Sunday, April 22, 2012

Phi Beta Kappa Philosophers

On Friday, forty Bucknellians were inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa honor society in a lovely ceremony at the Campus Theatre. Three of them were philosophy majors. Congratulations and well done!

Ryan Sappington ’12, Rachel Moger-Reischer ’12, and Chris Renaud ’13

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Lunch Chats Winding Down

As the term winds down and final papers and projects begin coming due, we'll close up our lunch chat shop for the term. If you didn't get a chance to come this year, we hope to see you at some point in the fall. See you then and good luck with the rest of the term!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Talk on Group Improvisation and Collective Intention

Garry Hagberg (of Bard College) will be giving a Philosophy talk on Monday, April 23rd, at 7PM at Bloomsburg University, entitled "Playing as One: Group Improvisation and Collective Intention". It's a talk focused on intentionality in jazz improv and will include a live jazz combo demonstrating improvisation. Garry is an accomplished jazz musician as well. This is the first of many talks in the new "Center for Applied and Popular Philosophy" at Bloomsburg University.

Gary Steiner on Animal Rights

Gary Steiner, John Howard Harris Professor of Philosophy has an interview in Bucknell's "Ask the Experts" forum on animal rights and the vegan imperative.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Honors Thesis Defense

Rachel Moger-Reischer will defend her honors thesis, "Knowledge in Context" on Friday the 20th at noon in Olin 266.
Abstract: Cartesian skepticism is a problem that has plagued epistemology for centuries. Historically, attempts to solve this problem have dissolved in failure as soon as they got off the ground. These sorts of attempts all had something in common: they were invariantist theories. That is, theories that maintain that truth-conditions of knowledge claims remain invariant under changes in conversational and epistemic context. In the 1970s, a new line of thought was considered. Contextualism states that truth-conditions depend on context. Thus, I may know some ordinary claim while in a context with low standards for knowledge, but not while in a context with high epistemic standards. For example, the statement ‘I know that I have hands’ may be true when I’m walking down Market Street, but not when I’m in epistemology class considering Putnam’s Brain in a Vat argument. While contextualism seems to have the potential to successfully counter skepticism, the view is underspecified. In this paper, I will unify competing contextualist theories and give greater coherence and clarity to view. I will both respond to objections and fill in the holes in the contextualist theory indicated by problems Pritchard and Neta raise.
All are welcome to attend.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Lunch Chat (4/19): Dangerous Knowledge?

We talked in our last lunch chat about whether poetry could provide us with knowledge — whether it was a distinctive source for knowledge. I thought that this time we could talk about a more general question about knowledge: whether the fact that knowledge is sometimes dangerous entails that we should sometimes constrain scientific investigation or censor results.

This is related to a recent controversy surrounding the research of the Dutch virologist Ron Fouchier, who created a more virulent strain of the H5N1 bird flue virus. The work is scientifically significant and reveals (we're told) something interesting about the virus that could help us respond to natural variants of the virus. But many people were very concerned about Fouchier publishing his lab's results. Prominent journals like Nature and Science agreed to at least delay publication (here's a letter published by Fouchier and colleagues in Nature about the case). Journalist Michael Specter discusses this case in the New Yorker Outloud podcast (here) in relation to the article he wrote about the controversy (there's also been good coverage in the Times).

The thought that we should squelch the research runs counter to a strong argument for free inquiry. Here's how E.O. Wilson put it in defending his work in Sociobiology:
All political proposals, radical and otherwise, should be seriously received and debated. But whatever direction we choose to take in the future, social progress can only be enhanced, not impeded, by the deeper investigation of the genetic constraints of human nature, which will steadily replace rumor and folklore with testable knowledge. Nothing is to be gained by a dogmatic denial of the existence of the constraints or attempts to discourage public discussion of them. Knowledge humanely acquired and widely shared, related to human needs but kept free of political censorship, is the real science for the people. ("Academic Vigilantism and the Political Significance of Sociobiology" in A. Caplan, The Sociobiology Debate, p. 302)
It's not clear in the bird flu case whether the censorship is political in nature — nor that it matters. Perhaps Wilson's claim could be extended to any sort of epistemic censorship. To modify the NRA's famous slogan: Knowledge doesn't hurt people, people hurt people. So it follows that there should be no constraints placed on inquiry.

Clearly there are a number of interesting questions lurking here. If it is sometimes appropriate to squelch knowledge (for fear that it may "fall into the wrong hands", say), then would it also be appropriate to forbid or otherwise prevent that research from being conducted in the first place — or is there a difference? In matters of risk-assessment, who decides whether the potential benefits exceed the potential risks? What about cases where the risks and rewards and their probabilities are inscrutable?

This — along with some pizza — should give us plenty to chew on this Thursday. Hope to see you at noon in the Philosophy Lounge!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Lunch Chat (4/12): Poetry as a Way of Knowing

"Do not forget that a poem, although it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information."
So claimed Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his Zettel, but was he right? Does this mean that poetry does not (or even cannot) count as a way of increasing our knowledge of the world?

This week for our lunch chat, I thought we could talk about a suite of issues discussed on the recent episode of "Philosophy Talk" about whether poetry offers us a distinctive "way of knowing."

"Philosophy Talk", if you haven't heard it before, is a radio program and podcast hosted by two eminent Stanford University philosophers, John Perry and Ken Taylor who take on different topics each week (either from a studio or in front of a live audience), host expert guests, and take questions from callers or audience members. Their motto is that it's "the program that questions everything . . . except your intelligence!" They're well worth listening to and the previous week's stream is always free on their website.

This particular program — recorded live — hosts Jane Hirshfield, a poet who has some interesting things to say about how poetry can contribute to knowledge. If you don't have time to listen to the program, you might instead check out their introductory blog post.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Colloquium: Lissa Skitolsky, "Raising the 'Walking Dead': Der Muselmann and the Course of Holocaust Studies"

The next talk in the Bucknell Philosophy Colloquium series will be offered by Lissa Skitolsky, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Susquehanna University on

Raising the "Walking Dead": Der Muselmann and the Course of Holocaust Studies
Wednesday, April 11th: 4:30–6PM
Traditional Reading Room (213 Bertrand Library)

Abstract: The term 'Muselmann' was common slang in concentration camps in Nazi Germany, designating a category of prisoner who was recognized as already dead while still alive. Survivors refer to them as the 'living skeletons' or the 'walking dead' of the Nazi camps. This talk maps out three key philosophical attempts to come to grips with the meaning of Holocaust victims' experiences, each corresponding to a distinct view of this figure.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Lunch Chat (4/5): Does it Matter Whether Got Exists?

For our next Philosophy Lunch Chat, we'll return to "The Stone" column and the issues raised by Gary Gutting's interesting piece "Does it Matter Whether God Exists?". One of the more interesting ideas broached by Gutting's discussion is the thought that given what some theists feel compelled to say about the problem of evil (i.e. the problem of how to square the idea of an omnipotent/omnibenevolent god with the existence of great evil in the world), they might have to admit that they know considerably less than they're comfortable about god's intentions in general.

Should we consider the possibility of religion as pure tradition — as a practice that doesn't depend on specific beliefs about god's intentions (or even his/her existence)? We'll talk about these and other questions Thursday in the Philosophy Lounge (Coleman 62) at noon over pizza as usual.