Monday, December 15, 2008

IM on fatalism and time, ideas and plain language

An IM conversation (as always, this is quoted with permission from the other person):

what do you think of this sentence as an example of something in philosophy
gah
can't send it
["] Let Φ (a physical possibility structure) be a set of distinct but intersecting paths ji–jn, each of which is a set of functions, L’s, on ordered pairs <t, w> (<time, world situation>), such that for any Ln, Lm in some ji, Ln R Lm, where R is a primitive accessibility relation corresponding to physical possibility understood in terms of diachronic physical compatibility. ["]
there
obviously it's pretty cryptic because of all the symbols.
yeah but do you suspect intentional screwy cryticness
yes.
or do you think it's expressed cryptically for a good reason
that's possible.
there's legitimate philosophy that uses symbols.
yeah and i think you'd need to see the whole thing... did he work up to that
but if it's any philosophy area other than logic,
that makes me wonder:

why exactly was it so important for you to express it like that...

when you must know that drastically
narrows your potential audience?
“Richard Taylor’s ‘Fatalism’ and the Semantics of Physical Modality”
and you can apply the same observation to
garden-variety philosophical prose that's
less layperson-friendly than it could be.
it's an academic thesis written by David Foster Wallace when he was a student
["] Wallace became troubled by a paper called “Fatalism,” first published in 1962 by a philosopher named Richard Taylor. The fatalist contends, quite radically, that human actions and decisions have no influence on the future. ["]
well that explains it: he's trying to impress profs.
yeah
"Your behavior today no more shapes events tomorrow than it shapes events yesterday. Instead, in a seemingly backward way, the fatalist says it is how things are in the future that uniquely constrains what happens right now. What might seem like an open possibility subject to human choice — say, whether you fire your handgun — is already either impossible or absolutely necessary. You are merely going with some cosmic flow."
that they have no influence on the future?!
hard to see how that could be.
normally a fatalist thinks "human actions
and decisions" are entirely influenced by factors
that are determined by the
past.
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/14/magazine/14wwln-Wallace-t.html?_r=1&ref=magazine
so if he committed suicide, his whole life was shaped by that
Well that's a good example...
since the paragraph you just
quoted is easily comprehensible,
why not just say it that way
instead of with the symbols?
the article-writer is making it comprehensible for us
same point.
maybe because when you say it plainly it sounds patently absurd
same thing whether it's a NYT writer
or the original thinker who's clarifying the point.
I've sometimes thought this in law... require people to write very clearly because it's a test of whether they are right
well, it sounds like he's basically
saying time is an illusion --
everything exists at once.
(or, not even "at once" since time is an illusion)
which is what my blog post was about:
http://jaltcoh.blogspot.com/2008/11/reality-of-time-and-doodle-of-me.html
if they can't or won't say it clearly,
suspect error or fraud
You'd be calling into question a lot of
academic scholarship with that principle.
I'll leave it to the reader to decide whether that would be a bad thing or a good thing.


IN THE COMMENTS: My dad turns up a trenchant on-point quote from an essay by John Kenneth Galbraith called "Writing, Typing, and Economics." It's about economics but is easily generalizable to philosophy and other esoteric fields. Here's a more extended passage:
Any specialist who ventures to write on money with a view to making himself intelligible works under a grave moral hazard. He will be accused of oversimplification. The charge will be made by his fellow professionals, however obtuse or incompetent. They will have a sympathetic hearing from the layman. That is because no layman really expects to understand about money, inflation, or the International Monetary Fund. If he does, he suspects that he is being fooled. One can have respect only for someone who is decently confusing.

In the case of economics there are no important propositions that cannot be stated in plain language. Qualifications and refinements are numerous and of great technical complexity. These are important for separating the good students from the dolts. But in economics the refinements rarely, if ever, modify the essential and practical point. The writer who seeks to be intelligible needs to be right; he must be challenged if his argument leads to an erroneous conclusion and especially if it leads to the wrong action. But he can safely dismiss the charge that he has made the subject too easy. The truth is not difficult.

Complexity and obscurity have professional value—they are the academic equivalents of apprenticeship rules in the building trades. They exclude the outsiders, keep down the competition, preserve the image of a privileged or priestly class. The man who makes things clear is a scab. He is criticized less for his clarity than for his treachery.

Additionally, and especially in the social sciences, much unclear writing is based on unclear or incomplete thought. It is possible with safety to be technically obscure about something you haven't thought out. It is impossible to be wholly clear on something you do not understand. Clarity thus exposes flaws in the thought. The person who undertakes to make difficult matters clear is infringing on the sovereign right of numerous economists, sociologists, and political scientists to make bad writing the disguise for sloppy, imprecise, or incomplete thought. One can understand the resulting anger.
I feel very strongly about all this.

UPDATE: Another variation on the theme.

3 comments:

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Complexity and obscurity have professional value—they are the academic equivalents of apprenticeship rules in the building trades. They exclude the outsiders, keep down the competition, preserve the image of a privileged or priestly class. The man who makes things clear is a scab. He is criticized less for his clarity than for his treachery.

Additionally, and especially in the social sciences, much unclear writing is based on unclear or incomplete thought. It is possible with safety to be technically obscure about something you haven’t thought out. It is impossible to be wholly clear on something you do not understand. Clarity thus exposes flaws in the thought. The person who undertakes to make difficult matters clear is infringing on the sovereign right of numerous economists, sociologists, and political scientists to make bad writing the disguise for sloppy, imprecise, or incomplete thought. One can understand the resulting anger.
--John Kenneth Galbraith

It is always a mistake to be plain-spoken.
--Gertrude Stein

jaywilsonmusic said...

That's a great thought from Galbraith - I've never read any of his work...must get onto that...

Glad to have found your blog - looks interesting :-)

TML said...

Certainly you've read some good Judith Butler? Or any of those pompous say-nothings? You might be interested in this thread:

http://prawfsblawg.blogs.com/prawfsblawg/2008/06/why-i-am-an-ant.html

Great stuff here. Note Stuart Buck's invitation to clarity. He was ignored, of course. David Thompson also has some very useful things to say about jargon.

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2007/07/playing-the-rub.html

And, finally, this bit from Chomsky is great:

"There are lots of things I don't understand -- say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat's last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I'm interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. --- even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest --- write things that I also don't understand, but (1) and (2) don't hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven't a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of "theory" that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) ... I won't spell it out."

Brilliant. These people like Butler are frauds.