Time Heals All Wounds.. And Then Kills the Patient
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Tue Aug 14 13:08:51 2007
Justice and Aesthetics

I've been working my way through Rawls' Theory of Justice again, and have been thinking about his larger approach to philosophy as well as the Original Position. One of the things I like about Rawls as a philosopher is that his works have a flavour close to what I like - he works towards a notion of societal good that attempts to respect individual happiness/needs, and his thinking style is neither too formalist (contract-like) nor opposed to structure. Much of the traction he uses to lead towards certain conclusions within his broader philosophy comes from appeals to philosophical aesthetics. There are points where he isn't careful enough (from my perspective) to make it clear that his conclusions are not the only ones that could be reached though - there are parts where he says things like "it is impossible not to conclude.." where I feel he's overstating an intuition. Humility in philosophy is, I think, a precious thing - it is still possible to put force behind something or accept it as one's working model without saying that it is the only conclusion possible - "mathematical" certainty is usually a mistake, and fetishism of it deeply ugly. Fortunately, he doesn't do it too often, and even if he had, his construction is interesting enough to be worth reading.

On the Original Position, one of the interesting things in its construction is that it supposes that people can and should put aside their individual interests in order to reach that position, supposing that we would all reach similar conclusions on what society should be if we were in said state (various other things are supposed to, like that we are rational (almost always one of the most mysterious, horrible balls of confusion in philosophy because nobody wants to define it and they generally use it to mean "likeminded enough to some limited subset of me so as to reach conclusions similar to me"), risk-averse (or, alternatively, not permitted to gamble from the OP, which might be a better understanding.. hmm), and able to divorce any highly-worked out existing conceptions of justice from ourselves for vague intuitions for this purpose (interesting in its own right). His "veil of ignorance" divides the self in rather different ways from my notion of inward-looking versus outward-looking values - from the OP we are obliged to externalise everything from religion to notions of the public good. I get the impression that pluralism is being used as a justification for this - that risk-aversion combined with the notion that when one lifts the veil of ignorance one would have to live with whatever was decided with it down combined with one's actual beliefs on the topic and that that would make a society with reasonable pluralism (which seems to be one of Rawls' goals). I don't know if this is particularly strong except in that it gets him to that pluralism in a pretty way - it is aesthetic, but it feels like a soft spot in his philosophy as to what values (as I understand them) and commonsense (which I think he values, as per the style of his argument) are permitted into the Original Position and why. Those of a faith (or attached to a particular notion of the public good) are asked, under his pluralism, to make that subordinate (at least, practically) to his version of pluralism - that is not in itself invalid (I believe that any notion of pluralism must have limits on what fits under its umbrella and be vigourous in rejecting things that do not, in order to protect the "greater pluralism", illiberal (I am using the common usage here, not his term of art) as it may feel to those with a more naïve understanding), but I think it would be more honest if he were to admit this upfront (part of my aesthetic judgement in philosophy is that whatever edges are likely to offend should be just as visible as the rest - builds honesty in those that hold them and maturity in people looking at/comparing them - it's too easy to shy from any mature philosophy because the necessary comprimises repel, and so dishonest pseudo-philosophies that promise no ugliness (or are intent on ignoring it when it's there) thrive).

Found, with the help of others in my research group, a problem with my experimental design - the software we're using to run experiments doesn't manage timing perfectly and over the course of a long experiment block, it can fall out of sync with external data (in my case fMRI). For the future, there's a little hack within the language that people commonly use to make it do what we're telling it to(!) basically, the length of a trial can be a few fractions of a second longer than the sum of the elements within it, and that adds up, so we can put another element in there that uses the timestamps (which are accurate) to pad a variable-length element up to the length we want.. sigh. and through careful dropping of scan images when that accumulated error gets too long I can keep my existing data. This will introduce some anomalies and loss of statistical power, but this will be minor in the greater scheme of how these analyses work.

Yesterday, played some frisbee after work with Mattus, who suggests that I am not moving or throwing loosely enough, and that my muscles are fighting each other. I'm still trying to understand what this means - he described it as being something that could apply to most physical motion, and that in general he's found looser motion to be a good default for most things, especially sports. I wonder if this looser movement is something I've never learned to do..

It's funny when one is left with a judgement that in present times is pretty wrong, either because it was on poor grounds to begin with or because the situation/state of things it was based on have changed. Disappointing that one doesn't get the usual feedback one can grasp for on one's judgement as a whole.. Oh well.