Just Hypothetically

by Kieran Healy on November 10, 2003

The July issue of the Journal of Philosophy has a paper by Frank Arntzenius built around a few puzzles about rationality, probability and belief, roughly in the tradition of the ones Chris and Brian posted recently and which attracted so much commentary. One of Arntzenius’s puzzles concerns a glitch in how a Bayesian agent ought to update her degrees of belief in x under a particular kind of uncertainty. But never mind about that. The example is about waiting for a reprieve on Death Row and is set up in the following way:

bq. You are to be executed tomorrow. You have made a last minute appeal to President George W. Bush for clemency. Since Dick Cheney is in the hospital and cannot be consulted, George W. will decide by flipping a coin.

Cheap, but funny. It suggests a topic: philosophical importance of U.S. Presidents. Bill Clinton is finding his way mainly into examples in the philosophy of language (“It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is”). Also possibly ethics courses. Bush Sr doesn’t seem to have have left much in the way of a philosophical legacy. Dubya is a binomial estimator.



Damien Smith 11.10.03 at 10:44 pm

“Dubya is a binomial estimator.”

I do believe you mean a Bernoulli estimator; the coin flip is a one-shot deal, not a repeated series, so there are only two outcomes,

The point is taken. Sorry to be so picky.


Doug 11.10.03 at 11:05 pm

And given the historical record, of course, monomial estimator is probably more accurate. (Depending naturally on meanings of “is” “estimator” and “accurate.”)


Matthew Yglesias 11.10.03 at 11:47 pm

When I was studying counterfactuals and causation we had a lot of examples related to the 2000 election. Not as fascinating as Professor Paul’s “neuron diagrams” or whatever, but a wee bit more accessible.


gollum 11.11.03 at 12:54 am

We wants puzzle! Nasty Kieran give it to us or else…


Matt Weiner 11.11.03 at 1:23 am

I think philosophers find “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is” much less funny than the general population. IIRC Frege’s first contribution to his dialogue with Punjer on existence is “What is the meaning of ‘is’?”
Anyway, when I clicked on the link to Arntzenius’s homepage, I found this sentence:
“I am writing a book on time”
which I’m sure will please Arntzenius’s publishers–but I’d like to know what the book is about.


Sean O'Callaghan 11.11.03 at 2:57 am

I always wondered why Clinton’s questioner didn’t respond to the “what is ‘is'” answer with: “Is – as in “your testimony ‘is’ evasive”.


Brian Weatherson 11.11.03 at 3:43 am

I can’t remember the exact exchange, but I think if the questioner had followed Sean’s advice, Clinton could easily have said that their question made no sense. IIRC, the ‘is’ in question was an ‘is’ of existence. If you try and define it using the ‘is’ of predication, as Sean does, there are likely to be complications. Of course, even once we get past the existence/predication divide, there’s the issue about whether a particular ‘is’ is temporally loaded, which is what Clinton was (quite properly, if clumsily) drawing attention to in his response. As far as Sean’s suggestion goes, it suggests that it was meant as a present tense ‘is’, which might (but only might!) have suggested that Clinton could say that there _is_ no relationship.

Matt’s right – philosophers don’t find this stuff funny beacuse we find it much too complicated to laugh about.


Doug 11.11.03 at 7:59 am

Don’t remember the exact exchange either, but have the sense that it was less a question of being and not-being than of present versus past. If the inquisitor were placing his questions in the present tense and the affair was in the past, then Clinton could truthfully answer differently than if the inquisitor were placing his questions in the past tense.


Skip Perry 11.11.03 at 10:03 am

lots of stuff

Matt’s right – philosophers don’t find this stuff funny beacuse we find it much too complicated to laugh about.

Heh…that’s why I stopped taking philosophy after that intro class. Econ (and everything else, really) is much simpler.


VJ 11.11.03 at 10:53 am

Believe me, the real Dubya would find a way to kill you. It’s not like he does not enjoy it either. He holds the US record for executions by a governor, no one in modern history comes even close, @153. And as a ‘fair or impartial’ estimator of things, need I remind anyone of FL. 2000, where he managed to make ~180K votes ‘disappear’ or remain uncounted to claim the Presidency based on a majority of 537 ‘votes’, and the ascent of our Supreme Court. Not a good estimator, if one wanted an ‘impartial’ one on either side, right?

Clinton’s case was not helped by the terribly complex manner in which ‘sex’ was defined by the lawyers questioning him. There is indeed massive amounts of commentary on it, but much of it would easily favor Clinton on this point. The non violent, legal, consensual, adult affair never actually involved intercourse, and had ended long before the interrogation of that day. Something the lawyers just did not seem to be able to grasp. Clinton truthfully answered the questions put to him, and of course was never found guilty of anything. He was never even formally charged by anyone of any real crime. Believe it or not. Of course this screws up all the nice little analogies that can be made from the case, real history often is messy that way.


Phersu 11.11.03 at 4:44 pm

Clinton was not equivocating on the predicative/existential use of “to be”. But discussions on ontology of time do indeed use Clinton’s presentism in a more convincing manner (see for instance Mark Hinchliff, “A Defense of Presentism in a Relativistic Setting”, Philosophy of Science, Vol. 67, Supplement).

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