Monday, July 8, 2013

How NOT to Reconstruct an Argument




First thing: I absolutely LOVE P!nk and this song. That being said, any criticisms and critically evaluative remarks should not be taken as instances of disapproval. This is a wonderfully uplifting song, and the fact that I feel like I have to make this disclaimer should be taken as evidence for how much I love it! Second thing: when I first heard this song I knew I wanted to write something about it; I just wasn’t sure what exactly. To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure what the main focus of this post will be. I think I have a better grip on what I want to say than when I first heard it, but I worry it may still be disjointed at times. However, I think there are some interesting lessons here, even if I cannot tie them neatly together.

In most introductory philosophy courses students are asked to reconstruct an argument from class. This allows the student to better critically engage with the argument they will be addressing by making sure they have an appropriate understanding of their opponents’ position. This ability to successfully reconstruct an argument demonstrates that the student has an understanding of the difficult course material, and it helps to focus the students’ argument on a more manageable topic. If you’re reading an article by some philosopher (and you disagree with said philosopher), before explaining what it is you specifically disagree with, you have to reconstruct the philosophers’ argument to show the reader what part of the argument you will be addressing. For example, if you’re writing a paper on the morality of abortion, it’s just not possible to show why abortion is morally right or wrong in a paper for class (though many people will try!). Instead, you want to focus your argument on a more manageable topic. What you’ll most likely end up doing is pointing out something that needs to be taken into consideration when thinking about the morality of abortion, or pointing out something that is wrong with another person’s argument. Either way, before you can start you have to have a clear understanding of the topic you will be discussing; and, if you’re discussing someone else’s specific argument, then you need to first explain that person’s argument to demonstrate your understanding and show the reader what specific issue you have with the argument.

In “Try” P!nk seems to try to reconstruct an opponent’s argument. It’s not clear who the opponent is, but the main point seems to be that anyone who is trying to tell you to quit because you’re going to get hurt is not providing sufficient reason for you to give up. P!nk’s reconstruction takes place during the chorus. This is what she takes her opponent’s argument to be:

“Where there is desire
There is gonna be a flame.
Where there is a flame
Someone’s bound to get burned.”

The implied conclusion seems to be that if you’re going to get burned, then it’s not worth having the desire being discussed. This is followed by P!nk’s response:

“But just because it burns
Doesn’t mean you’re gonna die.
You’ve gotta get up and try try try
Gotta get up and try try try
You gotta get up and try try try.”

So, P!nk’s opponent seems to be saying that if you have desires then you’re going to get burned (because with desire comes a flame). P!nk’s response: just because it burns doesn’t mean you have to give up (in fact, the only sufficient reason to give up seems to be death). In her own words, “you’ve gotta get up and try try try.”

First, it should be pointed out that even though P!nk is encouraging you to not give up, she never actually provides us with any reason why we shouldn’t give up. In other words, there is no reason why we should try try try. (If you’re suspicious of my claim, take a look at the lyrics. If someone can point out something that is offered as a reason to keep trying, I’d love to hear it!). As a paper in a philosophy course, I’d probably give this paper a ‘D-‘. The only reason it doesn’t get an ‘F’ is because there is an attempt at reconstructing an argument, and it’s an encouraging formalization of whatever topic is being discussed. Second, a major mistake occurs in P!nk’s reconstruction. Her opponent clearly commits the fallacy of equivocation. Now, P!nk could just explain where the equivocation is occurring, thus showing the argument to be fallacious and giving us no reason to accept it. However, she seems to assume that there is some validity to this rather weak argument. While I’m not sure that anyone would ever make this actual argument, it seems like a cheap-way-out to attack what is a clearly fallacious argument. The equivocation occurs with the word ‘flame.’ In the first use, ‘flame’ seems to mean something like ‘a motivation to achieve the desired thing.’ In the second use, however, ‘flame’ literally means ‘fire.’ Consider how weird the phrase would be if we swapped ‘flame’ with the two different ways in which it is used. First:

“Where there is desire
There is gonna be [a motivation to achieve the desired thing]
Where there is a [a motivation to achieve the desired thing]
Someone’s bound to get burned.”

Notice, when ‘flame’ is taken to mean ‘a motivation to achieve the desired thing,’ it is clearly false that when someone has motivation to achieve something they desire they are always going to suffer burns. It’s not any better if ‘flame’ literally means ‘fire’:

“Where there is desire
There is gonna be [fire]
Where there is a [fire]
Someone’s bound to get burned.”

As is clear, it is also false that anytime someone has a desire a fire is actually present. Using two different senses of the word ‘flame’ is clearly fallacious. It would be weird to think that with desire comes ‘a motivation to achieve the desired thing’ and this ‘motivation to achieve the desired thing’ will literally burn you. Likewise, it is equally weird to think that with desire comes ‘fire.’

Again, I LOVE this song. It’ll never get old. I just hope students looking for advice on how to write a philosophy paper don’t turn to P!nk. She is an absolutely amazing pop star; but a philosopher she is not.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Sara Bareilles Wants You to Share Your Ideas!

One of the most common things I’ve heard from students who are curious about the grade they received on a paper concerns vague, ambiguous, or mis-worded sentences/phrases they have used. Typically the conversation runs as follows:

               Teacher: “I wasn’t sure what you meant by phrase (or word) ‘x’?”
               Inquiring Student: “Oh, well, what I meant by ‘x’ was ‘y.’”

Usually I am tempted to respond: “Then why didn’t you just say ‘y’…?” However, as I still tend to face these struggles myself, I have to remember that it can be really hard to “say what you wanna say, and let the words fall out.”

In her newest song Sara Bareilles gives a clear explanation of the value of being clear and concise with your wording. Or, as she puts it, an explanation of the value of saying what you want to say and sharing your ideas (and thereby yourself) with people!



This song also does a nice job of articulating what is expected, and appreciated or valued, by teaching assistants, instructors, and professors of philosophy courses. Part of developing critical thinking skills requires you to share your ideas and have them challenged. In order to best justify your opinions, views, or ideas, you have to be able to respond to criticisms they may face. It usually takes some practice and exposure before having your opinions, views, and ideas challenged becomes fun, but in order to develop good critical thinking skills you have to be able to understand what your opponents are saying and what criticisms your opinions, views, and ideas face.

All of that being said, in order to receive and understand criticism, you have to share your ideas! That means putting yourself and your views on the line and making yourself vulnerable by being willing to have them challenged. Saying what you mean is difficult, and it takes a lot of courage. This, however, is one of the many benefits of taking a philosophy course. You are encouraged to say things clearly and concisely! These courses help you to develop critical thinking skills and give you the tools necessary to defend your opinions, views, and ideas. It can be frightening, but the better you are at standing up against criticisms, the more confident you can be in your opinions, views, and ideas! And, since saying what you want to say takes courage, and philosophy courses encourage you to say what you want to say, then taking philosophy course helps you to become brave!

It seems appropriate to share one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received from one of my philosophy professors: “If you can use either a one syllable word or a ten syllable word, for the love of God, use the one syllable word!” So, follow Sara’s advice and “say what you wanna say, and let the words fall out.” As she so happily puts it, “Maybe there’s a way out of the cage where you live. Maybe one of these days you can let the light in, and show me how big your brave is.”

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Chris Brown Ends the Quest for Truth and Understanding Rather Early...


In a lot of introductory philosophy courses these themes get brought up (see also: The Matrix, Total Recall, and many, many other movies!). If you had the option of choosing to live in the real-world full of some pain and suffering or a living in a dream-world full of happiness, which would you choose? In the real-world you may not be happy all the time, but you at least know what's true or what's real. In the dream-world you won't know what's true or real, but you will at least be guaranteed some kind of happiness. This is a difficult decision for a lot of people, but for Chris Brown the answer seems pretty clear.

While I have no idea how the lyrics of this song make any sense (see for yourself!), let's try to get a big picture of what's going on. If this love is a lie (i.e., if the love that Chris Brown is feeling does not actually exist in the real-world), then Chris Brown must be dreaming (or in a dream-world). If the love can only be found in the dream-world, then he'd rather stay in the dream-world even though it's not the real-world. 

While this option does not seem to be unpopular, the weird thing is that the option to choose the dream-world over the real-world is made without any supporting justification! Why stay in the dream-world? Well, I'm assuming it's because that's where this love exists. However, we are not told why this love is so great, or why we should believe that it cannot be had in the real-world. Now, to be charitable, let's grant that it is a special kind of love (which it would have to be if someone loved Chris Brown at all...) which can only be had in the dream-world. Even if this is the case, why would you abandon all the other truths and joys that come with seeking an understanding of the real-world for a dream-world that contains this kind of love? Seems pretty selfish to me... then again, I would expect nothing less from Chris Brown. It's bad enough to abandon the real-world and the ability to contribute to other peoples, as well as your own, understanding of the real-world, but to do so for what would clearly be a false or pretend love! That's just tragic. Remember, given that this love exists only in the dream-world, that means this love would not exist in the real-world; thus, it's not really love! It's just a fake version of love. In other words, it's a false love, or, a lie. So, Chris Brown would be abandoning the truth and understanding, and a shot at real love, for a fake love. Doesn't make much sense to me...

I don't know about you, but I'll take the real-world any day. Even with it's uncertainty and painful experiences, it still seems better than a lie... but that may because I get joy from seeking an understanding of the real-world. Not Chris Brown though. Of course, the dream-world is probably the only place that Chris Brown can find love these days. Anyways, it's a tragedy that a quest for truth and understanding could be ended so early. An inquiring mind lost at the young age of 23... such a waste. Chris Brown's quest for truth and understanding: dead at 23 (1989-2012).

Failing to Have Justification for Something You Really Believe is Apparently Like the Loss of Love

In the song "Just Give Me A Reason," P!nk and Nate Ruess (of the band Fun.) recount how painful it is to lose a loved one without being given any reason why the love ended. All they want is an explanation or a reason concerning why the love is gone. Notice: what seems to be the most difficult aspect of the love being over is that there is no reason why the love ended. It's not just that the love is gone; it's that the love is gone without any reason being provided.


What struck me about this song was that it seems like a similar feeling is found when someone is starting to lose their ability to hold a belief or conviction they've previously took to be unquestionable. This is a painful part of philosophy. Think about something you took to be unquestionable at some point in your life (e.g., belief in God, belief in a particular scientific theory, belief in some explanation of a some significant event, belief that a certain ethical theory was correct, etc.). Without a reason concerning why you should continue to hold a belief, or without justification for a belief, it gets harder and harder to keep that belief. Eventually, if you fail to have any reasons or justification for holding a belief that at one time meant so much to you, or at one time provided you with such comfort, then you won't be able to keep that belief.

Let's look at the chorus:
"Just give me a reason.
Just a little bit's enough.
Just a second, we're not broken just bent,
And we can learn to love again.
It's in the stars.
It's been written in the scars on our hearts.
We're not broken just bent,
And we can learn to love again."
(http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/pink/justgivemeareason.html)

Again, it seems like this song could have just as easily been about how hard it is to lose a belief that you hold so dearly (or how hard it is to lose the ability to justify a belief that you hold so dearly). Notice that we can swap out the words relating to 'love' with words relating to 'belief' and the sentiment of the song is still preserved! In the following presentation of the chorus I've replaced the words referring to 'love' with words relating to 'belief' or 'justification' (the word 'it's' should be taken as referring to the belief, whichever one you hold dearest, in question). Take a look:
"Just give me a reason.
Just a little bit's enough.
Just a second, [it's] not broken just bent,
And we can learn to [believe] again.
[It's] in the stars.
[It's] been written in the scars on our hearts.
We're not broken just bent,
And we can learn to [believe] again."

While I have just replaced the words referencing 'love' in the chorus, if you replace the words referencing 'love' in the rest of the song with words referencing 'belief' or 'justification,' then the meaning is still preserved!
It seems like losing the ability to justify a belief or hold a particular thought to be true can be just as painful as losing love. This is why philosophy is important! Epistemology is a field dedicated to justification and knowledge. Without reasons or justifications for our beliefs we succumb to the same horrendous feeling and torment being described in the song. However, if you can critically engage with your deeply held beliefs, then you'll know how to better handle situations like this. You'll either be better able to (i) abandon beliefs for which you have no justification, or (ii) you'll be better able to defend your beliefs, and the chances of you being able to offer justification for your beliefs is greater. :) 

Yay epistemology!!!!!!


Sunday, December 9, 2012

I Love You Taylor, but the Evidence Seems to Suggest Otherwise...

In Taylor Swifts, "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" it seems like we are given instances that are supposed to function as reasons why Taylor is never ever getting back with her ex. I'm sure whoever she is addressing in this song seriously f'd up (I still don't know how you could ever hurt the wonderfully lovely Taylor Swift!), but the evidence that Taylor provides us doesn't seem to support her claim that they are never getting back together. 


Throughout the song, Taylor provides us with examples of mistakes that her ex-partner has made. These examples are meant to serve as reasons why Taylor is never getting back together with her ex. However, as the chorus suggests, each example seems to end with Taylor and her ex actually getting back together! That is, regardless of the mistakes that were made, Taylor still wound up getting back together with her ex.

Consider the following lines (all emphasis are mine): 
  • "I remember when we broke up the first time
    • Her saying 'the first time' seems to imply that this has happened at least more than once...
  • "Then you come around again and say, 'Baby, I miss you and I swear I'm gonna change. Trust me.' Remember how that lasted for a day"
    • The fact that this change in her ex lasted for a day indicates that she gave her ex another chance and it didn't turn out as she had planned. It seems implausible that she watched her ex go through this "change" from outside of the relationship (I don't know why it would make her so mad otherwise...).
  • "Oooh we called it off again last night" 
    • 'Again' means this has happened more than once. So, in order for Taylor and her ex to call off their relationship again, they would have to have gotten back together after the first time they broke up!
  • "I'm really gonna miss you picking fights, and me, falling for [it] screaming that I'm right."
    • Here she actually just flat-out says that she has fallen for this before! Come on T-Swift...
(http://www.directlyrics.com/taylor-swift-we-are-never-ever-getting-back-together-lyrics.html)

As the explanations above demonstrate, we are not given evidence for the claim that Taylor and her ex are never getting back together. Rather, it seems like we are being told a story of how they are continually getting back together after predictable mistakes were made. Given the prior history of Taylor getting back together with her ex (and ignoring the problem of induction!), it seems like, contrary to the claim that she wishes to support, they will eventually be getting back together.

This is why argumentation and knowing how to provide support for your claims is important! Without it you may wind up providing other people with reasons to believe the opposite of what you're trying to convince them of. For example, you may leave a poor, pop-obsessed, procrastinating, short, bearded, philosophy student from Minnesota (who now thinks Taylor is single and never ever getting back together with her ex!) unfairly waiting for his shot to show Taylor what love could be; when actually, she's just going to eventually take back her ex anyway and break your heart again just like she did when you thought the song "You Belong With Me" was about you! Again, just an example... (I still love you Taylor. And even though you've continually led me on and hurt me in the past, I'd still cherish the opportunity to show you what love is by welcoming you into my life. Wait...).

Oh, one last thing: if Taylor was certain that her and her ex were never getting back together, I'm not sure she would need to say that they were 'never ever' getting back together. That is, I think just saying 'never' would suffice; the addition of 'ever' seems to suggest some uncertainty (I am reminded of the quote from Act III Scene II of Shakespeare's Hamlet: "The lady doth protest too much, methinks.")

An Example of the Distinction between Metaphysics and Epistemology

Metaphysics is the study of existence. Whenever we ask whether something exists, or in what form or in what way it exists, we are asking metaphysical questions. Epistemology is the study of knowledge and justification. When we ask how is it that we can come to know something, or whether we are justified in believing something, then we are asking epistemological questions. In LMFAO's "Sexy and I Know It" we are given two theses. One being metaphysical, while the other is epistemological. Whether they are in fact sexy is a metaphysical claim, while their claiming to know that they are sexy is an epistemological claim. I think it would be a worthwhile project to get clear about which claims LMFAO offer as evidence for the metaphysical and epistemological theses, respectively.

So, we have two theses that need to be justified:
Metaphysical Thesis: "I'm sexy"
Epistemological Thesis: "and I know it."

Now, throughout the song we have evidence for both claims. There are claims that are offered as evidence for their being sexy, and there are claims that are offered as evidence for their knowing that they're sexy. In order to assess which claims are offered to support either the metaphysical or epistemological thesis, let's take a look at the lyrics:

LMFAO, "Sexy and I Know It"

When I walk on by, girls be looking like damn he fly
I pimp to the beat, walking down the street in my new lafreak, yeah
This is how I roll, animal print pants outta control,
It's RedFoo with the big afro
And like Bruce Lee I've got the claw

Girl look at that body (x3)
I work out
Girl look at that body (x3)
I work out

When I walk in the spot, this is what I see
Everybody stops and they staring at me
I got passion in my pants and I ain't afraid to show it

I'm sexy and I know it (x2)

When I'm at the mall, security just can't fight 'em off
When I'm at the beach, I'm in a speedo trying to tan my cheeks
This is how I roll, come on ladies it's time to go
We headed to the bar, baby don't be nervous
No shoes, no shirt, and I still get service

Girl look at that body (x3)
I work out
Girl look at that body (x3)
I work out

When I walk in the spot, this is what I see
Everybody stops and they staring at me
I got passion in my pants and I ain't afraid to show it

I'm sexy and I know it (x2)

Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle yeah (x3)

Do the wiggle yeah

I'M SEXY AND I KNOW IT...

Girl look at that body (x3)
I work out
Girl look at that body (x3)
I work out
(http://www.directlyrics.com/lmfao-sexy-and-i-know-it-lyrics.html)

Now that we are able to refer to the lyrics we can assess which claims are offered as support for either the metaphysical or epistemological thesis. Let's first turn to the evidence for the metaphysical claim; i.e., the evidence that is offered for the claim that LMFAO is sexy.

Support for the Metaphysical Thesis

In the first verse Redfoo makes four particular claims that seem to be offered as support for the metaphysical thesis. First, he is walking down the street in his new Lafreak. Second, he rolls with animal print pants that are outta control. Third, he has a big afro. Finally, he's got the claw (like, Bruce Lee). While I cannot claim to know to what 'the claw' refers, nor am I that familiar with 'Lafreak,' there does seem to be support here for the metaphysical thesis. The support seems to be referencing Redfoo's fashion sense/aesthetic.

Next we are given the command to "look at that body." I think it is fair to assume that "look[ing] at that body" will provide us with evidence that LMFAO is in fact sexy. If "look[ing] at that body" doesn't suffice as evidence, we are provided with additional support in the form of the claim "I work out!" Thus, working out is provided as evidence for LMFAO's being sexy.

Then LMFAO claims that they've got a passion in their pants that they're not afraid to show. Taken as an example of LMFAO's confidence, we can also assume that the confidence stems from the passion in their pants being legitimate. Not being afraid to show the passion in pants, while not always being morally acceptable or appropriate!, does seem to demonstrate a strong sense of confidence; and if you take confidence to be sexy, then they have provided you with yet another reason concerning why they are sexy.

Given that security cannot fight off the people at the mall, and given the other contextual clues in the song, we can assume people are storming LMFAO due to the fact that they are so sexy.

There is also the evidence provided in the fact that such a strong social standard/custom as "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service" doesn't apply to LMFAO (because, I assume, they are so sexy). Not only do they not get in trouble for not wearing shoes and a shirt, but they are still provided service!!! If that doesn't signal sexiness I don't know what would...

Lastly, while the command to 'wiggle' does not itself support the metaphysical thesis, if taken as a demonstrative meant to show the endowment of Redfoo, then, if he is adequately endowed, it could support the metaphysical thesis! If you take being well-endowed to be a sign of sexiness (which I think we all do), then LMFAO certainly seems to be sexy.

Support for the Epistemological Thesis

Let's turn now to the evidence provided for the epistemological thesis; i.e., the evidence that is offered for the claim that LMFAO knows that they are sexy. First, as is stated in the opening line of the song by Redfoo, when he walks on by "girls be looking like, 'damn he fly!'" While 'fly' may not be synonymous with 'sexy,' I believe it's fair to say that flyness can be taken, at least, as evidence of sexiness. If people are consistently looking at you and thinking 'damn they're fly!', then I take it that there is pretty strong consensus that you are in fact fly; and, if you are in fact fly, then that can be taken as support that you are sexy (even though it cannot be sufficient justification in-and-of-itself: e.g.,although Rick Ro$$ may be fly, that does not entail that he is sexy).

We are then told that when they 'walk into the spot' (whether 'the spot' is broadly construed to mean all places or a particular place I am not sure, but let's use the principle of charity and assume by 'the spot' they mean 'all places' or 'everywhere') everybody stops and is starring at them! I'm taking this as pretty strong evidence for sexiness just because it's not often that EVERYBODY both (i) stops and (ii) stares when you enter a particular area. Given that everybody stops and stares, I think we can assume that they are justified in thinking they are sexy.

Now, whether all the testimony that has been provided is true is questionable. However, most of the issues seems to be easily settled by empirical investigation. We can check and see if Redfoo does indeed workout (at least enough so to claim that he is sexy). We can also check whether people are looking at him like, 'damn he fly! when he walks on by. If these claims turn out to be empirically justified, then it seems like LMFAO has sufficient reason to think that they (at least Redfoo) are sexy; i.e., he is justified in claiming that he knows it. If these claims turn out to be empirically false, however, then it may not be the case that LMFAO knows that they are sexy. However, we can still claim that if such justifications were true, then LMFAO would be justified in believing that they are sexy. In fact, anyone for whom the preceding justifications apply seem to be justified in believing that they are sexy. So, while the argument may not yet be sound, it is still valid. Anyone fitting the above description can claim to know that they are sexy!

As much as it may pain you to hear it, it seems like LMFAO has presented a pretty convincing case for why they know they are sexy. While not having presented a completely deductive argument, there does seem to be sufficient evidence to suggest that LMFAO is sexy and justified in thinking so. If only philosophers could provide such evidence  for their claims...

P.S. - I don't know that their being sexy and being justified in believing that they are sexy provides you reason to watch the video, but if you are interested in empirically checking the evidence you should check it out and see for yourself :)


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

I Think Peter Singer Would Like the Sentiment in This Song


In Famine, Affluence, and Morality Peter Singer argues that we should not think of giving to famine relief organizations as "charity." Rather, giving to famine relief efforts is an obligation. Singer argues that if you accept the following two assumptions (which he thinks most people will), then you are committed to giving all your money that isn't needed for basic necessities to famine relief efforts. The two assumptions are:

1) "suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad"
2)"if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it"

Since almost everyone in the affluent nations are easily capable of preventing such deaths by giving to famine relief, then we ought, morally, to do it. We should be giving all money that isn't necessary to famine relief efforts.

Given technological advances such as the internet and electronic banking, our distance from the suffering cannot be an excuse; nor can the fact that most people in affluent nations aren't giving mass amounts of money to famine relief efforts. Other people failing to act morally doesn't not mean you are excused from doing the morally right thing. [For a much more detailed account of this argument, as well as responses to other objections, see Singer's article linked at the bottom of this post].

So, do you really need that next drink at the bar (let alone any alcohol at all)? Do you need to see that movie or buy the most recent pop song? Are your ipads necessary to your survival? Do you require those fancy clothes that are mostly likely produced in a sweatshop? Didn't think so :)

External links: 
World Food Programme (WFP) (Search the rest of the website as well for additional info)