Skepticism and a Kitten

A black and white kitten showed up in my garden a week or so ago. It was clearly wild and we started feeding it. I was thinking about skepticism at the time and certainly not connecting the two things. Yesterday I went out the front door to drive over to the Biltmore to play some tennis and saw the kitten under my car. I made a point of shooing it away before I drove off,  as I often do with my own cats. I made very sure it was no longer under the car. I drove over to the Biltmore and played for an hour. When I got back to my car I noticed a very similar stray kitten in the parking lot near my car. I formed two hypotheses: one, that the kitten from my house had somehow traveled over to the Biltmore (a mile and half away) for some unaccountable reason; the other, that this was another kitten from the litter from which “my” kitten had come. For a moment I had thought it was just another black and white kitten bearing no close relation to “mine”–but closer inspection convinced me otherwise. On reflection, I decided that it was impossible that it just walked over to the Biltmore as I was heading there; so I settled for the same-litter hypothesis. I expected to see the kitten in my garden when I got back, but it had been raining and that usually sends them into hiding for a while. I didn’t see it, even a couple of hours later. I had a conversation with my wife in which she mentioned on occasion on which a stray cat had climbed up into her father’s car engine. Then it struck me, but only as a wild hypothesis: this little animal had inserted itself in the bottom of the car engine and stayed there till I had driven to my destination. That meant lodging itself behind two hot pipes, close to the road, as I drove at fairly high speed. As I thought about it, I realized this had to be the correct explanation. I have been back twice to the Biltmore to look for it and seen nothing. Nor has it returned to my garden. The improbable had happened. But what struck me, epistemologically, is that, given the evidence I had, I formed the firm belief that, by coincidence, a kitten from the same litter was over at the Biltmore–I could see no alternative. But I was dead wrong; the correct explanation had not even occurred to me. This is the kind of thing that encourages radical types of skepticism. Not a brain in a vat in this case but a cat in an undercarriage. There is a good lesson here, too, about the perils of jumping to conclusions.

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Cosmos

I just want to put in a good word for Neil de Grasse Tyson’s series on Fox on Sunday nights. Despite the fact that he pronounces it “Kuzmose” (rhymes with “dose”), the program is excellent in every way. The science is well explained, the graphics are terrific, the historical references helpful, the photography superb: this is not low-budget PBS stuff. What I particularly like is that it gives no quarter to the anti-science factions out there: creationism, young earth, etc. We get the science straight and pure. No politics. Admittedly, last Sunday’s episode dwelt on establishing the age of the earth and the politics of lead pollution, which were clearly aimed at current “controversies”; but the cases were instructive and the series could hardly just ignore current politics. I found Dr. Tyson enthralling on astrophysics (his speciality): his mind is clear, his voice is strong, he looks good but not too good. This may be the best thing for science education in America since Carl Sagan did the first Cosmos. I also happened to catch part of a three-part series by David Attenborough covering his life in natural history broadcasting. His cut-glass accent varied over his life, and his weight has fluctuated, but his charm and dedication are undimmed. No one talks about animals as well as  David Attenborough. And he even held up a copy of an original edition of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene to indicate how profoundly it has affected his own thinking. All is not lost!

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Nadal et al

Again Rafa fails to win in Miami, losing to Djokovic. He lost at Indian Wells to Dolgopolov. Close observers of these games will have noticed something evident also in Federer’s recent outings: being outplayed by other guys. Novak and Alexander simply out hit Rafa–they played better tennis. It’s not about fatigue or off days; it’s about who’s better at the game. Novak was faster, harder, more skillful; and the same for Alex. Alex has yet to tame his game into consistency, but he is an outstanding player–more naturally talented than anyone else, I’d say. Novak, though, has honed his game to perfection: impregnable defense, powerful offence from both sides. Rafa still has clay to assert himself, but he is starting to be eclipsed (like Federer). His will is no longer enough, or his looping forehand. 2014 should be interesting. I’m looking to Dolgo to show what he can do, but he has to tame his mind first.

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Rafa

I think Rafa is going to win the Miami Open, which he never has before . I saw him lose in straight sets to Davydenko a few years ago in the final. But he looks very determined this year and his play is superb. Which brings me to my main point: why don’t more players use his type of heavy top spin forehand? This kind of spin keep the ball in and also allows greater net clearance, as well as causing a nasty upward bounce. Is it that they just can’t spin the ball that much (his ball has far more rpms than anyone else)? Here is my answer drawn from personal experience: when I try to play like that I can get the ball to move Rafa-style–lots of height, dips down into the opponent’s court well short of the baseline, and gives an awkward high bounce–but I lose power. Why? Because you can’t hit through the ball that way–you have to hit up on it to get the spin. So that’s the reason: no one else can get that kind of spin and still get good forward momentum, because those two things are in tension with each other. But that doesn’t settle the question of how he manages to do it. The Rafa magic is tons of spin and good forward momentum. I’m working on it.

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Miami Tennis

I went to the opening rounds of the Sony Open the other day, where lesser known players qualify to compete. But at the same time top players practice on outlying courts and spectators can view them from close up. I had the pleasure of watching Gasquet from only a few feet away, paying particular attention to his legendary backhand. It is indeed gorgeous to behold. I tried to absorb the entire Gestalt and indeed the next day hitting on the court I felt a bit of channeling from him. They key is not lose your nerve and revert to the slice. Also noteworthy I observed Li Na hitting with her rather tubby husband, who smiled sweetly whenever she ripped one by him, which was often. Behind them Gulbis and Dolgopolov traded serves and returns of incredible power and style: the Latvian and the Ukrainian enjoying themselves in Miami. I thought : this is a lot more fun than philosophy!

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Computer Illiterasy

The Inter-nets today contain a lot of Content that falls short of proper standards of courtesy and logic. There are these Bogs you can go to, some Liter and some Darker, and some just Dingier, where Postings are Uploaded and whatnot. On them Comments are Web-paged for all to Scroll, and many of these resemble Spam in their odor and taste (and I have no wish to defame that noble mystery meat). Onlining has become an addiction. People attempt to Inflame others by means of Cyber Texts of shoddy construction. Boggers Google others and try to Download people they don’t like.  There is so much Amo–ninity that enables such Googling to go Instantly Viral, which can cause headaches and stiffness in the joints. Then some Trolls lurk between the Nets and poke their Keyboards into other Surfers’ eyes. Mouses are exploited. Whoever made these Inter-nets should Filter any unwanted Noise and Moderate Sites where Webs are cast on innocent Hackers. We should Delete all this Junk from our Hard Drive, so that the toxic Cloud clears and people can once again Click in peace. We don’t want civilization to Crash.

In addition, Twittering is best left to birds, and only cuts the length off of thoughts.

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Bossypants

I read Tina Fey’s book on the plane back from Mississippi. Perfect plane reading. As everyone says, it is extremely funny, with sudden injections of glorious vulgarity. That we would expect, given her screen credentials. But what struck me more were its respect for intelligence and its moral acuity. So I recommend it as a textbook for right thinking. It opens with a discussion of how people react to the scar on her face, delivered  when she was a child by a man who intentionally slashed her. It makes you shudder to think you might fall into one of her categories. And it brings a streak of tragedy into the humor that follows. Her feminism sounds all the right notes, to my mind. I could quote many lines from the book but here is one I particularly liked, from the chapter “The Mother’s Prayer for Its Daughter”: “O Lord, break the Internet forever, that she may be spared the misspelled invective of her peers”. Amen to that, Tina. Also fascinating: how she created 30 Rock and got on SNL. Funny, yes, but also shrewd and honest–the scar behind the joke. It reminds me: I have never known a humorless original mind.

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Thinking Well and Being Good

I just returned from giving the annual Dunbar lecture at Millsaps College in Jackson Mississippi. My title was “The Good Life as Thinking Well”, and my lecture was all about the importance of cognitive virtue. I also spoke to two classes of students, one on Kant’s moral philosophy and the other on my mysterian view of the mind-body problem. I am glad to say that it all went well and that the people I interacted with were intelligent and sympathetic, both faculty and students. Meanwhile other issues have arisen in the philosophy profession, about which sensible people will reserve judgement until the facts become clear (if they ever do). What I would urge is that different cases be treated differently and people should not all be tarred with the same brush.

One thing I would suggest to people who feel they have been wrongly accused and unjustly treated by those in power is to resign in protest, assuming this is feasible (which I realize for many people is not). This is often the only way to register one’s disapproval and it sends a clear message.

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