Friday, 11 January 2008

MPs make a sensible decision

MPs reject online touting ban

But unfortunately they don't seem to have made it for very good reasons. It has long been a mystery why concert promoters don't charge enough for their concert tickets (they fill the stadiums and have people queueing round the block at the prices they do charge, they could certainly fill them at some higher price). It is just as much of a mystery why anyone would object to "ticket touts" taking advantage of this.

If people are willing to pay 3500 euros for a ticket to go and see Liverpool get convingly trounced by AC Milan, then why shouldn't they be allowed to pay it? The tout wants the money more than the ticket, and the fan wants the money more than the ticket. It's win-win. Ticket touts are providing a valuable service. So why the vitriol? I think it's mostly because they don't teach economics in schools (seriously, I'd never heard of the Invisible Hand before I was about 18 - most people I know probably still haven't, it's all well and good getting worked up about not teaching evolution, but which is actually more relevant in day-to-day life?).

The government committee apparently conceded that ticket touts to provide some benefits to consumers, apparently noting that "where venues are not full, touts sometimes sell tickets below face value.", whilst failing to note the equally valuable service they provide by getting the tickets to the people who are most willing to pay for them when venues are full.

Not a single one of the articles I've read has mentioned the very simple fact that if the concert organisers really did "resent" seeing their tickets change hands without them getting any recompense, they could soon solve the problem by the very simple mechanism of raising the price of the tickets. Like I said, it's always been a mystery why concert promoters don't charge enough for their tickets. Maybe the internet-inspired boom in the touting industry will give us some evidence that might help explain it.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

101 Philosophy Problems Part 2 - Whaddya Know?

It's taken me a while to write this post because I wasn't sure if I really had anything interesting to say. Well, apparently I did have some stuff to say - I'm probably not a good judge of whether or not it's interesting.

This is the second problem in the book, and it is also available online here (same place as the last one). It's about knowledge, and I'm not sure how interesting it is - I think it's probably a real philosophical problem as opposed to one of those which doesn't even make sense to think about. It's about the nature of knowledge:


Farmer Field is concerned about his prize cow, Daisy. In fact, he is so concerned that when his dairyman tells him that Daisy is in the field, happily grazing, he says he needs to know for certain. He doesn't want~ just to have a 99 per cent idea that Daisy is safe, he wants to be able to say that he knows Daisy is okay.

Farmer Field goes out to the field and standing by the gate sees in the distance, behind some trees, a white and black shape that he recognises as his favourite cow. He goes back to the dairy and tells his friend that he knows Daisy is in the field.

At this point, does Farmer Field really know it?

The dairyman says he will check too, and goes to the field. There he finds Daisy, having a nap in a hollow, behind a bush, well out of sight of the gate. He also spots a large piece of black and white paper that has got caught in a tree.

Daisy is in the field, as Farmer Field thought.

But was he right to say that he knew she was?

Well, I think the answer is obviously no. He wasn't, was he? Imagine the dairyman had found out that Daisy wasn't in the field, then it couldn't possibly be true that he "knew" she was there when she wasn't? Could it?

One issue which Cohen fails to address in his discussion of this problem which I think is actually interesting is whether or not it is possible to know something that isn't true. Cardinal Ratzinger "knows" that Christopher Hitchens is going to Hell (I was going to say he knows I'm going to Hell, but I doubt he knows who I am, I guess he's heard of Hitchens). Hitchens "knows" that he isn't. Clearly one of them is wrong, but both would be very confident in their knowledge. Nor is this phenomenon restricted to untestable propositions like the existence of Hell - homeopaths "know" that their medicine works. I "know" that it doesn't. We both know that I'm right - but in what way does this affect our definition of knowledge?

Cohen proposes that knowledge be defined as that which is true, believed, and believed for a good reason. He then asks us what we need to add to this definition to explain why we don't think that Farmer Field knows that Daisy is in the field. He doesn't come to any conclusions. Nor can I - which leads me to wonder whether this is an interesting question after all. When we both know what knowledge is - "we know it when we see it" - does it really matter if we have a concrete definition? And if we did have a concrete definition, would "knowledge" necessarily be the same thing as "connaissance" - I think the problem of translation is one of the main reasons I can never get too interested in debates about the meanings of words.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

101 Philosophy Problems Part 1

Problem One is Cohen's version of a classic. It is already available online here, so I don't feel at all bad about doing this one. Cohen has "Judge Dredd" doing the execution, but I'll pick a version I encountered many years ago:

I heard the story of a sailor stranded on a lost island.
Unfortunately (for the sailor), that island was inhabited by some very bad guys.

The bad guys said to the sailor:

"You are to be executed. As we're slightly insane bad guys, we will allow you to say one phrase.
If you speak a false sentence, you will be boiled in oil;
If you speak a true sentence, you will be hanged by the neck your until you die."
Cohen's answer to this problem is (essentially) you should say "I will be boiled in oil". Clearly, they now can't boil you in oil or hang you by the neck until you die (they could, of course, just feed you to the native fauna without breaking the rules of their game - Cohen's scenario attempts to get round this, but doesn't quite succeed).

Well - that's just boring. Firstly, there's an infinite list of statements which have the same self-negating truth properties as "I will be boiled in oil". Starting from the obvious "the statement is not true", and ranging to some more intriguing ones:
  • "Quand precedé par sa traduction en francais entre guillemets n'est pas vrai" when preceeded by its translation into French in quotation marks is not true.
  • This sentence claims to be an epimenides paradox but it is lying.
  • If the meanings of "true" and "false" were switched then this sentence wouldn't be false.
To be fair, Cohen does have some more about Epimenides later on, so we'll let that part slide for a while, but there's still more to this problem. What about trying something where they just *couldn't know* if the statement was true or false? If I were ever captured by this insane band of epistemological hardliners I'd probalby say something like "the number I'm currently thinking of is larger than 78". Or what about "every even number can be written as the sum of two primes". As I've remarked before, if they did then execute you, at least you'd have the benefit of knowing something that no man in history has ever known before.

There is much more to Judge Dredd's tale than Cohen gives it credit for. The same, in my opinion, will be true of several of the other stories when we come to them.

101 Philosophy Problems Part 0

Just before Christmas I got a book by Martin Cohen called 101 Philosophy Problems. Martin Cohen is apparently the editor of The Philosopher and a "lecturer" - whatever that means, he doesn't actually work at a university, but then, since I'm not really sure if "philosophy" is a real discipline anyway I'm not sure what to think about that.

Anyway, so far as I'm aware none of the problems he addresses are original (although all of the little fables that introduce them probably are) so I'm going to go through the book and post my thoughts on the problems as I go along. I'm mostly doing this because I find some of Cohen's answers very unsatisfying - not just in the sense that they don't answer the questions, but in the sense that they don't even seem to notice why the question is interesting.

I'm not entirely sure it's legal for me to do this. I'm fairly sure it should be though. I'll discuss that in more detail if and when I come to problem 32... The next post will be Problem 1.