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Sunday: March 26, 2006

Leiter Misfires Again

Filed under: — site admin @ 9:51 PM GMT-0500

What with my domain problems, I’m a bit late getting to this, but better late than never.

Brian Leiter has been trashing Leon Wieseltier for an insufficiently respectful review of a book by Daniel Dennett. Here’s his second post on the subject:

Dennett, Wieseltier, and the Epistemic Relevance of Origins (Leiter)

The New York Times has published a number of letters about the scandalous review of Dennett by Wieseltier, on which we commented previously. Tim Maudlin (Philosophy, Rutgers) has a pithy version of a point I had also called attention to about the relevance of the causal origin of a belief; he writes:

Leon Wieseltier writes: “You cannot disprove a belief unless you disprove its content. If you believe that you can disprove it any other way, by describing its origins or by describing its consequences, then you do not believe in reason.” Someone tells me that he believes that the core of Mars is iron. When I ask how he came by that belief, he tells me that it came to him in a dream. This does not disprove his belief, but does show that there is no reason at all to take it seriously.

This, of course, is a familiar epistemological point, though it is amazing how many folks, including some (not very good) philosophers, fail to appreciate it.

Maudlin’s example is astonishingly ill-chosen. Apparently neither he nor Leiter remembers that the solution to the problem of the structure of benzene came in a dream. Here’s what a chemistry page at Purdue has to say about it:

The structure of benzene was a recurring problem throughout most of the 19th century. The first step toward solving this problem was taken by Friedrich August Kekulé in 1865. . . . One day, while dozing before a fire, Kekulé dreamed of long rows of atoms twisting in a snakelike motion until one of the snakes seized hold of its own tail. This dream led Kekulé to propose that benzene consists of a ring of six carbon atoms with alternating C-C single bonds and C=C double bonds.

Of course, it took quite a bit of lab work to show that the hypothetical circular structure was in fact correct. But this example suffices to prove that the origin of an idea, no matter how ridiculous, does not in any way invalidate it, just as Wieseltier wrote. It is indeed amazing how many folks, including some (not very good?) philosophers, fail to appreciate the point.

What I’ve Been Watching

Filed under: — site admin @ 8:36 PM GMT-0500

Like Eve Tushnet, I ordered “Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life” from Netflix as soon as I heard the name. It’s not bad, though no short could quite live up to that title. One of the other three shorts on the DVD, “The Deal”, contains a memorable exchange between two megalomaniac plutocrats:

What the Hell is an original cliché?

It’s a product that makes you buy it when you see it because it reminds you that you need it because it makes you feel like you forgot it so you’ve got to buy it so you’ll stop feeling guilty about forgetting it.

The rest of “The Deal”, and the rest of the disc, don’t come close to meeting that standard, though the song sung over the credits of one of them, “Shut Up Bitch (I Love You)”, was rather sweet.