Monday, May 26, 2014

What are you reading this summer?

Brad Dowden
Randy Mayes
David Corner
Christina Bellon
Kyle Swan
Russell DiSilvestro
Clifford Anderson
David Denman

Monday, May 19, 2014

Rationalize that!

If I could take one word back from the English language, change its common meaning without anyone noticing, it would be: rationalize.

Don't get me wrong.  I think it's cool that English words evolve over time, even when it's due to error. (Hey, that's how evolution works, right?)  I don't mind that it's now OK to say literally when you mean figuratively or nonplussed when you mean unperturbed.  I don't even really care about the plundering of philosophical terms like begs the question, which now means something completely different in the vernacular (raises the question) than it does when we use it in informal logic (takes for granted the point at issue).

But rationalize? Come on.  Certainly the obvious and intuitive meaning of rationalize is: to make more rational. But today the term has come to mean almost exclusively the opposite: to make something appear rational, when it is not. Dude, you know this is bullshit, you're just rationalizing.

Well, before I explain why I really find this meaning irritating, I have to admit that it isn't quite as perverse as I make out.  The suffix 'ize' means 'to cause to be or be like'.  And, of course, once you dance into the semantic cloud of similarity and appearance, it is a small step from 'be like' to 'seem like.'  Still, while the word rational isn't the only term to suffer izing in this way (moralize, criminalize, glamorize), it's worth noting that the vast majority of words that endinize do not experience this reversal of meaning.

OK, so what particularly bothers me about the ordinary meaning of the term is this: absent it's negative connotation, rationalization would be the absolutely best word in the English language for describing what philosophers are generally up to. The aim of philosophy is just to make the world a more rational place.  We examine systems of thought (scientific, religious, moral, aesthetic, legal, political, etc.) and we try to make them more reason friendly.

Take normative ethics. What's up with that?  Well, basically we have a bunch of different ways of thinking about morality which often produce contradictory moral judgments.  Philosophers are trying to rationalize the conceptual framework of ethics, so that competent users will more often arrive at the same answers to the same questions.

Or pick a topic in metaphysics, say free will.  Here we have a term in wide use, one that seems to be critical to our ascriptions of moral responsibility, but for which the most common meaning involves the attribution of supernatural abilities to human beings. Since we have fairly recently learned that humans are not supernatural beings, but exceedingly clever apes, we need to figure out how to rationalize the concept of free will; we need to make it compatible with what we know to be our true cognitive and behavioral capacities.

Or take my favorite area, philosophy of science. Within almost every scientific discipline there are tribes that disagree with each other, not just about empirical matters, but about terms and concepts. Physicists mostly agree about how to take measurements, but they do not agree about what a measurement is. Biologists all agree that species evolve, but they do not agree about what a species is. Economists agree that they study the behavior of agents under conditions of scarcity, but they do not agree what an agent is. Science is still remarkably under rationalized.

Note, when I say it's the business of philosophy to rationalize conceptual frameworks, I don't mean that this is always a necessary or useful thing to do.  The world benefits a great deal from people thinking differently about things, and part of what makes this possible is under rationalization.  In a prematurely rationalized system, everyone is on the same page, but it is the wrong page, and we can no longer turn it.

So is this just a rant, or is there any realistic hope of retrieving the word rationalize and purging it of its overwhelmingly negative connotations?  I think there is a ray of hope. Today it is increasingly common to speak of the goal of rationalizing industries. This is a term of art from economics. It describes the aim of eliminating inefficiency, the friction that impedes smooth commerce. It is particularly descriptive of the aims of the knowledge economy, which focuses on eliminating barriers to effective communication.  Everyone knows that it is fantastically easier today to make appointments, purchases, travel arrangements and financial transactions than ever before. Economists say that this is because these processes have all been rationalized to a significant degree.

Why not summon this use of the term back into common usage?
Dude, why is instant replay being used so much more in sports these days to review the calls of umpires and referees? Well, clearly, they are rationalizing the officiating process. You say that like it's a good thing. Well, of course it is, you want to get the call right don't you? I don't know, I kind of like the human element, maybe we're over rationalizing?  
Did you hear they've eliminated toll booths on the Golden Gate Bridge?  Yeah, it's cool. They're really starting to rationalize highway transportation. Can't wait for robot cars. Ick, not me.  I really like traffic jams and car crashes. Keeps life interesting you know? 
Hey, do you use Venmo? Oh, hell yes, it's awesome!  Totally rationalizes payback. Get it. Oh, I don't know. I don't think I want payback rationalized. I like the old days when you could bum money and then just, like, forget about it.

So talk like this from now on, I beseech you. Do your part to cleanse rationalization of its contronymity! Of course, I know this won't appeal to everyone, especially those who like to think of philosophy as having more profound aims than making our reasoning spaces more user friendly. But once rationalization has come to mean something good again, there's nothing preventing us from running with it.  Deep rationalization, anyone?

G. Randolph Mayes
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, May 12, 2014

What is so philosophical about measurement?

Let’s start by framing some analytical questions.

Scientific engagement with the world by making measurements tells us something about reality. Engagement by measurement involves a physical interaction with the world. Scientists use instruments to monitor, examine, and sometimes poke and prod the objects of measurement. Engagement by measurement also involves gathering information about the world. Through measurement we get outputs that tell us something about the objects of measurement. What does engagement by measurement tell us about reality? This can be broken down into two simpler questions. First, what sort of physical interaction occurs during measurement? That is, what is the relationship between measurement practice and the thing measured? Answering this question will depend on characterizing both the process of measurement and the target of measurement—sometimes referred to as ‘the phenomenon’ or ‘the real system’. Second, what sort of information does scientific measurement provide? This is a question about the reliability of scientific measurement practices and also about the kind of realism that these practices ground.

Why is measurement important for the philosopher as well as the scientist?

A theory of measurement useful for philosophers and scientists should account for interaction and information. Cartwright and Chang (2008) nicely summarize the interests of scientists and philosophers when it comes to asking questions about measurement. Cartwright and Chang write, “To the practitioner, the all-important question is whether measurements are carried out correctly” (2008, 367). In a scientific context, questions about correct measurement break down to questions about reliability and error within the measurement process. Some examples of practical questions during measurement might be: did we calibrate the instrument properly; were confounding variables controlled for; can we reproduce these results within an independent experiment? These are questions about how to measure reliably. According to Cartwright and Chang, the fundamental question about correct measurement is fleshed out and given significance by the philosopher in the following form, “does a measurement operation really measure what it purports to measure” (2008, 367)? We can break this question down into two parts. First, does the presumed target of measurement (quantity, quality, phenomenon, etc.) really exist? Second, are our measurement practices “latching onto” the target? When asking questions of the latter kind, like—did scientists really detect the motion of the aether? Do IQ tests really measure intelligence? Do neutrinos really travel faster than the speed of light?—we’re combining questions about the physical interaction of measurement with questions about reliability and error in information gathering. In order to answer them we must have a technical account of measurement. This account should satisfy the philosopher by illustrating what reliability and error are while also satisfying the scientist by demonstrating how to apply a reliable method of measurement.

So how have philosophers of science addressed such questions? Let’s take a brief look at the evolution of measurement theory.

Early accounts of measurement focus on the systematic assignment of quantitative values (e.g. numbers or vectors) to objects in the world (see Hemholtz 1887; Campbell 1920). Nagel (1932) characterizes this approach to measurement as “the correlation of numbers with entities which are not numbers” (7). These early accounts approach the assignment of numbers to objects by looking at the conditions that make number assignment possible. This begins a technical area of measurement theory that has as its focus the mathematical representability of the physical world—echoing Galileo’s metaphor that Nature speaks the language of mathematics. This technical area of measurement theory is later continued by Stevens 1946; Suppes 1969; Ellis 1960, 1966; Pfanzagl 1968—among others; and is referred to by philosophers of science as the ‘representation theory of measurement’.

Many problems arise for the representational theory of measurement--including: 1) How do we develop non-arbitrary methods for assigning abstract things (numbers) to concrete things (physical objects)? 2) Are numerical descriptions necessary and/or sufficient for making/describing measurements? 3) What is the relation between the measurement procedure and number assignment? These problems call into question the standards of the early representational theories of measurement, but do not imply that representation is the wrong approach to a theory of measurement, but rather that number assignment may be the wrong way to express representation in measurement.

After decades of technical assessment of physical-to-mathematical correspondence, van Fraassen (2009) re-envisions the role of representation in measurement theory to solve problems like the ones listed above.

He maintains the representational aspect of measurement theory while loosening the strict mathematical standards of correspondence rules. On van Fraassen’s view of measurement, the relation between measurement and the world is not rigidified by physical-to-mathematical correspondence rules. Sometimes representations are mathematical, and other times they are physical. According to van Fraassen (2009) we can represent empirical phenomena by means of “artifacts,” both “concrete/physical” and “abstract/mathematical” (1-2). The key aspects of representation through measurement are:
  1.  Measurement tells us what things look like (from a specified vantage point), rather than what they are like. 
  2. Measurement involves selective perspectival input. 
Van Fraassen uses the analogy of visual perspective to illustrate (1) and (2). Think of measurement as taking a vantage point on some phenomenon. For example, when we measure evolutionary processes, the scientist decides the perspective (e.g. the view from the gene, epigene, individual, population, niche, etc.). Each view will give us a limited view of the phenomenon. For instance, if you’re focused on the gene’s eye view, you may miss epigenetic feedback loops and phenotypic development. Think of this as partitioning a phenomenon into variables and parameters and then representing a limited set of each.

So where does this leave us?

Van Fraassen’s expression of the representational theory of measurement is refreshing. We’re no longer bogged down with formalization. The philosophy of measurement can work collaboratively with the science of measurement to figure out useful perspectives to take on phenomena and to combine those perspectives under elegant theoretical models. But there’s one major problem. This view of measurement may be wrong. To see why, you’ll have to keep reading Dance of Reason.


Campbell, N. R. (1957). Foundations of Science, the Philosophy of Theory and
Experiment. New York: Dover.

Cartwright, N., Chang, H. (2008). Measurement. In Psillos, S. and Curd, M. (eds), The
Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Science (pp. 375-387). New York: Routledge.

Ellis, B. (1960) Some Fundamental Problems of Direct Measurement, Australasian
Journal of Philosophy, 38, 3747.

Ellis, B. (1966). Basic Concepts of Measurement. London: Cambridge University Press.

Helmholtz, H. V. (1887) Zählen und Messen erkenntnis-theoretisch betrachet, in

Helmholtz, Schriften zur Erkenntnistheorie, pp. 70-108. Engl trans,. Numbering and Measuring from an Epistemological Viewpoint, in Helmoltz, Epistemological Writings, 72-114.

Nagel, E. (1930) On the Logic of Measurement (Stanford University Press).

Pfanzagl, J. (1968) Theory of Measurement. New York: Wiley.

Stevens, S. S. (1946) ‘On the Theory of Scales of Measurement’, Science 103, 667-680.

Suppes, P. (1969) Studies in the Methodology and Foundations of Science. Dordrecht:

van Fraassen, B. C. (2009). Scientific representation: Paradoxes of perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Living in the Garden

My topic is religious environmental ethics. Many of my readers may lack sympathy with a religious approach to the environment, but dialog with those who take such an approach is important given the influence these people have on environmental decision making. Also, philosophers of religion may be interested in illuminating what it is to believe in God, and this extends to thinking about how belief in God might influence our thinking about the environment.

I want to look at two approaches that a theist might take to the environment. The first is an anthropocentric approach, which limits our concern for the environment to its impact on human interests. An anthropocentrist might argue, for example, that we should reduce our emission of greenhouse gases because global warming is a threat to human welfare. She places value on plants, animals, and mountains only insofar as these things contribute to the wellbeing of humanity.

Deep ecology, by contrast, holds that nonhuman components of our environment have value in their own right, and not just by virtue of how they benefit human beings. A deep ecologist will argue that the harm of global warming extends beyond its impact on human beings; she will be concerned with its effect on plants and animals- the biosphere generally- and perhaps go so far as to suggest that there is intrinsic wrong in the alteration it makes to the ecological balance of the earth, apart from its effect on living things.

Which of these approaches is most consistent with Western theism? There appear to be two creation stories in Genesis, and they offer different models of environmental concern. In Genesis 1 God gives humanity dominion over the earth and charges Adam and Eve to subdue it. He instructs them to rule over all living creatures, and gives them seed-bearing plants and fruit trees for their food. I will refer to this as the gift model of theistic environmental ethics.

Lynn White (1969) attributes our current ecological problems to the dominance of this gift model, which poses no barrier to the exploitation of the natural environment by human beings. Other authors, however, have argued that a proper regard for the natural environment as a gift from God calls for us to feel gratitude toward the Creator; Charles Taliaferro (2005), for example, suggests that such gratitude should evoke in us a respect for nature.

It seems to me, however, that the gift model is irredeemably anthropocentric. First, consider the nature of a gift. The value of a gift lies in the benefit it offers to its recipient. My Aunt Hattie, who gives me a brand new Ferrari, has given me a wonderful gift. It would be a moral failing on my part if I were not disposed to feel gratitude toward her. And if I did not properly care for this gift, I might be accused of failing to properly appreciate it; arguably this would constitute a lapse of gratitude on my part. But caring for my car by maintaining it etc. means nothing more than preserving it so as to facilitate my continued exploitation of it.

If the Earth is God’s gift to humanity, it falls on us to treat it with respect. But if this is the sort of respect that is normally due to a gift, it implies only that we must do our best to maintain it for our own exploitation. This is anthropocentrism.

The second model of theistic environmental ethics comes from Genesis 2. There God appoints Adam as caretaker of the Garden of Eden. Nothing is said there of the garden being given to him. Now being a caretaker carries with it certain responsibilities. If I ask Bertrand to care for my home while I am away on vacation- and give him permission to pick fruit from my trees for his sustenance (as God does Adam) - I will be very put out if I return to find that he has cut down my trees, eaten my dog, and dug a 30-foot hole in my front yard. If Bertrand accepts the responsibility of caring for my home, he is obligated to exercise concern for my interests. Asking him to care for my home is very different from giving it to him. I retain a continuing concern and involvement with it..

The caretaker model moves beyond anthropocentrism. On this model, we must consider God’s interests in our treatment of the Earth and its inhabitants, and while it may not be obvious what concerns God has for the nonhuman elements of our environment, it is clear, at least in principle, that our own interests are not dispositive in regard to environmental issues.

Is there any theological reason to prefer the caretaker model over the gift model in constructing a theistic environmental ethic? I offer no knock-down argument here, but theistic religious practice tends to encourage the relationship of human beings with the divine. A God who gives us the Earth as a gift need not remain nearby; little is required of us other than to send thanks his way occasionally, like a message in a bottle. By contrast, as caretakers we are encouraged to think of God as retaining an active involvement with nature; a relationship with the divine in this case calls for us to look toward God, and past our own self-concern.

The caretaker model does not give us deep ecology, however, for while the regard we show to the natural environment on that model extends beyond our self-interest, it still does not give us any ground for thinking that the non-human parts of nature have any intrinsic value. On this model, their value derives from whatever interest God has in them. I do think that a theistic deep-ecology is possible, and I envision such a view as abandoning property metaphors and looking more carefully into the possibility that God is actively present in nature, but that is a subject for a future post.

David Corner
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


Lynn White, Jr. (1967), “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”, Science, New Series, Vol. 155, No. 3767

Charles Taliaferro, “Vices and Virtues in Religious Environmental Ethics” (2005), in Ronald Sandler and Philip Califano (eds), Environmental Virtue Ethics, Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield