Difficulties with Virtual Content

 Posted by on 6 April 2015 at 10:00 am  Education, Epistemology
Apr 062015

This article on the benefits of writing notes by hand rather than on the computer — The Benefits of No-Tech Note Taking — rings true in my experience as a student (and as a teacher). Computers are an impediment to good note-taking, not a help. Even apart from the distraction, the problem is the way that people take notes:

The researchers found that students who used laptops were inclined to try to take notes verbatim—even when they were told not to. The longhand note takers took selective, organized notes because they couldn’t write fast enough to get everything down. As a result, they processed lectures more deeply, which allowed them to retain more information and even understand it better.

On a related note, I’ve found that I have serious problems retaining written material read on the kindle, in part, I think, because every text is formatted the same. I’ve found that the various things I read blend together and then disappear from memory in ways that print books, audio books, and even articles read online don’t do.

Do you have the same experience? If so, any suggestions?

Ruth Chang on Hard Choices

 Posted by on 27 August 2014 at 10:00 am  Epistemology, Ethics, Values
Aug 272014

On Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Radio, I’ll answer a question about Ruth Chang’s TED Talk on Hard Choices. The question is:

How can a person make better hard choices? How to make hard choices was the subject of a recent TED talk from philosopher Ruth Chang. Her thesis is that hard choices are not about finding the better option between alternatives. Choices are hard when there is no better option. Hard choices require you to define the kind of person you want to be. You have to take a stand for your choice, and then you can find reasons for being the kind of person who makes that choice. Her views really speak to me. In your view, what makes a choice hard? How should a person make hard choices?

Yesterday, I listened to the TED Talk, and I really like it! I’ll summarize the talk on Sunday’s episode, but I’d still recommend taking a listen in advance:

For Ruth Chang’s academic work, check out her selected publications.

The Rolling Ball of Dots

 Posted by on 12 August 2014 at 11:00 am  Epistemology, Perception
Aug 122014

This isn’t really an optical illusion: it’s just that the brain is aggregating the data about the moving dots in the way that would most make sense in the real world. In any case, it’s awesome!

H/T: 22 Words

A Quick Thought on Perception

 Posted by on 10 December 2013 at 10:00 am  Epistemology, Perception, Philosophy
Dec 102013

David Smith tweeted: “Mind = blown. These two blocks are exactly the same shade of grey. Hold your finger over the seam and check.”

I’d like to do some more thinking on perceptual illusions. I don’t think that the grays look different due to any conceptual inference. The grays look very different, until the seam is covered, and then they look the same.

Yet I don’t think that these are “perceptual errors.” Rather, this is exactly how our perceptual system is supposed to work, perhaps because such mechanisms enable us to properly judge shades and depth in the real world. However, particular with computer images, we can reveal these oddities and limits in our perceptual systems in a stark way.

Notably, these kinds of cases are very different from many traditional illusions like a stick bent in water, which are a function of the medium of perception (i.e. air versus water). Still, I don’t think that they reveal that our senses aren’t reliable or valid: they just reveal, in yet another stark way, that the diaphanous model of perception is wrong.


Learning Logic with Jason Voorhees

 Posted by on 17 October 2013 at 2:00 pm  Epistemology
Oct 172013

Hrm… so should I be worried about Paul’s fondness for crocs? Nah, that would be affirming the consequent. (Affirming the consequent means asserting that because if A then B, therefore if B then A.)

Jun 042013

I received this most fabulous message a few days ago… and I couldn’t resist sharing it with you. Plus, it raises some serious points about my approach that I discuss below too.

SO! I quit listening to P/A a few months ago because (hear me out) – I started noticing that I agreed with *everything* that was coming out of your lovely face. I started growing a little worried that I was getting super lazy and losing (or worse, ignoring) the whole critical thinking thing.

Naturally, being a mad social scientist, I decided to test the theory. I followed the questions for a few weeks and jotted down what I thought the correct responses should be, and for the past few days I’ve been listening to podcasts at work (productivity soared). So guess what! My worryworting was totally unjustified. I got the gist of plenty of the questions spot on, although with a miserable fraction of the detail you provided. I’m so damn proud.

Anyhoo, the shamefully unreciprocated consumption of your podcasts on my part is over. As soon as Dwolla verifies my bank account the donations should be coming in biweekly. I adore your work, and not just because it gives me some vain sense of self-righteousness. That’s just a perk.

If you’re ever back home in Maryland and would like me to donate some steak and bacon, just drop me a line, chica!

The style of this email put me into fabulous fits of giggles, but I very much enjoyed its serious point too.

If you’re a fellow Objectivist, the basic answers to the questions I answer on Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Radio aren’t terribly difficult. In most cases, I know that basic answer when I choose the questions, and I bet many of you do too. If my goal were just to inform listeners — Objectivist or not — of the right answer, I’d answer six questions in fifteen minutes… and then shoot myself in the head.

Instead, the goal of the show is to work through the actual thinking required to answer such questions — meaning, to develop and apply relevant principles, to test those principles via real-world examples, to consider objections, and so on. That’s why the show consistently runs over an hour each week. It’s also why preparation for each show usually requires thinking through the issues involved, then some reading and research, then discussion with Greg, Tammy, and Paul, then more in-depth thinking, then hours of writing and organizing those thoughts.

By taking that approach, I’m able to explain my reasons for my answer in sufficient depth that people can (and do) change their minds — rationally, not rationalistically or dogmatically. Moreover, I’m teaching them — implicitly and explicitly — the principles and tools they need to think through new issues on their own in a rational way.

I’m very pleased — and proud — to be doing that. I’m also so grateful that so many others see the value in my approach, particularly when they help spread the word about the show and support it financially. That means the world to me.


It’s often difficult to challenge your own entrenched beliefs. Habits of thought die hard, particularly when your values or way of life seems to depend on those beliefs. (“But but but… XYZ must be true!”)

When confronted with challenging new ideas, I try to approach them carefully, so as to avoid any knee-jerk emotional reaction in favor of my existing beliefs.

Ideally, here’s what I do: I remind myself that I don’t need to agree or disagree right away. Instead, I focus on understanding the ideas and arguments fully. Then, once that’s done, I take some time to mull over those ideas — perhaps days, weeks, or months. I gather empirical evidence for and against the idea. I consider new angles, arguments, and implications. I discuss those ideas with smart people, as they often have fresh insights. Finally, I come to a judgment about the truth of those new ideas.

If I take that time, I’m far less likely to err in my evaluation — meaning, to dismiss right ideas or embrace wrong ideas. That’s a win!

But… uh… of course, that’s not always what happens. Yet even when I have that dreaded knee-jerk reaction against some new idea, I can exert my better judgment: I can choose to evaluate it objectively. If I have to eat crow at the end of that process, that’s better than persisting in dogmatic commitment to falsehoods.

Note: I published a version of the above commentary in Philosophy in Action’s Newsletter a while back. Subscribe today!

May 062013

Mental Floss posted a list of “contronyms” or “self-antonyms,” namely words that mean their own opposite. Here are a few of my favorites:

1. Sanction (via French, from Latin sanctio(n-), from sancire ‘ratify,’) can mean ‘give official permission or approval for (an action)’ or conversely, ‘impose a penalty on.’

3. Left can mean either remaining or departed. If the gentlemen have withdrawn to the drawing room for after-dinner cigars, who’s left? (The gentlemen have left and the ladies are left.)

4. Dust, along with the next two words, is a noun turned into a verb meaning either to add or to remove the thing in question. Only the context will tell you which it is. When you dust are you applying dust or removing it? It depends whether you’re dusting the crops or the furniture.

10. Fast can mean “moving rapidly,” as in “running fast,” or ‘fixed, unmoving,’ as in “holding fast.” If colors are fast they will not run. The meaning ‘firm, steadfast’ came first. The adverb took on the sense ‘strongly, vigorously,’ which evolved into ‘quickly,’ a meaning that spread to the adjective.

Another strange category of words that I love seem to be called “autoholonyms.” Basically, these are words which refer to both the species and the genus. Here are some examples:

  • “Cow” can be mean just female bovines or all bovines.
  • “Day” can mean a 24 hour period or just the light portions thereof.
  • “Man” can refer to all humans (contrast: animals) or just male humans (contrast: woman) or just adult male humans (contrast: boy).

Can you think of other common words that fit that pattern? I want to know more!

Expressions of Mere Opinion

 Posted by on 29 April 2013 at 2:00 pm  Epistemology, Rationality
Apr 292013

I appreciate that it’s often useful for people to say “I agree” or “I disagree” in contexts where wrong assumptions might be made.

That’s rarely the case, however. Most of the time, when people just indicate their mere agreement or disagreement with some remark, my reaction is pretty much: Why the heck did you bother to say that for? How about offering some kind of reason or argument or example? Do you think that anyone cares about your mere opinion? Be witty or be substantive or be silent! Then, despite my major disagreements with Plato’s epistemology, I feel the urge to beat them over the head with his distinction between opinion and knowledge.

Am I alone? Is this a crazy pet-peeve? The inevitable result of reading too many undergraduate philosophy papers? Or just a hope for higher standards of rationality?

The Virtue of Blind Belief?

 Posted by on 13 February 2013 at 10:00 am  Epistemology, Religion, Sports
Feb 132013

I just ran across this passage in an otherwise merely annoying sports column on athletes and steroid use:

This past Christmas Eve, my son and daughter made Santa cookies, wrote him a letter, even left four carrots for his reindeer. As we were putting them to bed, I remember thinking, Man, I wish they could always stay like this. And by “this,” I really meant, I wish they could always just blindly believe in things being true despite mounting evidence against them.

Oy vey! The “blind belief” of faith is not a virtue — neither in adults not in children. It’s the rejection of reason’s requirements of empirical evidence and logical argument. To the extent that a person lives by faith rather than reason is the extent to which he imperils his life and his happiness. (For more on what’s wrong with faith — including why faith and reason cannot be reconciled — I strongly recommend George H. Smith’s Atheism: The Case Against God.)

Interestingly, the sports writer indulges in fairly arbitrary doubts about athletes and steroid use in the rest of the column. Given that kind of irrationality, it’s hardly surprising that he longs to enjoy the comforts of the opposite kind of error.

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