Truth and the Absence of Fact

I bought this book about four years ago, because it was cheap in Galloway and Porter in Cambridge. It then sat in my pile of “things I will get around to reading” for quite a long time, partly because it got left in England when I came out to Japan. Anyway, I finally got around to reading it. It’s a technical work of academic philosophy, primarily concerned with the philosophy of language. I thought quite a lot of it was very interesting, so this post is also likely to get a bit technical.

Hartry Field, the author, is (or, at least, was in 2001 when this book was published) a proponent of the disquotational theory of truth. This holds that there is nothing more to truth than sentences of the form “”Snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white”. It’s called “disquotational” because all you really do is remove the quotation marks.

One of the odd things is that he, and other proponents of this theory, occasionally talk as if proponents of other theories of truth are committed to sometimes violating the disquotational formula. They can’t really mean this, because it’s obvious that no theory of truth can actually violate the formula; the terms “snow” and “white” means the same both inside and outside the quotes (if they don’t, disquotation is wrong), which means that the equivalence must hold no matter what makes the statements true.

Disquotationalism is also applied to reference, the theory of how words refer to things in the world. The worry raised for other theories is “how do we know that “snow” refers to all the snow, and only to snow?”. However, this is also obviously an empty worry. Snow is the stuff that “snow” refers to, no matter what the theory of reference. If there are cases of small, agglomerated ice crystals falling as precipitation that are not referred to by “snow”, then they are not snow. I’m not quite sure what they would be; some variety of sleet or hail, perhaps.

There are genuine problems quite close to this one, however. The example that Field uses is the pre-relativity use of “mass”. According to relativity theory, there are two quantities, rest mass and relativistic mass, each of which has some of the properties attributed to “mass”, but neither of which has all of them. There is a real problem as to what we should say about mass when we discover this. There are several options. We can say that there is no such thing as mass, and adopt different terms for the relativistic quantities. Or we can say that we had false beliefs about mass, and there are several choices for which beliefs were false. Finally, we can say that our usage of mass was fundamentally ambiguous, with indeterminate reference.

I’m not sure that there is a right answer to these questions. I think we can choose, to a great extent, because language is something that we create. (Of course, we can’t normally choose as individuals; language is socially created, so we have to go along with other speakers of the language if we want to communicate.)

One thing I am sure of, however, is that disquotationalism doesn’t advance the discussion. It is remarkable how much you can do without worrying about the deeper issues, but I still think the deeper issues are real issues, and that philosophers should be trying to solve them.

English as Decoration

Japanese companies often use English words and phrases as decorative motifs on products. They do not worry too much about what they mean, or whether they are actually English, because they are simply decoration. This can lead to a certain degree of incongruity for English speakers; anyone who has visited Japan will have encountered at least a couple of examples.

In the TV listings magazine this week there is an example that goes a bit beyond incongruity. It’s an advert for an idol DVD. This is a genre I’ve not noticed in the west, although it may exist. One or more attractive women pose in bikinis, underwear, or revealing outfits, over the course of a one hour DVD. They do not generally, I believe, include nude scenes.

Anyway, this DVD features a model called Kawamura Yukie. The English strap line is clearly derived from her name.

“Silky body, Yuckey”

Promethean: the Created

This is the latest in White Wolf’s new World of Darkness series. Each game covers a monster type, and this time, it’s the turn of Frankenstein’s monster. I have to confess that I wasn’t particularly enthused by the concept, and basically bought the book because, as I’m writing for the new WoD, I feel that I ought to be at least generally familiar with all the major elements of it.

However, the game looks a lot better than I thought. Characters have a fixed goal: become human. The chronicle is of finite length, and is built around achieving that goal. This isn’t like Vampire: the Requiem, where it may be possible to become human again, or may not. It is definitely possible for the created to become human again, and some of those who have done so are around, and may help or hinder those who still seek it. This is, generally, brought off very well, both in the flavour text and in the rule systems.

One of the things that helps is Disquiet, which means that Prometheans draw the hostility of humans, and corrupt the land if they stay in one place for too long. This gives them a good reason to seek humanity, even though that means they will lose their kewl powaz. This is, however, one of the few problems in the book. The description of Disquiet given in much of the text is a lot like The Gift in Ars Magica, creating suspicion and hostility in those who deal with the Promethean in person. However, in the section on Disquiet itself, the description is completely different. Personally, I’d just combine the two, but it was a little disturbing.

A lot of the structure of the book will be familiar to anyone who’s read World of Darkness games. There are five types of Promethean, and five philosophical factions, for a basic total of twenty five possible character types. There are kewl powaz unique to Prometheans (called Transmutations). And there are enemies for Prometheans, in this case Pandorans: the creatures that result when an attempt to create a Promethean goes wrong.

It looks like it would be a fun chronicle to play, and the publishing model is similarly different. After the main rules, the supplements will be published over a single year, and may, in fact, already all be out. This is something that White Wolf have done before, but it does seem particularly well-suited to this game’s concept.

In short, this game appealed to me a lot more than I initially expected. Recommended.

Baby News

I’ve got a bit behind on the absolutely fascinating news concerning our incipient child. People with no interest in the entirely normal process of pregnancy can ignore this article.

So, we went to the clinic on Monday, and there’s almost no news. Which is good, because it means that Yudetamago is developing normally. She’s now head down, as she should be, and right on the centre of the growth curve for her age, which is also good. She’s too big to fit in the ultrasound window now, and she was hiding her face again, so we don’t have a 3D picture. It’s early to be camera shy, but maybe we won’t be putting her on the stage.

Last time we went to the clinic, she was in breech presentation. One of Yuriko’s Japanese books suggests that an effective way to deal with this is to talk to the baby and tell her that her head needs to be at the bottom. So I did that. And now her head is at the bottom. Clearly, this works. (In English, as well as Japanese.)

We’ve also had our local-government-provided parenting classes, which provided rather more useful information. It has been mainly the basic stuff: brushing teeth, basic nutrition, home environment, the process of birth. There were partners at all the sessions (even in Japan, they don’t call them “husbands” any more, although they did call them “fathers” at the last one), maybe three, for thirty mothers. The average age of the mothers was about 30, and most had lived in Miyamae-ku for less than three years; that is, apparently, normal.

For the last session, the fathers were encouraged to attend, because there were special things set up for them.

One was the pregnancy experience; they had jackets with breasts and stomach attached, filled with stuff that made them weigh eight kilograms. The idea is that the man tries it on, and finds out how hard it is for the woman to move around. When I put it on it provoked comments like “Yes, well, this is designed for Japanese people, we really need a bigger one for you”, especially after I did a sit up in it. Yes, the exercises are working. I have no doubt I will be very grateful for that post-birth, when I actually will get to carry the baby.

Talking of which, the other experience was giving the baby a bath. They had a proper simulation doll, the right weight, floppy in the right places, and anatomically accurate, for us to practise on. I think I did OK; I didn’t drown the doll or anything. Of course, the real baby might decide to move by herself, something that wasn’t a real possibility.

I think about half the mothers got their partners to come along, and there was a bit at the end where the mothers consulted together, and so did the fathers. I asked if anyone was taking paternity leave, and it seems not. I probably will; being self-employed I can take it whenever I want, as long as I don’t mind not being paid. And I’ll give myself my job back afterwards… However, this still seems to be something that hasn’t really caught on in Japan.

Overall, the lessons were useful, and we’ve made contact with half a dozen other families in the local area, which should be good. For now, I just have to keep supporting Yuriko.

Fury of Shadow

Fury of Shadow is a sourcebook for Midnight, by Fantasy Flight Games. It covers the forest of Erethor, the home of the elves and the last large area free from the control of the Shadow, and against which Izrador has turned all of his fury, hence the product’s title.

It is not a bad product. There are useful descriptions of the whole region, with story ideas, and of the forces massed against elves, along with the defenders of the forest. It would certainly be a major help to anyone running a Midnight campaign set in and around the forest, and should give them a lot of ideas.

However (and you could see that coming, couldn’t you?), it wasn’t absolutely inspiring. I think that may be partly due to a lack of the right sort of detail. What would be inspiring would be if there were well-detailed things that player characters could do, at various levels of power and with various backgrounds, to blunt the assault of the forces of Shadow, along with some consideration of how that would affect the outcome of the war. The default course of the war is detailed, and it isn’t good for the elves, although they are not completely defeated. There is even a bit of background on how player characters could intervene at various points. I feel, however, that developing these in a bit more detail, and making them a bit more specific, might have improved the product.

Foundations of Ethics

There’s an interesting article in this week’s Nature (well, strictly last week’s now, but still the most recent one I have here), on research into the neural basis of disgust, and its links to ethical judgements. (Nature 447 (2007), 768-771) It would seem that, when people judge things to be ethically disgusting, they are using the same parts of the brain, and in much the same way, as when they judge faeces to be disgusting. There’s also a lot of interesting work on the human tendency to punish undesirable behaviour, and on the origins of compassion and cooperation, although that doesn’t appear in this week’s issue. It all appears to be perfectly natural.

This is a problem for ethics, because instincts hardwired into us by evolution in order to promote the spread of our genes in future generations are not generally considered to be the right sorts of things on which to found a system of ethics. Ethics should be grounded on universal truths, not a set of feelings cobbled together by the essentially random process of evolution because they were helpful when it came to surviving on the prehistoric African steppes.
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The Cults of the Roman Empire

The title of this book is a little misleading; there is almost no coverage of the state cults of the Roman empire, the cult of the emperor, or the indigenous cults of western Europe. The original French title (it’s a translation) referred to the “oriental cults”, which is more accurate, but still not completely so, as two of the most important oriental cults get virtually nothing. On the other hand, there are plenty of other sources on Judaism and Christianity, so I suppose the author can be forgiven.

Once past the title, the book does, I think, a good job at what it actually set out to do. There are chapters on groups of oriental cults, discussing their arrival in the Roman empire, their development there, and their spread. This includes the Egyptian cults, particularly Isis, the Syrian cults, the Magna Mater, Mithras, Dionysus, and a few lesser figures for which there is less in the way of evidence.

In fact, a shortage of evidence is a common problem. The final victory of Christianity means that all the cults described in the book died, and any writings they may have had were lost. Reconstructing Mithraism is described as akin to trying to reconstruct Christianity on the basis of the Old Testament and the iconography of medieval cathedrals; this would clearly be a rather unreliable process, and our evidence for Mithraism is relatively good. This is probably why so many cults can be covered in a relatively short book; the amount that can be said about each without straying into unsupported speculation is rather limited.

That said, I now think I know a good deal more about those cults than I did before reading the book. I’m not sure that I agree with the author’s assessment that the failure of the cults in the face of Christianity was inevitable, because they failed to truly appeal to Romans in the later stages of the Empire. The fact that Christianity did win tends to colour our assessments; had it failed, many historians would doubtless have felt that was inevitable. In particular, he criticises the cults for not having a developed and coherent theology, like Christianity. However, we don’t know that they didn’t, as we are missing a lot of material. If we only had the Old Testament and cathedral iconography, Christian theology would look fairly impoverished, and the Jesse Windows would probably lead to theories that Christians though that Christ grew on a tree. And then was nailed to one, and rose from the dead – clearly a simple vegetation deity, which would explain why Christianity failed to catch on as compared to the elaborate soteriology of Mithraism. (Actually, I do tend to agree that Mithraism’s exclusion of women doomed it, assuming that such an exclusion was universal. The cult of Isis might be a better candidate, especially as a number of aspects of Isis seem to have been adopted into the cult of the Virgin Mary.)

One of the most intriguing sections was the description of the cult of Dionysus. It seems to have been quite popular, despite official attempts to suppress it, much like Christianity. If that had been the one to win, with its celebration of wine, women, and song, the history of Europe would have been very different. It also seems to be an element of society that never goes away; look at the history of carnival in Europe and matsuri in Japan. I know that quite a few scholars have written on this topic; I’d quite like to get around to reading some of them eventually. So many books, so little time.

Anyway, this was a good book, which I can recommend to people with an interest in the pagan religions of ancient Rome. It certainly provided me with a lot of useful inspiration.

Author’s Vicissitudes

I had another big job to do to a very short deadline through the latter part of May and the beginning of June. I developed an outline, got it approved, and wrote 40,000 words, in four weeks.

At the end of last week, I had an email discussion with the editor which went, paraphrased, like this.

Him: I’ve decided I don’t like the outline I approved any more. I want you to massively rewrite this, in two weeks.

Me: No.

Him: Er, OK. I see your point. What can you do in two weeks?

Me: Well…

And then we got into a much more sensible discussion, which has now resolved into a plan for getting the revisions done within the timescale.

Actually, I agree with the revisions he wants. As I was writing, I was thinking “This outline isn’t working as well as I thought it would. How can I make it better within the outline and deadline I have?”. My changes were clearly on the right lines, because we’re now going to make them much more central to the chapter, essentially restructuring the chapter around it. Had the deadline been more sensible, I might have been able to do it without completing a draft first. That would be ideal, of course, because obviously I don’t get paid for the revisions; I only get paid the original amount.

This is all normal in creative work, as far as I know. Outlines not working out is certainly normal. I think it happens less as I get more experienced, and the quality of the my outlines is, I think, getting better in general, but I suspect it will never go away altogether. I’d bet that even Shakespeare had occasions of thinking “No, this scene sucks. Start again”. (I’d also suggest that Titus Andronicus is what happened when his deadline didn’t give him time to do that.) I suppose if you’re a salaried employee of a company, and writing, they don’t stop your salary while you’re doing revisions, but I think that’s standard practice for freelancers. Arguably not ideal, but being on the publisher side as well I know perfectly well that the economics of RPG publishing simply won’t allow for handing out more money.

Oh well. The book will be better for the revisions, I’m sure.

Storage Space

Today, we rented some storage space. One disadvantage of flats is that they don’t have lofts or cellars that can be filled to bursting with junk, er, items of great sentimental value. Or, in my case, books. However, because there are a lot of flats around here, there are also a lot of companies that specialise in providing rental storage space, generally in converted shipping containers.

We’ve been thinking about renting storage space for quite some time. In fact, since we moved in, and quite definitely since my books arrived from England about eighteen months ago. Now, with a baby on the way, we want to get things sorted out. In addition, a new storage facility has just opened right next to the bus stop for Mizonokuchi, which means it’s really close to the flat. That is, of course, a great advantage, since I do occasionally need the books that I can’t fit on my bookcases. So, today we went to have a look at the facilities (it’s part of a converted shipping container), and signed up. We attached our lock to the door a couple of hours ago.

The next step is ordering some shelves and boxes, so that we can fit a reasonable amount of material in. Actually, looking at the size of it, if we fill it properly, as is reasonable for storage, we can fit a lot in there. I think I could fit all my books in, and some of them will, in fact, go on the bookcases.

Of course, it won’t all be my stuff. At the moment, most of the things cluttering up the cupboard are mine, but that’s because Yuriko’s stuff is still in Nagoya. And her mother is making remarkably persistent noises about her taking it away now that she’s married nad has her own family. So that will have to fit in as well. I think it probably will, especially as some of it will get thrown out.

I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to get my books to the storage. It’s close enough to just carry them, if I do a few at a time. There’s a good argument for that, because it gives me a chance to sort them out again, and try to get them into a sensible order inside the storage, so that I can get at books that I want to look at. I think that they’ll actually be more accessible that the books in the bottom rear corners of the cupboard in my office at the moment; I should be able to get at the most hidden boxes after moving four boxes full of books, rather than the six it would take now.

Thus, it might make sense to just leave them in the boxes as they are now, but in that case I’m not sure that I can easily carry them over. My exercises have been working, and the facility is close, but it’s still a bit far to be carrying those boxes. So I’d have to borrow a trolley or something. I probably could do that, which is why I’m not sure. I’ll have to think about the best way to do it.

Of course, I can’t do anything until the shelves arrive, so we’d better get on with ordering those.