November 22, 2005

"Must" as a Weakener

This brings to mind an interesting fact. When someone asserts:

(1) There's a simple solution

it implicates that the person has a particular solution in mind. But when someone asserts:

(2) There must be a simple solution

it does not implicate that.

In fact (ridiculously hasty generalization) it seems to me that often adding "must" suggests a lack of direct access to the fact being asserted, where a simple assertion would suggest that the speaker had direct access. If Jane hasn't shown up to meet us yet, and I call her cell phone and she tells me she's on the way, I can say "She's on the way." If I call her home phone and she doesn't answer, I can say "She must be on the way." In the second case I'm deducing that she's on the way from the other facts; in the first I simply trust her testimony.

(I don't think we need to get into any fancy stuff about whether simply-trusted testimony yields noninferential knowledge--I hope not, since I think it doesn't.)

But why is this? If "must" is an epistemic modal, then "must p" suggests "I (or relevant other person) know that p." This calls attention to the agent's epistemic state. Perhaps when we call attention to the epistemic state it means that we can't take p for granted, which in turn suggests that we don't have the straightforward grounds for thinking that p that would be suggested if we just said "p." Note that:

(3) I know that there's a simple solution

in many contexts sounds more like (2) than like (1). One might say it if one is trying to think of the simple solution. (And I think this provides a bit of ammunition against the knowledge account of assertion--on it, (3) should be assertable only if you know that you know that there is a simple solution, which on Williamson's account at least requires a safer belief that there is a simple solution.) If you're drawing attention to the fact that you know, that suggests that it's dubitable.

Maybe. I haven't worked out a position on this at all. In any case, it's an interesting phenomenon.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 05:40 PM | Comments (5)

November 16, 2005


(to the tune of)

Duct tape and a garbage bag
Flapping like an old sight gag
Natural* gas has a high price tag
But I'll heat this house of mine,
This time, this time

Ice hanging from my nose
The hall is boiling and the bedroom froze
Kitty huddled against my toes
But I'll heat this house of mine,
This time, this time

Here comes the winter
I've been dreading for so long, so long
Who knew Texas ever got so cold

Space heater and a warming fan
Stay in bed as long as I can
Feel like sitting on the frying pan
But I'll heat this house of mine
This time, this time

*You do not pronounce "natural" with two syllables in this phrase. Shut up.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 06:13 PM | Comments (0)

November 13, 2005

Another Torture Update

Do you know how much I hate writing that?

The Senate has passed an amendment (sponsored by Lindsey Graham, formerly thought in some circles to have a shred of decency) to deny the people detained in Guantanamo recourse to American courts. The argument is that this is necessary to complement the McCain Amendment outlawing the U.S. use of torture. (McCain, showing his characteristic resolve, voted for Graham's amendment as well.)

Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) has offered an amendment to reverse this, which will be voted on tomorrow.

Gary Farber has a lot of good links on this; quoting Katherine,

When you call your senators, tell them that you're asking to vote for the Bingaman Amendment, S. AMDT 2517to bill # S. 1042.

Of course if we deny habeas corpus relief the detainees will never be able to prove that they were tortured. We are essentially promulgating a principle that the U.S. can ship anyone off to Guantanamo without any process whatsoever, except perhaps the laughable military tribunals.

Supposedly it applies only to non-U.S. citizens, but even if that were any excuse, how would a U.S. citizen who was shipped to Guantanamo prove his identity without resource to the courts? Remember, Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen arrested on U.S. soil, is being held in military confinement without being charged with a crime or allowed access to a lawyer. (I think it possible that Padilla deserves to be in jail, but if so we need to prove him guilty. If we can't prove him guilty of a crime, we don't have reason to lock him up. That's simple. Please don't think this makes me soft on terrorism.)

Katherine and Hilzoy at Obisidian Wings have been posting a series of examinations of the facts behind Graham's disgusting demagoguery on this issue. I linked to one above; here's another, and this is also important. But you should read them all.

[Update: Good points from Bob McManus.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at 12:59 PM | Comments (3)

Harris Wofford and the Politics of Abortion

This post probably won't be of interest to most people--I don't have anything substantive to say about abortion, I'm just nitpicking some impressions left by Peter Boyer's recent New Yorker article about Senate races in Pennsylvania in the early 90s. So I'm putting it all below the fold.

Boyer (not online) writes:

Paul Begala, who is expected to join Casey [Jr]'s campaign, knows the difficulties in bucking Party orthodoxy. Begala managed Harris Wofford's 1991 Senate campaign. As a member of the senior Casey's cabinet, Wofford had supported the Abortion Control Act. "We had the hardest time raising money," Begala says, "because even having the slightest deviation was lethal." In 1994, Wofford lost to Rick Santorum.

I have no doubt about any of Boyer's facts, but it seems to me that he leaves a couple of misleading impressions.

(1) He makes it sound as though Wofford performed worse than expected in 1991. In fact, Wofford had never held elected office when Casey Sr. appointed him to the Senate after John Heinz's tragic death. Dick Thornburgh, former governor and U.S. Attorney General, was expected to destroy Wofford in the 1991 special election, but Wofford upset him.

(2) More important, the last sentence of the paragraph makes it sound as though Wofford lost in 1994 because of his support of restrictions on abortion. In fact, Casey Sr.--who, remember, had appointed Wofford--refused to support or campaign for him because Wofford was not strictly pro-life (he supported the IMO egregious restrictions on abortion in the Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act, but no more). Santorum defeated him narrowly, 49 to 47, and I am sure that if Casey Sr. had supported Wofford he would have won. Weak fundraising support among pro-choice people may have hurt Wofford some, but this story is more an indication of intolerance among pro-life Democrats than among pro-choice Democrats. (Or, to be realistic, intolerance of deviation by Casey Sr., who by 1994 was essentially focused on this one issue.)

Of course national trends were also important; in 1991 voters were unhappy with Bush, in 1994 with Clinton, and both races were effectively nationalized, as the F & M analysis shows.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 09:57 AM | Comments (0)

November 11, 2005

Guess the Dictator or Sitcom Character

via Iocaste, nice job picking up on Enver Hoxha, especially because I wasn't particularly sure if the answers I was giving were even correct. (Maybe he did make the trains run on time?)

Posted by Matt Weiner at 10:21 PM | Comments (0)

November 10, 2005

Some Skeptics Dispute the Existence of the United Kingdom

Hat tip: Mom.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 01:07 PM | Comments (1)

November 09, 2005

Nobody Knows That!

OK, here's something else about how knowledge ascriptions suggest/presuppose truth; it may not be more coherent, but it should be shorter (never mind) or funnier.

Usually, I think, it would be odd to respond to:

Did you know that they stopped making lead paint in the 1940s?

the proper response is not

I don't know that


They didn't stop till 1978!

(And there's a pretty easy Gricean explanation. "I don't know that" isn't as informative as "They didn't stop till 1978!") Nevertheless, "I don't know that" would strictly speaking be true, as would "Nobody knows that." If you wanted to be properly sarcastic, you could say "Nobody knows that" and convey that it's not true.

Here, I think the knowledge-that question definitely suggests, if it doesn't presuppose, the truth of the embedded claim. (If you ask "Do we know that..." it doesn't presuppose it, I guess; or any other first-person ascription. Then if you knew that the presupposition was true you would already have the answer to the question.)

Now you might think that the "Nobody knows that!" response isn't available to knowledge-wh questions. If you ask

Do you know where the game is?

and I say

Nobody knows where the game is!

the only obvious reason is that, well, that information isn't available. Maybe the location is yet to be determined. Since "Somebody knows where the game is" doesn't entail the truth of any particular embedded proposition, saying "Nobody knows where the game is" doesn't suggest the denial of any particular embedded proposition.

However: A friend of mine once told me of a dream of hers involving mysterious voices telling her, "Beware of the quilted cohina!" I replied (over e-mail) that I didn't know what a cohina was, but as I was in a library I should go look it up. The response:

No one knows what a cohina is!

meaning, it wasn't a real word, but only a word in the dream. In this case "Someone knows what a cohina is" entails or presupposes that there is an answer to the question, "What is a cohina?" and that is false. Nevertheless, ordinarily this would be an odd way of saying "There is no such thing as a cohina." Why it worked this time, I don't know.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 01:55 PM | Comments (5)

Do Knowledge Ascriptions Presuppose Truth?

That's positive and negative ascriptions, otherwise the question would be easy. I sometimes go around arguing that the most common use of "S knows that p" or "S doesn't know that p" is in a context in which the truth of p is presupposed, and the only question at issue is whether S believes that p.

"S doesn't know that p" obviously doesn't presuppose that p in the way that "The present King of France is bald" presupposes that there is a present King of France (if it does; I don't want to get into this). There are lots and lots of contexts in which "S doesn't know that p" can be sensibly uttered when p is false. But I think that in many contexts "S doesn't know that p" does implicate that p; whether this is conversational or conventional, I'm not sure.

I'm thinking about this because of this line from Jordan Barab's post on the National Association of Manufacturers' callousness and deception on the lead paint issue:

No matter, the last time one nationally-known paint company had any lead in their paint was 1938, a fact little-known to the public and oft-ignored by the trial bar.

It's little know[n] because it's not true....75 percent of houses and apartments built before 1978 in the United States still contain lead paint.

"It's little known because it's not true" strikes me as an unusual though effective way of rebutting the NAM claim. Ordinarily "It's little known" suggests that it is true, even though the vast majority of claims that are not widely known are false (since all false claims are not widely known). So Barab points out that this is one of those claims that's not known because it's false. [UPDATE: Of course the NAM's use of "fact" does entail that it's true--thanks to P.D. in comments. I guess I'll have to ask you to pretend that they said "It's little known that..."]

Now in this case there's another way to the implicature. "It's little known" implicates that at least a few people do know it. (Perhaps it even entails it.) That in turn entails that it is true. That Barab can reiterate that "It's little known" while saying it isn't true suggests that:

"It's little known" doesn't entail that someone knows it, and Barab cancels the implicature;
Barab has switched to a sense of "know" in which "know" means "believe" (or some other non-factive sense);
Barab is using "it's little known" sarcastically.

Since the last is a possibility, it's probably wrong to draw any firm conclusions about the use of "know" here. But the oddity of what Barab says at least reminds me of the fact that saying "S doesn't know that P" usually suggests P.

(That wasn't a very impressive ending, was it? via Drum.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at 12:52 PM | Comments (3)


Language Log (Benjamin Zimmer) of course comes through with a more indepth analysis of the eggcorn guttural, which I noted here. It seems as though "guttural" is not in use in linguistics anymore, and my use of Ol' Dirty as an example is just in line with the perceived harshness of his voice--though I don't find ODB's speech patterns displeasing.

Anyway, it's worth noting an early example of the use of "guttural" to suggest gutter speech, from Dashiell Hammett's Maltese Falcon:

The boy spoke two words, the first a short guttural verb, the second 'you.'

From here.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 08:27 AM | Comments (3)

November 07, 2005

Talking Smack

Awesome post from Kotsko.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 01:56 PM | Comments (0)

Laura Rozen Is Making Sense

As usual:

If [Cheney] had been supporting the very same policies he is now advocating while representing a regime like Serbia's, the big man would be in a Hague jail cell. The same support for torture. The same naked contempt for democratic processes. The same contempt for law. The same contempt for their people.

[Also, via Kieran Healy, Marty Lederman has an extensive roundup of torture-related material.]

Posted by Matt Weiner at 08:55 AM | Comments (0)

November 06, 2005

Torture Update

According to Edward Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former chief of staff, Dick Cheney's office is directly responsible for the U.S.'s practice of torturing prisoners. His staff also spied on the National Security Council, to the extent that the NSC stopped using e-mail. As the apostropher points out, there's no reason not to impeach him for this. And if the United States won't prosecute him for this, I hope that (perhaps at some saner moment in U.S. and world politics) the Hague will.

In an early case, torture of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi yielded false information that the Bush Administration used to claim that Iraq was training Al-Qaeda in the use of weapons of mass destruction. As early as February 2002 the D.I.A. warned that Libi's information was unreliable, but Powell nevertheless used it as a basis for his speech to the United Nations.

As Mark Kleiman points out, Hobbes knew 350 years ago that torture was an unreliable means of gathering information. (I've got a bit of a professional interest in this, since one of my areas of research concerns the relation between our justification to believe testimony and the speaker's free choice about what to say. Torture takes away the speaker's freedom and also eliminates our ordinary justification for believing him.) The D.I.A. report said, "Ibn al-Shaykh has been undergoing debriefs for several weeks and may be describing scenarios to the debriefers that he knows will retain their interest"; in other words, he was telling his torturers what they want to hear in an effort to get them to stop. Of course it's not clear that the people who ordered the torture even wanted accurate information. I'm not quite sure why they didn't save the U.S. a bit of moral credibility and just make stuff up. If they really wanted an informant, they could have had Scooter dress up in a fake mustache, introduce himself as al-Libby, and spout all the bullshit that they wanted to hear.

In a little-noted story, a supposed top al-Qaeda operative escaped from a prison camp in Afghanistan before he could become the first detainee to testify against a soldier in the Afghan prisoner torture right. Tristero is right; this stinks to high heaven. The very very very nicest construal that can be made is that our eagerness to keep dangerous prisoners in places where it's easier to torture them is compromising our security. But is it implausible that the escape was allowed or staged to stop his testimony?

Torture is wrong in and of itself. But the Administration insists on torture in the face of all the evidence that it hurts us from a purely pragmatic point of view. It's as though they're doing it for fun. They need to be impeached, and then they need to be in prison. And, as the Poor Man points out, "they" means G.W. Bush. Cheney can't issue Executive Orders.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 07:53 AM | Comments (0)

November 05, 2005

Eggcorn Watch

According to Drudge (alas--see Atrios), Jon Corzine is attacking "low, guttural politics." Who's he running against? Ol' Dirty Bastard?

(Since I don't know much phonology--sing along!--I expect someone will shortly come along to explain that ODB didn't have a guttural voice at all. Substitute an example that works.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at 05:40 PM | Comments (0)

Superball Philosophy

This has been going around the blogs for a bit, here via Moira --an advertising company sent thousands of brightly colored Superballs bouncing down San Francisco hills for an advertisement for a new TV. Follow Moira's links to pictures and the ad.

But the ad raises a philosophical problem. Its tagline is "Colour like no other." The idea being that the new TV lets you see colors you can't see on other TVs. And the bright color of the Superballs are presumably meant to get this across--this is the color that you will see on the new TV, like nothing you can see on any other TV.

But what are you seeing it on? Your old TV (or computer monitor). So in a way the commercial is self-defeating. The more you need the new color capacity (assuming there is any), the less vividly the commercial will convey the new color capacity. In the extreme, if you have a black-and-white set, you really need the new color and it's really unlike what you've currently got, but the commercial won't convey that at all.

I think the answer probably has something to do with stylization and heightening; in order to convey an unfamiliar experience, you have to exaggerate it. So in this case the Superballs are unusually bright, perhaps at the top of your old TV's response, to convey that if you get the new TV you'll have this sort of color all the time. Though I'm not sure even this makes sense when you think about it hard. Of course, ads don't work on the thinking-about-it-too-hard level.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 08:55 AM | Comments (18)

November 04, 2005

The Merman in Fear and Trembling

Adam Kotsko says, if I understand him aright, that he doesn't understand the bit about the merman in Fear and Trembling. My reading of F&T is of a most superficial sort--not helped by a tendency to confuse it with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (OK, not really)--but I did, once, have a thought about the merman. It's embarrassingly stupid enough, I'm sure, that I'm going to put it below the fold. (I'm also not going back to the book, which is anyway in the office.)

This is--throughout the first couple of problemata Silentio emphasizes the possibility of a teleological suspension of the ethical, with Abraham or the knight of faith taking actions that cannot be justified by any sort of universal principle, but only on the strength of the absurd. Whatever reasons they have for their actions, they cannot communicate them to anyone else.

Now, I believe that Silentio is suggesting that in Abraham's case these actions were somehow divine. The book starts from a contemplation of what must be true if Abraham is to be a great man. But is there any guarantee that these teleological suspensions of the ethical will lead to greatness? The merman, perhaps, is a teleological suspension of the ethical that is demonic rather than divine.

OK, that's all I got. I have no way of cashing out the demonic, nor do I know how this might fit into later books by other pseudonyms. Fear and Trembling on the Campaign Trail and like that.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 08:09 PM | Comments (0)

November 01, 2005

Computers: Still Dumb

According to the weather plug-in on my Dashboard (powered by AccuWeather), the high for today is 74, the low is 45, and the current temperature is 38.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 07:12 AM | Comments (6)