocean

I got my offer from St Andrews today, to study for a M.Litt in philosophy. Had some champagne to celebrate the fact that I'm moving to the middle of nowhere, where it'll surely be even rainier and colder than it is here...

... but somehow I'm very happy about it.