Sunday, April 16, 2017

North Sea Sunset

On a ship from Amsterdam to Newcastle, I saw the sun set over the North Sea.

Thursday, April 13, 2017


Thanks to Matej Susnik for bringing me to Croatia! The Zagreb city center feels like the Slavic Europe of music videos, with stylish young people in tight black jeans walking past stately old buildings. I friended Matej on Facebook a few years ago when Google Scholar told me that he had discussed my work in Croatian. I ran his paper through Google Translate and was happy to see that he was bringing Humean ideas into a new language.

Yesterday after I laid out my naturalistic moral epistemology for the philosophy department, Matej organized a second talk on moral metaphysics at another venue. So I get to play with more philosophers, and I don't even have to go to a new city! Tonight will be the only night for nine days in which I sleep in the same country I slept in the night before. It's been Norway-Finland-Slovakia-Hungary-Croatia, and from today Croatia-Netherlands-North Sea-UK.

Philosophers in Zagreb have enemies who want to shut their department down for bad reasons. (For example, the philosophers discovered plagiarism in a government minister's work, and now the minister's friends want revenge.) I hope the department can survive and keep being awesome. I don't know how international support can help at this point, but we should be ready to provide it if needed. 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Nuclear Option Silver Linings

Republicans have unanimously voted to end Supreme Court filibusters and will confirm Neil Gorsuch. This was always the most likely outcome. But Democrats did the right thing in forcing Republicans to end judicial filibusters.

The bad news is that Neil Gorsuch will be on the Supreme Court, making Scalia-like decisions for three decades. Some judges are further right and some judges are younger, but it's hard to get both at once. That's serious bad news, but it's basically the only bad news, and it was the likely outcome ever since Trump won the election.

People will say it's bad that we've lost the ability to filibuster further Trump Supreme Court nominees. They're wrong. This party-line vote shows us that our filibusters weren't ever going to succeed. McConnell was always going to be able to break the filibuster, as long as Republicans had a Senate majority. He probably would've had an easier time after 2018, as we have to defend 25 Senate seats including some in very conservative states (WV, ND, IN, MO, MT). We'll probably lose some Senators then, so this was the best shot we were going to get.

There are two long-term benefits here. First, it'll be easier for Democrats to confirm their own judges. I was chatting with a Democrat at the center of this fight in DC yesterday. He specifically brought up the prospect of being more ambitiously left-wing in our party's judicial appointments in the future, now that Republicans can't filibuster them.

The second benefit is that this makes it easier to end the legislative filibuster someday. And that would benefit progressives much more than conservatives. Why?

It'll take more than a Trump Administration to end my faith in human progress. The world has become wealthier and less prejudiced over the centuries, and I expect that long-term trend to continue, barring nuclear war or some other global catastophe. From a blog post I wrote back in 2009:

"So if you make it easy to change the laws, you make it easy for a society to have the laws that people want in a high-tech, unprejudiced society. But if you make it hard to change the laws, you stick us to laws from the past. The filibuster is basically a way of making it very hard to change big laws, so it keeps us a couple decades behind the present."

Neil Gorsuch will do his best to keep America trapped in the brutal and impoverished past. But if today's events make it easier to end the legislative filibuster, that moves us towards an enlightened and generous future.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Filibuster Gorsuch

Of all Trump's nominees, Neil Gorsuch is the most important to block, as he could easily spend 30 years on the Supreme Court. I would've loved to block Jeff Sessions, but the filibuster doesn't work on the Cabinet. It works on the Supreme Court, and Democrats should use it.

Gorsuch likens his own judicial views to those of Scalia. Ronald Reagan named his mother to run the EPA so that she could tear it apart. She slashed its budget by 22% and rolled back environmental regulations. Given this, his potential opposition to executive power strikes me as a minus rather than a plus, as he's basically a machine built from birth to overturn executive action against climate change.

I never saw the 1930s Germany path to doom as a big risk under Trump. An independent judiciary is a deep and central American institution, and it's served us well in blocking things like Trump's travel bans. We can probably muster 6 votes on the Supreme Court against really crazy Trumpy stuff -- there's 4 progressives, Kennedy's libertarian streak, and the old institutionalist Roberts. Whatever Gorsuch's virtues might be, they're small enough not to win us any decisions we wouldn't win already.

I fear the more traditionally American antidemocratic horror -- Republicans suppress the black vote and win elections even though a majority of the public opposes them. Gorsuch's emails show a favorable attitude to the work of Hans Van Spakovsky, who makes his living doing vote suppression for the Republican Party.

If Democrats filibuster, we'll see if McConnell can successfully end filibusters on Supreme Court nominations (the 'nuclear option'). He'll need 50 of his 52 senators to do that. 3 of them supported preserving the filibuster back in the 2005 Gang of 14 compromise. So it's not clear that he has the votes.

One possible endgame resembles the 2005 compromise: 3 Republicans and some moderate Democrats work out a compromise where the filibuster is preserved, Gorsuch is replaced with a more moderate judge, and Democrats agree to accept the moderate.

There's also the possibility of negotiating a much better nominee with Trump directly if Gorsuch fails. Gorsuch owes his nomination to a deal Trump made with evangelicals to win the election. Recognize here that Trump doesn't have deeply held views about jurisprudence. He just knew the nomination was a trinket he could barter for evangelical support in the election and gave them their man. But if the nomination fails and Trump's alliance situation becomes much more fluid after other failures (Obamacare repeal among them), other deals are possible. After demonstrating their power by blocking the nomination, Democrats might be able to negotiate for a nominee significantly more liberal than Gorsuch.

In any event, the tradition of generally accepting qualified nominees from the other party ended with Merrick Garland. Democrats shouldn't pretend otherwise. With a lifetime appointment at stake, they should play for the most moderate nominee they can get.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Humean Nature

My book defending the Humean Theory of Motivation is published! Thanks to everyone who helped, including the editorial staff at Oxford University Press, my three referees, and colleague / ex-roommate / friend Ben Blumson, who set up a reading group on the manuscript.

This passage from the end of Chapter 1 discusses and exhibits the style of the book:

"My writing is sometimes colorful. I hope this never reduces clarity, but instead helps you more quickly see what I mean. I have a lot to tell you, and sometimes an unusual style helps me say it in fewer words. After working on the Humean Theory for sixteen years, I have some of the feelings that it would have if theories had feelings. Expressing how I feel may help you understand how the Humean Theory explains phenomena and relates to other theories. Maybe robots or angels would understand everything faster in dry prose. But this book is written for and about humble descendants of apes, like me."

Thursday, March 23, 2017

I'm talking about proton-electron romantic relationships on Australian public radio

Here I am discussing "Divine Fine-Tuning vs. Electrons in Love" with Joe Gelonesi of The Philosopher's Zone! It's downloadable as a podcast if you'd like to listen that way.

The paper is about how the metaphysical possibility of romantic relationships between otherworldly protons and electrons defeats the fine-tuning argument for God's existence. It's now out in APQ. That and "Possible Girls", also discussed in the interview, are my contributions to discussion of metaphysically interesting romantic relationships. I didn't expect that it'd be such a media-friendly topic when I started working on it, but it kind of makes sense.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

DeVos confirmation consolations

Thanks to all of you who fought the good fight in calling Senators to oppose the DeVos nomination. Republicans like to complain about teachers' unions, and sometimes unions push for things that are suboptimal (police unions I am looking at you), but corporations can push harder for greater evil than teachers' unions ever will. Like: confirming an utterly unqualified Secretary of Education who lobbied for corporations running failing charter schools in Michigan, so they could keep their badly run charter schools open and even expand them. It's crony capitalism with children in its claws.

I expected this evil in November, but with it comes a sign of the Democratic Party becoming what it could be. Every single Democrat and two moderate Republicans voted no. The last Cabinet nominee who lost a vote was alcoholic sexual harrasser John Tower, blocked by Democrats and liberal Republicans in 1989. The sheer outpouring of activist energy brought us closer to another block than anything since. (Pence, historically, had to vote. Sessions had to be delayed so he could still be in the Senate to vote.) For reference, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry were confirmed 94-2 and 94-3.

There are two reasons why I can feel okay right now. (1) DeVos is going to have some difficulty implementing her terrible policies. Education is mostly controlled in the states, and working the federal bureaucracy right to implement her objectives is a challenge that she has never undertaken and probably can't really handle. (2) I never expected us to block DeVos -- skillful majority leaders like McConnell and Pelosi (who did exactly this when she passed Obamacare) can usually get just enough votes within their caucus, by giving some people a break and other people favors for voting their way.

The giant foe that looms before us is Neil Gorsuch, nominated to a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court. Unlike Cabinet appointments, Democrats can block him with the filibuster. I've spent a couple days thinking about some arguments from smart people who think it's okay to confirm him, and concluded that they're wrong on basically everything except counterfactuals for some unlikely scenarios. Blocking Gorsuch matters way more than DeVos.

More on this soon. But for now: rest well, and take care of yourself so you'll be ready for the battles ahead.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Why Jeff Merkley's Leadership PAC is my #1 pick for fighting Trump

This was the seventh year in which I gave $5000 to Senator Jeff Merkley's Leadership PAC. If you have the money and want to fight the Trump Administration, I invite you to join me.

Just three days after Trump won the election in November, Jeff announced that Republicans had stolen the Supreme Court nomination and that Democrats should block the nomination of anyone other than Merrick Garland. Now Chuck Schumer is announcing that Democrats are willing to filibuster for four years and keep the seat open unless Trump nominates a moderate. I didn't think we had any hope of avoiding another Scalia after election night, and now it looks like we have a shot. Jeff has been doing this sort of thing for the last eight years, and it's why I see him as the best progressive legislative tactician we have in the Senate.

Jeff donates his Leadership PAC money to the re-election campaigns of other Democratic Senators. We have a lot of tough races coming up in 2018, including West Virginia, North Dakota, Montana, Indiana, Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin. If you expect that you'll probably end up donating to some of those Democratic campaigns in the next couple years, I strongly recommend doing it now through the Leadership PAC. In addition to helping Democrats win, you'll make them owe favors to an excellent left-wing legislative tactician who can organize them to vote the right way when it matters. As an out-of-state contributor, I can't influence Democratic Senators to support a Supreme Court filibuster. Jeff can, and he does it very well.

We need those votes now as much as we ever have. Trump is planning to announce his Supreme Court nomination on Tuesday night. Whether another Scalia occupies that seat will depend on whether we can hold a Democratic filibuster together -- either to keep the seat open indefinitely, or to force him to withdraw an extreme nominee and nominate a moderate.

I started following Jeff when he was the Speaker of the Oregon state House. He had won Democrats control of the chamber by recruiting a serious challenger to run against the previous Republican Speaker, tying her down so that she couldn't just go out and fundraise for her Republican underlings. After beating enough of her underlings to win a slender majority, he passed all sorts of awesome stuff -- same-sex domestic partnership benefits, requirements that insurance companies cover birth control, and all sorts of minor nifty good-government things I would've never thought of, like a law allowing people in trailer parks to join together and form co-ops to prevent the land they live on from being sold out from under them. That seemed like what Democrats needed in the US Senate, and Jeff has been providing it for the last eight years.

If you donate over $2,500 to ORPAC (it has that name because Jeff is from Oregon), you'll be invited to come to Portland for a two-day fundraiser where we travel the Oregon wine country. It's a wonderful opportunity to directly engage with Jeff, his staff, and influential DC people. Often I'm the only non-lobbyist there. But I'm hoping that more people will join me this time, to make clear that there's lots of support for a Senator who can organize Democrats to fight hard against the Trump Administration. 

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Incredible Publication Records of NUS Philosophy Junior Faculty

We have four Assistant Professors at the National University of Singapore. Collectively, they've published 29 articles, 16 of which are single-authored publications in top 10 general-interest journals (according to recent polls). Behold the amazing publication records of my junior colleagues, Weng Hong Tang, Qu Hsueh Ming, Bob Beddor, and Abelard Podgorski!

Weng Hong Tang, PhD 2010, ANU:
  1. Forthcoming: Transparency and Partial Beliefs, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research
  2. Forthcoming: Knowledge and Probability, in Hetherington and Valaris, Knowledge in Contemporary Philosophy, Bloomsbury.
  3. 2016: Reliabilism and the Suspension of Belief, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 94, 362-77. 
  4. 2016: Reliability Theories of Justified Credence, Mind 125, 63-94. 
  5. 2015: A Note on the Definition of Physicalism, Thought 4, 10-18. (With Ben Blumson)
  6. 2015: Belief and Cognitive Limitations, Philosophical Studies 172, 249-60. 
  7. 2014: Success Semantics and Partial Belief, Journal of Philosophical Research 29, 17-22. 
  8. 2014: Intentionality and Partial Belief, Synthese 191, 1433-50. 
  9. 2012: Regularity Reformulated, Episteme 9, 329-43. 
Qu Hsueh Ming, PhD 2014, NYU:
  1. Forthcoming: Hume’s Doxastic Involuntarism, Mind.
  2. Forthcoming: Hume’s (Ad Hoc?) Appeal to the Calm Passions, Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie.
  3. Forthcoming: Hume’s Internalism in EHU 12, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.
  4. Forthcoming: Hume’s Dispositional Account of the Self, Australasian Journal of Philosophy.
  5. Forthcoming: Hume on Mental Transparency, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly.
  6. 2016: Prescription, Description, and Hume’s Experimental Method, The British Journal for the History of Philosophy 24:2, 279-301. 
  7. 2016: The Title Principle (or lack thereof) in the Enquiry, History of Philosophy Quarterly 33:3, 257-274.
  8. 2014: Hume’s Positive Argument on Induction, Nous 48(4): 595-625. 
  9. 2014: Hume’s Practically Epistemic Conclusions? Philosophical Studies 170(3): 501-524. 
  10. 2012: The Simple Duality: Humean Passions, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 42:supp1, 98-116. 
Bob Beddor, PhD 2016, Rutgers:
  1. Forthcoming: Believing Epistemic Contradictions, (w. Simon Goldstein)  Review of Symbolic Logic.
  2. Forthcoming: Justication as Faultlessness,  Philosophical Studies.
  3. 2015: Process Reliabilism’s Troubles with Defeat, Philosophical Quarterly 65 (259): 145-159.
  4. 2015: Evidentialism, Circularity, and Grounding, Philosophical Studies 172 (7): 1847-1868.
  5. 2015: Reliabilist Epistemology (w. Alvin Goldman), Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Abelard Podgorski, PhD 2016, USC:
  1. Forthcoming: Rational Delay,  Philosopher's Imprint.
  2. Forthcoming: Wouldn't it be Nice: Moral Rules and Distant Worlds, Nous
  3. 2016: A Reply to the Synchronist, Mind 125(499): 859-871.
  4. 2016: Dynamic Permissivism, Philosophical Studies 173(7): 1923-1939.
  5. 2016: Dynamic Conservatism, Ergo 3.
There are many other good young (and older) philosophers in Singapore at Yale-NUS College, Nanyang Technological University, and Singapore Management University, in addition to NUS where I work.

Friday, December 30, 2016

2016 Utilitarian Financial Activity

My donations in 2016:
$10000 to the Against Malaria Foundation, which provides mosquito nets that protect Africans from malarial mosquitoes. GiveWell judged it the charity that could best put new money to use when I donated a few months ago.

$5000 to Deworm the World, which provides deworming pills to treat intestinal parasitic worm infections that cause severe illnesses in Africa and India. The educational benefits of deworming may give them the best expected value of any antipoverty charity, as intestinal worms severely impair students' school performance.

$5000 to Senator Jeff Merkley's Leadership PAC, which helps Democrats win Senate races and coordinates the party around one of its most talented and progressive legislative tacticians. This is my top pick for blocking bad Trump Administration initiatives, and I'll put up a big post about it when I donate again in a few days.

$1000 to RESULTS, which lobbies Congress for more global antipoverty funding, including vaccinations and AIDS / TB / malaria treatment. Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio says, “RESULTS is the greatest citizens' lobbying organization in the history of Western civilization.”

$1000 to the Good Food Institute, which supports companies promoting plant-based meat alternatives. Real-tasting "clean meat" will eventually end factory farming, and we'll get there faster with a well-funded group that helps its producers push through regulatory obstacles created by corporations that do the factory farming.

When I took my job at Singapore in 2008, I told myself that I'd donate 25% of my annual income to a mix of political and charitable causes. I've fallen slightly below the 25% goal in previous years (while exceeding my 10% Giving What We Can pledge), but I hit it this time. If you're interested in making an end-of-2016 contribution to any of these groups and have any questions, feel free to ask.